They ended up not finding a pond until close to dusk, by which point Steven had somehow managed to paint a purple star onto Astron's chest while the dragon had been sleeping. Astron was not particularly pleased by this development and got his revenge by splashing Steven every chance he got. Tony was glad he'd left his leathers a good distance away, since he ended up getting very wet as well. His undershirt was soaked through by the end of it, and Tony sighed, hoping the fire wouldn't take too long to start tonight.
He looked at his reflection in the water once he'd moved a little ways away, seeing a much younger face than he was expecting staring back at him. He shivered, wondering how he was going to explain the fact that he looked about twenty-five to everyone. At least he didn't appear to be beefing up like a super soldier. He did need to fit into his armor when he got back home, after all.
Thankfully, the fire was already roaring by the time he got back. Tony sat by it as soon as possible, trying to dry off his shirt. "You two are worse than children. Seriously, a king and a dragon. You'd expect them to be regal. Instead they think they're Laurel and Hardy."
"Who are Laurel and Hardy?" Steven asked.
"What? That's one even you should get, old-" Tony cut off, remembering that he wasn't talking to his Steve. Of course some fairy tale king wouldn't get that reference. "Never mind."
"You should get out of those clothes," Steven said, sensing well enough to leave the subject alone. Tony looked over at Astron, who was still playing around in the pond, splashing and diving. "Did he just catch a fish? And then eat it? Sushi is one thing, but-"
"Tony," Steven said in a very familiar tone of voice.
Steven was already without a shirt, the wounds he'd taken on display. Tony looked down at his undershirt, shivering silently. "Whatever is under your garments, it will not offend me," Steven said. "I've fought many wars against tyrants trying to take my kingdom and have seen the scars they leave behind. My own chest is not a sight for children anymore."
Tony took a deep breath. "I didn't get this from fighting a battle." He'd been running away when he'd been hit, watching those who'd stayed behind to protect him fight and die. The arc reactor was gone, but even Extremis hadn't been able to heal all of the scars.
Steven knelt down beside him, his blue eyes serious. "That doesn't make them any less honorably kept. May I?"
His hands rested on the bottom of Tony's shirt. Tony closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded. He lifted his arms as Steven peeled the shirt off of him, shivering as the fire's heat was blocked by Steven's body. Steven laid the shirt neatly by the fire to dry before turning back to Tony and the scars from the arc reactor's hole. His hand reached out, tracing the scars with fingers that Tony knew were calloused from drawing and sword fighting. He shivered again, not because of the cold this time, looking up into Steven's eyes and seeing an unfamiliar emotion there. "Steven..." he said, his breath catching.
That was when a hissing and scratching silver monstrosity flew right between them. Tony fell backwards in surprise, scrambling to avoid Astron's claws. "What the hell?"
Steven was a respectful distance away now, his hands up in surrender. "Green is often considered a color of jealousy among my people," Steven said, looking far more amused than he should for someone who had nearly had his hand bitten off.
"Where I come from green is more about rage," Tony said, not wanting to admit that jealousy was a green-eyed monster.
"Is that so?" Steven asked innocently, obviously not fooled. Tony looked down at Astron, noting the bit of green mixed in with sulky yellows and angry reds. Tony wasn't sure what was going on here, but he had the feeling whatever the score was between the king and the dragon, Steven had just gained a point.
All of this had successfully distracted Tony from the scars, and past his initial reaction, Steven ignored them. As Tony pulled out Thor's stone to test it on the gauntlets, he decided he was grateful.
* * *
The black emptiness of space wasn't unfeeling or uncaring. It was just empty. The sky was full of stars, but there wasn't a single life out there, except the ones he had just destroyed. All those stars that were burning hydrogen like the fire in his lungs, and none of them able to give him the oxygen he needed. He was going to die alone out here, and there was no one who-
Tony woke with a scream caught in his throat, his fear tripling. He trembled, gasping for breath against the darkness as yellow fear and bright orange panic rippled through him.
"-down! Tony," he heard faintly in the distance. "Breathe. There is danger, but you must calm yourself. Tony."
Tony snapped out of it, blinking dazedly at Steven as he gulped in breaths of clean air. "Good," Steven said soothingly. "Calm down. And calm Astron. You need him close."
"What's..." Tony started, trying to stand but his still-trembling legs wouldn't hold him.
"Stay here. Get Astron to come to you." Tony looked up to where Steven was pointing. Astron was flying about, his eyes a terrified swirling yellow and orange.
"Think calming thoughts. Call him to you."
Oh, because that was easy. The urgency in Steven's voice made him try though. "Astron," he called out, trying to think of things that made him calm. It was a very short list. Maybe colors would help? Astron thought in colors a lot. Soft blues and purples.
Astron still wouldn't come down.
"Astron, come on," he tried again, then added, "Uh, please?" because please sounded like a thing he should use, right? He'd never been too good with manners, but he could apparently remember them when he was half-hysterical and in the middle of a panic attack if it would get the dragon to come down.
Manners was a go for panicky dragons. Astron finally fluttered down, his wings beating in agitation. He was trembling as much as Tony as he settled on Tony's shoulder, tail wrapping a little too tightly around his neck. Enough to cut off air and -
Tony's hand shook, but he managed to get the tail to loosen a little. He pulled Astron off his shoulder and into his arms, where they could tremble together. "Steven?" he asked finally.
Steven was making a circle with... was that salt? "Whatever happens, do not step outside of the circle," he said.
"You're outside of the circle," Tony said, his mind working through the haze of fear. "You're not-"
"I can't be in the circle," Steven said. "But I am protected against what's coming. You are not, and if you come out here, " he gestured to the outside of the circle, "you will call more of them and more would be extremely bad. I need your trust, Tony. No matter what, you cannot break the circle."
"Wait, I'm calling them? What am I calling?" Tony asked, because that seemed relevant.
"Yes, and I will explain after, but I need your word," Steven replied.
"I..." Tony bit down on the helplessness that brought back the panic. This was his fault. He couldn't even clean up his own messes.
