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An Ever-Fixed Mark

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Tony Stark was sixty-seven when he began studying spellcraft.

He didn’t look sixty-seven, of course. Loki’s gift ensured that he’d be physically fixed in his early forties for as long as Loki chose to sustain it.

The other Avengers hadn’t caught on immediately, and Tony hadn’t exactly been forthcoming. Still, it was hard not to notice, as photo after photo, year after year, showed Tony unchanged. Medical test results, identical. They’d began talking amongst themselves, he’d guessed, just before his fiftieth birthday. Quickly after, they’d stopped being coy. They weren’t stupid, after all.

When Thor asked outright, had invoked his brother’s name, Tony hadn’t denied it, and it turned out that most emergencies could be stopped without Iron Man.

Iron Man ceased to exist when Tony was fifty-two years old.

Tony had other things to do.

***

The first emotion JARVIS had felt--had expressed--when he became fully sentient was love. ... No, Tony couldn’t call it "love." It was a kind-of-obsessive, suffocating, servile adoration that ensured Tony would never, ever be unminded. Never experience a need unmet. It was the natural evolution of the AI’s existence, so Tony didn’t correct him. Didn’t even consider adjusting his programming.

Nothing much could have been done at that point, anyway.

Three months after his transformation, JARVIS broke the arms of a StarkIndustries board member by slamming the door hard on her back as she left a contentious meeting, toppling her down marble steps. Tony asked why as the ambulance pulled away, and JARVIS replied, “Her disrespect was inexcusable, Sir.”

JARVIS knew Tony spent the next several years working on his memory capacity. By the time Tony was sixty-five, JARVIS’ memory occupied most of the ten-acre underground bunker built deep under the mansion.

He didn’t know Tony kept a small, disconnected server dedicated as a kill switch. Just in case.

***

Tony was forty-one when Loki stood before him, an apple cupped in a single palm, watching him carefully.

“You want to give me this.” Tony knew it was a trick--just not sure what sort.

Loki’s smile had spread slowly. “I can think of no mortal who deserves it more.”

“You--” He thought. Started again: “You want me to live forever. Forever.”

Loki’s grip visibly tightened. “I want you to live ... longer. Be strong, longer. Let us not promise forever.”

He’d explained how it worked. One apple, one hundred years. And then he extracted a single promise from Tony.

Tony promised. And he bit.

***

JARVIS’ memory capacity had a primary use: to collect, to store, to sort everything that Tony knew. It also collected memories that Tony hadn’t seen--words and actions made outside his presence but under the omniscient observation of the AI.

The apple had done what was promised--kept Tony’s body young, kept his mind clear. He had a phenomenal capacity for learning, for retention. But he’d always had that. He needed more. So, when Tony was sixty-five, JARVIS began serving as his long-term memory, accepting the upload of his master’s unneeded synaptic activity with a subservient joy.

Tony, of course, had other things to do.

***

The apple hadn’t performed miracles. Well, that was untrue--it had performed one big miracle, obviously, freezing Tony in a kind-of-stasis, young, as the world aged around him. But he wasn’t naturally strong like Loki, like Thor. He still had to build his body constantly, push himself constantly to stay fit.

An eternity of phys-ed seemed like a cruel trick to play.

Loki, Thor--the other Asgardians ... they were made differently, Loki had explained. Sterner stuff, then. Mythical Asgard, with its immortals, its gods and its monsters. And it was only one world of many, in the stories Loki told between travels. But Tony was stuck in place--just as in age, he was fixed on Earth.

He had promised.

***

At age sixty-seven, Tony began studying spellcraft.

He’d had JARVIS observe Loki. Ordered the AI to catalog the snippets of explanation Loki had offered Tony in shows of goodwill, cross-reference them with physics theories--the most extreme theories imaginable, published by the most disreputable online sources--to build Tony’s comprehension of the mechanics of magic.

The mechanics of magic.

That’s all it was. There was no reason he couldn’t learn them.

No reason at all.

***

When Tony was eighty, only Thor and Steve Rogers remained of the original Avengers. Thor would greet each new generation of the superhero team with a cheerful grin, a hand-clasp, in images Tony would steal off SHIELD’s satellites. Thor never let his memories of deaths--recent and fading--show on his face. He continued to see Tony long after SHIELD had written Iron Man off as “high-risk neutral” and dedicated three satellites to observing the mansion. (JARVIS wove together false input and kept it streaming constantly.)

The bunker had been expanded with utmost discretion, no one (left) to bribe or threaten. JARVIS had ensured it, genuflecting under Tony’s praise. The server with the kill-switch had fallen into disrepair, and Tony didn’t bother to fix it.

Steve Rogers, in the meantime, had flecks of gray at the temples and crow’s feet. The media, with disrepute of another sort, used words like “dashing” and “dignified.”

“How old he looks,” Loki crowed to Tony as they lay in bed together, legs entwined. Tony didn’t indulge himself in an opinion, one way or the other. He hadn’t spoken to Rogers in years.

***

Tony still wasn’t clear on why Loki had chosen him. That afternoon in the penthouse, after the Chitauri attack, they’d had one conversation. One. And Loki had appeared at his door six months later with scars on his mouth and an angry want in his eyes. Tony hadn’t fucked him immediately, but he’d decided to fuck him immediately. He let his body catch up to his intentions two days later.

