AN: Thanks so much for the reviews everyone!
For Pepper, the two weeks passed quickly. The Board took her excuse for Tony's absence with little fuss, much to her relief, and there were no meltdowns that required major damage control.
Tony had only been able to give her a day of the week for his return, unwilling to give her an exact time because of the Bifrost spell's occasionally unpredictable manner. So, on the friday he was set to return, Pepper brought all the paperwork back to the mansion and set up shop in one of the offices facing the ocean, settling in for a long wait.
And wait she did, until at last, late that evening, a few miles away over the churning waters of the ocean, she was witness to a flash of brilliant color and a low rumble of sound, like thunder. She dropped her papers on the desk and strode out of the office, through the hall and out onto the stairs that led down onto the section of beach Tony owned.
She kept her eyes trained on the water, and moments later, was treated to a sight that she would remember for the rest of her days.
Over the water they floated, silhouetted by deep storm clouds and weak moonlight, allowing her to just make them out. She knew that, for them, it had been two and a half year, but dear stars above she wasn't aware what a change that would make.
Liagoth had grown massive, the size of a coach bus with massive wings that spread far on either side of her, carrying her and her passenger with ease. Her sapphire scales glittered in the milky light like jewels and Pepper was momentarily breathless.
Liagoth skated near and then came to hover gently in front of Pepper, wings gently batting the air as she slowly landed with only the sound of settling leather, most likely from the harness that adorned her chest. Liagoth turned her luminessienct mercury eyes on Pepper, and the woman was surprised to see warmth and affection in those glittering depths.
But then her attention was drawn away. There was the sound of a carabiner disengaging and then something soft against the leather and scales and around the front of Liagoth, looking entirely too pleased with himself, was Tony.
He'd grown more solid in his time away, and pepper could see his arms, usually taut with the lean muscles he'd gained while operating the Ironman suit, were bulging a little more without looking like he did more than a little extra lifting. He'd grown darker, and his eyes fairly glowed with power. She shivered a little as that intense metallic gaze locked with her own, and then they were both moving.
Tony hugged her like the world was ending and she was the only thing keeping him alive. For him, it had been far longer than two weeks and he seemed entirely content to keep holding her until the sun came up.
Finally, after a short while that truly felt like an eternity, Liagoth rumbled quietly, a deep bass sound that shook the very ground they stood upon and Tony pulled back. Pepper realized with a jolt that his eyes were that familiar warm caramel brown that she so loved, and Tony smiled at her, teeth glinting.
"Glamour charm. Much easier than contacts." He explained. reluctantly he pulled away and then moved back over to Liagoth. "Help me?" He asked, turning back to her. She nodded and moved forward, reaching up to scratch around Liagoth's whisker pads and between her antlers like Pepper knew the great dragon loved when she leaned her head down. From the harness Tony carefully removed two medium leather rucksacks and a bed roll. Pepper took them up the stairs and rested them both under a table before heading back down.
Tony was carefully removing the large harness from Liagoth and Pepper accepted an offered cloth, covered in some kind of grease, and began to rub it over Liagoth's sides while Tony took another and carefully attended to the harness. When that was done, Tony waved his hand over it with a few muttered words and it shrunk down to a human size. Once that was done, Liagoth's scale fully tended, the great dragon closed her eyes and then shrank until she was little more than the size of a half grown husky.
Pepper locked eyes with Tony and smiled.
Inside the mansion Liagoth curled up on her spot in front of the main fireplace and Tony led Pepper into the bedroom. Here, she helped him out of his own harness, little more than a few strips of tough leather with an enchanted chain meant to keep him attached to main harness in flight, and hung it up in the closet.
"We're lucky. We were racing a storm over the water on our way in." He said, not bothering with the grease for his own harness. She looked at him closer now, and smiled. Dressed in linen tunic and pants in a deep earth color with green piping, he looked healthier than she had ever seen him.
She watched him removed shining bangles from his wrists, ankles, neck and waist, carefully laying them on the bedside table. At her questioning look he smiled brightly, that manic glint coming to his eyes, the one he got when he was going to explain one of his inventions. "Collapsible armor. Carrow, one of the dwarves from Southwind Hollow, wanted to know what I was going to do about armor, since she knew we didn't wear that down here anymore. Well, a little ingenuity and some magic and viola! Magic, collapsible armor, based off my suit!" He crowed, and she beamed and laughed good-naturedly at his pride and excitement.
Carefully, she helped him unpack the rucksacks. With each new item that was pulled out, Tony's eyes flashed with memories. One of the things she pulled out of the impossibly deep rucksack was a stick that had Tony laughing while at the same time wincing and rubbing his head with a grimace. Tony smiled and elaborated.
"Tony! Go up the hill and fetch me a stick, three feet long." That was Halaani, and Tony nodded, putting down his bowl of thick oatmeal and scurrying away. He'd only been in the Hollow for a week, and already he'd picked out one of the higher alcoves for he and Liagoth to make their own, so his climb up to the thick trees was short.
