The mage-lights in the corridors of Steve's private wing of the palace glowed steady and golden, the familiar hue of Tony's magic splashing out over the stone walls. As always, Steve felt better for seeing them. It was a sight that never failed to bring a smile to his lips even on the days when court was long and arduous. He knew that his closest friend, his most trusted advisor, cared enough to spend his own gift to light and heat Steve's personal quarters when it was a task that could have been done by any half-trained magician's apprentice. It hardly required the attention of the court magician himself.
And of course, tonight he continued to hold the court magician's attention, for Tony walked next to him, his crimson robes trailing over the stone with a whisper of silk.
You'll never be able to sneak up on anyone like that, Steve had told him once, years ago, laughing, when Tony had first shown up at his quarters in proper mage's robes. They say that in the eastern deserts they raise spies and trackers from birth for whom the quietest rustle of fabric would be as the sound of a thunderbolt to you or me.
Tony had grinned back and held up a hand, his fingers wreathed in the gilt fire of spellcraft, his power displayed. I don't care if they know I'm here, he'd said, for my own magic is kin to a thousand thunderbolts. After I train with Yinsen, when I have come into my full gift, you will see.
The familiar sorrow washed through Steve. They had been so young, then. They hadn't known.
They no longer joked about the men of the eastern deserts.
Tony followed him wordlessly into the sitting-room; Steve did not even need to motion him to a seat before he dropped into his chair, heavily, across from Steve, in his accustomed place by the fire. He worked one hand far enough out of its voluminous sleeve to pour Steve, then himself, cups of water from the pitcher on the table between them.
In the firelight, Steve caught the barest glimpse of Tony's wrist; it was all the skin he would permit to be exposed, in the years since he'd returned from the deserts. The fire was bright enough tonight that Steve could see the scarring, an inch-wide band of silvery-white flesh, roughened, exactly where cuffs would encircle a man's wrist.
Once, the wind had blown Tony's cloak open at the throat and Steve had seen worse: a collar-gall. The mark of a slave or a prisoner.
Steve had never presumed to ask what the men of the deserts had done to him, and Tony had never offered. All Tony had told him was that Yinsen had died and that he had come into his own mage-gift. That had been the end of it. His eyes had been haunted, and Steve had never pressed him.
He had survived a year in captivity. He had come back. That was all that mattered.
"Three days," Steve said, sighing, and he sipped his water and rested his head on his hand.
Tony gave a very slight nod of agreement -- he was still drinking -- and set his half-full glass down. "Indeed, sire. It has been a long road, but the gods willing, we are come to the end of it at last."
Steve frowned at him. "What's this sire business, Tony? We have been friends for years; you know I would not hold you to court protocol when we are alone. Or would you rather I call you only my magician in return, now and evermore?"
It worried him; Tony seemed to be doing this more and more often, lately, pulling away from him for no cause that Steve could rout out. But life had been hard recently -- the war with the Kree, and now the faint hope of peace at the end of it, peace that needed to be waged as fiercely as war did -- and perhaps that was why Tony was ill at ease. With life, not with him. Still, he misliked it.
"Steve, then," Tony said. A smile passed across his handsome face, a smile faint enough that it was mostly hidden by his beard. "I am proud to be your magician, and you of all people know that there has been nothing more I have wanted in life than to be at your side, as you would let me."
True enough. Another, happier memory: the day long ago when Tony had first found his mage-gift. Tony's father had raged, saying the life of a sorcerer was no kind of life for a real man. And Tony had sought out Steve. Tony had fled to the palace to show Steve, to show Steve first of all, first of his own will. Steve still remembered the way he'd lit up with untapped potential, the beauty of the magic sparking all over his skin. Witchglow, they still called it, in the countryside. It had been one of the best days of Steve's life. Since the winter-fever had taken his mother from him that year, he had been laid low with grief -- but seeing that, seeing the glimmer of magic in Tony's eyes, he'd known that nothing would part Tony from him. Tony would be at his side, for every king needed a sorcerer.
And then, of course, Steve's own father had died in that terrible war, and Steve had needed a sorcerer rather sooner than he had imagined.
"Well," Steve said, smiling back, "you know I am glad to have you with me. These days, especially so."
In three days the Kree delegation would be here, and the peace talks would finally begin. The mood in the capital was tense. Far too many had lost sons and daughters, children dead, as Bucky had died. Others had come back changed from the front, as Captain Danvers had. It was difficult to believe that this was true, that this would be the end of it.
Perhaps it wouldn't.
Steve sighed again. He had been listening overmuch to ghosts.
"Mmm." Tony hummed, swirling the water in his cup as if it had been some more potent liquid. "It's hard to imagine, the war being over. What do you think you'll do, after peace comes?"
Steve shrugged and sat back in his chair, his gaze going over Tony's shoulder to where his baldric and shield hung, his sword in its scabbard, all of it runed with Tony's own charms for his health and his sword-arm. "What does any king do in peacetime? Give laws, I suppose. Settle minor disputes."
He became aware that Tony was poised, expectant, watching him in silence over the rim of his cup. Then he realized he knew what Tony was waiting for.
"Oh, gods," he said. "Not you, too." He could feel his mouth twist in dismay. "Right, who put you up to it? Who were you talking to? Was it Wanda? Jan?"
Tony held up a defensive hand, the fall of his sleeve baring near-identical scarring on his other arm. "I'm not saying anything I haven't heard in the castle-town. Your people are concerned." His lips quirked. "It's a natural thing for them to wonder, you know. You're not getting any younger. We had all thought it would be Sharon for you--"
"It wasn't," Steve said, tightly. He couldn't think about her without that pang of guilt and anger; he had never been sure how it had all gone wrong, only that it had.
"And, well," Tony continued, "the traditional way to cement a peace is often a marriage. Perhaps the Kree have some princess in mind."
Steve grimaced. His own parents had been a love-match, and he had wanted that for himself. When he thought about some poor girl being forced to marry him-- no. Simply, no. He was willing to wait for the right woman. Or man.
"No," Steve said, and he could hear the stubbornness in his own voice. "I would marry for love."
"You might come to love--"
"You would have married for love," Steve snapped, and he hated himself for it as soon as he said it, because Tony's eyes went dark with grief. "Oh, gods, Tony, I'm sorry. That was unkind."
Rumiko had been dead these three years, but it seemed that Tony would be forever in mourning. Everyone had adored her. Tony had been smitten. And then, well--
"No need to apologize," Tony said, and in another instant the pain was pushed back, gone as if it had never been; his eyes were a fathomless deep blue, calm as a lake. "I would have married for love, yes. But I am not the king."
It would always be thus between them, Steve supposed. Even if they were the best of friends, there was always... what he was, that Tony was not. It hurt. There was nothing to be done. "No," he agreed, "you are not."
He was the king. For him there were other concerns than love.
"Honestly," Tony said, "it would be best if you named an heir. They don't have to be an heir of the body. As it is, we all know the kingdom falls to Jan, as her blood's good enough for it, but it would help if you actually said so. And it would also be best if you married."
"It would be best if you were happy," Tony said, very softly. "And maybe for you it's not a Kree princess. But there has to be someone." There was a look in his eyes that Steve could not interpret, and then he grinned wolfishly. "We can tell the Kree you'd be just as happy with a prince."
Tony snorted. "Well, it's true. Don't think every palace servant doesn't remember how you mooned after Arnie, before he met Michael."
Steve put his face in his hands. "I was sixteen."
"That doesn't make it not true," Tony said, and then he reached over and patted Steve's forearm. "Just... think about it, all right?"
"I will," Steve said. It was not exactly a lie.
"All right," Tony said, and then he gathered his robes around him and stood. "Three more days. What will you do tomorrow? Your address is not until the afternoon."
Steve gave it a moment's thought. "I will ride out with the Avengers in the morning."
Tony smiled. "Very well. I'll let the stable-master know."
"And Iron Man, if you see him?" It would be polite, of course, to inform the leader of the Avengers -- but Tony could do that as well as he could. He saw the man often enough, to spell his armor for him.
Tony had stopped in the doorway, a strange expression on his face. "I will certainly let Iron Man know. Sleep well."
"I will," Steve assured him, and then, in another whisper of silk, Tony was gone, moving down the hall.
He was alone, with only the crackling fire for company, and as he got up to pour himself a goblet of wine that he had abstained from -- in Tony's presence and for his sake -- he was aware of the aching loneliness with him, perhaps called to the fore by Tony's line of questioning.
He sighed once again and sipped the wine. He was fine now, and he would be fine. He had friends. He had companions. He had Tony. What need had he for love?
Hoofbeats thundered in the dirt and then slowed, as Steve reined his mount to a halt in preparation for entering the woods; around him, the rest of the Avengers did the same. It was a perfect, clear morning, and the bright sun turned to dappled shade in the cool forest. The woods started near the castle itself and stretched out for long miles, halfway to the Kree border -- not that they were going anywhere near that far today.
The woodland had always been one of Steve's favorite places, even if these days he had to visit them with his personal guard close at hand. Most of the Avengers had been with him at the front. Jan had come first, her powers gifted to her by science; Carol had been seconded to him after his best scholars had marveled at what the Kree had done to her; and Wanda, the Scarlet Witch herself, had come as his battle-mage. Iron Man hadn't been there, of course, for he had only come to the kingdom when Steve had returned from the front, not long after Tony had found his way back from the desert lands.
As Steve watched Iron Man pull alongside and then ahead of him, urging his horse on, he wondered how it was that the man who had been here the shortest time of all of them felt like he had always been here at Steve's side.
"Allow me to precede you, Your Majesty," Iron Man said, with that strange voice of his, alien, spell-changed. Steve liked to think that beneath the helm, he was smiling.
It had been the first thing Steve had noticed about Iron Man, when he'd come to pledge his sword in Steve's service: the voice. The second thing had been the armor; it was expensive, wrought all over with gold, and the steel alloyed with some strange metal for a reddish sheen... and it was engraved with words of magic, lightly, the tiniest runes in lines and circles, forming a pattern only a mage would know. The third thing Steve had noticed was a consequence of the first two: Iron Man adamantly refused to take any of the armor off. Iron Man was the only name he'd given anyone.
Steve's first thought -- really, it would have been anyone's first guess -- had been that Iron Man was geas-bound to some mage, who had spelled and enchanted his armor accordingly, to bend the man inside to his whim, to take his true-name from him. Geasa were old magic, the kind from stories, hardly common these days, but it would not have been the strangest thing Steve had ever seen; since the war with the Kree, one of his captains herself now channeled the powers of the stars, after all. He was not about to rule anything out. Iron Man had said no about the geas -- although that was just what a man under a geas would have said. Steve's second guess had been that Iron Man was no man at all, only a mage's construct, a suit of empty armor, powered by the words writ into the metal.
Iron Man had laughed and said that neither of those were the case. He was only a man, he'd said, and he wished to serve the king, if the king would have him. There was no geas on him. He'd offered to go under one of Wanda's truth-spells; he had said he would answer anything but the matter of his name. Steve had not asked his name, but everything else he had said had been proved true in the spell's shining light: he was a man, one of Steve's subjects, who had come not long ago from battle, and he wanted nothing more than to serve Steve. The charms on his armor were for the most part the charms any soldier carried on their gear, save one: the lines inscribed around his gorget that masked his voice.
Steve had never quite settled on an explanation, and Iron Man had never given one. Steve had first thought that Iron Man must have been of some noble family who had plans for him that did not include a life in the king's service -- but then, everyone knew that the Wasp herself was an Avenger, and few had blood as fine as she, so that could not have been it. The darker version of Steve's tale, of course, was that people from Iron Man's past sought to find and harm him, and thus he did not want any living soul to know who he was -- but surely he must need to remove the armor sometime, so that could not have been it either. It was a puzzle indeed, a riddle with no answer.
Of course, Steve could have commanded an answer of him, as his king. But he had not, and he would not. Iron Man's name was Iron Man's affair, even if Steve wondered about it. Steve did not need to know the name he had been born with to accept his oath.
And truly, Iron Man had served as well and as steadfastly as any of Steve's Avengers, rising to command them; he had even, in his own way, come to be a friend.
"You always want to be first!" Carol yelled, from somewhere behind Steve; Iron Man's move had been a gambit in a long-standing cheerful game of one-upmanship.
"Which one of us is wearing full armor?" Iron Man called back.
Steve suspected that the only reason Carol didn't shoot a dazzling burst of light at Iron Man's head was that it might have frightened the horses.
"Peace, you two," Steve said. "Danvers, you'll have your turn soon enough."
Carol would be at his side when Steve addressed his people later today. Iron Man had informed him that an unspecified personal matter would prevent him from attending the speech, which was a disappointment -- but at least Tony would be there as well.
And Carol, of course, had worked closely with Steve to make even this first round of negotiations with the Kree a possibility; the Kree thought well enough of her to do... whatever it was they had done to her. So it was not as if Carol was being ignored.
"Oh, I know," Carol said, and she pulled alongside Steve, and she was grinning. "I just don't want it to go to his head."
Iron Man freed a hand from his reins to rap on his own helmet with his gauntleted knuckles. The sound echoed, and Steve heard Jan and Wanda laughing.
"Still metal, Your Majesty!" Iron Man announced, his odd, altered voice nonetheless full of good cheer.
Steve realized he was smiling. He wondered if, when peace came, the days would all be like this, for his subjects -- if children who lived near the Kree border would play in the woods again, would ride like this with their friends, with no fear of raiders in their hearts.
He wondered what he would do. If he would marry, as Tony had unsubtly suggested last night. Whom he would marry. On this brilliant morning, the idea seemed more palatable to him than it had last night. Perhaps even for him there could be happiness. Perhaps, someday, love.
"Have you heard the news of the Kree princess, sire?" Carol asked, turning toward him as he rode.
Steve's stomach turned over, as if he were waiting on the battle-line, his shield raised for an attack; suddenly, he was less prepared than he thought. He did not want this after all. The idea seemed viscerally wrong, and he could not have said why.
"Are they sending a princess?" he asked, and it was only years of practice, of schooling himself to regal impassivity, that kept his face and voice from showing how he felt. "If I am being offered some maiden's hand in marriage, no one has informed me of it."
Carol gave him an oddly-knowing smile -- odd, because if she knew something, he could not imagine what it was. "If there is an offer, they have not said, but they have just brought us a list of the delegation, and I recognize her name." Carol's gaze seemed far away. "She is Mar-Vell's daughter."
Mar-Vell had been named heir while Carol had been held captive in Hala. Steve had heard that Mar-Vell had a son, Genis-Vell, and a daughter, but he could not now recollect the daughter's name.
Steve supposed he ought to ask. "And? What manner of woman is she?"
"I have never met her, sire," Carol said. "I cannot say."
"I heard she was beautiful," Jan called, from somewhere behind him; Steve supposed his conversation with Carol had not been as quiet as he had hoped. "Stunning. A vision. Blonde, I think."
"Blonde?" Wanda asked, curiously. "I heard she was a redhead."