"Promise me," Steven demanded urgently as the wind picked up.
"I promise," Tony said, hating each word.
"Then I promise I will be fine. Calm him, and do not let him leave either," Steven said before shouting something, and everything outside the circle went dark.
"Steven?" Tony half made to get up before remembering his promise. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He wouldn't be much good in this condition anyway. He and Astron needed to calm down. Steven hadn't left, even if it felt like he had. He was just on the other side of the circle that was very, very dark.
It really would help if the wind didn't sound like screaming.
Astron fluttered agitatedly in his arms. "Shh," he said, holding the little dragon tightly against him. "Hey, hey, Silverado. We're okay. Steven will be okay too, I promise." He hoped.
"Come on, sweet pea," Tony said, fighting the wave of fear that flooded through him. "I meant that. It's okay."
Tony got an image of the empty black. Alone. He swallowed, this time the fear not coming from the dragon. "It just feels like that. But there were..." Tony's throat went dry as he felt the mind pressed against his. "There were stars too. And now you're here, so not alone anymore."
Astron chirped, still radiating fear and anxiety. He flattened himself against Tony, proving to both of them that they weren't alone with the fast-paced heart-beat against Tony's chest. They sat like that for a long while, desperately ignoring the screaming of the wind and the blackness outside the circle. Tony's heart was pounding, but that meant he was still alive.
Finally, the black came down. He looked up just in time to see Steven fall to his knees. "Steven, you-"
"Don't you dare come out of that circle," Steven warned, his tone freezing Tony in place.
"But you..." Tony said, sitting back down.
"I am not hurt," Steven replied, taking shallow breaths. "Just weary. And if you come out now, you will call more magical terrors."
"So it was my fault," Tony said as Astron chittered unhappily.
"No, it was mine," Steven said with a sigh. He leaned against the nearby tree, and Tony wished he could at least be a shoulder to lean on. "Though you do attract more trouble than I bargained for. This shouldn't keep surprising me as much as it does."
"Did you know it takes months to form a bond with a dragon?" Steven said conversationally in a light tone that was at odds with how tired he looked.
"So you've said." Even Astron chirped in dismissal of the old news.
"Did you also know that it takes years to develop the bond enough for the dragon to be able to share its magic with the human?"
Tony's mouth went dry. "No. No. No magic. I don't do magic. I don't want magic."
"You have it anyway," Steven said, laying his head back against the tree. "And in spades. You may not want it, but you'll need some sort of training or you will call deadly magics every time you have night terrors."
Astron chirped, his eyes an anxious yellow. "I'm not talking to you," Tony said, his voice only just above a whine. "You gave me magic. I do science and you gave me the bane of my existence."
Steven chuckled softly. "More trouble than anyone could bargain for," he repeated, his eyes going distant. "Though I was that foolish once. Foolish enough to let you lead me into all sorts of..."
"We just met," Tony said as Steven trailed off, though he knew he wasn't the one Steven was thinking of. "Steve..."
"No," Steven replied. "I am not he, and you are not the dear friend of my memories. But it is so easy to look at you and forget that..."
Tony looked down. Yeah, it really was.
Astron hopped onto Tony's shoulder, nuzzling his neck and cheek. The now familiar weight rested around his neck. The others would find Steve. Hell, they might have even found him already and were now looking for him. He couldn't worry about Steve or about Rhodey's head wound until he got back.
Finally, Steven sighed. "You're both probably calm enough now. You can break the circle."
"How do I do that?" Tony asked, glaring at the salt in distaste.
"Rub your foot in it to disrupt it, or just walk out," Steven said with a snort.
While Tony was all for not touching things that have magic, he was also not above childishly ruining the perfect circle and the latter impulse won out as he kicked dirt over the salt. Steven smiled weakly, but didn't comment.
He sat down next to Steven as Astron moved to Tony's other shoulder with a disgruntled chirp. He was tolerating the king, but apparently wanted to be as far away from him as possible. "That sucked," Tony said, earning a laugh out of Steven.
"Eloquent as usual," Steven replied. "My magic is not what it used to be, but I should be able to put a block on yours."
Tony perked up at that, but his hopes were quickly dashed as Steven went on. "You will still need someone to train you though, or when your magic gets stronger - and it will, given your attraction to trouble - this will happen again."
"I should be breaking the laws of physics with legit scientific breakthroughs, not magic," Tony grumbled, ignoring the smugness on the other end of the bond. Bastard wasn't even sorry about it.
A quiet settled on them, and Tony hated quiet. It was like Steven was waiting patiently for Tony to break first, and he probably was. Unfortunately, the words that fell out of Tony's mouth were the wrong ones. "What happened to the me in this world?"
Steven stiffened beside him. "It was my fault," Steven said before Tony could start panicked babbling to brush it off. "Allow me to put on the block before worse happens."
"You still need rest," Tony said as Steven moved anyway. Steven's hands braced against Tony's temples, and he swallowed hard as he realized how close Steven was. "Will this hurt? And can I have an honest answer, not just 'it stings a little' and then have it hurt like a bitch."
"It shouldn't. You need to be still though," Steven replied. Tony could see a light blue out of the side of his eyes. He held as still as he could, Astron humming softly in his ear to help soothe his nerves.
He wasn't prepared for Steven basically collapsing in his arms a minute later. "Whoa, what-"
"Tired," Steven said against his shoulder. "You were right. Should've rested..."
"I'm always right," Tony said, trying to shift Steven's weight to a more comfortable position.
"Only sometimes," Steven murmured before sleep claimed him.
"How do you like that? Insulting me and then passing out to get the last word," Tony said, briefly resting his chin on top of Steven's golden hair. Astron just chirped, as if the fear and anxiety from earlier were completely out of his head. Tony wondered about the dragon's sense of time. He certainly didn't feel like Astron kept grudges - just an irrational dislike of Steven.
