Everyone in the village knew the cardinal rule– don’t go into the forest at night, because that’s when the monsters come out to roam.
And Tony knew that it was a stupid idea right from the start. He’d heard the stories often enough– he’d seen the scratches on the town gates after dark nights, and he’d seen the madness in the eyes of those unfortunate enough to have survived whatever was out there.
He knew that anyone who went out into the forest at night rarely came back, and that those who did often wished that they hadn’t.
But Clint had issued a challenge, and Tony was never the kind of person to back down from a dare.
Rhodey told him he was an idiot for even thinking of accepting, and Tony knew that. But really, it should be fine, yeah? It wouldn’t be too dangerous. He didn’t even have to go out when it was totally dark– even Clint wasn’t that cruel. Two hours before sunset, he’d said. Enough to be risky, not enough for you to end up dead. I hope.
Yeah. Right. Well, Tony sincerely doubted that the monsters kept to an actual schedule, but he’d have to hope that the light of the sun really was what kept them at bay. He knew people who had arrived back inside the village walls mere minutes before the gates were locked at the setting of the sun, and they had been entirely safe.
So. Yeah. He would be fine.
But of course, in the end, it wasn’t a monster that got him– it was his own goddamn clumsiness, an ill-placed step and a too steep hill that sent him rolling down a ravine and landing at the bottom with a broken ankle.
At first, he hadn’t felt a thing– but when he tried to get to his feet, his leg gave out from under him and the pain was excruciating, and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from calling out in agony as he hit the ground again.
He bit on his lip and cursed and swore as he looked down at his damaged foot, the ankle already beginning to swell. Thankfully, the small ravine he had fallen into had a stream running through it, and Tony managed to painfully pull himself along the ground toward it. For a moment, he considered taking his boot off, but decided against it– it would serve as some compression and support for now, and if he couldn’t get out of the forest by nightfall, then… well. A wet sock would be the least of his problems.
So he dipped his whole foot into the water, and only just barely held back another yell from the sudden bite of cold. It was only just the beginning of spring, and the water was still near icy– only just thawed from the freeze of the winter, from the feel of it. And the snowmelt meant that it was moving quickly enough to put pressure on his foot, so despite the cold he lowered his other into the water as well, to brace it against the injured ankle. That helped, but it meant that both of his feet were freezing. He was well aware of the risks of this, that his toes very well might end up frostbitten– but he needed to get out of the forest, and he couldn’t do that if his ankle swelled up to the size of a pumpkin.
Sitting there, Tony glanced around at his surroundings, looking for anything that he might be able to use as a splint or a cane– but unfortunately, it seemed that he had left all of the trees far above him.
Thankfully, his knife was still in its sheath on the side of his leg, and thinking he would only be in the forest for an hour at most he hadn’t brought anything else with him. It had been an arrogant, stupid move– but of course… any longer than that, and his hopes of survival would be pretty low regardless.
Tony wasn’t like Steve, or Natasha, or Clint, or even Rhodey– he knew that if he were attacked by an ogre, or an acromantula, or a harpy or a chimera or any of the other kinds of monstrous beasts that lived in the forest, he would not be able to fight them off. Not by himself. His skills lay in making weapons, not in using them– and if he couldn’t get home before dusk, then he likely would not be returning home at all.
Shaking away the dark thoughts and fighting to focus on the problem at hand, Tony glanced back to the hill he had fallen down. The slope itself looked far too step to climb, especially with Tony’s foot in the state that it was– as did the slope on the other side. But he had to hope that it wouldn’t remain so all the way along the stream. If he followed it, there was a chance that he would be able to find a spot in the slope easy enough to climb.
“Okay, Tony,” he muttered, struggling up to his feet. “Let’s do this.”