"Says the Scarlet Witch," Jan retorted, laughing. "You want everything in the world to be red!"
"That does not mean I would make it so with my magic," Wanda said, sounding only a little grumpy. "I had the news from Dennis Dunphy, who had it from one of the gate-guards, whose sister lived on the border and said she saw her once."
"Oh," Jan said, lightly, "and that is reliable, I see."
Iron Man did not join in the teasing, nor the speculation, and Steve was grateful. At least one of his Avengers did not want to see him married off.
Even without knowing her hair color, Steve could picture her, this mystery Kree princess. They would send someone meek, someone dainty, someone who had been groomed all her life to marry royalty. She would have spent her life as a pawn, waiting to be used for this. He wondered if she knew it.
He did not want her. But he wanted peace, and he knew he might have to have her too.
Only two more days now. Two more days, until the beginning of the end of the war.
Steve had given dozens, maybe even hundreds of speeches from this very spot. And yet today, the throng of upturned faces seemed almost dizzyingly far away from his place here on the balcony. He was sweating, lightheaded. Perhaps it was the significance of the moment: his speech to announce, formally, the impending arrival of the Kree delegation. The Kree themselves were not here yet, and there would certainly be even more speeches when they got here. But Steve had always believed in doing right by his people, and now it was time for this task: to prepare the way for peace, to remind them what lay ahead of them, to implore them not to fall back on old prejudices and old hatred.
Jarvis cleared his throat. "His Majesty, King Steven!" he cried out, in a voice loud enough for even the people at the back of the crowd to hear him.
Steve smiled. He resisted the impulse to fidget with the circlet on his brow. He stepped forward. Next to him, Tony, again resplendent in crimson and gold, stood a little straighter. And next to Tony, Carol stood, unfazed, unmoved, head up, every inch the veteran campaigner, with a stance that suggested nothing short of battle would move her. There was another glint of scarlet below -- Wanda and Jan, among the crowd. All was ready.
He breathed in and out, evenly, and he let the words of the speech come to the front of his mind. He had written out some of it, of course, but he preferred not to read it; the people needed to be able to look him in the eye, to know that they could believe in him and trust him to safeguard the kingdom's welfare.
"Greetings," he said, letting his voice carry and project, the way he had once commanded his soldiers. "I have come to you today to speak of peace."
Several things happened in rapid succession.
The first thing he was aware of was Carol moving toward him. Carol had a knack for knowing when something ill-favored was upon them -- she called it a seventh sense -- and indeed, her face was graven into lines of concern. "Sire," she said, in an undertone, "there's a--"
That was when the crossbow bolt flew past Steve's head and hit the stone wall behind him.
A ripple of alarm went through the crowd. Below, Steve could see a man in full plate -- one of his guards? -- with a crossbow raised. Wanda and Jan were forcing their way through the panicked crowd, but the man stood there, nocking another bolt, and Steve realized that they weren't going to be fast enough.
"Danvers!" Steve yelled. "Go!"
Carol gave him a tight nod and threw herself over the parapet in a blaze of light, hurtling through the air.
The guard loosed another bolt, and Steve realized, watching the bolt fly toward him as if it were moving through water, that he'd just sent away his best-trained bodyguards, the ones who knew combat magic, the only people with the ability to stop this--
Tony stepped forward, threw his left arm across Steve's body, palm out, and whispered five words in the language of magic, low and alien.
The bolt exploded in midair, dissolving into nothingness. A golden shield, a shimmering and translucent barrier, sprang up in front of Steve.
Steve stared. It was combat magic, all right, perfectly executed. Steve had seen its like in war far too many times to count. But Tony wasn't a combat mage. His skills, Steve knew, lay in enchantments; he forged and spelled arms and armor. And Steve knew enough about combat magic to know that a magician didn't simply cast any of these spells, for in truth they were all more than five words long; it took long minutes of focus and preparation, even for the most skilled mages. It was common in battle to prepare such a shield spell in advance and leave the last few words as a trigger, ready to be uttered when danger arose, but to do so took talent and years of training.
And Tony, who had never been to war, had simply rattled these complicated spells off as if they were nothing.
Tony's face was taut, tense, his skin too pale, but he wasn't panicking; it was an expression Steve associated with the best of soldiers, and that was strange too.
"Your Majesty," Tony said, and his voice was perfectly calm. "I need you to get down."
Steve could see that Carol had reached the guard, far below, and was tackling him to the ground. He exhaled. All would be well.
The third crossbow bolt went through Tony's shoulder.
The barrier in front of Steve dissolved into useless golden light. Crying out, Tony sagged to the paving-stones, collapsing hard, his face gone gray. He clutched at his shoulder, where the still-embedded bolt protruded, where blood soaked his robes.
The murmuring around Steve intensified. He could make out scattered words -- Jarvis was saying something about a second bowman -- but nothing mattered except Tony's pale form, sprawled at his feet. Steve dropped to his knees at Tony's side, heedless of all else. He reached out. He cupped Tony's face with his hand, helplessly, needing to do something, but not knowing what.
The bolt had pierced Tony's shoulder, through to the other side; the square head of it was plainly visible. Steve supposed it was a wonder it hadn't gone clean through and hit him on the other side.
"Go. Get to safety," Tony hissed through gritted teeth. "I'm fine."
"You're not fine. You have a damned crossbow bolt in your shoulder," Steve said, and stunned, he recognized the fletching: only the Kree used blue feathers like that. What in the world was going on?
Tony met his eyes. "And they were aiming at you." His voice was a low snarl. "Get out of here."
Steve had one arm under Tony's shoulders now, half-cradling him; with his other hand he was still tracing the lines of Tony's face, as if his touch could heal him. Tony's blood dripped onto his hands and stained his royal finery, but that didn't matter. Tony was hurt. That was all that was important. Tony's eyes were glassy, clouded with pain, and he was breathing far too shallowly.
"I need a doctor!" Steve cried out.
They weren't on the front lines, he told himself. There were doctors. Tony would be safe. They could get the bolt out and spell the wound closed. There was time for charms against infection. But it felt for all the world as if he were back in battle, watching men and women fall, only this time it was Tony. His heart pounded hard and frantic within his breast.
"Go," Tony said again, more insistently, and he reached up with his other hand to try to push Steve away. His palm landed in the middle of Steve's chest, but he couldn't even budge him; that was how weak he was. "Be safe."
There were tears in Tony's eyes.
"Sire, please," Jarvis said, from behind him. "Your life is in danger. I must insist you come inside now."
"We have him." Jarvis' voice was implacable. "Sire, he will be well. I promise."
There was another rustling noise behind him. "I have him," a voice said in his ear, quiet and authoritative, and thank all the gods, it was Stephen. "Give him to me, sire. I will heal him."
Stephen was a doctor. A healing mage. It would be all right. Stephen knelt next to him and held out his shaking hands, trying to shift Tony into his grip.
Steve found he did not want to let Tony go.
"I charge you with him, Strange," Steve rasped, and Stephen nodded acknowledgment.
Then Steve was surrounded by a ring of guards -- not his Avengers, only ordinary people with swords and shields -- and as Tony pushed back one more time, trying to shove him away, Steve opened his hands and let his guards urge him up and back toward safety. Stephen had one scarred hand underneath Tony and the other one splayed in the air over his shoulder, not touching the wound, as bright circles of light spun beneath his fingertips.
Tony's hand was still in the air. He was still reaching out toward Steve with the hand that had pushed him away, even as Steve rose up and stepped back. It was as if Tony wanted to touch him again. Tony was stretching forth as if he could make them touch by sheer force of will.
"By the Vishanti," Stephen said, with a snap of tension in his voice. "Hold still. This is a very complicated spell. I shouldn't have to explain this to you, Stark. The king won't thank me if you bleed out because you won't stop moving--"
The last thing he saw before the door was barred behind him, as he was hurried away down the stairs, was Tony's outstretched hand, still reaching for him.
"It wasn't the Kree," Sam said, and Steve knew he ought to be focusing on that, but all he could think about was Tony's blood smeared on his hands, the pain in Tony's eyes, the way Tony had reached helplessly for him even while trying to push him away.
Gods, a few inches over and the bolt would have gone straight through Tony's throat. And even the best mages in the kingdom, with all of their healing spells, wouldn't have been able to save him from that.
Steve looked around the table at all of his advisors, equally grim-faced, and thought about the two of them he didn't see. Stephen was even now operating on Tony. He would send word, Steve was certain. Tony would be well, he told himself. This was hardly a battlefield, where there were scarce enough healers for all the wounded; Stephen had reached his side swiftly, and he had begun attending to Tony before the wound had grown grave.
It would be well, he told himself again, and he thought that perhaps this time he would come to believe it.
And then he thought about Sam's words.
"What do you mean, it wasn't the Kree?" That had been a Kree arrow. He would swear to it. He had certainly seen enough of them.
"It is as I said, sire," Sam repeated. "The arrow was Kree, but the man is not."
"The second man escaped," Carol said. There was a scrape on her face, and her armor was muddied all over; she had not had the time to change before Steve had called the meeting. "But we have the first one. He has been in your service two years; his name is William Burnside. He hails from the Kree border, the old one." She grimaced. "Before Hala pushed out, in your father's time, I mean."
Wanda leaned in. "Sire, he has not been suborned by the Kree, not that he will say. Burnside will not speak to us at all, but his comrades swear, to a man, that he hates the Kree, that he has vowed to live long enough to spit on the grave of the Supreme Intelligence."
The matter grew stranger. Why would such a man have shot at him with a Kree weapon?
Steve folded his hands. "And what does he say under truth-spell?"
"I have not set it, sire," Wanda said, with a frown. "I would not have presumed to without your permission."
"You have it," Steve said, and he waved a hand.
He did not believe in torture; it was messy, brutish, ineffective, and it was what their enemies would have resorted to. They could be better than that. But the truth-spell did not bring pain, and soon it would give them their answers.
At any rate, if they could not solve this problem soon, the peace process would come to an abrupt and deadly halt.
"Very good, sire," Wanda murmured.
"Excellent," Steve said, aware as he said it that everything was most certainly not excellent, that his most trusted confidant was lying in the infirmary with a bolt through his shoulder. "I hope that soon we will understand why one of my own guards tried to murder me with a Kree bolt."
There were footsteps in the hall, and Steve looked up to see Stephen in the archway. Blood spattered the sleeves of his robe, and he regarded Steve with an exhausted, hollow-eyed expression. Fear churned in Steve's gut. If Stephen was here already, did that mean it had gone ill for Tony?
"How is he?" Steve asked. His voice shook with nerves, and he was gripping the polished wooden edge of the table, and he found he cared about neither of those things.
Stephen smiled a tired smile. "Well, he won't listen to his doctor's damned instructions, sire; I'll tell you that much."
There were even more footsteps, echoing, a fast trot... and then Tony appeared behind Stephen.
He was wobbling a little where he stood. He had one hand braced on the door to support himself, and he was still wearing his torn, bloodstained robes -- but the skin that was hinted at beneath them, through the rents in the cloth, was whole again. Stephen had healed him. Steve's heart soared.
"Tony," he said, and he could feel his mouth trying to smile and to twist into a disapproving frown at the same time, "I am glad you are well, but you should be in bed."
"As I said," Stephen muttered, under his breath.
Tony looked at Steve as if this perfectly reasonable request were evidence of madness. "Someone tried to murder you and you think I should be in bed?" He coughed. "Uh. Your Majesty."
"You are newly-healed," Steve pointed out, for everyone knew how much of a toll healing-spells took on the body. They were no instant panacea; they still drained the body's own strength. "If you collapse from overwork, what good does that do me?" He glanced around the room. "I will interrogate Burnside."
"Sire," Tony said. "He tried to murder you. I mislike the idea of you in a cell with him. I will go with you."
A sudden hot anger rose in him and every muscle went tight. Steve breathed out, hard. I can't risk you, he wanted to say. It was the way he'd felt when he'd come back from the front to find Tony alive and back from the east, haunted, bruised, too thin, too quiet, a survivor of his own war. Steve had been panicked and relieved all at once, conscious of the fragility of life in a way that the deaths of a thousand others on the battle line had not made him.
He remembered being on the picket lines with the horses when the message had first come in, that Tony had been lost in the east, and he'd sobbed in the dark for hours where none of his soldiers could see.
All he'd wanted to do when Tony had come home was hold him and never let him go, but he knew even so that Tony would never countenance that.
And now-- now he felt like that again.
"He tried to murder you," Steve retorted, the words sharp in his mouth, and every head in the room went up, turned in his direction.
"I am one of your closest advisors, Your Majesty," Tony said, as if this was supposed to be a reason. "My presence will be expected. Let me go with you."
By all the gods, what did an expectation have to do with anything? "I forbid it."
Urgent and wide-eyed, Tony pushed past Stephen. "You mustn't--"
"Do you presume to give orders to your king, Stark?" Steve snapped out, and his voice cracked on Tony's name, and everything here was going wrong.
Everyone else in the room was staring, utterly silent.
Steve dropped his head in his hands and squeezed his eyes shut. He hadn't meant this at all. Gods. What was the matter with him?
He sighed. "Clear the room. Everyone except Tony. Out, please."
There were murmurs of acquiescence, and the sounds of chairs dragged over stone, and people brushing past him -- and when Steve looked up, only Tony remained. Tony was still standing near the doorway, where he'd stopped after he'd brushed Stephen aside to come in, as though he didn't want to move anywhere without Steve's express permission -- which, given the way Steve had lost his temper just now, was probably a very wise decision.
"Your Majesty?" Tony asked, in a whispery voice, thin as a scraped parchment, a smaller voice than Steve had ever heard from him, and he wanted to curl up in shame.
"Sit down." Steve tapped the chair next to him. "Please." He took a breath. "Let us try this again. I am not... unreasonable. You obviously think I have made a mistake, and I know that you are one of the cleverest men I know. You must have a reason. So I would fain have your explanation, and then I will judge your request."
Slowly, gingerly, Tony sat. He was taking care not to jostle his shoulder, Steve saw, and when his gaze met Steve's, his eyes were bloodshot. They were all too tired. These were long days.
"I don't think you'll like it." Tony's voice was still hesitant.
Steve made himself smile, a little. "And you don't think I can handle hearing a thing I dislike?"
"I think you certainly dislike that," Tony said, and his mouth twisted wryly.
Steve couldn't help the snort of laughter. That was Tony, all right. "Tell me," he said, as gently as he could. "Please."
"I will be as plain as I can," Tony said. His voice was even, level, solemn. "Your life is in danger from forces unknown. And what you give away to these forces, by the manner in which you react to their threats, is the exact, precise information that will put you in yet more danger."
Steve stared, confused. "I don't understand."
"Let me be plainer, then." Tony leaned in. His eyes met Steve's, steady and urgent. "You are fond of me."
Steve felt himself grow hot all over and he could not have said why; a tangle of emotions rose within him, raw and immense and real, the feelings he always pushed back on lonely nights, the feelings he couldn't ever let himself dwell on, and he was only half-aware of the fact that he didn't even know why. He didn't think about these things, and they certainly didn't speak of them.