In the end, he shifted Steven until his head was lying on Tony's lap, and he could card his hands through Steven's hair absently. At least, until Astron snapped at his fingers, then he started scratching the dragon's eye ridges. Figures his dragon would be an attention diva.
He'd meant to stand watch, but he ended up dozing off before he realized it. He only woke when Astron started to lick behind his ear. "Quit tickling," he muttered, opening his eyes to glare. Astron stared back with swirling eyes and untameable hunger.
"No, go feed yourself," Tony said, stretching his shoulders and then regretting it. So sleeping against a tree was an extremely bad idea, especially for his neck. "Ow..."
He looked down at Steven, who was as still as death in his sleep. Cold too. His Steve was always like a furnace, but right now this one... Tony shivered, turning his thoughts away from dead bodies. This Steve was a little weird, but he was still breathing, and Cap would be too, when they found him.
Astron hissed impatiently.
"No," Tony said, pointing at Steven. "He's still sleeping. You have to get your own food if you want your breakfast. You did it well enough before Steven and I came along. Not everything is about you."
The dragon's head hung low at this, and Tony immediately felt guilty. "No, come here, you stupid dragon. I'm not angry," he said, scooping up Astron and hugging him against his chest. He sent feelings of love along the bond, finding it easier than last time. "I just can't move right now, so you have to get your own, okay?"
Astron seemed uncertain, and Tony scratched under his chin like he might a cat. "We won't leave you," he said. "We'll wait here until you come back, I promise. I'd never leave you. We'll be fine. We have to let Steven rest though, since he protected us."
That Astron understood and he chirped a grudging agreement. Tony hugged him once more before the dragon flew off.
Tony missed Astron's warmth already. He decided not to think about how the dragon basically had Tony wrapped around his little claw, because it had been one day and Tony was not that much of a push over.
Okay, maybe he was. But that didn't mean he would admit it.
He was a little hungry himself, but he'd missed breakfast often enough that going without wouldn't bother him too much. He sensed triumph through the link, but the hunger didn't wane. It was still going strong five minutes later when he heard the flapping of wings.
He looked up and saw a dead rabbit hanging from Astron's claws. Tony had seen quite a bit of death since becoming Iron Man, but staring right into the dead rabbit's terrified eyes still made him a little sick.
Astron, on the other hand, was absolutely beaming with pride. "That's great, buddy. Now you can eat," Tony said, really hoping now that he seen his dragon's kill, Astron would eat it somewhere out of Tony's sight.
But the little dragon didn't move to either eat or take it away. He chirped quizzically, apparently waiting on Tony for something. When Tony didn't do anything, he dropped the rabbit by Tony's side, then flew off again.
Tony tried to inch away from the dead rabbit as much as he could. It was going to attract bugs, wasn't it? Tony took a deep breath and grabbed the thing by the ears, tossing it a little further away. Then he wiped his hands on Steven's shirt, because he could still see the rabbit staring up at him and it made his skin crawl. Seriously, he was Iron Man. A dead rabbit killed by his dragon was what? Some sort of peace offering? Either way, he had handled worse. He totally could handle this.
Except the goddamned thing was still staring at him.
Tony whacked his head against the tree, wondering how this had become his life. Fucking magic.
It was a little while longer this time before he felt the triumph, and Tony started to worry when Astron's hunger didn't abate this time either. He wasn't wrong. This time when Astron came back into view, he had a still flapping fish in his claws and more pride. "Wow, you're not only a champion hunter, but a champion fisher. Good job, kiddo. Too bad sushi doesn't quite work like that."
Astron looked at the rabbit, then back at Tony, his eyes swirling a deep blue for sadness and light brown for confusion. He offered Tony the fish again, chirping his question.
And that was when Tony got it. Astron was trying to give him breakfast first. "That's... sweet," he said, trying not to flinch away from the smell of uncooked fish. He'd eaten a lot of weird things in his time (Don't get him started on drunken shrimp), but half-alive fish he was going to pass on.
Astron set the fish down by the rabbit, then chirped sadly, his head hanging down. "No, hey, you're good," Tony said, pulling the silver dragon into his arms as soon as he came close enough. "They're great, little guy, and you're a good hunter. You really are." He showered Astron with affection and pride, both through the link and his frantically spoken words.
He felt a hesitant question pushed through the link. What was Astron doing wrong?
Tony hugged him tighter, the fact that he'd made Astron feel like how his father used to make Tony feel made him sick to his stomach. "You didn't do anything wrong. You're amazing, Silver Bells, you are," he said, repeating the words until some of the dragon's worry abated. God, this was why he'd make a horrible father.
Finally, Astron looked at the rabbit and fish (that had finally stopped flopping around, thank God) and chirped quizzically without a trace of hurt.
Tony breathed a sigh of relief. At least he hadn't screwed up too badly. "You can eat them, but I can't. I have to have meat cooked," he said. Astron cocked his head to the side and chirped again.
"Uh, cooking." Still a blank stare. Tony tried picturing the stew and the fire from the night before and sent that to Astron. That got a reaction. "Cooking," Tony repeated. "I need it to eat those." He waved in the direction of the dead fish and rabbit.
He got a flash of light green in understanding, then Astron started to shake his wings. Tony got the hint, letting Astron down. Then Astron hopped over to the fish and the rabbit, and reared back on his hind legs.
Tony remembered at that moment that dragons were supposed to breathe fire. He'd never seen Astron do it, but that didn't mean he couldn't. And in the middle of the forest where there were lots of overgrown burnable things, an uncontrolled fire would be a disaster. Not to mention Steven was still a complete dead weight. "No, don't-" he started, but he was too late and-
And all that came out of Astron's mouth was an anti-climactic puff of smoke.
Astron let out a dismayed chirp, which just sent Tony into a laughing fit. The dragon's chirps changed to anger as Tony continued to laugh, a little bit of hurt showing through the link. Tony tried to control the chuckling, wiping away the tears. "Come here, Puff," he said. Astron's tail flicked angrily. "Yeah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have laughed. Please?"
