They set off early that day, the hike sober and still. Even Astron seemed to understand the need for silence. He didn't hum or chirp, and he never strayed too far from Tony either, his tail usually wrapped around Tony's neck as a constant reminder that he wasn't alone.
Tony was pathetically grateful for that. With Steve... With Steve dead, he didn't want to be alone, no matter how much his instincts used to crave it. He'd had a taste of companionship, and now he couldn't let go of it.
It was half a day's walk before they came to the base of a small mountain. Tony could see a large cavern that looked dark and menacing. One obvious dragon's lair, served with an extra flourish of bones along the walls. "We can leave our stuff here?" Tony asked as he unpacked the gauntlet and pulled on the leathers.
"Either you triumph and are sent home, or you fail and the supplies won't be of use to you anyway," Steven said with a shrug.
"Well, when you put it that way," Tony said, rolling his eyes. He called the gauntlet to his arm, watching as it formed around him. Knowing this would hurt, he struck Thor's stone against the repulsor, biting his lip against crying out as the electricity danced up his shoulder.
"You couldn't have done that before you put it on?" Steven asked, worry lacing his voice.
Tony drew a deep breath, shaking his head. "It wouldn't have charged right," he said, relaxing his shoulders. It would be different if the armor was all together, but just a piece made charging it tricky, and he couldn't afford a false charge. It actually hurt a lot less than he thought it would, which was always a plus. He should have up to six hours of continuous fire now, not that he was planning on flying anywhere with one gauntlet.
Astron chirped, his eyes swirling light green in curiosity. "Wait 'til you see the full armor," Tony told him with a grin that he didn't feel. "You'll be impressed then."
He got a sense of love and affection despite a distinct lack of impressed-ness. "Hey! The armor is awesome! I can't be bonded to a dragon that doesn't like the armor."
"I think he already knows better than to stroke your ego," Steven said, before sobering as he looked at the cave. "And this is where I must leave you."
"Wait, what?" Tony looked up sharply. "You're kidding."
Steven didn't look at him, but his hand went to his wounded shoulder, massaging it lightly. "I wish I were, but I cannot enter that cave beside you. My power does not extend there."
"So what, you come all this way here just to dump me on the dragon's doorstep? 'Here, dragon, have a nice snack,' is that it?" Tony asked, his voice tight. His fingers curled into fists. His Steve wouldn't have left him.
"Tony, that is not-"
"You said it yourself. You caused this!" He could hear Astron hissing in his ear, but his rage only doubled. "Do you always let people kidnapped from another world do your dirty work, or am I just special because I look like your dead friend? What would he think, that you're too cowardly to face up to the mess you caused?"
Steven took a step back as if Tony had slapped him. "Please, don't," he said, closing his eyes in pain, but Tony could see his knuckles were white with anger.
"Don't what?" Tony snapped. "Don't get angry because you're abandoning me? Is that what you did to your Anthony? Abandon him and leave him to fight the dragon for you, to die in your place?"
Steven's face twisted in grief and fury. "You know not of what you speak."
"Damn right, I don't! All you've done since we've met is string me along. Magic says only I can kill the dragon. Magic says you can't go with me. Magic says you're a coward and an asshat!" He was shouting now, vaguely aware Astron was growling, but all the dragon did was feed his own deep red anger. "I don't give a fuck what magic says. All I see is-"
"Tony Stark, control your dragon," Steven said, cutting through Tony's tirade with a command voice that brought him up short. That and the small amount of real panic in Steven's eyes.
"Why should I?" Tony asked, the crimson anger still fueling him.
"Because if you don't calm Astron, you will fight two dragons today and your tragedies will double. Calm him before he turns into the same monster we came here to fight!" Steven said.
Tony looked at Astron, who was still growling, his eyes swirling a deep red, the color of blood. There were no other colors mixed in, just that single angry shade. He was staring at Steven, his claws digging into Tony's shoulder enough to break through his skin. "Astron," he choked out, but the dragon didn't turn to face him. He stared at Steven.
"No," Tony said, trying for firm, but ended up closer to a whisper. "Astron, Silverado, calm down. You're hurting me," he said, trying again. He sent calming colors and grasped for the love Astron usually always sent him, but it wasn't there. It was like gazing at the roaring Hulk.
Tony sent his own love back through the link instead. It was broken and flawed, but it was the best he could do. "Come on, Silver Bell. Astron, baby, calm down. Please. I love you." The final words weighted his shoulders like the world pressing down on him, but Tony kept going, scratching Astron's eye ridges as he fought down his own panic. "Listen to me. We have to calm down. I need you to let go of my shoulder, sugar pie. Please?"
Astron's eyes slowed their swirling, the angry red fading to lighter colors. "That's it. You're good. Nothing to be angry about," Tony continued, pushing down his own anger.
Finally, Astron let go of Tony's shoulder, and he was able to move the little dragon into his lap. Steven immediately began to pull off Tony's leathers and pushed aside his shirt, moving to clean the wound with their medical supplies. Tony hadn't even seen him get them out.
"Hold still," Steven said gently. "He will be confused. You must calm him."
"Still angry with you," Tony said, though there wasn't much heat to it as he was still sending calming colors to Astron. He hissed as the medieval equivalent of an antiseptic was slathered across his shoulder, but automatically murmured reassurances to Astron's chirp.
Finally, he could feel the normal love flowing through the link, and Astron came out of the red haze he'd been in. The dragon blinked up at him, bafflement in his eyes. He took in the state of Tony's shoulder and chirped a question.
"I'm okay. You didn't hurt me too bad," Tony said.
Dark blacks and browns filled Astron's eyes. "No, it wasn't your fault, honey. It's okay, shh..." Tony sent what love he could through the link, and all the forgiveness he had. Astron looked miserable, his head hanging low against Tony's arm, but at least he wasn't angry anymore.
Which meant Tony could go back to the conversation at hand, though this time with a very tight control over the emotions he allowed through the link. "When were you going to tell me this could happen?" he asked, feeling calm despite the fury coursing through him.
Steven applied a bandage to Tony's shoulder, wrapping it tightly. "It won't need stitches," he said, shaking his head. "He should have needed years of development and the bond to come to that point."
"Is there anything else that should take years or months and would be useful to know?" Tony snapped, before sending more love and calming thoughts to Astron. Damned if that meant keeping his own temper too.
"Plenty," Steven said, his lips set in a grim line. "But we're sitting outside the dragon's doorstep and we don't have time. If you survive, I'll tell you the information you need to know."
"And when were you going to decide I needed to know the dragon I'm fighting is Isern?" Tony said, finally having the time to link the two together.
Steven closed his eyes, but not before Tony caught the look of open grief shuttered behind them. "All that remained of the Isern I knew died when he changed from gold to red."
All at once, what Tony had said earlier came crashing back to him. Wow, yeah, Tony had... That was beyond crappy. He held Astron a little too tightly, but Astron just chirped, his sad eyes still swirling with guilt as he tried to nuzzle against Tony. Tony's own guilt had a choke hold around him, and he couldn't look up to meet Steven's eyes.
"I would give anything to go in there with you," Steven said quietly, his voice breaking Tony's heart and words driving home the guilt. "He would... I owe him that much, to finish him myself. But I cannot enter that cave. The spell that brought you here binds me as much as him. And I have kept things from you. He would call me a hypocrite, and rightfully so. But there is power in belief, and my own power is no longer enough. Now all I can do is await the result and give you what aid I can. And for that, there are no amount of apologies that could make up for my failure."
"I'm sorry," Tony said, not sure if he was apologizing for his behavior or for Steven's grief. Because what he'd said earlier had been inexcusable, and Steven was right. He hadn't known all the details before lashing out. He should have known Steve better than to assume that.
Steven helped Tony back into the leathers without a word and Tony ignored the pain of having to raise his arm up instead focusing on Steve's hands lingering along his shoulder. "You were right," Steven said finally. "There are many things I should have told you. And there are some things I will not tell you now, because the magic in balance is too fickle for me to say. But I hope you will forgive me this transgression, as I have forgiven you."
"Steven, you weren't-"
It occurred to Tony belatedly that Steven hadn't meant the secrets when he'd been talking about transgressions. Mostly the only reason it did occur to him was that Steven's lips were pressed against his, soft and inviting in a way that Tony could not refuse. He didn't know why, but he wanted this so badly that it hurt, and he was willing to yield, to let it happen, despite the pain it brought.
But it wasn't only his pain and betrayal.
"Astron?" Tony said as he pushed Steven away, looking down at the dragon in his arms. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?" The dragon hadn't been crushed between them, but Tony may have been holding on too tight.
Tony didn't get a response of physical pain though. The hurt and betrayal was being covered up by Astron's usual unending love and affection. There was a forced happiness on top of that as if the dragon were smiling at something painful.
"No, something is wrong," Tony said. He got a stronger pulse of love and happiness. "Astron? Silver Bell, what's wrong? Did I hurt you?"
He looked up to see that Steven was kneeling down until he was eye to eye with Astron. "It appears my foolishness has hurt more than the two of us," Steven said, reaching out to scratch Astron's eye ridges. "I owe you my apologies as well, little one. It was my weakness that has caused you such pain."
The weirdest part was that Astron let Steven close. Sure, they didn't have the animosity Astron had started out with any more, but Tony had always gotten the impression the 'friendly' rivalry was only there because he hadn't wanted Astron to hurt Steven. Now Astron was leaning up into Steven's touch like he did with Tony, and Tony was very obviously missing something here.
"What's going on?" he asked plaintively. "Why is Astron hurt?"
"That was my fault, not yours," Steven said. "And perhaps you will handle it better than I. I do not claim to understand the pace of your bond's growth, but it may yet give you insight I was blind to."
"That doesn't answer my question," Tony said, attempting to send love though the link. Why wasn't Astron telling him what was wrong?
"Perhaps one day he will be able to tell you himself," Steven said. "It appears Astron can rush many things, but learning human speech is not one of them. You will have to wait until he is ready."
Maybe Astron couldn't tell him what was wrong? But that had never stopped Astron from trying before. But Astron just chirped and sent the same happiness that was overshadowed by sorrow. Tony didn't know what to do with it other than to send as much love as he could back. That at least got him a real flash of happy blue as Astron climbed up to his good shoulder.
"I wish you'd agreed to actual armor," Steven said, changing the subject as he critically eyed the holes in Tony's leather.
"They weren't that deep. More scratches than anything," Tony said, allowing the shift. The wound stung like a bitch now that he was thinking about it, but he could still use his arm and the bleeding had probably stopped by now. The claws hadn't dug in that far.
"But Astron's claws went right through the leather," Steven said, and yeah, point.
Still, Tony wasn't used to moving in actual armor. He missed the Iron Man armor, mourning the fact he only had one gauntlet. "The dragon didn't exactly let me keep my regular armor," Tony replied with a shrug. The leather would have to do.
Steven sighed as he stood, looking at the cavern with longing. Tony felt the guilt returning. "Steven-" he started.
"You should go. Be careful," Steven said, turning away from the sight.
"Am I really going to kill your..." Tony couldn't say it. This was the dragon that killed his Steve, and he was still furious and grieving, but thinking about someone hurting Astron made his stomach lurch painfully and chip away at his need for revenge. The way Steven described Isern was that the dragon had been kind and intelligent. Was there really no hope?
"This is why I tried to keep it from you," Steven said, closing his eyes. "He has become something that would have repulsed him, and it was my fault. He has become the monster I accused him of being all those years ago. I must ask you to end things, as I have lost that right. If you do not, many more people will die."
"This is a tragedy of our own making," Steven said, reaching up to pet Astron, who once again let him. "We were both foolish and have paid a high price for it. My one regret is needing to bring you in to end it for us. You did not need our troubles."
"Neither did Steve," Tony said. It didn't matter who the dragon was. Isern had killed his Steve and now... Now Tony didn't even have the chance to start what they could have been. He hadn't even known they could have been more until it was too late, and the loss left him feeling empty in a way even Astron's love couldn't quite fill.
"Be careful," Steven said, his hand moving from Astron to Tony's cheek. "Do not make our mistakes. I... I do not wish for you to repeat our tragedy."