"And so?" The words nearly choked his throat as he tried to give voice to them. "You are saying I should not be fond of you?"
Even Tony looked uncomfortable now; his gaze darted away. He licked his lips. "I am not saying that at all. The gods know, your feelings are your own affair, and if it is in your heart, it is in mine as well. You must know I value our friendship." He met Steve's eyes again. "What I am saying is that everyone in the city saw you rush to my side, heedless of your own safety, and that means that these enemies saw it too. And what they know, now, is that the easiest way to hurt you is by hurting me."
Cold sickness welled up in Steve, and he remembered Tony's agonized cry. "I will not abide that."
"But you must," Tony said, low and intense. "You must, because you are the king, and next to you I am nothing. I can be replaced. You cannot."
Was this what Tony thought of himself? "You are my court magician--"
"Do you know how many people could be your court magician? Magically speaking, it's hardly onerous." Tony raised a hand and began to count on his fingers. "Wanda, of course. Stephen. Wong. Illyana. Billy, when he's old enough--"
"None of them are you!"
The words hung between them, and Steve felt as if he could not be more vulnerable had he offered Tony his own beating heart.
"Steve," Tony whispered, so softly that Steve had to strain to hear him. "That you care so much for me means more than I can tell you. But what I am telling you is, you cannot." He smiled a sad smile. "You can't show it. I am your advisor. Treat me as you treat anyone else. Send me with you on the tasks where anyone would expect to see me, yes, like that interrogation, but otherwise -- treat me no differently. No more late-night conferences. No more friendly visits. Nothing to give anyone the idea that I mean something to you. Nothing to make them think that they can bring you down by taking me first. Because they will. And you won't like it."
Truly, the gods mocked him. He had thought that the best way to keep Tony safe would be to keep him close, to hold him back from danger... but to pretend that Tony was nothing more than an advisor? To cease being his friend? He couldn't.
"But you saved my life!" he protested. "If you had not been at my side, you could not have done that! Would your absence not endanger me more?"
He hated the argument even as he made it, because the thought of Tony in danger at his side was intolerable. But the thought of cutting Tony out of his life, like ripping through fragile silk with a sharp dagger, was intolerable. He might as well have offered one of his limbs, or one of his senses.
Tony's mouth worked, and he glanced away in abstracted thought, and for an instant Steve thought he would cave -- but, of course, he was Tony, and he did not.
"I know how to keep you safe," Tony said, and he reached out and closed his hand around Steve's wrist, suffusing him with warmth. "I have an idea, at least. Come by my workshop at midnight, and then -- if it works -- you will have nothing to fear."
Steve blinked. "What...?"
"You will see." Tony's eyes were alight with the familiar glint of discovery, and for an instant it was like the old days between them, when everything was new, when they spent hours in each other's company for the sheer pleasure of it, when they had been young, with so many fewer cares. "Trust me."
"I trust you."
"You have my permission to leave," he added, "if you would like."
He imagined Tony saying no. Saying he would stay. Saying he would be here always.
Tony's hand left Steve's wrist, and Tony pushed himself to his feet. "Thank you, sire."
Steve was alone again, and he sighed and put his head in his hands.
Peace could not come soon enough.
No more late-night conferences, Tony had said. Steve felt his mouth quirk into the bitterest of smiles as he headed alone through the warren of corridors that led to Tony's workshop. Tony had said that, and then in nearly the same breath he had asked Steve to come here at midnight.
So Steve was here now -- and if he followed Tony's advice, it would likely be for the last time, until this unpleasantness was over. Tony would do whatever it was he was planning to do to ensure Steve's safety, and then for both of their sakes they would be as strangers. But Tony had asked him here; it was clear that he was just as loath to give anything up as Steve was.
Steve had mulled it over many times in the hours since Tony had proposed the plan, and, to his annoyance, he had found that Tony was right, as always. When he stepped back, when he took a breath, when he tried to look at it with his head rather than his heart -- it was the best thing to do. If these evildoers were going to hurt Tony to get to him, he wanted Tony well out of it. And if Tony could somehow craft a spell to keep him safe even from afar -- well, then, that was likewise a thing that should be done.
However, none of this meant that Steve had to like it.
In any other circumstances, this would have been a comforting, familiar journey, for he had been to see Tony in the middle of the night too many times to count. Tony often kept odd hours, and when dreams plagued Steve or sleep eluded him, why, there was nothing better to do than seek out Tony's company. He would turn left here, right here, and then, here at this archway was Tony's workshop, and when he walked in he would see--
The smithy was empty. A few of Tony's mage-lights gave enough light to see by, but it was clear that there was no one in the room. Tony wasn't standing here, smiling, showing him the newest piece he'd wrought. Ingots were stacked in the corners. The main hearth ebbed and glowed; no one was working it, and the bespelled bellows lay idle. There was nothing on the anvil; next to it lay the usual hammer and tongs as well as an apron that could have belonged either to Tony or to Jim Rhodes. Laid out on the nearest worktable to the door was a beaten sheet that looked like it might become a breastplate someday, and the blade and tang of a longsword, clearly unfinished, for it was missing any hint of magical runing, and the charms were always placed before the hilt went on. Did Tony mean to craft him a weapon? Where was he?
Perhaps he was in his office.
Steve headed through the still-familiar path to the far end of the smithy, where the heavy wooden door was closed but not barred. He had often met with Tony here as well, in his office; he would sit and read, and Tony would work on accounts or sketch out designs, and sometimes they hardly needed to speak at all. They would just enjoy each other's company.
But when he pushed open the door, there was nothing there. A codex -- ancient, its binding flaking around it -- and a pile of loose parchment sat on the desk, and there was another mage-light, not even bright enough to read by. The cot in the corner had yet more papers piled on it, but Tony was not here reading them.
This was strange indeed. Steve frowned.
"Tony?" he called out.
"Through here!" Tony's voice called back.
Steve's gaze went to the small door at the other end of the room that his eyes ignored out of habit, the door that led to the one room of Tony's that he'd never entered: his magical workroom.
He knew that Tony was a mage-smith; his talents at the forge had been obvious practically since the day they'd met. And indeed that was what Tony did on the days that he did not attend Steve in court: he crafted and spelled arms and armor. In Steve's opinion, he made the best in the kingdom. But Steve had forgotten, somehow, that Tony's magic could have non-physical manifestations, that he was more than a mage-smith, that he also knew ordinary spell-work. Very few mages had the time and aptitude for more than one specialty, but, well, Tony had always been clever. And he must have picked up a few combat spells from somewhere, Steve considered, thinking about the events of earlier.
A workroom, a proper mage's workroom with a circle, was not something that most mage-smiths made any use of. Mages like Wanda or Stephen certainly needed them -- and had them -- to make sure any summonings did not get out of hand, but Tony? Steve knew he had a workroom, of course, but had honestly assumed Tony had used it to store books, scrolls, or his latest enchanted metal constructs. It had not sounded like something Tony would need.
It was therefore a bit of a surprise to push open the workroom door and find the room empty and clear, obviously ready for him, with what looked like a well-used circle cut into the bare stone floor starting not three feet from the door. There was a bookshelf and a cabinet on the other side, of course, but the majority of the room was given over to the huge double-walled circle, its circumference inscribed with the angular, spidery language of magic.
And, of course, there was Tony, who turned around and smiled. "Ah, good, you're here. Come in."
The smile had a nervous edge, and there was an intense glimmer in Tony's eyes that Steve could not quite read, and that he did not know how to ask about.
Steve stepped in, shut the door, and edged around the circle, careful not to cross the carved line with his steps. "Where should I go?"
"It matters not." Tony waved a diffident hand, but Steve noticed his fingers were trembling. "The circle is not live tonight; you can break it. We are here because the space for the ritual needs to be magically empty, not because it needs to be warded."
Steve put the tip of his boot over the line. Nothing happened. He took a full step and looked up. Tony was smiling faintly, and once again nervously. Steve wondered what the matter was. Perhaps if Tony told him what their task would be tonight, it would ease his cares; it often relaxed him to explain his spells or his inventions.
"Do you want to tell me more about what we are doing?" Steve asked. "Before we do it, I mean. You said it would keep me safe."
He glanced around the room. He thought perhaps the spell would have involved some potion or tincture, akin to the way some of the armor-charms worked, but he saw nothing. There were no artifacts laid out. There was nothing of note, really, except Tony.
"I suppose I should explain how I plan to do that, yes." Tony inclined his head. He took a breath, and it did not escape Steve's notice that the breath was a shaking one. "Simply put, I will give you my magic."
Steve stared, stunned. He was dimly aware that his mouth had fallen open.
Gods. No wonder Tony was afraid. Could he even do that? It was unbelievable, a spell out of stories, as if he'd said he could raise the dead and call the gods themselves to walk the earth. It was not something that happened, not to real people. One could not merely hand over a mage-gift.
"Is that possible?"
Tony half-smiled and raised his eyebrows. "As to that, we shall see. It is an old spell." Steve remembered the ancient codex on Tony's desk. "But I see no reason why it should not serve us."
Steve held out his hands, beseeching; his body was trying to ask a question, and his mind had yet to catch up. "But if it is possible, and if it is so old, why have I not heard of it?" Abruptly his mind was cast in an unfavorable direction, thoughts of the gift being ripped unwillingly out of mages, out of Tony-- "Is it a war-spell? Is it a binding, like a geas?"
"No," Tony said, and then his mouth twisted. "No to the first. Yes, of a sort, to the second. It is as old as geas-magic, and it is akin to it, but it cannot be... forced, as geasa can." His gaze went distant, his eyes unfocused. "For this reason it fell out of favor. It is a kind of binding, but it cannot be compelled in any way. It is not difficult at all to perform, as a spell, but it is very difficult to ensure the situation in which it will work."
Steve frowned. "And that is?"
"Absolute trust," Tony said, and it seemed as he said it that the room went quiet around him, that the world itself hushed as he spoke. "Absolute loyalty, and absolute trust."
"You have mine," Steve said, instantly, and Tony breathed out, hard, as if he had been hoping against hope that Steve would say those very words. "You know you always have had it, and always will."
"And that," Tony said, still a little shakily, "is why this will work." His fingers worried at the cuffs of his robe; his clean, unstained robe, Steve noted. At least he'd changed clothes. "As to what it will do, you will have my gift as if it were your own, with the natural protection that any mage is afforded. If you are in danger, you will be able to call a light-shield by reflex, without any thought, to protect yourself. Perhaps, even, you might be able to call down lightning. It will be as if I am at your side to guard you always, and yet I need not be there."
Something about that idea pleased Steve, pleased him in a way he could not quite account for; it seemed right that Tony should be part of him, that Tony's magic should live within him, and he could not have said why. Nonetheless, the very thought made him want to glow, as if the magic already suffused him. It was right, somehow. It was fitting.
A question occurred to him, then, and as soon as it had he was ashamed that it had not been his foremost thought. "Is it safe?"
"Of course!" Tony rushed to assure him. "The only harm will come to anyone who has evil intent toward you. Since it is my gift you borrow, you will not be truly untrained, and you will not have any risk of suffering a true novice's mistakes."
"No," Steve said, for Tony had misunderstood. "For you, I mean. Do you not need your magic yourself? What if you are in danger, without your magic, and unable to fend for yourself?"
Tony's shoulders lifted in a shrug, and Steve wished -- not for the first time -- that Tony would cease to be so cavalier about his own welfare. "I will be well," he said. "I am not giving you the complete entirety of my gift. I have spent the evening setting a few limits, you might call them. I will retain enough magic for certain.. hmm... you would probably name them essential functions."
Essential functions? Steve blinked. "You require magic?"
He was beginning to realize how little he knew of Tony's mage-gift, despite having seen him use it on a near-daily basis for a decade.
Tony's mouth thinned, his eyes darkened, and his face twisted into an emotion with a great resemblance to fear, or perhaps reticence. "Somewhat," he said, and his voice was full of an old pain. "I think it will become clearer after we begin." He bit his lip. "Before we do, I have a request of you."
It was not even a question. "Anything," Steve said. "Anything in my power to give. You know that."
"As a friend," Tony said, and his face was drawn, tight about the eyes. His words were quiet and sharp, but sharp the wrong way, a blade cutting inward. "I ask that you not pity me. If it is within your power, then I ask for that."
Pity? What was this?
"Tony," Steve began, not knowing what to say, only that he should say something, but Tony interrupted him.
"We should begin," Tony said, his voice still too sharp. His mouth curved. "Though I should tell you that you may not enjoy the opening requirement."
He waited for Tony to begin chanting. He waited for Tony to light incense, or chalk a line to bisect the circle, or anoint him with oil, or do any of the other ordinary things by which a mage might begin a common spell.
"You need to remove your clothes," Tony said. "As do I."
Tony coughed, an awkward sound. "Forgive me. It is not as you think."
An odd curl of a feeling that was not quite disappointment passed through Steve, and he wanted to say that he had not thought of it, not at all, but he could not make the words come out of his mouth. It was even odder, for obviously he did not consider Tony in that manner. Tony was only a friend, and besides, Tony hardly thought of him in that manner, and what was he doing, giving this even a second more thought?
"What is it, then?" he asked, and if his voice sounded as strangled to Tony as it did to him, at least Tony had the grace not to comment upon it.
Tony shifted his weight from foot to foot. His robes rippled. "To join my gift to your mind, our souls must be bare, and so too must our bodies be." His throat worked. "There is a solid magical principle governing this, I swear it."
"I believe you," Steve told him. It could not be that Tony wanted to see him, nude; Tony had already seen him, more times than he could count. A king was never afforded all that much privacy. And anyway, Tony did not want him, and why was he thinking about this again?
Tony's smile looked rather forced; there was a hint of color in his cheeks.
"What, right now?" Steve asked.
Tony nodded. "If you would."
Seized by a sudden and unusual modesty, he did not want to disrobe with Tony watching him. He crossed to the far side of the circle, in the shadows of the room, as far from the mage-lights as possible, and turned his back. If Tony were watching him, at least he would not have to know about it.
He busied himself with the laces of his boots, then his jerkin and breeches, discarding them all in a pile on the floor. Behind him there were the sounds of rustling fabric, Tony likewise divesting himself of his clothes.
"Even my smallclothes?" Steve called back.
"Even them," Tony said, and Steve sighed and let them drop on the floor. The air was cool, and he shivered.
Then he turned around, catching sight of Tony, and suddenly it was horrifically clear what Tony had meant about pity.
Tony was covered in scars.
There were the silvery scars Steve had caught glimpses of at Tony's wrists, the skin worn away by cuffs; his ankles had fetter marks to match. A collar had rubbed sores into his throat, sores that had then scarred over. His back was a mass of whip-weals, long knotted scara, raised marks laid down in parallel lines, atop each other, where he had been flayed open over and over again. In the shadows, Steve couldn't see them all, but he could tell that there were more he couldn't see, marks wrapping around his sides, some kind of cuts on Tony's legs. There were so many scars.
