Magic had long ago become a not-quite-dead lost art throughout the lands. Men who could still wield it were rare. Men who understood it––how it worked, or what it was––even in the least, were still more so. There were still mages, but most had retreated into themselves, or into far-off and hidden places. The gods are long gone, some of them had said. Magic, as an art, had supposedly been brought to man by gods and spirits, if one believed the stories: Prometheus to the Greeks and Romans, Odin and the Aesir in the far northern places, Fae in the British isles, and still others throughout the rest of the world.
Baron Howard Stark had been a man ahead of his time, and he held little faith in any such old gods. According to rumor, some believed he had no faith, not even in Christ. What he did have was something rare: genius, a fair understanding of what magic actually was, and enough of the gift to shape it and build with it. Other landed aristocracy thought him mad, at first, when he became so obsessed with forges and metals: the crude alchemy of blacksmiths, so they thought. And then he had begun producing wonders the likes of which none had seen, since days when men thought that strange gods walked among them carrying weapons forged in the hearts of dying stars.
The Stark family had brought forth new metal alloys, new elements, and an understanding of the world that few could keep up with, aside from other geniuses in other lands: Sir Richard Reed of England, Lord Otto von Doom in Lataveria, among others.
Howard’s son had proven equally brilliant, with the potential to surpass his father: forging light from dark, power from nothingness. He was also reckless, disreputable, and no party or ball was considered complete without his presence. Even after his father’s death, Anthony Stark remained a roguish creature: brilliant, and genius, but possibly quite mad as well. He designed his weapons, made them more efficient to create in large numbers. It never fully occurred to him to wonder if they were all being sold to respectable, trustworthy people. His godfather Obadiah Stane, and acting head of the house of Stark while Anthony had finished growing up and studying abroad, had made sure he had no reason to.
Then he had been taken from his home, and those few close to him who still had a hold on his wild heart. One of his own weapons, with the Stark seal upon it, had done precisely what he had designed it to do, and it tore into him, leaving behind shrapnel and fire and pain. He had been stolen away to be killed, until those who took him realized quite whom they had stolen. Then they fetched their healer: a man they had broken long, long ago, and who was far wiser than they knew.
The healer, Yinsen, had looked upon Anthony Stark, and seen opportunity. Yinsen had met father and son both once, long ago, and had been made to realize something small, but important and life-changing: that men do not need any of their gods to be good, and to leave such a breathtaking legacy for others to aspire to.
It was a lesson he knew Anthony Stark did not need to learn, but the younger Stark needed to learn how to see what his legacy had become. Yinsen woke up from the haze of unthinking he had dwelt in ever since these killers had destroyed his family and stolen him away. To die alone with his own weakness, by his own hand, would have shamed him. To die, and rejoin his family, by bringing this fallen star back out into the world, with eyes made clear with sobriety and new self-awareness, would be a worthy cause indeed; for while men did not need gods, they tended to thrive all the more in the presence of heroes––even disreputable ones, if their deeds were truly great.
He set to work, with fire, and what few healing magics he had, as well as science. With a few items stolen from a Stark-designed device for sorting metal ores, and metal made safe first by fire, then by spells to keep out infection and maintain a tight seal against the outside world, Yinsen fashioned a means to keep the shards of metal in Anthony Stark’s blood from killing him. It was not elegant, latched onto a crude power source as it was, but it would suffice.
Stark awoke to find himself in a dark place, subterranean, lit by dim firelight. He ached, and he burned, and his mouth was dry. Then he saw the horror embedded in his chest and might have screamed, if he could get sufficient air, and if his throat were not brittle with lack of moisture. He did manage to rasp, in desert-dry tones, “What have you done to me?”
“Me? I saved your life, Mr. Stark,” Yinsen said, and explained how he had done so.
Anthony Stark felt the world he knew before fall away like so much shattered glass. It hurt, and yet it was so terrifyingly easy, in some ways. The darkness here did not frighten him. Death lurking nearby in the wings only made him angry. The pain cleared his head even when it blurred his vision and made him feel too weak to stand. His life had prepared him to be stubborn, and built in him a bitterness and black pride that would not break––not all the way. He cracked, yes, but then turned all those jagged edges outward, and built them into something new.
When the killers came to him, his eyes were sharp and his mind even sharper. They spoke a tongue he did not recognize, and Yinsen was left to translate. They showed him a glimpse of their impressive arsenal: all weapons bearing the Stark seal.
Build, they commanded. Build for us these marvels of yours, those greater than the ones we have here, and we will then set you free, once you are done.
Anthony regarded them. He had been in court since birth, had learned to read people through scandals and politics where all the very best liars succeed. These men were amateur in comparison. He smiled and proffered his hand as though in agreement. “No they won’t,” he said, his lips hardly moving around his slightly vicious smile.
“No,” Yinsen agreed, “they won’t.”
The rest of the tale––of Anthony Stark creating a breathtaking new weapon, more powerful than any before it, and breaking his way free, but losing his companion to a combination of battle and self-sacrifice––spread across the lands like wildfire, though few had even a little idea what sort of weapon he had made, and what had become of it.
Not long after, Obadiah Stane’s betrayal and the fallout thereof did not get the same attention. Not quite. Not even when, in the wake of it, the golden son of Baron Howard Stark brazenly declared that the god-like, armored hero fast spreading into legend, was none other than himself. Anthony Stark became the Man of Iron. He was not alone, and people began to call the years after The Age of Heroes.
When two of the old gods returned, and one brought with him an army meant to claim the earth for his own, the Man of Iron joined these other heroes to defend all mankind: the First Avenger from the English colony of New York, a Green Monster formerly considered a foe to all things peaceful, an immensely skilled archer with arrows that did far more than merely stab, the most dangerous woman in the world known only as the Black Widow, and Thor the god of Thunder so recently returned to earth.
They fought Thor’s brother Loki, the god of lies, and they won, collapsing the door he had opened to distant other world, and destroying the remains of his army.
The stories of the war with the god of chaos and mischief generally did not include the part where Loki had grabbed the unarmored Anthony Stark by the throat an hurled him out a window, forcing him to summon his suit with more haste than ever before. He had succeeded, but only just.
It wasn’t entirely that incident which had kept Anthony’s attention oddly fixated upon the god of lies, after the battle. Thor had bound his brother with a set of manacles. From the moment they snapped shut, the tension of struggle had not left Loki’s expression. Half the time, his eyes were squeezed tightly shut, as though he were fighting something off with the last of his strength. When Stark looked closer, with an effort put into summoning his gift, he could see a flicker around the god of mischief’s wrists: weakened, but stubborn.
They had taken turns standing watch on the cart that carried his cage. Back at their main fort, Thor had further bonds that would keep the rest of Loki’s power contained. When Anthony took his watch, he stared for a long moment at the manacles, then at Loki’s face. “What on earth are you trying to do?”
The god of mischief half-smiled in a humorless fashion. His eyes remained shut, which was a pity. Enemy or no, Anthony liked the sight of those bright green eyes more than he would admit. “What on earth, indeed,” he muttered. “You and your kin have advanced a great deal since my last visit, I will concede that.”
“I mean, what are you trying now? The manacles seem to bother you more than they rightfully should,” Anthony observed.
Loki did not respond at first, though his brow furrowed. His lips were a thin line, pressed together as he still, still resisted. “I am not broken, though I am defeated, Baron Stark,” he said finally. “And I am no blood kin of Thor’s, though I may look as he does, and as you humans do.” He glanced up, and his eyes were not green as they had been before, but blood-red. He registered the surprise on Anthony’s face and snapped them shut again with a wince. His voice had an edge to it: black pride, desperation, and obdurate determination. “I would not give this to you. Not any of you.”
“You’re wearing an illusion, then,” Anthony murmured. “Why?”
“It did not used to be illusion,” Loki murmured, his voice amused though his expression indicated otherwise. “And then I fell, and many things changed. Still more has happened since then.”
Anthony nodded thoughtfully. He was still all in armor, except for his helm, the fingertips of his gauntlets idly tapping at the glowing circle of silver-blue light in the center of his chest. He understood more than he cared to. Stepping up to the cage, he knelt down and said, “Let me see them.”
Loki opened his eyes again, and again they were green as emeralds, human-like. “What?” he asked, his tone one of half-offense and half-disbelief.
“The manacles. Let me see them.”
Slowly, with uncertainty, Loki let his hands slip through the narrow gaps between the bars as far as he could, until they were stopped by the short chain between his wrists. He kept his gaze fixed on Anthony’s face.
The human examined the manacles closely, his eyes shrewd and calculating. He took one of Loki’s wrists in hand, his other gauntlet raised with its repulsor giving off just enough light to see by and... there. Runes, lines of magic, lines of power. “Aha. Here we are.” He scanned them. Most of the spells were unfamiliar, and complex enough that he thought it little wonder these two had once been mistaken for gods. His own methods, however complex they could be, tended toward more linear and mechanical shapes and concepts. This magic was old, and very powerful. Tony could make out enough––sort of like when he attempted to read Greek, which he had only learned the very basics of as a small child: some of the vocabulary was familiar enough to give him an idea what he was looking at, at least insofar as the overall gist.
Eventually, he let go, but did not lower his left hand, his light source, nor did he take his eyes off the particular strings of magic that had caught his interest. “Hold that there.” With a bit of thought and a muttered command, his right gauntlet obligingly released his hand, and let him lower it to the floor of the cart. He had long ago learned it worthwhile to carry a number of small tools on him to alter magics like this––not usually ones so head-spinning in complexity, but he had gained access to places with wards that could keep even Sir Banner’s more angry green self from trespassing. He opened a compartment in his right gauntlet and pulled out a long, needle-like tool. Anthony tapped it once or twice on the reactor in his chest, until the tip of it glowed nearly white.
“Keep still, please,” Anthony said simply, and pressed the glowing tip to the particular threads of magic that had to do with illusions. He heard a hiss from the god of lies, but didn’t look up. “Easy, easy,” Anthony murmured, as though soothing a startled horse. “This is rather more intricate than I’m used to, so it may take me a bit of time.” It did, but after a few minutes he found the shape he was looking for: changing it from illusions could not be cast––to illusions could not be cast except less than an inch from the surface of the prisoner’s skin. The manacles hummed with resistance for a moment, then stilled, cooling under his hands as he anchored the changes in place with a few more deft little movements. He heard Loki let out a long, ragged breath.
“I had wondered what powered your suit. It’s not a familiar form of magic, so intertwined with other things: metal and electricity, all inorganic,” the god of lies murmured. “Interesting.”
