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Counterpoint

Chapter Text

The story of how and why Antony Stark left home began, as these tales often do, with a long string of coincidences culminating in a fight. To begin, Tony was hardly old enough to care that the war against the Dutch had ended some months earlier, let alone spend any time in thought over how the Kingdom of Denmark figured into this war in the first place. It was none of Tony’s doing that a wealthy Danish trade merchant by the name of Otto Asgersen slipped in a gutter during a visit to London and twisted his foot. Tony was likewise in no way involved in the decision to take the merchant to see Doctor Stark, Tony’s father, about the injury. And Tony was not even at home when the merchant’s son Søren was caught in a scandalous position in one of the upstairs bedrooms with Jessy, the cook’s girl.

He was, though, entirely to blame for defending Jessy’s honor by way of striking Søren square in the eye. And that is how the whole mess started.

At the time of the fight, Søren was sixteen years old and already bigger and taller than most men twice his age. With his long golden hair and the beginnings of a beard, he could have been a Viking warrior straight out of Scandinavian legend, albeit one stuffed into a French-cut suit of deep red velvet with too many frills at his collar and cuffs. Then there was Tony Stark: his complete opposite. Wearing drab school clothes, Tony was small and skinny with unruly black hair and eyes like a wild animal, and had only recently celebrated his thirteenth birthday.

No part of this obvious physical disadvantage stopped Tony from swinging his arm as high as it would go and striking Søren hard enough to blacken the idiot’s eye. He was, after all, in love with Jessy. And people do foolish things in the name of love.

Unfortunately, people do even worse things in the name of anger. Søren the Viking had quick fists, and both of them connected with Tony’s ribs, one after the other, knocking him breathless. Tony collapsed to the floor, where Søren’s fine Venetian shoe introduced itself to his gut. Twice. Søren spat something vicious in his own language, Tony groaned and tried not to vomit while clutching his middle, and both of them probably would have then gone their separate ways then to lick their wounds and sulk privately if not for yet another coincidence.

Søren’s younger brother, Nils, had seen the whole thing from his vantage point of hovering in the shadows of the doorway. It was Nils who told his father about the fight, who in turn told Doctor Stark. So in fact, if Tony wanted to be precise in placing the blame for his banishment, he could throw it over the bony, cat-like shoulders of Nils Asgersen.

This is the most straightforward explanation of what happened: Otto Asgersen, embarrassed one time too many by his reckless son’s behavior, ordered Søren and Nils both to return to their mother in Copenhagen on the next available ship in three days’ time. Doctor Stark, not wanting to appear soft in the face of dishonor, gave Tony a choice.

ooo

“Ireland or France!” Tony groaned into his sleeve. He was trying to sound pathetic and pitiable, but his best friend, Harry Hogan, an orphan who ran errands and deliveries for Doctor Stark, did not seem to care. Harry just looked at him with a slight frown on his round face. “He says I need to learn responsibility and maturity, and I need to go learn it abroad! Ireland! Can you imagine? He wants to send me to my uncle Edward in Ireland! I’d die!”

Harry shrugged. “Your family’s Irish. So was mine.”

“Yes, but we were born here! We’re English! Nobody English ever goes to Ireland on purpose! It’s where the King sends you if you’ve done something horrible, but not horrible enough to go to Virginia!”

“Hm,” grunted Harry, and that was all.

“And France!” Tony continued. “That’s almost as bad!”

“Your mother was French,” Harry offered unhelpfully.

“Well yes, obviously, if her family lives in Paris! But I’m not French! I can’t go to France!”

“At least you’re getting the chance to do something with your life. If you go to Paris you can study at the university and make something of yourself. You could learn medicine and sciences... Meanwhile I’ll be stuck here until I die. Being poor.”

“Sorry,” Tony mumbled. He cringed a little at his selfishness, but to be honest it was difficult to feel sorry for Harry the orphan when he was so busy feeling sorry for himself. “Do you want to come to France with me?”

“Why would I go to France?”

“Because we’re friends?” said Tony. “If I have to go to France, I’m not going alone. You should come with me. We can say I’m a wealthy gentleman, and you can be my valet.”

Harry looked less than thrilled at that, but really, Tony thought, how picky could he be? If the options were between going to France and being a gentleman’s valet and staying in London and being an orphan who ran errands, well, the best choice seemed obvious. “I’ll teach you everything I learn,” Tony added as an incentive. “If I finish my schooling and attend the university in Paris, I’ll share everything with you so you can get a good education, too. I can teach you how to read-”

“I know how to read,” said Harry.