Steve's stomach roiled, and he thought he might be sick. Gods. He hadn't known.
This was what Tony had wanted to hide. This was why he kept himself covered. This was what they had done to him, that year in the desert.
And then Tony turned around and stepped into full light, and it became worse.
Tony's chest was the worst of it. There were layers and layers of scars in a huge starburst of silver-white over his breastbone, above his heart: a circle with scraped out edges, as if someone had taken a dull knife and tried to dig deep. A vivisection, perhaps. Steve had seen dead men who looked better off. And then--
Nearly every square inch of Tony's skin was covered in scars, but the rest had been done purposefully, for they were written in the language of magic. A line of script encircled the scars on his chest, around his heart, but it was far from the only one. There were words on his ribs, words on his arms, words graven huge and deep into his thighs and calves, words scratched above his jutting hipbones. They were all magic, the runes of magic, and Steve could understand none of it. His captors had clearly had something specific in mind, and Steve had never known. What had they done to him?
He knew Tony had been enslaved. The signs of the collar, the chains, the lash -- those, in a way, he had been expecting. The rest, he had not. They had taken him, and they had used him for their own magical purposes, carving their victory into his skin for the rest of his life, and the very thought made him want to rage and weep at the same time. His throat went tight, and he could not speak.
Tony stared at him. He held his head high, but Steve could see that he was trembling like a wind-blown leaf. His eyes were wide and dark and-- gods, he was terrified.
He wanted to say come here. He wanted to say I will hold you, I will protect you, but he could not and he had not. He had not stopped this.
"Who did that to you?" Steve demanded, and his voice rasped like he had been screaming. "What spells did they work on your body?"
One side of Tony's mouth lifted, a lopsided smile. "I think you misunderstand." He paused, and Steve's heart pounded. "The writing is in my own hand."
"You did it to yourself?"
Steve stared. The words on Tony's legs were huge, each letter carefully distinct, all swooping curves and angles, and he thought about Tony sitting there with a knife, laying his own skin open, bleeding and cutting and bleeding--
Had they made him do this to himself?
"Yinsen helped," Tony said, and Steve thought that Tony had not spoken Yinsen's name in his hearing in perhaps seven years, and then only to say that he had died in the desert. "He did the parts I couldn't reach. And the beginning of it. The words around my heart. He did those first."
"What," Steve said, and he found that words deserted him. "Why-- how--"
Tony's fingers tapped his breastbone. "The first thing they did was try to cut out my heart," he said, and his voice was low and frighteningly empty of emotion. "They very nearly did. It won't beat on its own any longer. We-- we had to spell it, to keep it beating, but a regular spell needed too much power and had to be recast too often. This was the only way to keep me alive." He half-smiled. "The magic of scars is ancient indeed, and a very reliable source of power, but for obvious reasons, it is generally only practiced by the mad or the desperate. I was... a bit of both."
Oh, gods, Tony.
"And the rest?" Steve's voice scraped his throat raw.
Tony shrugged. "I needed the power of the rest of them. To win my freedom. There were no other choices." He gave a small soft chuckle. "I should have known you'd pity me anyway."
Steve could feel his hands clench into fists. "I want to kill everyone who hurt you," he said, and his voice went hard.
He hadn't been able to save Tony then, but gods, he could stop them now. He could go. He could hunt them down, he could take them apart barehanded, he could make them suffer as they had made Tony suffer--
"You're too late." Tony laughed again, a harsh sound, and his gaze was miles away. "They're already dead."
Tony had never spoken of this.
"Did Rumiko know? About the scars?"
Tony's head snapped up, and his eyes met Steve's, and for the life of him, Steve couldn't say why he'd thought to ask the question. It shouldn't have mattered to him what Rumiko had known or hadn't known. It was none of Steve's business. He had no claim on Tony's body, nor on anyone's knowledge of it.
Tony's voice was wary. "She knew," Tony said, but the words were slow and hesitant. "I told her, but I-- I-- I never let her see." He was practically stammering now. "We always-- I-- I kept it dark--" His mouth twisted, and Steve hated himself for asking, for it was clear that it was more than he had a right to know.
Had he shown anyone else, before Steve? Before this moment?
Steve could not ask that.
"All right," Steve said.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Is there anything else you want to know?"
I want to know everything. Steve bit back the words. He had no right.
It was terrible and sad, but knowing that the script on his body had been -- in a way -- Tony's choice made the words somehow beautiful as well, for Tony's mage-gift had always been beautiful in his sight.
"Do they hurt?"
Tony blinked in surprise, as if no one had ever cared to ask him this much, and that more than anything made Steve want to weep. "No," Tony said, softly. "For the most part I... cannot feel anything, any longer."
And then the moment was broken, as he turned and stepped out of the circle. He went to the cabinet in the corner, opened it, and withdrew what looked to be some kind of necklace: a deep blue stone dangled on a golden chain. The stone seemed to glow from within, its facets casting light about the room. It was perhaps a shade lighter than the color of Tony's eyes.
"A focus," Tony said, and he lifted the necklace over his head and set it about his throat. "Traditionally, the ritual is a matter of matching heart to heart -- but my own heart, as you can see, requires assistance." He grimaced. "At any rate, the spell will not work without it."
Steve opened his mouth, realized anything he had to say would have been the pity that Tony had already rejected, and promptly shut his mouth. He licked his lips. "Shall we begin?"
"I suppose." Tony entered the circle and stopped a few paces away from him, then stepped closer, close enough that they could touch.
Steve wondered what Tony's skin would feel like under his fingers, and then he was horrified at himself for the thought.
Tony squinted at him. "It would be best if you knelt, I think."
Feeling doubly strange -- for, after all, he was the king -- Steve settled to the floor, sat back with his legs folded under him, and raised his head. Tony was very close now. He kept his eyes straight ahead. There was a patch of bare skin at the top of Tony's thigh, perhaps a handbreadth wide, that still remained unscarred; below it, one of the huge runes began with a deep horizontal slash. Steve had known well enough what Tony had looked like before; once, he had not been marred. It was awful to think that Tony had instead looked like this for years, and he had never known.
And then his view shifted, as Tony knelt opposite him. The focus dangled from his neck as he bent down and edged forward. They were not quite touching -- but again, should either of them reach out, they would be.
That seemed to be Tony's intention, for Tony coughed, looked him in the eye, and then said, "Place your right hand upon my breast, over my heart, and kindly do not move or speak once you have done it, until I am done." His voice had an air of command, but Steve would not have dreamed of denying him.
A shiver passed through Steve, and he could not have said why. "How will I know when you are done?"
Tony smiled a small, tight smile. "You will know."
Thus Steve reached forth and laid his hand upon Tony's breastbone. The skin underneath his fingers was thick, a twisted, rigid mass; the worst of the scarring was here. Just above the tips of his fingers, the focus about Tony's neck gleamed. Tony breathed in, shakily, and his chest rose and fell under Steve's hand, but he did not speak.
Tony met his eyes, and then very slowly reached out to place his own hand over Steve's heart, an exact mirror. His fingers were callused but warm, and this time Steve had to stop himself from shivering, for Tony had told him not to move.
And Tony started to speak.
He did not know the words that Tony said, of course, for they were all in the language of magic, but he could tell that they were doing something, for as Tony continued to speak, it seemed that the world changed around him. It felt as though he were standing atop a cliff, staring down, and everything with him was gathered up with potential, waiting.
The feeling built and gathered, not unpleasantly so, but intensely, pressing on him from all sides, a dizzying weight, and one that he was not quite certain he could bear. He closed his eyes, but that did not aid him; in fact, the feeling only grew greater. Dimly, he was aware that Tony's voice had become louder, faster, more insistent.
I cannot hold this, he thought, and he was not sure how he knew it was a thing to be held, but he knew it was true as he thought it. I am not made to contain this gift.
It pressed into him, it swirled around him like water, this thing that Steve now knew to be Tony's magic; it was water seeking an opening and finding none. And he did not know how to make one.
"Steve," Tony said, his name in the midst of the magic. "Look at me."
Steve opened his eyes. Tony's teeth were gritted. His face was tight with strain. Steve wanted to give in, to do what Tony wanted, but he could not.
"Breathe," Tony said, and Steve breathed.
Tony followed his instruction with two more words of magic, a pause, and then something that was most definitely a frustrated obscenity.
Steve remained silent; Tony had not given him leave to speak, and the absurdity of that situation -- he was Tony's king, after all -- made him want to laugh.
Tony's eyes widened, luminous in the light of the focus, and he licked his lips.
"There is one more way," Tony said, very quietly. His eyes were so dark as to nearly be black, and his voice trembled. "I pray that you forgive me for what I am about to do."
He barely had time to wonder at Tony's words, because he was straightaway wondering at Tony's actions. Tony grabbed Steve's shoulder with his free hand, pulled him close, and then shifted his grip so that his whole arm was thrown across Steve's back, while their other hands remained trapped between them.
Tony whispered three more words of magic, low and intense, and then he pressed his lips to Steve's.
Oh, Steve thought, and the entire world opened up around him, a new land, a bright dawn, and everything was Tony. Every sense in him, every scrap of reason was taken up with Tony, and Steve was-- and Steve was--
I never knew, he wanted to say. I never knew I felt like this.
He was in love. He had always loved Tony.
Another heartbeat, and Tony's magic poured through him. It shone bright. It felt like standing in sunlight, like he could do anything, and gods, he loved Tony--
The kiss broke.
Tony pulled back and dropped his hand. The magic remained, a little less bright; it felt as if it crackled under his skin like lightning. But he had the power. He knew he did.
He wanted nothing more than to kiss Tony again, but Tony's body went rigid, and his expression tight and closed off. And then Tony moved away.
"I meant nothing by it, sire," Tony said, quickly. "It was for the spell, nothing more."
No, Steve thought, and suddenly the blissful hope turned into blackest despair. It was only through years of effort that he did not let it show on his face.
Tony did not love him.
He loved Tony, but Tony did not feel the same.
"The spell," he echoed, crestfallen. "Of course. I take no offense."
Tony's smile was wavering, and Tony pushed himself to his feet and turned toward the edge of the circle, where his robes pooled on the floor, and Steve did everything possible not to stare at him, with his sudden burning awareness of Tony's body. He had always known he'd thought Tony handsome, well-favored, but never before had he looked on him with desire.
Desire that Tony found unwelcome, Steve told himself, and he scrambled up and turned and shut his eyes, trying to push the feelings away, as he dressed.
Tony's magic lived in him now, he realized, and that very intimacy made him ache and burn for more.
"You feel it, I take it?" Tony asked.
Gods, did he ever. "Do you feel like this all the time?" The magic reminded him of its presence, fogging the back of his mind, a candle that always burned, a fist that always clenched.
"Like you can do anything." Anything, except what he truly wanted.
There was a pause. "Sometimes."
He could hardly imagine how Tony lived like this, a spring coiled forever.
"Well," Steve said, awkwardly, as he laced his boots. "It will take some getting used to."
"So you will be safe now," Tony called over his shoulder, as Steve was setting himself to rights. "The spell will last until I remove the focus, and I shall not do that until the danger is past."
"And you will be well?" Steve asked. "Your heart, it will still beat?"
Gods, he couldn't bear to lose him now that he knew--
He turned to see Tony nodding. Tony's gaze seemed a thousand miles away.
"It will," Tony assured him. "I have enough magic for that."
Steve swallowed hard, beset by sudden awkwardness, for now he knew what he felt, and secrets sat ill with him. And yet, he could never tell him.
"Thank you," he said, instead. "Truly, thank you."
Tony's smile in return was almost sad. "It was nothing I would not do for you a thousand times over. You are my king and my friend."
Not ten minutes ago, the words would have warmed him, but now they only reminded him of that which he could not have.
"You are mine as well." Steve forced a smile. "I bid you good night, then. I will see you on the morrow."
"Good night," Tony said.
Steve looked at him for a beat longer than he had to, noting the odd sadness in Tony's eyes, not wanting to be parted from him at all, as Tony's magic washed through him.
Well, they would have tomorrow. They would always have tomorrow.
He turned, and he left, before he could say anything they would both regret.
The next day dawned as any other day, with the morning cool, gray, and foggy, but Steve could not help but think that everything had changed. It was not just the fact that he was now borrowing Tony's mage-gift -- although on any other day, certainly, it would have made the largest impact. It was not even the impending arrival, tomorrow, of the Kree delegation; gods, that had nearly slipped his mind. No, it was this: he knew now that he loved Tony, and he knew as well that Tony did not love him in return. The one thought filled him with the greatest pleasure, but the other brought him low.
Life wasn't fair, he told himself, firmly. He could not have everything he wanted merely because he wanted it. To act otherwise would have been the height of selfishness, and he had long ago resolved not to be that kind of man, nor that kind of king.
And there was still, of course, the matter of the Kree princess. He was sure she was beautiful, ethereal -- a vision in silks and lace, voluminous dresses. This mysterious daughter of Mar-Vell would no doubt be the apex of femininity, soft and dainty. Even the women that he had loved -- like Sharon, strong and fierce, unafraid to stand up to him -- would have been nothing like her. Even if he had wanted a woman now, he would not have wanted her.
Well, he knew what he wanted now, did he not?
He could not have what he wanted.
He would merely have to act around Tony as he always had, as if he had never realized what he now knew had always been the truth. And perhaps, in time, the feeling would fade.
And today would be the first test of that; he needed to meet Tony now, to go over the practicalities of how this mage-gift worked before he put himself in a situation where its use might be required. There were still many things he did not understand about it.
He could be alone in a room with Tony. Of course he could. He could keep his mind on important matters, and not on-- oh, gods, what if Tony let him look at him again, and perhaps touch him--
Steve squeezed his eyes shut, swore, and then got up to get dressed for the morning.
The first knock on Tony's door brought no response, but Steve was not alarmed; they had been awake late into the night, after all, and so Tony was likely still abed.
The second knock ought to have roused him.
The third knock -- well, now Steve was beginning to worry.
"Tony?" he called out. "It's Steve. I wanted to talk to you."
His hand was on the door as he leaned in, and he found, to his surprise, that the door was already unlocked. It swung open, the hinges creaking, and Steve stepped into Tony's small suite of rooms. He had offered Tony grander accommodations, over the years, but Tony had always refused, demurring with a smile, saying that Steve was generous enough.
The sitting room was empty, and a cursory glance toward the open bedroom door revealed that the bedroom was as well.
Everything was in order, bed made, clothing put away. It was actually much cleaner than Tony usually left the place; there were none of his little wrought inventions in pieces on the table, the ones that always somehow migrated upstairs from his smithy.
Steve crossed the room and crouched next to the hearth. The ashes were cold to the touch; there had not been a fire lit in quite a while. Of course, he knew Tony preferred mage-lights for illumination, and it was not cold enough yet to need a fire's warmth, so that hardly proved anything.