"You haven't exactly told me what those mistakes are," Tony said, feeling the frustration rise.
"After," Steven said quietly. "But if we stall any longer, he will know I am here."
"Alright then," Tony said, turning to leave.
"Take this," Steven said.
Tony turned back to see him holding out Steve's shield. When Tony didn't reach for it, he slipped it on Tony's non-gauntleted arm. "I can't-"
"You can," Steven said firmly. "If nothing else, you should take it back to your world with you."
Tony swallowed and nodded, despite the sick feeling of separating the shield from wherever Steve's body had ended up. Even if he couldn't bring home the body, he could at least see to it that the shield was cared for. Steve had cared for the shield like it was an extension of himself.
He looked away as Astron chirped curiously at the shield, fascinated with it in a way Tony didn't quite understand. It felt awkward on his arm, a constant reminder of who should really have the shield.
"Don't look back," Steven said, stepping away.
Tony didn't say anything, walking towards the cavern opening. He had a gauntlet, the shield, and Astron on his shoulder, who hummed softly to calm his nerves. This wasn't going to be easy, but he would avenge Steve and end things for Steven. He owed them that much.
It was a short walk down to the cavern, and when he looked back to see Steven one last time, no one was there.
* * *
The cave was much better lit than Tony would have expected a cave to be. The stones in the walls glowed with what Tony was going to assume was some scientific process rather than magic to keep his own sanity. Because magic sucks. So obviously, science at work here. He was sure he could come up with a theory if he had the time to study them.
Astron snorted, not the least impressed with Tony's deductions.
Astron, in the very least, had recovered. The guilt was gone, since he took Tony's forgiveness at face value and past/present/future was a harder concept for Astron than some other things. He was still a little subdued, but his mood didn't feel as forced and he was alert, sitting on Tony's shoulder as he watched the shadows for danger.
The cave was smooth, obviously man - or dragon - made. The completely scientifically-based lights were placed every few feet and emitted a warm glow. The walls were unadorned otherwise. There weren't even any bodies or blood around, just the Spartan-like halls. Tony had thought that dragons were supposed to hoard gold or something, but this was practically barren. "Cheerful place," he muttered, earning him a soft bite on his ear from Astron and a stern warning to be quiet. Astron was getting to be just as bad as Steve on the comms when-
Tony cut off that thought. He needed to keep a clear head if he wanted to avenge Steve.
It was a long corridor, but thankfully there was only one path. It finally opened up into a bigger chamber. Before Tony could get a good look around, he fired at a movement out of the corner of his eye, just barely managing to get the shield up to block a pair of red claws. "Son of a-" he said as his knees buckled under the weight of the dragon.
Astron flew off his shoulder, using his claws to scrape along the bigger dragon's back. There was a loud roar as Isern moved back, allowing Tony to roll away as Steve had taught him. Then as Natasha had taught him, he fired the repulsor at the nearest bit of dragon he could find, because Natasha liked to say that there was no such thing as fighting dirty when the goal was to stay alive.
He must have hit something, because there was another pain-filled roar. Except that when Tony peeked out from behind the shield, what he saw nearly stopped his heart.
Isern himself was beautiful, a blood red color tipped with gold along his wing bones. Tony wouldn't have said any dragon was particularly beautiful at the start of this, but now his aesthetic had changed, no doubt due to his own dragon. Even with a missing eye, Isern moved with a sensuous grace that was mesmerizing to watch. Or would be, if he weren't snapping a pair of powerful jaws as his long neck snaked after Astron.
Tony moved into the dragon's blind spot, shooting at the more frail-looking wing. It didn't punch through like he'd hoped, but it did leave a nasty-looking burn that made the wing twitch in pain. And then the single red eye was focused all on him.
Well, that could have been planned better. He stepped back as the dragon's claws dragged across the shield with a high screech. He couldn't afford to be pinned again, not when he was a normal human in terms of strength. Astron didn't give him super-strength as part of their bond, sadly.
He ducked under Isern's body, shooting at the dragon's belly as he was slammed into the cavern wall by a large claw. The shield took the worst of the blow, but Tony was still badly jarred.
He grit his teeth against the pain, struggling to his feet. He heard Astron screeching, feeling the little dragon's fury. Struggling to look up, he saw Astron hovering between him and Isern just as the red dragon reared back in a position Tony remembered Astron taking in the forest with the dead rabbit.
Tony swore, praying he wouldn't hurt Astron as he grabbed the silver dragon by the wing and huddled down so that the shield would cover both of them as scorching fire erupted around them.
He could feel the sweat dripping at his temples as he tried to do a quick mental calculation of how hot vibranium had to be to burn him. "Do you realize how much bigger he is than you?" Tony shouted at Astron over the fire's roar.
He got a distinctly unimpressed feeling along with a picture of a very small Tony next to a very large dragon.
"I have a weapon," Tony groused. "And I didn't ask for your sass. Dragons are not allowed to be sassy."
Astron didn't bother to answer that, instead shooting out from the cover as soon as the stream of fire stopped. Tony didn't have time to wipe the sweat away, firing with the repulsor to turn Isern's good eye on him and not the stupid little silver dragon with a death wish.
Thankfully, Isern was ignoring Astron for now. Not so thankfully, it meant Tony found himself on the other end of Isern's claws. Tony grunted in pain as he was pressed against the cavern wall, pinned once again. He'd only barely managed to bring the shield up to block the claw that threatened to impale him. One of the talons grazed across his cheek, but he had more pressing matters to deal with. Literally, as the dragon pressed the shield against his chest to crush him. Damn it, he wasn't supposed to let Isern trap him again.
The repulsors weren't working. Tony gasped as it pressed harder, his vision swimming as he reached for the dagger at his hip. Looks like he was going to have to use the damned magic knife after all, because fucking magic.
He couldn't reach it though, not pinned as he was. Tony struggled to gain some leverage to dislodge the claw, but he couldn't breathe.
And then Astron was there, hissing and scratching at the giant claw that dwarfed him. Tony fell to his knees, coughing and gasping for breath as Isern released him. He forced himself to ignore his burning lungs and climb to his feet, drawing the knife with his gauntleted hand. Blinking back the tears of pain, Tony searched for Astron.