“A little. I can teach you how to read everything, even long words and Latin. And how to figure sums, and rhetoric and discourse, and nobody’ll even know you’re not from a good family yourself. You can make up a new identity. We can both make up new identities! Come on, Harry! France will be far less awful if you’re there with me.”

“You’ve decided on France, then?”

Yes, it was sounding that way. France. Paris. His mother’s side of the family and cousins he had never met. Those were the thoughts that occupied Tony’s mind as he lay in bed that night wondering what in the world would happen to him. What would France be like? What would the city be like? And the food? And his aunt, whose name he remembered as being something dreadful like Albertine the few times his father mentioned her? He knew she had three children, all older than he was: two girls and a boy. Would they be kind, or at least tolerable, or disappointingly French? The oldest girl was named Marianne, after his mother, who left for England with Tony’s father only days before the namesake was born. He remembered that. The other two... Only God knew.

He got up in the morning feeling cloudy-headed and exhausted and wondering if he even slept at all in that long night of tossing and turning. France. He would go to France. He would learn to speak French, and go to school in French, and grow up in French, and probably even find his calling in life and get married and have children and live to the end of his days all in French. Maybe, as Harry said, he would go to university and become a doctor like his father (in French). Or maybe he would do something completely irresponsible and run off and become a pirate.

As he made his way downstairs, the sounds of wispy music floated up to meet him from the parlour. Somebody was playing the harpsichord. His mother’s harpsichord, he sharply realized: a dusty old instrument that had seen barely any use in the past few years since her death. It was meant to be left alone, and now whoever was playing it – and playing it badly, judging by the cacophonous sound – was intruding on her peace. Tony’s anger rose up once again in the heat of blood rushing to his head, and he jumped down the last two steps.

“Hey!” he shouted, rounding the corner to see who was at fault.

On the harpsichord bench, Nils Asgersen slowly turned around with a foul look on his pale, foreign face.

“You shouldn’t be playing that!” Tony snapped. “It’s my mother’s!”

“I can hardly play it anyhow,” Nils replied. “It’s terribly out of tune.”

“No it isn’t!”

Nils snorted. “Yes. It is. Listen.” He pounded out three jarring, dissonant chords, all sounding worse than a cat running over the keyboard. “Those are supposed to sound like music, not noise.”

“You just don’t know how to play it.”

“I know better than you.”

“No you don’t!”

“Oh?” said Nils, eyebrow rising. “You think you can do better?”

Tony hadn’t played in years. He had taken lessons when he was much younger, until he was eight, but there was no reason why he couldn’t still remember a few chords and scales if he thought about it. He could certainly do better than some Danish moron's clumsy pawing. Sitting down at the bench, he shoved Nils Asgersen out of the way, placed his fingers on the keys, and began to play a simple song by memory that had stuck with him all these years.

The notes sounded every bit as terrible coming from his efforts as they did coming from Nils. The spacing was right, the intervals were right, the keys were right... But everything still sounded wrong. A discordant mess.

“I told you,” Nils muttered. “Out of tune.”

“You must have broken it!” Tony snarled at him.

Snorting as he left the room, Nils said nothing. Which, somehow, made Tony even angrier. It was nothing sort of a tragedy to be all riled up for a fight (especially when you were already being sent to France and couldn’t get in any worse trouble) and then have it fizzle down into nothing. Tony tried again to play the song, but it seemed that, much as he hated to admit it, Nils was right. The harpsichord was so badly out of tune even a single chord sounded like something fit to summon the Devil himself.

Tony threw back the rest of the drop cloth, thick with dust, and pulled up the lid. Everything looked fine inside. Dusty, but all the strings were there with no gaps and nothing broken. They must have just come loose over the years. He’d have to tighten them, which he’d never done before, but how hard could it be? The pins were right there.

Now he just needed a tuning wrench, which was nowhere to be found. Although... he could likely make do with something from his father’s physician’s kit. The small steel pliers clamped around a tuning peg easily enough. One small problem was that he had no idea how or where to start, or if any of the notes were what they should be, but if he started in the middle and worked his way out...

An octave up, an octave down. A fifth up and a fifth down. He worked his way up and down the entire keyboard , carefully listening to each note in relation to the others and making tiny adjustments to the pegs until everything sounded correct. Better. Much better. When he played a scale and a progression of chords, it sounded like music instead of noise.