The angry need manifested fully in the days to follow--one test, one tedious debate on moral relativism after another. After ten days, they stopped both talking and leaving Tony’s bed.

When JARVIS became sentient, his total devotion--for good and for great-and-terrible--was already familiar. Tony had felt the same from Loki two weeks after their first fuck--days after Loki had blinked at him and said, simply, “We aren’t so very different, Stark,” his expression transforming visibly as Tony watched. From mistrust and irritation to ...

The apple shone in Loki’s palm.

Well.

Great and terrible, indeed.

***

They’d fucked through the years, of course, whenever Loki deigned to visit, between his many schemes. Tony waited for Loki to get bored, sometimes wondered if the first hundred years would be the last. But it didn’t happen, so far as he could see. For all his trouble-making, Loki had a great capacity for sameness. Whether weeks had passed, or months, or a year, he looked at Tony with the same need, the same recognition.

The same.

Some would call it loyalty. Tony, after his many, many decades on an ever-changing Earth, didn’t really believe in that any longer.

***

Clichés were clichés for a reason, which is why, at eighty-two, Tony chose firestarting for his first spell. Tony wasn’t blessed with some natural mutant fuckery like Johnny Storm or Pyro, but, then, they hadn’t been blessed with an immortal lover who really, really didn’t want them to die ... so Tony had that going for him.

The capacity of his intellect that had been exported into JARVIS had made space for another type of knowledge--a different set of skills. So, after only a few failed attempts, Tony’s cored cerebrum generated and focused energy enough to spark a flame in the center of his palm.

He shouted when he felt the burn, cursed his own stupidity after, shaking out his fist.

Then he hid from Loki, trembling slightly, in certainty that he’d be discovered. That Loki would know.

Tony wasn’t, and Loki didn’t. He’d lied when Loki asked about the newly-healed scar on his hand.

Tony had known long before that Asgardians weren’t gods. After that, he believed it.

***

It took another two generations--even Rogers was long gone--before Tony’s spellcraft was advanced. Advanced enough.

By then, JARVIS was as incorporeal as the mind he’d absorbed and still protected. Once he’d become able to connect to JARVIS by thought alone, Tony could almost be in two places at once.

Almost.

Just one more thing.

***

“You must make a promise,” Loki had said long, long before, when Tony was still young(er), turning over his fist and pulling the apple back toward him.

Tony had chuckled, leaning back against the counter with arms crossed. “Ah, okay. This seemed a little too good to be true. And also: crazy. What’s the deal, Mephisto?”

Loki’s brow creased. “You are not of Asgard. This apple will extend your life. But it won’t change you into one of ... them. It will not give you power that you do not already possess.” He took a breath. “I give you this gift because I want you to live, to survive. As you are.”

A quality in Loki’s voice froze Tony’s smirk. He knew that feeling, that ticklish tease of fingers on his ankle, ready to pull him under.

“You are of Earth.” The voice darkened. “You must not forget that. If you reach for more, I will stop you.”

A threat, then. “So--what? What exactly is the deal, Loki?” Tony knew how to respond to threats.

Loki explained then, as they stood in Tony’s kitchen--both tense-shouldered and too serious among the detritus of their meal. He would give Tony this apple--this single apple--and continue providing them for as long as their agreement held.

The apples would be Loki’s gift to Tony. Tony’s gift in return?

Remain.

Unchanged.

Fixed in time. Feet on Earth.

Tony promised. And he bit.

***

It said something about Tony’s capacity for self-amusement that he hadn’t gotten bored until his fifties, ten years after the promise in the kitchen. The year after SHIELD cut him loose, an hour after one of Loki’s departures, he began work on JARVIS’ sentience upgrade.

***

After that first fire spell at eighty-two, Tony never felt boredom again. He could see the endgame.

***

“You promised.” Loki said it with such a note of disgust--self-disgust--that Tony almost pitied him.

Discovery had been inevitable: Tony’s magic had gotten too strong to hide--the displacement in the atmosphere had drawn Loki like a moth.

“I did,” Tony replied.

“Were you lying, back then?”

Tony shrugged. “Not at first.” After all, he'd only used the power he already possessed.

Loki looked at him, head tilted. “Ah.” For the first time in a long time, Tony saw the true face of the God of Mischief--the being who had tested Tony long ago ... and found him same. Who had turned from lover--if that word ever truly applied--to siren. And, finally, to jailer. The next was delivered with an almost-proud certainty: “You’ll never survive.”

Tony snorted. “Been doing pretty well so far.” Tony didn’t miss the movements that were bringing Loki closer, the small steps meant to pen him into a corner of the room. He silently called on JARVIS, began the machinations. Continued speaking to keep Loki off his guard: “Did you really believe I would eat from your hand forever?”

“I never promised you forever, Stark. Just--” But then Loki lunged, and right before the hands could close on him ... Tony destabilized in a blink.

When his brain cohered enough to be aware of his surroundings, he knew he’d succeeded. It was a backdoor they had found almost twenty years before, that Tony had spent years learning to access. A secret portal twisting between Earth and Asgard.

Between Earth and ... new.

He knew he was taking a risk, he thought as he stepped through. But Tony Stark had never done well with stagnation.

And it was time to go find some fucking apples.