There was no need to worry. No doubt he was still at the smithy. He had probably fallen asleep in his office. Where else would he have been?
"I am sorry, sire," Jim Rhodes said, his face creased in an apologetic frown, "but I have not seen Tony."
Behind him, the forge fire was roaring. There was already sweat beading on Jim's brow, and on the anvil by the fire, a half-finished blade was glowing white-hot, lying where Jim had left it to come reply to his question.
"What," Steve asked, "not at all?"
Surely Jim must have been mistaken. Tony had been here last night, and he was not in his rooms, so where else could he be?
Jim shook his head. "Not since yesterday, sire."
"Not in his office?"
"No, sire, nor in his workroom."
And now, now Steve was worried, his heart pounding. He was beginning to sweat, in a way that had nothing to do with the heat of the forge.
Tony had disappeared.
He made himself smile. "Thank you. I apologize for bothering you. If you should see him--"
Jim nodded. "I will let him know you asked for him, Your Majesty."
If Tony had left of his own accord, he would have said. He would have left a message. He would have given some sign. Something had happened. Something terrible had happened, and Steve knew not what. Had the Kree taken him? Or, perhaps, the unknown associates of the man Burnside whom they had captured? Perhaps it had been his companion, who had put an arrow through Tony's shoulder? After all, they had not found his accomplice.
He did not know. But he knew who could find Tony: his Avengers.
Iron Man would surely be able to help him.
Steve turned away, heading down the corridor, already formulating a plan in his mind. He was going to find Tony, and Iron Man was going to help him.
Iron Man's quarters were tiny, old, and in a wing of the palace that was practically deserted, but they were the only quarters he had let Steve give him -- and, akin to his experience with Tony, even that had been a struggle. Steve suspected Iron Man actually lived somewhere else, in town, because it had become very clear over the years that Iron Man had not quite taken to these rooms. In fact, it had always been very nearly impossible for Steve to find him alone; he was almost never here when Steve went looking.
Tony's absence was going to have a cascade of ill effects, because it happened that Tony was the one person who could reliably find Iron Man. Tony had told him once that the two of them spent a fair amount of time together, in the course of his duties; the spells on Iron Man's armor were his. Steve supposed that in the course of their acquaintance Tony had come to know many things about Iron Man that even Steve had never learned -- such as where he lived.
Steve frowned as he hurried down the corridor. If Iron Man wasn't there--
Well, if Iron Man wasn't there, any of the rest of the Avengers would be a good choice for what he had in mind. Carol was perhaps busy preparing for the Kree's arrival tomorrow, but Jan or Wanda would serve. He only needed one Avenger.
He hoped he could find Iron Man, though.
Gods, if he'd lost Tony and Iron Man in one morning--
No. He could not think about that, he told himself, and he pushed down on the fear, pushed it down and locked it away. He could not begin to think as if his friends were already lost to him. He would not surrender before the battle had even begun.
Having reached Iron Man's quarters, Steve stopped and knocked -- and in a few seconds, Iron Man had opened the door. All the gods be praised. At least he was still here. And in his armor, of course. Did he sleep in the armor?
Iron Man stared at him in utter silence, his head tilted to the side, like he had no clue what to say. Through the slits of the helmet, his eyes -- Steve had never been able to make out their color -- were wide, startled. This was unexpected, Steve supposed; as he had concluded, he almost never actually found Iron Man here.
"Your Majesty?" Iron Man ventured, a hesitant question. "Are-- are you well?"
By all the gods, what must his face look like?
"I need your help," Steve said, and his voice came from him grim and low, as if Iron Man were one of his soldiers on a battlefield. "Tony has disappeared."
There was a long pause, then; shock, perhaps. Likely Iron Man was surprised too.
"Of course I will help you find him, sire," Iron Man said, stepping back with the heavy clanking of metal on stone. "I will call the Avengers together, and the four of us will ride out in your name--"
"No." The word snapped out of him. "I will ride out. You alone will accompany me."
There was another moment of silence. "Your Majesty," Iron Man said. "I must advise against this. Surely a disappearance, even of your court magician, does not merit your personal involvement, not with events as they now stand."
Anger mazed Steve's vision; a mist of red descended upon his sight. He could not breathe. He could not speak, for everything in him was rage. Tony was gone and here was Iron Man, one of his most valued knights, telling him he should stay here? Telling him he should do nothing?
"How dare you!" Steve snarled, shaking with fury. "You will obey me! I am your king!"
The words echoed in the tiny room, and Iron Man stepped back, holding his gauntleted hands up as if Steve had struck him bodily, as if he could ward off another blow.
Sense came back to Steve in an ashamed rush, as fast as it had left him. What had he been thinking? Iron Man was one of his valued companions, and this was no way to speak to him.
"Gods," Steve said, and the word choked his throat. Miserable tears pricked at his eyes; he was feeling too much, too intensely. "Gods, Iron Man, I am sorry. I had no cause to treat you thus."
Even in the armor, Iron Man's head hung low; his hands dropped. "No, sire," he said, and his magically-altered voice was distressingly meek, a tone Steve had never heard from the man before and hated himself for engendering. "You have the right of it; you are my king and I am oath-sworn to you. It was my concern for your welfare that made me speak, but I spoke rashly even so, and for that I beg Your Majesty's forgiveness."
Steve raised a hand and gripped Iron Man... well, he gripped him about the pauldron of the armor. His thumb ran over the engraved magical lettering sitting over what would have been the man's collarbone. The gesture surely meant rather less to a man in armor who could not feel it, but Iron Man lifted his head anyway. "Sire?"
"I require no apology," Steve said, pained. "It is I who was rash."
"I had not realized you missed him so greatly," Iron Man said, in an undertone, and for the life of him Steve did not understand the strange way Iron Man uttered the words, a sort of sad wonderment, and he wished he could see the man's face. "I only meant that you are the king, and surely you have other duties to attend to, and what with your life in renewed danger it would be risky to ride out with only one man to protect you. It would be safer for you if we went without you, sire. And with all of us looking I have... no doubt that we would find him quickly." His voice faltered. It was another oddity.
Steve breathed in and out, shaking. "I cannot leave him. I think if I did not try, and harm came to him, it would haunt me forever."
True, he had been devastated to hear of Tony's capture, years ago -- but Tony had already been in faraway lands, and he himself had been on the front lines of a battle. It had been different then; there had been nothing he could do, and he'd had a war to fight. But now he was right here, and with every passing moment Tony was farther and farther away. It hurt far worse.
It hurts more because now you know how you feel about him, an insidious voice whispered in his head.
Iron Man held out his hands, an entreaty. "I promise you, sire, we would do all that was within our power to find him."
Steve shook his head. "I need to know for myself. I need to ride out toward the border with you, for it is likely that the Kree are involved. And I must go, for he worked a spell to give me his magic. Perhaps his magic can find him." Steve knew that mages were attuned to magic; surely it was reasonable that Tony's own gift would seek to find him.
Iron Man paused again; suddenly, he was very, very still. "Does his gift aid you now?"
Not knowing what he was doing, nor how exactly to do it, Steve reached out -- but the magic went nowhere. It swirled around him as if Tony were in the room himself. He shook his head. "It is all too close. I think out of the castle it will be better."
"Ah." Iron Man seemed to relax; some unaccountable tension had gone from him. "Well, if I cannot persuade you not to go, sire, it is my duty to accompany you. I would feel better if you brought more of us, though."
"It is not necessary," Steve said. "Besides, we will be faster with two. There will be less attention paid to us."
"Sire, you are the king." It was impossible to tell, but Steve imagined the man inside the armor was raising his eyebrows. His voice was dubious enough. "I assure you, people will pay attention. Including the people trying to murder you."
Steve let himself smile. "Oh, but they will not know that."
Gods, it had been years since he had done this. It sounded almost refreshing.
"They will not know I am the king," Steve clarified. "Meet me at the stables. You will see."
"Yes, sire." Now Iron Man sounded confused.
It was awful, true, that Tony was gone... but he had hope, and that was beginning to quell the sick feeling within him. Iron Man would help. They would find him together.
Iron Man was halfway through tacking up his mount when Steve entered the stables. Iron Man stopped, turned around, and stared. Steve could barely make out his eyes behind the helm, but he was sure they were widened in surprise.
He didn't look that strange, did he?
Iron Man's horse whickered and nosed him in the shoulder.
"Well," Iron Man said, finally. "I see what you meant."
Of course, the fact that Iron Man had recognized him immediately did not bode well for the success of his disguise.
"You knew it was me." Steve could hear the disappointment echo in his own voice.
"Sire, you told me to expect you." Iron Man lifted a hand and gestured toward his helm. "Besides, I know your appearance well. You have... a very distinctive jawline."
Steve rubbed his gloved hand self-consciously over his jaw. "I do?"
He glanced down at himself: high boots, dark breeches, dark tunic, dark cloak, and a strip of dark fabric masking his eyes. Sword at his side. It had served him well enough before. There was nothing that he could do about his voice, but he thought perhaps his subjects had mostly only heard him declaiming, and not speaking normally -- and besides, they would hardly expect their king to wear this.
"It is only because I know you," Iron Man hastened to assure him. "I am sure that any stranger you meet will think you are. Er." He paused. His helmet tilted; he seemed to be taking in Steve's appearance, trying to decide what to call him. "A highwayman?"
A highwayman? Well, Iron Man had not been one of his Avengers the last time Steve had had cause to don this outfit. Iron Man did not know. Surely he did not mean to offend.
Steve drew himself up. "I am a protector of the lost and helpless, beholden to no lord or master," he said, with all the dignity he could muster. "I am Nomad."
There was a long pause.
And then Iron Man started laughing.
"By all the gods," Iron Man said, laughter still echoing in his helmet, "you were Nomad? That was you? Running about the town at night, foiling the plans of thieves and cutpurses?"
Oh. Iron Man had heard of him.
Steve blinked. "I did not know my fame had spread so far. You were not one of my Avengers then."
He had been -- hmm, had he really been nineteen, the last time? He must have been. His father had been alive then; it had been long before he had gone to fight on the border, and at any rate Iron Man had not joined his Avengers until he had come back.
There came another pause. "I-- I lived in the castle-town once, sire."
Iron Man's voice was hesitant. It had the sound of an excuse, a lie -- but Iron Man would not have lied to him. Perhaps it was merely because he had always been reticent when it came to talking about his past. Yes, that must have been it.
Leading his horse out, Steve began the process of saddling him; he peered over the back of his horse to where Iron Man was still staring at him.
"A question, sire," Iron Man said. "How far do you intend us to ride?"
"As far as it takes us to find him," Steve said, grimly, and he bent to fasten his stallion's saddle-girth.
"To the border?" Iron Man's voice, even with its magical disguise, carried with it a certain amount of incredulity. "Sire, forgive me. It is far, and the Kree delegation is coming tomorrow."
Steve stood up and looked Iron Man straight in the eyes -- or as much of his eyes as he could see. "I will ride to Hala itself if there be need. And if we do not find him... well, I believe that then I will find myself much less concerned with the feelings of the damned Kree."
There was another pause, as Steve bridled his horse, and Iron Man regarded him in silence.
"Very well, sire," Iron Man said.
Steve nodded. "Mount up, Avenger. We ride out."
The forest had seemed so welcoming yesterday. This morning, it was anything but. As they passed down the trail, Steve was wary, alert for any signs of movement -- but there was nothing. It had rained a bit last night, and there were already a few hoofprints and footprints in the muddy dirt in front of them. Whoever had been this way this morning could have been Tony. There were villages up ahead, though, closer to the border, and Steve was well aware that the business could have had entirely legitimate reasons.
It was hard not to jump at shadows, though, now that Tony was missing.
Something flashed out of the corner of his eye, and Steve hauled back on the reins and--
It wasn't Tony. A flock of birds took flight, from a nearby clearing. Embarrassed, Steve swallowed hard, clicked his tongue, and nudged his mount forward with a tap of his heel.
Iron Man, who had stopped ahead of him when Steve had come to such a precipitous halt, had turned halfway around in his saddle to stare.
"You miss him very much, don't you?" Iron Man asked, quietly. The words sounded almost wondering. "I-- I had no idea."
He had thought, surely, that everyone knew how much he cared for Tony -- thinking back on it, it was almost ridiculous that he hadn't seen it himself, in his own behavior -- but he did not think Iron Man had been to court very often. He might not have seen them together. He of course would have met Tony separately, in Tony's smithy -- else, how would Tony have charmed his armor? -- but perhaps Tony did not speak of him to Iron Man.
And that realization confirmed, once again, that Tony did not return his feelings; if Tony and Iron Man were close enough friends that Iron Man had told Tony how to find him -- a piece of information that he had not even entrusted to Steve -- surely Tony would have confided in Iron Man these matters of the heart? It was not as if Tony had been shy telling anyone that he had had an interest in Rumiko.
No, it was most likely that Tony simply was not in love with him. He would have told him.
Iron Man had not moved on. His head was lifted, and from the set of his helm, he was studying Steve's face.
"Sire, we will find him, I swear," Iron Man said, haltingly. "Perhaps he-- he only left without telling you."
Steve shook his head. "I cannot accept that. He is my closest friend. He would have left word, had he left willingly. And there was no reason for him to leave. He said he wished to protect me. He gave me the loan of his mage-gift. True, we discussed that he might stay a little farther from me, and let his magic alone protect me, but his leaving me entirely was not part of the plan!" He was aware as he spoke that his voice had risen in anger. "I apologize, Iron Man," he said, taking a breath to calm himself. "I have found that, where Tony is concerned, my feelings run deep."
Reining his horse around, Iron Man proceeded once again down the trail. "Of course you are concerned, sire," Iron Man said. "You still owe me no apology. He is your friend."
Ah, but that was not the entirety of what Steve felt, was it?
Speaking of his feelings was a strange and terrifying prospect; he had only come to be aware of them last night, after all. But some part of him wanted to tell Iron Man. After Tony, the Avengers were his closest companions, and surely Iron Man would not think ill of him. And perhaps he would feel better, having unburdened himself to his friend. Then Iron Man would understand why he was so concerned.
"It is not only that." Steve breathed in and out, a trembling breath. "I am in love with him."
Iron Man came to a dead stop, yanking back on the reins so hard that Steve was concerned for his horse's mouth.
"You what?" His voice was laden with shock and disbelief; it was not what Steve had been hoping for, and he could feel his spirits begin to flag. Iron Man coughed. "Forgive me, sire. I suppose I was only surprised. I was not expecting that." He still sounded weak, stunned, and Steve wondered why it had affected him so; surely the idea could not be that unusual?
"You-- you--" Iron Man seemed to be struggling for words. "You have given no indication, sire, and you have never seemed to me to be a man who hides his affection."
"I have only come to know this recently," Steve admitted, "but I know that my feelings are true."
Iron Man was still sitting frozen in the saddle. "Recently?"
