sara_wolf: (Default)
[personal profile] sara_wolf
Title: Kingdom Come
Author [personal profile] sara_wolf
Rating: PG13
Characters/Pairings: pre-Steve/Tony (very pre at this point)
Warnings: character death, off-screen torture
Summary: After King Howard and Queen Maria are killed, the kingdom falls to their young son, Tony. But someone doesn't want the young prince to take his rightful throne.
Notes: Written for the cap_im Reverse Big Bang. Inspired by art by lei-sam.

*****

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a king, and queen, and their young son. King Howard and Queen Maria were regarded as wise and benevolent leaders, and Anthony, their only child, was known to be an intelligent, vivacious boy.

Howard, an avid inventor, could usually be found working on improvements to the kingdom's roads and bridges, or building what Maria affectionately called his "fiddly, little gizmos". Maria spent her time working in the orphanages and the healing houses, and she often took Anthony with her. The King and Queen were beloved by their people. They were, by all accounts, the perfect family.

But all was not well.

When Anthony was just ten years old, Howard and Maria went on a trip to visit a neighboring kingdom. They never came home. The young boy waited for days, staring out the window into the endless rain, tears streaming down his cheeks. His world had shattered, his life changed forever. Nothing would ever be the same.

But, life goes on, as it must. Anthony was taken in by his father's adviser, Duke Obadiah, who raised Anthony like he would his own son. The Duke, who Anthony affectionately called Obie, was a hard, unyielding man, but he was all Anthony had, and the boy adored him. As the years passed, he became known as the Duke's shadow, learning the ways of the kingdom at Obie's hand.

Anthony, himself, grew into a strong, brilliant young man. His mind much like his late father's, Anthony could often be found deep in his basement laboratory, tinkering with his inventions - especially when he was supposed to be dealing with other matters. He was content to leave the running of the kingdom to Obie (that was what his Regent was for, after all) while he lurked in the background. He was insistent on having as much fun as he could while he still had the time. For upon his twenty-first birthday, the kingdom would become his, and his alone.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Tony, if you don't hurry up, we're going to be late."

Tony shot his best friend and impish grin. "Relax, Rhodey," he drawled. "What are you worried about? That we're going to miss the festivities? Things are hardly going to start without us there."

"Being late is disrespectful," Rhodey lectured, sternly.

"Which is why you have us leaving two hours early," Tony countered, unruffled by the other man's tone. "Rhodey? Relax and try to have fun, won't you? Do it as a favor to me?"

He gave Rhodey the puppy-dog look that (usually) always got him his way when the two of them fought. But this time, Rhodey was unmoved.

"I am the captain of your personal guard," he snapped, "and as such, your safety is my first concern. You're going to be twenty-one in less than a week-"

"And assassins are lurking around every corner, I know." Tony sighed, shooting Rhodey a look. "Can you stop being paranoid for all of two seconds. No one is going to try to kill me before the coronation. They love me too much."

"I wish you'd take the risks to your life more seriously," Rhodey scolded, but the heat was gone from his voice. Years of being Tony's best friend had taught him to pick his battles, and clearly he was starting to recognize that this was one he wasn't going to win.

"I take the risks to my life very seriously," Tony assured him. "When there are risks. Rhodey, we're going down to the village with a dozen of the best fighters in the guard. This is a trip I make ever single year, to help celebrate the harvest. My parents made this trip when they were alive, and they were fine. And so am I. Nothing is going to happen. I promise. Besides, Pepper's been planning this for weeks, and if I miss it, she'll kill me and save the assassins the trouble."

Rhodey still looked far from convinced, but he finally sighed, conceding the argument. Tony grinned in triumph, accepting his horse's reins from the groom that brought the gelding over. He swung up into the saddle, waiting until Rhodey had mounted his own horse, and then he grinned at his best friend.

"Race you to the gate," he challenged, spurring his horse into a quick gallop down the lane. Behind him, he could hear Rhodey's frustrated shout, and he kept his horse to a moderate pace out of deference to the other man. Reaching the far palace gate where the rest of the guard were waiting, he pulled his mount to a stop and waited for Rhodey to catch up. The other man was scowling when he pulled up alongside Tony.

"If the assassins don't get you," he threatened, darkly, "I will."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Hours later, after the festivities had ended and night had fallen, Tony rode squarely in the middle of the group as they headed back to the castle. His earlier words to Rhodey, aside, he was more than aware of the possibility of being attacked before his coronation, and he was going to do whatever it took to stay alive. Obie had certainly being reminding him of it, often enough in the past few months. There were people who would gladly see him dead before he could ever be crowned king, and Tony had no intention of letting them win.

So, he rode quietly in the middle of the group, letting his guards form a protective barrier around him. He hated knowing that others were putting their lives at risk for him, but they were doing exactly what they'd trained to do. Besides, Rhodey had threatened more than once that evening to knock him unconscious and stuff him in a sack if he didn't cooperate on the return trip. Tony was still picking burlap out of his teeth from the last time he hadn't believed one of Rhodey's threats.

They were deep in the heart of the forest when they heard the first sound. A bird called in the distance, which didn't seem unusual, but one of the younger soldiers called for an immediate halt. His face was set in grim lines.

"Problem, Barton?" Rhodey asked, riding back to the other man.

"Yes, sir," Barton said, quietly, his voice so low that Tony could only just hear him. "That's a wood thrush. They don't sing at night."

"So why is this one?" Rhodey mused, quietly. "Good ear, soldier."

"Thank you, sir." Barton moved back to his previous position, at Tony's left flank, his eyes constantly scanning the scenery around them.

At Rhodey's gesture, the rest of the guard tightened ranks around Tony. They moved steadily through the forest, keeping a wary eye out for danger. Everything was quiet for a few minutes, and then another bird sounded. Tony glanced over at Barton at the same time as Rhodey, seeing the younger man minutely shaking his head.

"Double time," Rhodey ordered, brusquely. "I want to get-"

He never got to finish his sentence. Something huge and hairy burst out of the trees, and one of the horses screamed as it was dragged to the ground. The rider rolled away from his fallen mount, only for the beast to drag him backwards, claws slicing through armor like butter. Another soldier leaped from his mount, to his partner's defense, but he was swatted aside like a gnat. Tony tightened his grip on his reins, stilling his horse when the terrified animal tried to bolt.

"Tony, get out of here!" Rhodey bellowed, unsheathing his sword. "Barton, with the prince!"

"Highness, this way," Barton said, an urgent tone in his voice as he grabbed the reins of Tony's horse, forcibly leading the frightened animal away from the rest of the group.

"You should stay with the rest of the guard," Tony said, but Barton stubbornly shook his head.

"No," he said, bluntly. "Captain told me to stay with you, that's what I'm going to do. And in this kind of situation, his command outranks yours. No offense, Highness."

Tony wanted to argue, but he held his tongue. Arguing wouldn't do any good, and the sooner they got out of there, the sooner he could convince Barton that he was safe and that the other man should return and help his fellow soldiers. He urged his horse forward, after Barton, the two of them moving swiftly through the trees.

The forest was quickly becoming darker and darker, and it was getting harder to see Barton ahead of him. So, it took him a moment to realize that Barton's horse had stopped moving, the riderless animal looking around in confusion. Tony grabbed for the horse's reins as he stopped.

"Barton!" he snapped, worried.

He hadn't seen anything, hadn't heard anything to suggest that anything had happened to the younger man. Barton had just vanished.

Hearing a quiet groan from behind him, he turned around to see Barton sprawled out in the middle of the path. He was barely moving. Tony jumped down and ran to the other man's side, helping the groggy man sit up.

"What happened?" he demanded, and Barton shook his head in confusion.

