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The Vault

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+

Athelstan is a polite person.

He holds people’s doors for them and says please and thank you and he keeps his opinion about his loud, loud, loud neighbours to himself.

He does.

He really does.

But it is three in the morning, the walls and ceilings are thin as paper and if the couple downstairs rekindles their screaming match one more time, he will murder someone because he has an important exam tomorrow morning and he only just finished cramming and the heating is off again and if he has to be cold and dream of dead poets, then that’s okay, except he cannot sleep, because the neighbours keep ripping into each other at a volume that’d get them the police on their doorstep in any other part of town.

Athelstan presses his pillow over his head, tucks his feet tighter into his thickest pair of woolly socks and prays for patience, or, alternately, lightning to strike his neighbours dead. It’s not very charitable, but he is pretty sure charity has never met three am, so that’s okay.

He’s angry.

It’s not helping him fall asleep.

He counts to ten.

Downstairs, a plate breaks and the blonde warrior queen he occasionally glimpses in the hallway screams in inarticulate rage.

He pushes harder on the pillow. His ear hurts from the pressure.

The man, a fierce, tattooed thing with teeth that remind Athelstan of nothing so much as a wild animal, roars back his answer.

There is banging, the sound of something falling off the wall.

Elsewhere in the building, someone screams abuse.

The alarm clock ticks over to 3:04 am.

“I am going to murder you in your sleep, you good for nothing waste of fucking space!” the queen rages and Athelstan slams his pillow down beside him and grunts, “If only.”

“You’re completely fucking insane, woman!” the animal snaps back and then something else breaks, something else bangs, and the clock says 3:06 am.

His exam starts at eight and his entire future hinges on it.

He gets up. He marches out of his shoebox bedroom into his even smaller living room and from there, straight out the front door in nothing but his ratty sweats, woolly socks and too large t-shirt with faded print. He avoids the suspicious stains on the hallway carpet and walks, very quietly, down the stairs and along until he finds flat 2B, directly below his.

Then he raises his hand and bangs his fist against it three times.

Inside, the queen stops in the middle of a truly impressive threat to the animal’s manhood.

Steps.

The door opens.

Athelstan is too tired to wait to be invited, just shoulders in. He’ll be mortified in the morning, but he’s desperate, sleep-deprived and stressed out of his mind right now. He has no time for mortification.

“You two,” he snaps, stopping three feet inside the door, next to the shards of what looks like it was once a vase. “Are very, very loud and it is very, very late. Would you mind terribly having your fight at a more humane time of day and, perhaps, volume?”

He smiles and it probably looks like he’s bearing his teeth, but he can’t care. Queen and Animal (he really needs to find out their names) stand there, staring at him. Both wear even less than he does, he realizes, and wonders how they keep warm. But then, they’re getting healthy exercise down here, so maybe that keeps the blood pumping. Or something.

The queen blinks once. Her boyfriend doesn’t. He has tattoos down both arms and along one side of his chest and his pants hang so low, a stiff breeze could make Athelstan’s day. He looks and then looks away.

Finally the queen unfreezes enough to punch him – hot guy with tattoos - in the arm. Hard. “Fantastic, Ragnar, really!” she barks, clearly even more displeased now that she knows the whole building is listening. Her voice could cut diamond.

“I’m not the one screeching like a madwoman,” Ragnar defends, sneering.

How they have this much energy this late as night is a riddle.

“I am not!” she defends, before abruptly stepping into Athelstan’s space. The oversized shirt she’d wearing barely reaches the tops of her thighs. He can make out a tattoo on her left leg, large and detailed, something with scales. He looks away when he realizes he’s staring, catches her amused gaze as she leans into him.

“Tell me, neighbour,” she says, suddenly all sugar, “what would you do, if your boyfriend of three years flat out refused to take you with him to see his parents!”

“You bitch,” Ragnar howls. “I never said that! I said I don’t even want to go see them! That’s completely different!”

“Stop calling me a bitch, before I rip your balls off!”

Ragnar punches the wall with a snarl that sends Athelstan’s hindbrain into full fight or flight mode. The queen, utterly unimpressed, grabs an ashtray from an end table and aims, arm hauling back like she means to throw it through someone.

Tomorrow, Athelstan will feel the appropriate terror at being in the same room as a couple of psychopaths with anger management issues. Tonight, numb, tired, exhausted, he plucks the ashtray from her hand and flings it on the couch before pointing a finger at Ragnar.

“Correct me if I am wrong,” he starts, still a little dazed by al the skin and rage and lack of sleep, “but it sounds like you’re not on very good terms with your parents.”

Ragnar nods, looking a bit stunned.

No fucks are being given.

None.

“And you probably don’t want to take her along because you think they’ll ruin everything. And you,” he turns to the girl. “think the exact opposite, that he thinks you’ll be the one to ruin things.” She blinks again, surprised. If they haven’t realized yet that he’s spent the past three hours listening to every single iteration of this argument, he won’t be the one to break it to them. “I suggest you either start communicating or get therapy. Whatever you do, do it quietly. I have an exam to sit in, oh good Lord, four and a half hours and if I fail, I will probably kill myself, so please, please, I beg of you, please, have your makeup sex more quietly than usual. Please.”

With that he nods to them both, spins on his heel, almost lands on his face because woolly socks and then walks out with the last shreds of his dignity wrapped around him like a shroud, fighting the urge to giggle hysterically. He just told two complete strangers how to deal with their screwed-up relationship. And he said ‘sex’ out loud. To their faces.

The monks at the orphanage would be appalled.

Dimly, he is aware of someone a few doors down applauding him.

He’s never been so daring before. He clears their door, their hallway, the stairs, circumnavigates the stain, slips back inside his own flat and into his bed.

The blankets have gone cold in his absence. The clocks says 3:14 am.

Downstairs, everything is silent.

At 3:23 am, the bedsprings start squeaking.

Quietly.

+

Athelstan was wrong about being mortified in the morning. He has no time for it.

He wakes at seven and stumbles out of his flat twenty minutes later, shoes untied, hair uncombed, bag slung over his shoulder the wrong way around. It takes more than fifty minutes from here to campus. He’ll be ten minutes late, no matter what he does now and the clock is ticking.

He steps outside his door and almost breaks his leg to avoid stepping on something small and new on his ratty welcome mat. It’s a plate. On top of it, folded over a muffin, is a piece of paper.

It says good luck in spiky, tall letters.

Athelstan blinks at the offering, looks around for its owner and finds no-one, except the next door cat who is slinking around like she’d love to take the baked goods off his hands. He snarls at her and scoops up the muffin, kicking the plate into his flat in the same movement. He closes the door, jumps over the cat, and starts running.

He catches the bus with seconds to spare, lands between a lady smelling of cabbage and a teenage wannabe gang-banger, who looks like he can’t decide whether to shoot or stab Athelstan in the face. He thinks of the queen in a shirt that didn’t belong to her and her boyfriend with the bearing of a warrior of old and looks down at the slightly worse-for-wear muffin in his hand.

It’s chocolate and a bit stale, but it’s the first thing he’s eaten since lunch yesterday.

It tastes delicious.

+

He is only eight minutes late.

+

After the pre-exam haze and the exam-fear, the post-exam haze of exhaustion, giddiness and relief sets in. If he didn’t crash and fail spectacularly, this was the last exam of his university career. He’s done. Finished. Officially done with university forever and ever and ever.

All he wants to do is sleep forever.

He stumbles home, almost trips over the plate for the second time today, strips off his panic-sweaty clothes and drops onto his lumpy mattress.

Six hours later, he startles awake with a gasp, realizing who the muffin was from and that he did not, in fact, dream going downstairs and yelling at his intimidatingly hot and aloof neighbours.

He gropes around for his pillow, finds it on the floor and promptly tries to smother himself with it.

+

It takes him two days to work up the nerve to go and apologize. In his defence, he spends half that time sleeping off the stress of the last couple of months, but still. They are gorgeous and vicious and half the building thinks they are either porn stars of serial killers or, possibly, both, and he barged into their flat and yelled at them both like some kind of sleep-deprived madman, which, okay, yes.

But that’s not who Athelstan is. He is polite, friendly, shy. He was raised by men of God and he believes in being kind.

Brother Gunther, an old, stooped German, had a saying that didn’t translate well: What you shout into the forest comes back. It’s about echoes and behaviour and the Golden Rule and Athelstan believes in that, too.

Except, he thinks, in this case the forest started screeching, roaring and howling before he ever uttered a single sound, so he was possibly not completely in the wrong, but. Brother Gunther would be disappointed in him.

So he washes the plate, steels himself, and walks downstairs. He’s even wearing clothes this time. He knocks politely and half hopes no-one is home.

Of course, he’s not that lucky.

The door opens just as he’s about to turn away, revealing the queen with glasses on her nose and a pencil stuck in her pale hair. She’s dressed, too. It’s nice.

“Hello, neighbour,” she says with a small twist of her lips when he stares at her dumbly for a second, like the rabbit in front of the snake.

He thrusts the plate in her face. “I think this is yours,” he tells her. He sounds like a nervous twelve-year-old.

She takes it from him with another quirk of the lips. “Thank you,” she allows. “We’re running low.”

Athelstan takes a deep breath. “With that plate also comes an apology. I was over the line, barging into your flat and telling you what to do. It was rude and terribly inappropriate. Please forgive me.”

Her head cocks to one side. “You actually mean that,” she realizes after a minute of silent fidgeting on his part.

He nods so hard his head might fly off. “Of course.”

She nods, too, just once. He’s so jealous of the way she conducts herself, perfectly in control, that he wants to weep.

“I’m Lagertha,” she tells him. “You should stay for dinner.”

He can’t help it. He blurts, “Lagertha and Ragnar?”

She chuckles. “Yes. Ragnar says we were fated. No-one else would have people with names like ours.”

And because sometimes he does have a sense of comedic timing, Athelstan holding out his hand and offers, “Hello. I’m Athelstan.”

Lagertha laughs out loud. Then she shakes his hand and uses it to draw him inside, despite his protests. “Now you have to stay and meet Ragnar properly. He’ll love you. And we owe you an apology.”

“No, please, the muffin…”

“Was stale and store-bought and not a very good apology. You looked wrecked when you came down,” she declares and pulls him along to the sofa, where she takes him by the shoulders and shoves him down to sit. A laptop and a myriad of notebooks and sketchbooks are open on the battered old coffee table. She shoves everything into a pile. “I’m a graphic designer,” she says, “freelancer, so I work from home, mostly. Excuse the mess.” She sits down next to him because there is really nowhere else to sit. “Tell me about your exam. Did you pass?”

He wants to protest, tell her he only came to apologize, that he has plans, but she gives him a look over her glasses and all thoughts of escape die a quick death. Lagertha, he thinks, does not like being told no. And why would she? She doubts anyone has the balls to even try.

So he answers her question. Promptly.

+

Ragnar comes thundering into the flat an hour later, cursing about this and that before he even clears the entrance and stopping as soon as he sees they have a guest.

He stops and a wicked smirk crosses his face. “Are we to get another lecture?” he wants to know and Athelstan turns cherry red.

Lagertha laughs. “He brought back our plate, which is a good thing, because now we have enough to eat from.”

Ragnar snorts and swoops in to kiss his girlfriend. It’s filthy and far too close, so Athelstan scoots away as far as he can and tries not to watch. They have interesting sketches tacked up on the far wall. They look original.

“And whose fault is it we only have three plates left?” Ragnar asks as he finally pulls back. His lips are kiss-swollen.

There is a sketch of a dragon in flight that looks breathtakingly real.

Lagertha follows his eyes and explains, “Ragnar is a tattoo artist. Those are all his. Good, huh?”

He nods, then jumps as she smacks her boyfriend on the arse. Hard. “Go cook dinner, he’s staying,” she announces and Ragnar rolls his eyes and yanks on a loose curl of her hair, but disappears into the bedroom to change and then shortly starts puttering around the small kitchen.

“You really don’t have to,” Athelstan starts again, but all that gets him is twin looks of scorn and raised eyebrows.

“You’re terrifying,” he blurts, and then promptly slaps a hand over his face. Ah, there is the long awaited mortification.

Ragnar’s laugh is deep enough to be felt to the bone. “And yet, you’ve braved the lion’s den not once, but twice. Respect, Priest.”

“Priest?”

The older man points at the cross Athelstan wears. “I’ve never seen you without it. Are you not a priest?”

He’s not sure what to address first, the cross, or the fact that, apparently, Ragnar has noticed him before the other night. “Hardly,” is what he finally settles on. “The orphanage I grew up in gives a cross like this to every child who leaves. It’s good luck.”

It’s a piece of home, of good memories, a token of a faith he’s never quite taken to but always found comfort in. Something familiar in a world where he is, literally and absolutely alone.

Ragnar stops in the middle of chopping an onion with a wicked looking knife to study Athelstan for a moment. There is no pity in his gaze at the revelation about Athelstan’s childhood, only consideration. “I think I will call you Priest, anyway.”

Lagertha kicks her legs up on the coffee table. “His name is Athelstan,” she informs the room at large and, like she promised, Ragnar’s eyes light up.

It starts a discussion about names and origins and they both reveal that they have Swedish roots. Ragnar’s parents immigrated before he was born, while Lagertha lived in Uppsala until she was eight. They didn’t realize that they both have distant family living within miles of each other until they were dating for over a year.

Conversation flows from there and before he realizes it, Athelstan is helping Lagertha clean up after dinner, still talking easily with both of them. They have little in common with him, at first glance, artists, both of them, and he the boring student of linguistics, whose life’s dream is working in a library and having five cats, but somehow, Lagertha and Ragnar keep him talking, talking, talking.

“And the next time,” Lagertha says as he finally manages to extricate himself, “just bang on the floor when we get loud.”

He giggles a little, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ve tried that,” he tells her, standing in the open doorway. “You never hear me.”

And then he’s gone, Ragnar’s roaring laughter following him all the way back upstairs.

+

He honestly expects that to be it. They have their lives and he has his and they might greet each other by name now, but really, they have little in common, despite a nice evening, and what would they want with him anyway.

It’s not.

A week after the dinner, there is a hard knock on his door and when he opens, he finds Ragnar standing outside with a pissed look on his face and a bag slung over his shoulder. “I’ve locked myself out,” he snarls, “and Lagertha is with a customer. Can I wait here?”

And Athelstan finds himself stepping aside almost without thinking and a moment later he has a tall, tattooed warrior king sitting on his sagging sofa. He’s not used to having guests.

He bustles around, clears some of the detritus left over from cramming sessions back onto the shelves that line the entire room. Then he offers Ragnar something to drink and realizes he only has water and leftover apple juice.

“Water’s fine,” Ragnar announces and stands to peruse the bookshelves. “What’s your favourite?” he asks, tilting his head this way and that, like he’s trying to figure out Athelstan’s system.

(There isn’t one. He sorts roughly by genre and then by preference, or year, or connection between books. There are clusters of one subject here and there and the occasional notebook tucked in between.)

Athelstan hands him his glass and walks over to the shelf closest to the bedroom there. There, on eyelevel, he keeps his favourites and, on a whim, he tucks one of them out from between the others.

Anne Carson.

Ragnar plucks it out of his hands and turns it over, studying the cover with the volcano, the praise on the back. He opens it. “Autobiography of Red. This is poetry,” he announces.

“Epic poem,” Athelstan corrects. “It more a story told in verse. Like the – “

“Greeks,” Ragnar finishes for him. “What’s it about?”

“A monster, mostly,” Athelstan hedges. “Trying to find your place in the world. She uses a lot of religious imagery. A lot of her work is retellings of older tales, from the bible, or antiquity. I like to see how many references I can find.”

It’s what he does for fun. He knows it’s boring, but he finds comfort in the familiar tales he was read as a child, twisted in new and interesting ways.

Ragnar laughs, suddenly, and Athelstan, taken aback, reaches for the book. He’s revealed too much. But Ragnar refuses to release it, shaking his head. “It suits you, Priest. Personally, I prefer the Norse myths. More blood and battles.”

He twists his left hand to reveal a tattoo reaching from his wrist almost to his knuckles. It’s Thor’s hammer, the head spreading onto the back of his hand, artfully detailed. “I did this myself,” he announces. “God of Thunder. He’s a good god to worship.”

With that he turns and makes his way back to the sofa, starting to read without another word. Athelstan watches for a moment, then gives up, grabs a random book and joins him.

Some time later there is another knock and Athelstan looks up to find they’ve been reading for over an hour. Ragnar meets his gaze, grins widely and goes back to his book. Rude.

Lagertha stands on the other side of the door, her laptop case slung over one shoulder, a bag of Chinese take-out in hand. She busses a kiss on his cheek as she slips past him asking, “Where are your forks?”

“You…,” are invading my flat, brought dinner for me, intend to eat here, are very rude, have no sense of boundaries, are treating me like an old friend, confuse me terribly. He says none of those things. “Second drawer on the left.”

She drops her bag on the table, rubs an affectionate hand over Ragnar’s shaved head as she passes him and finds the forks on the first try. Then she shoves a random container into his hands, sits down on his rickety kitchen chair and says, “Thank you for minding Ragnar. He chews on the furniture if left alone too long.”

+

Ragnar takes the book without asking.

+

The next day, Athelstan has a job interview. Since he’s still waiting for his actual graduation and certificates and all that, and quit his last job right before the exams to get through them with his head in the game, he needs something to tide him over.

There is a coffee shop about ten minutes’ walk from his flat and they are hiring. The salary is enough to make rent and eat, there’d be practically no commute and the hours are good. He wants that job.

So he puts on one of the few neat shirts he owns and goes to be interviewed by a pimply twenty-year-old who has ‘junior manager’ written on his name tag instead of an actual name.

Athelstan is only twenty-five, but he feel ancient next to the snot-nosed kid who reads that Athelstan has studied literature and linguistics and starts lording all his ‘work experience’ and worldliness almost immediately.