Not wanting to take his foot out of the numbing water, Tony decided to risk walking through it. The bed was lined with pebbles that weren’t too slippery to walk on, and if he moved downstream, the current actually helped. His foot couldn’t quite hold his weight– it no longer hurt too much, thanks to the cold, but it would just flop whenever he tried to put weight on it. He didn’t have an option for a splint though, so until he could find a decent stick, he would just have to work with it. So, taking the only option available to him, Tony bent over to lay a hand on the shore, so that he could brace himself against the ground– and then he began an awkward kind of crab walk along the side of the water—
“What are you doing?”
At the sound of another voice, Tony nearly leapt out of his skin– and he flailed enough that he ended up on his ass in the middle of the stream, glaring up at the man who was watching him amusedly.
The first thing Tony noticed about the man was that he was tall– and maybe that was just because Tony was so low down, what with having fallen over in the stream and all, but he didn’t think so. The second thing was the smirk, and the third was his eyes—
But honestly, what did it matter what the man looked like? Tony should be focused on the fact that, somehow, there was another person stupid enough to come into the forest just before nightfall—
Someone who could help him.
“Well, I was trying to get back to the village,” he said. “Hello, by the way—”
“Yes, I had guessed as much,” the man interrupted, tilting his head. “But why were you doing it in the stream?”
“Because I hurt my ankle, and the stream is cold.”
The man frowned, like he didn’t quite see the connection there– but then he smiled, his white teeth flashing in the light of the setting sun. “If you are hurt, I can provide some assistance.”
Tony nearly groaned in relief. “Can you help me get back?” he asked. “I’m from the village not far from here—”
“I don’t live in the village.”
Well, that much was obvious– Tony’s home was rather small, and he would have recognised this man if he had. But that didn’t matter. “If it’s too far, you can stay with me for the night,” Tony said quickly. He knew that was rather stupid– he didn’t know this guy, he could just as well be a criminal. But as he’d just thought a moment before, the sun was setting, and Tony really was fringing on the edge of downright desperate.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the stranger replied. Though even as he spoke, he moved closer– and when he reached the edge of the stream, he held out his hand.
Tony took it a little warily– and the man almost flinched as he did.
“Apologies,” the man said upon seeing Tony’s expression. “Your hand is cold, that’s all.”
Yeah, no shit– the stream was freezing, and Tony was about this far from shaking hard enough to fall over. But Tony didn’t think it was a good idea to go pointing out such things to the man who was teetering on the edge of maybe helping him survive.
“I have to get back before it gets dark,” Tony said instead, speaking through gritted teeth as the man pulled him back to his feet. “The monsters will come out soon.”
Something flashed in the man’s eyes then– eyes that were a bright, bright green, almost too bright to look natural. Tony wondered if it was just the light again, or if it was the green of the forest, or the contrast to the dark curtain of hair that fell just past the man’s shoulders– or perhaps some combination of the above. Still… he couldn’t help pressing his free hand to his wrist, to feel the outline of the charm he always wore– the charm that might as well have been standard issue in his village.
“Yes,” the man said. “You are right about that. So… why don’t you stay with me?”
Tony blinked, not having expected that in the slightest. “There aren’t any other villages near here,” he said. “Surely mine will be closer?”
“I told you,” the man whispered, pulling Tony out of the stream– but not stepping away himself, so that they were standing far too close. “I do not live in a village.”
How was that even possible?
“But how do you survive?” Tony asked, his voice more than a little incredulous– so caught up in the shock that he hardly even noticed the way that the man’s hand curled in his damp shirt. “Without walls, without protection? How do you make it through the nights without being attacked by the monsters?”
“I assure you that it is perfectly sssafe,” the man replied. “And not very far from here. You will not have to put pressure on your ankle for long at all.”
It sounded so tempting, so very perfect and somehow impossibly just what Tony needed. And yeah, it was dangerous, following someone he didn’t know into the forest just as the sun was beginning to go down. But… he didn’t see that he had a whole lot of choice.
Either he stayed out here where he knew he was going to be in danger, or he followed this stranger into the unknown. Plus, it did sound better than being left to the monsters. Perhaps in this situation, the devil he knew was the worse option.