"I don't know," he admitted, his words slurring, slightly. "One second, I was still on my horse, the next, I'm lying on the ground. Something hit me-"

Tony glanced up, automatically, his lips tightening into a scowl when he saw a trip wire strung across two trees. The wire was at a height to catch a man in the chest as he rode past. It was only luck that the trip wire had only caught Barton, as Tony had been crouched over his mount's neck when he'd passed under it.

"Can you stand?" Tony asked, quietly, even as he pulled Barton to his feet. "We're in danger, here."

"I can ride, Highness," Barton told him, although he was swaying unsteadily on his feet.

He moved determinedly toward his horse, putting a foot in the stirrup to swing back into the saddle. He had just boosted himself into the air when something flew through the air, slamming into his armor with a dull thud. Barton lurched forward, slumping over his horse's back and falling off to land heavily on the ground, a heavy crossbow quiver lying on the ground beside him. Tony swore under his breath as he moved to where the other man lay.

He never made it.

Something leaped out of the shadows, knocking him to the ground when it hit him. Tony lashed out, instinctively, his hand slamming into something hard and unyielding. The heavy weight pinned him easily to the ground, and a damp, sweet-smelling cloth was pressed over his mouth and nose, held in place despite his struggles to get free. He was trapped, and he couldn't escape.

Tony rolled his eyes to the side, seeing another shadowy figure standing over Barton's body. The man kicked out, his foot catching Barton in the head. The younger man didn't even flinch at the contact. Tony burned with fury at the thought of the brave, young soldier dying for him. He fought harder to get away from his captor, or at least to get his mouth free so that he could yell for help. But the man pinning him to the ground hit him on the side of the head to keep him from moving, pressing the wet rag further into his nostrils. Tony couldn't do anything but breathe whatever substance the cloth had been dipped in.

He couldn't get enough air, and his lungs burned like he was drowning. Black spots danced in front of his eyes, and the world started to go dark. He lashed out again in a last, desperate attempt to free himself, but the blast of pain that shot up his arm indicated that he'd probably only succeeded in breaking his hand.

"Just give up," a low voice growled in his ear, breath tickling the side of his face. "You could make this so much easier on yourself if you just stopped fighting."

Tony wanted to protest that he didn't know the meaning of the word easy. But, he was having trouble forming coherent thoughts. His vision was going black. And the last thing he heard before succumbing to the darkness was a low, cruel laugh...

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony woke up alone. There was no sign of his captors in the cold, dank cave he was being held in, but a shimmering blue force field kept him imprisoned. The only other sign of life was an old man slumped unconscious at the back of the cave. Tony initially thought he was dead, but he managed to find a faint pulse on the old man's neck.

Tony started out measuring the time in hours. He estimated at least one for the time he'd been unconscious, and started counting from the moment he woke up. After five hours, he gave up on any of the soldiers having survived the attack to follow his abductors. After ten, he started doubting a rescue coming from the castle. After eighty-five hours, he started counting the days.

He tallied the days in scratch marks on the wall. The days grew into weeks, the weeks into months, and the months into years. Tony rarely saw his captors; he spent most of his time in the cave he'd first woken up in. His only companion was his fellow captive Ho Yinsen, a tinker. His only break in the monotony was when his captors stormed in, tied a bag over his head, and tortured him.

He lost track of time during the torture sessions.

For the most part, his captors didn't seem to want to permanently injure him; they only seemed interested in inflicting the most amount of pain with a minimum of damage. But, that didn't mean there weren't accidents. Tony lost count of the scars that peppered his chest and torso, couldn't even remember all the tortures that gave him the scars.

But, try as he might, he couldn't forget the worst one. The memory was etched like crystal in his mind. He remembered his captors coming into the cave, remembered the rough bag being dragged over his head. Remembered the shock of the freezing-cold water that they held him under. Remembered black spots exploding in front of his eyes as his lungs ran out of air.

Then, pain. Knives, and fire, and hands that held him down when he struggled to get away. A fiery weight that settled in his chest. Yinsen's gentle, soothing voice that broke through the agony. And then more darkness.

The next time he woke up, it was almost two weeks later. He was lying on a pile of damp, foul-smelling blankets.

Tony tried to sit up, even made it a couple of inches before the world started to spin in front of his eyes. He let out an involuntary whimper, fighting back the urge to be violently sick. He had a feeling that it would be a bad idea. He thought that he was alone, but a few seconds after he sat up, Yinsen materialized from out of thin air, pushing him back down onto the filthy blankets.

"You shouldn't be moving," Yinsen scolded him, holding him down with one hand. It didn't take a lot of effort on the older man's part.

"What happened?" Tony asked, surprised at how weak his voice sounded.

"You were...injured," Yinsen told him. "It seems that our captors were a little too enthusiastic in their endeavors."

"You mean they tried to torture me to death," Tony croaked out. The cave was still spinning around him, and he closed his eyes to block out the sight. "Why am I still alive? I doubt they were kind enough to save my life."

"I saved your life," Yinsen told him, and Tony blinked, looking at the older man in surprise. "In another life, I worked as a healer."

"Well, thanks," Tony said, as he settled back down. He shifted, trying to get comfortable, and then he flinched when something dragged painfully at his chest. "What the hell?"

He dragged a hand up his torso until his fingers hit a small, hard thing protruding from his chest, almost directly over his heart. He traced smooth, rounded edges, and when he tapped the object with a fingernail, a clear note rang out like he'd just struck glass.

"What is this?" he asked, trying not to panic. It wasn't easy; there was a foreign object buried in his chest. It took all of his self control not to dig it out with his bare hands.

Yinsen sighed, the deep lines on his face making him look decades older than he really was. "You were badly injured," he repeated, quietly. "I had to take certain measures to save your life."

"What kind of measures?" Tony asked, wondering why the other man was being so evasive.

Something sorrowful flashed across Yinsen's face. "A heartstone," he finally answered. "I had to use a dragon's heartstone to keep yours beating."

And now Tony understood why Yinsen had been so hesitant to tell him the truth. Heartstones were immensely powerful and valuable. Before his father had enacted laws against it, the great creatures had been nearly hunted to extinction. Now, possession of a heartstone was punishable by death, a law that Tony was bound by his very position to uphold. And he had one buried in his chest.

"I did not steal the stone," Yinsen hastened to assure him, probably seeing the uneasy look on Tony's face. "I came across a dying drake in my travels. I saved the she-dragon's eggs, and she gifted me with her heartstone, in return. It was freely given, I swear to you."

Tony nodded, slumping wearily back against the blankets. He wasn't likely to have to worry about the law, at any rate. In all the time he'd been held captive, there had never been any indication that his captors had even tried to seek a ransom from Obie. He was going to die, here.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony had counted out over a thousand days in the cave when the hooded man came for him. The man didn't speak to him directly, he just gestured to the pair of guards accompanying him to grab Tony and drag him out of the cave. Tony was slung unceremoniously over the back of a horse, tied down with rough rope to keep him from falling. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yinsen being treated to the same manhandling, and then a bag was shoved over Tony's head, blinding him.

They traveled for almost an hour before the horses stopped, and Tony found himself being dragged off the horse and dumped to the ground. A hard hand grabbed the back of his neck, pulling him to his feet, and then he was forcibly marched forward.

Soft sand shifted under his feet. It got colder the longer he walked; he figured they were moving underground, or deep into another cave. He could hear the shuffling sounds of Yinsen walking behind him, but he could also hear a more distant sound of metal striking metal, a sound that got louder the further they moved.

Around a corner, and then Tony felt himself being jerked to a stop. The area they were in was far warmer than the rest of their surroundings, and the clanging sounds were much closer. The man that had Tony's arms restrained behind his back jerked the bag off his head, yanking out a hank of hair in the process. Tony blinked at the sudden rush of light.