It took some time for him to find one of the proper length, an Eldergleam branch, three feet long and an inch in diameter, whippy with wood dark but gleaming in the morning sun. He hurried back down and gave the stick to halaani, who nodded. "Very good. Finish eating, then meet me in the usual spot when you're done." Tony nodded again and spent the next fifteen minutes on the rest of his oatmeal, a fresh starfruit and the elvish version of coffee before he downed some water, made sure his clothes were clean and went back up to the top of the Hollow.
Halaani and Suramar were waiting for them, and Halaani smiled. "Good. We're doing a little something different today. Liagoth and Suramar are going down to the river. to build up her wing strength by swimming." Tony watched as both dragons walked away, leaving him alone with the Old Wolf, as he had taken to calling the other.
"This," said Halaani, holding up the Eldergleam branch. "Is called a hitstick! Can you figure out why we call it a hitstick, brat?" He teased. Tony shook his head and he wasn't expecting the rap along the top of his skull. It wasn't even that hard of a hit, but it was not something he wanted to put up with often.
"In my day, we valued speed and endurance over strength, because we could be on dragon back or helping the wounded for hours and hours on end. That kind of thing requires you to have balance, poise, cunning and, yes, speed, strength and endurance. Before you're allowed to learn the magic, and before you and Liagoth are even allowed in the air, you will learn all of these things. We're going to start with speed and endurance. Every day, you will run four miles. During these four miles, you will have to stay in front of me and out of reach, the entire time. Everytime I reach you, I'll rap you over you skull. The number of times, I will mark into the wood, and the day you can do all four miles, one month in a row, without me touching you, I will grant you this branch back.
Pepper gaped at him and he smiled. "Old Wolf liked that lesson most of all, I think, but it saved me in the end. It took me six months before I was able to avoid him the way I was supposed to." Tony merely chuckled at her aghast expression, carmel eyes twinkling merry. They continued to unpack the bags, and Pepper glanced at each item in interest. Most didn't have grand stories attached to them, but she still listened to the words with rapt attention as he explained each.
A sheath, a dagger, a heavy woolen cloak in the same mercury as Tony and Liagoth's eyes, another leather harness, this one inscribed with runes and lined with soft fur. A cap made of soft fur and a pair of gloves made of what looked to be Liagoth's own scales, dyed a neutral black.
It took them nearly an hour to fully unpack everything and set it carefully away, and when they were done, Tony helped Pepper up off the floor and both wandered into the living room. Liagoth was still sprawled comfortably on the rug and Tony happily heaved himself onto the large couch, holding his arms open until Pepper situated herself within his embrace.
They fell asleep like that, the only background noise the happy crackling of the fire and the deep, contended rumble of the dragon on the hearth.
The next morning started early, to Pepper's surprise and she was treated to the amusing sight of Tony standing in front of the coffee maker, looking absolutely stumped. She couldn't contain a snort, and, chuckling all the while, quickly jogged the poor man's memory before going about her own schedule, making her tea and breakfast for them both. When that was done, and they were both sitting at the table, Pepper noticed that Liagoth was still asleep.
"She not hungry?" She asked, and tony shook his head, taking a sip of his coffee before he answered. "She had two deer a few days ago. She's a little older, her metabolism has slowed, plus we've been taking it easy this week, she didn't burn as many calories. She'll go hunting in a few days."
With that explanation, she finished up and Tony put his coffee aside, resting his chin on his hand, humming quietly. "Anything I need to take care of immediately?" He asked, locking eyes with her briefly before glancing again into the living room. Pepper thought about it a moment before nodding.
"Fury has been wanting to talk to you." Tony groaned loudly and let his head thump to the tabletop in annoyance.
"He didn't buy the whole "Laos" thing, did he?" He asked the obvious, and Pepper shook her head, which caused Tony to let out another groan before he sat straight up in his chair and nodded. "Might as well get this over with,, before he decides to be a pain in my ass again and start sending his pet agents after me."
Tony walked into the SHIELD building with a much put-upon look, coffee thermos clutched in one hand, the other shoved in the pocket of his suit jacket. He strode up to the receptionist, and really, what kind of secret government agency had receptionists?, and stood patiently. It was but a moment before she turned to him.
"Can I help you?"
"Tony Stark to see the Director." Was his short reply, but she simply nodded, clacked away at the keyboard for a moment before nodding to herself.
"He'll see you right now." Was all she said, and Tony nodded, marching away to the elevator that had opened for him automatically. The ride was short, and soon Tony found himself striding towards the doors he'd only seen one other time, and that was right after he'd fought at the Stark Expo, and he's signed on to consult with SHIELD.
He didn't bother knocking, not that it mattered, as Fury was sitting at his desk, chin resting on interlocked fingers, looking directly at him with those fathomless dark eyes. Tony met his gaze head-on, with a raised eyebrow and a slight curling of his lip in a parody of a lopsided grin, showing sharp teeth.
But there was no questions about his absence. Not even a sharp remark. Instead, the Director merely sank back in his seat and looked at him evenly.
"What do you know of Project: Rebirth?"