Still, after a test run at the machines (this is not his first job, no matter what the kid thinks, he paid his way through university somehow, didn’t he?), he is hired and told he starts tomorrow, ten sharp.

“If you’re late, you’re fired,” the junior manager calls after him as he leaves. He waves in acknowledgement and walks home.

He does a load of laundry so he has clean clothes to wear and starts straightening the flat because it’s overdue. Around dinnertime, there is a knock on the door and he thinks, vaguely, that he’s never had as many visitors as in the past twenty-four hours.

Since that makes all of three, he decides never to tell anyone.

It’s Lagertha, like he half knew it would be, her glasses jammed back on her nose, curious expression on her face. “So, did you get the job?”

He mentioned the interview in passing the night before and, apparently, she remembered. He holds up the standard contract with two signatures at the bottom, nodding and smiling.

She hugs him and stays to chat a while before making her excuses. She’s working on a big project and only wanted to see if he needed consoling. He’s strangely touched, wishes her a good night.

“We’ll celebrate on the weekend,” she tells him as she goes, disappearing into the stairwell before he can protest.

+

 

... And then they bone.

Chapter Text

+

Bucky refuses to leave.

He’s in bad shape, shaking, stumbling, barely keeping his eyes open, but he refuses to leave, squirming in Steve’s hold, twisting away from his hands.

“No,” he says, “no, no.”

He runs toward the explosions, not away.

In the end, Steve stops trying to stop him and just follows, the way he’s always done, and twenty steps down the corridor there’s a door Bucky slams himself into, falling onto the lone guard left behind, beating on him with drunken precision.

Eventually, the guard stops fighting back.

“Hey now,” Bucky says, low and slurred, just a little, not enough, not nearly as much as two minutes ago. “Hey now, pretty thing. You need a ride out of here?”

In the dark, dirty cell at the far end of the room, something stirs. A girl laughs and then there’s a face pressed against the bars, dirty and haggard, hungry and drawn.

Her hair was golden once and her smile must have been lovely, Steve thinks, horror sinking in his gut. She closes her eyes for a second, savoring something.

“You’re the voice from the next room,” she says, and then points toward a hook by the door. “Keys.”

Steve throws, Bucky catches and then she’s falling into his arms, legs like a colt’s, long and unsteady.

Steve has no idea how she got here, an American girl in a Nazi lab, but the look of her, half-naked and falling, will stay with him.

Always, always stay with him.

“Hey, pretty,” she says, a hand on Bucky’s face, soft, gentle. “I was starting to think you were just a voice.”

Bucky stills her hand on his face, holds it there, smiles sweetly. Steve looks away.

“We need to go.”

+

They stumble down endless corridors together, keeping each other upright and gaining speed, gaining balance with every step. Bucky’s gaze clears as Steve watches and the second time they run into guards, the girl kneels and strips both of the knives from his belt and boots. She leaves the gun in the dirt, twists the blades between nimble fingers.

“Who are you?” Steve blurts.

She cocks her head at him, stepping out of the way of Bucky searching the corpse for spare ammunition. Her expression is as sharp as the knife in her hand.

“I’m a lab rat,” she answers and then spins to kill a man before he fully makes it around the nearest corner.

+

They kill their way out of there and Steve can’t remember the face of a single one of the men he murders because they all wear masks.

They have no faces.

Bucky and his men, the girl from the basement, they have faces.

Then Schmidt rips off his and nightmares do come true.

“Mädchen,” he says to the girl. “I should have killed you where I found you.”

“Yes,” she agrees. She’s run out of knives to throw, so she just stands there. She’s wearing a jacket she stole off another corpse. “You should have.”

+

Her name, she says, as they trudge through the snow toward safety and salvation, is Buffy.

Her name is Buffy and they took her prisoner many months ago. She doesn’t know how many, only that it was spring when they locked her into that cell.

“Why?”

She looks at him sideways and easily matches his stride. “Bucky says you were small when he saw you last. Scrawny.”

He nods.

“They made you… better, the way the Nazis did Schmidt.”

“No. Not like him.”

“But you’re better.”

“I’m stronger,” he corrects.

She shrugs, fluidly. “You were made,” she tells him, reaching for a low hanging branch. It’s too thick for her to fully wrap her fingers around. She breaks it like it’s kindling. “I was born.”

+

They sleep huddled together against the cold, three, four men under one of the few blankets they took with them from the cells.

Buffy blinked at the snow when she first set foot outside, surprised. She didn’t know it was winter.

She lies between them now, her head buried in Bucky’s chest, her body a small furnace. She burns like Steve does now, constantly hot. She’s the first person he met since the Serum that doesn’t feel cold.

Bucky is the second, not quite as hot, but warmer than he should be. With the three of them curled together, it’s not cold at all.

“What happened to you?” Steve asks, quietly, his hand at the nape of his best friend’s neck, needing to know he’s there. Solid. Alive.

Buffy snuffles against his neck and pretends to be asleep. He can hear her heartbeat, steady as a drum but not slow enough for sleep. Beyond the next copse of trees, a man is relieving himself. He wonders if Bucky hears that, too, or the men snoring beyond that, the howling of a wolf, miles and miles away.

Bucky shakes his head. “They tried to make… something.” He smirks humorlessly into the dark. Somewhere, a soldier cries out in his sleep. His shouts are muffled by his companions hands. “You. Only… browner.”

Against his chest, a dirty blonde head bobs. “Is that even a word?” she asks.

Bucky tangles his fingers in her hair, pushes her back down. “I could hear her, through the ventilation,” he adds. “We talked. There were… a lot of guys before me.”

“You made it longest,” she whispers. “You were the last. Are.”

Steve wonders if the inability to speak in whole sentences stems from trauma or whatever was done to them. He doesn’t ask.

When they finally fall into shallow sleep, he keeps watch.

+

Buffy can’t explain where she comes from.

Rather: She won’t.

“I’m the only one,” she tells them, over and over again, when they ask if there are more, if they would aid the Allied Forces in the War. “I’m the only one.”

Her gaze never even grazes Bucky, across the tent, getting his own debriefing.

After the infirmary tent, the meetings, the shouting, the praise, they give Steve a room in the underground offices in London. A room and two freed lab rats, not quite acclimatized to the world again, not quite right.

Bucky greets Steve with a hug and a squeeze, Buffy slinks in after him in borrowed pants and a blouse, picking at both. She refused to wear a skirt.

They sit on Steve’s narrow cot, shoulders touching and he realizes that, whatever happens now, it’s not Bucky and Steve anymore.

There’s a girl with them now, for better or worse, grown into the cracks Hydra managed to make in Bucky.

Buffy spent something close to eight months in a cell.

Bucky’s men spent a month in those pens, like animals.

Bucky spent three weeks down in the basement lab, strapped to a table.

Buffy spent every night of those three weeks whispering to him to keep the silence at bay.

And now here they are, side by side in ill-fitting clothes, looking at him. Waiting.

Heroes, Steve thinks, are supposed to save people, not salvage them.

+

Steve never learns how she does it, but when their marching orders come, Buffy is right there with them.

“I’ve got eight months of my life to take back,” she says, tracking Colonel Philipps with her eyes as he paces the room, yelling.

She slouches in the uncomfortable chairs they’re sitting in, legs crossed at the ankle. Something wry crosses her face. “And it’s not like they’ll let me walk away.” Her lips twitch. “Not while I’m the only one.”

+

They call the new unit Captain America and the Howling Commandos.

Unofficially.

“Sounds like a band,” Buffy mutters, trying to refuse accepting the gun DumDum is trying to hand her.

“You need to learn, lady,” DumDum grumbles.

She sighs, rounds on him and grabs the gun, firing it one-handedly at the target down the range. Four go in the head, two in the heart. She hands back the gun, grabs a hold of Bucky and demands, “Lunch.”

+

He finds them kissing in Bucky’s bunk after hours, the day before they’re set to deploy.

He stands in the doorway, watching her climb into his best friend’s lap, nails raking over his shoulders and neck like she means to leave a mark, leave something of herself. Bucky presses bruises into her hips through her thick clothes and there is something desperate, something hungry about them.

It’s not the first time Steve has caught his friend with a dame, but it’s the first time he can’t make himself look away, for fear that they’ll disappear if he does. Both of them.

That’s new.

He must make some kind of noise, or perhaps Buffy can hear his heartbeat across the empty room, but suddenly their heads both turn toward him, eerily synchronized, and they stare at him.

He knows, intellectually, that the cells, the labs, bound them together, somehow. They survived with nothing but each other to cling to, survived horrors neither of them ever speaks of.

Steve felt the pain of the Serum and the radiation for minutes. They were down there, bound and helpless, for a lot longer.

There are still traces of badly healed track marks on Bucky’s arms. Buffy, Steve has learned, doesn’t scar. It makes him all the more worried for her.

Something tied them together and it doesn’t seem strange or wrong for them to get together in this way. And anyway, in war, things are different. Or so Peggy tells him.

Rules don’t apply, sometimes.

Whatever it is that makes a strange girl fall in on Bucky’s free side so easily, Steve understands it. But faced with it, two sets of eyes boring into him, their hands still moving on each other, he can’t stand it.

So he runs.

+

The first enemy contact they have is a small squad of German soldiers trying to loot the farm they’ve set up shop in.

It takes less than two minutes and at the end of the rush, blood still throbbing in his ears, Steve counts five men dead from knives, not guns.

“Did you know,” Buffy asks, idly, “that until that damn place, I’d always tried to avoid killed humans?”

Not really knowing what to do, he raises a hand and slowly, carefully, puts it on her shoulder. She and Bucky seem to be touching all the time, like it settles them, somehow. Buffy tenses, then relaxes in under his touch.

It’s the best he can do.

He thinks it might be enough. For now.

+

“They tried to make me like her. Like you, I guess,” Bucky drawls when Steve finally corners him, late one night when they both share a watch.

Steve doesn’t sleep more than four hours a night anymore. All part of the package.

“They… tried to make a serum out of her blood and DNA and then they shoved it into us. There were others, before me. Guess they hadn’t quite figured out how to make it work back then.” He shrugs, fluidly.

“I’m not… not like you and her.” Crooked grin. “But I get by. And I… Christ, Rogers, I can feel her now. Like I have a part of her. Inside. Every time I touch her, it’s like a live wire.”

“Thank god,” Steve blurts before he can stop himself, eyes wide in the dark. Neither of them needs lights to see. “I thought that was just me.”

+

Peggy waits for them by the docks when they return from France for the first time, and she makes sure to stay beside him all the way back to base.

They fall back a little, letting the others get ahead and finally, when he’s sure everyone’s out of earshot, Steve scrounges up every bit of courage he has and asks, “Would you like to have a drink? With me? Later?”

He’s stammering and blushing but he doesn’t hunch into himself, meeting her eyes squarely and hating how he can’t talk to girls at all. Well, girls who aren’t Buffy. But Buffy’s different, somehow.

He shouldn’t be thinking about his best friend’s girl right now.

Eventually, he finds the courage to look up from studying his shoes, only to find Peggy smiling her eternally red smile with the brilliance of a sunrise.

“I would be delighted, Captain,” she announces, then pauses, adds, “I thought you would never ask.”

And Steve smiles back.

+

In the middle of battle, there is rarely ever time to consciously watch more than the next enemy coming for him, so Steve is aware that Buffy must be a terror, especially in close range combat, but he only ever sees the results of it, the soldiers with slit or broken necks, with stab wounds straight into the heart. Quick, merciful deaths, really.

He doesn’t really think about how they get like that – it’s war – until he gets trapped under a truck upended by an explosion and can’t free himself. Until the fight ends, all he can do is watch and call out the occasional warning, although his team has the Nazis well in hand, really.

Still, he hates being useless.

Buffy dances past him, a blade in each hand, and throws him a grin, casual as can be. “Lazy jerk,” she teases as a man in uniform launches himself at her back. She doesn’t even turn, just slams both knives up and behind her, digging them deep into his guts.

She spins, blades flashing, slits his throat and nimbly dances out of reach of the resulting spray. She completes her turn on her knees, catches sight of Bucky getting caught in a pincer move and throws one of her weapons. It sinks into an enemy’s neck, killing him instantly.

She doesn’t wait for him to land, just launches back to her feet and races towards DumDum in trouble, grabbing a spare knife from her belt as she goes.

Steve counts and by the end of it, thirteen of the thirty two Germans are dead by her hand.

She stops in the middle of the battle field, weapons poised and stares hard at her surroundings. Listening, he thinks, for stragglers. Something moves in the bushes, probably Nazi trying to get away, to run for his life.

Without hesitation, Buffy throws another knife, killing the deserter, too, ruthlessly and carelessly. Steve can see her reasoning behind it – the man would have given away their position, most likely – but he doesn’t like it.

The men right the truck and pull him out from under it. His left leg is broken, but Buffy sets it deftly, not bothering to splint it. They heal at just about the same rate and she has years of experience on him. He trusts her judgment.

When she’s done, she tells the boys to make camp somewhere close by, because they’re stuck here for the next six to eight hours. They move away, grumbling because no-one likes sleeping next to corpses, but they do it.

Half an hour later, Buffy helps him hobble toward the camp they set up a short walk away.

They pass the dead man in the bushes. The knife got him in the back, as he was fleeing. “You could have let him go,” he says, quietly, so Bucky, a few yards ahead, doesn’t hear.

She nods, but doesn’t speak.

“You said you… disliked killed humans before… this.”

A shrug. “They started it.” Cold and calm and clinical.

Steve wonders why that seems so terrifying to him. Is it because she holds his best friend’s heart in her bloodied hands, or because she doesn’t look like a stone cold killer?

Or maybe it’s just because he doesn’t want to become her.

+

He knocks, and when Peggy calls for him to enter, he quickly slips into her room, afraid of being seen, of having the foreign unit they are working with spread tales about one of the only two women around.

God knows, most of those boys make no secret of how they think Peggy and Buffy got to be where they are. Only the Commandoes have learned better by now.

Inside, he finds not only one of them, but both, sitting on Peggy’s bed, soft, for once, and blurred in something other than battle fatigues. They wear loose dresses borrowed from the daughter of the farmer whose house they are using at the moment. She gave them out with a wink and both dames grinned back, fierce like they were going into battle.

Now, they sit opposite each other, cross-legged and barefoot and Peggy is carefully applying some of her precious red lipstick to Buffy’s lips. Her cheeks are already rouged, her eyes darkened with kohl.

Steve doesn’t know much about women’s things, but he knows that Peggy has been saving the little tin box that now sits open on the bed between them for special occasions. She puts the lipstick back, makes Buffy roll her lips over her finger and then smiles.

The smaller woman gets up, makes her way toward the dresser and bends to study her reflection in the little, brown-flecked mirror.

She looks delicate, suddenly, instead of fragile, her sun-deprived skin artful instead of wan, her cheeks, sunken from malnutrition, seems rosy, for once. She looks, for the first time since Steve has met her, a bloody wraith at Bucky’s shoulder, like a girl.

Just a girl.

“Oh,” she says, softly, and behind her, Peggy smiles.

“I told you, darling.”

As one, they both turn to Steve, finally, who feels like an intruder. Buffy cocks her hip, her usual mask of self-assurance slipping back onto her face. But her eyes remain open, remain defenseless. Waiting.

“You’re beautiful,” Steve dutifully tells her.

It’s the truth.

+

“So,” Jim starts around the low campfire, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, headed to intercept a train in the Alps. “What are you going to do when you get home?”

It’s an old game, one they play regularly. Go home to their wives. Kiss their kids goodnight. Travel. Find a girl. Find a good job. Buy a house. Sleep in soft beds.

Usually, Steve looks at Peggy, blushes and shrugs. But tonight, something’s different. Peggy isn’t with them, for one. And there’s blood on his uniform from an earlier fight and he’s cold and tired and he says, “I’m not really sure Captain America gets to retire.”

Because, as people like to remind him, the serum running through his veins is property of the United States Government and he does what they tell him to. After what feels like a century out here, behind enemy lines, always fighting, he knows better than to think Captain America will ever not be needed.

There is an awkward shuffling among the men, a few hesitant nods. Yeah, probably, poor bastard.

“What about you two?” Dernier asks, refocusing everyone’s attention on Bucky and Buffy. The two Bs. Since Dum Dum caught them in a barn a few days ago, they’ve been needled endlessly. Their relationship wasn’t exactly a secret before, but now it’s open season. “Getting married?”

He asks casually, but both Buffy and Bucky immediately get a wide-eyed look about them, half confusion, half terror. Bucky, Steve remembers, never wanted a wife and kids. He wanted to see the world, to do something amazing.

Some days, Steve thinks Bucky would have made a far better Captain America than he ever could.

He tries to imagine them in a house outside the city, or even in an apartment in Brooklyn. Bucky working at some office, Buffy staying at home, a baby in her arms, another one on the way. Even before he’s halfway done painting the scene in his mind, a revolver makes it way to Buffy’s hip, a rifle onto Bucky’s back. Their neat kitchen turns into a rundown safehouse and their child into a bedroll, a kit, a bomb.

“I go where Stevie goes,” Bucky finally answers, too late and when all eyes turn on Buffy, she shrugs, hollow-eyed. Why not?

+

“Do you have a family? Where you come from?” Steve asks, later, sharing a watch with her, Bucky dozing between them.

He’s never thought to ask before.

She turns to look at him in the dark, a pale ghost against while snow. Bucky snuffles in his sleep and neither of them react, intimately familiar with the sound.

“A sister,” she finally answers, like sharing a secret. “Friends. My mother is dead, my father left a long time ago.”

“A husband?”

She chuckles and Bucky slaps at her thigh. She catches hit mitten-ed hand in hers, holds it. “Where I come from, marriage is optional. Gender equality is a thing. It’s not perfect, but compared to this? It’s paradise. I was the head of an international company, fighting the good fight and trying to regularly visit my sister in between. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time.”

+

... Lookie, I stopped mid-scene. Wow. Anyway. I'm not sure if they ever bone in this. They might just be all platonic and shit. Either way, Bucky never dies and he and Buffy get to 2010 the log way round, reunite with Steve and probably adopt a few puppies. And you just know Buffy and Bucky are Tony's godparents, because reasons.