They were standing in the middle of a smithy. It wasn't as busy as Tony would have expected, given the size of the space they were standing in. A glowing forge stood in the middle of the space, surrounded by mostly-empty worktables. Only a few tables were being used, and they were occupied by people who barely looked capable of lifting their tools, let alone work on the elaborate pieces of armor he could see being constructed.

"What am I doing here?" Tony demanded, even though he could certainly guess. A throat cleared beside him, and he glanced over at Yinsen. "We," he amended. "What are we doing here?"

The hooded man was the one who answered him. "If I am going to be stuck with you, Prince," he sneered, turning the word into a curse, "you are going to be useful to me. You will make armor and weapons for my army."

"And why, exactly, would I do that?" Tony asked, but he trailed off at the sight of the knife that appeared in one of the guard's hands, resting against Yinsen's throat.

"You will work," the hooded man informed him, "or I will kill the old man. And then I will dump you back in that hole I fished you out of, to let the rats eat you alive."

With that pronouncement, he turned on his heel and glided smoothly away. The man holding Tony gave him a rough shove, sending him stumbling across the sand. Tony caught himself on a table, turning to see the guards taking up a position at the entrance to the cavern.

"Well," Yinsen said, glancing over at him, "it would appear that we are now in the weapons business."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony would have expected that keeping busy would have been better than being useless in a cave. He was wrong. Except for the change of scenery, there wasn't much difference from the monotony of his earlier days. And he hated picking up his tools every day, hated knowing that the armor and weapons he crafted could be used against the people in his kingdom. Against Rhodey and the soldiers he'd trained.

He was tempted to introduce small flaws into the armor and weapons. Not big enough to be noticeable, but just enough to potentially cripple the men wearing it into battle. But, he found that he couldn't do it. He still had no idea who was holding him captive, and just because his captor was evil, that didn't follow that the men who served him were. Innocent people didn't deserve to be hurt like that. Besides, he couldn't risk having flawed armor trace back to him, and for Yinsen to pay the price. The older man's safety was still contingent upon his continued good behavior.

Instead, he worked on making armor and weapons just like he'd been ordered; a model prisoner. And hidden away in a hole in the floor where he slept was his special project. The thing that was going to get him, Yinsen, and the other captives out of their shared hell.

Over the last few months, ever since Yinsen had embedded the heartstone into his chest, Tony had discovered that he'd changed. He could touch, could use, the magic that made up the heartstone. Small things at first, his hands glowing in the middle of the night. But the more he worked at it, he found that he was able to generate heat in his hands, able to create energy blasts that shot out of his palms.

Yinsen had been just as surprised as Tony had been. He'd mentioned that he'd never seen anyone able to channel the magic of a heartstone in such a manner before. But then, no one else had ever had a heartstone implanted in their body, either.

After he'd gotten over his surprise, Tony had set about turning his new abilities to their advantage. He'd started working on a separate suit of armor, one that he kept carefully hidden away from the guards. Dozens of jointed plates to allow for greater flexibility without sacrificing protection. Mail made of tiny chains around his joints. Gloves with bare palms to keep his hands free. Months of work in the dead of night, when the guards retired and relied on their force fields to keep the prisoners in line. The suit was, quite simply, his masterpiece.

And he was almost done.

The last piece he had to work on was the helmet. The smithy was dark, lit only by the glow from the heartstone and the light that shone from underneath his skin. He was hunched over in the far corner where he slept, cradling the helmet in his lap as he worked.

"If you are caught, they will kill you."

Tony forced himself not to jump as Natasha spoke softly, directly behind his ear. The other captive had been brought in nearly two months ago, rumored to have killed half a dozen men during her capture. The cautious way the guards acted around her certainly gave rise to the suspicion. The secretive redhead remained quiet on the subject. Quiet on everything, actually. It had taken over a month just to learn her name, and it was still the only thing they knew about her. And sometimes Tony wondered if it was even the truth.

"They're going to have to catch me, first," he responded, just as quietly.

He tweaked the placement of one of the tiny plates, soldering it in place with a razor-thin stream of energy from his finger. Then, he turned to see Natasha watching him work, a curious look on her face.

"You're not planning on turning me into the guards, are you?" he asked.

"Hardly," came the insulted response. "I just felt that it would be prudent to warn you of the danger you are embarking in."

"Believe me," Tony said, "I know." He hesitated a moment and then added, "If something happens to me, can you do me a favor? Look after Yinsen for me. Don't let the guards get him."

Natasha's emotionless gaze softened when she looked over at the sleeping man. She was clearly fond of the older man, not that it was hard to believe. Yinsen had been the first person to form a bond with the woman, and he was an easy man to like.

"I will protect him with my life," she murmured. "Do you need any help?" she added, nodding at the bits of armor spread out in front of him.

"Just warn me if the guards show up, unexpectedly," Tony replied, distractedly, already turning his attention back to his work.

He worked until dawn, drawing on the heartstone's energy in order to chase away the exhaustion that dogged him. There would be time enough to be exhausted when they'd escaped, and he knew that everyone was safe.

The guards came soon after sunrise with their breakfasts. Their captor at least understood that feeding his captives led to better work, because he'd never skimped on food. Tony started to dig into his portion, to the surprise of his fellow captives.

"Might as well eat as much as you can," he advised them, keeping his voice low. "We have no idea where we are and who we can trust. Might be a while before we get to eat, again."

"If we even make it out alive." Tony ignored the mutterings of the naysayer.

The tall, skinny man who'd been nameless and taciturn the entire time Tony had been held captive had never once believed that they were going to escape. Tony figured that he'd been there for so long, he couldn't afford to have hope, anymore. But, the man still dug into his food with gusto, clearing his plate quickly and grabbing more from the communal bucket of stew that sat in the middle of their loose little circle.

Tony found himself going for seconds, and then thirds. The more he drew on the heartstone, the more food he needed to consume to keep his energy up. And he figured with everything they hoped to accomplish today, he needed everything he could get.

"All right," Yinsen was saying, while Tony ate, "is everyone clear on the plan?"

"Yeah." The answer came from a young woman with sunken, haunted eyes. She'd been there barely three days. Tony wondered if she'd been held somewhere before, like him and Yinsen.

"He makes a distraction-" the woman went on, nodding at Tony, "-while we run for our lives. We scatter, and anyone who survives makes their way to the border of the kingdom of Stark, where the crown prince will welcome us with open arms." She rolled her eyes at the last.

That was something else that none of their fellow captives believed. They were convinced that Tony was lying when he told them who he was. None of them begrudged him the supposed falsehood; they told themselves whatever they had to in order to survive.

But, Tony had promised safety to everyone in the room, a promise he intended to keep. They just needed to get out of there.

Their opportunity came when the guards came back to take away the stew pot. As usual, one guard stayed outside the smithy while the other came to take the pot and plates away.

When the guard came within range, Natasha struck. Leaping up, she grabbed the man's head between her hands and twisted. The man's neck broke with a sharp snap, and his lifeless body dropped to the ground. The second guard rushed into the room, but Tony dispatched him with an energy beam to the chest. The man fell back, his chest a smoking ruin.

Tony slammed his hand over the heartstone, feeling the rounded stone grow unbearably warm under his skin as he concentrated. Across the room, the pieces of his armor shuddered and then flew through the air, summoned by the magic he channeled. He held out his arms as the metal formed itself around his body. He caught the helmet in his gloved hands as it zipped toward him, fitting it over his head. He cursed the time it had taken him to get ready; they couldn't afford any lost seconds.

"Get ready!" Tony snapped, even as he bolted out into the corridor.

The commotion had drawn the attention of the other men guarding their hiding place, and Tony made as big a target as possible out of himself as he ran away from the smithy, armor clanking noisily. Just like he'd hoped, the guards followed him, hopefully leaving a clear path for his fellow captives to get away.