And the man really did seem so very… well, not trustworthy, but… Tony couldn’t really put his finger on it. There was just something.
But it seemed that he was taking too long to make up his mind, for the stranger pulled away then with a suddenness that had Tony almost stumbling.
“Whether you come with me or not, I must return to my own home,” the man said as he turned and took a step away from the stream– away from Tony. “As you said, you will see monsters in these trees the moment that the sun falls below the horizon.”
“Wait!” Tony exclaimed, almost losing his balance and reaching back out in desperation– and the man turned and caught him by the arms with an ease of strength that must have only seemed so pronounced because Tony himself felt so very weak.
“I should not stay for long,” the man said sternly– though his lips were turned up in the beginnings of a smirk, as if he knew he’d already won. “You have heard what happens to a person after they have been mauled by a werewolf, yes?”
“Werewolves only come out at the full moon,” Tony said quickly, though he couldn’t help the shard of fear that sparked through his chest.
“Yesss,” the man said– and his tongue curled around the edge of the last syllable, ending the word on a small hiss that had Tony shivering again… though in an entirely different way to before. “That is correct. But it is a full moon three nights hence, and older, more controlled wolves are still able to prowl.”
Tony almost cursed. Thanks a fucking heap, Clint. Of course he would send Tony out on a night that close to the full moon. Tony was starting to think that maybe Clint did want him dead after all.
“Come with me,” the man said, stepping closer once again as his voice lowered to something not unlike a purr. “As you said, you cannot stay here, and you will not make it all the way back to your village. But it is still your decision, and if you would rather—”
“No,” Tony said quickly, turning his hands to grip the man’s arms firmly. “I’ll go with you. I don’t think I have much of a choice, actually.”
“You certainly do have a choice.” The man seemed to pause for a moment, as if considering something– but when he spoke, his voice was firm. “I promise. No further harm will come to you while you are my guest.”
Now, Tony wasn’t normally one to trust on someone’s word, but– the way that the man had hesitated, and the way that something in his promise just felt so sure… well. Once again, Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he couldn’t help but think that there was more going on here than he knew.
Still. He’d already made his decision.
“Right, well,” Tony said, offering the man a smile. “If I’m going home with you, then am I at least allowed to know your name?”
“Loki.” His lips curled, as if he were amused by the question. “And you?”
Tony paused for a fraction of a moment before giving his answer. “Anthony.”
It was his name– he had the odd feeling that anything other than the truth would have been dismissed. But it would also make it difficult for the stranger to find him after all of this if he tried, since literally everyone in the village – and those beyond that Tony had come into contact with while selling his wares – knew him only as Tony.
“Well then, Anthony,” Loki said. “Let’s get you somewhere warm and… sssafe.”
He wrapped an arm which felt strangely cool around Tony’s waist, and Tony leaned against him heavily. It was only as Loki’s hand smoothed down his side that Tony realised with a sudden jolt that, somehow, his clothes were dry—
“It’s not far,” Loki said again, and as he turned his head his face was so very close. “You should be able to manage, but if not– I will be able to carry you.”
Tony was actually torn in his reaction to that statement– because yeah, being carried was not normally something that he would have enjoyed, except… in that circumstance, with his ankle throbbing something fierce, the very thought of getting off his feet entirely almost seemed like the most perfect thought in the world. The water really had numbed his foot down to nothing, but walking was still a fucking struggle– and it hurt more with every step.
But Loki held a lot of his weight, and after only a few yards they were able to work out a way of walking so that Tony put almost no weight on his foot at all without even breaking stride. It felt near on natural, like he and Loki were thinking at the same pace.
Loki led Tony in the opposite direction to the one that he had been attempting to crab walk in before, so that they were travelling upstream. And he had been right about it not being far– even with Tony’s hobbling, they’d only been walking for a few minutes before they came to a small pool that lapped against a rocky outcrop– and which bubbled fiercely from the waterfall that flowed down into it.