The silver dragon came closer grudgingly, but Tony didn't waste a second scooping him up into his arms again. "I'm sorry," he repeated, surprised at how easy the words were. Usually a mixture of shame and pride plus a healthy fear of forgiveness kept him from saying that very often. But he'd do anything to soothe that hurt, and apologies and cuddles seemed to work the best.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I shouldn't have laughed at you. It's probably because you're a baby, so you'll breathe fire when you get bigger. We'll ask Steven when he gets up."
Though Tony was a little worried, since Steven still hadn't woken up. His Steve was a pretty light sleeper, and Tony and Astron hadn't exactly been quiet. But Steven hadn't even stirred.
"How 'bout this," Tony said. "You get me some berries or nuts-" He tried to send a clear picture of the berries from earlier and peanuts, and hoped that neither were poisonous. "-and then you can eat the fish and the rabbit."
It took awhile to get across that he didn't have to cook berries, but eventually Astron flew off with a bowl from their supplies between his claws. Tony only hoped that he wouldn't try to carry too much. The bowl had been pretty heavy to start with. Though he supposed the rabbit had been heavy too, so maybe it would work.
He ran his hand through Steven's hair once Astron had gone, checking his pulse. "Steven?" he tried, shaking him a few times. But Steven didn't wake. He bit his lip, feeling how chapped it was and picking at the dried skin. Steven was breathing, but he wouldn't wake up. Maybe he was just that exhausted? He really shouldn't have done that last spell. This was why Tony hated magic.
Astron came back with a bowl full of what looked like blackberries and walnuts. "Well, here goes," he said, trying one of the blackberry-like things. It didn't taste anything like a blackberry, but it was sweet and tasty, so Tony didn't mind. He also didn't die after eating it, which was always a plus. "Good job, little buddy. You're our official forager from now on. Now go eat your own meal."
For a smart little dragon, Astron took a lot of convincing that Tony was fine and could eat for himself. But once he was convinced, he attacked the fish and rabbit with the same amount of voracity as before. This time, Tony forced himself to watch and not lose his appetite. The latter didn't work as well, but he needed to start getting used to it.
It was noon before Steven stirred. Tony was glad. His back hurt, though admittedly it didn't hurt as much as it should for someone of his age. He was trying not to think about how much younger he felt.
He hated magic.
"Are you alright?" Tony asked, helping Steven sit up. Astron chirped neutrally from Tony's shoulder, apparently deciding to tolerate Steven for now.
"Been better," Steven said with a wince. "You..."
"I'm good. Nothing else attacked and Astron got breakfast. Berry?" He was a little disappointed when Steven refused the berry with a shake of his head. He could feel that it wasn't winning the king any favors with Astron either.
After getting Steven some water, Tony moved off to relieve himself, as that need had become rather pressing. He missed actual toilets and running water. He made a mental note to send all dragons to Clint after this, because he already used medieval weapons. This would be right up his alley.
When he got back, Steven had rekindled the fire. He looked better, though still a little pale. He looked up as Tony approached and smiled. "I apologize. I appear to have cost us half a day's travel."
Tony waved him off. "You saved us. Not going to argue. Want me to send Astron for another rabbit? He was put out I couldn't eat the last one. He even tried breathing fire to cook it."
"He what?" Steven looked at Astron in alarm. "He can already...?"
"Not really. All that came out was a puff of smoke. It was kind of cute."
Steven relaxed at this, shaking his head. "He shouldn't be able to breathe fire for at least a decade, but with the trouble the two of you attract, I don't know what to expect anymore."
Astron landed on Tony's shoulder, his tail taking its comforting place around Tony's neck. "Hear that, kiddo? You've got some growing to - hey!"
Steven laughed as Tony turned to glare at the dragon, who stared back with slightly annoyed orange eyes. "He bit my ear," Tony complained. It hadn't been hard enough to damage, but just enough to hurt, like a little pinch.
"I don't think he likes you thinking of him as a child," Steven said with an amused smile. Steven knew something Tony didn't, he could tell, and he looked back and forth between him and Astron to try to figure out what it was.
"Is this some kind of rebellious phase or something?" Tony asked. "Because I thought they were supposed to be cute and cuddly for at least a few years. What happened to being a cute ba-Ow!"
Steven laughed, though he sounded a little wistful. "You will understand eventually. Hopefully sooner than I."
"What-" Tony started to ask.
"We should have a light meal and pack up. We have already lost much of the day," Steven deflected.
Tony's eyes narrowed. "You know, the easiest way to keep these things from happening again is to tell me up front."
"In this case, it is better for you to understand it on your own," Steven said. "For I do not think you would believe me, even if I told you."
Tony rolled his eyes, but dropped it. They ended up helping Astron catch fish for lunch, which wasted more time at odds with what Steven had said and got Tony very wet, but it was nice seeing Steven happy. His Steve had a goofy sort of smile that he didn't always mean, but it was nothing like the smile Steven occasionally turned on him, the bright and happy one that Tony suspected was meant for someone else. He wondered what that smile would look like on his Steve. It was unlikely he'd see it directed at him though. There were very few people who smiled for Tony, and he had more than enough experience with people wishing he was someone else. After all, when did Tony Stark start to measure up to-
There was a very wet weight on his shoulder that started to soak through his shirt. Before he could tell Astron to dry off first, he felt the dragon's head pushing up against his cheek as open love and adoration pulsed through the link. Astron didn't want Tony to be anyone else. He wanted Tony, with the bright light in his chest that chased away the shadows.
Tony felt his throat tighten as he blinked, scratching Astron's eye ridges as the dragon hummed. "Thanks, buddy," he said quietly, sending some of it back through the link in return.
"It's like nothing you've ever felt before," Steven said, his voice soft and nostalgic.
"I don't deserve it," Tony admitted.
The humming next to his ear got louder and the feelings through the link nearly overwhelmed Tony. He felt his eyes go wide as Steven caught him before his knees gave out. "I don't think that is for you to decide, but for him," Steven said sagely. "What we deserve doesn't come into it. We can only cherish what love comes our way."