Anthony glanced up at him, releasing the god’s wrist and returning his tool and gauntlet respectively to their proper places. “You really are a talented mage, then. It wasn’t just that scepter of yours with all of its borrowed powers.”
“Do you consider yourself a mage, Baron Stark?”
The human laughed, low and self-deprecating. “No, not at all. I understand magic as a form of energy, how it moves and behaves, and I can manipulate it. I’ve been told I have some traces of the gift, but there are no teachers left sane and coherent enough to teach––not that I’ve been able to find so far, anyway.”
Loki glanced thoughtfully at the reactor in Stark’s chest, recalled the resistance: an electromagnet, but also something more. Something different, and rather unique. Then he met the human’s gaze again, steady and unflinching, his expression an unreadable mask. “I thank you,” he said simply, but not without some sincerity; although the faintest traces of lingering, starch-stiff pride still crept in at the edges.
Anthony considered saying a number of things into those mad green eyes. He could see darkness there, and scars left by horrors he wished he still could not imagine, but he’d flown briefly into that void, seen a few things moving at the edges of his vision before he fell, that left him with a clearer idea of why Thor’s adopted brother was quite so mad as he was than Anthony was altogether comfortable with. He nodded thoughtfully, and moved back from the cage again, sitting on an upturned wooden bucket and leaning back against the low walls of the cart.
A year later, when Thor returned to earth and rejoined his fellow heroes, Anthony asked him what exactly had happened to his brother.
Thor frowned. “He has already endured the majority of his punishment. The past year was spent with his lips sown shut. He may also have been locked away in a tree until someone could be made to weep for him, but before I left, he had managed to free himself of that, and the stitches both. Loki... did not do well in confinement, and our father was forced to acknowledge this. He has sworn to do all within his power to repair the further damage done to Loki’s mind by some horrors from the void, but even that will not redeem him, nor free him.”
Anthony nodded. The god of mischief had killed many, before they caught him, including a man most of the Avengers had regarded fondly. The severity of the punishments made Anthony’s stomach turn a little, only because he’d glimpsed things in that brief trip through the portal that still returned to him when his life grew too quiet, and he was left alone too long. Exposure to that, with no means of escape, for nearly a year, seemed worse than even some popular means of public execution, and none of those were pretty. At least with execution, there was a definite ending to it.
“What do you think he will do then, once Loki recovers?”
“Set him a task, to make him once more worthy to be a citizen of Asgard, as he once did for me.”
Anthony blinked. He recalled that story a little too well. “He... Uh, he wouldn’t consider banishing him to earth as he did you, would he?” That just didn’t seem wise.
“Perhaps. I do not think he can so easily strip Loki of all his power as he did myself––it is trickier with masters of magic than mere warriors––but he will come up with something.” Thor snorted, shaking his head. “I advised him that I did not think any mortals who approached him would survive long enough to potentially bring Loki back to his old self. Odin swore that any who did would become an honorary citizen of Asgard.”
At that, Anthony’s mouth twitched. “I don’t think you’ll get his old self back. No more than any time spent banished somewhere would bring me back to how I was before all this.” He tapped his reactor pointedly. “At best, you’re looking for someone who can lure him back out of the dark: if not into the light, then at least into the gray of dawn.” His eyes shut, recalling the black rage he’d gone into, tearing apart the camp of the men who had tried to wreck him: the night he’d gone from a crafter of weapons, to a weapon himself, and taken responsibility for the bloodshed his creations caused. If not for his childhood friends Sir Rhodes and Lady Virginia Potts, he might have stayed in that place where all that mattered was destruction, and any loss of control threatened to send him over the edge.
“You speak wisely, Anthony Stark,” Thor said thoughtfully. “I wish I believed such a thing possible. I love my brother, but that is apparently no longer enough.”
Anthony considered. “He has your love, but does he have your acceptance? Do you love your brother, or the mere memory of your brother––even now it’s clear that you never fully understood the latter?” He took a sip of ale. It was necessary. “I loved my father, but never understood him. He loved me, but also could not keep pace with me. As such, we spent all of my years from the time I was thirteen up until the day he died causing each other nothing but pain, often without trying.” His brow furrowed. “Sometimes, Thor, love truly is not enough.”
After that, they both fell silent. When Thor’s stay proved rather shorter than anyone anticipated, and he went back to Asgard with apparent haste, Anthony understood. Perhaps it would do some good, and Thor would at least try to offer the same courtesy for once.
Three years passed. The Avengers, and other heroes, fought new and more deadly foes. Eventually, Anthony could no longer count all of the immensely powerful heroes he knew on both hands. His birthday was a month away, and he would have officially been on earth for forty years. His latest courtship, his most loyal and least selfish one in many years, the lady Virginia Potts, had fallen apart before they had discussed the possibility of marriage. He was alone, and felt all too mortal. Temporal limitations, he thought. Cursed, damnable limitations. While many reassured him that he hardly looked older than one-and-thirty, he could still feel age creeping up on him. Soon enough, those who cared for him would begin insisting that he cease to don his armor.
There were enough heroes around, he decided. Surely, they could hold down the fort while he took some time abroad, at least a season, no matter how they sputtered at him about responsibilities; he had friends he could trust to watch over that which was his, if only for that long. Anthony then proceeded to design a suit that could cleverly conceal itself as a travel chest, and set out, dressed in dull traveling clothes, with no visible jewelry about his person. He did not wish to be recognized; he wished to observe, rather than be observed for a while. Not least because of the grey, oddly-shaped markings that he had recently noticed appearing on his skin: first a few around the reactor, then other along major arteries. They hadn’t grown too numerous, though the fact that half of them appeared merely after the last time he used the suit, unnerved him. So he fled, for a while. Perhaps avoiding his armor in the short term would help him recover enough to survive it in the long term.
He could hope, but Anthony was not an optimist at heart. Especially not after the incident involving an electromagnet being implanted above his heart. He knew that if he stayed home, stayed still and avoided battle and his armor back home, the quiet would drive him mad within a week; travel was a safe alternative. So he crossed the English Channel and made his way to the continent, determined to wander unfamiliar places.
Within just the first month, he travelled many miles, first east, then northeast. His knowledge of germanic languages was discovered to be lacking more than once, but he managed well enough. Where he could not use words, or where his words stumbled, he could get by on charm alone; he’d always had something of a knack for that.
He was growing increasingly bored and melancholy until he struck upon an intriguing series of rumors, from a small town still further north. The town was small, but very old: founded by local germanic tribes, Romanized and then christianised, reconquered by pagan vikings whose descendants eventually converted, and now were as christian as anywhere else in Europe. They had little architecture of note––at least, not until recent, according to rumor. A castle of a sort, seemingly modern in design, small enough to support perhaps an obscure Lord or a moderately wealthy Marquis, had appeared on the outskirts of the town within the past year, but no one could recall seeing it being built; it was, however, occupied.
The castle’s occupant had been generous toward the village when last winter struck: his servants not very talkative, but still polite, had shared food stores with those who had but little. It was something of a wonder, then, that the most prevailing rumor was that the lord of the castle was cursed. The most common opinion was that he was actually an old, old mage who had gone mad, gotten cursed, and now needed to repent to save his own soul. Few had ever seen him; those that had would say little of it, but appeared quite fearful. The other rumor was that the lord was good man possessed by a demon.
Anthony doubted there were many mages who felt a need to repent in order to avoid a Christian hell, but never said as much aloud. He did, however, start to make his way toward that town. Even if it turned out to be merely some strange lordling possessed by a malevolent spirit, it would at the very least prove interesting.
He reached the town just as the first snowfall of the season began to fall, and settled into the local inn before exploring the rest of the town on foot. The roads under his feet were old and Roman, but some of the stones in and around the roads near the edge of town had pagan symbols carved into them: remnants of tributes to Viking gods. Whenever he glimpsed a decorative Mjolnir carved into ancient rock, Anthony couldn’t help but snigger a bit, now that he knew the hammer’s owner personally.
On the northernmost edge of town, he caught a glimpse of the castle that had caused so many rumors. It was but four miles away. After a brief return to the inn to secure his belongings with a few wards, and pack a light lunch to carry with him through the woods, Anthony set out without hesitation. No one had ever accused him of being a patient man.
After the first mile, the connection to the magics in his armor became quieter, and he felt a flicker of nerves, but pressed on regardless. Anthony reminded himself that he had not journeyed here with the intention to fight, but to learn, and kept walking even when the magics grew so quiet he knew they would not hear when he called. The trees grew thicker for some ways, nearly blocking out the light of the pale, overcast winter sky entirely. With a sigh, Anthony opened the laces at the front of his tunic, letting the glow of his reactor, only a little dimmed by the linen of his undershirt, light the way before him.
The trees began to thin a little, within half a mile of the castle, and after a while, as the air grew colder and still more snow began to fall, Anthony made the mistake of readjusting the laces of his tunic whilst continuing to walk. This inattention soon led to an inversion of perspective, as a sort of snare caught about his ankle and pulled him up by it, leaving him dangling from a tree branch with his traveling cloak about his head.
After the initial bark of alarm and surprise, Anthony stilled and quietly chided himself for being caught unawares. He could picture the dangerous Lady Romanov laughing at him even now. Once he loosened his brooch and let his cloak fall to the ground, Anthony folded his arms across his chest and shuddered at the cold. Twisting around a bit, he gripped the knee of his snared leg and pulled himself up to get a better look at the snare.
Instead he found... nothing. The snare, if there was one, was not visible to the human eye. Anthony blinked at it in bewilderment for a moment. “Ah.” He muttered aloud, “So he is a mage.”
“Yes, he is,” said a low, female voice from far too nearby.
Anthony startled, losing his grip and again hanging loosely. He stared.
The woman was tall and thin, the hood of her cloak covering half of her face, which was always a bit ominous, in Anthony’s experience. She had pale hair, and watched him with one bright green eye. “You’ve come to visit my father, too, then. You are lucky that I’ve found you before one of the shades did. They can be a bit brusque with unexpected strangers.”
“Shades,” Anthony repeated, disbelief evident.
“Yes. They appear quite human.” She smiled thinly. “To most, anyway. They monitor the grounds, catch trespassers and so forth.”
“What’s the usual punishment for trespassing, I wonder?” Anthony mused. “I’m new in town, you see.”
“Yes. I can tell you’re unfamiliar with this place, and that you’re much more than you appear to be,” she countered.