Chapter Text

+

“Do you accept the assignment, 007?” the new M asks and Bond looks up from where he was scanning the file handed to him with a pout.

After almost a year working together, he’s comfortable enough with his new boss to ask, “Do I have to?”

The mission sounds simple enough but he has absolutely no desire to work with a CIA agent as proposed. Americans.

Bond is all for guns and violence, don’t get him wrong, but there’s an art to it that the Yankees just never seem to have mastered.

M’s lips quirk, briefly. It’s a tell the old M would have never let show, but he’s learning not to compare the two, much as he misses the old hag. “I’m afraid so. Unless you’d rather babysit an ambassador while I have a single-0 do your job for you?”

Right in the professional pride. Damn him.

“Very well, sir,” Bond demures. They both know it’s fake. “I’ll drop by Q-branch and then be on my merry way.”

He goes.

+

Bond plugs the obnoxious white headphones in his ears one after the other and slides the phone they’re attached to into the pocket of his bespoke trousers. It’s turned off, but the illusion allows him to make use of the earwig underneath. These days, no-one cares if you’re quietly muttering to yourself, as long as those blasted white things are involved.

Bless the modern age.

Bond feels like a dinosaur.

“Alright then, Q. Brief me.”

He sits back in his seat outside a café somewhere in South America and waits for Q to stop bitching about “not being your bloody secretary, Bond, read your own briefs”, and start spoon feeding him the intel anyway.

Of course he could read the files. Of course he has read the files. But Q’s making it so easy.

“Alright, you illiterate blunt instrument,” his handler starts, “your mission is search and retrieve, officially. You are to work with a CIA agent you will meet momentarily to retrieve a chemical formula for a weapon that makes Anthrax look like the flu, before it can be auctioned off at a nearby holiday resort. You are to pose as a couple to get in, get the formula from its inventor and then hand it over to the Americans. At which point, agendas stop correlating. MI-6 would prefer it if you didn’t. Destroy it, if you are given the chance at all. We do not need more chemical weapons in anyone’s hands.”

Standard fare, so far.

“Background?” Bond asks, folding his hands across his stomach and smiling at the waitress.

“Back in 2002, when the whole world was looking to the Middle East, a scientist by the name of Margaret Walsh decided it was time to cut ties with her government sponsored project and, frankly, ran off with her newly invented compound like a thief in the night. She disappeared for eight years before popping up again in South America.

“It’s taken until now to ascertain that she has the formula with her and that there are no copies in existence. The last of which is a morsel that was provided by our side of the pond, which is why the Americans have agreed to let us contribute an agent to the operation. They think it’s none of our business that one of their own is running around with a deadly weapon in her handbag, ready to plunge the world into another plague-age.”

It’s a toss-up then, on who’s going to be more annoyed with this arrangement, Bond, or his temporary partner.

“The agent you are going to be working with is the American equivalent to you. That is to say, blunt and occasionally useful.”

“Aw, Q, you know I love you, too.”

He gets ignored.

“Summers is young, but quite proficient at what she does. Her specialties are retrievals and wet work. She has a reputation of being a bit of a prodigy, as well as notoriously difficult to work with. Her handle ID is Slayer, of all things. How tacky. You two should get along marvellously, 007.”

The last is said with a distracted air, like something’s caught Q’s attention. Bond is proven right when, a moment later, the swot supplies, “There she is now, your three o’clock. Do try to remember your code phrase this time.”

And then he’s quiet, listening, instead of prattling on. Bond appreciates it, even though he doesn’t really mind the man’s inane chatter. He’s gotten used to having a little voice in his ear at all hours and all times, no matter how inconvenient. Last month, he forgot to take the bud out before he took a shower.

As far as he can tell, neither of them batted an eyelash at the experience.

He turns subtly to watch the other agent approach. There are three women coming from that direction at the moment. One of them is short, dark skinned and wrinkled, far too old to be fit for this mission. The other one is a tall, willowy sort, but he dismisses her, too, on grounds of her not setting his teeth on edge from afar, the way Americans do. It’s not very professional, but his teeth are usually good indicators of these things.

Number three it is, then. Short, blonde, a well toned body, a sunny disposition. She carries a bag slung securely across her chest, keeping her hands free, and her loose dress allows for running and fighting. The practicality is offset by jingling bracelets and big sunglasses, both of which are designed to make her look harmless and sweet.

Bond takes three seconds to judge her as probably-competent-but-still-woefully-American, while she, undoubtedly, comes to similar conclusions about him.

She halts at his table, smiles. “Hi,” she greets. Then she rolls her eyes and asks, robotically, “May I borrow a tissue? I have allergies.”

He snorts a little but dutifully returns, “I’m sorry. I only carry handkerchiefs.”

“Congratulations,” Q snipes from across the globe. “You managed to remember your line.”

With a little laugh, she flings herself into the empty chair across from him and says, “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? You’d think my people would trust me to spot you in a crowd full of tourists.”

“Yes,” Bond answers, fully aware that ‘his people’ are listening on the other end of his earwig.

She orders a coffee in perfect Spanish, adjusts her bag to sit in her lap without taking it off and then asks, “You’re up to speed?”

“Yes.”

“Ohh, I got a chatty one! This is going to be fun. I’ll just keep talking at you until you snap and either backchat or try to strangle me!”

Reluctantly, Bond finds himself charmed. It alarms him.

+

An hour later they check into the holiday resort as Mr. and Mrs. Jonathon Baker. He’s a British banker, she’s his American society wife. They are very much in love, as evidenced by the hand she keeps on his arse at all times.

At least she’s doing a better job at the reception than a certain other woman he once worked with at a hotel, but he dismisses the thought decisively because there is no poker here and absolutely no similarity between Vesper and Summers.

And anyway, he’s done with these sorts of entanglements. Orphans make the best recruits because they have no connections, no human contact to tether them. Bond understands M’s reasoning now.

Oh, they’ll fuck before the job is over. Summers is as charmed by his persona as he is by hers and it’ll be good fun, but that’ll be the end of it.

Upstairs, Amy – John’s wife – tips the bellboy and sends him off with a cheery wave before closing the door and starting to meticulously check every inch of the room for surveillance or other surprises.

Bond makes note of all the places she uses to secret blades away. Not guns, he notices, only blades.

Interesting.

While she does the main room, he does the bathroom and then they trade off, neither one trusting the other.

They meet on the bed half an hour later.

“So,” she says, and she still sounds as bouncy- happy as she did outside. “How do you want to play this?”

Deferral. How nice.

“Tourists getting lost has a certain charm, doesn’t it?”

“We can sneak around for a place to screw,” she agrees, throwing her hair over her shoulder with a wicked grin.

“Look for a purported indoor pool.”

“Big word! You’re paying for dinner!”

He snorts. “A shower first, I think.”

“Is that an invitation?” she actually winks.

“Oh, good lord,” Q complains.

He rolls to his feet, smirking at her over one shoulder, unbuttoning his shirt as he goes. “No.”

She laughs behind him, free and easy and he can’t tell how much is fake and how much is real. Just the way it should be between two professional liars.

He closes the bathroom door only most of the way and lets his travel clothes drop to the floor without care, turning the shower to scalding. Once he’s done, he wraps a towel around his waist and stalks back into the main room, where she sits and patiently watches him without the slightest tell on her face, not even the tiniest twitch.

She only climbs to her feet once he’s dressed, taking her turn in the shower and leaving him to scout the hotel, Q riding shotgun in his ear.
The hacker uses the pictures Bond sends from his phone – acting the eager tourist – to identify quite a few shady characters at the buffet and pool, one of them being Walsh herself, along with what looks to be private security.

A snag. Not unexpected, but still a snag.

The auction, he finds out through a little snooping, is set for tomorrow evening. Plenty of time until then. Great.

“Are you complaining about free time, 007?”

“I’m complaining about being married for forty-eight hours,” he drawls.

Q’s silent for a beat, then his usual chatter picks back up. “This whole bloody thing is too easy,” he complains, pretends that’s why he’s feeling like razor blades tonight.

He stalks back upstairs, finds Summers in a forest green dress with golden heels, barely any jewellery to be found on her. She’s all golden bright summer and the sight of her, so unlike the sight of Vesper, clears the fog of ugly déjà vu that’s been settling over him.

He changes shirts again in front of her, watches her watching him.

She bites her lip in an intentional tell, asking, “Are you seducing me, dear?”

“We have time to kill,” he observes, nonchalantly.

“And you think giving me googly eyes is going to make my panties magically drop?”

He hates Americanisms.

“Is it working?”

She gives him a considering look like she knows what he’s doing, distracting himself with the nearest shiny object. “Ask me later.” Then. “You found out when the auction is?”

“Tomorrow, after dinner.”

“Great. I need to call my handler.”

He watches her fish a phone from her clutch purse, surprised that she’s not plugged in the same way he is. Q notices, too.

“That is irregular,” he comments, distractedly, and then start tapping away at his computer, undoubtedly tracing the call.

“Witch,” Summers says in greeting. “The weather’s amazing, you should be here. Maybe you and Wolf boy can take a few days off. You need vacay-time. My business thing isn’t until tomorrow, after dinner. You could make it down here in time for us to catch a few waves.... Yeah, I know you don’t surf. I know you don’t like sunshine. I know you’re a redhead. Yeah, okay. No, I promise. I’ll be good, mom. Seriously. Fuck off, girlfriend.”

She hangs up. Bond has to admit he has no idea how much of that call was faked for the sake of staying in character and how much was real. He has a feeling the parts are about equal.

“Witch and Wolf?” Q asks. “Now that’s interesting. They are, arguably, the CIA’s finest techs.”

“Do I sense professional envy?” Bond asks, smirking.

“Oh, do shut up.”

Summers points at her ear. He nods.

“Good to know you come with inbuilt cavalry on speed dial.”

Finished with his suit, John offers Amy his arm. “Shall we, love?”

She beams. “We shall.”

+

Q guides them to a secluded table on the patio of one of the resort’s seven restaurants. Dr. Walsh is, unfortunately, dining in tonight. “And the CCTV is... off,” the tech remarks after a moment.

John passes the information on with a smile after ordering wine for them both.

“High-handed,” she comments on his choice of drinks and not at all on the second part.

Instead she leans back, relaxed as you please, and says, “You have orders to destroy it, don’t you?”

Apparently, she’ll take his word on the surveillance.

It’s a rhetoric question. “Yes.”

She gives a decisive nod. “Good.”

Five minutes later, she picks a different thread of conversation, one that’s easier to couch in codes and hints. “Have you ever considered retiring, John?”

He rolls his shoulders. “Have you, love?”

“I asked first.”

Surprising even himself, he goes with the truth. “Yes. I didn’t like the idea. It’s who I am.”

“Me, too,” she agrees, but no more than that. “Straight out of the military, yes?”

Again, he nods. It’s not exactly a rarity, for men like him to be recruited out of the army.

“And what made you enlist?”

He smiles at her, sharp as razorblades, and far uglier. She may be easy to talk to, but he’s not telling her his secrets. Although, he guesses, the expression on his face is an answer in itself. She understands him, either way. “Nowhere else to go, yes?”

Not without getting arrested within a year. There’s a finite number of career options with a man as chockfull of rage as James Bond. Diversion.

“And you? You got here a different way.” She was never military.

“I did,” she agrees, easily, cheeks dimpling with her smile. “But I wouldn’t want to rob your imaginary friend of his fun.”

“Imaginary friend,” Q grumbles, “that’s not even...,” he trails off. “Challenge accepted.”

Bond, under the veneer of John, wonders why a CIA agent would go to the trouble of putting an MI-6 hacker on her own trail the way Summers just did.

John just raises his glass. “Here’s to landing here.”

She clinks her wine against his, smile every bit as sharp as his own.

+

Back in their hotel room, they go to town on the Bond’s photographs and the tapes Q sends, identifying people and grouping them together. Either of their tech departments could have done it faster, but computers couldn’t yet read body language and they didn’t know nearly as much about old connections and half forgotten rumours as two old hats like Bond and Summers.

Besides, they were trying to predict the most likely buyers, not set up a sting to arrest them.

“This one,” Summers points out, tapping one glossy print-out. “Algerian. He has a nasty feud going on with this one.” Another pictures. “He’ll outbid the other one out of spite, if nothing else.”

“Personal grudge?”

“Rumour has is, there was a deflowered sister involved. Along with a few million dollars.”

“Which one started the feud?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” she admits with a shrug, shunting the pictures to one side, grabbing another. “Never seen this guy before. You know him?”

He takes a closer look, shrugs. “South African mercenary. He could be here for anyone.”

“That guy’s South African, too. Connection?”

Bond studies the still frames. “I think I saw them at the pool bar together. You can check, but I’d rather that one didn’t see me.”

“Sounds like a good story.”

“It involved goats.”

“Definitely a good story, then.”

They work until well past midnight, sorting, awarding points on a merit system that’s mostly made up of experience and their guts, and end up with three likely buyers.

Q sets up traces for all of them, so the agents can go after them if the grab before the auction fails.

Eventually, they both start to droop and as there’s no reason to fight against it, they go to bed, entwined like the lovers they’re pretending to be. He calls her love, she calls him honey and when she falls asleep with his ear over his heart, he wants to snap her neck.

+

Bond wakes to the sound of a phone vibrating close by and watches, through slitted eyes, as Summers stands and grabs the mobile, retreating to the bathroom.

He waits for a ten-count, the follows on silent feet.

“Are you sure?” she asks, quietly.

“What does Giles say? He’s... he’s still my mentor, Will. What does he... when? Do you know who? I’m going to...,” she sounds viciously angry.

Someone died.

Someone definitely died.

“I am... yeah. Okay. Alright. I... thanks. Make sure you and the others aren’t involved in this, will you? I’m fine. I knew this was happening. Yeah. You, too.”

She hangs up.

By the time she makes her way back to bed, Bond is tangled in the sheets again, seemingly fast asleep.

He knows she doesn’t buy it when she climbs on top of him, instead of back into her side of the bed. Suspended on her knees, she patiently waits for him to turn over before planting her hands on either side of his head for a long, filthy kiss.

When she pulls back, most of her weight is on him and she looks flushed. Flushed, and angry.

“Who?” he asks, doesn’t do her the disservice of playing dumb.

It’s strange how, sometimes, in this business, where no-one knows anyone and everyone lies, two perfect strangers can be closer than lovers.

“My old mentor. My damn saviour. They... I know who did it and I can’t do a damn thing about it because...”

Grabbing a handful of her hair, he pulls her down again and kisses her silent. She lets him, fingers scrabbling at his drawstring trousers, even as he goes for her flimsy top.

They fuck, harsh and twisted and as what they are: strangers.

They don’t speak, filling the silence with grunts and groans and, somewhere halfway through, Bond hears a snuffled sounds of surprise – Q waking and finding his charge screwing the CIA agent. He shushes the younger man and the woman in his arms both and gets back down to business, thinking, absently, This is how monsters grieve.

In the morning, they both bear teeth marks and bruises and Summers spends an hour sharpening all her weapons, dead look in her eye.

“Can you do it?” he asks around noon, not because he needs to know, but because he needs to pull her out of it.

She nods, cold and capable and he thinks of a wrought iron elevator in Venice and cold water.

+

“Buffy Anne Summers,” Q announces sometime after lunch. “Born and bred in California, currently 30 years of age. Kidnapped by former CIA agent Dominic Merrick at age fourteen.”

Bond listens closely, steps never faltering as he takes another tour of the hotel. He hates waiting.

“Merrick pitched a programme to the directors back in the early nineties. He was a paranoid bastard and proposed to take ‘non-suspicious persons’ and train them as agents for infiltration and wet work. He was sure the US were about to be overrun by hostile forces and needed to fight back. Classic paranoid schizophrenia, if you ask me. Instead of the usual ‘super soldier’ spiel the Americans are so fond of, he wanted to train children and teenagers, preferably girls, because no-one would ever suspect them.

“As you can imagine, he was shot down soundly and fired for good measure. He moved to a remote cabin in the woods, got more paranoid and set out to prove his theory. He kidnapped chosen candidates from all over the States – seventeen confirmed – and trained them as spies.”

Bond, who was a consenting adult when his training with MI-6 started, shudders internally at the idea of children going through the same processes.

“By the time the CIA finally caught on to what one of their finest was doing, fifteen of the victims were dead. Of the surviving two, a thirteen-year-old by the name of Dana killed herself. The other one was... well, by Merrick’s standards, she completed the training, leaving the CIA with a sixteen-year-old, fully-trained killer on their hands.”

“They integrated her,” Bond says. It’s not really a guess.

“They integrated her. There was some controversy, but everyone agreed they couldn’t let her back on the street as she was. Disposing of her was impossible with the media coverage and locking up would have been futile.”

The prison that holds people like Bond and Summers has yet to be built.

“So they kept her.”

“Rupert Giles, a desk jockey of some importance, worked the case and fought for her. He became her handler until he retired a few years ago. My sources say he was murdered yesterday in his home in Virginia.”

“I know,” Bond says and then goes to pull out the wig so he can think in peace.

Before he does, Q adds, “Oh, and 007? Merrick named his madness.”

“What did he call it?”

“The Slayer Programme.”

Interesting.

+

 

... And this is roughly where I came to the conclusion that you cannot properly cross James Bond with Buffy. Ever. At all. No, sir. But anyway, in the end they bone. Because I said so.

Chapter Text

+

Derek was lost.

He didn’t want to admit it, but it was true.

He was lost.

In the woods.

Laura was going to laugh at him forever when he got back home. What werewolf got lost in the woods?

He’d only meant to nip outside for a quick run, just to get rid of some energy because he was feeling jittery in his borrowed skin. Human skin, Mom always said. It was his human skin and it was his right skin.

“We’re sometimes wolves, honey, but we’re still human. You’re meant to be like this,” she’d say, squeezing his hands, or his feet, or some other part he didn’t have as a wolf, smelling of love and worry.