He stayed ahead of the guards as he ran, randomly firing back energy bursts to keep them pursuing him. From the yells that rang out behind him, he'd managed to hit someone more than once. He had no idea how deep in the cave he was, but the ground under his feet was sloping upward. And the further he got, the lighter the corridors became. Soon, he could see a shadowy opening up ahead.

When he emerged out in the open, the sudden sunlight completely blinded him. He staggered to a stop, unable to see where he was going, and he slammed the visor of his helmet down to shut out the glare. When he could see again, he was surrounded.

Tony cursed himself for getting caught again, but he consoled himself that Yinsen had gotten away. He trusted Natasha to protect the older man. And if he was going down, he was taking his captors with him.

He raised his hands as he slowly turned in a circle, keeping a wary eye on the men surrounding him. He was only going to have time for a couple of shots at the most, so he had to make it count. The men shifted around him, swords up. Tony took a deep breath, and then he fired energy blasts at the men.

He knocked a few of the men off their feet from the force of the blasts, but the others recovered quickly and rushed him. Tony brought his arm up to block a blow swinging at his head, metal ringing against metal with a loud crash. He whirled to confront another attacker, only there was no one there. He stared in shock as yet another one of the men was yanked backward away from Tony, flying through the air to crash heavily into a tree.

His savior was a heavily-armored knight on an enormous white stallion, with a circular shield strapped to his arm. The knight reached down with his free hand to grab another one of the men, hefting him into the air and throwing him away. The man landed hard and didn't get back up again.

Tony dispatched the last guard, and by the time he'd turned around, the knight was gone. There was no sign of his departure, and if not for the unconscious men lying around, Tony wouldn't have even known that the other man had been there.

"What the hell just happened, here?" he asked.

Naturally, there was no answer. After a moment, Tony started walking. He had no idea where he was going, but he wanted to be long gone before his captors woke up.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It took Tony nearly a month to make it back home.

He spent a lot of time the first couple of days moving around in seemingly-aimless patterns, and doubling back on his own tracks, trying to evade his pursuers. He ditched all but the most vital components of his crudely-made armor, sacrificing safety for speed. He didn't gain a lot of ground in those first couple of days, but he managed to confuse his pursuers enough that he thought he finally lost them. Not that he would bet his life on it, though.

He still had no idea where he was, had no idea which direction was back toward his kingdom. He just picked one and hoped for the best. He pushed himself to his limit, moving as hard and as fast as he could, even drawing on the heartstone to keep himself on his feet. But, he couldn't go completely without rest, and he slept fitfully for a few, scant hours at a time, barely regaining enough energy to keep from falling on his face.

Tony pushed himself like this for days, and he was almost at his breaking point when he found the village. The tiny hamlet was almost completely hidden by enormous trees surrounding it, and it was sheer dumb luck that Tony stumbled upon it.

A large building dominated the area that he stumbled into, and he immediately headed for the structure. A heavy, oaken door barred his way, and it took almost all of his strength to pull it open. Forcing the door open, he limped into the darkened room.

The smells hit him first. Smoke, and below it, the smell of something cooking. His mouth started watering almost immediately. He didn't know what they were cooking – it could have been roasted squirrel, for all he knew – but it was the most delicious thing he'd ever smelled.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Tony looked around at the room. Sturdy tables lined three of the walls and filled the floor. The tables were unoccupied, and the room was empty save for the bartender. The far wall was taken up with a long bar, and Tony lurched forward to sink into one of the stools at the nearest end. The stool rocked on unstable legs when he sat down, and he clutched at the bar to keep from being dumped on the ground.

"What's your pleasure?" a gravelly voice growled near his ear, and Tony jumped in surprise. He hadn't even heard the other man approach, which only highlighted how exhausted he was.

"Um," Tony mumbled, as he tried to gather his whirling thoughts into something coherent. "I don't have any money," he blurted out, without thinking.

The bartender snorted disdainfully at his confession, stalking away. Tony watched him go, despairingly, and then let his head fall to the bar. He should have ordered food and tried to charm his way out of the bill, later. Now, he'd be lucky if the bartender didn't throw him out on his ass.

The sound of something heavy hitting the bar startled Tony out of his thoughts. He lifted his head to see a wooden mug sitting at his elbow. He took a cautious sniff but found only water. There was a bowl beside the mug, and it contained whatever smelled so utterly amazing. It took all of Tony's self-control, what little remained, from grabbing the bowl and inhaling the contents.

"Eat it," the bartender growled, when Tony shot him a wary look. "You look like you're about to die, and I don't feel like hauling your corpse out of here."

"I don't have any money," Tony insisted, even as the part of his brain that was still functioning screamed at him to shut up before the food was taken away.

"Heard you the first time." The bartender turned away with a grunt. "Made a lot of stew this morning. I either feed you, or I feed that mangy mutt out back that begs for scraps."

"Thanks," Tony mumbled, pulling the bowl close and picking up the spoon the man dropped in front of him.

The first bite was hot enough to burn his mouth, but he didn't care. He poured a small amount of water from the mug into the stew, stirring it around, and then gulped down several more mouthfuls, chasing it down with the water. The hot food hit his empty stomach, and for a second, everything was wonderful.

Then, his stomach lurched, uneasily. Tony pushed himself away from the bar, doubling over as his stomach cramped. A bucket was shoved between his knees, and Tony clutched at it, pathetically. He heaved a few times, his stomach constricting in pain, until nothing came up but bile.

"Idiot," the bartender growled at him.

Tony glanced up to see the man putting a fresh bowl of stew in front of him. His mouth watered even as his stomach lurched, again. He let out an involuntary whimper that had the bartender rolling his eyes.

"Eat slower," he snapped, as he refilled the water in Tony's mug.

Tony took a swig of water to rinse his mouth out, spitting into the bucket. He set the bucket down on the floor, moving it a short distance away so he couldn't accidentally kick it over.

The stew was still steaming, and it still smelled amazing. He diluted the heat with a bit of water, taking a cautious spoonful. He was careful to let the stew settle in his stomach, resting for a few seconds before he tried another mouthful. It still didn't take him very long to empty the bowl. Looking up from the empty bowl, he found the bartender staring at him with an inscrutable look on his face.

"Thank you," Tony said, and the man nodded.

"How long you been running?" he asked, as he took the bowl and wiped down the bar with a rag.

"What makes you think I'm running?" Tony asked, suspiciously. The man snorted.

"Don't get many visitors around here," he replied. "Most people who come here are either lost or running from something. And you look like you've been chased by the hounds of hell."

Tony sighed. "About a week," he admitted, after a long moment. He expected the next question to be 'what are you running from?', but the bartender was silent. He just glanced at Tony every now and then as he cleaned the bar.

Tony knew it was probably foolish to trust the bartender simply because the other man had fed him, but he had no other choice. He still didn't know where he was, or how to get home, and he didn't have the energy to keep running like he had been. Not if he expected to make it home, alive.

"Where am I, anyway?" he asked, cautiously. There were a few places that weren't on very good terms with his kingdom, and with his luck, he'd wandered straight into one.

"Haven," the bartender told him, and Tony had to admit he'd never heard of the place. Given the size of the town, and how he hadn't even known it was there until he stumbled upon it, that was probably the whole point.

"I'm trying to get back to Stark," Tony ventured, getting a sharp look from the bartender.

"Back to implies that you're from there," he said, his tone guarded. "You been there in a while?"

"Not for a few years," Tony fudged, wondering why the man was being so evasive.

"Place is different from what it used to be," the bartender told him. "You sure you want to go there?"

"What do you mean, different?" Tony asked, keeping his voice calm, even though he wanted to grab the other man and shake him until he got a straight answer.

"You there when the prince was killed?" the bartender asked.

"I heard about it," Tony hedged, carefully. "Some kind of ambush by bandits, wasn't it?"

The bartender nodded. "That's the gossip," he replied. "Anyway, after the prince died, things just started going downhill. Theft, murders, and the royal guard's not doing a damn thing about it. Got so bad, people are afraid to go out of their houses at night."