Again, Anthony thought, Ominous. And also: Coming here without armor in reach was a mistake.
“His punishments vary. If they’re potentially hostile, he tends to lock them away for a while until he comes up with something more clever to do with them. If they’re locals with no particular gifts, they would have been off-put by the wards right at the half-mile mark.”
Anthony’s brow furrowed. “Really? Where?” There were wards? And he’d missed them?
“You’re familiar with magic, then?” the woman inquired, her smile growing wider. There was something disconcertingly familiar about the curve of that smile, and the playful wickedness of it. “Well, then. I hope you are not an enemy.”
“Me too, now you mention it,” Anthony muttered, and looked up along his body toward his ankle. “I don’t suppose you might, ah...”
The woman waved a hand in a moderately complicated gesture.
Anthony only just managed to brace himself, catching himself with his hands, elbows bending to dissipate some of the force as he arched a bit and twisted, the momentum propelling him upright so that when the abrupt burst of activity stopped, he was standing: a trick he’d learned from Natasha, if only to prove he could. Being upright was a bit tricky, though, as all the blood started to rush from his head. His listed a bit to the left, and felt the woman’s hand on his shoulder, surprisingly strong.
“Nice trick,” she said, sounding fairly amused.
“I could say the same to you,” Anthony managed, shooting her an intrigued look. Like father, like daughter, then. Very interesting.
Her grip tightened: oh yes, she was very strong. “Let us be on our way, then.”
They were greeted at the door by a servant, and looking closely, Anthony felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. No one had seen a real, mage-mastered shade in over a century, that Anthony had heard of: constructs of shadow and energy that could pass for human or animal, complete basic tasks like carrying objects, and even speak a little if it was required of them. Anthony could see it in the way the firelight in the hall seemed strangely magnified, reflected by the servant’s dark eyes, and in the way he moved: slow, smooth, as though he had no bones, which was quite likely.
“So... your father is a mage: a genuine and quite powerful one,” Anthony murmured. “Who on earth taught him?”
She laughed softly, but brightly, as though he’d made a particularly apt but unexpected joke. She then paused, hearing a voice call from down on of the halls. The woman turned to the shade-servant and gestured at Anthony. “Keep him here, would you? I’ll inform father.” She hesitated a moment. “May I ask your name?”
For a long moment, Anthony considered lying, but reconsidered. Hung for a lamb... “Baron Anthony Stark,” he replied. “I’m spending some time abroad.”
“I’ll inform father.” The woman offered another of those disconcerting smiles and released him, vanishing down the narrow eastern hall.
Anthony took in the decor, trying to ignore the prickly, nervous awareness of the shade standing near his shoulder. The castle was indeed fairly modern: stone exterior, but an interior that would not be out of place at any respectable home of any humble-yet-moderately-wealthy lord in Europe. Not Catholic, then, Anthony thought absently, as he examined the decor and saw no religious iconography of any kind. The foyer opened to a larger room, with a large staircase leading upstairs, a few doorways visible behind it, and two narrow but well-lit halls east and west. After several long minutes thawing in the warmer air indoors, Anthony realized he’d never caught that woman’s name. It was several minutes more, once he was comfortable insofar as temperature, before anything much else happened.
Responding to some wordless command, the shade rested a hand on his back, light as air––and no wonder. “This way, sir,” it said, and gently steered him down the same hall the woman had vanished down.
Tense with anticipation, Anthony tried to suppress any potentially false expectations. His nerves were on end regardless, as he was led through the door into a large and thoroughly impressive library, which momentarily absorbed all of his attention. The room was perhaps 50ft by 25ft, with high ceilings, and every wall but one was covered with books very nearly up into those moderately gothic arches where the ceiling peaked. The remaining wall had books halfway up, and the rest of the way taken up by clear, thick glass windows that let in the thin winter sunlight. The phrase cathedral of knowledge rose to mind and Anthony found himself smiling, oddly relaxed. Knowledge was his element, after all.
“Baron Anthony Stark,” said a low, strangely familiar voice, from near one of the tall chairs in the center of the room.
Then Anthony looked at the tall, slightly thin man standing beside the lefthand chair, a very old book in his hands. His daughter was nowhere to be seen. His back was to Anthony, who observed as best he could: this was no frail elder, but instead a man still quite at his peak. Tall and lean, dressed in black and darkest green, accented at collar and cuff with gold embroidery. His hair was a bit long, pitch black, and tied back with a dark green ribbon. Absently, Anthony was aware of the shade leaving the room, and closing the door.
“You are either an unfortunate and foolhardy imitator, or a man very far from your home and your armor,” the mage said, his voice all oil and silk, and oddly familiar. He set the book aside on a table near the chair.
“I’ve been told I’m foolhardy, but never an imitator,” Anthony replied, and saw the mage’s shoulders stiffen. Curious. Then the mage turned to face him, and Anthony’s eyes widened, but he did not flinch, and his expression of polite curiosity remained otherwise unchanged.
Unexpected, he thought.
The mage’s skin was a dark, even blue, interrupted occasionally by raised parallel markings on his brow and along his cheekbones. His eyes were red from pupil to lid, narrowed in shrewd appraisal. No wonder prevailing theory suggested he might be under some sort of curse. Yet, as with many things people warned him against, Anthony did not find the mage’s appearance unappealing.
“Ah,” Anthony said suddenly. “Now it makes sense how a mage like you wound up in a place like this.” He smiled, bright and fierce, gesturing with a flourish. “You’re not a human mage. I shouldn’t be surprised, really. We lost our mages with your apparent degrees of power and skill over a century ago.”
Slowly, the mage began to smile: a more wicked curve than his daughters, and far more bitter, far more strangely familiar. “So you do not know me, then.”
Anthony startled. “Have we met?”
The mage laughed: a surprised, almost startled, but lovely sound. After a few moments, he caught his breath and folded his arms over his chest, shaking his head at the human before him. “You once offered me a drink, actually,” he said, voice laced heavily with amusement and irony. “I declined.”
Anthony tilted his head a little. “You... are familiar. Your voice, and that smirk you’re wearing: those particularly, I know I’ve encountered somewhere before.” He stepped closer, slowly, out of respect more than caution. “The rest of you, however, I’m sure I would recall, unless you were wearing an illusion.” There may have been a hint of regret in his voice: regret that he’d missed seeing under that illusion. Surely, he would have tried much harder to persuade the man to accept his offer of a drink. Yes, anyone in the rest of the christian world might be appalled, but Anthony Stark was neither christian nor anyone, and he was fascinated.
The mage’s expression smoothed into a deliberate mask, except for the continued shrewd stare from those blood red eyes, and a single line between his brows indicative that something about Anthony’s response was disconcerting. “Why are you here, if you were unaware of who I am?”
Anthony opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. He hadn’t been able to very satisfactorily explain his sudden need to travel abroad even to his close friends, and the words came no more easily now. He cleared his throat. “I felt a need to travel, roughly a month ago. While abroad, I heard rumor of a ‘cursed mage’ or possibly a demon living near this town. The rumors were interesting, and I chose to pursue them.” He smiled faintly. “I reasoned that if you were dangerous in any demoniac fashion, I would be best able to determine how dangerous and what might need to be done about it. If you were, as I more strongly suspected, actually a mage of some sort, I planned to humbly ask if I might get to know you better.”
The mage’s lips twitched, amused, but still wary. “You wish to learn a bit of more advanced magecraft yourself, of course.”
“Oh yes. My scientific curiosity, where magic is concerned, has always been somewhat insatiable.”
“That insatiability comes with the gift, scientific and intellectual tendencies aside,” the mage said, looking Anthony up and down more thoughtfully now. “Where is your armor, if I might ask?”
“Under a few wards, back at the local inn. It’s a portable version: pretty inconspicuous.” He smiled with a shrug. “I did not come here to fight. If I wanted to fight, I would have stayed home and waited for the next mad villain to appear.”
“Well, you do still appear to be seeking them out.”
“Oh, so you are a villain?”
“And mad, I assure you,” the mage said, but he was smiling now. “I am, however, restricted. I cannot leave this place... physically.” His smile took on a slightly more wicked edge again. “Though I have done some exploratory traveling in other ways; those are not too conducive to getting much done in the villainy department. Mischief, yes, by touching here and there on people’s thoughts, or dropping interesting little suggestions into someone’s dreams, but outright villainy?” He sighed, his mock-exasperation and mock-wistfulness blatant. “None whatsoever.”
“So you are cursed?”
That made the mage’s expression darken a little.
“Insofar as your inability to leave.”
Anthony nodded. “What would break it?”
The mage chuckled, low and cold this time, devoid of actual humor. “If I ‘can recall what it was to feel warmth, and feel it again,’ was the rather vague phrasing,” he scathed, though something in the way he said the words, a slight uneasy quality, suggested he knew precisely what was meant by them. “Peculiar, is it not, given that by blood I am kin to creatures of nothing but ice and frost?”
That rang a bell somewhere, far back in Anthony’s memory. He took another step closer. “Well. I’m human, so essentially I’m kin primarily to fools and killers with the occasional worthwhile genius cropping up here and there in my family tree.” He shook his head a little. “If I may ask, what is your name?”
The mage’s bemused expression once more shifted into amusement, decidedly playful this time. “It has been given to you before.”
“Yes, but in my memory it came with a different face.”
“Only in coloration.”
“Admittedly, that is a bit distracting, but lovely nevertheless.”
At that, the mage’s intended reply fell short, and never arrived. He stared hard at Anthony, as though he suspected the human to have utterly lost his mind. A hint of suspicion crossed his expression. “Just because I am a monster does not mean I am easily charmed with flattery,” he warned.
Well, I do love a challenge, Anthony thought, smiling bright and fierce, backed by the warmth of a forge’s flames. “Duly noted. I’ll have to find other means, then.”
After a long pause, wherein the mage continued to examine his expression with minute attention, as though he were a strange specimen on an examination table, the mage said simply, “You may call me Lyesmthe, for now, Baron Stark.”
Anthony nodded, and stepped closer again, this time bringing himself with arm’s reach of the mage. He proffered a hand.
With that ironic curve to his smile again, Lyesmthe took hold of it in his own.
Cold. Interesting, Anthony thought. Since he had warmed up after his excursion outdoors, the cold was not unpleasant, just a bit unexpected. The mage’s handshake was firm and unhesitant. “You may call me Tony, if you feel at all inclined.”
Releasing his hand, Lyesmthe snorted at the over-personal suggestion. “Lyesmthe is one of the surnames I’ve had, over the years.”
“You’ve had others?”
“Silvertongue,” the mage said, with just a hint of purr.
Anthony felt just a little warmer under the collar than he had a moment ago. He cleared his throat. “Your daughter mentioned something about potentially threatening visitors being locked away or something, and I get the general feeling you weren’t expecting me to be diplomatic upon arrival.”
“Are you requesting I do so, or hoping I won’t?”
Now, Anthony was really fascinated. “Well,” he said brightly. “Your home is considerably finer than the town’s inn, but I would not wish to intrude unduly.”
“Hmm.” The mage looked thoughtful, then half-smiled. “I have not yet decided whether I’m altogether inclined to let you go back to your armor, but I know what might help me to decide. Come along.”
Anthony followed, his eyes lingering on the mage’s waist, legs, and behind a bit more than last time. “You plan to test me?”
“I plan to test you,” Lyesmthe agreed, and led him back down the hall, around the staircase, and through one of the doorways behind it. The stairs there led downward, and were not well lit, but the mage summoned a bit of green flame to aid them. It hovered over the palm of his hand, and he made it look effortless.
“Interesting. That’s precisely the color of burning copper salts.”
Lyesmthe laughed softly and led him on, down a low hall and then up into a larger room with far better light. The air was cold, and the walls rather spartan, but there were long tables, shelves of interesting ingredients, and high windows. It was a workspace, very much like the one Anthony himself had at home, but with alchemy equipment. He was a bit stunned to notice that the mage inexplicably owned two respectable forges.
“Where would you like to begin, Anthony?”
The human smiled at the mage’s minor concession. I’ll get you to call me Tony yet, Lyesmthe. “Anywhere. Everywhere.”
The mage regarded him with an openly intrigued expression this time, hiding far less. “Well, then. Tell me what you know already, and I will see what I might make of it.”
Anthony smiled. “Well. Let’s start basic, then: I know that it all starts with taking one part nothing, and one part of the itch under your skin, and making two parts magic from it. That’s the most basic formula, and it’s possible to get more, but it tends to have side effects; however it is not possible to get any less than that. From there, it’s a matter of shaping it, and persuading it. Light is easy: matter is more tricky. Electricity is harder than light, but easier than fire, which in turn is easier to manipulate than the materials it burns.” He held up a hand, drew a bit of power (some from the air, a little from the reactor in his chest, to keep it simple) and let the cool glow of it settle in his palms, humming gently. “It’s all just taking raw energy, and doing something with it, building with it.” The light snaked up around his hands, his fingers, formed the outline of one of his repulsors, then the smaller outlines of all its constituent parts. With a little more effort, darker lines of blue appeared, tracing out the paths taken by magic and energy through the repulsor. He flexed his hand, and the darker light pooled there, then relaxed, and all of the light expelled upward, mimicking a repulsor-blast and leaving his hand empty. He looked up at Lyesmthe and was surprised to find the mage’s expression rapt.
“Your manipulation of energy is incredibly creative. You’ve taken one of the simplest forms of magic and made complexity of it.” He shook his head, and looked at Anthony’s still-upraised palm. He took hold of Stark’s hand, fingertips thoughtfully trailing over it as the light had, as the energy trails did when he was in flight, or fighting, or both. “You’re off to a fine start, actually. Who taught you?”
“My father. He came up with a lot of the concepts, but... well. He didn’t do what I’ve done with them, or expand them as I have.” He knew from the glance the mage gave him that he’d just revealed something, but didn’t let his expression change.
“Interesting,” Lyesmthe said, beginning to smirk. “Well, at the very least, having an inquiring scientific mind to play host to a while might keep me occupied.”
“Is that an invitation, Lyesmthe?”
“I believe it is.” If there was a trace of surprise in his voice it was clearly aimed at himself. “I never thought I would say this, all things considered, but bring your armor. I can already think of much we could expand upon.”
Anthony grinned brilliantly. “I thank you, most sincerely.” He was almost disappointed when the mage released his hand. “I’ll return shortly, then.” He bowed, not even perturbed when the shade returned to his peripheral vision.
Then Lyesmthe watched his shade lead the Man of Iron from his prison, and wondered how much of his interest was mischief, tricking the man and learning his secrets, and how much of it was this other more dangerous impulse: something that felt foreign, made his skin prickle and something between fear and fascination well up within him. It had gotten worse, when he had observed that unexpected flash of genius in the human’s palm, and then gotten the absurd idea that touching that hand was necessary.
It had been a few years now, since first Loki Lyesmthe had become so chilled to the bone by self-resentment, and all of the madness he had garnered from his fall into the void. He had been sincere, when telling his brother I remember a shadow. There was faint memory of what he had been before, and felt before, and he knew that words like warmth and affection used to be familiar to him, and that he had applied them to his kin––adoptive kin. After his fall, not even the sweltering heat of the forge could reach him, let alone less tangible warmth such as love. Not even after he and Odin had spent months tearing each other apart with words and accusations, and at last Loki’s mind had begun to heal, and those burnt bridges between himself and his parents had begun to rebuild; however, even now, all that he felt for his family was merely a dull ache: the ghost of warmth.
Anthony Stark’s hand had, for a moment, felt disconcertingly like something other than cold.
Cursing himself for an absurd fool, Loki rebuilt some of his recently cracked composure. Hel had visited to inform him that she had found no way to release Odin’s magic, which bound him to all of this stone: bound a creature of magic, fire, and ice to a mere stone building. If anything, she had just condemned him to an eternity here.
What Odin wanted of him, Loki was as much reluctant to fix as he was incapable of fixing it. If it hurt now, that dull bone-deep ache of what had once been affection, then he was half-afraid it might kill him should he warm back up again. The thaw would turn a barrier of numbing ice into nothing, leaving those open wounds to bleed, and pain to splinter through nerves, synapses, emotions and his mind itself.
If the fire of a forge couldn’t thaw him, Loki saw no reason why a human who spent so much time staring into those fires should be any different.
He flexed his hands, and the strange, uncomfortable sensation faded. Perhaps when Stark returned, and had settled into a guest room, would be the best time for the big reveal. Best to stop the charade there, before Stark’s flirtation went any further. Loki determinedly did not think about how returning that flirtation hadn’t actually been the plan. Surely, he reasoned, that impulse had come from mischief, nothing more.
Anthony decided to simplify matters, so he thought, by packing up most of his clothing, including his cloak, and returning to castle by air, in his armor. He hadn’t anticipated the difficulty breathing when he landed, or the dizziness. “Off, fold, conceal,” he commanded, with a flicker of his gift. The armor obeyed, as it always did, and once more appeared to be naught more than a travel chest. Tony sat on it heavily, running a hand through his hair.
Not good, he thought, tasting minerals and rare metals and smoke on his tongue. I shouldn’t have to replace that new core so soon. He got to his feet as soon as he saw one of the shades, which was soon joined by another, and gestured toward the two trunks and the trunk-shaped, neatly folded armor resting in the snow.
One of the shades appeared female, and smiled a deceptively reassuring smile. “Our master awaits you in the dining room.”
“Oh.” Anthony smiled, glad he’d changed into more respectable garb before donning the suit. “Thank you. Where is that?”
The male-shaped one gave him succinct directions, and Anthony followed them. The mage greeted him politely, and led him through the door. The dining room was somewhat informal, with a single round table that would hardly seat more than six people, but then, Lyesmthe didn’t seem to have a dearth of visitors, except... “Where did... ah. I didn’t catch her name: your daughter?”
“Her name is Hela,” Lyesmthe said. “She had no intention of staying long, as she leads a terribly busy life, but she had some news for me.” He shook his head a little.
Anthony, meanwhile, had frozen stock-still. That name rang one or two very strange bells. “Hela?”
“Yes. You’ve heard of her from my brother, I’m sure. She’s his favorite niece.”
After a few moments of processing, it sunk in. “Ah.” Lie-smith. Obvious, really. And the eyes, he mused. “I’d wondered what happened to you.”
Loki smiled. “Good to have you on the same page.”
“Why tell me now?” Because really, that could’ve gone on a while.
The god of mischief shrugged. “It’s an old game, and while occasionally refreshing, it is also inherently limiting.”
Anthony had a feeling there was more to it, but now he was looking at ‘Lyesmthe’ a bit more closely, rethinking the reactions he’d gotten in their earlier conversation. The word warmth came to mind, though he wasn’t sure why. “So you’re banished here, then, effectively speaking.”
“Yes.” Loki took a sip of his wine, his expression masked.
By that point, Anthony was recalling Loki’s voice in another context, sounding strained to the point of exhaustion, but stubborn and unyielding: I would not give this to you. Not any of you. “And you’ve stopped wearing the illusion.”
Loki shrugged, but his shoulders were a bit more stiff. “I saw no reason to continue.”
Anthony considered that, recalled hearing: It did not used to be illusion. “But you didn’t always need the illusion.” If I ‘can recall what it was to feel warmth, and feel it again...’
“Your memory has remained sharp, I see.”
“A bit.” He offered a half-smile, but his eyes were sharp and intent. He recalled Thor’s explanation of Loki’s fall, into the void, and thought about how much more Loki must have seen of it than he himself had, and for how long. “Did time pass relatively quick for you, when you fell?”
The god of lies’ eyes darkened. “Not quick enough. You glimpsed it for less than two minutes, as I recall. How quick did time pass for you?”
Anthony managed not to cringe too obviously, though he knew a muscle in his jaw visibly twitched. “Not quick enough,” he concurred, and picked up his own glass. “You still want to see the armor?”
Loki arched an eyebrow, but there was a hint of a smirk there. “Yes.”
“You said you would teach me a few things, and I’ll hold you to that,” Anthony said firmly.
The god of mischief smiled at that. “I’ll be most interested to see if you can.”
Anthony grinned outright, calling himself a fool even as he did so. He knew himself a fool, knew himself to be reckless. It hadn’t stopped him before. Now, with a pain in his chest and the taste of burning palladium on his tongue, he was contemplating his own mortality. And if he was going to go down, why not do so spectacularly: why not go down in flames, or in a spectacle of ice and lies?
After that night, and a fresh core for the reactor, Anthony actually quite lost track of such heavy thoughts concerning his imminent death. His head was full of formulae, and translating the shapes of his own language, his own magic and its three-dimensional vocabulary, for Loki, who in turn taught him others. There were many, many others, and Loki seemed to know most of them. Given that the god of mischief was quite possibly older than Christianity, Anthony supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was: constantly.
And Loki seemed equally fascinated with Anthony’s own improvised versions, so different, and so much more mathematical than most of the snaking, interweaving structures he was more familiar with.
“I’ve not seen structures like this except in some of Odin’s more obscure studies.” He shot Anthony an amused glance. “Intriguingly, some of them to do with the tesseract.”
“Well of course. It’s all power, really, of a highly adaptable form,” Anthony mused.
And Loki had smiling at him in a wicked, frankly dazzling way that’d made the human’s breath catch imperceptibly. That kept happening, with increasing frequency.
They spent mornings quietly, usually, unless one or the other of them got caught up with a particular idea: something new they wanted to try. By noon, they were usually arguing about something like theoretical mathematics or the nature of geometry in other dimensions, and after lunch they tended to put theories to practice, in efforts to prove their respective points. Loki was usually right, but only by about a fifteen percent margin, which Anthony was actually a bit smug about, given how much longer Loki had been in practice. By the evenings, they were talking applications, sometimes even making them.
Two weeks in, and Loki even fired up one of the forges, and Anthony showed him where metallurgy and mathematics-heavy magic theory could meet in a complimentary fashion. Red-hot metal and silver-blue streaks of magic intertwined, taking up all of Anthony’s attention, to the exclusion of all else, until he felt a cold hand on one forearm, and saw––and felt––something alter it, making the lines less sharp, more intricate.
“What is that?” he panted.
“Watch,” Loki responded, close to his ear.
Anthony shivered, and unconsciously moved a bit closer to the pleasant pocket of cool air that the god of mischief always seemed to give off. It was a relief, compared to the sweltering heat of the fire. Loki’s magic caught on his, guided it, and Anthony found the steps both foreign and familiar. “You’re tempering the metal, folding it without even having to move it.”
A laugh, still close to his hear: cool and lovely. “Yes,” he said, sounding surprised. “I learned a few such tricks in Dvergarheim. You catch on fast.”
“I did try to mention that.”
“Having Thor as a sibling, I have long learned to disregard most warriors’ boasting.”
“You shouldn’t disregard mine,” Anthony said, grinning wide. “I’m not exactly all warrior, you might’ve noticed.”
“I had, yes,” Loki said, sounding thoughtful, even as he moved away a little.
Anthony hissed. “No, come back, it’s boiling over here.”
Loki laughed. “Is it really?”
The human shook his head a bit, and shot him a look. The smile on Loki’s face was disconcertingly beautiful: firelight and mockery and sincere delight. Anthony swallowed tightly, then laughed to cover it. “Get back over here,” he insisted. To his surprise, while Loki did laugh at him, he also obliged, this time standing closer, his chest brushing one shoulder blade while his arm draped over his back, settling a hand on Anthony’s opposite shoulder. Anthony let out a long breath of relief and just barely resisted the urge to lean back against him. He forced himself not to think of how good an embrace from the god of mischief might feel, for a variety of reasons. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem,” Loki murmured. “Now, where were we?”
“Here, I think.” A breath, a twist of that force just outside himself that at the same time always hummed through his bones. Magic was like that.
“Yes, of course. And here.” Loki’s rejoined his, and they continued to weave.
After that, Anthony had started catching himself staring, rather more than was decent, and furthermore it had gotten just unsubtle enough that he knew the god of mischief had already noticed, probably before Anthony himself had. He managed to keep it in check for the first few days of his third week there, but managed it mostly because something rather startling happened that distracted them both for a while.
The knocking on the main door was startlingly loud as it echoed down the hall into the library the morning of Anthony’s seventeenth day there. (Yes, he had been counting. No, it didn’t mean anything. At least, so Anthony told himself.) Anthony jumped like a startled cat. Loki didn’t, but he did appear uncomfortably surprised, and irritated, and like he might soon become more prone to violence than he’d been so far. He even growled, which was both intriguing and probably a bad sign.
“Expecting company?” Anthony asked lightly.
Loki took a deep breath, eyes narrowing in the general direction of the front of his house. “I wasn’t. Particularly not this company.” He shook his head, and donned the old illusion for the first time in months: pale skin, green eyes. Of all people, Thor would not see him like that; numbed and icy though his emotional state may be, Loki still had no desire to see the inevitable mixture of hurt, pity and concern on Thor’s face. He determinedly did not glance at Anthony when he said, “It’s my brother. I recommend you decide now whether you want to answer any deeply awkward questions he will doubtlessly ask, like the ridiculously persistent optimist he is,” and stalked out of the room.
It occurred to Anthony, after few moments’ staring, caught up in thoughts about illusions and Thor and their chat about understanding being a necessary thing, that Loki had just offered to let him keep his stay here as secret as he wanted it to be. That was... strange, for some reason. Polite, and yet also a bit inexplicably disappointing. Then Anthony winced a little as he heard Thor enthusiastically greet his brother, and Loki’s almost-shrill response, “If you touch me I will scorch your flesh with frostbite.”
Things quieted a bit after that, their voices lower. Anthony resisted the urge to eavesdrop, but only for about ten seconds. Then he began to walk slowly down the hall.
“I’m sorry, I simply––I had never expected to find you here, Loki.”
“Yes, well, my hopes that you were right are now sadly dashed.”
Thor sighed, a bit exasperated this time. “I know you’re not exactly fond of my conversational nuances, but you could at least be marginally polite.”
A pause. “I dislike being interrupted.”
“What were you doing?”
“Entertaining a guest, is all,” Anthony supplied, stepping into the main room.
Loki shot him a genuinely shocked look, but not half so shocked as Thor’s.
“Anthony!” he boomed, sounding a bit startled. “What are you doing here?”
Anthony shrugged with his most carefree smile. “Oh, you know. Studying abroad.”
“Studying?” Thor sounded utterly at a loss.
“Stark has something of the gift, and a very talented mind,” Loki supplied, meeting his brother’s eye with an entirely masked expression. “He is my guest and, I suppose, an apprentice of sorts.” He shot Anthony an appraising look. “Though given we debate more than I actively teach, I suppose that’s questionable.”
Anthony blinked. He had sort of assumed that Loki had enjoyed their discussions, and gotten some amusement out of humoring his questions and theories, but it was somehow different, hearing him tell Thor as much, in that casually subversive matter-of-fact manner. “Loki’s been terribly patient with me, really.”
The god of mischief snorted. “Well, you need to learn it from somewhere,” he said, then turned back to his brother. “And I don’t think being on a team of heroes with you was likely a place where patience was practiced too often.”
Thor blinked at him, looking a bit lost.
“That’s accurate, actually,” Tony mused, smiling a bit.
Thor looked straight at Anthony for a long, searching moment, then back at his brother, eyebrows raised.
Loki’s lips thinned and his eyes went blood red for a fleeting moment. He then shook his head firmly.
At that, Thor looked at once slightly relieved, and infinitely more baffled.
“Would you care for lunch, Thor?” Loki offered, after a long pause.
“Yes, I believe I would.”
He glanced questioningly at Anthony, silently asking, do you need an excuse to leave? It was an offer of a means to escape Thor.
Anthony’s spine straightened and his shoulder squared a little. He smiled reassuringly and everything. I’m fine. No need.
“I’ll get the kitchen started on it, then. Thor, keep out of the library, but you’re welcome to the garden. Anthony, feel free to ignore my brother.” He stepped away, then, vanishing in a kitchen-ward direction.
Anthony watched him with a mixture of curiosity and some mild puzzlement of his own. “Thor?”
“Your brother is odd,” Anthony said, though he smiled as he said it.
Thor returned the smile. “I’m aware, yes. Would you care to join me in the garden? I have... I have one or two questions.”
Anthony nodded. “Of course.”
Anthony actually hadn’t been through the garden, and was easily distracted by it once they stepped outside. Mostly because aside from the garden path Thor walked, there were strange lines about the place, and an itch under Anthony’s skin that told him there was something out there heavily, heavily warded off, somewhere in the maze of trees and hedges. He was startled out of his observations by Thor. This was in no small part because there was one quality that the thunder god possessed which Anthony usually appreciated and disliked by turns; it was that Thor had a tendency to be, in conversation, blunt enough to bludgeon the unwary.
“When you advised me he might require looking for someone who can lure him back out of the dark, Anthony Stark, I had not imagined you would ever volunteer.”
“What?!” Anthony managed, sounding justifiably startled.
Thor shot him an odd look. “That is not your goal then?”
“No! No. Look, I’m not even qualified for that. I’m still in the dark more than half the time, when it comes to––that’s not why I’m here, and that’s not my intention.” He cleared his throat. “Honestly, it doesn’t seem like he needs it, really.”
“Out of the cold, then,” Thor murmured.
“What is with the warmth versus cold thing? He mentioned the curse, but... Well, he explained the terms and conditions of banishment versus redemption, anyway. Same difference.”
Thor hesitated. “The face my brother wears, of late, is an illusion.”
Anthony didn’t say I know. He had a feeling it would only hurt Thor’s feelings a great deal, which was a bit unfair.
“Beneath it, as my father explained, though he has never shown it to me, he appears as a Jotun. By human standards: monstrous, in some ways.”
Anthony made a face. Debatable, he thought. “I sort of got that gist.”
Thor again shot him an odd look, but continued. “Frost giants only wear their more frightful appearance defensively––when exposed to extreme cold, or when they intend to fight; they otherwise are taller than most Aesir, but otherwise not much more remarkable in appearance. Thus, in the past, he retained his more human appearance because of a number of factors, all of them to do with warmth. Asgard is considerably more temperate than Jotunheim. He was also loved, and felt love in return. After finding out his true nature, and not long after, falling as he did, something changed beyond mine and my father’s ability to resolve. He does not want to feel warmth again, though he resents his appearance while he does not. My father believes he is afraid.”
“You lost me a bit with the change you’re talking about.”
“It’s not only his exterior which is cold, Anthony Stark. He only dimly recalls what any warmer sensations felt like: love, compassion, and affection among them. While he remains so frozen, he cannot but hurt others around him, accidentally or otherwise.”
Anthony frowned a bit at that. “Well. He has yet to hurt me.” A pause. “Other than the time he threw me out a window, but that was years ago.”
“You are an unusually resilient creature, however. Most others are less so.”
“In some ways, I think so. Loki is more than capable of wounding me, and remains openly hostile, as you might have noticed.”
“Well, big guy, you’re still not meeting him on his own terms, really.”
Thor glared at him. “Really?”
“Don’t love just blindly; not when dealing with kin, or childhood friends. They see right through you.” Anthony shrugged. “And since he’s your younger brother, your attempts to embrace him comfortingly instead of fight are something he might still be offended by. To treat someone as your equal is to acknowledge that they can be a threat to you, and that threats from them are valid.”
“You speak as though from experience, Stark.”
Anthony made a face. “I know what it’s like to have someone I looked up to never take me seriously.” A snort. “Not while he was alive, anyway.”
Thor gave him a long, searching look. “What is your opinion of my brother, Anthony? Your honest opinion.”
He’s beautiful, came to mind first, and Anthony nearly bit his tongue. He cleared his throat, and sifted through his own thoughts looking for other viable options. He keeps smiling at me now and then in a way that makes me want to lick his mouth, and then of course spend some time licking the rest of him, was decidedly not going to work either. Focus, Tony, focus. “He’s not half so insane as when I first met him. I can see him mirthfully causing chaos and mischief, yes, but I think he’s more exasperated toward you that actively homicidal these days. I think that killing someone wouldn’t bother him overmuch, but I think he’s clear-headed enough to realize that doing so haphazardly––with, for example, an army of beings from another world––is both messy and ultimately more trouble than it’s worth. I think that...” He dragged his teeth across his lower lip. “I think that he’s probably eavesdropping on this entire conversation with one of his shades, now that I think of it.” He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye, cat shaped, but it didn’t move quite like a cat. Anthony smirked.
Thor was still staring at him.
The Man of Iron stared back. “Look, when I showed up in town, I was following rumors about a mage, who was maybe cursed or a demon or something. I don’t know magic the way the old mages did, or the way mages in Asgard still do, so I was more than a little curious. I showed up, and I––” Well, no getting around this now. “Honestly, I didn’t recognize him at first, for reasons I’m sure might be obvious.” He cleared his throat.
Thor’s eyebrows raised, though there was a hint of pain at the edges of his expression. He nodded for Anthony to continue.
“All I thought was, ‘Oh, that explains it, he’s not human.’ And I shrugged it off because, well, I wasn’t bothered by that. You’re not human, Bruce is questionably human, Captain Mar-vell is decidedly not human.” He shrugged to illustrate. “So I went ahead and asked for magic lessons, didn’t I? Then we spoke over dinner, I quietly realized who I was talking to, and that didn’t really change my mind either.”
Thor snorted, amused. “You’re mad yourself, Anthony Stark.”
“Yes. Are you only catching on to that now?”
“No, no, I suppose not.”
“Well then. You really shouldn’t be that surprised.”
At that, Thor shot him a very odd, disconcertingly knowing look. “I suppose I should not be.” The disconcerting look lingered, now accompanied and intensified by a small smile that was almost smug, which couldn’t be right. “Shall we return inside?”
“Yes.” Anthony felt a bit off-balance. That look was going to haunt him. Thor, of all people, should not be able to wear an expression suggesting he knew something that Anthony Stark did not. “Yes, of course.”
Lunch passed in relative civility, Thor managing to discuss a few scientific matters with relative competence, making Anthony think that that Jane Foster woman Thor had so sorely been pining after was capable of miracles. Loki seemed equally surprised by it, shooting his brother the occasional strange look.
Afterward, Thor left, shaking Anthony’s hand, and his brother’s, looking inexplicably pleased with himself as he went.
Both Anthony and Loki stared after him for a long few moments.
“I believe,” Loki said slowly, dropping the illusion and once more appearing quite blue, “that I am in dire need of a stiff drink.”
“Take me with you,” Anthony pleaded.
“Of course.” He turned on his heel and strolled away.
They wound up sitting on a high-backed wooden bench outside, with a bottle of mead and two cups.
“Do be careful, it’s quite strong,” Loki warned.
“Not originally for human consumption I take it?
The god of mischief smirked. “No,” he said, and drained his cup, then refilled it.
Anthony sipped slowly, and felt his eyebrows raise. “I’m not usually a fan of mead, but this is fantastic.”
“It’s a recipe older than the local religion that’s so popular around here these days. I should hope it’s not been for lack of creativity on the part of Asgard.”
That got him a laugh. “Point taken.”
“How did you know I was listening, earlier?” Loki inquired.
“Because I would’ve done the same thing, given the chance.”
“I think, Anthony,” Loki said, smiling and droll, “that you may be the least virtuous Avenger I have ever met.”
“Of course I am. It’s not all rumors: I’ve more than earned my reputation.”
“What reputation is that?”
Anthony raised his eyebrows. “Ah. I thought you’d heard, for some reason.”
“I did my research by direct observation, not by listening to rumors. I suppose I should have known better,” Loki teased.
“I’m not exactly known for purity, chastity, piousness or any other christian virtue of that sort, let us say,” Anthony explained, in light tones. “It helped that my father explained to me early on why christianity never made sense.” A smirk. “Not a popular opinion, these days, though. That’s not the part I’m actually infamous for.”
“So you believe that you are a hero, but not a good man?”
Loki gave a thoughtful hum, drank a bit more mead. “I respectfully disagree.”
Anthony blinked. “Uhm. Pardon?”
The god of mischief shot him a look. “Are you really surprised?”
“Yes,” Anthony said, without hesitation.
“Well. Perhaps you’re a terrible christian, but as the god of chaos and mischief, I respect no one who isn’t.”
“Fair enough, but-”
“You are more kind than you think. I had not expected it from you,” he said. “You seem to be very talented at overturning my expectations, however.”
Anthony tried to ignore the prickling, slightly embarrassing warmth he felt at that. “I... thank you.”
A not-terribly-uncomfortable pause passed, and they drank.
“Are you really still playing the villain angle, these days?”
Loki snorted. “Honestly?”
“If I can ask that of you, given your title.”
“Well, I’ve been shown virtue by you despite your apparent reputation, I suppose it’s only fair,” the god of lies mused, letting his head tilt back a bit over the back of the bench, his eyes closing so that he was unaware of Anthony staring at the column of his throat and feeling deeply conflicted. “I lack motivation and conviction for villainy these days. Since being exiled here, more often than not, I have merely felt tired. Resigned, even, to simply watching time pass.” He shrugged. “Other than the occasional escape, going for a long walk through the astral plane where I can go wherever I please, I could find very little to interest me. There is simply no plotting to be done. Even if I could leave, I can think of little that might motivate me into action again.”
“You’re not intent on ruling over anyone as a king or anything, then?”
Loki snorted. “That, I can say with certainty, was the insanity talking.” He lifted his head, eyes falling open as he poured them both a bit more mead. “Ruling people by force is only ever a temporary achievement. It’s far more effective to trick them into choosing to be under your control, but doing that on any sort of large scale just isn’t worth the effort. Also, it would require me to care about their wants and desires, in order to cater to them enough to earn their loyalty. Endless work.” He rolled his eyes. “I think I would rather go back to tricking people more artfully, and personally. I used to do a bit of overturning expectations, myself.”
“You still do,” Anthony said simply.
“I wonder, at times. You can be difficult to surprise.”
“No. I’m just good at not letting on.”
“What would it take to genuinely shock you, I wonder?”
Anthony thought of a number of scenarios involving Loki catching him unawares and making him like it shortly thereafter. He cleared his throat. “Are you asking me to challenge you on it?”
“No, no. I’d have no choice but to accept.”
Loki shot him an odd look. “You are a very strange man.”
“And you are a very strange god.”
“Fair enough.” He finished his cup, and poured another.
Anthony was taking his a bit more slowly, now that he could feel a pleasant buzz starting. “If I may ask, what is it in your garden with all of those impressively complex and thorough wards around it?”
Loki, just feeling a buzz enough that the question, for once, didn’t make him angry just to think about, made an exasperated noise. “Odin’s ultimate display of unbridled optimism, concerning my recovery from this recent bout of madness that brought me here.”
Absently, the god of mischief wondered quite why he was reluctant to be direct about this particular thing. Finally, he sighed. “You’re aware why Thor has not asked for Jane Foster’s hand in marriage?”
Anthony blinked. “I, ah, recall it’s something to do with the requirements for making the leap from Midgardian mortal to citizen of Asgard.”
“Yes. She tried, and she failed, to pass a test of courage that Odin laid out for her.”
“Oh, yes, I remember that now. Tragic, really.”
Loki nodded, taking another sip of mead. “Well, her test was an easy feat compared to that one.” He gestured toward the garden with a bitter, self-deprecating smile.
Slowly, it clicked. “Aha.” What was it Thor had said about a mortal capable of bringing about Loki’s recovery? Odin swore that any who did would become an honorary citizen of Asgard. “You consider yourself more tricky than the usual feats of courage?”
“Just conversing with me would be a feat of courage for the average mortal.”
Anthony smiled. “Well, the average mortals tend to miss out on a lot of good things, I’ll concede you that.”
Loki blinked a bit. “Sometimes the things you say puzzle me. It’s unusual by any standard, mortal or otherwise: I’m not easily confused.”
“Well.” Anthony smirked. “At least you’re not bored.”
An oddly troubled look crossed Loki’s face. “No. I suppose I am not.”
A thought occurred to Anthony, dangerous enough to make him bite his tongue preemptively. Less bored, yes: how about less tired? Less resigned? Thinking of Loki’s more brilliant smiles and the irrational, desperate wish he had to see more of them, Anthony very nearly shook his head in an effort to clear it, cursing himself a fool. You’re mortal, lascivious, and dying, he chided mentally. Don’t make it worse by breaking your own heart with hopes like that.
They drank the rest of the mead in silence, and Anthony was left feeling pleasantly floaty. Loki seemed to be scarcely better off, which was a bit impressive. He supposed that a long period of incarceration, among other things, had gotten the god of mischief out of the habit of drinking, and he’d lost some resistance. “I’d like to ask you something,” Anthony said.
Loki’s eyes were shut, and his head was hanging loose over the back of the bench again, making him look both stunning and moderately ridiculous. “Hm?”
“Can I... can I touch your face, actually?”
The god of mischief’s brow furrowed. “What?” He sounded more disbelieving and perplexed than actually offended.
“I’m a naturally curious creature.”
“Don’t humans have a proverb concerning curious creatures?”
“Cats particularly, yes. Luckily, I am not a cat.”
Loki opened one eye and shot him a look, then closed it and shrugged. “Fine.”
Anthony shifted a bit, angling himself toward Loki. He reached out slowly, carefully, and touched the skin between Loki’s cheekbone and temple with two fingertips. Then he slowly traced down around and along the cheekbone, finally getting to find out what those markings felt like: smooth, but slightly firmer than the rest of the skin around them. He noticed Loki’s brow furrow. “Problem?”