"Don't," Steven said, his voice sharp as he gripped Tony's arm harder for a second. Then he let go, stepping away. "I've missed my chance," the king said simply. "Now the only thing left for me is to try to set my mistakes right again. I owe him that much."
"I'm told revenge doesn't help," Tony said, not quite believing his own words. He'd sought revenge far too often, though most of the time it had felt empty rather than satisfied. Except for Senator Stern. That had been extremely satisfying.
But Steve, it wasn't like Steve to want revenge. He fought to protect people. To make things right again, but not because he wanted to hurt people, even a dragon. It didn't seem right.
"You would do well to live by your own advice," Steven said, his eyes going dark. He refused to say more, ignoring Tony's questions for the rest of the afternoon.
* * *
Despite what Steven had said about making up for lost time, they took traveling pretty slow for the rest of the day. Tony couldn't decide if Steven was still tired from the previous night's activities, or if he was drawing out his time traveling with Tony.
Tony was just glad Steven had started talking to him again. Astron was in good spirits at least, alternating between flying ahead and bringing Tony small berries or flowers, and sitting on Tony's shoulder, with his tail wrapped around Tony's neck.
The sun was just starting to set when they reached the edge of the forest. Tony's breath caught in his chest as he saw the burnt fields and broken weapons littered across the soiled ground. There were no bodies nearby, but there were the occasional bones scattered here and there and what looked like a human skull not too far off. "What happened?" Tony asked, the sunset making the scorched earth look red with blood, even though he knew that it was just his imagination.
"The dragon," Steven said, a pain in his eyes that looked like an old wound. He stared out at the field, not seeing what was before them. "This used to be a beautiful place, where the star lilies and silver hyacinths grew. It was one of Anthony's favorite places to-"
Steven cut himself off and Tony hesitantly reached out. "Steven?"
"I'm sorry," Steven said, closing his eyes. "This is a place of many memories. The good ones are nothing but sorrow now, and the bad..."
"The bad ones look like they sucked," Tony said, squeezing Steven's shoulder lightly. "You okay?" he asked, uncertain of what to do. Emotions were not his strong point.
Steven opened his eyes, staring out at the field with a blank expression. "It will pass."
Astron chirped next to Tony's ear, questioning and hesitant, as if he knew things were serious but couldn't quite grasp it. It was a childlike naïveté that Tony almost wished Astron would never lose. Tony wanted to send both Astron and Steven reassurances, but he wasn't sure how. "You could... talk about it? If you want?" Tony said.
"It would not change things," Steven snapped, shaking his head. "This was my burden to bear."
"Steven, it's not your-"
Astron flew off with a chirp, spotting something curious in the distance. Tony couldn't have said how he knew this, but he did. Steven frowned, his eyes following Astron's path.
Tony sighed. Fine. See if he tried to be emotionally supportive again. "Let's see what he's found," Tony said as he started out after his wayward dragon. He noticed with a start that there were actual bodies along this path further in the distance. He felt a sharp worry settle in his gut. Whatever Astron had seen, it couldn't be good.
Steven caught his wrist, stopping him from moving. Tony looked back, raising an eyebrow. "I apologize for my shortness with you," Steven said, fingers lightly tracing over the inside of Tony's wrist. Tony fought back the urge to shiver at the touch. "It is a difficult thing for me to speak of, but your offer was kind. I should not have spoken harshly."
"It's a-okay, Cap," Tony said as Astron had a rush of triumph.
Steven smiled crookedly. "It appears I am not the only one who mistakes one person for another."
"Steven. I meant Steven. Uh, Astron found something. So we should-" Tony paused, going over the feelings Astron was sending him. "Something I'm looking for?"
Steven's face went blank again. "Stay here. I'll-"
"Like hell," Tony said, unpacking the gauntlet and summoning it to his arm. It formed around his fingers. He didn't know if he'd need it, but Steven's reaction told him something was up. "You know something," he said suspiciously.
"I have a guess," Steven said, closing his eyes again for a moment. "I hope for your sake that I am wrong."
With those ominous words, Tony followed after Steven, a cold feeling of dread rising up again. He tried calling Astron back, but the dragon just sent happy pride for finding something Tony was looking for. Astron was guarding it and it was pretty.
"That body is more recent than the other ones," Tony said as they picked their way through the increasing number of full skeletons and half-decaying bodies. The stench of the dead was making him queasy and his eyes were watering. A glance at Steven showed that even the king had a hand over his nose. They had been upwind of it before, but now it surrounded Tony and he was suffocating.
"The dragon seems to be using this as a burial ground for its challengers. These ones obviously failed the dragon's trials," Steven replied. "You should stay back. You needn't see this."
Tony swallowed down the bile as he made his way around a much fresher body, shaking his head stubbornly. If this was the big dragon's way of intimidating them, it was admittedly working pretty well. But Tony needed to see this, because more people would end up like this if he failed. The dragon had to be stopped. It wasn't just about going home anymore. He hadn't realized... With only Steven in that big empty castle, the fact that other people were still in danger hadn't quite set in. He had to put this right.
A chirp from Astron showed them where he had hidden, and Tony could feel the pleased hum the little dragon was giving off. But when Tony saw what Astron was guarding, the world dropped out from under him.
Among the rubble and bodies was a round shield, a silver star in the dead center surrounded by red, white, and blue circles. There were familiar bullet marks just under the surface that the new paint job barely hid and that Steve always smiled sadly at.
Astron was playfully poking at the shield, marveling at the metal that felt so different from anything the little dragon had seen before. He rubbed the top of his head against the star, eyes closing with pleasure as he poked and rolled the shield closer. That was when Tony saw a different shade of red on the shield. It was the rusty red of dried blood.
The small dragon stopped, chirping hesitantly when he saw Tony wasn't happy like he'd expected. He sent Tony the image of Steve - his Steve, probably taken from Tony's own memories - dressed up as Captain America, but minus the cowl. The shield was on his arm, and he was smiling at Tony with the sort of exasperated fondness he got whenever he told the Avengers to cut the chatter on the comms.