Steve nodded. "He-- he kissed me." He could feel his face heat; he hoped that the mask obscured it. "Last night. I know how it sounds. It was not even that sort of kiss. But suddenly I knew. I realized I had felt thus for him all along, but somehow I had never let myself know it. But I know now that I have felt these things for him since I met him."
"Since you met him?" Iron Man's voice wavered. "But you-- surely you have known him for years."
"I have," Steve said. He could not help but smile a little to think of it. "I have always thought that the day I met him was one of the best days of my life." Maybe he had never told Tony that so plainly, but it had always been true. Gods, he should have told him that much. Tony might be dead, and Steve had never told him even that. He sighed. "He-- he does not speak of it in that manner, to you?"
It was further proof that Tony did not love him, if Tony had never even spoken of him to Iron Man.
Iron Man's response, when it came, was slow and awkward. "Sire, I-- I-- I am certain he thinks well of you."
That was a no, then.
"Maybe he would tell it differently," Steve said. "But for me it was wondrous." He wanted Iron Man to understand. "I was... sixteen, I think? So was he. My father was still king; I was a prince. Tony had not come into his mage-gift. At any rate, his father -- a merchant and a smith, like Tony -- had come to the palace to speak to my father, and he'd brought Tony with him, and I remember--" He shook his head in amazement. "Maybe this is a thing you cannot understand, but in my experience people want to know me because they want something from me, and he... did not. He only wanted, honestly, to be my friend. It was amazing. He was amazing, and brilliant, and I knew as soon as I met him that I wanted him by my side, always."
He had always been in love with him. He hadn't known. Every moment he had spent with Tony, every time he had put aside sleep to go talk to him, every time Tony had come running to show him an invention -- all those years, he had loved him.
"Sire," Iron Man said, and his voice sounded almost choked with tears. "I-- I am sure that when we find him again, he will welcome your affections--"
"No." Steve shook his head. "I will not tell him. He does not return my feelings."
"Oh." The noise Iron Man made was a small, miserable gasp. "You are certain?"
"Absolutely," Steve said. "When he-- when he kissed me, he made it plain that it was solely for the spell. He felt nothing for me." The words were wretched on his tongue.
"Perhaps he did not know." Iron Man's voice rasped. "If he did not know of your feelings, perhaps he felt that his own would be unwelcome."
"Have you not met Tony?" The laugh that came out of Steve's mouth was a sad bark. "He is not hesitant to let anyone know where they stand with him."
"You are the king, sire. With you, it might well be different."
Steve's eyes flickered shut. "It never mattered to him before. No, he feels nothing." He sighed. "And that is another reason I cannot tell him. I am his king, and I would not put him in the position of refusing me. I would not want him to feel as though he must do as I wish to make me happy."
"I-- I understand," Iron Man said, slowly, as haltingly as if it had been him Steve had refused.
"You will not tell him?" Steve asked. "Please. I know you must speak to him often but I... would rather he did not know."
"I will not tell him," Iron Man said, and he ducked his head. "Believe me, sire, I am well-versed in the ways of secrets. He will not hear it from me."
That had not made Steve feel lighter, not in the way that he had hoped, but it warmed his heart to know that he could trust Iron Man. Iron Man would not betray him.
And Iron Man had sounded hopeful that they would find Tony. This had to be a good sign.
They rode on.
The first sign of other people on the road happened an hour later, when Steve spied a man on a horse, coming down the track in the opposite direction. He was likely coming from one of the border villages, heading to the castle-town for the day, since there was nowhere else to go on this road.
Steve could not have said in words what it was, but something about the man felt off, to him, and the wrongness only increased as they drew closer. To look at him, though, there was nothing amiss. His horse, sturdy enough, carried laden saddlebags -- perhaps he was heading to market -- and the man himself wore a long traveler's coat, covered in pockets. But the way he looked at them -- it was odd.
The man had caught sight of them early, and his gaze went first to Iron Man -- understandable, for Iron Man was the one in plate armor -- and then away again, too fast. His mount danced under him as if the horse itself had noticed his nerves. Curious, all curious.
"Ho there!" Steve called out, as the rider approached.
He reined his horse to a halt, a foot or so away from Iron Man, who was in the lead, and he regarded them quizzically; no doubt he wondered why Steve -- whom, naturally, he would not have recognized -- had sought to stop him. He was raven-haired and bright-eyed; handsome enough, Steve supposed.
The stranger frowned. "May I aid you, sirs?"
Steve realized that an ordinary man perhaps would not have stopped a stranger on the road. He was used to being the king. Ah, well -- he had already brought himself this far. It was best to make up some excuse and let him pass.
Or perhaps -- perhaps he had seen Tony?
"Oh, it is nothing," Steve said. "Only a question. You have come from the Kree border, yes?"
The man nodded. "I have, and I am for the castle, to seek an audience with the king." He licked his lips and swallowed; he was nervous about something, indeed.
Steve swallowed back the rueful smile that wanted to spread across his face. If he only knew he was already having an audience with the king -- ah, but then his disguise would be ruined. Well, he would be home soon enough, hopefully with Tony in tow.
"Have you passed anyone on the way?" Steve asked. "I am looking for a friend of mine. Perhaps you have seen him. About my height, bearded, with dark hair. Blue eyes. He might have been wearing a mage's robes, in crimson and gold."
The stranger shook his head. "I have not seen anyone on the road. I apologize." And then his gaze went to Iron Man. "You are Iron Man, are you not? The king's Avenger."
Iron Man's helmet tilted in a nod. "I have that honor," he said. His voice was almost dry, unwilling to give anything anyway.
"His loyal man," the stranger said, with a smile that Steve misliked. "And what fine armor you have, sir knight. It is spelled very well, I take it?"
"Very well indeed," Iron Man agreed. He did not move his hand to his sword-hilt, but Steve could practically see him thinking about it. "Might I know your name? It is only that you know so much about me. I wish to return the favor."
Two against one, Steve thought. They could take him. Something was wrong here.
The man did not reach for his sword. His fingers worried at a pocket of his coat.
"My name is Jeffrey Mace," the man spat, "and you may tell that to your king. Pray carry this message to him. I and others like me are true men of this kingdom, and we have suffered the depredations of the Kree for years. There can never be peace between us."
Steve could see Iron Man weighing how to respond.
"I am sorry you feel that way," Iron Man said.
"You know nothing of it!" Mace hissed. "I have lost friends! I have lost family! And you, safe in your fancy bespelled armor -- I never saw you at the front! You did not even fight! You have lost nothing!"
Iron Man's hand went to his sword-hilt, then. "You presume much, and you know very little."
Mace sneered. "I know that I would like very much to see what you're made of without those fancy spells," he said. "The same as I enjoyed putting an arrow through your king's damned sorcerer. They'll blame it on the Kree, and no one will ever stop fighting those murdering bastards. As it should be."
He'd hurt Tony. He was the one who'd hurt Tony.
Steve had his sword half-drawn, but Mace was faster.
Mace pulled a small glass vial out of his pocket and threw it at Iron Man. It cracked open, and Steve smelled the sickly-sweet scent of a tincture of witchbane.
Iron Man pitched sideways off his horse and landed in the middle of the road, with a thunderous clatter of metal.
Mace spurred his horse into a gallop.
"Halt!" Steve roared, and everything crackled golden around him, and dimly he understood that this was Tony's magic, acting through him. This was a mage's voice of command. He had never seen anyone use this spell, save for the most powerful mages of stories, but there was nothing else it could have been.
Mace stopped, and Steve spun his horse around and hastened toward him, pulling his horse alongside. Mace's eyes were blank, his face drained of emotion.
He was waiting, Steve realized, for orders.
"You will ride to the castle," Steve said, feeling the words bristle with power as he spoke. "You will ride as fast as you can without laming your horse. You will ask to speak to Captain Danvers, and you will tell her you wish to surrender yourself into her custody. You will repeat what you have told me about your plot to sabotage the peace. This is the command of your king. Now go."
His eyes still blank, Mace nodded. He kicked his horse, and they galloped away.
Gods, was this what magic felt like?
Steve exhaled, and the power settled back under his skin -- and then he turned and saw Iron Man.
Iron Man was still lying in the road. He hadn't moved.
Steve slid off his horse and ran to Iron Man's side. The smell of witchbane was thick in the air, and Steve could still see the droplets spattered over his armor, over his helm. It was on his mouth-slit; it looked like he had been hit in the face. It ran over the metal of the armor, effacing the magical glyphs on it as if it were acid. Which it was, of a sort -- but only for magic.
He had seen witchbane in the war, of course; their archers had dipped their arrows in it, and the Kree had done the same. It wasn't permanent, but if a mage were to breathe it in, or were hit with a witchbane-laced arrow, it would drain the magic out of them. The length of time depended on the dose -- it could be minutes or days. In battle, of course, they usually had not needed more than minutes, for once an enemy mage went down, any shields they had cast went with them, leaving the enemy vulnerable.
The witchbane was clearly affecting Iron Man's armor, but had it done something to the man inside? Steve crouched next to Iron Man, who was still motionless. Perhaps he had hit his head in the fall? Was it safe to move him? Was he breathing?
"Iron Man?" Steve asked.
There was no reply.
The horses, well-trained beasts that they were, had moved to the side of the road to graze; Iron Man had fallen far, and was practically in the grass already.
Something was prickling, an itch under Steve's skin, and belatedly he recognized it: Tony's magic. Something about it felt different. Before, in the castle, when he had reached out with it, he had felt a great swirl of life around Iron Man -- and now there was only an emptiness. Could the magic sense another man's welfare? Tony had never said so, but Steve was seized with the certainty that Iron Man was in trouble. He knew it as easily as if it had been written there, as clear as ink on parchment: the witchbane had harmed Iron Man somehow, and he had to do something.
Of course, if he removed Iron Man's helm, he would see Iron Man's face, and he knew Iron Man would object to that.
He had to do it. Iron Man might be cross with him later, but Steve knew he had to do something to save his life. He was not about to let Iron Man die.
Steve wiped off the witchbane as best he could with the edge of his cloak, hoping that would help, careful not to touch it himself -- since, after all, he had magic now. Then he leaned in, tugged at Iron Man's helm, and slowly lifted it away.
Under the mask... was Tony.
Stunned, Steve's first thought was that this was some kind of joke. The gods were playing a trick on him. Tony could not be Iron Man. Iron Man could not be Tony.
By all the gods, he'd told Iron Man he loved Tony and Iron Man was Tony--
Tony lay there. His eyes were shut, his face expressionless. He was perfectly still.
He wasn't breathing.
With all the magic in Steve, he reached out: Tony felt lifeless. Steve knew his heart had stopped beating.
This was no trick. This was real.
Tony had told him that magic kept his heart beating, and now he had no magic, and therefore he had no heartbeat.
What was he going to do?
Hurriedly, he wiped the witchbane off Tony's face with more of his cloak; he knew that much of healing.
Tony still did not stir.
The focus around Tony's neck, the one that had glimmered so brightly when he had put it on, was dull and dim, and Steve had an idea. It was not much of an idea; he knew nothing about how magic worked in these circumstances. He only knew that he had Tony's magic, and perhaps he could give him it back. If he broke the focus, Tony had said, the spell that gave Tony's magic to Steve would break with it.
Steve reached out, closed his fist around the focus, and yanked. The chain broke with a metallic snap, and the gem came away in his hand.
For a brief, terrifying moment, nothing happened.
The magic poured out of Steve all at once, like water rushing downhill, and Tony arched up, took a gasping, ragged breath, and opened his eyes.
Tony's gaze met Steve's, and for an instant the only thing in his eyes was blinding relief. He was here, he was alive, and Steve was with him.
Steve wished that it were really that simple.
And then Tony glanced down at himself, at the state of his armor, and reached up, with one gauntleted hand, to touch his own bare face. Steve saw the moment that Tony realized it: Steve knew. Tony's face went dark and shadowed. He laid his hand over his breastbone; Steve imagined he was still in pain.
"What." Tony took a rasping breath, coughed, and tried again to speak. "What happened?"
"The man we met on the road threw witchbane at you," Steve said, flatly. "Without your magic, your heart ceased to beat. I broke the spell." He held up the hand with the focus-stone in it, and then put it on the ground next to Tony. "It gave you your magic back."
Tony struggled halfway up, onto his elbows, trying to look down the road. "And the man?" He sat all the way up; at least he seemed unharmed.
"Before I gave you your magic back, I told him to go to the castle and surrender," Steve said. "And his face was as blank parchment. He. Uh. He did as I bade him."
"You yelled at him with the voice of power," Tony said, and his mouth twitched. "All the terrible things you could have done by reflex, and you chose that. I suppose I should not be surprised."
Tony started to smile... and then looked away again; his head drooped.
Tony was Iron Man. Tony had lied to him for years. He had trusted Tony, he had trusted Iron Man, and they had lied to him. About everything.
"Why?" Steve asked. His voice came out of him raw and hollow. Betrayed. "Were you ever planning to tell me?"
Tony shut his eyes. "I thought you would give up before Hala. And before that, I thought you would never insist on coming. I would ride out and say I'd seen... myself. No harm done."
Steve had meant to ask about everything; Tony only seemed to want to answer about now. Either way, it was inexplicable. Enraging. Steve could feel his own breathing ratchet up.
"No harm done?" His voice rose and cracked. "By all the gods, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking I was protecting you!" Tony shot back. "I had given you my magic! I could keep away from you, so you would not paint a target on my back for the entire world, a target that said see how much you hurt the king if you hurt me. I would still keep watch over you as Iron Man! How was I to know you would go mad with grief? How was I to know you felt--" he began, and then his mouth snapped shut.
Steve could feel his face flare hot. Gods, he had confessed everything to Iron Man, and he had been right in his suspicions. Tony did not love him. Had it all been an act?
"Tell me, did this game please you?" he asked, and though he was hot, the question was ice-cold. "Did you enjoy speaking to me as two people, for all these years? Gaining my confidence? Winnowing out my secrets?"
Tony's face was bone-white, drained of all color, and he pushed himself to sitting and stretched forth a hand. Steve did not take it.
"Steve, no," Tony said, low and desperate. "It was not like that. I never sought to harm you. You must believe me."
Steve had no idea what to believe any longer.
"Who knew?" Steve whispered. "The other Avengers, did they know? Do they know now? Did you all sit around and laugh--"
Tony shook his head, an urgent, violent motion. "No one knew. The only man who ever knew died years ago. No one alive now knows the truth, save for you. I swear it."
What could he swear on? His oaths meant nothing.
It could not be true. Not when Iron Man wore full plate armor. That was not a disguise that could be achieved alone.
"Stop lying to me," Steve snarled, suddenly vicious, and Tony recoiled. "You're wearing plate, Tony. Someone had to help you dress. You needed a squire. Someone knew."
In reply, Tony held out a shaking hand and whispered three hoarse words in the language of magic, and the gauntlet peeled away and fell to the ground, removed by an unseen force.
"No one knew," Tony repeated, and his lips parted in a sad, wretched smile. "No one. That is the absolute truth."
The truth... was not making Steve feel any better. And even so, Steve knew Tony had told him nowhere near all of it.