Because Derek wasn’t normal.

Eric and Laura, his big siblings, and even Cora, the baby, had all been born normal. But not Derek. No, Derek had been born furry and on four paws, blind and tiny and wolf and Mom kept telling him that it was okay that he sometimes didn’t want to be human, but that he needed to learn and he hated.

His skin was too big when he was human, too flabby and wide and naked. He felt like he was wrapped in a warm, wet blanket when he was human. Everything was slow and cumbersome and dull and he itched and he had to wear clothes and use a fork at dinner and speak.

He never had to speak when he was wolf.

Still, he tried to be good because Mom and Dad smelled happier when he had feet and fingers. This year, he was even allowed to go to school because he rarely shifted anymore. But sometimes the itching got too much and he had to change.

He’d only meant to nip out for half an hour, to run on proper paws for a while and then return home, slip his clothes back on and go inside before anyone noticed he was gone. The baby wailed loud enough to cover his absence, easy.

But there’d been such a strange, sweet scent on the breeze, like campfire and cinnamon and sugar and something bitter after it, like Dad’s candy sometimes had, which was why Derek didn’t steal it anymore. He’d followed it, deeper and deeper into the woods, away from the house and then away from Hale territory, until he’d lost the scent across a little brook and now here he was.

It was dark and he was lost and it was starting to rain and Mom was going to kill him and he was scared. Laura would laugh, but he could admit it, even if only to himself.

Derek Hale was scared.

All the stories Eric had told him, about hunters and traps and monsters in the woods, about vampires and bear traps made from steel, came back with a vengeance, and Derek could feel his body shaking, with cold and exhaustion and fear.

It had been barely dinner time when he’d left the house. Now the moon was high in the sky. He must have been gone for hours and the rain was steadily washing away his own scent trail.

He whined, low and weak, and huddled under a scraggly bush, trying to find shelter from the downpour. His paws were already sinking into the mud made from soft forest loam and heavy rain. He shook one paw clean, sunk in further with the other three, turned and turned, trying to find a drier spot, his own scent on the leaves, a light in the distance.

Anything.

He knew there had to be a road somewhere – Uncle Peter always complained that there were roads everywhere in the preserve –but he was scared of going there.

“There are no wolves in California, Derek, always remember that. If the humans ever catch you, they might lock you up. If hunters find you, they’ll immediately know what you are. Don’t let yourself be seen by humans, do you understand?”

Yes, Alpha.

He found no trace of any of the things he desperately wanted, so he curled further into himself decided to hold still. Eventually, pack would come.

Mom would be so mad, but they would come.

Pack always came for you. That’s what pack meant. You never had to be alone. Even if you were wolfborn and sometimes had trouble with words or thumbs, they came for you.

He just had to wait.

Somewhere above him, thunder flashed and a tree crashed.

Derek yowled.

+

He heard footsteps.

He heard footsteps and he didn’t recognize them. They were light, like someone small and fast would make, but far apart, like a man’s heavy stride, and Derek tried to parse their direction, their owner, but all he could think of were humans armed with guns and traps and he felt himself freeze in something approaching panic.

He didn’t want to die.

He didn’t want his pack to die. He didn’t want –

“Well, what do we have here?”

Derek howled as a hand suddenly gripped him by the scruff of his neck and hauled him out from under his bush with ruthless strength.

His paws left the ground even as he scrambled for purchase, snarling and twisting to get away from a hand that didn’t falter or even slow down as he went up and up and up and he snapped his teeth at nothing as he was suddenly spun around in midair and deposited against a warm, broad chest.

Immediately, he sunk his claws into every part of the human he could reach, digging deep, scratching, biting, fighting.

The human – man – laughed and brought an arm down across Derek’s back, applying gentle pressure until he was flattened against the man’s body, unable to fight anymore.

He didn’t seem fazed at all by the blood Derek could smell on him. He was small, but he was a wolf and he wasn’t going down without a fight.

“Calm down, little guy,” the man scolded, almost softly, “I’m not out to hurt you. But this is no place for a little wolf like you, not tonight.”

Derek whined and then, tentatively, stopped struggling. After a beat or two, when no attack came, he relaxed a bit further, leaning back as far as the man’s hold allowed to look at him.

He wasn’t really a man at all. He looked like he was around Uncle Peter’s age and he was nineteen, which Derek thought was old, but Mom said was ‘barely old enough to not need diapers anymore’.

His eyes were a soft brown, almost like wolf eyes, and his hair was a wild mess, like he’d been running through the woods, too. He had a lot of dark moles on his face and his nose looked funny. He was smiling and there were teeth in it, but humans always smiled like that.

They didn’t know that teeth meant anger. Which was silly, because what else would teeth mean, but humans were funny. They spent their whole lives in bodies that were wet blankets; of course they didn’t know about a lot of things, with their dull senses and their too big skins, slow and squishy.

Their teeth couldn’t even chew meat right. They had to cook it.

But that wasn’t the interesting part. The interesting (scary) part was that the man’s pupils weren’t round, or even slitted, like those of the cat that sometimes came creeping around the house. His pupils were jagged, like stars, and blacker than Derek’s pelt.

They were scary.

They were scary and the man obviously wasn’t human, because humans didn’t have eyes like that, and so Derek went very, very still. He didn’t want to make the man angry.

Like he was reading Derek’s thoughts, the man laughed again. “Hey, it’s alright. I don’t have a problem with werewolves, generally. No need to be scared.”

Definitely not human. Derek was torn between relief and renewed fear because if the boy wasn’t human, then what was he? And was he going to help Derek, or hurt him, or simply leave him here?

“You are a werewolf, aren’t you?”

Derek considered not responding. If he played animal, maybe… but there was something in the other’s strange eyes, something that told him that lying was a bad idea. That he would get punished for it. It wasn’t much, that feeling, just a shiver down his spine, like dipping his feet in the pond in November, but it was enough. He knew to listen to his instincts.

He nodded.

“And such a young one, too. I’ve rarely met a shifter who could shift completely, much less one so young. How old are you, pup?”

Derek was seven, but it wasn’t like he had vocal chords right now, so he simply looked at the man. Sometimes adults were really dumb.

Laughter. It was happy laughter, like when someone told a good joke, but underneath it was something that put Derek’s hackled up. He bared his teeth, just a little, was about to growl, when the man’s free hand suddenly surged up, one finger pointed, and he said, “Let’s see,” right before poking Derek in the forehead.

Where the finger made contact, Derek’s skin suddenly felt unbearably hot. The sensation spread from there, all down his head and into his jaw, over his shoulders to his back and the rest of his body. For a moment, it felt like a warm wind, like crawling into his bed after a long day on two legs, but then it got hotter and then it got unbearable, like a fire lit on his skin, like his fur war burning, and his bones underneath were about to catch fire. He whined, squirmed, tried to escape the sensation, but there was no escaping it, no relief.

Then, as suddenly as it had come, the fire passed.

The little wolf hung, panting, from the strange not-human’s arms, shivering and twitching, occasionally, from the aftershocks.

“Whoops,” he heard. “That might have been a bit much.” The boy clucked his tongue. “I keep forgetting how fragile you mortals are. But you – “

He shifted his grip on Derek, hauling him further up his chest until they were eye to eye. “You’re not quite so mortal, are you? There’s more beast than human in you and your skin… They make you live in the wrong one, don’t they? Poor little wolf, pressed into human shape. They don’t get it, how it feels, like wearing someone else’s underwear all the time and no shower can wash off the itchy, ugly feeling of it, because it’s inside of you and some days you’re sitting at the breakfast table and the butter knife looks stupidly tempting because with it, you could scrape it off, until the real parts are back where they belong, am I right? It’s like fucking someone you’re not even remotely attracted to, only that someone is yourself and you can’t sneak out in the dead of night, because it’s your own damn body.”

He shuddered, rolling his shoulders, shaking something off, and Derek felt like he was falling, because yes, yes, yes, it was true, it was all true even if he didn’t understand some of what the man had said, it was still true. He yipped his agreement and pushed closer, pressing his cold nose into the man’s cheek.

Yes.

Above him, the not-human sighed, heavy and sad. “Poor thing,” he muttered, big hand weighing on Derek’s skull, pushing him back into his chest.

Holding on.

Derek wasn’t scared anymore.

+

After a while, they started walking. Or the man started walking and Derek wasn’t being asked his opinion on the matter, which was okay, because he was suddenly bone-deep tired. Hours in the woods, getting lost, the rain and cold, the… strange fire the man had sent through him and then the revelation that someone felt just like him had left him tired.

He was only seven. Mom always said children needed a lot of sleep and, for once, Derek agreed. He wanted home.

He didn’t realize he was whining until a broad hand stroked down his back. “You’re a Hale, aren’t you, little wolf?”

A nod.

“Then home should be…,” he twisted his fingers strangely, flicked them outwards and a little ball of greenish blue light rose from them to hand, suspended, a foot or so above them, a little to the left.

When Derek’s new friend moved, the light moved with him. “This’ll show us the way to your pack. All we gotta do is follow.”

And they walked.

There wasn’t much more talk and Derek kept drooping off before remembering that he didn’t really know the man and shouldn’t fall asleep. He thought about Mom and Dad and how mad they would be.

They’d probably ground him.

And make him be human.

He buried his nose in the crook of an elbow and watched the dark woods pass them by.

They walked for a long time, but the man neither slowed down, nor took a break. He just walked and walked and, after a while, Derek noticed that he never had to step over fallen logs or avoid underbrush. He never tripped into foxholes or had to bend branches out of his way. He just walked, in a straight line and the forest was all around them, but never in front of them.

It was like it moved aside for the man to walk through.

Derek leaned back in his cradle of arms and studied him. That was not normal. Derek had spent all his life in these woods and they didn’t move. Trees didn’t move.

He knew that his rescuer was special, somehow. He’d used magic on Derek before and it had felt hottightpowerful, like when Mom used her Alpha voice, but stronger. It had been inside of him.

Still, doing magic on a person seemed possible. But now he was doing magic on the whole forest and that was not normal, so Derek studied him hard. Sometimes, the man’s eyes went funny, almost as bright as a wolf’s, but in the wrong color.

Alpha was red, beta blue or gold. That was the first lesson any wolf learnt. The man’s eyes were gold, too, but a darker, almost orange one, and sometimes they looked almost black. Dark light. His eyes looked like dark light.

And his ears were weird, too. When he was shifting, wolf to human or back, sometimes his ears got really funny in between. Pointy. The man’s ears were like that and he made no noise.

Nothing about him made any noise. Not even the needles and leaves under his feet.

Something like unease flickered through Derek, because everything made some sort of noise. Only the best predators could be almost completely silent. But never like this. If he hadn’t seen the man, hadn’t felt his chest and his arms and his breath on his fur, he wouldn’t have known he was there.

He made no sound.

The little wolf squirmed a bit, suddenly skittish, but the human shaped thing just chuckled and held him tighter.

“Can you feel it?” he asked, after a long time of silent walking. He inhaled deeply. “Borderlands.”

Derek looked around and realized it was true. They were almost back on Hale land. He knew those trees over there, and that rock formation, half buried under moss and a fallen tree.

Only moments later, he heard howling.

Pack!

Family!

Alpha!

He threw is head back answered the call. Immediately, all the voices turned toward him. Running. He could feel them closing in.

Abruptly, his world tilted sideways. He scrambled for purchase as he was dropped to the ground once again, but it was no use. He barely managed to land right side down, nevermind on his paws.

The man crouched down in front of him. “This is where we part ways, little wolf. It was fun meeting you! Next time, you can find me.” He smirked with his teeth and patted Derek on the head before standing.

Derek shook himself, down to the tip of his tail, shaking off the man’s echoes on his pelt. He’d been terribly warm and comfortable and dry and suddenly everything was wet and cold again and the trees were closing in, like the magic that had kept them away had stopped.

He snapped his teeth.

The man laughed out loud as he took a step back. Then, half turned away already, he stopped and threw Derek a narrow-eyes look over one shoulder.

“Do you have a name, little wolf?”

Derek nodded, baffled. Of course he had a name. Everyone had a name, didn’t they?

He received a single nod in response. “My name is Stiles,” the stranger said and melted into the darkness abruptly.

Seconds later, Alpha burst through the trees and Derek cowered in front of his angryscared mother, too busy to try and see which way the ma – Stiles had gone.

“Derek!” she barked, though fangs, “Oh, you are in so much trouble!”

He whined low in his throat, neck bared, belly on the ground and Alpha sighed, shifting back into human form. She picked him up by the scruff and shook him hard before hauling him into her arms and squeezing tightly. “Never scare me like that again,” she ordered, quietly, into the thickest part of his fur. “I was terrified, puppy. We all were.”

On cue, the rest of the adult pack member crashed through the underbrush (the forest doesn’t move for them) and hands, some clawed, some not, nudged him from all directions, scent marking, ascertaining that he’s alright. Checking in.

His Dad pressed a damp kiss to his head, right where the skull was closest to the skin, and he smelled like fear and worry and Derek buried his nose in Mom’s shoulder and whined apology.

“Jesus, kid,” Uncle Peter said, tugging on his tail. “Is it really that hard to stay on two legs?”

“Leave him, Peter,” Mom ordered, turning back the way they’d all come. “Let’s just get him home. I’ll save the yelling for human-shaped ears.” To make her point, she pulled on one of Derek’s fuzzy wolf ears before falling into a jog. The rest of the pack closed rank around her.

+

The run back to the house didn’t take more than a few minutes, or maybe it just felt that way, because Derek knew what was waiting for him there.

As soon as they hit the mudroom, the rest of the pack dispersed, leaving Mom, who was Alpha again, and Dad.

Alpha dropped him to the floor. “Shift,” she ordered, flatly, and when Derek wasn’t fast enough, she pushed at him until he twisted himself back into that other shape, with the flabby skin.

After a few moments of hard breathing, he was kneeling naked on the floor in front of his alpha, neck bared.

“Sorry, Mom,” he muttered around a clumsy, human tongue. “I just wanted to go for quick run.”

A sigh. “You were gone for five hours.”

“I got lost.”

“You were on familiar ground Derek, don’t lie to me.”

He looked up briefly, before letting himself fall on his butt, curling in his legs. He missed his tail. “I got lost. But there was a man who brought me back.”

+

... Derek grows up with Stiles around and everyone disapproves but Derek adores him because Stiles understands what it's like when your skin is wrong. Kate happens and Stiles saves the Hales and takes Derek away to his kingdom and there was something about Stiles being half fae only and he treats Derek the way fae are known to treat their pets and Scott is there, too, because Stiles killed Allison, and he tells Derek that the only way to kill the evil fae is to find out his name. Derek betrays Stiles' trust by getting Scott into the palace because Stiles is out of control. He finds out the name but when the shit goes down it doesn't work. All seems lost until Derek remembers the way Stiles used to talk about living in hte wrong skin and realizes that 'Stiles' is the name given to him by his human father and the one he always considered his real name. So he invokes it and kills Stiles, setting him free, and lives the rest of his life as a sad, sad cinnamon roll.

Plot is exhausting, yo.

Chapter Text

+

the man with not heart

+

All you have to do is carve out your heart.

+

“I have no heart,” Tony says with a wry smile, patting his chest with one hand, cigarette smoke curling in eddies around him as he disturbs the air.

Howard looks at him, head tilted in curiosity, something between fascination and repulsion shining in his gaze.

Tony smiles like the Mona Lisa and takes a drag from his cigarette. “Figuratively and literally.”

+

Loki is fire.

It makes no sense, not when he is blue and freezing, as cold as ice.

But he is.

Ice burns, too, in its own way, and Loki was born from snow, but he is fire, fire is him. In his heart, he burns brighter than anything Tony has seen.

He burns, and everything around him catches on fire.

+

In the beginning he wakes at night, drenched in sweat, panting from nightmares about the stillness at the bottom of the ocean. About the breathless, heavy darkness of the sky in winter.

He dreams of silence and screams into it, afraid. His body, he knows, just his body trying to adjust to the lack of sound. No heartbeat. No pulse. It’s so very silent now, within him.

For all intents and purposes, he is the dead walking.

These dreams taper off eventually, until, after the first thousand years or so, they are nothing but vague memory. He doesn’t remember anymore, what it was like to have something beating in his chest, to live with the constant throb of a living, healthy body. There is only the illusion of life now.

Such is the price of immortality.

+

Pepper tries to give him CPR once. This, obviously, being before he sits her down and tells her a few choice facts about the life and neverdeath of Anthony Edward Stark.

Only a few, mind you. When she asks for the rest he smiles handsomely and tells her he has forgotten. She claims to always know when he’s fibbing her, but she really, really doesn’t.

It happens like this. He’s angry at something, frustrated, depressed and annoyed. His latest project fell through, Howard’s company is more trouble than it’s worth and the evening’s entertainment stalked off in a huffy fit when he told her she looked better out of the dress because it was too small for her.

Not his best moment. Not his worst. He drinks himself into a stupor, manages to collapse halfway between the workshop and his bed and is found by Pepper in the morning, who feels for a pulse, finds none and tries to resuscitate him desperately for a long moment until he wakes and asks, “Um, Pep? Not that I mind the kissing, but what are you doing?”

She freezes, looks at him with wide, wet, panicked eyes, and then back down at her hands on his chest, above where a heartbeat should be. He’s talking, but she can’t feel it. He’s cold under her hands, and still, but moving. Alive. The dissonance tends to scare the few people he lets close enough to figure it out.

Then, in a sudden burst of motion she jerks backward and away from him, landing on her ass, scrambling until her back hits the wall. She’s breathing too hard, trying to talk and clutching at her own chest. Scared. Scared of him.

He sits with a sigh, rubs a hand over his face, then touches it to his still ribcage. He feels the spell in his chest cavity fizzle and stutter under it. Illusion flicker. Almost time for a touch-up. With tired limbs he stands, crouches in front of Pepper, lovely Pepper, who stares at him like an injured kitten, helpless and so confused.