Tony's hands curled into fists.
"This was where Steve went missing," he said.
Steven traced the edges of his own shield, a kind of empathy in his eyes that Tony didn't want to see. "There was another version of me a few months back. I could not help him as I have you, as there are... limits to what I can do." There was a genuine grief in Steven's voice which Tony ignored, staring at the shield since he couldn't take his eyes off it.
"I had hoped that he was from a different place from you, or that he was spared some how. The dragon sometimes shows mercy, and with his likeness I thought..."
Tony didn't want to hear the excuses or know how Steve could have been here for months when it had only been a week back home. He didn't want to hear the explanations. He didn't want any of it.
Astron chirped, obviously upset. He flew around Tony's legs before darting back to the shield, rolling it closer and nudging it towards him.
"Tony Stark, you are distressing your dragon," Steven said sharply.
That snapped Tony out of it, and he slowly unclenched his fists. Astron was still pushing the shield closer, only pausing to dart around it frantically every so often, his eyes swirling black and yellow in anxiety. Tony walked over, kneeling beside the shield. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice only cracking a little. "You did good finding the shield, little guy. I'm not angry at you. Come here, please?"
Astron looked from Tony to the shield, confusion and distress in his wings' jerky movements. He pushed the shield into Tony's hands, and Tony closed his eyes as he gripped the vibranium, then he set it aside. He felt Steven's hand on his shoulder, and Tony took what little comfort he could from it as he opened his eyes again.
"He's too young to understand death," Steven said, his voice soft and sorrowful. "You have to put it in terms he'll understand."
Which meant in pictures. Tony took a deep breath to steady himself, then sent the picture of Steve that Astron had taken from his memories. Then he took the shield away from the image, showing just Steve. Gone.
Astron looked at the shield, then sent the picture back of just Steve with a confused chirp. "Yeah, he's gone," Tony said, feeling empty. "Not Steven, Steve."
Instead of coming closer to Tony though, Astron chirped again, then flew off. "Wait," Tony said, watching the little dragon flying low over the field. "What's he doing?"
"You have shown him a picture of your Steven?" Steven asked.
"Of Steve, yeah."
"Then he is probably looking for the body."
The body. There was no body that looked like Steve nearby, but it made him sick to think that Steve's body may just have been dumped here with rest, left to rot and for carrion eaters to pick at. Tony wasn't religious, but Steve was. And Steve deserved so much better.
"If there is no body, there may yet be a chance," Steven said quietly.
"Would you have given up your shield?" Tony asked, taking the shield in his hands. The vibranium felt like no other metal he'd handled before, just like Steve had been unique and one-of-a-kind. Tony pulled the shield against his chest, letting Steven's silence answer for him. Besides, if it had been months in this place, the body probably wouldn't be recognizable anymore given the state of some of these more recent bodies. "Didn't think so. The big dragon did this?"
"Yes." Steven stared at the star on the shield for a while before continuing. "That shield could do you service in the dragon's den."
"Not as good as Steve would," Tony said, waiting for the feeling of triumph from Astron that would confirm what he already knew.
"Maybe not," Steven said, squeezing his shoulder. "But I would have wanted my Anthony to use it to protect himself. And I would be proud to have him use it."
"You don't know my Steve," Tony said a little hysterically. They were friends, sure, maybe moving towards something more, but their relationship was always a work in progress outside of battles. It had been getting better before this latest hiccup, but he didn't know where that left him now. He never would. "He was angry at me at the start of all of this. And now he's..." Tony cut himself off. He'd never be able to apologize.
"I know myself," Steven said, drawing Tony into a proper hug. Tony let him, fighting the stinging in his eyes when he realized his Steve would never do this. His breath hitched, but he fought to keep calm. He couldn't afford to break down now.
"And I know," Steven continued, and Tony latched onto his voice. It was just different enough that he could tell himself he wasn't searching for Steve's voice. "I know that no matter how angry I was with Anthony, I never stopped loving him. If there was anyone I would trust my shield to, it would be to him."
"We weren't as close as you and Anthony," Tony protested.
"You were close enough," Steven replied. "I see it in your eyes every time you look at me. You may not realize it yet, but I know you. And I see what I missed for all those years."
"What do you-" Tony was cut off by a distressed feeling from Astron, pulling away from Steven as he looked around. "Astron?" he called, feeling panic when he didn't see the little dragon anywhere.
"What's wrong?" Steven said sharply, his hand going towards his sword.
"I don't know. He's distressed, but I can't-" He caught sight of Astron in the distance, running to the little dragon as quickly as he was able to navigate through the sea of rusting weapons. Astron flew around him in circles until Tony managed to grab him by the middle, careful of the wings that were still beating rapidly instead of Astron's usual glide.
"Easy," Tony said, clamping down on his own panic. "Honey, what's wrong?"
Astron folded his wings, allowing Tony to hold him close. "Shh," he said, cradling Astron against his chest. "You're okay, Silverado. What happened?"
Tony got the picture of Steve without the shield that he had sent earlier, then a blank. "You couldn't find him?" Tony asked, getting an affirmative. "That's okay. You tried your best. You did enough finding the shield. Shh. It's okay, sweetheart."
Except it wasn't okay. Astron sent back the emotions Tony had been feeling earlier, then his own dark failure. "No, baby," Tony said, hugging the little dragon tighter. "Sometimes the right thing hurts. But you did right, showing it to me. It's just... It's not your fault Steve is dead."
Steve was dead. The words felt like they were torn out of him. God, what were the rest of the team going to say? They had just managed to form the team, and Barnes was still out there and Natasha was still recovering from the whole SHIELD mess. And Tony was going to have to tell them that Steve was dead.
He felt strong arms pulling him back against a chest that Tony could pretend for a fleeting second was Steve, and that things were okay. That he could give Steve back his shield, berate him for dropping something his father had made again. But the voice in his ear was older, more weathered, and there was no mistaking it. "You should take your own advice," Steven said as he held the both of them. "It's not your fault."