"You owe me an explanation."
Tony's gaze darted toward the horses. Down the road. Anywhere but at him. "I think we ought to go home," Tony said, quietly.
"Since I no longer need to look for my missing court magician," Steve said, letting the words come out of him hard and sharp-edged, "I find myself with a certain amount of free time." He met Tony's eyes. "You owe me an explanation," he repeated. "From the beginning." The words were an order.
And Tony started to laugh, slow and sad. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes.
"Do you want to know what it feels like when three men hold you down and try to cut your beating heart out of your chest?" Tony whispered. "Do you want to know how the chains weigh down your wrists, how the collar galls your throat? Do you want an explanation of what it is like to be put under a geas, to have your spirit drained from you, to be forced to craft and smith and spell weapons against your own will, for the very men who tried to murder you? Do you want to know how it feels to stand there with the point of your own dagger pressed against your heart, knowing that the only reason you cannot drive it in is that the geas that binds your soul to slavery prevents you from suicide? Be so kind as to tell me," he spat out, "exactly what it is you think you are owed."
Steve was beginning to see that he had made a very grave mistake.
But Tony continued on, as if he had not heard him. "Yinsen and I were traveling between villages when we were set upon," Tony said. "They sought to kill us. And they nearly did kill me, until they found -- when Yinsen was setting spells to keep my heart beating -- that we were both mages, and that I was a smith. They knew then that they could make use of us, and so they set geasa on us. I was forced to use my skills for them. There was no way to resist. I forged swords. I forged armor. I spelled them with my best charms. If they'd told me to make a scabbard that would keep the bearer safe from all wounds, I would have burned my entire gift out in the attempt. I forged my own damned chains. There was no choice."
He wanted to say something comforting. He wanted to say that he understood. But it was clear that he did not, and that Tony wanted no comfort from him.
"After a few months the idea came to us that we could break the geasa if we had enough power." Tony licked his lips. "It was Yinsen's idea. He told me about the magic of scars. He told me how we could write magic on our bodies. He offered himself up, but I insisted. After all, I was already broken. We tried my heart first." He raised his hand and drew a circle around his breastbone, where Steve had seen the words. "And when that worked, we started on the rest. The geas did not forbid injury to oneself, only suicide." His mouth curved. "An unfortunate loophole for our captors. And as we did that, we began to craft the armor that would be Iron Man."
Iron Man had only come to Steve's court after Steve had come back from the front. After Tony had escaped captivity.
Tony was still smiling an awful smile. "The plan was that I would break my geas, and then Yinsen's. I would be nearly powerless, magically, having used my energy on both of us, but I would wear the armor, and we would fight our way out." His eyes closed, briefly, an old pain. "We were discovered after we had broken only my geas, and they-- they compelled him to kill himself. I took the armor, and since I still had my gift left, I killed them." His mouth was a hard, grim line. "I killed all of them. They died screaming, crying, begging -- in every kind of agony you can imagine. All of them. I made sure of it. And then I came home." His smile now was sad and bleak. "Are you satisfied? How do you find that explanation, sire?"
"And then you were Iron Man," Steve said, numbly. He could not bring himself to answer the question as Tony had put it to him.
Tony nodded. "And then I was Iron Man."
"But... why?" He knew his voice was shaking, broken, still betrayed. "Why lie to me? Why come to me as Iron Man? Why seek to serve me under a false name?"
"Because you would not have abided the truth!" Tony yelled, and his voice cracked on the last word. The noise that issued from him was a wet sob. Steve watched his nostrils flare; he watched him take a slow calming breath. Twice. Thrice. "When I came back," Tony said, "you had just returned from the front. You had assembled the Avengers to serve you there, and you kept them at court. I saw them and I-- I wanted that. I wanted to serve you. I wanted to protect you. I wanted to fight at your side." His mouth twisted. "And you-- you looked at me like you wanted to wrap me in silk. You looked at me like I was made of glass. After I had returned, you told me once -- do you remember? -- that you were so glad I was your court magician, that I would evermore be at your side. I would be safe." Tony's words were bitter through and through, a pain that had festered in him for years, and Steve had not known. "I am the most powerful mage in your entire damned kingdom. I could snap my fingers and a thousand of the enemy would die in battle, because you wished it. I could craft for you arms and armor the likes of which no one has ever seen, their enchantments more dazzling than the sun. The bards would sing tales of your victories for centuries to come." He met Steve's eyes. "Do you know what a court magician truly does? He works cantrips. Amusements for the nobles. He does nothing."
He had thought he was doing what was best for Tony. He had thought Tony grateful. He had thought Tony happy. And now he found that Tony had been nothing of the sort.
It had all been a lie. Even Tony's feelings -- those had been lies, even the friendship. Tony had not been happy. He had said as much.
He could not believe he had told this man he loved him.
"You were my friend," Steve said, low and anguished. "I trusted you as I trusted none other, and you lied to me. You lied to me, Tony."
Tony's eyes were downcast. "I did."
The anger settled into his bones, the way Tony's magic had; the world was too near and too far at the same time, and his skin buzzed with the need to move, to act, to make Tony understand the monstrosity of this betrayal.
"You did not seek to explain yourself to me," Steve said. "You did not tell me what you had done. You did not even try. I have given you so much, Tony. You have had my time. You have had my ear at court. You have had a position that half the kingdom would covet with everything in them -- and you, you had the sheer gall to deceive me because you found what you had to be boring?"
In Tony's deathly-pale face, bright spots of color bloomed in his cheeks. "St-- Your Majesty-- it wasn't-- I only wanted to--"
"Quiet," Steve snarled, and it was no magical word of power, but nonetheless, Tony's mouth snapped shut. "I am not interested in more of your excuses. Do not presume to speak to me unless you are spoken to. Do you understand?"
Pain, dark and tangled, flashed in Tony's eyes, and when an answering pain rose up within him Steve reminded himself that Tony had brought this upon himself. "Understood, sire."
Steve glanced around them, at the horses grazing on the verge, at the witchbane soaking into the dirt. "Can you ride?"
"Yes, sire," Tony said. Two words, nothing more. It was what Steve had ordered.
"Then mount up," Steve said, grimly, "and we will return home and deal with the matter of this Jeffrey Mace." The anger still churned in Steve's gut, a sickening slurry of rage and shame and fear.
I told you I loved you, he thought. And this is what you did to me.
"And if a position as my court magician ill-suits you," Steve added, "you may rest assured that I am more than capable of finding a less boring task for you. You needn't trouble yourself. I shall offer Maximoff your place when we return."
Tony bit his lip. "Very good, sire," he said, dully. His face was gray-white, taut with misery.
"I don't believe I asked for your opinion," Steve said.
He stood up to fetch the horses. Tony, sitting in the middle of the road, did not move. He only sat there, his armor covered in dust, staring at the long road home.
Tony was as good as his word -- though something within Steve laughed a dark and ugly laugh at the thought -- and he did not speak at all during the journey home. Steve thought perhaps he had never been on a worse horseback ride in his life, and he counted military retreats among them.
When they reached the city gates they slowed; they fell into line behind the wagons waiting their turn to enter, each scrutinized by the guards. With the Kree delegation arriving tomorrow -- and, of course, with Steve's own life having been threatened yesterday -- the guards could not be too careful.
And that meant, naturally, that they were suspicious of him. He still wore his Nomad outfit, after all. If he unmasked, they would know him, but then he would be without this disguise in the future. The closest guard gave him a baleful glare, and her grip tightened about her pike.
"Hey, you!" the guard called out. "You in the mask! Take that off!"
"I would prefer not to," Steve said, which was, he discovered, a response that worked much better when he was a king.
The guard's eyes narrowed. "If you'd prefer for me to let you in the city," she retorted, "you'll be taking that mask off."
And then a heavy weight settled on his shoulder. Tony's mailed hand. Tony's calf bumped against his; Tony had reined his own mount so that they were side-by-side, and he'd leaned over to... lay claim to Steve.
Steve fancied that his arm stung and burned where Tony was touching him. A poison.
Tony's helmet was on his head once again, of course; to anyone who saw him, he was Iron Man. Steve could not even make out his eyes, underneath the mask.
"I'll vouch for him," Tony said. His magically-altered voice echoed in his armor; he was Iron Man again. "I pledge my word."
He had no word left to pledge. But only Steve knew that.
The guard's eyes went wide. "Of course, Iron Man! I did not know he was your companion!" She glanced back at Steve, ashamed. "Forgive me."
Tony wasn't his companion. Tony wasn't anything to him, any longer.
"You were only doing your job," Steve said, as graciously as he could, and the guard nodded her thanks and waved them through.
He didn't bother thanking Tony.
They rode through the streets in silence, their horses' hooves clattering over the cobblestones, taking the turns until at least they were in the familiar courtyard near the palace whose outbuildings contained the cells. That was where Carol would be; since he'd commanded Mace to find Carol, she would have brought him here.
As he had thought, Carol came running out of an archway to meet them. "Iron Man!" she cried out, urgently. And then she turned to Steve. "And, uh... Nomad?" Her face was quizzical.
At least someone remembered him.
There was no one else in the courtyard but the three of them; his disguise would be safe. He slid off his horse, and in one motion, pulled the mask off his face.
"Yes and no," Steve said.
Carol dropped to one knee. "Your Majesty!"
"No need for that." He motioned Carol up. "Come, tell me what has happened."
"It was the strangest thing, sire," Carol said. She rose and pushed her hair out of her face. "A man came riding from Hala, and he had been magicked in a way we can make no sense of. It was something akin to truth-spell; he gave his name and said that he had been part of the plot to halt the alliance, but he would not name his conspirators, or answer questions. He spoke true, it seemed, but he would not speak more than the words he had first said."
There was a jingling noise; Tony had dismounted.
"That is normal for the voice of power," Tony said. His voice, even altered, was raspy and dull. "He was compelled to do strictly what he was told under the voice, and it seems that did not include answering questions. For another person to question him, you will need to set a truth-spell."
Carol's nose wrinkled. "And when did you become a mage, Iron Man?" she asked, and Steve nearly bit his tongue. "I did not know you knew so much about this sort of magic."
Tony coughed. It echoed in the helmet.
"At any rate," she said, turning back to Steve, her face grave with concern, "we cannot set a truth-spell either. Wanda is in the eastern villages looking for the conspirators--" she grimaced-- "and not due back until evening. Stephen is busy with a surgery and cannot be called away, lest his patient die. And no one can find Tony. And if we do not have the truth, if we do not rout this out before tomorrow, the Kree will not come, and there will be no peace."
Steve looked at Tony. Tony said nothing. It had come to this, then. He would have to dismiss Tony as Iron Man, so Tony could remove the armor and come back. Tony would perform this one last service for him, and that would be the end of it.
Tony stared at him. In the shadows of his helmet, his eyes fell shut.
Tony's gauntleted hands went to his head; they undid the fastenings of his helmet.
Steve wanted to tell him not to bother. He wondered if Tony thought this act would cause him to merit Steve's forgiveness. Tony had to know that it would not. It was too late for that.
Tony wrenched off the helmet. His face was blotchy, and there were traces of tears upon his cheeks. He did not look at Steve.
Carol's throat worked.
"Oh," Carol said, finally, subdued. If she was wroth with him, she did a better job concealing it than Steve had.
"I will set a truth-spell," Tony said to Carol. And then he turned to Steve. "We will interrogate Mace, sire, and I will inform you of--"
"No." Steve interrupted him. "Captain Danvers will inform me of what you find," he said, and his voice came out of him like ice, like a winter wind through barren trees. "You will inform me of nothing. Isn't that what you wanted?"
He did not give Tony a chance to reply. He mounted up, wheeled his horse around, and left without looking back.
The knock resounded. It was the first sound Steve had heard from outside his chambers in hours; when he had taken his meals, he had ordered no disruptions other than news from Captain Danvers, so he knew very well who was waiting for him.
As he had expected, it was Carol. But that did not explain the sinking feeling in Steve's chest, as if some part of him had thought it might be Tony, as if some part of him still wanted it to be Tony, even after what Tony had done to him.
Carol stepped over the threshold, closed the door behind herself, ran a hand through her hair, and then pulled herself straight. "Mace confessed it all under truth spell, sire. He knew all the names that Burnside did not." Burnside, Steve recalled, had not even known Mace's name. "We have found everyone he named, everyone who sought to sabotage the peace."
"It is over?" Steve asked.
She nodded. "It is over, Your Majesty. And the people will see for themselves, tomorrow, that the Kree are ordinary people like us, and in time they will be able to put aside their hatred. It is not easy, to unlearn fear, but I think we will all manage it."
It was over. Steve could hardly believe it. It was over, and there would be peace at last.
"Thank you, Captain Danvers," he said, and Carol beamed. "You have done well."
He stepped back, but she did not turn to leave. She only stood there. She fidgeted, swaying nervously. And she was not a woman given to nerves.
Steve frowned. "Is there some other matter?"
As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew what she was going to say. Tony. Why should he care if Tony hurt?
"Sire, please," she blurted out. "It's killing him. Whatever price you wanted him to pay, he has paid, that and more. He meant you no harm--"
"Do not speak to me of that man ever again," Steve snapped, low and vicious, and his heart pounded in his chest. "I care nothing for his feelings. He certainly cared nothing for mine."
"You ought to speak with him--"
Steve held out a hand. "Were my instructions in some way unclear, Captain?" he asked.
Carol closed her mouth. Her lips were a thin line.
"They were perfectly clear, Your Majesty," Carol said. And then she raised her head. "Therefore, this is the only thing I will tell you about him: he is leaving. If you do not speak with him tonight, you will never speak with him again in this life. That is all I wished to say."
Steve's throat tightened. "You may leave, Captain," he said, because, it was better than thinking about, gods, Tony leaving, Tony gone--
She saluted, turned, and left Steve alone.
Steve dropped unsteadily into a chair, lost in thought.
Gods. Tony would be gone.
I never wanted him to leave. The cry rose instantly to Steve's lips, and he felt like a petulant child. What had he thought Tony would do? He had forbidden Tony to speak to him. He had dismissed him from his position -- or at least, he had told him he would, though he had not told Wanda of her change in fortune. What would there be left for Tony here? Nothing. Steve had cast him out.
He would have to learn to live without Tony. Tony had lied to him, Tony had deceived him, and for that alone Steve ought to go forward without Tony at his side.
He found it difficult to envision what that life would be. He had known Tony for so long, after all; it was inconceivable that Tony would not be at his right hand at court, offering a smile, a bit of advice, some new invention. And Iron Man would not be there either, among his Avengers. It would be twice the lack, as if he were grieving two men.
He could do this, Steve told himself. He clenched his jaw. He could move on. He had more concerns than his feelings for Tony, at any rate. Tomorrow the Kree would come, and they would talk of peace, of territory, of the shape of a treaty. And he would meet them, and--
There would be a princess among them. He had nearly forgotten. Mar-Vell's daughter was unmarried.