He sat back down at the bench and placed his hands over the keyboard in the position he remembered from his lessons all those years ago. The song in his head began with a trill and an arpeggio in the right hand before the left came in. Why had he stopped taking lessons and playing the harpsichord? He’d always liked it, and how he couldn’t even remember what caused him to quit. School, most likely. His father insisting he spend less time on frivolous pursuits like music and more on his studies of important things. Algebra. Geometry. Latin. And he was good at all those, but figuring equations or conjugating verbs never rewarded him with the same sense of accomplishment as taking one of the simply written melodies in a musical study book and transforming it into something of his own.

Harmonies came easily. They were nothing more than a different form of mathematics, weren’t they? Every individual note had a distinct relationship to every other. A third created a consonance. A second did not. All part of an intertwining geometric web that told him, before he ever had to hear the sound, what would sound pleasant and what would fall dissonant. It just made sense. Everything unfolded in his mind, telling his fingers where to go. Creative mathematics, spilling onto the keyboard and transferring up through plucked strings across a sound board to fill the room with something wonderful.

He stopped when he heard a sound at his back. There, in the doorway, Nils Asgersen had returned.

“You fixed it.”

“No thanks to you,” Tony shot back at him.

“What song were you playing?”

“I don’t know. I made it up.”

“No you didn’t,” Nils said with a scowl. “Don’t lie.”

“The very beginning was part of an old song, but the rest I made up.”

“How?”

How? That was a stupid question. How did anyone make up anything? They just did. But Nils kept prodding.

“Make up one hand, yes, but you can’t make up two parts like that and have them work perfectly.”

“Well I can,” said Tony. “It’s easy. Now go away. I’m busy.”

“Busy doing what? Lying?”

Tony raised his fist, just looking for an excuse to do for Nils exactly what he had done for Søren, but Nils batted his hand aside and reached for the keyboard.

“If you’re so good at making up songs, make up something to go along with this.”

Poking with one finger, Nils played a simple melody of seven notes, then turned to Tony with one expectant eyebrow raised. And Tony raised an eyebrow right back. That? That was the best Nils could do? Tony repeated it easily with one hand, then as a series of one-handed chords, then again with polyphonic harmony from both hands to expand on the theme. “Easy,” he muttered after finishing with a flourish.

That seemed to shut Nils’ stupid mouth. The fool took two steps back, keeping his eyes on Tony in a wary glare. “You study music?”

“No,” Tony snorted. “Not since I was a baby.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Why?”

“Because you play well,” said Nils. Which sounded almost like a friendly comment, until he followed up with, “I’ve taken lessons since I was four. Mother says in three more years, once I’m seventeen, I can have my debut and perform for royalty and become famous. Maybe if you start now you’ll be ready to do the same by the time you’re twenty-five.”

He spun around and stalked out of the room, and Tony had half a mind to chase after him and get in some real trouble, something really worth being sent to France over, when he heard his father’s voice calling from the back of the house.

“Tony? Are you there?”

“Yes, sir,” Tony answered, and slumped in his seat when he heard the distinct sound of footsteps headed in his direction. A moment later, Doctor Stark appeared in the doorway.

“Tony? What are you doing at the harpsichord?”

Tony quickly shook his head. “Nothing. It was Nils Asgersen. He was wrecking it.”

“You know you boys shouldn’t be playing with that. It’s very old.”

“But he-”

“You need to behave yourself with the Asgersen boys. They are our guests for the next few days while their father’s injury heals and while they wait for their ship. No more fighting.”

“We weren’t-”

But Doctor Stark held up his hand. No interest at all in what Tony and Nils had or had not been doing. “Speaking of. Have you decided whether you would prefer to go live with your uncle Edward in Cork or your aunt Albertine in Paris?”

Tony slumped even further. Until that moment, some little shred of hope still clung to life that his father would call this whole thing off and tell him it was only a joke, only a ploy to scare him into better behavior. Instead, Doctor Stark looked solemn and serious. So, with his eyes dropping down to focus on his knees, Tony mumbled, “France.”

“What was that?”

“I said, I’ve chosen France.”

“Good,” his father replied. “I think that will be the better choice for you. You’re a smart boy, Tony, and Paris will give you more opportunities to further your education.”

“Education in what?”

“Sciences and mathematics. You can find a good school in Paris and continue your studies.”

Music? Tony thought, but dismissed the idea as soon as it formed. No. That was Nils Asgersen’s domain. A frivolous pursuit. Not even worth thinking about.

Antony Stark would go to Paris. He would finish grammar school, and he would attend university, where he would study something very respectable and important and become somebody very respectable and important. A physician like his father. Or an architect. And he would forget about harpsichords and all the odd little melodies that always squirmed their way into his head. He’d already been forcing himself to forget about them for the past five years. Why not fifty more?

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Then he closed the harpsichord and pulled the dust cover back on. And went upstairs to pack his things.