Tony closed his eyes, letting Astron curl around his neck and nuzzle. It was his fault for not finding Steve sooner. He'd been down in the lab refining JARVIS's search, but he could have done more. He could have...
He took a deep breath at Astron's anxious chirp, pushing the emotions away. He couldn't afford to do this right now. Maybe his Steve was good enough to fight for the right reasons and save people, but Tony wasn't. Steve wasn't here any more to lead him right either. The dragon had killed him.
Tony opened his eyes, looking across the wasteland in the last light of the fading sun to where he had left the shield. It glistened in the orange light, silver and white turning a more threatening color.
Tony was going to avenge Steve, even if it was the last thing he did. The dragon was going down.
* * *
They moved further into the dragon's territory before making camp for the night. Just enough distance to put the field and the smell of rotting flesh behind them. Tony sat by the fire, trying to clean the blood off the shield until it shone. He might not be deserving of it, but he would take care of the shield until he could find someone who was worthy. Maybe when Barnes got his life together...
Tony didn't want to have to think about this.
Steven and Astron were searching for dinner as Tony tended the fire and set up camp. The area was rocky with lots of hills to keep visibility poor, but Tony didn't give much thought to the surroundings beyond listening to Steven worry. He wanted...
"I told you, you're so self-absorbed!"
Tony nearly dropped the shield. He scrambled for it before it hit the ground, looking across the fire to see...
"You're alive," Tony said, his voice cracking on the words as he clutched the shield against his chest.
"No thanks to you," Steve said viciously.
Tony reeled back as if he'd been hit. Steve was in civilian clothes, and his eyes were burning with fury as he stepped closer. Tony realized with a start that it was the same white shirt that Steve had been wearing during their fight. "Steve, I-"
"Would you have noticed I was gone, or would you just have stayed in your lab till you passed out because your 'work' is more important than your team? No, don't tell me. You'd only lie again anyway. I can't trust you to be an Avenger!"
"That's not true," Tony said, swallowing heavily. "I was trying to find you. I wouldn't - I wouldn't lie about that."
"You were pushing yourself to exhaustion again, ignoring the fact that you could be called on at any minute. I bet none of the code you wrote even worked, but you wouldn't tell some one that, not if it meant someone else can step up and be better than you." Steve stalked closer, ripping the shield out of Tony's hands. "You failed when we needed you. And you failed when I needed you. You lied, which is about all you're good for, aren't you? You don't deserve the shield."
Tony looked down, not able to meet Steve's eyes. "The code worked. I can't just stop everything in my life, Steve! I can't..."
"Maybe not, but you could at least tell the truth," Steve said, his eyes cold. "If I can't trust you, you're not on the team."
"No, Steve, you don't know anything about-" Tony's anger drained away, seeing Steve on the ground, his shield on his arm. He was rotting like the bodies they'd seen earlier. "No. No. You were alive. Steve..."
"You're a liar, Stark. This was your fault."
Tony woke up, barely suppressing the scream on his lips. His heart was pounding, and he could feel his body trembling. He jumped at the fingers ghosting through his hair, looking up to see Steve - Steven staring down at him with a worried expression. Astron was also chirping drowsily, stirring in Tony's arms, and Tony clamped down on the link to keep from waking the dragon further.
"I'm fine," Tony snapped, pushing the covers off him.
"Of course you are," Steve said, but his voice wasn't condescending. "Sit with me a while?"
Tony had been all set to go off by himself to calm down where no one would judge him, but the offer caught him off guard. The off-kilter feeling was doubled by the love the now awake Astron sent that chased after the anger and grief the dream had left him with. "Astron," he choked out.
"Come," Steven said as Astron rubbed his head against Tony's neck. "Sit with me. It's a cold night and I could use the company."
Wordlessly, Tony stood on shaky legs, moving to sit by the fire with Steven. Astron moved to his neck, curling up with a hum and nearly overwhelming Tony with the flood of love and affection with just a hint of stubbornness any time Tony started to wonder what he'd done to deserve it.
Tony glanced across the fire to see Steve's shield, the fire flickering and reflecting off the metal as the soft crackling and burning wood overcame the sound of his labored breathing. Tony looked down again as a fresh feeling of grief hit him. He was met with redoubled love and affection from Astron, but even that couldn't chase away grief. Tony could lose himself in it though, and he almost wanted to.
"It's a little overwhelming when they do that, isn't it?" Steven asked, his voice gentle and soft.
"I... I don't deserve this," Tony admitted, then gasped as Astron nipped at his ear and shoved pictures of Tony into his mind. The one with the bright light shining through his chest and new ones, of Tony being warm curled around Astron, of letting Steven rest in his lap, of the tenderness in Tony's eyes as he smiled at Astron, and Tony comforting Astron when he'd failed. That must be wrong, because the sheer kindness Astron saw in Tony had to be exaggerated. But the moment he thought that, Astron gave him countless small examples and the little dragon's gratitude nearly left him breathless.
"What did I say of whom decides such matters?" Steven said with clear amusement. "Accept it, Tony Stark, and treasure it. Never take your dragon's love for granted as I did."
Tony didn't imagine there would ever be a time when he would stop marveling at the love this little creature gave him. It was too overwhelming. "Your dragon," Tony asked hesitantly, because any topic was better than talking about Steve, but this was probably not a good path to tread. "What happened to him?"
Steve stared into the fire, his expression dark. At first, Tony assumed he wasn't going to get an answer. But then just before Tony could brush off the question and make a joke, Steve started to speak. "Sometimes when I see you and Astron, I remember how he would..." Steven stopped, his voice breaking before he got control of it, packing everything away. "He was a brilliant gold that always reminded me of the sun, and he was just as bright and giving. I was sickly and thin when I first saw him playing with the village children. A dragon bond is rare, but many of the children were still trying to win him over with treats and games. I wanted to try too, but I was too ill to leave my bed."