His life, his future life, passed through his mind as if he were flipping through the pages of a book: marriage, undoubtedly, to secure the alliance. A woman who was small and delicate, perhaps, who enjoyed gowns and galas and dancing. He shut his eyes, and in his mind he saw Tony's face. Tony smiling at him. Tony holding out his hand. Tony laughing and challenging him, the way he always had, with his astonishingly clever mind, daring him to do better. Tony at his forge, spelling armor.
No one else would ever be like Tony.
He could not marry a stranger and expect her to live up to the memory of a man who would be a ghost. Not even for an alliance. They would find another way. He needed Tony.
He loved Tony.
Did Tony love him? He remembered Tony's words on the road, when he had thought he had only been speaking to his loyal knight Iron Man. He will welcome your affections, Iron Man had said. And perhaps Tony did not love him now, after what Steve had said to him. But perhaps Tony did. Perhaps it was not too late.
He needed to speak to Tony.
He pushed himself out of his chair, and in another instant he was at the door, down the corridor, down the stairs, his feet following the familiar path, faster and faster as he went. What if he was too late? What if he reached Tony's rooms and Tony had already gone?
The forge was empty, and Steve ran through it, and into Tony's office, which was also empty, and Steve stood there for an instant in a blind panic until he heard a noise from the workroom. It seemed fitting that Tony would be there -- there, where Steve had realized he loved him.
His sides heaving, he stumbled to the workroom doorway -- and there was Tony.
He wasn't in robes, and that was the first shock; he wore an ordinary tunic and breeches, rough and undyed. Steve thought he had hardly seen Tony wear anything other than robes in years. But if Tony was no longer his court magician, he had lost the right to wear his fine crimson robes.
The cabinet at the far end of the room was open; Tony had dragged in a pair of chairs from his office, set saddlebags on both of them, and was busily sorting scrolls and vials from the cabinet into one bag or the other.
Tony looked up and blinked. He licked his lips. He seemed to be thinking very hard about what to say.
"Your Majesty," Tony said. His voice was even and calm, but there was something faraway and dark in his gaze; it was the look that he had had after Rumiko passed, and Steve had feared that shadow would never lift from him. And now, Steve had caused it to return. "I am at your command, sire."
Steve's gaze drifted to the saddlebags, which were almost full. Tony had nearly finished packing them. "You are leaving," Steve said. It felt like he had not meant to say it, but then, he did not know what he had meant to say.
Tony paused, a vial in his hand. He nodded. "You need not worry that I am taking all the kingdom's potions with me, sire," he said, as if that had been Steve's concern in the slightest. "I am taking only a few things that are mine, of my own stock, and I am not taking the last of anything. As for spellbooks, I will leave them to Wanda; she will need them more than I will."
Unsteady, Steve wobbled, and he leaned against the doorframe. "Where will you go? What will you do?"
"I know not," Tony said, as he slid the vial into the bag. "I will find somewhere I am wanted, I suppose. There is always a place for someone who can bring down a fever with a touch, or who can make the crops grow a little taller."
He imagined Tony leaving, mounting up, riding away, never to be seen again--
Anguish and sorrow welled up in him. Tony had to stay; he could not abide a life without Tony in it.
"You are wanted here," Steve said, the words ripped out of him, and his vision swam with tears.
He staggered forward, and halfway across the room he lost his balance entirely and fell to his knees in the middle of the unwarded circle. He knelt down, prone, abasing himself, the way he knew he needed to, the only way he could think of to make Tony understand. The stone was cold against his palms, against his face.
There was a crash of glass, and then the sound of booted footsteps, coming closer, stopping next to him.
"St-- Your Majesty!" Tony's voice was distraught. "Are you well?"
Steve stretched out his hand; he brushed the leather of Tony's boots. "Don't go," he rasped. "Please, Tony, please. Stay. I am sorry. I am so sorry." He shut his eyes in misery; he could make out only a sliver of the world.
"Sire, you are the king," Tony said, his voice taut. Without looking up, Steve saw Tony's shadow shift; Tony was kneeling as well, crouched next to him. Air moved over Steve's shoulders, as if Tony was deciding whether to pull Steve up or whether he dared not lay hands on him. "You are my king. I beg you, do not kneel before me."
Steve opened his eyes and pushed himself far enough up that he could see Tony's face. Tony's eyes were pale, clouded with concern.
"I was your friend before I was your king." Steve's voice shook. "And I have been a poor friend."
Tony's gaze darted around the room, as if even now he wanted to run. "I wronged you. I lied. I deceived you."
"You were unhappy," Steve said.
Tony canted his head to one side. "That does not excuse what I did." He settled down onto the floor next to Steve; they were sitting together, side by side. It was a welcome sign. At least Tony was not running yet.
"I thought I was making you happy," Steve said. "I thought I was keeping you safe. I never asked how you felt."
He was angry that Tony had deceived him; he could not be otherwise. But he saw, too, why Tony had done it. If their situations had been reversed -- gods, he would have chafed and chafed.
"You hated me." The words were dull and blunted in Steve's mouth, and he shut his eyes. "Gods, you must have hated me. You must hate me even now."
There came, hesitantly, a light, warm touch on the back of his hand, and he opened his eyes to see Tony resting two bare fingers on Steve's skin.
"Never." Tony's mouth shaped the words. "I never hated you, I swear." His lips twitched, a rueful grin. "I was angry, true. I was... resentful. Frustrated. But you were doing what you thought was right. How could I hate you?" His teeth worried at his lips. His throat worked as he swallowed. "Do you know why I wanted to protect you? Why I wanted to fight at your side? I love you. I have loved you from the very beginning."
Steve glanced away. He could feel himself grow hotter. It was as if a great weight pressed on them, and he did not know what to say, what to do. He had-- he had told Tony everything. His mind was a haze of confusion, bespelled, his thoughts trapped in dizzy circles. Tony loved him?
"Ah," Tony said, very softly. "And here we have come to the heart of it." His fingers still stroked the back of Steve's hand, and it seemed to Steve that there was nothing in the world but Tony's touch, that it branded him like fire. "There you go. The very last of my secrets." His mouth twitched. "I used to think you knew, did you know that? I thought that the fact that you said nothing was your way of rejecting me gently. It was a few years before it occurred to me that you did not, in fact, know." He snorted. "I think everyone else has known for years. I have never been particularly subtle."
It was all Steve could think. "You love me," he repeated.
"But you loved Rumiko. Didn't you?"
Sadness flashed dark in Tony's eyes, as Steve had known it would. "I did." His voice was quiet. "But I loved you first. I loved you first, and I knew I could never have you. I knew you weren't for the likes of me. So I... moved on. I tried not to think about you. Not to pine for someone I could never have. And I found Ru, and we-- we were happy." His voice was rough with tears. "I would have married her. I would have stayed faithful and devoted, my whole life. But that is not the fate the gods made for us."
Steve turned his hand over, so that Tony's fingers rested in his palm. "Did she know?"
Tony nodded. "We made a joke of it, she and I. The king's loss was her gain. And then she--" He cut himself off. "And then she was gone. And I had loved her. And I loved you, too." He met Steve's eyes. "I still do."
"You can have me." Steve could barely hear himself speak, so loud was the pounding of his pulse in his skull. "Anything you want, you can have."
Tony shook his head. "You are the king." His eyes were wide.
"And you are the one who told me I should be happy," Steve insisted. "What is this, if not happiness? Why should we not have it?"
"You are likely destined for some Kree--"
"I am not," Steve said, indignant. "You have seen the missives we have received from Hala, the same as everyone else has. You know they have not offered me this princess yet, and that means that they will not, and I will do as I like. We will do as we like." He realized he had begun to declaim, and he softened his voice. "Have you some other objection?"
"I heard she was beautiful," Tony said. "A raven-haired beauty."
"She is not you," Steve told him. "I am not interested."
Tony grimaced. "You have-- you have seen me," he said. "I am... not pretty. You have seen the scars."
Oh, gods. "I have, and it does not matter. I swear it." Tony was handsome, and Steve would prove it to him. Besides, there was a beauty to the glyphs, and knowing that they showed Tony's cleverness and bravery -- how could he despise that?
"I am afraid," Tony whispered. "I-- I don't know what to do."
"With men?" Steve frowned. "We are all only people, really. It is not so much different."
Tony chuckled. "Not that." A hesitant smile had begun to spread across his face. "I don't know what to do with... everything I have wanted for so long, coming true at once."
Steve considered this. "I think first we pick one thing. One at a time."
He was aware as he said it that they were sitting close together, that Tony's hand was still in his, that if they just leaned in--
Tony kissed him. It was nothing like the kiss that had been for the spell; if that meant nothing, this meant everything. This was every single scrap of feeling, saved up for years, and it left Steve shaking, as if Tony had wrought magic upon him.
"Was that good?" Tony's voice was halting.
"Very good," Steve said, smiling. He could hardly believe it. Tony forgave him. Tony loved him.
Awkwardly, Tony glanced away; Steve looked around the room to ascertain if anything in particular had caught his attention. There was a mess in the corner where Tony had dropped the vials he was holding to rush to his side; Steve hoped it was none too serious.
Tony bit his lip. "Perhaps this is not the best time for this question, but there is the matter of my position at court...?"
The thought occurred to Steve that there was one more thing he could do to make Tony happy.
"I had not told Wanda yet," he said, "and you may have it back if you wish, but you had said that the tasks of a court magician did not please you--"
Tony flinched. "I was angry, and I spoke out of thoughtlessness--"
Steve stroked Tony's jaw, and Tony fell silent. "I am not sending you away. Not now, and not ever. I only meant, is there a position you would like? Some magical duties you would prefer to assume, another way to use your talents? I wish you to be happy. If there is any position I can give you, I will do it. Hedge-wizard or battle-mage. Anything you want."
"Anything I want?" Tony's eyes lit up. Steve thought that perhaps Tony had not been this happy in years.
Steve nodded firmly. "Anything. Name it."
"Well," Tony said, drawing out the word. "I have an idea..."
The musicians struck up another song, a dance for couples, and Steve watched as the previously-orderly lines of people on the floor began to break up into pairs.
Everything had gone well. They had rounded up those seeking to violently end the peace process and frame the Kree -- and they had done it all before the Kree delegation had arrived. Steve had gone to his people; he had pleaded for openness and tolerance. He thought perhaps that old ways were slow to heal, but that surely everyone would come around in the end. There would be children born now who had never known war.
The Supreme Intelligence, of course, had not come itself, but had sent its heir in its stead -- Mar-Vell, whom Carol had met during her stay in Hala. The talks were underway, and they were going well.
And, now, of course, it was time to be sociable, to learn to know the Kree as friends. Hence, the dancing.
Steve was not dancing yet, although no doubt he would be called to it soon enough; he stood here on the balcony overlooking the main floor, finishing the last of his wine. He had never been much for dancing, although Tony loved it; Tony had laughed and let himself be dragged away by a green-skinned woman. Steve had merely watched, and smiled.
Not all of the people in the Kree delegation were full-blooded Kree; indeed, not all of the people were people. A man with a rakish grin had introduced himself to Steve as Peter Quill, a prince of the Spartoi. His companions included a tree, a raccoon, and -- seemingly his closest friend -- a man calling himself Richard Rider, who had said he was of the Nova Corps, which seemed to Steve to be most akin to a knighthood. Steve was beginning to suspect that Quill and Rider had come solely to drink all the ale and to swap war stories with Carol and Wanda.
He had not personally met the entire delegation, and he was beginning to wonder where the mysterious Kree princess was. There were a few women dancing among the delegation, and Steve gazed at each of them in turn, wondering which of them she could be.
There was a rustling noise behind him, and Steve turned to find another of the Kree women at his side. He thought perhaps that she was one of the guards, for she was dressed more for battle than dancing. She was tall, long-limbed, and she wore a crimson tunic and breeches with a dark cloak; a strange gilt cross was embroidered on her chest. She wore vambraces but no other armor. Though she could not have been much older than Steve, her close-cropped hair was pure white. Her face was striking, but in a way that was more fierce than anything else; he was reminded of long-time campaigners. Veteran soldiers.
"You are the king?" she asked, in a voice that sounded more used to shouting commands on a battle line.
Steve inclined his head. "I am. Is there something I can do for you?" Perhaps the Kree had some sort of concern about the guards, or the watches-- but, no, then they would have gone to Carol--
"I think we should talk," the woman said. "I have heard some rumors among your people, and I wished to be plain with you about the truth."
Steve squinted. "I don't understand."
She held out her hand, as if this were any other setting than court. Bemused, Steve shook it. She had sword-calluses.
"I believe you have heard of me," she said. "Phyla-Vell, daughter of Mar-Vell."
Oh. This was the Kree princess.
Mouth agape, Steve stared. "You are not anything like what I was expecting," he said, faintly.
Phyla-Vell grinned. "I have heard that before," she said. "At any rate, I wanted to inform you that these rumors of marriage that I have heard are only that: rumors. I am... not available."
Relief rushed through Steve, a torrential storm. "Thank the gods," he said, under his breath, and then he decided to give voice to the guess he had. There were a few other preferences that those guardswomen often had in common. "May I ask who she is?"
Phyla-Vell grinned even wider and stepped forward to peer over the balcony. "In the green dress, do you see?"
Steve looked in the direction she indicated. A strikingly-beautiful bald woman in a green dress was dancing with the giant tree.
"The Lady Moondragon," Phyla-Vell said, with satisfaction. "My betrothed."
Steve smiled. "My congratulations," he murmured, and Phyla-Vell nodded.
There was a whisper of silk behind him, and Steve turned to find that Tony had ascended the stairs, and was grinning at him.
"Tony!" Steve said. "This is Phyla-Vell, princess of the Kree, betrothed of Lady Moondragon."
"Oh," Tony said, with a smile. "The mysterious Kree princess. Do you know, we were all completely wrong about your hair color?"
"And my interest in your king," Phyla-Vell said, cheerfully. "Do not worry, magician; I am no rival of yours." Surprised, Steve choked on air; he certainly had said nothing about Tony. She glanced at Steve. "Your Majesty, your face rather gives it away when you look at him."
Steve colored nonetheless. "I do not mean to hide my affection."
Tony stepped alongside Steve and wrapped his arm around his waist. "Trust me, Your Highness, he could not if he tried."
"I was wondering, though," Phyla-Vell said, "why you have two court magicians?" She pointed with a jerk of her head; Wanda was on the dance floor, and she and Tony both wore crimson robes.
Steve grinned. "Oh," he said, easily. "I do not; Tony has had... a promotion."
Tony shifted his cloak back so that the pendant around his neck was revealed; its strange symbols glowed red-gold. "I am the Sorcerer Supreme," he said, and his voice brimmed with pride. The Eye of Agamotto shone.
At least, Steve thought, Tony would not be bored any longer.
"And what does a Sorcerer Supreme do?"
"Anything he wants, I should think," Steve said, and Tony leaned into him as they watched the dancers below.
The war was over, and peace reigned at last.