“Odd,” Loki said, his voice quiet. He was still more than a bit drunk.
So was Anthony, which is likely why he kept touching, fingertips trailing along Loki’s jawline, pausing to explore the finer markings on his chin.
The god of mischief swallowed silently, but said nothing.
“You are astonishing sometimes,” Anthony murmured, before he could stop himself, pulling his hand away before it got him into further trouble. Surely his judgement was already more than a little impaired; he thought he’d just seen Loki shiver.
The god of mischief’s eyes opened slowly, and there was a troubled look in them. “I think that I had better go inside,” he said, slurring only slightly.
“Likely a good idea.”
Neither of them moved.
“You’re not sure you can walk straight either, are you?”
“Not at all,” Loki agreed.
They both laughed quietly for a few moments.
“Oh, and I thought I was done going mad,” Loki muttered, running his hands over his face a couple of times.
Anthony shot him a look. “What do you mean?”
“It means I must be ten times the fool I thought I was, if I believe...”
Loki shot him a look, and there was something both hesitant and hungry in it. He swallowed tightly. “Nothing,” he said finally. “I’m drunk, clearly.”
“As am I,” Anthony concurred. “I’ll help you walk if you return the favor.”
Together, they managed to make it indoors, but decided jointly that going up the stairs was right out, so they eventually collapsed on separate couches in the library.
And it might have been fine, if Anthony hadn’t snapped out of his doze several hours later to a searing pain in his chest and through his veins, and the taste of burnt palladium on his tongue. His first reaction was to sit up sharply and proceed to swear a great deal in unsteady tones. He heard the sound of a book snapping shut.
“Are you all right?”
Anthony contemplated bluffing, then recalled that the person asking him that question was the god of lies, and he was nowhere near top form where deception was concerned, just at that moment. “Not presently, but I can be shortly. I need to get so some supplies from my trunk.”
Loki stood beside him suddenly, a hand on his face, examining the whites of his eyes, his temperature, and doubtless several other things. “You’re poisoned.”
“Only a bit, and it’s moderately slower than the alternative.”
The god of lies’ lips thinned. “Can you walk?” he asked, calm and almost defensively matter-of-fact.
“I think so.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t blame you.”
When Loki offered him a hand, Anthony accepted it, pulling himself to his feet. “You smell like burnt palladium.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Anthony muttered, and started walking.
Loki allowed him silence to focus, and helped him bodily up the stairs. Once in Anthony’s room, he asked “Which trunk?”
“Red one.” Anthony sat heavily on the bed and began unlacing his tunic, and pulling down the undershirt beneath it.
Loki opened the trunk, seemingly not even noticing the wards or locks that should’ve prevented him, and pulling out a likely-looking leather case. “This?”
“Yes.” Anthony gripped the reactor and carefully turned it, until he heard the click of the release and was able to pull it out. He grimaced at the traces of smoke that brought with it. “Damn,” he muttered, and went to pluck out the bad core.
Loki’s hand stopped him. “You’ll only get burnt that way,” he muttered, and pulled it out himself. The metal squealed slightly with the abrupt temperature change caused by the god of mischief’s freezing touch. Loki place a new core in deftly, but shot Anthony a look forbidding him to put the reactor back just yet. He examined the device closely, eyes narrowed. “This powers the electromagnet in your chest.”
“And your suit.”
“And the palladium in it is slowly poisoning you,” Loki concluded.
“That would be the general idea, yes.”
“You’re an idiot.”
The god of mischief shook his head. “This reactor. Explain briefly how it works.”
Anthony did. It was one of the most complex inventions his father has ever devised, but Howard Stark had never gotten it to work. Anthony had, with nothing but scraps and fierce determination and a flash of brilliance, back when his wounds in that region were all terribly fresh.
To his surprise, Loki grasped all the concepts quickly. “Hmm. You need an alternative element, rather than palladium, for this. A new structure for much of this really. Do you have the equipment to make another?”
“I always do,” Anthony said. “And a spare. Learned the value of that the hard way.”
Loki shot him that unreadable look again. “You’re an idiot,” he repeated.
“For not mentioning this earlier.”
Anthony shook his head, trying to find the words. Not your problem. I should be able to fix this the way I do everything else. I shouldn’t need help.
“Whatever you are about to say,” Loki interrupted, “my answer will remain the same: you, are an idiot. Luckily, you’re an idiot who happens to be living with an Asgardian master of magic, and said master of magic would prefer you alive rather than dead, if at all possible.”
Anthony blinked at that. “How times have changed.”
“Do please shut up,” Loki shot back, long fingers delicately putting the reactor back, turning slowly, until it caught and snapped into place. He looked into Anthony’s eyes for a few more moments. “Well. I say we start work on this, then.”
Anthony nodded. “I––Thank you.”
“For calling me an idiot.”
Loki blinked at that, surprised and wordless.
Anthony shook his head. “I need that now and then.” He stood up, readjusting the laces on his tunic.
The god of lies watched his hands for a few moments, then turned away. “You’re quite welcome.” He walked out.
“Why exactly do you need that electromagnet?” Loki inquired, halfway through their second day of arguing over mechanisms and the structure of different types of matter. Anthony was increasingly sure Loki was right about the atomic theories he kept spouting, but was annoyed at being behind.
“There’s small pieces of metal shrapnel in my blood,” Anthony said simply. “The magnet keeps it from going anywhere more important.”
“May I ask how the shards and the electromagnet each got there?”
“Maybe when we’ve got this worked out, and if you ply me with a bit more of that mead first,” Anthony suggested, smiling in a self-deprecating manner.
It took them several days to build what they needed in order to process the element Loki insisted it was possible to make. He muttered about the bi-frost and having been enlisted as part of his parole for rebuilding parts of it.
“Half the time you actually describe things like that, or Asgard in general, it sounds incredibly mad.”
“Well. We did inspire the religion of numerous Viking tribes, and look how all that turned out.”
Anthony laughed, and further adjusted his section of the accelerator. “If your theories are at all wrong, I hope you know-”
“Those particular theories are older than your species,” Loki shot back. “You’re not the only ones who practice the art of science as well as magic, my dear human.”
“Darling, you’re making me blush.” Loki threw a rag at him such that it landed perfectly across his face. “Rude.”
“As are you. Your point?”
“Fine. Shall we fire this up?”
“Yes. You won’t want to be standing there, though. Come here.”
Standing with Loki, both of them on either side of the main valve they’d need to adjust, Anthony watched the master at work. “Did I ever mention you’re sort of amazing?”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, I may have mentioned.”
“You specified that with appearances––which also applies––but in this particular case, I mean it overall, in general. You’re amazing.”
“You’ll want to watch this.” Loki flexed his fingers and began to bring up the power slowly, filling the room with an unearthly blue glow.
“You’re quite right,” Anthony murmured. “My god.”
“Oh darling, you’re making me blush,” Loki shot back.
“Ass,” Anthony muttered, but he was grinning madly.
“Start on the valve,” Loki said, lingering a while to make sure the power remained constant, then stepping over to help turn the prism. “Steady...”
The beam from the prism struck the opposite wall.
“That appears to be burning.”
“It’s seen worse.”
“You must be joking.”
“I’ve been in this house for some months now, and I am occasionally destructive when bored, you cannot be that surprised.”
“True,” Anthony admitted. Then they both fell silent as the beam struck its target, and shielded their eyes against the glow. Well, Anthony tried to keep glancing back, but Loki firmly placed Anthony’s hand over his eyes.
“That will blind you.” Then, after perhaps two minutes, he darted away, back over to power the whole thing off. “You can look, now.”
Anthony lowered his hand, and stared at the incandescent triangle now laced with a new element previously unknown to human science. “Oh, Reed would be so jealous of this, you have no idea. You are one brilliant son of a bitch.”
Loki beamed at him, breathing hard. Using so much of his own power had been exhausting, and he wouldn’t be doing much, magic-wise, for a couple of days, but that was fine for some reason. The idea of Anthony remaining alive made it fine. Very fine. Loki winced a bit in sudden discomfort, his breath catching. What was that? Something––odd. Foreign. It ached. He shook it off, smiling a bit. “Now, where was that new reactor you built for it? I suppose we should run a few tests...”
“I’m not feeling that patient, honestly.” Anthony glanced up from his examination of the product of their labors. “You?”
“I suppose patience isn’t wholly necessary. Caution might be wise, though.”
“I dunno. If I’d ever been too cautious, I would never have wound up here.”
Loki shook his head. “Fine. Fine.”
Anthony gathered his tools and proffered the new reactor to Loki. “Hold this?”
The god of mischief obliged.
Anthony carefully plucked the triangular, glowing new core, and placed it slowly, gently into the new reactor. After the briefest pause, the whole front of the device began to glow, blue-white and beautiful. “I’ll be damned.” He stood up straight again, hesitating, but only briefly, before he started unlacing his tunic. “Well, then.”
Loki watched him for a moment, then glanced down at the reactor, holding it up a bit. “Fine work on your part. Controlled chaos: energy that should dissipate all over, but instead lingers, and grows.”
“Thank you. I now plan to harass you about everything you know concerning atoms, elements, and all the rest.”
The god of mischief only smiled a little and glanced up in time to watch Anthony remove the previous reactor from his chest in one smooth, practiced gesture. He stared for a moment at the wound, the the metal around it, and wondered. Then Anthony plucked the new reactor from his hands, and installed it in a few deft movements.
“Interesting,” the human murmured, hands humming. The power had a different feel and shape to it, but it was an improvement more than anything else: smoother. And... “Tastes a bit like coconut, and metal.” The glow flashed a bit overly bright for a few moments as he adjusted to the core, and it to him, then slowly dimmed to its more usual level.
Loki looked only a little alarmed. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Anthony said, smiling. “Yes, I am.” He looked up at the god of chaos and felt his breath catch, and he couldn’t even blame that devastating smile this time: it was just Loki, being brilliant and somehow perfect, and... and... Shit, I’m in trouble. Now he might actually live longer than another week, and that somehow deepened the want he’d already been struggling to cope with lately.
“I’m glad,” Loki said. “Now, you mentioned mead?”
“Yes. For celebration this time, rather than necessity.”
And there was the devastating smile just to add insult to injury. “Of course.” He stepped away, and headed for the door. Anthony followed, feeling like this might be the time to run away, but knowing full well he wouldn’t make it two feet past the front door.