A small smile tipped Steven's lips that was colored by nostalgia and sorrow. "I never knew why he came to me. I never felt like I deserved him either, but for some reason he stayed, and he made a nuisance of himself in my mother's kitchen. He hated all the names I tried to give him. It was my mother who called him Isern when he knocked over the pans one too many times, despite the fact that he was gold. He liked that name, and he just... stayed. He'd beg for dinner scraps even when all the other children offered him full meals. And when we couldn't afford to put food on the table, he'd bring home a rabbit or a small boar, and just leave it on the doorstep like a cat leaving a mouse."
"How quaint," Tony said, thinking back to the rabbit from this morning. It was a good thing Astron would never want for food at the Tower.
Steven chuckled softly. "Isern had a mind of his own. I remember how angry I was when I figured out he'd been changing me, making me stronger and healthier, without even a proper bond. I thought it was just pity, and I was so angry with him that I yelled at him to stop.
"Then the war came, and there were so many men and women that were laying down their lives to protect us. I could do no less."
"You enlisted," Tony said, hearing a familiar story.
"Not that anyone would have me," Steven said, shaking his head. "Finally, I went back to Isern. He never held a grudge. That came after the bond, and it's my shame to realize my humanity taught him what a grudge was. He was so happy when I returned. He offered the bond then, which I realized he'd been trying to offer all along, but was scared I would refuse. And you're right. It's impossible to say no in the face of that much love."
Astron hummed softly in Tony's ear, and Tony sent back a wave of love, which gained him a happy hum and answering emotion. He never wanted to taint the pureness of Astron's love. He wondered if it was inevitable though, given how very flawed Tony was.
"After that, I became as you see me now. I fought and rose through the ranks, and eventually they asked me to lead. I never wanted to be king, but Isern convinced me it would be for the best. Sometimes I wonder if he hadn't orchestrated the whole thing, but I know he knew me well enough to not want to force this crown upon me.
"He loved to create more than anything. Isern had a powerful magic, but I would often see him making toys for the children or gadgets to help the poor. Isern's heart was so kind and open, that I never suspected..."
"What happened?" Tony asked.
Steven leaned forward, his chin resting in his hands as he stared into the fire. "I never realized he was so good at hiding things. Another war came along, and we argued over what to do. We couldn't see eye to eye, and I found out... I found out that he had lied to me on something important. I felt betrayed, more betrayed than I had ever felt before, and we quarreled. And then..."
Steven didn't speak for a long while, and Tony hesitantly touched Steven's shoulder. He started, looking at Tony in shock before sorrow took its place. "I'm sorry," Tony said, knowing what he'd just done. Whoever Steven's Anthony had been, it was all too easy to see his own Steve in this version. Denial was a strong calling.
"Don't be," Steven said, reaching out to trace his fingers along Tony's goatee, like he was touching a ghost to be sure he was real. "We were the only ones to blame, and I am..." Steven swallowed, pulling away just before his fingers reached Tony's lips. "I am grateful to have this chance with you. To make things right. I owe my Anthony that much."
Tony knew that look of longing. It was the same draw that made him see his Steve instead of Steven there. He leaned against Steven's shoulder, linking his arm through the king's.
"I am not your Steven," Steven said, his voice choked.
"You've seen whoever this Anthony is in me every day since we've met," Tony said, not caring for once that he was being compared to the dead and found lacking. "Let me pretend for tonight."
"Alright," Steven said, his voice quiet and soft as he gave in and pulled Tony closer.
The last thing Tony remembered before he fell asleep was how good it felt to fall asleep on Steve's shoulder.
* * *
He woke up on top of Steve, and for one glorious moment he allowed himself to revel in the feel of Steve's chest beneath him. Astron was curled up in his arms dreaming peacefully, and he had Steve's arms around him. He'd honestly never thought of waking up with Steve in his bed (or waking up in Steve's), but now that he was here, Tony could get used to it. Especially with Steve's hand running through his hair. He'd known that he and Steve were working towards a deeper friendship, but this... this was different. A good different. He could get used to this feeling, of waking up next to someone again.
But it only lasted a few seconds as Tony realized the fabric of Steve's shirt was all wrong and there were scars underneath the shirt that didn't belong to Steve. When he looked up, it was Steven's weathered face looking down at him, not Steve's. Steve was dead. He wasn't allowed to get used to this.
"I apologize," Steven said, looking as though he were trying to memorize the moment as well, running his fingers through Tony's hair one last time. "It is not right of me to take advantage like this."
"You could come back with me to my world. It's not like there's anything for you here," Tony said, catching himself from reaching out as Steven pulled away.
"We both know that wouldn't work," Steven said, helping Tony sit up before moving to their supplies.
"Why not?" Tony asked, knowing he shouldn't push, because Steven was right. The thought of trying to replace Steve was sickening, but he wanted Steve back. There was so much they could have been, and he was almost a little resentful of Steven for showing it to him.
"You know why," Steven said, reproach in his tone to remind Tony of how he was once again lacking. Tony didn't look up to see the disapproval in his eyes, but he heard Steven sigh again. "I've had more time to adjust to the loss. But you know why we can't-"
"Not like you're being hypocritical at all," Tony said bitterly. He looked up this time to see Steven wince. "You'll allow it only when you want it?"
"Please," Steven said, his voice a ghost of a whisper. "Can we not fight?"
Tony looked down at Astron, remembering the last words he'd said to Steve before... "I'm sorry," Tony said, feeling the will to fight drain out of him. "I didn't - I mean..."
"I'm sorry too," Steven said, returning to sit by Tony again and drawing him into a brief hug. "You're right. It has been unfair to both me and to you. Your grief is still fresh. I know it is the pain lashing out, not you, and I shouldn't have let my own sorrow take advantage of yours."
Tony didn't let himself linger in the hug, though he wanted to. It would only hurt more in the end, the more he knew he was missing.
"He may yet be alive," Steven said quietly, looking at the round shield.
"Maybe," Tony agreed, though he didn't get his hopes up.