"You sound like you've seen it, personally," Tony said, trying to keep the dawning horror out of his voice. What the hell had happened to his people while he was gone?

"Been there a few times," came the terse answer. "Don't really care to go back."

"It can't be that bad," Tony protested, weakly. Things couldn't possibly be as bad as the man was saying. Obie wouldn't allow it. Rhodey and Pepper wouldn't allow it.

The look he got from the bartender said very clearly that he thought Tony was being an idiot. Without saying anything, he turned deliberately until Tony saw the long, jagged scar running from his hairline down the left side of his face and across his throat. The man was lucky to have survived it.

"Got this from a guard when I tried to stop him from beating an old woman," the bartender told him, locking eyes with Tony. "Had to run for my life after I killed him."

Tony swallowed the defensive words that got stuck in his throat. There was no reason for a complete stranger to lie to him about the condition of his kingdom, especially when he didn't know who Tony really was. As loathe as Tony was to admit it, the man had no reason not to tell the truth.

"I still need to get back there," he finally said, getting an incredulous snort from the bartender.

"You got a death wish, or something?" he asked, gruffly. Tony just jerked his shoulder in a shrug. "Go south," the man finally told him. "You'll know it when you get there. And may all the gods have mercy on your damn, stupid soul."

"Thank you," Tony said, getting a wordless grunt in response. "I don't suppose you know where I could borrow a horse, do you?"

"Borrow?" the bartender asked, skepticism heavy in his voice.

"I'm going to bring it back," Tony muttered, knowing how it sounded. The bartender didn't look convinced. "I need a horse," Tony insisted, stubbornly. "I can't be gone any longer. I have to get back home."

"You make it sound like people are going to die without you," the bartender replied, and Tony bit back a frustrated sigh.

"They might," he said, quietly, as his overactive imagination conjured up all-too-clear images of everything the other man had told him. "Look, I just need-"

"To get home, yeah, you said." The bartender gave him a long, searching look. "You said you hadn't been back to Stark in years. How do you know there's even anything there for you, anymore?"

Tony knew telling the man the truth could possibly be the stupidest thing he'd ever done. He knew that it could end up with him back in that cave, at the mercy of captors who would torture him half to death before leaving him to die all alone. But, he was running out of options. Out of luck.

"I am Prince Anthony of Stark," he said, quietly.

Tony didn't know what kind of reaction he was expecting, but it wasn't for the bartender to laugh at him.

"You look good for a dead man," came the cynical response.

"Helps not being dead," Tony retorted, relaxing minutely now that his former captors weren't bursting through the doors to drag him away.

"You expect me to believe that you're the crown prince of Stark?" the bartender asked, in disbelief.

Tony shrugged. "Believe what you like," he said. "I am Anthony of Stark. And if even half of what you've told me is true, my people are in trouble. And I need to get home. Now." He met the other man's eyes, unblinking.

The sound of the door opening behind them broke their impromptu staring contest, and Tony twisted around on his stool to see a young man with short, brown hair walk into the tavern. He paused in the doorway for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then he strode over to the bar.

"Morning, Logan," he said, cheerfully, to the bartender.

"Charles," Logan returned, and a tiny smile flashed across his face, so quickly that Tony almost missed it. It was the first hint of emotion other than annoyance that Tony had seen the man display.

"I see we have a visitor," Charles continued, glancing over at Tony with an openly-curious expression on his face.

"Needs a horse," Logan said, before Tony could introduce himself. "He's headed to Stark."

"That's a dangerous place," Charles warned, and Tony couldn't hide his scowl.

"So I've heard," he replied, shortly. "Doesn't mean I won't go."

Charles studied him for several long moments, and Tony fought the urge to squirm under his sharp gaze. The other man nodded, suddenly, like he was coming to a decision about him.

"My horse is tied to the post outside," he told Tony.

"I can't take your horse," Tony protested. He'd been hoping that someone would let him borrow an old workhorse; he hadn't been expecting someone's personal mount.

"She's well-rested, and she's in good shape," Charles continued, as if Tony hadn't even spoken. "She won't carry you with the armor, though," he warned. "She's too skittish. I'm afraid you'll have to leave it behind."

Tony glanced down at the few pieces of armor he'd almost forgotten he was wearing. He'd been carrying the metal on his chest and shoulders for so long that it almost seemed like a part of his body. Removing the armor was almost painful, like taking off a layer of skin, and he carefully laid the metal on the bar, hating that he had to abandon it after all the work he'd done.

He looked up to see Charles and Logan both staring at the heartstone glowing blue-white through his thin shirt, and he fought the urge to cover it with his hand. It wouldn't do any good, not when they'd already seen the stone, and trying to hide it would only raise more questions than they undoubtedly already had.

He stared at the men, waiting for the axe to fall. Instead, Logan turned his attention to something behind the bar, and Charles nodded at the door.

"If you'd like to take a look at Phoenix," he said, and Tony stood up, following the other man out into the sunshine.

The sun was lower in the sky than he would have expected, long shadows stretching across the ground. He'd been in the tavern for longer than he'd thought. He wasn't going to be doing any traveling, tonight.

"You should wait until morning to start out," Charles said, echoing his thoughts. "Phoenix travels best during the day."

He stroked the nose of an elegant chestnut mare tied near the entrance of the tavern. The mare arched her neck at the touch, nuzzling her rider, affectionately.

"Phoenix, this is Anthony," Charles said, moving so that the mare could take a look at him.

Tony stared at the man, suspiciously. He hadn't introduced himself, and Logan hadn't mentioned his name. He darted his eyes from side to side, fully expecting his captors to come bursting out of the trees at any second.

"I am not going to hurt you," Charles told him, his voice soothing, and Tony jerked at the hand on his elbow. Charles backed up a step, hands held up in a placating gesture.

"How do you know my name?" Tony demanded, his voice hoarse. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"I knew your father," Charles said, softly, and Tony looked more carefully at the man who suddenly appeared older than Tony had originally thought. "Howard was a good man."

"People have told me my entire life how much I look like him," Tony said, after a moment.

"The resemblance is very strong," Charles said. "Of course, right now you look like Howard after a three-day bender." A smile tugged at his lips.

Tony stroked the unruly beard he'd been trying in vain to keep under control for the last five years. He hadn't had the chance to see his own reflection in a while, but he imagined it wasn't a pretty sight.

"Logan's agreed to let you sleep in the back room, tonight," Charles told him, to Tony's surprise. He didn't remember the pair talking. "You can leave at first light. With Phoenix, it should take you about a week to reach the southern border."

"I'll take good care of her," Tony promised, as he held his hand out for the mare to sniff. She nuzzled his hand with her nose, investigating him.

"I know you will," Charles reassured him.

After another couple of minutes, Tony trailed Charles back into the tavern. True to his word, there was a pile of thick blankets waiting for him in the back room of the tavern. Logan was nowhere to be seen, but Tony had a feeling that the other man wasn't far away. He burrowed down into the blankets, the softest bed he'd had since he'd been first captured, and he was asleep as soon as his eyes were closed.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony was alone in the tavern when he woke up the next morning, and if not for the pair of cloth bags sitting on the bar, he would have thought that he'd dreamed the encounter with Logan and Charles. The other men were nowhere to be seen, but Phoenix was grazing in a small, fenced enclosure at the side of the building. The mare greeted him with a friendly whicker, ambling over to the fence. She nudged the heartstone through his shirt.

"You ready to go?" he asked. "I promise, I'll get you back to Charles. I just need your help getting home. My people need me."

Phoenix nudged him again, turning and walking over to the gate, where she waited expectantly. Tony looked at the mare in surprise, wondering exactly how much the horse had understood.