“This way,” Loki said, drawing Tony a little closer to his side as he moved toward the pool.
“Are you kidding?” Tony asked, pausing for a moment– and almost falling over again when that meant that he accidently pulled away from Loki.
Loki actually rolled his eyes at that, and held Tony more firmly– the dark leather of his black coat feeling smooth under Tony’s hands as they splayed against Loki’s chest in an attempt to regain balance.
“You cannot tell me that you don’t want to go into the stream,” Loki said, clearly amused again. “Not after how I found you.”
“I have the feeling you’re not going to let that go,” Tony groaned. “But, I just. I’m already cold, and—”
“It is warm inside,” Loki said. “I promise.”
Tony didn’t quite get what Loki meant by inside, but the word ‘promise’ once again somehow made him sure that Loki was telling the truth. So he nodded, and allowed Loki to lead him closer to the pool– and then into the water. Tony gasped as the cold water hit his skin, but Loki actually flinched, and Tony had to wonder how he managed to apparently live here when he hated cold water that much.
“It was almost easier when it was frozen,” Loki explained, his tone conversational. “I don’t like the cold, but at least then I did not need to get my– to get wet.”
“Yeah, wet socks are gross,” Tony muttered.
Thankfully, the bottom of the pool was lined with the same kind of pebbles that the stream had been, and it was easy enough to walk through– especially with Loki still holding him close. They skirted the edge of the waterfall and ducked underneath the outcrop– and there, set into the rock, was a small crevice. It was little more than a crack between two boulders, just wide enough for a man to pass through.
Except, if it was wide enough for one man, then that meant Tony was going to have to get through without Loki’s help.
“I don’t think I can do that,” Tony groaned. “I mean. I’m not going to fit, let alone—”
“You will,” Loki assured him firmly. And again, Tony found himself wanting to believe him, but… his ankle was getting worse and worse, and if he let go of Loki now he was pretty sure he was going to end up face first in the water all over again.
But then Loki turned so that they were facing each other, and he placed one of his hands against the back of Tony’s neck, so that it was resting against the top of his spine. Tony felt his touch like a warm caress, and he closed his eyes with a sigh as, somehow, it felt like some of his pain melted away.
“What did you do?” he asked. “How—?”
“Nothing of significance,” Loki said. “This is down to you.”
Tony wasn’t so sure about that– but when Loki led him over to the crevice and let him go… Tony managed to stay on his feet. Sure, he reached out to grab the slippery rock as quickly as he could, but… it didn’t hurt as much as it should have.
And, you know what? Tony still found it more than a little odd that Loki lived in a cave hidden behind a waterfall, but… in a way, it made more sense than if Loki had led him to a hut, because this was certainly more hidden from the dangers of the forest. And as he took one more glance at the orange tinged sky that was about to darken to black, Tony knew that either way, inside was going to be a hell of a lot safer than out.
So, moving gingerly, Tony slid inside the outcrop, his hands pressing against the rock to hold himself steady. The passage was dark and very narrow, and as he passed through it, a strange tingle skittered over his skin—
But then he came out of the crack in the rock and into an open space, and he nearly fell to his knees as he blinked at the sudden warm light from the fire. It wouldn’t have been so bad – rather than the hard rock Tony had been expecting, the ground seemed to be softly carpeted – but cool hands caught him around his waist and drew him back against a firm and somehow already familiar chest.
“You see?” Loki said, his words whispered soothingly into Tony’s ear. “I promised that it would be warm.”
“I get the feeling that you’re the kind of person who keeps their promises,” Tony observed– realising only a second later that might have been a mistake to admit.
But Loki only chuckled. “Come on,” he said. “I also promised you somewhere more comfortable.”
Okay. So. Tony had to admit. He never would have expected it from a literal cave, but Loki was so right– his couch was definitely one of the best that Tony had ever perched his ass upon. He wasn’t entirely sure how it all worked, since there was no way the large leather thing could have got through the crack in the rock, but he wasn’t about to complain.
The whole cave was rather cozy, actually– there was the fireplace providing the warmth that Loki had promised, though the chimney must have been hidden by the rock above because Tony couldn’t see where the smoke was going. In front of the fire, laid over the light, goldish-coloured carpet was a large black rug, the kind that was thick and looked very comfortable to curl up on top of. The walls were just bare rock but lined with enough shelves that it was hardly noticeable– and the shelves were filled mostly with books, though there were other various knickknacks as well, and a few plants in pots. There was also another opening along the wall opposite the entrance, though it was much wider– and Tony could only assume that led to other rooms.
And as he leaned back against the unfairly comfortable couch, Tony started to think that he really had made the right decision. After all, it was certainly better than being out in the woods after nightfall.
Loki was fussing with something on the other side of the cave, but Tony couldn’t turn to see what he was doing without jostling his ankle– which, once again, was starting hurt like a bitch. Whatever Loki had done to it – he must have pressed against one of Tony’s trigger points, like an acupuncturist relieving pain – was starting to wear off.
And then it didn’t help when a vicious howl from outside the cave made him jump about a foot in the air—
“Do not worry,” Loki said, sounding entirely unconcerned as he sat on the couch by Tony’s feet. “They cannot get in here.”
It didn’t soothe Tony’s nerves entirely, but it was enough to calm his racing heart– and then he was further distracted as Loki placed his hand over Tony’s ankle, which caused Tony to swear at him.
Loki actually hissed at that, a small, irritated sound that paused Tony in his tracks– and not because it made him go warm in places that it definitely shouldn’t have.
“Stay still,” Loki chastised. “I cannot do this if you are wriggling around like a snakelet.”
Tony opened his mouth to protest – because really? Snakelet? Where did that even come from? – but then he saw what it was that Loki was doing—
Because rather than just Loki’s bare hand resting on Tony’s swollen ankle, which was still encased in his sodden boot– Loki’s hand was actually glowing, green power twisting around his fingers and curling toward Tony’s injury.
Tony jerked his leg away instinctively, adrenaline overpowering the pain that the movement caused as he scurried back along the couch—
“What are you?” he gasped, his heart beating rapidly once again, his breath coming much too fast.
Loki didn’t move any closer, but he didn’t move away, either. He watched Tony with a calculating expression, his head slightly tilted– and Tony couldn’t help but feel like he was being sized up for a meal.
“Calm,” Loki said, those unnaturally, inhumanly bright eyes flashing as he held Tony’s gaze. “I promised that no harm would come to you– and I do not lie.”
It didn’t help– at least, not alone. But Tony, like any person who lived near the forest, knew all about the kinds of monsters that roamed within it. And while he was sure his knowledge was far from perfect – Loki had corrected him earlier on werewolves, after all – he knew that there were more than a few who literally could not lie. If Loki was one of them, then… perhaps Tony truly was safe.
And the fact that Loki remained on the other end of the couch, that he had not tried to reach out, or even tried to deny a single thing– that did more to calm Tony back down than anything.
Besides, he had felt Loki’s strength. If he had wanted Tony dead, he could have killed him in the stream and then carried him back to his cave. If Loki really wanted to harm him, then this didn’t make any sense at all.
The logic slowed his heart, and brought his breaths back down to something almost normal. And the whole while Loki just watched him– his own breathing slow and steady, so much so as to seem on purpose, as if perhaps he were giving Tony something to focus on. It… helped.
And when Tony finally relaxed enough that his muscles were no longer as tense as a bowstring, Loki smiled.
Not a smirk, not this time– but a proper, warm smile.
“There,” Loki said gently.
But Tony wasn’t just going to let it go, not just like that. There had been enough fucking clues– he had been such an idiot. Yet, even so, the howl earlier had proved he couldn’t go back outside, so. Here he had to stay.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to ask any questions, though.
“You said you knew that monsters lived in the woods,” Tony said slowly.
“Yess,” Loki agreed– and this time, Tony recognised the hiss as something… else. “But I never said that I was not one of them.”
Tony’s blood still felt a little cold, but he drew in another breath. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. You haven’t hurt me, and you promised that you wouldn’t—”
“I keep my promises.” Loki’s voice went a little hard, there. And despite knowing now that Loki wasn’t human, Tony still believed him.
Of course, he wasn’t so naïve enough to be unable to recognise that honest truth could be as sharp a weapon as a lie– sometimes even more so, when spoken by the right tongue.
“Then tell me,” Tony said. “What are you?”
Loki tilted his head. “What do you think I am?”
Tony wanted to complain about the obvious avoidance, but… he paused for a moment, catching Loki’s analytical expression once more. And then, he couldn’t help but feel like this was some kind of test– and rather than disquieting him, it made him want to see if he could impress.
Goddamn it. He really did have a problem with challenges, didn’t he?
You’d think he’d learn his lesson, but instead… he started to turn over the different possibilities in his mind.
It was clear that Loki was able to use magic– and not just any old trick. That glow was indicative of something special, and the subtle use Loki had made of it before, without needing words or trinkets, indicated that he was actually manipulating seiðr– an old magic that not many, humans or creatures alike, had the skill, knowledge, or power to control.
And if Loki were simply a mage, he would not have to live away from the villages– because mages were honoured and respected for their ability to protect towns from monsters just as much as they were feared for their power. Then, perhaps Loki might be a faerie, for they were well known for their promises and truths and were often found living amongst nature, as Loki did by the stream. But Loki certainly didn’t seem like the fae that Tony had been told about– and he didn’t have the sharp teeth.
But the more Tony thought on it, the more he came to realise… it didn’t really matter.
Loki had helped him– had no doubt saved his life, when he didn’t have to do anything of the sort. In fact, Loki had risked himself by doing so, because anyone else from the village likely would have tried to slit Loki’s throat the moment they realised he was anything other than human. Loki must have known that, and yet… he had offered Tony help regardless.
“I’m not sure,” Tony admitted. “I think you must be something that I haven’t seen before. But…”
“But?” Loki asked, arching a brow.
“But I don’t think I mind,” Tony admitted. “You’re not going to hurt me, and you’ve only helped me so far. So, whatever you are– yeah, I don’t mind. Just so long as you don’t try to eat me or, turn me into a frog or anything else like that then, I think we’ll be good.”
“Well, I am also willing to help you recover from your injury, until you’re healed enough to return to the village,” Loki said brightly. “Providing, of course, that you are capable of sitting still for long enough.”
Tony snorted at that– and it seemed that was enough to break the awkwardness between them. Loki was still hesitant as he reached out with his hand– and he smiled when Tony straightened his leg again, putting his foot into Loki’s reach so that he could get back to… the glowy thing that he had been doing earlier. Though as it turned out, Tony didn’t have to wonder for much longer.
Loki spoke quietly as he worked, letting Tony know exactly what it was he was doing. He said that he did not want to try and take the boot off yet, and that he was only numbing the pain, and trying to reduce some of the swelling so that he could examine it better.
“Wish I could do more,” Loki said softly as he finally took his hands back away from Tony’s ankle. “But I am not familiar with… this aspect of human anatomy.”
He looked almost a little guilty as he said it, and even though the expression lasted for only a moment– Tony couldn’t help but think how very different he seemed from how he had been acting outside by the stream. He was softer, more open– less arrogant, more real.
It was as if by working out the truth, Tony had broken down a few of Loki’s walls.
And as Loki moved to find Tony a blanket so that he could continue to defrost by the fire and get some much-needed rest, Tony marvelled at the situation he had found himself in.
He was in the middle of the forest, during the night– with a creature who wasn’t human, with one of the monsters he had lived in fear of for as long as he could remember.
And somehow, remarkably… he felt safe.