“What… Mr. Stark… what…?”

“Hush,” he tells her, gently stroking a hand down her hair, smiling. He taps a finger to her temple and orders, “Sleep,” catching her as she slumps sideways and putting her in his bed to sleep off the blind terror.

+

He puts a hand over the empty cavity of his chest, fingers splayed wide and says, “I wanted to live.”

Pepper brushes at her cheek, looks away, whispers, “Tony. Oh, Tony.”

+

Howard Stark is sixteen when he meets the man that will one day be Tony Stark. He’s out without his parents’ knowledge or permission, marauding through New York, young and free and sullenly defiant of his old man’s rules.

And then there’s a dark alley and a man with a knife who knows little Howie’s face from the newspapers and smells a payday.

Howard fights, but he’s never been particularly strong and he’s only sixteen. The man’s knife is at his throat, his breath hot against Howard’s cheek when a new voice says, “Hardly sporting, is it, cutting up a little boy?”

Huffing in indignation, Howard snaps, “I am not a boy.”

The newcomer steps out of the shadows, cigarette dangling from a sardonic smile. “Of course,” he assures, sounding far too amused.

The would-be kidnapper grabs a fistful of Howard’s hair, jerks it backwards. “Shaddap,” he snaps, “I’ll cut ya neck!”

The other man drops his cigarette, steps on it and then he’s suddenly there, right in front of Howard, his hand on the knife. “Don’t think so, old boy.”

Howard is shoved to one side, stumbles, falls. By the time he’s sitting up again, the kidnapper is lying on the ground, dead from no wound the boy can see and his rescuer is standing in the dim light of New York City’s winter night, one hand pressed to his abdomen. His fingers are sticky with something dark.

“Well,” he says conversationally, looking down at where he’s been stabbed, “This certainly puts a damper on the evening.” Then he raises his head, crooks a finger at Howard, who scampers to the man’s side, hands fluttering uselessly.

He’s never seen anyone die before, has never even seen so much blood before and it’s his fault and he doesn’t know what to do.

“Give me a hand,” the man says. “My apartment is two blocks from here. Least you can do, considering.”

Dumbstruck, Howard nods, offers his shoulder to lean on. The man accepts, stumbling into his side. He’s not much taller than Howard, but he feels hard, all corded muscle under his flashy suit.

Together, they make their way out of the alley and down the street.

+

The plague again. It follows him, zig-zagging across the known world, overtaking him and falling behind in turns.

This time, Italy coughs and bleeds and dies.

There is a wolf the size of a pony walking at his side, dark, golden eyes taking in the frightened and the dying. He would take care not to let the beast be seen, usually, but in a week’s time, no-one here will be left alive to tell the tale to anyone but the queen of the dead.

And she already knows.

“Death,” a woman whispers, makes the sign of the cross and then brandishes a pagan charm at him. Under the filth and fear, she is beautiful. Or she was, until the sickness took a hold of her.

The one they are looking for is not here.

“Come,” he says, burying his hand in dark fur. “It’s time.”

Behind them, a city dies.

+

He finds the man crumpled in the woods, his rich clothes in rags. He’s not obviously injured, but the sorcerer can smell the magic around him, the injuries inside, hidden. The man is other than human, but his body is twisted and dying like that of any mortal.

He could leave him to die. It would be no hardship to just walk on. A brief flick of his wrist would end the poor bastard’s suffering and the woods would take his body back in a few short years. None would ever know he lived at all.

But for all that he has no heart, he is not a monster. Tries not to be. Sometimes. There is something interesting about the man. So he picks him up carefully, cradling him against his chest with the help of magic and carrying him back to his own homestead, where he strips and cleans the stranger, bundles him up and casts healing over him.

Then he sits by the bed on a rickety, old chair and waits, letting himself by hypnotized by the man’s own magic swirling around him. It’s strange, hued green and blue in turns. It reminds him of bitter winters and late springs.

After a very long time, the stranger opens his eyes, as green as his tunic was. As his magic is. There is a sharpness to his features, now that he is awake, and a brilliance in his gaze that makes the sorcerer shudder in something other than fear. Whoever – whatever – this one is, he’s glorious.

“Where am I?” he asks, fixing those green eyes on his host, who smiles at him, hands on his knees, palms turned up. Unarmed. That is a lie.

“In my home,” he explains as the stranger sits, or tries to. His magic is weak, flickering, an injured thing. It will take longer than one night’s rest for him to recover what was lost. Longer, certainly, than it would have taken for his body to rot into the earth. Magic is not a gentle mistress and to abuse her is to lose her favor.

“Who are you? Who brought me to you?”

“No-one did. I found you collapsed in the woods and did you a kindness. As for who I am,” he smiles again, can’t quite keep the edge from it. Such a layered question. “You can call me Antonius.”

He likes the name, liked the man he took it from, once, long ago, when the name of Rome still shook people to their cores. He’ll keep it for as long as he can get away with it, his own kind of continuity.

“Antonius,” the man echoes, frowning. He slumps back into the bedding. “What year is this?”

Eyebrows rising, Antonius provides, “The year fourteen hundred and twenty-three of the Christian Lord.”

The still nameless stranger squeezes his eyes shut. “I fell,” he murmurs, mostly to himself. “I fell through time.” He struggles to sit up again, suddenly. “I have to go,” he says, glaring as if Antonius will stop him.

Instead he puts out a hand, ready to catch the man when he inevitably falls. “You don’t. Your magic is drained and you’re weak. Stay. Heal.”

Eyes narrow when he says ‘magic’ and he rolls his own eyes, flicks his wrist in the air just enough for colors to dance on the tips of his fingers, red and orange, tiny flames. He lets them fade to nothing as soon as the man understands. Sorcerer. Magic wielder. The oldest of this world, but that is trivial.

That is also a lie.

“Why would you aid me?” the stranger asks, sounding defensive. Angry. Like he doesn’t believe himself deserving. Like he is used to fighting, tooth and claw, for anything at all.

Antonius bares his teeth. “I have nothing else to do.”

That the stranger can accept, more easily than a spontaneous and random bout of compassion. He sinks down again and this time it looks like he’ll stay. “Loki,” he finally mumbles, already half asleep again from exhaustion. “My name is Loki Od – “ he trails off awkwardly, doesn’t finish the sentence.

Antonius hears enough.

+

He likes the sea. In all his years, the sea has changed the least. It is always deep, always cold, always ruthless. Bottomless and dark and forbidding. If the ritual had not asked for the burning of his heart, he thinks he would have given it to the sea, to sink to the bottom and freeze in its icy depths, to become part of the churning darkness.

It would have been fitting, he thinks, sitting on an outcropping of rock, watching the water toss about, white seaspray soaking him to the bone. There is no other living thing around for a hundred miles and a thousand years, so he does not bother moving. He just sits and lets his oldest friend tear at him until he’s whittled down to smoothness, like a stone.

+

Steve comes to with a heaving gasp and a chocked off scream, every muscle in his body on fire, his lungs burning, his skin paper-thin and peeling.

Seventy years frozen, they’ll tell him later, but right now all he knows is pain, foreign surroundings, people he’s never met, touching him, probing him, speaking with him. At him. Yelling things. The lights are too bright and the last thing he remembers is free falling into eternal ice.

He strains against the hands holding him down, opens his mouth to scream, to rage, to fight his way free.

Even the tamest of animals are dangerous when cornered.

Then there’s a hand in his, cool and steady and it shouldn’t feel different from the dozen others shoving him against the cold steel table, but it is. It doesn’t push, for one. It just holds. Steve squeezes it, inhales deeply and lets himself stop, just stop.

A face swims into focus around him, dark hair and eyes like night, familiar. “Tony?” he gasps. It can’t be. Tony is dead.

The man smiles. Around them, the yelling and the flurry of movement both calm down.

“Hey there, soldier,” Tony-maybe-Tony-probably-Tony says, “Calm down, Cap. We’re trying to help.”

Steve subsides.

+

London burns.

For two nights now, it has burned, and the flames are slow to die.

Antonio closes his eyes, inhales. Cinders and ash and death. Burnt wood and burnt flesh. Decay. Cleansing.

It reminds him of the godling he picked up from the forest floor, not long ago. Loki always smelled like things burning. Loki was always fire, even at his coldest. He burnt. But Loki is not here.

Another man walks beside the sorcerer now, dark hair and pale skin, his father’s image. His tongue is forked and his nostrils flared.

London burns.

+

The sorcerer isn’t born immortal. Or without a heart. He does that to himself, one in order to achieve the other. That’s the secret, the magic ingredient, the words of power. Abracadabra, lead to gold, death to life. The alchemist’s dream come true.

He whispers the secret into the ears of many, men and women alike, holds them still and watches their hands as they move, shaking, unsteady.

Most of them hesitate, shake, shudder, collapse in crying heaps at his feet, mortal and fragile and too weak to do it. Failures. And those who succeed… eternity is not kind to either mind or soul. What’s left of it, anyway.

He stands once, so long ago, with his arms around the waist of a boy called Gilgamesh. King of man, son of gods, brother of Enkidu, the Great Beast. The world hails him as its hero, its great ruler, but his hands shake as he raises the knife, blade turned toward himself.

He pants like a beaten dog and along his back the snake winds, hissing in his ear, “One cut, just one. The ritual is done. I can taste the magic. All you have to do – “

The knife drops, clatters to the stone floor, slides to one side. Gilgamesh curls into himself, sobbing and shaking and dying, dying with every second, every breath he takes. He wished to live forever, to see eternity as the man pressed against him does, ancient and strange and powerful.

He is released and falls to his knees, falls and never gets up again, his pride broken and his hopes dashed. He will live as a mortal and he will die as one.

He isn’t hungry enough.

“All you have to do,” a voice above him whispers, heavy with disappointment, “is cut out your heart.”

So few ever do.

+

There are lines, sometimes, in Loki’s winter-skin, raised like welts, symmetrical like the decorative scars the dark peoples sometimes wear.

They shimmer blue in the moonlight, reflect the snow in January. Before Antonius can touch them, before Loki will let him, they always fade, sinking back below the surface.

Instead of those cold lines, Loki summons fire into his palms, lets his veins throb golden-orange with their magic and heat. He warms himself, the sorcerer thinks, but never says.

Those lines he is allowed to touch, to trace, right to the god’s heart, burning ice-cold and hot at the same time.

“I am the god of fire,” Loki whispers, sometimes, the words an incantation unto themselves.

Antonius hums into feverish skin that burns his lips and loses himself in the flames.

+

“I can’t imagine it,” Steve says, during one of Tony’s daily visits to his little abode inside SHIELD headquarters. He’s been awake for two weeks and Tony has been there the entire time, the only familiar, the only solid, thing in the world.

“What?” Tony asks, lounging on Steve’s narrow bed like he belongs there, his smile full of offers Steve can’t read.

“Living forever. I mean, I’ve only been asleep for seventy years. To you that must seem like a blink, but for me… the world is so different.”

Tony shrugs and looks away, recalcitrant as always to discuss his… nature. Steve gives him time, remembers that about his friend. Tony needs a lot of time for these things. And it’s not like he doesn’t have it.

“There’s a rhythm to it,” he says eventually.

Steve frowns. “A rhythm to what?”

“To living and dying. Once you’ve got it, it’s… how do I put this? It’s a beat. Almost like a heartbeat. Things come, things go. If we’re being terribly cliché, empires rise and empires fall.”

“I thought you didn’t have a heart,” Steve tries to revive the old joke. It doesn’t come out funny. He blames it on the hysteria that’s constantly eating at his edges these days. He feels like a changeling, dropped into a big, alien world. Everyone expects things of him.

Tony shrugs and folds his hands behind his head. “Exactly,” he says, which doesn’t help Steve understand at all. It’s no surprise really. Tony has always been fond of telling people he has no heart but Steve has never quite figured out why he always says it with such a peculiar curl to his lips, such a dark glint in his eyes. He could ask, he figures.

Never does.

Then Tony starts babbling about some invention or other and Steve suspects he wouldn’t be able to follow even if he knew half the technical terms flung around.

Slowly, they both relax.

+

“Please, Tony,” Howard says, squeezing Maria’s hand, looking… he looks old, mostly. So very old.

Humans, Tony thinks, and takes a long drink from his scotch. They die so fast.

“We have no children and I won’t… I won’t let my legacy go to the sharks. Stark Industries… please, Tony.”

Tony sighs, looks at the old man that he knew as a gangly sixteen-year-old with too big ideas, nods. “What the hell,” he says, “I’ve never owned a company before.”

That’s another lie, but there really isn’t anyone left alive who would know.

+

Loki lies.

It’s a fact as certain as the changing of the tides.

Loki lies.

Sometimes he disappears into the nearby village, wearing a paltry disguise of charms and fabric, all his ransacked magic can handle.

He sits in the tavern and watches the mortals move around him, watches their squabbles and worries. And after a while, when he has filtered the rhythms of the conversations into something more transparent, he speaks.

A word here, a warning there, something quietly whispered into an ear.

There will be bloodshed before the night is out.

Best friends fighting over a whore, one brother thinking the other defiled his wife. Religion, sex, riches. They fight like animals, heat in their gazes and ale in their veins and the god of lies sits, silently watching, in the far corner and enjoys what he has wrought.

“Is this what you do to amuse yourself?” Antonius asks, the one and only time he joins Loki on this adventure.

Loki grins at him, wide and vicious, and does not answer. The sorcerer never joins him on these nights again.

+

Human memory is not made for more than a few lifetimes, but he remembers enough.

He remembers this:

Caves that are always dark and stink of smoke and sweat and fur, an old man who crouches over the fire pit like some primordial demon, his face painted ochre and red. Words sung in a tongue that is long, so long, dead.

He remembers reciting the spells Master sings over the fire, again, again, again, until they sink into his very skin like the ink that won’t be invented for so very long. Outside the storm howls and the eternal snow falls deeper and deeper, until the entrance is completely blocked and they have to suffocate the fires or die from the smoke.

He hunts in spring with the other warriors and he spends the winters with the old man, learning the old ways and old magics.

He learns that in order to live forever, a man must give up what is most precious and he watches, year after year, as his people die. They die of tiny wounds, of cold, of hunger, of infection, of smoke inhalation, of poisonous plants, of animal attacks. Children die in the womb and their mothers follow them out of grief. There is death wherever he looks and the old shaman paints the walls in blood until they turn dull brown and stink in the summer.

He is so hungry.

He remembers painting the runes in his own blood on the cave floor, remembers chanting all night long, remembers the sharp, thin sliver of stone and the crippling agony of its bite. He remembers the hungry, desperate certainty that he will never be like his people, who die and die and die.

+

He lounges in the shadows outside the labs, smoking, waiting. The lights are going out inside the facility, one by one, and his cigarette burns his fingers. He drops it, stomps on it and watches the redness fade from his skin, idly.

A burst of noise escapes suddenly, people spilling out of the building. He shoves away from the wall, steps into the light. Howard spots him immediately, hails him with a wave.

“Tony,” he calls, “Done playing with the Nazis already?”

Tony catches up to his friend, shrugs. “Got hungry for some real steak.”

The men with Howard laugh and then start drifting away until only a scrawny kid in uniform remains, looking half wide-eyed, half cynic. Howard slaps him on the shoulder hard enough to send him staggering, says, “Tony, meet Steve Rogers. If everything goes well next week, we’ll have our super soldier.” Then he smiles at Steve, too wide and open, in that way that always takes people by surprise. “Steve, meet Tony, one of my oldest friends and the best spy America has.”

Tony bows, dramatically, catches the kid’s – Steve’s - gaze and winks. “Pleased to meet you, Soldier,” he says.

Very dryly, Steve returns, “Pleasure’s all mine, Spy.”

Howard laughs.

+

“How did… what are you?” the kid asks as the man who saved him strips off his bloody shirt, tossing it carelessly to the side and digging a clean one out of a suitcase sitting on his bed. “You didn’t… I saw the blood… I saw….”

The man looks at him, eyes dark, as he buttons up his shirt slowly. “Can you keep a secret, kid?”

Howard wants to blurt yes, but he’s afraid, somewhere deep down, in a place he can’t quite understand, that the wrong answer could be the end of him. He saw the body in the alley, the man this stranger killed without leaving a mark. And he saw… he saw too much.

“What happens if I can’t?” he asks, not snottily but carefully, for once in his life.

The man cocks his head, almost curiously, almost gently. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t have to. Howard nods. “Yes,” he says, “I can.”

+

Tony kneels on the cold stone floor, runes in a long dead language written in a circle around him. Motion. Heat. Rhythm. Health. Renewal. Regeneration. Adaptation. He knows them all in his sleep, their exact design, their position, their meaning.

He invented most of them himself, a substitute for that which he no longer has and that which he needs to keep up with time. They keep his blood flowing, keep his body warm, keep his flesh alive. They keep his brain working, his features slim and modern, his back straight and his skin hairless.

What is eternity with a decaying body? A body that would be called ugly by modern standards?

He casts the spells that maintain him, inhales deeply as magic swirls around and into him, filling the empty cavity of his chest, warming him from the inside. For a second, a split second only, he almost remembers what his heartbeat felt like.

Then the magic sinks into his flesh and he stands, carefully stepping out of the circle and replacing the scattered leaves that covered it before he swept it clean. He smoothes a hand along the ragged cave wall, over sooty smudges of what might have once been men, been animals. He snuffs the fire in the corner with a click of his fingers as he leaves, sealing the cave entrance behind himself.

+

The man – Loki – is not a man at all. He needs barely any sustenance, he sleeps like a corpse for weeks and he treats magic as a mortal would air: Like it is always there, like it is understood, like it is the most precious thing in the world.

For months – years, perhaps - the sorcerer watches his guest sleep motionlessly, like a corpse, unrotting and beautiful. Still. A magical sleep, he thinks, as he sits in the evenings, watching the icy magic swirl around the still form, working to repair it, to replenish it.

Wherever Loki came from, it sucked him dry almost to the last drop. Antonius itches to ask about it, but he never does. Those rare instances when the other man is awake, his green eyes flash brightly, shame and rage in turns. It’s a potent combination.

Better to let him sleep. Better not to anger him.

Tonight, though, he returns to his home to find Loki standing in the wreckage of his floor. He has dug up the rune circle Antonius set in stone, deep beneath the packed dirt of his cottage floor. The sorcerer stops in the doorway, eyes on the circle, which is still intact, though revealed.

“I didn’t think you would find that.”

His guest sneers. “I may be… diminished, but I can still feel magic as potent as this.” He looks at the stones, each set equidistant from its neighbors. “This spell is very… peculiar. Its purpose eludes me. Unless – “

Quicker than breath, he’s there, in front of Antonius, his palm flat against the other’s chest, feeling for a heartbeat that isn’t there. “Ah,” he muses, his expression smug. “I thought so. I did not believe any mortal had what it took to complete this particular piece of magic.”

Shrugging, Antonius steps back, away from the cold hand. “Few do. Those who succeed go mad within the first few centuries.”

Loki laughs, the sound vicious and as destroyed as the floor. “Are you that young then?”

Antonius lets his pride get the better of him as he hisses, “I have walked this world when it was ice, Loki No-one’s-Son.”

Loki flinches minutely, but smirks. “As I thought. And what drove you to go where no-one else dare go?”

Played. Interesting. Antonius cocks his head to one side.

“Hunger,” he replies, without thinking about it.

He was so hungry.

The other man sneers cruelly, opens his mouth to spit more poison and tricks. The sorcerer raises one hand, murmurs a spell to put his guest to sleep, tired of the game. Loki struggles against the pull, but his magic is still years, decades from returning to what it once must have been. He slumps in the mess he made of the floor, banging his head.

Beneath his still form, the rune circle gleams through the dirt.

+

He puts a hand over the empty cavity of his chest, fingers splayed wide and says, “I wanted to live.”

The girl, a little thing of few years, presses a hand to her own chest, her heart, beating strong. “I will pray for you, sir,” she says, gaze lowered demurely. Afraid. They are always so afraid. “I will pray for your soul, whatever may be left of it.”

+

In a cave of Afghanistan, Tony kneels on cold rock, hands flat on either side of him, feeling deep, deep within the stone. Feeling for the wards that bind this place, for the men that locked him up like an animal.

From his cot Yinsen – doctor by day, spellcaster by night – watches, head tilted to one side. He is utterly fascinated by Tony, ever since he attempted to save him from shrapnel to the heart only to discover that Tony does not, in fact, have a heart.

Tony imagines, briefly, the look the good doctor must have worn on his face when he cut open skin and bone and found nothing but cobwebs and shadow underneath. There’s a space in Tony’s chest, big enough for a grown man’s fist.

“The wards are too strong,” Yinsen offers, shaking his head. “I have tested them many times.”

“Ah,” Tony waves his concern away, “but you haven’t been tinkering with spells for nearly as long as me. These things are strong, I’ll give you that, but they were laid by amateurs. Sloppy spell work, too much energy in all the wrong places. Someone got into daddy’s chemistry set without knowing what they’re doing.” He opens his eyes to smile at the man he might almost call a friend after the short time they have spent together. “I could tear them down right now.”

Yinsen looks bland. “But you will not?”

Tony shrugs as he rolls to his feet, hiding a wince of pain. He may not have a heart, but a claymore full of shrapnel to the chest leaves its traces. “Still don’t know what the hell they want from me, do I?”

Or who told them to cast wards on his prison, since his true identity isn’t exactly Wikipedia knowledge. Someone sold Tony Stark out. More importantly, someone sold Antonius, the sorcerer, out, and there really aren’t that many people who could. Tony could count them all on two hands, and he knows four who would never, ever do any human a favor. The others are his mortal friends and he hopes… but the facts speak for themselves.

Suddenly the door bangs open and a bunch of shouting, armed man come pouring into the cave cell. They show him pictures. They want him to build them weapons.

They want him to deal death for them.

Tony, on his knees again, hands behind his head, closes his eyes and curses Howard for his brilliance and his hunger. So like Tony himself. Except where Tony ever only destroyed himself, Howard’s legacy will one day destroy the world.

Time, he thinks, to stop living his dead friend’s dream.

Time, instead, to have some fun.

The wards make an audible ripping sound as they come tumbling down. The armed men don’t sound nearly as sweet as they fall.

+

“Why are you so eager to die in a trench?” Tony asks, sipping at a glass of cheap scotch, squinting at Steve through the thick cigarette smoke hanging in the bar. He’s halfway to drunk and starting to list sideways. Steve is sitting across from him, annoyingly collected and sober.

“I just want to serve my country.”

Tony waves him off. “You could do that being a mailman.”

Steve shrugs with that look in his eyes, the one that’s hard and so terribly idealistic at the same time. Steve, Tony suspects, is a genuinely good person. He has no idea what Howard, who is currently trying to pick up one of the serving girls at the bar, is doing with the kid. Tony has no idea what Tony is doing with the kid.

He’s the man without a heart and Steve… Steve has far too much heart. Steve is hungry for all the wrong things.

“I want to save lives, I think. Do good, you know?”

Far, far, far too much heart.

Tony raised his hand to take a sip, then points one finger at the kid. “Doctors save lives.”

Steve opens his mouth to answer, but Tony rolls right over him. “Police men save lives. Firefighters save lives. Psychiatrists save lives and medics and nurses and barkeepers, you wouldn’t believe how often a barkeeper with an open ear has saved my life. Radio technicians save lives, Rogers!”

He’s getting loud. Howard is looking at him from across the room. He shakes his head. “You don’t want to save lives. You want to risk your own. Did they tell you about the serum they’re going to shoot you up with? Did they tell you that it’s far more likely to kill you than make you a hero? Walk away, kid. Do the smart thing and walk away before you’re in the middle of this goddamn war.”

“Like you are?” Steve is surprisingly calm for someone who has a drunken man yelling in his face. Tony thinks he must be used to getting told he’s not good enough. But that’s really not it. “Why are you fighting then, if you hate this war so much?”

“Because I’m good at it,” Tony says and he is. He cheats, of course, magic and immortality at his fingertips, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s good at spying for the Americans. And it’s more entertaining than sitting around and watching the word rip itself apart from a distance. He never knows when to put up his hands and back away from the controls. Never.

He shoves away from the table, stands, grabs his jacket and turns to go. On his way out, he slaps Steve on the shoulder hard enough to force him to brace himself against the table. Bending down low he whispers in the other man’s ear, “You on the other hand, aren’t.”

He’s already walking again when he hears Howie, sweet little Howie say, “Don’t take him seriously, Steve. Tony gets cruel when he’s drunk.”

“Au contraire,” he calls over his shoulder at the two, “I am always cruel. Where else would I get my entertainment from?”

The next day he returns to Europe to do some more spying in the name of a country that’s not his own.

The next time he sees Steve Rogers, the man’s taller and a lot less naïve. If Tony had a heart, he thinks it might be breaking.

+

Yinsen cocks his head to one side and looks at Tony over his glasses for a long time. “I think,” he finally wagers, eyes on a chest that doesn’t move, “that I pity you, Stark.”

+

Coming home to a complete stranger trussed up like a turkey in the middle of his living room is almost as funny as it sounds, especially once the man recovers him the spell JARVIS shocked him with enough to start cursing.

“What the fuck was that? That fucking AI was fucking disabled, what kind of shit are you messing with Stark, I’ll have you….”

“What exactly?” Tony asks mildly from where he’s lounging on the sofa, watching the big man squirm as he regains control of his limbs slowly. “Since you’re the one breaking and entering, you should be glad I’m not calling the cops.”

“They wouldn’t keep me, asshole,” the man snarls. The scars around his eye patch crinkle and twist dangerously.

“No,” Tony allows. “But I’m pretty sure they’d hassle you for a few hours.”

Bared teeth are the only answer he gets. He smiles back blandly.

“My name’s Fury,” the stranger finally supplies. “I’m with SHIELD.”

Tony waves a hand. “Ah, yes. You’ve been up my grill for weeks. I don’t think I like you people. You keep sneaking around.”

“You did just unleash a large burst of unidentifiable energy in downtown Los Angeles, Stark. Well,” Fury stands, throws himself into the seat across from Tony like he’s been invited to it. “That’s what the reports say. We both know it was something else, wasn’t it?”

It was Tony killing one of his oldest friends in a flash of fire and magic. It was a sorcerer’s rage unleashed on a mortal man. It was Obie, selling him out for power and money, thinking he could stand up to Tony and win.

“Like what?”

“Like, oh, let’s see, the same thing that blew up an entire cave system full of terrorists in Afghanistan? Magic?

Rolling his eyes, Tony sighs. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”

If the man knows about magic, he should have damn well expected there to be more to JARVIS than circuits and wires. That he didn’t doesn’t speak for him. Even if the result was funny.

“I want you to work for me, Stark.”

“You can’t afford me,” he throws back instantly, flippantly. Then stops, thinking. “But luckily for you,” he adds, “I think I might be tired of being the Merchant of Death.”

Obie is dead, the company is saved and on a new course. And he remembers Afghanistan, remembers the greed on the faces of the men that wanted him to build them weapons. He remembers thinking that he’d better do something about that before they wipe out humanity, leaving him alone on this godforsaken rock.

Because that is what Howard’s legacy is. Death on a scale even Tony can barely dream of. He’s been running SI in a dead man’s name for twenty years. It’s time to move on. He thinks, perversely, of Steve, seventy years dead, and what he would think of this Tony, this complacent, destructive version of him that spent the Cold War watching from the sidelines, eating popcorn. He wonders if Steve would notice any difference at all.

Fury smirks, his mouth pressed in a flat line, and leans forward, pulling a stack of files from the depths of his black leather coat.

+

Loki picks fights at least twice a moon, shoving and pulling at Antonius verbally until he either leaves or gives in and lets the other have his fight. They battle without magic, because Loki’s reserves are still small and easily exhausted, and that makes it dangerous.

Loki is far stronger and faster than a once-mortal man could ever hope to be and the hatred burning in his chest is a vicious, brutal monster. He pulls no punches and he withholds no dirty tricks. Sooner or later, Antonius always blasts him across the clearing with magic, away from him. After that, he usually charms the god –because that is what Loki is - to sleep and leaves him where he falls, out of spite.

He doesn’t know why he puts up with the volatile, arrogant man in the first place, he tells himself, but it rings hollow, even to his own ears.

Loki is hungry, too, and like an animal, cornered and protecting its kill, he is vicious and cruel, brutal to the bone. Damaged, self-destructive and far too wild, they are both cut from the same cloth.

Tonight, Antonius has Loki under him at the center of the clearing that is their arena. Blood is dripping from his forehead and Loki squirms like a snake, his words sibilant curses in a language never spoken in this world. The sorcerer locks his knees and applies pressure to the other’s wrists until they grind, dangerously close to breaking. Loki’s lip is split and there is blood running down his chin and neck. He has a harsh cut on the left side of his ribs and Antonius makes sure to wedge his thigh against it as they struggle, further hemming the god of tricks in.

In the end Loki stills and, for once, Antonius thinks that he has won. Tamed the beast. Then Loki rears up suddenly, striking like a viper, biting Antonius’s lip without warning. He bites and licks at the blood that wells up and then they are kissing, all teeth and no finesse, kissing and still half-fighting, just another kind of battle, another hunger.

They rip at each other’s clothes, pull and tear and rut against each other on the forest floor like animals, hot and hard and fast.

Afterwards, panting together in the cool night air, Loki hisspers in his ear, low and mocking, “Be proud, sorcerer. Not many can claim to have had the god of fire.”

Antonius bites at his collarbone and says into his skin, “Not much of a god, are you?”

He puts the godling to sleep before he can break his neck and leaves him there, once again, on the cold ground. One day soon, when Loki’s magic returns, he will dearly regret this, but for now, he cannot care.

The blood in his mouth, god and sorcerer, takes like ozone and snow.

+

Fire takes the village closest to the cottage one winter. He has seen it before. They stuff every crack and cranny of their pitiful huts with cloth and straw to keep out the cold, and when the smoke makes them pass out, the unattended fire catches on something, a skirt, a bit of wool, a blanket.

Fire.

Some villagers die. Some live. Some come to ask for magic to protect them from the fire gods. They are all Christians by daylight, but in the darkness, they believe whatever will make them feel safest.

The sorcerer gives them the charms they ask for, knowing that they do nothing to keep away the god of fire.

The god that has nothing to do with their burning homes.

The village burns and Loki smirks. Time passes. Years, decades.

The village is rebuilt and repopulated ad falls into disrepair again. Soon, something else will catch fire. Whatever lessons were learned have already been forgotten.

The only ones who remember are the trickster and the sorcerer and if you asked them, they would not tell you.

+

Steve finds Tony, of course, in a rundown base somewhere in Europe – Tony loses track. He sits next to Tony on the narrow bunk, his hands folded between his knees, looking solemn. Looking like the hero he is supposed to be. Not tragic, though. Not yet. Tragedy comes later, when his best friend is dead and his legend buried in ice.

Not yet.

“I don’t understand you,” Steve says, almost conversationally.

Tony, who fought his way out of a German ambush today by killing seventeen men, has no energy to do more than grunt.

“Howard says I should stop trying, that you are a bitter old man with nothing to give this world and will only drag me down.”

“Charming fellow, good ol’ Howie,” Tony remarks. The words don’t sting. The truth rarely does anymore.

Steve gives him a forbidding look. “I don’t think he’s right. I don’t think he thinks he’s right either. I just…” he trails off, tries again. “Why do you fight this war, if you don’t believe in it?”

Of course that bit of the conversation would stay with the kid. “I’m good at it, remember?”

A sideways look from under lashes, and an almost coy, “I’m too, now.”

Like he has something to prove. Like Steve Rogers in any incarnation, in any world, has ever had anything to prove. Tony doesn’t think he’s ever met anyone who was this inherently good, despite being continuously kicked down by life. Steve didn’t need the serum to be better any more than Tony needs weapons to hurt people.

He stays flat on his back, watching Steve’s profile in the dim lighting. Eventually he says, “My condolences.”

This time, for once, Steve is the one who leaves.

+

Peggy looks at him in a very peculiar way, from the very first. Looks at him like she knows him, inside and out, and it makes him want to kiss her, makes him want to wrap his hands around her neck and squeeze, makes him want to offer her a knife to take to her own chest.

He never does any of those things, never even asks what she thinks she knows, just returns her gaze, steady as the tide and pretends it’s not pity he finds in her expression.

+

“Tony,” Pepper calls, sounding annoyed as she steps over the debris of his workshop, trying to navigate a safe path toward where he’s fallen asleep sitting up.

He jerks awake, wipes drool off his chin and blinks at her, confused, sleep-addled. “Wha-?”

“Tony!” she snaps again, sharper. She missteps and he can already see her falling, ankle twisted. With a sigh and a hum he snaps his fingers, sending the parts littering the floor back to their places.

In the middle of the room, Pepper wavers, staring at her suddenly neat surroundings like the debris will come back and bury her. “Jesus,” she says after a long moment. “I will never get used to this.”

“Come on, Pep, you know I make messes wherever I go. Shouldn’t you know that by now?”

She scowls darkly at him. “The magic, Tony. The magic, not your messes.”

“Oh.” He grins at her, sheepish and still mostly asleep, asks, “What’s up then, beautiful Pepper?”

She rolls her eyes, flattered despite herself, and then abruptly turns serious. “Director Fury just called. He wanted me to tell you…”

She hesitates. Pepper never hesitates. “Tony, they’ve found Captain America.”

Eyes squeezing shut, he can feel the screens around him flicker as his magic fluctuates, as the empty space in his heart howls with something like rage. Or maybe that’s the wind, cutting along his edges.

“When’s the funeral?” he says, sharp, concise vowels. His accent isn’t American anymore, isn’t any language anyone remembers and he winces at the show of emotion.

Pepper puts a hand on his arm, hot as coals and so alive. She leans low, takes a deep breath and says, “He’s not dead.”

His eyes fly open, shock burns through him like a wildfire and he wants to ask – a million things. Pepper just smiles at him, serene and beautiful and brilliant and holds out his wallet and phone. “Go.”

He grabs both and kisses her, once, brief and hard and full of things he’ll never say out loud. She laughs into it, laughs still as he steps away from her and wraps his power around himself like a blanket, pulling himself into the space between worlds and then back down, right into Fury’s office.

+

The sorcerer has never really paid much attention to mythology. Too much of it is muddled, wrong and disjointed, twisted over time. But there are some stories one cannot help but hear, some truths that seem to repeat themselves over and over and over.

The lives of the Aesir, Loki’s people, so Antonius is told, are cyclical. They live, they die, they live again. Their stories repeat, the variations minimal.

Once, only a few handfuls of years after arriving, Loki disappears for almost three winters without a trace. He can’t have gone farther than his feet carry him because his magic is still little more than child’s play, but Antonius lets him go. He was never his keeper.

He finds the trickster again in spring, sitting in a clearing close to the cottage, a giant wolf pup tumbling into and out of his lap in turns, happily nipping at offered fingers. He sits down a safe distance away, leaning against a tree, and watches.

“He’s beautiful,” he offers, eventually. The pup, finally noticing him, whips his head around, baring sharp, too large teeth, already yellowing. Saliva drips from the canines and his eyes glint like flint, dark and hard and vicious, as powerful hind legs get ready to jump, attack and tear.

He reminds the sorcerer of the dire wolves that once populated these lands, big, sleek killers. He knows without asking what – who – the pup is. Loki calmly puts a hand on his son’s scruff, calming him, and answers, “He is monstrous.”

The pup will grow, that much is obvious. His paws are the size of a plate and the rest of him will grow into them, tall and fearsome. Bigger than a grown man and absolutely deadly.

“Yes,” Antonius agrees readily. “and beautiful.”

Imperceptibly, Loki relaxes. He rubs the pup’s ear once, then claps. The demigod yips and fades into the woodwork of the surrounding forest like he was never more than a mirage. Set free. Chased away. It’s hard to tell. His father stands, brushes his hands on his tunic and says, almost conversationally, “They will bind him. Chain him. And eventually, murder him.”

He offers the other man a hand up, which he accepts. “So don’t let them.”

Loki’s smile is a cut across his face as he answers, “I never do.”

+

The village burns in winter and the children come in spring. Summer is fire with Loki, hot and cold and burning, burning right into autumn and the slow smoldering fires in the fields.

Winter again, where Loki’s skin is shaded blue and his temper grows short, his magic frizzling, angry and vicious.

Then spring, then summer, then autumn.

Antonius has never been in the habit of counting years and he doesn’t start just because he has a guest. Loki came to him in the morning. On another morning, he will leave.

The time in-between is of no consequence.

+

The sorcerer has high hopes for the man who calls himself Rasputin. He stands at his back as he raises the knife, hisses encouragement in his ear as he brings it down.

He watches as he writhes on the floor, for three days and three nights, while everything mortal about him burns away.

On the morning of the fourth day, when the sorcerer returns to the ritual chamber, he finds it empty, Rasputin lost to the winds. He could find him, track him down, but why should he? Forever is long and the young one will get bored.

They meet again only a handful of centuries later at the heart of the rotting Russian empire. They laugh and they drink and the sorcerer listens to the whispers in the street, about mad Rasputin, Saint Rasputin, the healer, the heretic.

Madness follows wherever he walks, madness claws at Rasputin’s heels. He has nightmares about the silence, nightmares about his own cold flesh, and his magic swells and undulates around him, loose and dangerous.

He invites controversy, invites hatred and fear and is murdered, time and again. Knife, poison, fire. He returns to the limelight every time, unafraid and bold, risking his secrets, frightening the masses.

In the end, Antonius has to dispose of the madman himself, just as he did all those before him when the hunger ate them alive and the coldness tore them down. He lets the river take what is left of the body, lets the ashes wash away into dark oblivion. Eventually, he hopes, the mind will follow and Rasputin will find his peace.

He speaks a prayer in a long dead language, there by the bank of the river, and then turns back toward the city. Alone again.

Wondering if, one day, when the madness takes him over for good, someone will take pity and burn him like he burned all his children.

+

“Please,” the boy begs, on his knees, “Make me your student. Let me… let me be like you.”

He never will be.

+

They’re sitting in the October sun, eating apples on the roof of Stark Tower, watching the world pass them by down below.

Tony is slicing the fruit, hands moving deftly and without much care. He can tell, from Steve’s twitching, that Steve wants to take away the blade, wants Tony to watch his hands as they cut. But he won’t say it, so Tony goes on torturing him for kicks.

“So,” he asks, “Computers. How far along are you?”

Steve hums and forces himself to look elsewhere. “I just discovered Wikipedia. It’s fascinating.”

Tony grins and passes him a slice of apple, takes a crisp bite off another. “Yeah? Have you found the entry about Captain America yet?”

His scarlet blush says that yes, he has. It’s twenty pages long. There are pictures. To try and divert Tony’s attention, Steve points out, “You have one, too.”

Tony spreads his arms wide above the city and the sky, flicking juice off the point of his knife. “I’m Tony fucking Stark,” he announces.

Steve plucks the knife from his fingers nimbly and tucks it away, shaking his head. “Coulson said I should pick a research project, use it to practice. I used you.”

Tony winces a bit, stares into the middle distance for a while. “You don’t mean Tony Stark, do you?”

Chewing on his apple, Steve shrugs. “There are rumors, legends. Did you know that there’s a story about a man who walked through the fires of London, inviolate?”

A snort escapes Tony. “Inviolate? Really?”

Steve knows him too well to fall for it.

“In Germany, there are legends about a man that walked away from explosions like they couldn’t touch him. In Russia, there’s a story about a grand sorcerer who defeated death himself in battle and stole his scythe for a trophy. In Rome, there was a priest who lived to the ripe age of five hundred before he disappeared with the fall of the city.”

Steve looks older than his ninety and change when he asks, “How many of those stories are you?”

Tony tilts his head back as far as it will go, stares at the blue, blue sky, feels the city underneath him. He can sense every living thing in the concrete maze of Manhattan and further, further. There is something stirring in the south, cold and angry and familiar. He almost smiles.

“Eat your apple, Rogers.”

+

There is a plantation burning in front of him. Slaves are running scared while up in the house, the owners try desperately to restore order through sheer willpower. They will die, if they do not move soon. The fire is big and the wind strong.

A man named John Anthony stands at the edge of the burning cotton field, nothing more than a traveler passing through. He thinks, involuntarily, of Loki, of fire and heat and ash.

It’s strange how, centuries after the god left him – in the evening, not the morning – fire still reminds him of green eyes and a smile full of teeth. So very strange.

+

It’s getting harder and harder to find places untouched my man these days. Some parts of the African desert, the Outback, Antarctica. And even there, traces are becoming visible, like bodies unearthed with the melting snow.

Tony remembers when all the world was empty and humanity only an accident of genetics, only a passing foible of evolution. Oh, what they have wrought since then.

And they control themselves, control the world around them so well that there’s no chance anymore for a little black death, a little flood, a little plague. Even their wars have become games of technology and tactics and he should know. He helped make it so.

Too many are born, not enough die. Someday soon, and he uses that as a relative term, this civilization will collapse under the strain of its own weight and then there’ll be silence again.

Until then, a cave in the heart of Australia will have to do for solitude, for peace. He floats himself onto a rock dais so as not to leave footprints, lies there on his back and stares into the darkness, wondering when the world became so terribly, terribly tamed, so ordered.

Ordered enough to track his name and his legends through two thousand years and all continents, through myth and mystery and truth. London burning. He remembers London burning, hotter than the merciless sun outside this cave.

He walked the writhing streets of the city in agony and perhaps there was a god of fire and tricks at his side. Perhaps it was the man’s son, instead, with slit pupils and sibilant songs. He smelled of soot for weeks, like it sunk into his very bones, ashes and dirt.

So different the world was then, only a blink of the eye ago.

He feels lost.

+

After Fenrir, others sometimes come calling, always in the shadows, always where they think the human sorcerer can’t see them.

There is the girl who comes most often, a slender thing of maybe fifteen. She keeps half her body wrapped in cloth, keeps half her face covered by a thick curtain of hair, as black as her father’s. She smells of sweet roses and moist soil, of decay and death.

Antonius makes her an amulet once, a copy of the spell cast over the hole in his chest and his twisted, too strange features. Cover. Camouflage. He has Loki give it to her and the next time she comes by, she smiles with her entire face and she’s beautiful, despite the lingering smell of rotting flesh.

+

“Kiss me,” he says, one hand buried in Steve’s undershirt, the other holding him upright. “Kiss me.”

“Tony?”

“Come on,” he urges, only half-drunk but completely delirious, mad with the desire to have this man, this hero, this child, the only person in so long to look at him and see, edges and holes and ugliness. “Come on.”

Steve hesitates. Right. Modern day morals. This is the wrong century, the wrong society. But Tony has always been selfish. “You keep trying to make me a better man. Maybe you’ll rub off on me.”

He tries to make it suggestive, but it only sounds desperate. Raw. Steve stutters, gutters, starts again. “Tony.”

And Tony, tugging on his shirt, simply says, “Please.”

Steve shakes his head.

+

The snake comes less often, encumbered on land the way he isn’t in the endless seas that are his domain. The sorcerer never sees more than the giant head and the first few hundred yards of his body. The rest loses itself between the trees, across hills.

Sometimes he twitches, like someone is hurting the unseen parts of his endless coils, but it never seems to truly disturb him, to cause true damage. He bends low to whisper in his father’s ear the news of all the worlds and Loki strokes the scales on his nose rhythmically, intently.

Stories about lindwyrm start cropping up in the surrounding villages and people come to the sorcerer’s hut to beg for spells of protection. Antonius always provides, to the soundtrack of Loki’s bitter laughter ringing in the background.

+

“Where will you go?” he asks, sitting by the door in the dark, waiting for Loki, who is trying to sneak away in the dark, to flee like a thief into the night.

The god of tricks shrugs as he stops next to Antonius. “I have a score to settle.”

The sorcerer looks up at him and in the dim light of the moon and stars, green eyes look black and glitter with hate. A lesser man might have lost his edges in the many, many years the god had been stranded here. Loki is not a lesser man. His edges have only grown sharper, his hatred colder.

There will be blood, wherever he chooses to go. Whenever.

Antonius stands to collect a kiss goodbye, teeth and tongue and a clash of limbs. Hungry. Always so hungry.

He smirks as he licks blood from his thumb after wiping his mouth, says, “Try not to burn this world. I’m rather fond of it.”

Loki laughs, sharp and hard, like glass shattering. He is gone the next moment, like a breath of air, like magic. Antonius remains in the dark for a long time.

Silence.

The next night, Fenrir starts howling in the woods and the world trembles. Hel clenches her fists at her sides and a plague sweeps across the land. Jormungandr coils tightly, flooding continents, drowning thousands.

Loki Liesmith has abandoned this world and his children.

“Hush,” the sorcerer whispers into the wind, a lullaby for new orphans.

Eventually, they do.

+

He watches them, sometimes, as they play in the shallow water of a random ocean, as they sit next to each other on park benches around the world, as they sleep, curled into the Midgard Serpent’s coils.

He watches them for hints of fire and never finds them. Oh, they have their father’s coloring, yes, have his dark hair and winter-skin, his piercing eyes. Hel has his cleverness and Fenrir his ferociousness. Jormungandr has his patience, his trickery. All of them have his sense of humor. All of them have his capacity for love to the point of madness.

But none of them burn the way their father – mother, parent – does, incandescent, hot and cold at the same time.

He is never quite sure whether to pity them or be relieved.

+

“What is he doing here?” Romanov asks, pointing at him, a sneer on her pretty face. They’re on the bridge of Fury’s pretty flying boat, meeting for the first time, all of them.

Avengers.

Steve already looks tired, Banner is jumpy and Natasha wants to murder someone. Fury glowers and Thor stands by the conference table, looking shattered. It was him, him and Steve that brought in the god in the arrest cell below their feet.

Tony glimpsed Loki only briefly before ducking into a maintenance room, eyes fluttering shut, letting the old familiar sensation of ice and fire run down his spine.

“He’s here to help,” Steve answers, gearing up to defend a man who never deserved it.

Tony puts a hand on his arm. “Cap,” he says, “Let the pup be.”

+

“I think,” Thor announces, later, in the Banner’s lab, “That my brother would have enjoyed your company, sorcerer, once upon a time.”

“Yeah?” Tony shrugs, spins a random gadget between his fingers. Brother. Loki. He can still feel him, thrumming through layers and layers of metal, and he knows Loki feels him, too.

“Yes. Loki enjoyed battles of wit as much as you do, before.”

Tony makes a noise of vague interest, remembering the battles he used to have with the god, green and black, fire and rage. They tore down forests and mountain ranges in their fights, razed cities if it pleased them. So long ago. Almost a thousand years. Even the children visit only rarely now.

Thor nods, sorrow weighing his head down. “He fell,” he finally says, his voice even and normal. A whisper, coming from the god of thunder.

Tony doesn’t ask, who pushed him?

He doesn’t say, I’m sorry, either.

Just nods and turns to poke Banner with a stick again because he can.

+

There are flames licking at the edge of his mind and he can hear Loki’s laughter, if he only listens.

He doesn’t dream anymore, not really. Not for a thousand years or more. But sometimes, in his too still sleep, something sneaks up on him, memory, distant reality.

A god, perhaps, with fire and ice in his hands, floating in the darkness of space, hatred on his face and laughter pouring from his mouth.

He finds himself hoping against hope that just this once, the dream is actually that.

+

Howard and Maria die in a car crash, together, as they should. Tony, a second cousin twice removed – on Howard’s side, of course – is asked to speak at the funeral.

He gets absolutely blitzed before it’s his turn and when he finally steps up on the stage, all he says is, “I will do my best to keep their legacy alive.”

He smiles widely for the paps and doesn’t throw things until the cameras are all gone.

+

“Fury wants me to join your little club,” Tony announces as he throws himself across Steve’s bed one evening, limbs akimbo.

“The Avengers?”

“No. Your other club. The ‘I ask dumb questions’ club.”

Steve raises an eyebrow in a move he definitely learned from somewhere. “Bad day?”

“How’d you figure?” Tony shoots back, raising only his head.

Steve shrugs. “Just a guess.”

“You could kiss it better?”

That earns him a laugh. And then a kiss. A peck on the cheek, really, an innocent thing. He grins, happy anyway, and pulls Steve down on top of him for a moment. Too long. A big hand lands on his chest, heavy and warm. Beneath it, a spell simulates a heartbeat and Steve believes the lie.

He buries his head in Tony’s neck, says, “Sometimes I wonder how many people you’ve kissed.”

Tony curls fingers into short, corn blonde hair, holds on tight. Wonders if this is why Steve never lets him closer than he already has, never lets him have. “Jealous?”

A headshake. “Wondering how many of them you’ve forgotten.”

Too many. Not nearly enough.

“I guess I just don’t understand why you’d want to live forever when you hate it so much.”

Tony laughs because hate? Does he really hate it? The wars, the dying, the people he loves, like mayflies in the dark? The endless struggle, the endless change, the utter stagnation? Yes. He hates it. Yes. He loves it.

He pulls Steve up by the scruff of his neck so they’re facing at each other and there’s something like laughter in his eyes as he asks, “You’re not hungry at all, are you?”

Steve doesn’t get it. That may be the most beautiful thing about him.

+

It’s 1944 when Steve and his Howling Commandos get caught in a trap and cornered, somewhere high up in the alps, far beyond enemy lines and any help. They are the help.

So they hunker down in an old barn, count their bullets and their rations and start praying because this time even Steve’s acrobatics aren’t going to get them out. The mountainside beyond the rotting wooden walls of their hiding place are crawling with Nazis.

“Not lookin’ so good,” Bucky observes on day three, chewing on the inside of his cheek, devil-may-care attitude out for all to see, except for Steve, who knows the right angle to look.

He opens his mouth to answer, to give his friend some sort of hope, when the doors are suddenly blasted down. Every gun they have is aimed at the intruder and firing before they even have time to look.

There are no screams. No bodies hitting the ground. Only a familiar voice snapping, “Shouldn’t you be saving those bullets?”

Captain America calls for his men to hold fire and watches as the dust settles to reveal Tony, dressed casually for a stroll in the woods. His hands are spread at hip height, fingers splayed. Lightning crackles around them. In a half circle at his feet, dented, crumpled bullets lie.

Nobody moves, until, “Tony?”

Tony shifts to look at Steve and his eyes are… dark, dangerous, deadly, deity. “Yeah?”

Behind him, in the light from the open barn door, a man comes creeping closer, gun held at the ready. They all bring their guns up again, ready to fire, but Tony is faster, flicks the fingers of one hand in the general direction of the enemy. The man drops dead without a sound.

Silence.

“Did you think they hired me for my pretty face?” Tony eventually asks.

Not even Bucky has a smart comeback and their path down the mountain is marked by a trail of bodies, none with a single scratch on them.

+

“Have you… heard from him?” Hel asks, tucking a dark curl behind her ear, smiling shyly, wryly.

She still smells of flowers, even after all these centuries of perfecting her own glamour, but the scent is no longer sickening. Tony misses it, in his own way.

“Sorry, my lady,” he apologizes with a dry grin, shrugging his shoulders.

Loki is lost, has been lost, for a thousand years, almost, and none of them can hope to find him. Still they search. Hel hasn’t been in Helheim in many, many years, preferring instead to wander the worlds with her brothers, searching.

It is Thor’s presence, Tony thinks, that has brought them back to Midgard. Hel told him all about it, New Mexico in flames. Tony wonders if he recognized her, his own blood, his family, as she stood before him in a mortal shell.

Doubts it.

“Darcy!” The Thunderer’s ladylove calls somewhere beyond the door.

Hel jumps, blinking bright eyes. She fashioned this glamour after Tony’s looks. All he sees is the half dead girl that possesses all of her father’s grotesque beauty and none of his rage.

“Go,” he says, jokingly, “before she comes to collect you.”

Hel smiles at him, crookedly, warmly, and kisses his cheek before walking out, the scent of flowers trailing after her like a ribbon.

+

There is an echo of power, like attracting like, for a split moment, before an explosion rocks the ship and all hell breaks loose. In the wreckage of the lab, Tony closes his eyes and searches for the echo of Loki, finds a man with frozen over eyes, blue like the cold, and burrows into his chest, finds an image of the god of chaos grinning back at him, hollowly.

He casts it out.

Grips it with both hands and casts it out.

Elsewhere, Clint Barton gasps back to life. A moment later, he starts subduing his erstwhile allies. In his cell, Loki curses, low and viciously.

+

He thinks he can feel them, sometimes.

The ones he burned and scattered, the ones that let the madness take over the hunger.

Rasputin was only one of a handful. The sorcerer’s students, striving for his greatness.

His face was the last thing they saw, all and one, when they grew too dangerous to be left to wander.

He prays for them, when he remembers to.

+

“What was his plan?” Fury demands, studying the digital image of the still-trapped god. His plan failed, at least partially. They lost the Hulk, but they kept him trapped.

Barton shrugs, grimaces. He was trapped in his own mind for almost a week and it shows. “I didn’t need to know. Get here, get him out. Take orders. I don’t even know how I got away.”

Tony waves and then waves him off. “No biggie,” he tells the archer.

On the screen, like clockwork, Loki demands, “I wish to speak to your sorcerer.”

Everyone turns to stare at his expectant face turned toward the camera. “I know he is there. Bring him to me.”

+

Snow doesn’t melt in Loki’s grasp. It should, should steam and bubble, fire, fire, fire, but it doesn’t.