He found tack for the mare sitting just inside the tavern door, and by the time he came back outside, Phoenix had gotten out of the enclosure and was waiting patiently for him a short distance away from the door.

"Why do I get the feeling you were just humoring me, before, when you wanted me to open the gate?" Tony asked, as he saddled the mare. Phoenix ignored him.

Tony tied the cloth bags - which he discovered were stuffed with bread and fruit - to the horn of the saddle, and pulled himself astride the horse's back. He looked around at the quiet, empty street, not seeing anyone, but he had a feeling that Logan, and Charles, and whoever else lived in this odd, little village were watching him from somewhere.

"Thank you," he said, quietly, and then he nudged Phoenix into a walk with his heels, heading out into the forest.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It took Tony almost two weeks to get from Haven to the northernmost border of Stark. He wouldn't have taken so long except that two days into his journey, he almost ran into some of his former captors. He avoided detection by the skin of his teeth, watching the men disappear into the distance, but he still doubled back and took Phoenix through a longer route to keep from accidentally running into the men, again.

He was actually inside the border of his own kingdom for nearly a day before he actually realized it. To be fair, Stark's borders hadn't extended so far five years ago as they seemed to, now.

The land was...depressed, for lack of a better word. The height of summer, in prime farmland, crops should have been bursting from the soil. Instead, there were barren fields on either side of the poorly-kept road, and those that had plants certainly didn't count as bursting. The few crops he saw were small and half-dead. He couldn't imagine how anyone was managing to survive out here.

He pulled Phoenix to a halt outside the first house he saw with a glimmer of life. The mare stood patiently while he tied her reins off to a sad-looking tree. He wasn't happy about it, given how brittle the tree looked, but there was nothing else to use. Still, if Phoenix startled, she could break the poor tree, easily.

"Don't pull it down, okay?" he asked her, rubbing her nose. The mare shot him a disdainful look, lowering her head to lip gently at the yellowing grass. Tony patted her on the neck before walking around the side of the house.

A woman was hanging wash on a line stretched between a pair of trees. A little girl, long hair flopping in front of her eyes was playing with a doll. Neither of them saw Tony until he called out to them, and then the woman dropped her wash, snatched up the child, and bolted for the house in a dead sprint. Tony caught a glimpse of her face, seeing nothing in her expression but sheer terror.

Tony walked slowly up to the house, knocking softly on the door. When there was no answer, he knocked again.

"Ma'am," he called out, keeping his voice as low and non-threatening as possible, "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm just a traveler. I'm not here to make trouble."

He waited a couple of minutes, but there was no sign of anyone moving inside the house. The woman clearly wasn't coming out any time soon, and Tony didn't like the thought that the mere sight of him had scared her so badly. She clearly didn't even feel safe in her own home, and that just wasn't right. She should be able to feel safe in her home. The whole reason that his father had created the guard, had set up the patrols that went to the furthest reaches of the kingdom, had been so that their people would be protected. Seeing someone so afraid of him, when he'd done nothing more than call out to her, made fury burn low in his gut.

"I'm sorry to have bothered you, ma'am," Tony called out, when it was obvious that she wasn't coming out, and he headed back to where Phoenix was waiting for him. He'd just untied the mare when the front door opened behind him.

"You're leaving." There was a hard, flat tone to the woman's voice. Tony turned around to see her watching him with a suspicious gaze. "I shut the door in your face, and you're leaving."

"You made it clear that I'm not welcome," Tony replied.

The woman snorted, derisively. "Never stopped any of you, before," she said, something brittle and broken in her voice. "Just barge in, and take whatever you damn well please-" She broke off when her daughter peeked out from behind her skirt, staring out at Tony with bright blue eyes. She put her hand on the child's shoulder, keeping her from leaving the house.

"I'm just a traveler, ma'am," Tony ventured, cautiously. "I don't want to hurt you. Who do you think I am?" he asked, fearing the answer.

"One of those damn soldiers," the woman spat, glaring furiously at him. "Come out here, acting all noble, and then you take all our food, and you demand taxes we can't pay, and our fields go to ruin because we don't have enough people to work them-" she shuddered, her voice trailing off into silence.

"I'm not a soldier, ma'am," Tony said, as gently as he could. "I'm not here to hurt anyone, I promise."

The hard look in the woman's eyes had yet to completely disappear, but the thin line of her lips softened slightly as she looked more carefully at him.

"Too scrawny to be a soldier," she finally conceded, and Tony breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "Why'd you come up to the house?" the woman went on, suspiciously. "What do you want?"

"I wanted to know what happened to the land," Tony replied, gesturing around him. "When I was here, last, these lands were beautiful, flourishing. I don't understand how this could have happened. How Obie - Duke Obadiah," he corrected himself, quickly, "could have allowed this to happen."

"Allowed?" the woman echoed, scornfully. "Why do you think all of this happened? It's because King Obadiah-" she spit the words like they left a nasty taste in her mouth, "ordered it. He raised taxes we can't possibly afford, he ordered his soldiers to plunder our lands-"

"I'm sorry," Tony said, softly, when the woman stopped, too overcome to continue. "I'm so sorry. I'll fix this, I promise."

"You?" A bitter laugh was ripped from the woman's throat. "What can you possibly do?"

"I'm going to fix this," Tony repeated, firmly. "I swear."

He swung up into Phoenix's saddle, urging the mare toward the road. With a wave at the woman and her daughter, he signaled the horse into a canter, heading toward the capitol. He was going to have a long-overdue chat with Obie and finally get some straight answers about what the hell was going on.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It was dark by the time Tony reached the capitol, and he was more than ready to have that confrontation with Obie. With his fists, given the way he was feeling, at the moment.

The further he traveled in the kingdom, the more he saw first-hand everything that he'd been warned about. Tony had briefly wondered if any of his fellow captives had taken him at his promise for refuge, but now he wondered if they'd even looked twice at the kingdom as a safe place. He was starting to think they would have been smart to avoid it. As night fell, people disappeared from the streets. The few that remained moved around in groups, avoiding all contact with other people. There were guards, but they didn't seem to be doing anything to reassure the people around them; if anything, they were having the opposite effect.

Tony stopped one of the guards from harassing a fruit seller packing his cart, only to receive a black eye for his trouble. And then Phoenix kicked the man in the chest after he punched Tony, sending the man flying through the air to land in an unconscious, possibly dead, heap. Tony didn't have time to check, he just jumped back on the mare and took off, figuring no one was going to believe his true identity given the vagrant appearance he was currently sporting. He had to get to Obie, who at least stood a chance of recognizing him.

The castle was heavily guarded, like Obie was expecting to have to fend off an attack at any minute. But, the guards were only on the obvious entrances, and Tony had been crawling all over the nooks and crannies of the castle since before he could walk. He left Phoenix in a safe spot, and it was child's play to get inside the castle.

For being so heavily guarded outside, there were very few guards inside the castle. If Tony had been an assassin, Obie wouldn't stand a chance. Of course, given how angry he was, there was a chance his former Regent wasn't going to escape their encounter unscathed. He had a lot to answer for.

He made his way to Obie's quarters with relative ease, only to find them empty. A moment of confusion, and then he headed for the royal suites. As expected, the soft light of a candle glowed from within the room. Tony looked through the open door to see Obie sitting at the desk, his back to the door and his head bowed as he read a stack of documents.

Tony moved to open the door further, and then froze when the sharp point of a blade dug into his back. He really missed his armor.

"Don't move," a familiar, female voice growled in his ear. "Or I'll run you through."

"You know," Tony quipped lightly, "the last time you made that threat, I'd just spilled ink on your favorite dress."

A sharp intake of breath, and then a tremulous voice. "Tony?"

"Hello, Pepper," Tony said, turning around, and then he caught the woman as she hurled herself into his arms. He held on tight to the woman who'd been his confidante and companion ever since they were children.