The little silver dragon was in the air, eyes whirling a defiant grey and brown. He darted in and out, attacking Isern with a single-minded focus on Isern's good eye. But Tony could see Isern pulling back for - "Astron!" he called out, unable to get to the dragon's side while he was that high in the air.
Instead of breathing fire, Isern's eye blinked, blue seeping into the red. The larger dragon jerked back as Astron flew to Tony's shoulder, both of them overwhelmed by the sudden fear coursing through the cavern.
Isern moved to the far side of the cavern, his head low to the ground as if trying to make himself smaller.
What the hell just happened?
Fighting back the fear that was being pressed against his mind, Tony cleared his throat. "Uh, did the fight just end? Because that was anti-climactic," he said. While Tony had no compunction against hitting an opponent who was down, something didn't feel right about hitting one that had stopped fighting all together. He sheathed the dagger, freeing up his hand pet Astron and reassure himself that the silver dragon was still there.
Shame replaced the fear, almost staggering in its ferocity. 'End it,' a voice said in his head. It was a startlingly familiar voice. That was...
Tony felt his hands curl into fists. Yet another thing Steven hadn't seen fit to tell him. "Yeah, no. That's not how this works. I'm not just... What did you do to my Steve?"
The dragon lifted its head, one swirling blue eye staring unnervingly at him. Tony was not a short man by any means, but he felt small next to the dragon, and as Astron trembled against his neck, Tony took a step forward, feeling his own anger this time. "Yeah, this shield. The guy who had it. I know you know what happened to him. What did you do?"
'He took my eye,' the voice said, the scar glistening in the glowing lights.
Tony thought back to the blood that had been on the shield. He was both glad to know it wasn't Steve's and a little repulsed to know he'd cleaned off bits of a dragon's eye. "What did you do to him?" Tony demanded.
'Fail the trial and you will learn his fate.'
"And the 'trial' is to kill you," Tony said, feeling furious. "That's why you brought me here, to kill you. What happened? When you brought my Steve here and he refused, did you just toss him aside?"
Isern roared in anger, his tail lashing out. For a moment, Tony thought he would attack again, but Isern's eye was still blue. It was unnerving, seeing a solid color that didn't match the dragon's emotions. Isern calmed after a moment, and Tony was able to trace lines of gold down his wings as they folded at his side.
'I did not bring your friend here. That was the King's magic at work.
"What?" Tony asked, feeling betrayed. Steven had...
'The King has wanted me dead for a long time,' Isern said, the voice inside Tony's mind ringing with bitterness. 'It comes as no surprise he would save up his magic to call another version of himself here. I decided I would choose this time. If he wishes me dead even after all these years, then he should have his wish.'
"So you brought me here," Tony finished for the dragon. It made a sick amount of sense. "But he said that there was nothing left of you. That you were-"
'I am a monster,' Isern said, cutting him off. 'The King was right on that account, even if he refused to admit I still have some reason.'
"But why?!" Tony asked, feeling Astron nuzzling at his cheek. He knew the little dragon was confused and Tony himself wasn't faring much better. "You're obviously still aware? What the hell were you doing, killing all those people?"
'The madness comes and goes,' Isern said, resting his triangular head on the ground as he closed his single eye in weariness. 'It comes more often now, and my lucidity less. When the King.... When Steven broke the bond, I became unstable. The madness will continue until there is nothing of me left.'
"Why would he do that?" Tony demanded, feeling Astron's tail wrap around his neck. He couldn't imagine trying to break the bond between them. The thought made his stomach twist in knots, and Astron gave a distressed chirp. Tony responded with all the love and reassurance he could muster. A week ago, he would have thought such a bond to be ridiculous. Now he couldn't imagine a life without Astron. He couldn't see how Steven could be that cruel to Isern either.
'Because of my choice,' Isern said. 'There was no other way. It was a choice between killing hundreds or watching millions die. I could not let Steven die. He never forgave me for my choice.'
Judging by the guilt Tony could still feel pressing against his mind, he doubted Isern had forgiven himself either. He didn't know the details, but Tony knew the dread rolling around his stomach. He hoped he would never have to face that kind of choice, because he didn't know what he'd choose.
Tony swallowed. "Could you reform the bond? I think Steven's willing to listen at this point."
'You do not know of what you speak,' Isern said, but he didn't sound angry like Steven had. Just tired.
"Why not? If you offered, I'm sure-"
'He hates me to this day, enough to give protection and aid to many who would try to kill me,' Isern said, opening his eye. He was struck by how strange it was again, that the eye was only one color. Astron always had at least two or three, and usually of varying shades. But Isern's eye was always blue, one solid color, with none of the emotion Tony could feel.
This whole situation was starting to make Tony angry.
"Have you tried talking to him?" Tony snapped, annoyed at Isern's unwillingness to even try.
'Would you?' Isern asked shrewdly.
Tony flushed. No, he would definitely not want to talk to Steve if he'd done something that terrible. The look in Steve's eyes might very well kill him. He'd do it in a heartbeat right now though, if it meant Steve was alive.
'End this,' Isern repeated. 'Finish what I brought you here to do while I'm still myself.'
"I can't just kill you," Tony said. Astron chirped beside him, projecting support. Isern had... He'd killed Steve, but this? This situation was so fucked up Tony didn't know what to do anymore.
'You can,' the red dragon said. 'And you will. Or more people will die once the madness takes hold.'
"No. I'm going to go out and drag Steven in here, so you can work things out," Tony said, crossing his arms over his chest. Or he tried to, but the shield made it a bit awkward.
'He cannot come here.'
"Then you can go out!" This was getting ridiculous.
Astron thought so too. He took off from Tony's shoulder, chirping angrily at Isern. It was almost comical, seeing such a little dragon scolding one that filled half the cavern.
'I warned you against tying yourself to these mortals, small one,' Isern said. 'He will not love you like you love him. You will always be a child to him, and he will never understand what you've given him.'
"Astron?" Tony asked, feeling a great sorrow coming from the silver dragon. It was the same thing he'd felt when Steven had kissed him. With it, the same steady flow of love and affection that never ceased started to pulse through the link. But what Isern said meant...
Astron chirped, wave after wave of unconditional love rolling off him as he hovered in front of Isern, clearly broadcasting his choice as his eyes swirled a stubborn brown.
'Foolish child,' Isern said, looking away. 'You will only know pain and suffering from this.'
"Hey, speak for yourself," Tony said, sending what love he could through the link. It wasn't the pure love Astron could send, but it was all he could give. Some of the sorrow was replaced with a light, happy feeling as Astron glided down to land on Tony's shoulder, rubbing his head against Tony's cheek. He didn't exactly know what to do with what Isern had implied, but he could figure that out along the way.
'Your meeting is ill-fated,' Isern said, and Tony could feel the anger building up behind the words. 'You will regret this choice.'
"Do you regret yours?" Tony asked. He didn't get a reply.
He was about to press more when the air was suddenly knocked out of him by a red tail, and his world erupted in pain as he crashed into the cavern wall. Again. This time without the shield between him and the rock. Astron hissed, anger coursing through Tony strong enough to dull the pain. He looked up frantically, seeing the silver dragon's eyes gone completely red. "No," he said, trying to think calming thoughts.
But Astron ignored him, the fury growing. And if Tony wasn't mistaken, Astron was getting bigger. "Astron, don-"
Tony's vision nearly blacked out as he felt his soul ripped in two. He was paralyzed, and the feeling was worse than when Obadiah took out the arc reactor. This was more than the arc reactor being ripped out of him. His heart was being torn out this time, and he couldn't breathe. All he could feel was the horror and blind grief that he was left with that could barely begin to fill the hole.
"Astron?" he called out, his voice choking on the name as he fought to clear his eyes, to deny what had just happened. He stumbled forward, ignoring the pain in his knees from when he'd fallen.
His vision was blurry as he made his way to Astron by instinct more than anything, and he kneeled again when he got to where Astron lay. He pulled the little dragon into his lap, careful of the way Astron's neck seemed crooked. There was no color in the silver dragon's eyes, only white.
"Astron," he said again brokenly, searching the void for where the endless source of unconditional love should have been. But there was nothing but blackness. Tony was alone.
The thought sent Tony into a panic. Astron had to be there somewhere. He was missing, but he would come back. He had to. Tony couldn't go back to being alone, not the way he was before. He was alone, and no one would be here if he-
Tony gasped, his eyes shooting open as he felt a mind brush against his. A mind that wasn't Astron's that was filled with guilt. "What did you do?" Tony asked, barely keeping his head above the water.
'It was a mercy,' Isern's voice said in his head.
"You didn't become a monster when you got bigger. What Steven said wasn't true. So why..." Tony said, cradling the tiny, limp, and broken body against him. "What have you done?"
He had never felt so empty in his life, not even in that cave in Afghanistan. "Astron," he said again, curling around the silver dragon's body. He couldn't do this. He couldn't be alone again. He-
"No, what are you doing?" Tony asked as he felt Isern's mind in his. It was dulling the raw edges, making Astron's love a distant haze no matter how desperately Tony tried to cling to it.
'The broken bond will drive you insane,' Isern said. 'I am easing the memories so you can bear them.'
Tony recoiled, pushing as much as he could with his mind at the touch invading him. "Don't-" he said, firing the repulsor at Isern as he held tighter to Astron with his other hand.
Isern roared and Tony could feel the anger and rage. They weren't his, but he was willing to use them to push away the empty, raw pain. He could think a little clearer now too, but he wasn't going to dwell on that. He pushed love through the now torn bond as he gently set Astron down, then got to his feet. He fired again at Isern, whose eye was becoming redder and redder.
'End this,' Isern said in his mind. 'Before it is too late.'
"It's already too late," Tony said, unsheathing the dagger again. Isern may not have started out as a monster, but he was one now. First Steve and now...
Tony dodged to the side to avoid a claw, firing the repulsor at Isern's wings as he switched the dagger over to his other hand. There was nothing but rage now, but that suited Tony just fine. He rolled down between the dragon's legs to miss the torrent of fire as he shot at the underbelly. A few more inches...
A claw pushed him away. Tony only barely had enough time to bring up the shield to avoid getting clawed to death. The dragon grabbed on to the shield and started to pull it up, likely to throw it (and Tony who was attached by the straps) across the room. But Tony was within reach now, and he slipped out of the shield's straps. He knew where to push the blade into the dragon's chest. It was the same spot that he had felt Astron's heart beating when he'd held the little dragon at night.
Using both hands, the dagger pierced through Isern's hide easily, the golden blade digging in right up to the hilt. It sparkled in the glowing lights, gold against blood red.
Tony clapped his hands over his ears as the dragon screamed, not hearing the clank as Steve's shield hit the ground. He was going to be crushed under the dragon's weight, but Tony found he didn't care. He didn't move or dodge out of the way, instead standing as he waited for the inevitable. He didn't believe in the afterlife, but he could at least follow after Astron and Steve.
The inevitable never came. The cavern became silent, the only sound the ringing in Tony's ears. He opened his eyes just in time to catch a very human-looking man as he fell over, a golden dagger lodged in his heart. Tony let out a yelp of surprise as he stared into his own face.
Tony set his look-a-like onto the ground, noting the differences. The man's goatee was cut slightly different, and there was a touch of grey on a much blacker head of hair. He had a thicker build with the kind of broad shoulders that belonged on a soldier like Steve. He was wearing a wine red tunic that looked expensive even by Tony's standards, with golden adornments. There was even a solid gold earring in one of the man's ears. The pants were jet black and form-fitting in a way that made Tony a little jealous in comparison, and they were topped off by thigh-high boots. Tony was not going to think about how the dragon was fully dressed, because that required magic and seriously, fuck magic.
The man's most distinguishing feature was the deep gash across his left eye. His right eye was a stunning blue that Tony had only ever seen in Isern's eye and his own arc reactor.
"You look so surprised," Isern said with a cough, a trickle of blood sliding down from his lip. "You knew I was you."
"I didn't..." There was a difference between knowing the dragon was him and seeing the dragon in human form. "How are you human?"