That night, they celebrated, and Loki restrained his urge to ask unpleasant questions. Instead they mocked each other at length, and fell asleep in odd and slightly inexplicable places at opposite ends of the house.
A few days later, however, he set another bottle on the table and said simply, “You’re not the only one with innate and inexorable curiosity.”
And so Anthony told him all of it: the weapons, Yinsen, and the betrayal closer to home. He told the story with a marginally steady voice even, thought the barbs and torn edges of anger were there to keep him focused, keep him too defiant to focus on hurt. Loki watched, and listened, and felt that sensation again: like something in him cracked, and it hurt. Not a dull ache, but something sharp as shards of glass.
Feeling a bit more sober than his level of intoxication altogether merited, Loki guided Anthony to bed that night, watched him sleep for a few moments, and left with more reluctance than he would admit. He stood in the hall for a few minutes trying to diagnose his own ills, but finding his thoughts interrupted by images, by things he’d heard Anthony say over the past weeks. It was all overriding his attempts to be careful and logical.
He felt cracked open. And Anthony’s arm across his shoulders as they’d both stumbled up the stairs––had felt strange. Loki was determined to refer to it as merely strange, because even in his own mind, suggesting the strangeness might have been due to an absence of cold seemed impossible. “That way madness lies,” it seemed to say, but then, madness seemed to suit Anthony well enough.
Loki silently acknowledged that he would prefer to have Anthony with that unique madness of his than without. Then his eyes widened as he realized his mistake. You don’t have him. He’s borrowed. Everyone is.
That thought made the cracking sensation feel worse.
After a few further minutes of futile effort at resisting the inevitable realization, Loki exhaled a long ragged breath and admitted to himself, privately at least, that he was a stubborn and utterly ridiculous fool for not coming to this conclusion far earlier. I don’t have him. But I want to. Oh, how I want to. He took a deep breath, walked away to his own rooms, clinging to cold for comfort until at last he could sleep.
The god of mischief managed to behave normally for the first two thirds of the next day before it became an effort not to break from their usual habits in favor of matters decidedly less decent. By early evening, Anthony was quite certain that he was going to go mad if Loki didn’t stop being unflappable at him as he’d been for the past two hours. Finally, he asked, with sharpness as well as concern, “Are you all right, Loki?”
Loki considered for a long moment, too long really. “I’m not certain, actually.”
Anthony blinked at him. “That’s... new.”
“Well, relatively. The cause for the abnormal upswing in uncertainty is new.” His lips thinned as he tried and failed to find a means of deflecting this line of inquiry. That could only mean that on some level, he wanted the inquiry pursued. Loki silently cursed himself for it all the same.
“What is the cause, exactly?”
The god of mischief looked up at him with an expression that was trying to mask a bit more than it could manage. “You.”
“Not you or any recent actions of yours particularly––but...” He hesitated, eyes darkening a little. “I want you.”
Anthony froze, waiting for the punchline, or the edge of surreality that might indicate this to be a dream. “Say that again?”
“I said, Tony, that I want you,” Loki repeated slowly.
“That is a factor, yes, but not the entirety.”
“That... I suppose that is what I thought you meant.” Anthony swallowed tightly. “Well. I’m not at all averse to that. I am, in fact, willing to encourage this. A lot.”
Loki stood up slowly, stepped closer, leaned in, resting his hand on the couch beside Anthony’s thigh, and said, “You’re certain about that?” His voice was low, with an edge of something half-terrified, half-hungry.
“Well,” Anthony managed, his voice uneven and his pupils wide and dark. “I’ve been trying and failing to not be in love with you for at least two weeks, one of which I was fully aware of.”
Loki’s eyes widened, and he felt that cracking sensation again: louder this time. “What?”
“Please,” Anthony said. “I just...” He leaned closer, tentatively curled a hand around the back of Loki’s neck and tugged him in. “Please, Loki,” he said, a desperate sound. He wanted this, wanted to feel Loki break apart, and wanted to let the god of mischief break him.
“Yes,” Loki breathed and caught Anthony’s lips with his own. He startled slightly at the feel of it: foreign, almost scorching. Shuddering as it melted him from the inside out, he deepened the kiss, while his free hand gripped Anthony’s tunic tightening until his knuckles whitened. Anthony gasped into his mouth at the slow change: from glacier to furnace. The resulting dizziness that came with the rush of heat startled the got of mischief faintly, made him feel as though he were falling, until Anthony’s arms around his waist pulled Loki further onto the couch and he all but straddled the human’s lap.
Loki only broke away when it occurred to him that he hadn’t managed to draw breath for quite some time. He felt Anthony’s mouth move to his neck and made a low, hungry sound in response, shaking slightly as he readjusted to having a body temperature above freezing: the pins an needles only now beginning to fade. When his arms began to shake a bit too violently––exacerbated by Anthony’s mouth on his neck, and those wandering hands––Loki seized the human’s hips, then, and shifted them until Anthony lay flat on under him, along the full length of the couch, with Loki draped over him like a narrow, long-limbed blanket. He rolled his hips a little for good measure and grinned when he felt Anthony shudder.
“God, Loki,” Anthony gasped, his head falling back and his legs parting, letting the god of mischief settle between them.
Loki dipped his head, and bit at his exposed throat. “I like you this way.”
“H-how is that?”
“Hmm.” Loki smiled, and it only widened when he felt Anthony’s breath catch at the feel of it against his skin. “Breaking, even while you’re breaking me.”
Anthony made breathless, slightly strangled sound as the god of mischief rolled his hips again. “Fuck.”
“That’s the idea, I believe.”
“I’m fine with that. Very fine. Very, very fine.” He ran his hands up Loki’s sides, under his jacket so he could tug his under-shirt free and get his hands on the bare skin beneath. His breathing only got a bit more uneven when he felt Loki shaking, shaking against him and under his hands. “You all right?”
“More than,” Loki rasped, and caught his mouth again.
From there it was laces and the removal thereof, and warmth between both of them, and friction, and Loki making truly indecent sounds, only to draw even more embarrassing ones from Anthony soon after. Mouths, hands, and heavy breathing. Anthony fell apart, and regained himself long enough to make sure he tasted Loki’s broken, shuddering cry of completion on his tongue not too long after.
As the sun set outside, they lingered on the couch, breathing each other in.
“I meant it,” Anthony said. “And I mean it.”
“I knew I’d get you to call me that.”
Loki huffed a laugh, his breath only a little cool against Anthony’s neck. “You’ve broken me.”
“No. Thawed a little, that’s all.”
“Yes.” Loki nuzzled closer. “And I’d like to keep that.”
“You, and your ability to do this to me.”
“I’m just saying, if you’re of a similar mind...” He placed a kiss on Anthony’s throat. “Well, apparently there’s a small tree in my garden with something to offer you, to that end.”
Anthony closed his eyes. “Yes. Yes, I would like that.”
In the morning light, Anthony could better appreciate seeing those gorgeous green eyes again, now that they weren’t illusion. The fact they were alight with something like laughter, and that he’d been the one to put it there, was enough to have him grinning like a lunatic.
The wards in the garden opened for them, and Loki led him to the center of the garden maze, his hand in Anthony’s, fingers entwined.
The tree was small, relatively young, with only two apples hanging from its branches, each one with skin of pure gold. Loki pulled Anthony closer. “Pick one,” he whispered. “If you’re certain.”
Not even looking away from Loki’s face, Anthony reached up and plucked one. “I am. Are you?”
“It’s been some time since I had one of these,” Loki murmured, and plucked the second one for himself. He held it up to the light for a moment, smiling oddly. “Those damned optimists.”
“They’re going to think I owe them for this.”
Anthony laughed, and took a bite from the apple, feeling a faint tremor though his nerves from it: warm and tingling. As an added bonus, it tasted fantastic. “Well, frankly I’m willing to play arrogant and act like they owe me just to be contrary.”
“I knew there had to be a reason I liked you,” Loki murmured.
“Well, that was only the one reason.” The god of mischief bit into his own. “Now I have more than I can count, and I’m actively in love with you.”
Anthony smiled so wide his face hurt. “Well good. We’re a matched set then.”
They left nothing: no seeds, no cores. And they both jumped at the sudden noise from overhead. “Oh,” Loki said, eyes a bit wide. “Well. That was quick.”
“Tony, allow me to introduce you to the rainbow bridge.”
Loki gestured sharply, just before they were drawn up, an it wasn’t until they landed at the other side that Anthony noticed the resulting change in his wardrobe. “What am I wearing?”
“It seems to involve a good deal of metal and leather.”
Loki grinned sheepishly. “Yes, well. Welcome to Asgard.”
“I had not expected to see you so soon, Loki,” said a low, rumbling voice from just behind them.
Anthony turned and blinked a bit. Well, he’d heard Heimdall mentioned, but had to admit the god was much more intimidating in person. The look Loki shot him was annoyed.
“Your overwhelming confidence in me warms the very cockles of my heart,” Loki scathed.
Anthony elbowed him lightly.
“My apologies,” the god of mischief recovered quickly. “Heimdall, meet Baron Anthony Stark. Anthony, this is Heimdall, Asgard’s all-seeing and possibly all-hearing gatekeeper.” He smiled unpleasantly. “At least in theory.”
“Welcome to Asgard, Anthony Stark.”
“Thank you. I think.”
Loki gripped his arm and gently steered him out of the main chamber of the repaired bi-frost.
“I get the feeling that you don’t get on with him.”
“I may have encased him in ice at one point. While conducting something a bit like treason,” Loki admitted, coming to a halt and frowning a bit at the lack of horses. “I suppose we’ll have to take the quicker route after all.” He’d honestly hoped for a bit more time to get his bearings.
“Quicker than that?” Anthony gestured over his shoulder.
“Yes, but it doesn’t manage quite the same sort of distance,” Loki admitted.
Anthony paused for long moment, taking in the sight of the distant, gleaming city, the strange stars overhead, and Loki standing there looking stubborn and deeply nervous at the same time. He stepped closer, grabbed hold of Loki’s collar and pulled down for a slow, unhurried kiss. “Stop worrying,” he said, when it broke.
“Yes. It’s very strange,” Anthony returned, smiling fiercely. “Come on. Let’s go cause a scandal.”
Loki’s shoulders relaxed and he settled his arms around Tony’s waist. “I like your plan. Anything specific in mind?”
Anthony shrugged. “I’m sure we can improvise.”
“I think you’re right,” Loki said, and they vanished in a puff of green smoke.