"Tony, you're alive!" Pepper sobbed, her words muffled in his shoulder, and she clutched at him, her fingers digging into his arms with a bruising force.

"I'm alive," Tony echoed, soothingly, as he rubbed a hand between her shoulders. "Pepper, I'm okay. I'm okay."

"I can't believe it," Pepper told him, tears shining in her eyes as she pulled away to stare at him in amazement. "Tony, we all thought you were dead. When Rhodey came back alone-"

"Rhodey's alive?" Tony interrupted her, slumping in relief when she nodded. "Did anyone else make it?"

"No," Pepper said, regretfully, and Tony sighed.

Barton's youthful face flashed briefly through his mind. He hadn't thought about the young man in years, hadn't thought about any of the men who'd been with him that day, too concerned with trying to survive. He wondered if there was any kind of memorial for them that he could pay respects to.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps, and then the door to Obie's quarters was wrenched open. Obie had a furious look on his face, probably about to demand who was disturbing him, but then his eyes fell on Tony, and his jaw dropped in shock.

"Tony?" he gasped. "You're alive!"

"I'm getting that a lot, tonight," Tony joked, and Pepper let out another half-laugh half-sob as she hugged him again.

"Tony," Obie repeated, incredulously, shaking his head. Then, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Tony in a tight embrace. Tony hugged him back briefly before pulling away.

"Obie, we need to talk," he said, bluntly, keeping an arm around Pepper's shoulders, needing to feel her close.

"Of course, my boy," Obie said, clasping his shoulder in an almost painfully-tight grip. "Of course. You can retire for the evening," he added to Pepper in a dismissive tone.

"I'll meet you in the library in a little bit," Tony reassured her, before she could say anything about Obie's rudeness. "Get Rhodey, but don't tell him anything. I want to see the look on his face when I walk in."

"All right," Pepper agreed, pecking a quick kiss on his cheek. "Don't disappear on me, again," she added, in a threatening tone.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Tony reassured her. Turning his attention back to Obie, he gestured at the open door. "Shall we?"

He preceded Obie into the suite, feeling his breath catch in his throat at the bedroom that had once belonged to his parents. He still remembered crawling into their bed as a young boy, during lazy mornings, or when thunderstorms kept him from sleeping. It had been years, but he sometimes wondered if the pain from losing them would ever fully fade.

'I hope I can be the kind of king you would have wanted me to be,' he thought, as he stared at the spot on the wall where his mother's favorite paintings had once hung. 'I guess I'm about to find out if I can be.'

He turned around to face Obie, watching as the older man shut the door behind him. Then, he was taken by surprise when Obie crossed the space between them to wrap him in another hug. He didn't remember the other man being so affectionate when he was child. But, then, maybe learning of Tony's supposed death had changed him.

"I can't believe you're really here," Obie said, as he pulled away, and then he froze, staring at Tony. Or, more accurately, at Tony's chest, at the heartstone.

Tony sighed. "Yes, this is a heartstone," he said, anticipating the question he could see in Obie's eyes.

He lifted the shirt so that Obie could see the stone, forcing himself not to flinch when Obie traced a cold finger around the edge. No one but Yinsen had touched the stone since it had been embedded in Tony's chest. He hadn't trusted anyone else to touch it.

"A heartstone," Obie breathed, his eyes shining eagerly. "Tony, my boy, do you have any idea how valuable this is?"

"I have some idea," Tony said, wryly, a little surprised that Obie's first question wasn't demanding to know what the stone was doing in his chest.

"The power you could wield," Obie went on, an almost reverent tone in his voice.

Tony bit back a grimace. He loved the older man like a father, but Obie could be rather doggedly single-minded about certain things. When he was younger, Tony had sometimes wondered if Obie was more fond of his power as Regent, than he was of him. The old, niggling doubt poked at him once again, but he pushed it away. That doubt was just the words of a scared, angry ten-year-old. Obie was just overly-excited; it was just the way he was.

"It's keeping me alive," Tony told him, getting a shocked look from Obie.

"Alive?" Obie echoed, incredulously. "Tony, what the hell happened to you?"

"My captors liked causing me pain," Tony said, shortly. He didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to relive it. Not here, and not know. "Obie, I think a more important question is, what the hell's been going on, here?"

"I don't understand," Obie said, sounding genuinely confused, and Tony bit back a frustrated sigh.

"The guards," Tony said, flatly, and Obie's sucked in a quiet breath, his eyes widening in comprehension. "Obie, people are scared of them. I watched a guard try to strike a fruit seller just because he was a little slow packing up his cart. There's a woman out in the borderlands who thought I was a soldier, and was terrified that I'd come to attack her. And the stories I've heard are even worse. What is going on?"

Obie sighed, his shoulders slumping as he scrubbed a hand over his haggard features. He suddenly looked old, so much older than Tony remembered.

"You have to understand how desperate we were," Obie told him, quietly, pleadingly. "Tony, we didn't know where you were, if you were even still alive-" He shook his head, looking exhausted.

"Obie," Tony prompted, insistently. He wanted answers, no matter how unpleasant.

"Captain Rhodes was the only man to make it back alive," he went on. "He was half dead, could barely tell us what had happened. I rode out, myself, with a team of men, but all we found were bodies. But, when we didn't find yours, I began to hope that maybe you were still alive, that whoever had attacked you would send a ransom demand."

"They never told me that they sent one," Tony told him.

"I would have paid anything to bring you home," Obie said, fervently. "But nothing ever came. There was no ransom demand, no political statement - it was as if you'd dropped off the face of the earth."

"Where I was being held," Tony replied, "I might as well have. Obie, thinking I'm dead doesn't explain the guards, doesn't explain the stories I've been hearing."

"When months went by without any word," Obie went on, after a long moment, "I sent scouts into other countries, to see what they could find out. One man reported back that Asgard was increasing the size of their armies. They seemed to be preparing for an invasion. Considering the timing of your disappearance, it just seemed suspicious. I had to act."

"By increasing our troops in return," Tony said, catching on. "Obie, those men out there are barely trained."

"There simply wasn't time," Obie said, regret heavy in his voice. "Captain Rhodes was still out of commission, and the man appointed to the position was too green, but he was the best I had. And I had to outfit them with armor, extra food-"

"So you raised taxes and raided the outer farms," Tony interrupted him.

"I had no choice," Obie told him, emphatically. "Tony, I tried to control things, but the situation just spiraled."

"Well, this can't continue," Tony shot back, anger surging as Obie seemed to brush off everything Tony had told him. "Where's Rhodey been over the last five years? He's captain of the guard; why hasn't he done anything about it?"

"Captain Rhodes-" Obie looked quickly over Tony's shoulder, an evasive gesture. "I shouldn't say anything. You'll have to talk to him."

"I will," Tony promised, a grim tone creeping into his voice. "And things stop now. I want the guards called back here by the morning."

"Only part of the army remains in the city," Obie hedged. "It will take time to recall the rest."

"Then call in everyone who's still in the city," Tony said, stubbornly. "This has gone on long enough."

"Of course," Obie replied. He smiled then, but the expression didn't reach his eyes. "It really is good to have you home, Tony."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

After leaving Obie in his suite, Tony headed for the library. Slipping into the room, he saw Pepper and Rhodey sitting by the fireplace, talking quietly. He took advantage of their distraction to sneak up on them. Tony cleared his throat, grinning when Pepper jumped up to hug him again, holding on tightly.

"I'm not going to disappear again," he said, reassuringly, and Pepper laughed, a watery sound in her voice.

"I just don't want to take that chance," she replied.

"Make that two of us," Rhodey spoke up, and Tony let go of Pepper as he looked over at his best friend.

Then, he blinked in surprise at the wheeled chair Rhodey was sitting in, at the empty place where the lower half of his left leg had once been.