"I couldn't change back into the golden dragon," the Isern replied with a bitter smile. "But I can use what little magic I have left to return to this form. Steven liked this form, even if it was only as a friend. I want to die in a form he would have looked kindly on."
"You should be dead now. Your heart-"
"Has Steven's dagger thrust into it," Isern said, a bitter smile on his lips. "That's fitting. I gave it to him, you know. But don't worry. I'll be dead soon. The magic will realize eventually that I am a corpse, and will leave me be."
"Why?" Tony asked, his voice breaking on the word. "How could you..."
"I'm sorry," Isern said, coughing weakly. "I never meant to hurt... But there's a way to fix everything. There's a cup behind the big rock over there. Fetch it and I will tell you how to save Astron's life."
"What?" Tony asked, the word feeling thick on his tongue. Astron could be...
"Astron... what a fitting name," Isern said, his good eye going slightly unfocused. "Hurry. I haven't much time left."
Tony stood, not sure how his legs were still working after all the battering he had put them through. But he somehow forced himself to move, finding the cup where Isern had promised. It was a plain wooden cup with no carvings, but it would obviously do for whatever Isern had planned.
He stumbled as he brought it back, seeing Isern use his sharpened finger nail to cut his wrist. "Catch the blood in the cup," Isern commanded.
Tony did as told on autopilot. To save Astron... The cup was half-full when Isern pulled away. "What now?"
"Drink it," Isern said, smiling at Tony's disgust. "But know this - if you don't, you will return to a normal human. But in drinking my blood, you will remain as Astron was changing you. Your magic won't be as strong, but you'll have it. And you will live longer than normal humans. That is, most often, not a gift for mortal races."
Tony's mouth went dry, looking down at the cup. "It'll save Astron?" he asked.
"You must drink it quickly, before it loses its magic," Isern said, not bothering to try to convince him more.
Tony brought the cup to his lips, tasting a light, sweet tang that was nothing like normal human blood he tasted whenever he got a bloody lip. It was almost addictive, heady in a way that kept all the good parts of drinking a fine wine without any of the negative effects. He should be weirded out by the fact he was drinking blood, but it didn't taste like blood at all.
He didn't feel any different when he put the cup down. But then, he hadn't felt any different when Astron had done his age-regression trick either. He looked up expectantly at Isern to see what to do next, but the man had closed his eye.
"Isern, wake up!" Tony said, shaking the dragon-man. "You can't die yet, you bastard. Tell me how to save him!"
Isern's eye opened, though it was a struggle. "Don't call me that," Isern said. "Isern is the dragon. We can't let the others know that it's me. In this form I'm..."
"Anthony." Tony's head shot up at the voice, the anger from earlier returning.
Isern tensed in Tony's arms. "Come to make sure I die for certain this time, my King?"
Steven flinched, but came forward. Even though he was angry at both of them, Tony still curled protectively around his other self. "Please," Steven said, a wetness about his eyes that Tony couldn't deny. "A moment with him. That's all I ask."
The blue eye turned up to stare at Tony as Isern gave him a brittle, blood-splattered smile. "Let him come," Isern said, the non-bloodied hand coming up to touch Tony's cheek. "And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I've done to the both of you because I was too weak to fight against the madness. I... You have other matters to attend to. Go."
"What do you mean?" Tony asked, not letting go.
Isern slowly lifted his hand from Tony's cheek and pointed to something off to the right. Tony followed his hand to see-
"Steve," Tony said, his breath leaving him. The cup fell from his fingers as he scrambled over to Steve's side.
Steve looked just like he'd been sleeping. His uniform was in mint condition, like he'd just gotten it back from Tony's custom-made cleaning bots. But when Tony reached him, there was something very, very wrong.
Tony reached out with a trembling hand to Steve's cold neck. His chest wasn't moving, and his heart wasn't beating.
Steve Rogers was dead.
Tony took Steve's hand, threading his fingers through Steve's cold ones. Steve wasn't stiff, rigor mortis had yet to set in, but he was as cold as ice. Steve would have hated that. Tony automatically tried to rub warmth into Steve's hand before he stopped himself. Steve didn't need warmth any more.
"I am as good as dead, my King. You don't need to stay," he heard Isern say. Tony reached for the shield that had fallen not too far away, placing it on Steve's chest. Then he turned to look at the king and his dragon, feeling a numbness settle over him that he could only assume was shock.
Isern's head was in Steven's lap, his one eye closed. "Or do you despise me that much?" Isern asked.
"I never hated you," Steven said, caressing Isern's cheek.
"Then why are you here?"
"I didn't want you to be alone," Steven replied.
"I'm always alone," Isern said, his voice getting weaker.
"I know," Steven said, closing his eyes. "I am sorry. That was my fault."
Isern laughed, but it wasn't a kind sound. "'Twas no one's fault but my own. I became a monster. That was my choice."
"No," Steven said quietly. "You did monstrous things to save people, but it was I that pushed you into becoming a true monster. I do not agree with what you did, but what I did was far worse."
"That wasn't what you said before," Isern said, something akin to hope in his eye.
"I have had many years to think on this," Steven said. "I don't know if I could have forgiven what you did, but I isolated you and cast you out. What happened after was as much my fault, if not more. It is my great regret that I did not see this sooner."
"I loved you," Isern said, tears streaming from his good eye. "I always loved you. It wasn't your fault, but mine. I'm sorry. I-"
"Shh," Steven said, and Tony unconsciously gripped Steve's cold hand as Steven leaned down to kiss Isern's forehead. "Hush now. Sleep. I'll stay, and I'll be there when you wake."
Isern sighed, closing his eye for the last time. Tony felt the presence in his mind lift, freed from the chains of so many years of being alone. Tony gasped as he really was alone this time, looking away as Steven wiped away the tear trail on Isern's cheek. He curled around Steve's hand, unable to contain the grief any more. He was empty, truly alone, and there was nothing between him and the pain.
He didn't look up as he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Are you happy now?" Tony asked, flinching away from the contact. He couldn't move too far though, not without leaving Steve, and he couldn't do that.
"Let me finish easing the bond," Steven said, his voice so similar to Steve's, but not similar enough.
This time Tony slapped Steven's hand away. "No," he snapped, still not moving from where he sat. "Don't. You took all of this... They're all dead because you two couldn't make up after a fight - because you couldn't do this yourself! You are not taking my memories of them away."
He heard Steven's sharp intake of breath, but he didn't care. He understood why Isern had called him here now. Tony wanted it to end.
"Please," Steven pleaded softly. Tony felt his chin being pulled up and he blinked until he could see clearly. Steven's own eyes were filled with tears, but there was no shame in them for that. "Please," Steven said again. "I'll not take the memories away. Only dull them, as time would. It will drive you mad if I don't. I cannot bear more tragedy here."
"What's one more? What fucking difference does it make!?" Tony didn't want this. He wouldn't stay here with Steven. He couldn't. Nothing could make up for the emptiness that nearly consumed him.
"You're not thinking clearly because of the bond," Steven said. "You can save them, but only if you're whole. Please. Let me atone for this."
Tony closed his eyes, cradling Steve's hand against his chest. He didn't fight as he felt cold hands at his temples, and a gentle brush against his mind. He started to cling to the memories of Astron's tail around his neck, but a soft "Please" made him let go. The raw, brittle edges of the bond were eroded away until only a dull ache was left.
He uncurled from Steve's hand, wiping away the tears that now made him flush with shame. He'd really lost it there. It scared him a little, how out of control he'd been.
Steven's hand brushed through Tony's bangs as he pulled away, and that was when he knew. Steven's hands were cold too.
"You're dead," Tony said, his voice hoarse. He felt like he'd been screaming, but he pushed himself to keep talking. "That's why you wouldn't let me look back at the castle. Why you couldn't do this yourself."
"I died centuries ago," Steven confirmed. "The castle where I lived is in ruins. It was only a glamor that made it livable when you first arrived. I was killed shortly after breaking the bond." Steven touched his scarred shoulder, looking into the distance without really seeing. "The healers never got to me in time. But I was tied to this realm as long as Isern was still alive, no matter how broken the bond was. And I could do nothing but watch as the bond drove Isern mad, instead of dying together as we should have."
"He wasn't a monster," Tony said. Because Isern had done a lot of unforgivable things, but he hadn't been bad. The genuine guilt Tony had felt proved Isern had killed Astron when his lucidity slipped.
"I know," Steven said, the words a painful admission. "And the blood of so many innocent people is the cost of me not realizing that soon enough."
Tony swallowed, his parched throat barely having enough moisture. "Astron and Steve. You said I could save them. Both of them?"
"You know better than that," Steven said, a small smile on his lips. "Why haven't you sought out Astron's body? You may not acknowledge it, but you know the truth."
Tony started, nearly falling in his haste to look around. Where was Astron's body? And why had he forgotten it?
"Peace, Tony," Steven said, his voice cutting through Tony's panic. "They are the same. Astron is Steve."
"What?" Tony said intelligently.
"I had some suspicions after we couldn't find your friend's body," Steven continued, as if Tony hadn't spoken. "The bond between you was too strong for you to have just met, and that was why Astron developed so fast. He'd known you before, and was probably in love with you before that."
"But Steve didn't... He was never in love with me," Tony said, searching back through his memories of Steve. Sure, Steve had started to try to hang out more, but Tony had figured with Sam having his own life outside of the Avengers, and Barnes being, well, still mentally unstable and not wanting to see Steve, Steve had just been lonely. There was nothing, no looks or lingering touches which would have clued Tony in. "And how...?"
"He was in love with you," Steven said gently. "And it was strong enough to get through the repressed memories of the transformation. Isern..." Steven's voice broke on the name, but he kept going. "Isern may have fought off the insanity after your Steven had been hurt. It was probably the only thing Isern could do to save him."
Steve was Astron. Tony sank back to the floor by Steve. It had been Steve's unconditional love that Astron had given. Steve's comfort when Tony was grieving. Steve's tail that had wrapped around his neck as the little dragon proclaimed his choice. No wonder Astron had been fascinated with Steve's shield, when he'd never given Steven's shield a second glance.
And it was Steve who Tony had started to love too.
"You and Isern," Tony said, finding that he was clutching at Steve's cold hand again. "You keep saying I can save him. How?"
But when he looked up, Steven was ghost-like and fading, sitting with Isern, who was also transparent. "Wait, don't - You can't go yet. You have to explain."
"You said it yourself. This is like a fairy tale. You were always smarter than me. I'm sure you can figure it out," Steven said, his voice fading as if he were moving further out of reach. "Don't make the same mistakes we did. No matter what happened, you were always... my dearest friend."
Then Tony was alone again. He hated being alone.
He took a shakey breath, his ribs screaming in pain as his hands shook. He didn't know what to do. Whatever the fuck kind of clue that had been, Tony didn't get it. He didn't know how to get home or how to bring Steve back.
Tony gripped Steve's hand tighter. It was so cold. Almost like ice, and he couldn't stop trying to rub warmth back into them this time.
"I don't want to be alone," Tony said, holding Steve's hand to his chest as he leaned down and kissed his cold lips.
This time, Tony felt the power rush out of him, not stopping the kiss even when Steve started to get warm. Would it kill him if all the power left him? Tony couldn't say he'd have minded that much if it did. The numbness and the bond had faded, but so much of the raw grief remained that it was still hard to keep in check. So he kept giving until Steve pushed him away.
That was the last thing he heard before he blacked out.
* * *
'Don't hide things from him. No matter how much he'll hate you for it or how big it is, don't hide it. Don't make our mistakes. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry...'
* * *
Tony woke up with a start at Isern's words, gasping to fill his lungs. He reached out for Astron automatically, only to jerk back when his mind ran along the link to find nothing there.
"Hey, take it easy, Tony. I've got you."
Tony felt familiar hands trying to push him back into his own bed in his bedroom, and he didn't fight it. But he must have done something, either with his face or a small noise, he didn't know, because seconds later Rhodey was pulling him back up and hugging him tightly. He leaned into Rhodey's shoulder, trembling as he tried to take in the familiar faint traces of Rhodey's cologne.
Rhodey didn't say anything, just holding on like he needed the comfort as much as Tony did. "You're not allowed to be kidnapped on my watch again, you understand?"
Maybe Rhodey did need the comfort as much as Tony did after all.
Rhodey didn't comment on how little Tony was talking. Instead of asking about what happened, he talked about what Tony had missed while he'd been gone as Tony silently checked over the stitches on Rhodey's forehead. He and Steve hadn't been gone for too long, a few hours at the most since Tony was taken, but Tony still felt the jarring disconnect now that he was home. He didn't even feel the cracked ribs he knew he should have, or how wrecked his knees should have been. He could only assume that more magic had happened.
He could feel Rhodey looking at him, marking the differences and never letting Tony be more than a foot away. Rhodey hovered when he was allowed to, and Tony allowed him this time instead of kicking Rhodey out to go back to the job he was probably ignoring. He knew it made Rhodey worry more, but Tony didn't want...
He didn't want to be alone.
"Cap told us a little about what happened," Rhodey said, eventually broaching the subject. "He said he woke up after you collapsed, and the world shifted, and suddenly you both were back in the workshop, which is when JARVIS called us."
Tony nodded, not looking up. Because if he looked up, he'd see the laugh lines and wrinkles around Rhodey's eyes, reminders that age was now a problem Tony would have to deal with, but not the way he expected he would have to.
Rhodey's solution was to pull Tony into another tight hug. "You gonna tell me what really happened?"
"Fighting dragons sucks," Tony replied.
That got a laugh out of Rhodey. "Tell me about it."
Tony leaned against Rhodey's shoulder, reminding himself that he wasn't alone despite the dull ache in his chest. "Does it count as suicide if you kill another version of yourself?"
"The me in that world. He was the dragon. And Steven was a ghost the whole time and didn't tell me. And Steve was... He died too, for a while."
Rhodey nodded. "Cap said you two were connected through some sort of mental link."
Closing his eyes, Tony told himself not to chase after the now fleeting memories of Astron's love. "It's like... those soldiers I make prosthetics for, the ones that are missing an arm or a leg? They sometimes tell me that they can still feel the old leg. Like a-" Tony stumbled over the word 'ghost', hurrying on. "But it's more than that. I could feel Astron's mind in mine, and I... Now it's gone."
"Cap's alive," Rhodey said, probably trying for reassurance.
"Astron is still gone." Even knowing that they were the same person didn't stop the ache.
They fell into a silence after that, Tony on his tablet trying to catch up, and Rhodey reading quietly from an e-reader he must have had while waiting for Tony to wake up. They didn't just sit like this very often any more. They used to, when they studied together in college, or when Rhodey studied and told Tony to shut the hell up because not everyone was a genius. But with their jobs, they hadn't done this in years, and Tony found he kind of missed it.
Then Rhodey stretched, looking at the time. "I should get us something to eat or Pepper's gonna-"
Rhodey paused as he was standing up. Tony flushed when he realized that he'd grabbed hold of Rhodey's sleeve, immediately letting go. He could handle being alone. He could. He'd been alone most of his life, and even now he still had JARVIS to talk to if things got bad. He could handle this.
That didn't mean he wasn't pathetically grateful when Rhodey sat back down. "Hey, JARVIS," Rhodey said, not commenting on the fact that Tony was suddenly engrossed in his tablet again. "Can you order us some pizza? I hear there's a new place down the street that just opened up."
"Of course, sir. Shall I order the usual?" JARVIS replied.
"What do you think, Tone?" Rhodey asked, poking him in the stomach to get his attention. "Do you still want to worry about cholesterol?"
Tony blinked. He hadn't thought of that. A slow grin crossed his face. "Think you can keep up, honey bear?"
"Meat lovers with extra everything, JARVIS," Rhodey said, instead of answering, ruffling Tony's hair. "And a tub of Neapolitan ice cream."
"I'm going to win this one," Tony said, licking his lips. Rhodey always managed to best him in the past, but this time the strawberry middle was going to be his.
"You keep thinking that," Rhodey said. "I'll even put it on your grave stone. 'Tony Stark: the man who thought he could out eat a military officer."
Later, when Rhodey was in a meat coma on the couch and Tony was licking the last of the strawberry ice cream on his spoon, Tony let the victory glow fade a little. "JARVIS?" he asked quietly so as not to disrupt Rhodey. "What tests can we do to figure out just how..." - how human he was - "How I've changed?"
"Dr. Banner has run a few tests already to make sure you did not require medical assistance. Would you like me to send the results to your tablet, sir?"
"Yeah," Tony said, watching the file load with a sense of resignation. "Thanks, J."
"Dr. Banner also asked to relay that you are welcome down in his lab to run more detailed tests and he is glad that you are home," JARVIS added.
Tony closed his eyes, smiling lightly. "I'll keep that in mind."
He put the rest of the ice cream away, only to realize that he was suddenly alone in the kitchen. Rhodey was still on the couch, maybe five feet out from the kitchen doorway, but he was out of sight, and Tony felt the panic rising up. He was not that paranoid, he reminded himself. He could just go back out and see Rhodey for himself, because Jesus, this was not worth a panic attack. All he had to do was...
"Sir, if I could make a recommendation?"
Tony forced himself to stand up straight, though he couldn't quite unwrap his arms that were curled around himself. JARVIS wasn't a warm heartbeat against his neck, but Tony wasn't alone. He just needed to remember that. "What's that, JARVIS?" he said, not quite up to the snarky response he usually came back with.
"Colonel Rhodes may appreciate a glass of water and two pills of ibuprofen for his eventual hangover when he wakes up."
Tony breathed a sigh of relief, unwrapping himself. Something he can do. Something that would give him a real reason to go back in the living room and closer to Rhodey, then all he had to do was get his tablet back and stay there. That was a great plan. "Yeah, that sounds good. Good call," he said as he automatically moved for a glass of water.
"It's good to hear you follow at least some of my suggestions, Sir."
"Only because I feel like it," Tony said with a small smile. He didn't relax until he'd walked back out to the living room though, and he gripped at the tablet in his hand instead of going down to the work shop as he tried to push the grief out of his mind.