It just sits there, still and perfect, as the grounded god stares at it, green eyes narrowed in hate until the pup gets bored and noses at the cold, white fluff, sneezing as it freezes his face.

The sorcerer laughs as Loki lets his hands drop to his sides.

+

He sits by the edge of the sea, letting the waves lull him away, when something shifts, suddenly, below the surface. The deep is moving.

Jormungandr, Leviathan, Moby Dick.

The Midgard Serpent rises from the darkness like a shifting continent, rises only until his eyes are level with the sorcerer, sitting on a rock above the sea spray.

“Legless,” he greets the serpent.

Laughter rumbles like an earthquake.

“Heartless,” Jormungandr replies. “Watch,” he commands and slowly, so slowly, he starts to shrink until, an eternity later, a naked man drifts in the shallows below, panting harshly.

“Why?” the sorcerer asks, because he can’t fathom why a being as big as the world would voluntarily force himself into such a form, tiny and weak and dying.

The serpent looks up at Antonius after a moment, his eyes flashing reptile yellow. “I get lonely.”

So Antonius climbs off his rock and wades into the water, offering the World Serpent a hand up. He leads him onto dry land, one foot in front of the other.

He’ll need a new nickname for the kid now.

+

Maria is a small woman. Not only in body, but also in spirit. Oh, she has a heart the size of the world, but she always seems small. Unnoticeable. Folded into herself. She’d have to be, to share space with Howard Stark.

She slips into rooms like she has always been there, quiet, contained.

Tony only looks up because her shadow falls across his book. She smiles at him, shifts on her feet, then sits next to him, on the far end of the sofa.

Maria Stark loves him, he knows, for looking after her husband, for making sure he always comes home. She loves him. But she doesn’t like him at all, which is why this is a rare thing.

She folds her hands in her lap, demure and polite and asks, without preamble, “Do you care at all that Howard builds weapons?”

He closes his book, tucks it against his thigh and tilts his head, waiting.

“I mean, do you feel bad? About how we… how we just… shouldn’t we try to do good?”

“You just donated a million dollars to battered women’s shelters,” he points out, knowing the point she’s trying to make, but unwilling to concede it.

She glares at him, fiercer than he thought she was capable of. “Blood money used for good is still blood money!” she hisses, then looks away, folds again. “Are we bad people, for not caring?”

“You care that you don’t care,” he tells her, the only consolation he really has to offer. “That’s something.”

After a moment of stillness, she nods. Yes. “Do you care?”

“I care,” he allows. About some things. About Howard and Maria, about Loki’s children that have long since become his, beautiful and monstrous and forever beaten and unbeaten. He cares about Steve, eternally pure, eternally good, virgin sacrifice for a peace that never really came.

He cares.

Shrewdly, Maria meets his gaze. She is on the wrong side of fifty, dolled up in pearls and pastels, the typical society wife. She looks wiser than he has ever seen her and he wonders, against his will, what happened to shake her so. “But not about the millions of lives my husband’s creations take,” she observes.

A single life here, a dozen there, a thousand in a flood, a million in an earthquake. She doesn’t know, but there is a body buried under every fistful of soil she has ever set foot on. This world is built around death, around dying. Howard Stark did not invent murder. He just made it easier. Neater, if you will.

With a small sigh, Tony reaches for his book, opens it again, resumes his reading. As an afterthought, minutes later, he provides only a clipped, “No.”

+

“Loki,” Tony greets as he sits down in the chair Natasha left. He crosses his legs at the ankle, folds his hands in his lap and says, “I distinctly remember asking you not to burn this world down around our ears.”

Loki smiles and Tony feels it searing against his skin. Loki has always been fire, caged in ice, a flicker of the hottest flame behind a wall of frost. But he’s raw now, broken open like a wishbone, snap and gone. His fire is spilling out and it’s burning him. It’s burning him from the inside out.

Even empty and wanting to die, Loki No-one’s Son has never looked so broken.

“I remember,” he finally answers through that brittle, heated smile. “I remember. Tell me, sorcerer, why, of all the promises you could have extracted from me, it was this one you bound me to?”

His words are a jumble, his speech long and winded and complicated. He’s tripping over his own tongue, his own words, madness glinting off his teeth.

Tony knows the signs. Tony feels the sorrow. Another broken lover, another lost companion.

When he folds his hands across his stomach and doesn’t answer, Loki sneers viciously at him. “Is it perhaps, that you think you own this world, this paltry little rock full of insects attempting desperately to murder each other?”

Tony wonders, absently, what the Avengers are thinking, staring at them through little screens, listening, wondering.

“Why not?” he finally speaks. “I’ve been here the longest. If anyone has a claim to this world, I’d like to think it’s me.”

Loki tilts his head and trails his fingers along the pane of glass that no more keeps him than chains or muzzles could. He is trapped because he wants to be. “And what will you do, when you finally tire of it, the way you tire of everything? Will you burn it, like you’ve burnt your students? Or will you entomb it, the way you do your mortal possessions, your studies, your homes?”

Biting back a snarl, Tony corrects, very precisely, “I didn’t burn them because I tired of them, little god.”

That smile again, bright, bright, bright, brittle, broken. “Of course not. You freed them from their madness, you saved them. You gave them immortality and when it drove them mad, you took it away. Tell me, sorcerer, who gives you the right to decide who lives and who dies?”

“What are you trying to do, Loki? What happened to your quest for justice?”

“And who,” the god continues, unperturbed, “will judge you, when your time comes? When the madness finally takes you and the echo of your empty chest rings too loudly in your head. Who will burn you, when you finally become the monster?”

Between one thought and the next, Tony stands. Another thought and he flits through his own reflection in the bulletproof glass, explodes back into existence with his hand already around the god of lies’ throat, pushing them both backwards until he sits, straddling Loki’s chest.

He leans down low, low enough to kiss and asks, very sweetly, “What makes you think, Loki No-one’s Son, that that time hasn’t long since passed?”

Hands turning his lovely neck black and blue, Loki still laughs. “So is this it, then? Are you just waiting for your executioner?”

“Are you?” he shoots back and finally, finally, the god falls still under him. Oh. Oh.

“Are you asking me to kill you, Loki?”

The god shakes his head. Behind them, the door finally bursts open and the Avengers, led by Fury, pile into the room. Thor calls for his brother and Steve holds him back, eyes hollow. Tony looks away from them, down at the god below.

“Not me, old friend,” Loki finally allows. “The monster behind the curtain. The puppet master.”

“You’re afraid of him.” Tony observes.

Loki’s hands move, twining fingers around his wrist, holding on instead of pulling. Loki’s eyes are green and all bled out. “I thought, when I found your rune circle, when I understood what you had done to yourself, how viciously desperate you are, that there was nothing in this universe that could terrify me more than you. But I was wrong.

“He found me while I was trying to claw my way back to Asgard. And he utterly terrifies me.”

Very slowly, Tony lets him go.

+

“What was he talking about, Tony? In there? What…” Steve looks forlorn. Close by, Clint and Natasha linger, Bruce half hidden behind them. They all wait and stare.

Loki, chained and bound between half a dozen guards, watches with laughter in his mad eyes.

Tony rubs his face. “I’ve told you, Steve. You know what he was talking about.”

“I remember. But you can’t have literally…”

Stepping closer, Tony grabs the blond’s wrist, brings it up to his chest. He lowers the illusions just enough for Steve to feel what no living thing has ever seen, a wound in the center of his chest, a gaping, open, never healing hole where a heart once was. A ruin. A mockery.

Steve turns white, then green, then white again, jerks his hand back and stumbles, would fall if not for Clint’s quick reaction. Steve’s face is drawn in horror, sheer, naked, desperate. He holds his hand away from his body like it’s poisonous, contaminated.

Tony smiles, crookedly, and meets Loki’s gaze. There is satisfaction there.

+

He walks in the desert for a long time after he takes Yinsen to a safe place.

He walks in the sand, rolls down dunes, stands, keeps walking. Tries to find himself in the dust and the heat and the wind, tries to remember who he was before he became a Stark.

He realizes, eventually, that he can’t remember.

Is he the man he was during the war? Is he the man who kissed Captain America, or at least tried to? The man who walked through burning London? The man who finally slew Rasputin? Is he the god Gilgamesh prayed to, the deity Babylon knelt for? Is he the boy in the streets of Rome, easily bought for a meal and a coin? Is he the creator or the destroyer, the mercenary or the noble who buys them? Is he the oldest thing on this planet, or is he the infant that once squalled against the cold and the hunger in a barren cave in a land no-one now remembers?

He began in a cave, so perhaps it would have been right to end in one. He could have buried himself there, under rubble and the bombs with his name on them. Perhaps it would have killed him. Perhaps his conscious would have sunk into the stones eventually, would have seeped through the soil until it filtered away to nothing.

But he didn’t even consider it. Not for a moment did he consider letting those men kill him. Not for a second did he consider stopping.

In the end, he thinks, that means he is still the man that took a knife to his own chest and held his heart up to the skies, roaring defiance while soaked in his own blood.

+

... And that's it. That's where it died. Sorry.

Chapter Text

+

like an army, falling

+

“Fuck!”

Tony gasps back into life with a scream and a curse, fire in his veins and Armageddon in his chest. He pulls at the tubes in his face, at the gauze across his chest, feels panic squirm in his gut and knowledge settle in his brain like a long lost friend, returning with a sledge hammer.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” a calm voice breaks through the haze and he stops. Breathes. His lungs try to inflate and stop after three fourths of the way. The gauze finally rips and his hand touches body-warm and blood-slick metal, round and hard and inside.

Wires. There are wires, leading from the thing, away, toward –

“What did you do?” he croaks, vision flickering.

“I saved your life.” The voice turns into gentle hands, prying his fingers off the metal, off the… the thing, guiding them into his lap. “There was too much shrapnel to remove. This magnet is keeping it out of your heart.”

Shrapnel. Bomb. Attack. A magnet. Electro magnet, Tony’s mind supplies. Has to be, the battery. In his chest. Keeping the shrapnel from his own bomb out of his heart and fucking hell, he’s…he’s…. he’s…

He laughs.

It starts as a dry rasp and turns into a coughing fit of panicked giddiness until he finally slumps back on the cot he was lying on, his chest still bare.

The man with the gentle hands stills above him. He brushes a few remaining threads of gauze away and stares. “You are healed. How are you…”

Tony’s laugh turns hollow and then tapers off. Somewhere close by, water drips noisily from the ceiling. “You didn’t save me,” he says. “I died. And you put this thing in me and now I can’t heal. I can’t…”

He chokes on spit and tastes metal.

+

“If I cut it out…” Yinsen offers a week later, apropos of nothing, after a week of Tony carrying a battery around speaking in tongues in his sleep. “Will you be able to heal as you have before?”

His fingers are twitching again, like he wants to touch the perfect, smooth skin surrounding the hole in Tony’s chest. No scar tissue. No damage. It’s like the thing has always been there.

Tony shakes his head, never taking his eyes off the calculations he’s working on. He doesn’t want to talk. He can’t. There is a hole in his chest and it’s eating him alive.

“My kind only die twice,” he supplies after a long silence, putting down his pencil stub, looking at the human.

He doesn’t blame Yinsen. The man did his best. He had to no way of knowing that Tony… he had no way of knowing.

“And what, Mr. Stark, is your kind?”

Tony wonders, absently, if Yinsen has always been so calm, so unshakable, or if this cave has made him so.

He quirks his lips into the approximation of a grin. “Does your religion have a concept of angels, Yinsen?”

His back itches. Yinsen freezes. “Are you saying you are…?”

“I used to be.”

+

Yinsen dies.

Yinsen dies and Tony stops caring.

And maybe he also stops being sane, just for a little while. Forget bombs. Forget the missiles strapped to his thighs or the reactor in his heart. Forget flame throwers. Yinsen is dead.

Sword of fucking fire.

He doesn’t stop until the entire valley is melted into fucking glass.

+

He used to sleep on his back, sprawled widely, open and fearless, a king at the heart of his kingdom.

He sleeps on his stomach now and whether that is because of the light in his chest of the wings curving at his back, is anyone’s guess.

+

“Tony,” Obie says, calm and sweet, smooth like molasses and lies he’s been telling for years. “Tony, Tony.”

Like Tony doesn’t know, like he can’t smell the deceit, can’t see the rage flickering behind the older man like its own being.

To be fair, he wouldn’t know, if he were still human. If he hadn’t died, he wouldn’t know and this would be the end.

But he did die. And he does know.

He catches Obie’s hand before he can push the button on the paralyzing device, twists it behind his back and puts his free hand on Obie’s forehead.

“Obadiah,” he says, and he’s crooning, too, whisper low and full of promises. “My best friend,” he says. “My godfather,” he says.

And then he says a word that no living being has heard in a thousand years and the earth quakes and the sky shakes and Obie burns.

+

He saves a bus full of people from an unfortunate demise, blows up a few buildings and finds a man in his living room, wearing an eyepatch and an angry scowl.

“If you’re another reporter trying to figure out where Stane went, I’m calling the cops,” Tony informs him, sweetly.

The man barks a laugh.

“You think you’re the only superhero? That you can make the world your playground and there’ll be no consequences? You have become part of a bigger universe, Mr. Stark.”

Tony laughs and laughs and laughs.

+

The thing is, Nick isn’t wrong.

Heroes. Villains. His terms are quaint and far too small for the truth, but they’re not wrong.

Tony rushes through the dark with a rustle of wings, perches on rooftops and lampposts, watches.

Heroes.

Villains.

New terms for an old war, new words for an old fight.

Demons, they would have called something like Doctor Doom and the Mandarin once, but there is nothing demonic about them. They are human and all the lines blur.

Tony sleeps on his stomach, drinks himself into oblivion until he collapses and still has wings in the morning.

+

He takes one look at her, fire hair and diamond eyes, and he knows.

“How long have you been awake?” he asks as soon as they’re alone.

Her wings rustle behind her, looming and dark, shadows against the wall, and the weaving around her body falls away. Her curves melt into nothing, her hair shortens, her statue shrinks. She’s a girl of twelve, maybe less, dressed in a soft skirt and a childish t-shirt, her face rounded and sweet and open.

Tony gags.

Their kind only dies twice.

Once to awaken and once to fall into oblivion. In between they don’t age. In between, a day or a century can pass.

“Natasha,” he says, her name rolling off his tongue as familiarly as all the others she’s worn over the years. “Jesus fuck, how old were you?”

“Eleven,” she answers, her voice bell bright and her wings quivering.

He reaches out a hand to her, reels her in and wraps her up, feathers and arms and what passes for grace, these days.

She sighs into his shoulder and holds on for a long time.

+

At the breakfast table, a week later, she flickers in and out. Girl, woman. Girl, woman. Human and other.

Tony leans against the counter across from her and watches.

“Have you…?”

“One of them,” she shrugs, sipping from her juice glass with both hands, small again for a second and then an adult as she picks up her toast. Only the eyes stay the same. “Clint is with SHIELD, too.”

She says Clint, but there’s a dozen other names ringing within the word, a dozen connotations and memories and versions.

They don’t use those names anymore. They’re not those ….they’re not that anymore.

“None of the others?”

There are seven of them left, after the last cataclysm, the last end. Only seven of what was once legion. Only seven that chose to stay.

Natasha shakes her head. “No.”

+

They never fly together.

It doesn’t feel right, only two of them. The sky feels empty, wrong.

Natasha goes flying almost every night and he remains behind, buried to the elbows in some new attempt at saving his own life, wondering, with drooping wings, why he bothers.

One night, Pepper, still angry, but weirdly apologetic at the same time, pops into the ‘shop. She carries a mug of coffee with her. A peace offering. There is a cartoon drawing of an angel on it, and some sort of joke written beside it. Cheap and novelty and stupid, just how Pep likes her mugs.

Tony doesn’t touch it and Pepper stands there, waiting, until Natasha enters from the garage side and takes a long look at them, accepts the mug and puts it down next to Tony on his work bench.

“Get that thing the fuck away from me,” he tells her politely.

“Stark,” the redhead scolds, spell woven tightly around her, “We are…”

Were,” he corrects. “We were. Get it away from me.”

+

There was war in heaven, just like the good book says.

And then there was war on earth and then there was war everywhere and the sky was red with angelblood.

It’s been eons since then and he has long since moved on to other worlds, but they still fight. They fight and they die and they are reborn to die again, die twice.

They were made to be soldiers. What else would they do?

+

“Clint found… another,” Natasha says, changing what she was going to say at the last second. “In New Mexico. The reports says he fell from the sky.”

“A hundred bucks says I know who that is,” Tony offers, eyes crinkling with laughter because only one of them would ever choose to return this way. Only one.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “No bet,” she declines. “How far along are you with this?”

She points to the schematics to the new reactor. Different. Better. Impossible. He snags the projections away from her and flings them at the far wall. “Takes too much,” he snarls as JARVIS obligingly turns the image to nothing.

“Too much what?” she wants to know.

He lets the sad, tattered edges of his grace flare, for just a second, impossibly bright. Impossibly dim to those that know what it used to be, before.

They die twice.

And every death costs them, just a little. He calculates, sometimes, late at night, how many more cycles they have left. He doesn’t like the answer.

And still he returns, still all seven of them return, time and again.

They know no other way.

Natasha’s hand covers his, small and fragile and pale. “We’ll help,” she says.

+

Between the three of them, they just manage to kickstart his new reactor. His heart.

He inhales, exhales, smiles at Clint, whose arm is slung around Tasha’s narrow shoulders.

“Fuck palladium,” he tells them, and Clint laughs.

+

“Calls himself Thor, this time around. Fucker got himself reborn on the other end of the universe, how sick is that?”

Tony snorts at Clint’s monologue and pointedly turns off the lights, snuggling in around Natasha. Clint huffs, then mirrors him.

They sleep cocooned in feathers and light, dreaming of what came before.

Dreaming of what follows after.

+

And then I realized I'd need plot and also to include Steve somehow and I hate Steve, so no.