"Obie said you'd been injured," he faltered, in shock, "but he didn't say-"

"He probably didn't think you'd believe him," Rhodey replied, as Tony sank down into the chair across from him. "Some days, I can barely believe it, myself."

"That beast," Tony asked, getting a nod in reply. He clasped Pepper's hand when she sat down on the arm of the chair, her hand falling on his shoulder.

"Damn thing got a hold of my leg," Rhodey said, bitterly. "Nearly ripped it off right then and there. Probably would have been better off if it had."

"You would have bled out in minutes," Pepper snapped, her tone indicating that they were continuing an old argument. "You never would have made it back to the castle, alive."

"I barely did, anyway," Rhodey retorted. To Tony, he added, "My leg got infected, but the Healers didn't catch it until it was almost too late. They took the leg, but I still nearly died."

"I'm glad you didn't," Tony said, knowing the words were inadequate, but not knowing how else to tell Rhodey how he felt. Instead, he reached over and grabbed Rhodey's hand, giving it a hard squeeze. "Nice chair," he quipped, weakly, lightly kicking one of the wheels with his foot.

"It's not pretty, but it gets the job done," Rhodey told him. "Still miss walking, though," he added, a wistful tone in his voice. "And, I'm all but useless, now that I can't lead the guard."

Tony studied the empty leg of Rhodey's pants for a moment. "Did the Healers save your knee?" he asked.

Rhodey looked surprised, but then he rolled his pant leg up without a word. The Healers had taken his leg right below the kneecap; the joint was still intact.

"What are you thinking?" Rhodey asked, and Tony grinned at him.

"That I can make you a replacement," he replied. "I just need time and the right materials. You'll be back with the guard before you know it."

Rhodey scowled at the flames dancing in the fireplace, his expression dark. "Tony-" he started.

"I've seen what the soldiers are doing," Tony interrupted him, "and I've already talked to Obie. He explained about preparing for Asgard's invasion, about how things got out of control."

"Did he tell you about how Asgard's army was actually preparing to go against Jotun, to the north, after an assassination attempt on their king?" Rhodey asked. "We almost invaded an ally over false rumors. And then, they asked for our help, only King Obidiah told Prince Thor that we didn't have the forces." He shook his head in disgust. "I don't know what game he's playing, but it nearly cost us our greatest ally."

Tony couldn't believe what he was hearing. At the time, he'd been too stunned by everything else Obie had told him to question Obie's belief that Asgard been behind his capture. But, refusing aid to an ally after learning that they were innocent-

"I'll send a messenger to Asgard in the morning," he promised. "We'll get this worked out. Anything else I should know about that Obie would have neglected to mention?" he asked, a few seconds later. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.

"There is one odd thing," Pepper told him, frowning slightly. "The dungeons have been empty for a long time; the soldiers haven't been keeping the peace like they should. But, a few days ago King Obidiah ordered an old man to be locked up down there. He wouldn't say what the man had done, just that he was dangerous."

"Maybe I should go have another conversation with Obie," Tony remarked. "Or, maybe our mystery prisoner."

"You might want to shave, first, so the guards don't throw you in the dungeons," Rhodey said, as tactfully as he could. "No offense, Tony, but you kind of look a little-"

"Like a drunken hobo?" Tony asked, wryly.

"I was going to say ragged," Rhodey corrected, amused, "but your way works, too."

"And maybe clean up," Pepper suggested. "You kind of smell," she added, while Rhodey roared with laughter.

"I will shave so that I don't offend your delicate sensibilities," Tony reassured them, "and then I'll go see who's down in the dungeons. And tomorrow, things are going to start getting back to normal."

He made his way back to his rooms, after promising several more times that he wasn't about to vanish in the middle of the night. His rooms were still the way he'd left them, and he wondered who'd been responsible for that. Probably Pepper; he couldn't imagine Obie being so sentimental.

Shaving his rough beard did help him feel more like himself, and he had to admit that he did smell. He wiped at his face and neck with a damp rag, raising an eyebrow at the grime that came away, and resolving to take a proper bath at the first opportunity. He changed into clean clothes, dumping his old garments in the trashcan, and when he looked in the mirror, he thought he looked like his old self.

He headed down to the dungeons, the heartstone lighting his way down the cramped stairs. It was colder the further down he went, and he rubbed his arms to keep from shivering.

Like Pepper had warned him, the dungeons were empty, save for the cell at the end. A solitary, stone-faced soldier stood guard at the end of the row, and he glared at Tony when he got closer.

"No one is allowed down here," he barked, blocking Tony's path. "Orders of the king."

"I think I'm an exception," Tony said, and the guard grabbed a nearby torch, glaring at Tony.

Then, his eyes went wide with shock, and he stumbled backward, away from Tony. Tony reached out to steady him.

"Sire," the guard babbled, words tripping off his tongue with his nerves. "Majesty, I - we thought - the attack - you died!"

"I'm a little harder to kill than that," Tony said, taking pity on the other man. "Hawkins, isn't it?" he asked, studying the man. "Rhodey was training you, five years ago. How'd you get sent down here?"

Hawkins looked at the grim dungeons with a dark scowl. "I spoke out against Captain Greaves, told him I wouldn't take money from a family that couldn't afford it. Next thing I knew, I was down here."

"Come find me in the morning," Tony told him. "We'll get this fixed. Rhodey saw more promise in you than standing down here guarding empty cells."

"Not entirely empty, Sire," Hawkins replied, nodding back at the cell he'd been guarding.

"Which is why I'm down here," Tony said. "Who's in there?"

"His Majesty didn't give me a name, or a reason," Hawkins said, apologetically, as he trailed Tony back down the row. "And the prisoner won't talk, so I don't know who he is."

Tony's hands tightened into fists at his sides as he looked down at Yinsen sleeping on the bare stone floor of the cell.

"I know who he is," he replied, quietly. "Open the cell, please."

Hawkins leaped to obey, keys rattling in his shaking hands, and the noise was enough to jerk Yinsen out of sleep. Tony knelt down beside the older man as he sat up, startled.

"Easy, easy," he soothed, smiling at the relieved look that flashed briefly across Yinsen's face before it was replaced by faint annoyance.

"It certainly took you long enough," the older man scolded him, and Tony chuckled.

"Next time, I'll be on time," he promised.

"Let's hope there isn't a next time," Yinsen replied, accepting the hand that Tony held out to help him to his feet.

"Sire?" Hawkins asked, hesitantly, as Tony and Yinsen stepped out of the cell.

"This man is a friend of mine," Tony told him. "He'll be coming with me."

"Yes, Sire," Hawkins said, promptly. "Shall I remain on guard for the rest of the night, Sire?"

"At the top of the stairs," Tony told him, not missing the way the other man sighed in relief. It really was cold down there.

Tony led Yinsen back to his rooms, where the older man sank down on the sofa with a tired sigh. He shot Tony a relieved smile.

"I wondered if something had happened to you," he confessed, as Tony sat down beside him.

"I was hoping you'd made it," Tony responded. "Are you all right? Do you need a Healer?"

"I'm fine," Yinsen reassured him. "That cell was hardly worse than the cave."

"Did anyone else make it here?" Tony asked.

"Natasha came with me as far as the border," Yinsen replied, "but she wouldn't go any further. The others disappeared earlier."

"I hope they're all right," Tony muttered. He knew that no one else had believed his offer of sanctuary, but he'd hoped, nonetheless.

"What about you?" Yinsen asked, quietly. "Are you all right?"

"I will be," Tony told him. "Especially after I fix my kingdom."

Part One; to be continued in Part Two...
From:
Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
User
Account name:
Password:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
Subject:
HTML doesn't work in the subject.

Message:

 
Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.

Profile

sara_wolf: (Default)
sara_wolf

December 2013

S M T W T F S
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
222324252627 28
293031    

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Aug. 22nd, 2017 07:12 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios