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Counterpoint

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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.

Chapter Text

The weather that evening sat over the city like a wet gray blanket, which is exactly what Tony had come to expect from the north in October. He pulled his cloak a little closer around his shoulders, and his hat down a little farther to shield his face against the dampness of the fog. Amsterdam. What a horrible place. He’d been here nine days and already wanted to leave. And he promised himself he would leave, the next day, if business didn’t pick up and start to go his way. If he had no luck by noon, he would turn back around and start the long, slow journey back south. Back to Rome. Where the sun was not afraid to show its face and where people did not dress like drab mourners.

At least his cloak was plain brown and fit in well enough with the subdued Dutch tastes. Underneath was a suit of bright blue with silver and black trim, the style of which was enough to immediately mark him as an outsider if his tanned skin and dark features did not already. He supposed he’d have to remove his cloak and hat once he reached the theater. Declare his foreign presence. Well. No way to avoid that now.

He turned down yet another street whose name he could not pronounce, hoping he remembered the directions correctly. The theater, according to the old man who ran the guesthouse, should lie just past the next intersection. When Tony turned the corner, he could see a small crowd gathered outside a building with a low, wide staircase. That was a good sign.

A better sign was the soggy playbill pinned up beside the door that announced, in large black letters that were beginning to run with inky tears:

LOKI LIND

Whatever it said underneath, all in Dutch, he could not read.

Quickly, he pulled his own scroll of paper out from his sleeve, along with four small nails, and grabbed a rock from street to fix it to the theater’s bill board beside Loki’s. It looked somewhat sad in comparison. Written by hand rather than run through a press, the page appeared all but empty with its scant handful of words and lack of decorative scrollwork at the edges. While the fat paragraph on Loki’s missive no doubt extolled the singer’s skill and magnificence, Tony’s had exactly four, short lines. The sham of an Italian name he had been using these past few years, his occupation, his address, and (to avoid any further frustrations from middle-class merchants looking for someone to instruct their children in the local dialect) the languages he spoke.

Antonio Carbonello
Magister Musicae
Vos Gasthuis, Prieelstraat
Latin, Italiano, Français, English

In hindsight, it perhaps would have been prudent to have the old man at the guesthouse teach him how to write a few simple phrases like ‘low rates’ or ‘available for immediate hire’ in Dutch, but it was too late now. This was a last, final effort before giving up and going home. And chances were the paper would become wet and illegible within an hour anyhow.

Inside the theater was warm and humid from too many bodies and their damp clothing cramped into one small space. Or at least it was on the standing-room only floor. From the second level, wealthier patrons looked down upon the masses from their well spaced balcony seats. Up there, Tony could spy more than a few colorful suits and gowns: the rich depth of velvet, the sheen of satin, a glitter of gold, and the painted cheeks of high-born ladies behind fluttering lace fans. On the floor, it was all muted tones with only the occasional pop of bright red to break the monotony. With self-conscious slowness, Tony pulled off his hat and cloak. People were staring at him. He knew. This kind of outlandish outfit, with the bright blue suit and long, curled wig, was as out of place here as his Italian name. The balcony might afford better camouflage but with the few meager coins left in his purse… He was already facing the prospect of having to sell some of his clothing just to make his way back through France. If he wanted to see Loki Lind, it was common floor space or nothing.

A polite but subdued cheer rose from the crowd when a figure all in black stepped onto the stage and the harpsichordist and violinist took their places off to the side. Too subdued for Tony’s taste. Were these people so reserved as to not show appreciation, or did they not know exactly who stood before them? Loki Lind. Loki Lind, a Danish singer with such a bizarrely secretive reputation that he managed to set off a ripple of gossip as far as Spain, despite never having travelled farther south than Prague. Or perhaps it was because he refused to travel any farther south than Prague, limiting his performances almost exclusively to private salons in Berlin and Warsaw and places in the far north of the world with names that defied memory. He was a rumor only. He had allegedly declined the invitations of royalty in Paris, Vienna, and Barcelona. He had the voice of an angel, high and bright. Or of a demon, burning low like coals. The music he sang was like nothing anyone had ever heard. So the stories went.

Whatever the truth was, he now stood on this inauspicious stage in a small concert hall in Amsterdam for a rare public appearance. An appearance that happened to be Tony’s sole reason for traveling all this way, on a snippet of gossip he overheard in Antwerp. Loki Lind was in Amsterdam. He had been living in the city for some months and had given one public performance already, with announcements as to his intention to possibly do more. And here Tony was, at last, about to see the mystery in person.

The harpsichordist played an open, incomplete interval, and the crowd’s rumble reduced to a murmur. Tony inhaled a slow breath along with Loki. And held it as Loki opened his mouth and began, in the quietest of voices, to sing.

Low notes. Profoundly deep, slow notes, like the grinding of the foundations of the Earth. A chill slithered its way down Tony’s spine as he pushed forward, trying to move closer. Trying to hear more. The notes falling from Loki’s lips were closer to a chant than a song, bare in the quiet of the room as the harpsichord and violin stood by in wait. Loki sang in a language Tony did not recognize. Not German, from his limited encounters, and not Dutch. But something similar. Something that invoked the cold sounds of the north, with sharp consonants and narrow vowels. And the notes of the music moved with the languid grace of an ice floe. No florid runs or ornamental trills. Only a pure melody, heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

It sounded old. It sounded ancient. It sounded as if secrets of forgotten gods were being told in song, but in a code Tony did not have the wisdom to understand. The music rose in pitch and tempo as the violin joined, and conjured images into Tony’s head of legendary halls filled with the flash of swords and the smell of sacrificial smoke. It rose again with the harpsichord, bringing prayers for glorious victory in battle as banners whipped in the wind under a stormy gray sky. Then it rose once more, to what Tony would have thought were impossible heights, though Loki’s voice soared so light and clear. It was the voice of a bird, the voice of hope and wonder, until it fell back down again through the plaintive, lonely cry of a falcon. And down again back into the rumbling hearth-fire of glowing embers and the remnants of whispered myths. The accompaniment faded out. All that was left was Loki, and his voice like a drumbeat. Or a heartbeat, slowing into death.

Scattered applause and inconsistent cheers broke the enchantment, from an audience divided into either rapture or polite, forced interest. Some wept, some chatted idly with their neighbors. Tony, who had managed to squeeze his way to the front until he was barely more than an arm’s span from the stage, lifted his hand to his throat as if that could slow his racing heart. That was the voice of an angel. And a demon. And it was like nothing he had ever heard.

Up on the stage, Loki Lind neither bowed nor even smiled. His face remained impassively white in stern contrast with the rich black of his hair and of the coat draped over his slender shoulders. Pale eyes darted across the crowd from face to face (searching?) until finally he lifted his hand in a signal to the violinist and a new song started.

By the time the show finished some two hours later, Tony was pressed flat against the stage, eyes level with Loki’s black shoes and a hollow, melancholy feeling weighing down in his gut. What it was, he could not exactly explain, except to say it felt like homesickness. But homesickness for something he had never seen and never would. An insatiable longing for the places and times and ideas Loki spun into his imagination. A need to know those glorious tales, lifted by the thrill they evoked in him... and the downward pull of a gnawing, hungry fear that everything he wanted so badly would always remain just out of reach.

Loki gave one curt bow, and then he was gone.

Tony dragged out the process of leaving the theater, slowly shaking out his cape, inspecting it for creases, and brushing a bit of dried mud from the front before refastening it. He took an equally long time rearranging the still-damp curls of his wig, fussing with his hat, and pulling on his gloves. It was all in the name of hoping Loki Lind might reappear after the crowd departed, but once he was the last one left it occurred to him that the hall must have a back door, and Loki very likely had exited that way and would now be long gone. Of course. He had traveled all this way and had been lucky enough to witness the performance, but luck ran short when it came to actually being able to speak to the man. Well. Wasn’t one goal reached enough?

(No, it certainly wasn’t, because now that Tony had heard Loki sing, that one encounter was nowhere near enough. It would never be enough.)

Outside on the street, small groups of people stood chatting in the cold, wet air, as if the damp did not bother them. Perhaps it did not. Perhaps living in this place, one became accustomed to the terrible weather and stopped missing the sun. Tony snugged up his cloak and pulled down his hat. But then something caught his eye as he turned to hurry back to the guesthouse, and he paused for a better look.

There was a man standing on the steps. A tall man, taller and broader than any of the others gathered nearby, with red trim on his cloak and a silk ribbon tying back the curling pigtail of flaxen hair that spilled out from under the brim of his hat. He could have been reading Loki’s bill. Or maybe he was reading Tony’s (which was, miraculously enough, still legible even from fifteen feet away despite the way the water made the ink bloom). That ‘maybe’ was incentive enough. If this man were the least bit interested and could provide a chance to stay in Amsterdam with more time to potentially track down Loki Lind…

Stepping up beside the tall man, Tony bowed and recited, probably very poorly, one of the most basic few Dutch phrases he had picked up so far. “Goedenavond. Ik heet Antonio Carbonello.”

“Antonio Carbonello,” the man echoed back, glancing between Tony and the posted paper. So he was reading it after all. “You speak English?” he asked. The words held only the smallest hint of a clipped, foreign accent.

Both the question and the near-perfect pronunciation were unexpected, to say the least. “I… yes. Very well, in fact. Are you looking for an English-speaking teacher?”

“For my wife,” said the man. “She is English, you see. We have been married just over a year, and she tells me what she misses most about home is her daily music lesson. Back in London she studied voice and virginal under one Signor Fabbro, if I recall his name correctly. I have been searching for a suitable replacement here, though it has been difficult to find a teacher who was trained in the Italian style yet can provide adequate instruction in English or French. Where were you educated, Signor Carbonello?”

“In Rome. I studied for some six years under two different teachers before taking on students of my own.” For the past one year. He did not mention that limited aspect of his qualification.

The man ran his hand over his chin, smoothing the neatly clipped shape of his beard into an even tighter point. “I would like you to come by my house to meet my dear wife. You may play for us, and I shall decide if you are a suitable tutor. Might you come tomorrow morning?”

“I should be honored,” Tony told him. And added, as a bit of a stretching effort at this last-minute ray of hope, “The harpsichord and virginal are of course my specialty, and I am very familiar in the most popular new methods of training the voice. I had marvelous results with my Roman students. I have written several concertos in addition to the usually light salon fare, and even a-” He stopped just short of saying the word ‘mass’. This man’s ornate coat may have made him look Catholic, but Tony knew better than to make that mistake in a place like this. Wealthy Protestants dressed in nearly the same manner. “One-act opera,” he said instead, sticking to a safer path. “I will most gladly play whatever you and your lovely wife desire. Signor…?”

“Asgersen,” said the man, holding out his large hand. “Søren Asgersen.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar, though Tony could place neither where nor how he would have heard it before. Something to ponder later, perhaps. He took Søren Asgersen’s hand. “How nice to meet you, sir.”

ooo

The haughty gaze of Søren Asgersen stared down in small portrait form from high on the wall, keeping a close eye on Tony’s presence. Tony, sitting on a delicate chair in the Asgersen household’s pristine parlor, had still not managed to work out where he had heard the name before. Or why he felt he could almost recognize the face in the portrait, now that he saw it in the clear light of day. No answer seemed to be forthcoming from the archives of his mind. So he sat and waited for the maid to fetch Søren from upstairs, and as he waited, he rehearsed in his head any details that might arise in preparation to answer the usual questions.

His name was Tony Stark Antonio Carbonello and he was a fraud musician from London Rome. He had been travelling north for the past three months, chasing rumors of Loki Lind, and had decided to settle temporarily in Amsterdam thanks to the singer’s presence in the city. (Those facts were actually true.) He was here speaking to Søren Asgersen because he desperately needed the money wished to establish himself in the north with the help of a respectable patron. The few leaves of music tucked under his arm were, at least, his own compositions, and rather good ones if he did say so himself. It was not that he was unskilled in his craft. On the contrary: he knew he had considerable talent, and anyone who gave him half a chance tended to agree. It was only his misfortune of having been born in London that hindered things. Nobody in Rome looked at an English musician as anything more than a novelty. But a quick change of name solved all that. Here, he was no longer Tony Stark, English nobody. He was Antonio Carbonello, legendary composer.

(Or at least he would be. Once he found Loki Lind and made a name for himself writing the kind of music a person would travel months to hear. And as long as his carefully crafted persona stayed in place.)

Next to the portrait of Søren Asgersen hung a matching picture of a very pretty young woman with curled brown hair and wide brown eyes. That would have to be Mrs. Asgersen. She looked sweet in that painted likeness. What her actual disposition might be… Well, it was Tony’s experience that formal portraits tended to tell the worst lies.

“My apologies for keeping you waiting, Signor Carbonello,” Søren Asgersen announced from the doorway as he made his abrupt entrance. Tony jumped up to greet him with a quick bow. “My dear wife, Jane, has been feeling poorly this morning, but she shall join us directly. Will you follow me to the music room?”

“Yes, of course,” Tony replied. “And you have no need to apologize. I’ve been waiting only...” Close to twenty minutes, by the clock above the fireplace. “...a very short while.”

The house was not large, by the standards to which Tony was accustomed in Rome and during his travels through France. They passed by the dining room to reach the music room, which stood opposite the kitchen; both of these rooms overlooked a private walled garden in the back. But despite the smallness and relative simplicity of the décor, everything seemed spotlessly, unnervingly clean. Not a speck of grease on the vast windows overlooking the garden, and not a smudge of dirt on the ceramic tiled floors. Absolutely no scattered straw or smell of urine anywhere. Søren, walking lightly across the gleaming tiles in soft-soled slippers, even looked as if he had recently bathed and washed his hair.

Tony glanced down at his shoes. They were clumped with mud, and his stockings had a wide, dirty smear from his left ankle to halfway up his calf, which had been there since shortly after he had last been able to wash them nearly three weeks prior. It was the sort of thing nobody would have noticed in Paris or Rome, but here, in this fastidious northern home... He stopped beside the virginal and stood in a way that turned his stained side away from Søren’s view.

“Whenever you are ready, Signor Carbonello, please play for me.”

“Shall I play one of my own compositions?”

“Yes, please do.”

Tony ran his hands over the keyboard. It was the kind of instrument women and children used recreationally or to entertain a few guests. Small. Much smaller than he normally played by nearly two octaves, but in these compact Dutch houses perhaps nobody had room for a full-size harpsichord and had to make do with what they could fit. He would have to make do with its incomplete size and play something within a limited range. One song came to mind as he took a seat.

It began slowly, with lazy, tumbling notes. A drowsy bee in a morning meadow. A trill here, a turn there, and the melody began to take on a livelier shape to trip up and down the keyboard. An old song, one he’d written shortly after beginning his studies in Rome, and simple, but one he still counted among his personal favorites despite how much he’d learned since its debut. It was also a short song, but he finished it off with an improvised flourish as an extra little showcase of his skills. Audiences liked that: the buildup of climbing tension and the resolution of a solid (if rather predictable) cadence.

Søren Asgersen was no exception. As soon as the final notes faded, the applause started, both from Søren and from a second set of hands. Tony turned around to face the doorway.

“Oh, that was lovely!” said the pretty, dark-haired woman from the portrait. “You must be Signor Carbonello.”

“And you must be Mrs. Jane Asgersen,” Tony replied, crossing the room to kiss her hand. Given Søren’s vast stature, Jane was considerably smaller than he had been expecting. She stood barely taller than Tony’s shoulder, and when she went to stand beside her giant of a husband, she looked even tinier. Her shapeless day gown and the way she kept one hand protectively resting on her stomach gave a clear answer as to exactly why she had been ill that morning. “How lovely it is to meet you,” Tony added, “and I hope my skills will be of some service to your education.”

“Thor’s told me all about you,” she said. “I thought at first that of course this sounded too good to be true: an Italian teacher who spoke not only French, but English as well! My last music teacher, Signor Fabbro, could only speak French, and not very well at that. I often had trouble understanding him with his heavy accent. But your English is perfect. Where did you learn?”

Tony made a mental note to kick himself in the arse later. Right. English. Jane Asgersen was English. Søren had told him that last night. She would naturally have an easier time of picking out any hint of a foreign accent (or, in this case, suspicious lack thereof) than her husband, who spoke English nearly flawlessly himself and would have no reason to question any other foreigner’s ability to do the same. “Oh,” he said. And tried to force something of a Mediterranean melody into his voice. “I had... many English friends back home. I rented a room in the house of an Englishman who had come to Rome for the sake of his art. Painting. He was a painter.”

Søren looked perfectly content with that watery explanation, but Jane had to be the sort of person who was too clever for her own good. “You learned English from your landlord?”

“Yes,” Tony said, and then quickly changed the subject before things took a turn into dangerous territory and he ended up accidentally repeating that idiotic kidnapped-by-pirates story he told the pair of English girls he met in Avignon. “But you must tell me, Mrs. Asgersen, what you hope to learn from me? What are your musical abilities? What did this Signor Fabbro teach you?”

The diversion worked. The doubtful squint left Jane’s eyes and the sweet smile returned. “I have no trouble in reading music. I can play most anything that is given me, albeit sometimes with a little practice if the piece is complicated. I should like to learn better how to sing by sight, though. I try, but have not yet fully learned that particular skill.”

“And how is your voice?”

“Like a bird,” Søren interjected with a proud grin.

“Signor Fabbro seemed to think so,” said Jane, though she looked less certain. “He had nothing but praise, praise, praise for everything I did. But...”

“But?” asked Tony.

“But sometimes I was certain he only wished to flatter me. I think I could be better.”

“If I may be so bold, Mrs. Asgersen, it is entirely possible that this Signor Fabbro was more interested in money than education, and he said what he thought you wanted to hear for the sake of his purse.”

Jane answered with a single nod. “I often suspected that might be the case.”

“Why don’t you sing for me now?” Tony asked her. “Any song you like, and I will give you my fair and honest opinion.”

“I... suppose I could,” she said, with significantly less confidence than anything else Tony had heard her say so far. “However, I am very out of practice and can hardly remember the words...”

Jane took two steps forward and stood up straighter, clasping her hands at her waist as if preparing for a formal recital. Her eyes stayed self-consciously on the ground. After a long and uncomfortable pause, she opened her mouth, and after three steadying breaths, she began to sing. Quietly at first. Unsteadily. Her voice wavered on the first few words, but slowly grew stronger as she found some part of her confidence.

When I no more behold thee, think on me.
By all thine eyes have told me, think on me.
When hearts are lightest, when eyes are brightest,
When griefs are slightest, think on me.
Think on me, think , think on me.

“Beautiful!” Søren exclaimed, swooping in to kiss her cheek as soon as the verse was finished.

“I don’t know...” Jane began, but Tony quickly interrupted her.

“No, it was lovely. You have a good voice, Mrs. Asgersen.”

The look of surprise on her face told him she fully expected him to say something else. “You think so?”

“You were nervous. I could tell. You could use better support, which comes from correct breathing, and some small improvements to tone and color. And we can work on your range; you strain somewhat on the highest notes. But those things can be taught. The things that cannot be taught easily, if at all, are the natural talents you already possess. You keep pitch perfectly. You have an excellent sense of rhythm. You already know how to sing well. With proper training, your voice could be even better.”

“My sweet Jane will be a famed musician one day,” said Søren. “Better even than my brother!”

“Your brother?” Tony asked, trying to sound only politely interested. A brother who was potentially a ‘famed musician’. That could only be useful.

“He sleeps very late of a morning,” Søren replied. “But he should be awake by now. Come; I’ll introduce you.”

A potentially ‘famed musician’ who lived in the house. Even better. “I would be honored.”

“He’s just in the kitchen,” said Jane. “He followed me downstairs.”

“What sort of musician is your brother?” Tony asked. “What does he play?”

“Ah, you will see,” Søren said with a curious smile. He put a hand on Tony’s shoulder to lead him out of the music room and over to the kitchen a few short steps away. There, a man with loose black hair hanging halfway down his back sat hunched at the table, turned away from the door. “Brother!” Søren called out. “Say good day to Signor Antonio Carbonello, a music teacher come all the way from Rome. I met him last night after the show. Signor Carbonello, this is my brother, Nils Asgersen.”

The faceless body of Nils Asgersen looked as if it could not possibly be less interested in turning around to greet a stranger, but turn it did. Very slowly. He turned with one hand covering a yawn and the other clutching a cheese knife until pale gray-blue eyes met Tony’s person and gave him a cursory inspection from muddy shoes up to disarrayed wig. “Good day, Signor Antonio Carbonello,” he said in that voice people used when they were only saying something because they had to. “Such fine, rainy weather we’re having, is it not?”

Unfortunately, Tony was unable to form an immediate answer, on account of how he found himself staring directly into the face of the infamous Loki Lind.

Chapter Text

“You’re Loki Lind.”

Slowly, Loki leaned back in his chair, twisting to look up at Tony with a crooked smirk.  “Now how impressive is this,” he said in a voice every bit as rich and smooth as Tony remembered from the previous evening’s music.  “A complete stranger knows my name better than my own brother.”

“Your Christian name is Nils Asgersen,” Søren insisted in the kind of tone that spoke volumes of an old, ongoing disagreement. “I shall always introduce you as such.”

“Nils Loke Lindholm Asgersen, to be exact,” Loki replied.  He lazily held out his hand to Tony in greeting before dropping his arm over the floral-carved crossbar of his chair.  “Loki Lind is my stage name.  My preferred name, even,” he added, looking up sharply at his brother from under the arch of an eyebrow.

“I attended your performance last night,” said Tony.  “I believe I shall be completely unable to think of you as anything but Loki Lind.”

“Nils-” Søren started, but Jane spoke up to cut him off.

“I always call him Loki,” she said.  “I find it much easier.”

Easier to side with the brother-in-law than with her own husband?  But shifting his gaze between all three of them, Tony could guess why.  Loki looked like the sort of man who always got his own way and never had to compromise.  Søren looked like the sort of man who reluctantly backed down in the interest of familial peace.

“What did you think of my music, Master… Carbonello, was it?” Loki asked, tidily ending the name discussion right there.  “I imagine it was quite different from anything you’ve experienced in... er...”  His eyes slid up and down Tony’s suit, a festive rose color in honor of today’s meeting.  “Rural France?”

That was meant to be an insult, though Tony had a difficult time registering it as such based purely on the fact that Loki Lind was speaking to him.  “It was unlike anything I’ve ever heard,” he answered with complete honesty.  “I found it glorious.”  And so many other things besides that, but how could he possibly put into words everything he felt the previous night?

Loki’s smile widened; ‘glorious’ was to his liking.  “And I suppose that was you playing in the other room just now?”

“Yes.  One of my own compositions.”

“It wasn’t terrible.”

Again, that was meant to be an insult.  Another insult Tony found himself unable to accept.  ‘Not terrible’ coming from somebody like Loki might as well be the equivalent to ‘heavenly perfection woven into song’ from anyone else.  “Thank you.”

“I should show Signor Carbonello the rest of the house,” said Søren, already moving out of the kitchen and towards the door to the dining room.

In other words, this was enough time wasted speaking to Loki: a sentiment with which Tony absolutely did not agree.  Here was Loki Lind, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing plain day clothes, hair undone, cutting a wedge of cheese into paper-thin slices to lay across a piece of rough, home-baked bread…  Almost as if he were a normal person like Søren and Jane and not a fantastic mythical deity of the wild north.  Tony had no interest in the rest of the house.  Why would he need to see that?  He was interested only in the rest of Loki.

But then Jane hooked her arm through his, urging him along.  “Yes, let’s leave Loki to eat his breakfast, and Thor and I will show you the rest of the house.”

“Thor?” Tony asked.

“Oh, just a pet name we have for Søren.  We all call him Thor.”

Apparently Søren’s preference for proper Christian names did not extend as far as his own: Tony could see the tiny but distinct beginnings of a smile in the corner of his mouth.  He approved of being Thor.  Just as well: Thor was much easier for Tony to wrap his mind around in terms of pronunciation.  Thor Asgersen he would be.

Tony had already seen the essentials of the main floor, so Jane gave him only a cursory tour.  The dining room, the front sitting room, the newly-named Thor’s office, and the pantry under the stairs.  Also a peculiar room adjacent the kitchen that Jane referred to as the ‘bathing room’, which was little more than a closet with no windows, a small fireplace connected to the main kitchen chimney, and a massive wooden tub.  Odd.  She introduced him to the maid, Louisa, and then Tony followed her and Thor upstairs, where he found the master bedroom, the room that would become the nursery, Loki’s bedroom, and the room in which Loki kept all his various things.  From a brief glance through the doorway, Tony determined it to be primarily full of mess, in the form of musical instruments and books and a disarray of paper burying what might be a desk.

Then up another flight of stairs, this one very narrow and steep, to the attic.  Past the door, it was nothing but a wide open space under a slanting roof, with a small window at either end and a wide chimney stack up both sides.  A plain mattress lay in the corner near the front window overlooking the canal, and a dressing table with a chair and mirror and wash basin stood nearby.  Other than that, empty.  Why would Jane and Thor bother to show Tony this?  Taking him up to the bedrooms was unusual enough, but this made no sense.

As soon as the question popped into Tony’s head, Thor immediately spoke up.  “This was intended to be the Louisa’s quarters, but she prefers to sleep in the kitchen.  So we have all this empty space for you alone!”

“For…” was all Tony managed to blurt out.  They intended for him to live here?

“Only if it suits you, of course,” added Jane, who seemed to be more adept when it came to noticing Tony’s surprise at her husband’s overabundance of awkward generosity.  “But Thor said you were staying at a guesthouse, and we thought this might be more convenient for you, not to mention more spacious.  You could have your own work area for when you’re not teaching.”

“I take it I have the job, then,” said Tony.

Jane smiled as if this were a foregone conclusion.  “Yes, of course, I think you’ll be a perfect teacher.”

Tony glanced over to Thor for confirmation.  Thor, with apparently no interest in doing anything but let his wife make all the decisions, had already wandered away to stare out the nearest window.  “And the terms?” he asked Jane.

“On top of room and board, which we shall provide, I can pay you a fee of three guilder per month, paid on the last day.”

“Agreed,” Tony said quickly.  He had a suspicion that three guilder per month was not a terribly large sum, though he had an even stronger suspicion that he would not be doing a terribly large amount of work to earn it.  And then there was the added benefit of included room and board.

“As for your schedule, I should like to have one lesson every day, of two hours, except Sunday, of course.  I think voice on Monday and Thursday, virginal on Tuesday and Friday, and theory and composition on Wednesday and Saturday.”

Tony bowed.  “As my lady wishes.”

He could have sworn Jane looked surprised by that answer.  “You have no concerns with the schedule?”

“I am my lady’s most humble employee.  Whatever she wishes to learn, I will teach, at any time of day she fancies.”

“Oh,” she said.  “I…  Thank you, Signor Carbonello.”  She smoothed her hands over the front of her dress, resting them on the rise in her belly, and opened and closed her mouth twice before speaking again.  “It’s only that my last teacher, Signor Fabbro, was quite adamant that ladies should not be taught theory and composition because we supposedly do not have the mental capacity for such abstract learning,” she added, words spilling as fast as a guilty confession from her tongue.  “I want to make it clear that I wish to be taught in the same manner as you would teach any man.  Do not hold anything back from me, and do not simplify your lessons.  I want to learn theory.  I want to learn composition.  No matter how difficult you think the concepts may be, I want you to teach me.”

Again, Tony looked over to Thor for guidance, only to be met with, again, complete disinterest in the business Jane conducted.  Well then.  If the man was agreeable to having his wife learn the mathematics of music, Tony had no moral objection to the idea.

“Mrs. Asgersen,” he said, “would you like to begin on Monday with your first voice lesson?”

ooo

Loki was gone by the time Tony came back downstairs, having either disappeared out into the town or up into one of his rooms (both of which, Tony noted, had their doors closed against prying eyes).  Jane excused herself to go help Louisa prepare something for dinner, and Tony was about to say his good-byes and make his way back to the guesthouse when Thor took him aside to speak in a hushed voice.

“Signor Carbonello, I would like to make one further request of you, in addition to Jane’s music lessons, if you are amenable.”

Now that would depend on exactly what Thor was asking, wouldn’t it?  Tony raised an eyebrow.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Concerning my brother, Loki.”

“What about him?” Tony asked, though his mind immediately leapt to the worst.  Thor would ask him to stay away from Loki.  Ignore Loki.  Pretend Loki wasn’t there.  Of course.  Loki was famous.  A legend, even, and he must have people chasing after him all the time, asking him to sing, asking him to look at their music, asking him to do any number of things.  Why would Loki want more of that coming from inside his own home?

“Loki is a troublemaker,” Thor said plainly.

Not exactly what Tony had been expecting to hear. “How so?”

“He stays out late doing God knows what, sneaks home in the middle of the night, and stays abed until... You saw him earlier.  He had just woken.  I have never been able to prove it – he is too secretive – but I suspect he finds himself in all manner of improper situations.”

“And how does this involve me?”

“I would like you to keep an eye on him, if you are able.”

Me?!

“Yes, you.  You seem to me to be an honest and morally upstanding gentleman, and I believe you could exert considerable influence over my brother when it comes to work ethic and discipline.  Teach him how to be a respectable musician instead of the misguided fool he is now.”

Tony, for all the dozens of thoughts whipping through his mind in that moment, could think of nothing to say.  Not once in his life had anyone accused him of being anything close to ‘honest’ or ‘morally upstanding’, nor had he ever been well acquainted with ‘work ethic’ or ‘discipline’.  Where in the world had Thor Asgersen acquired that impression of him?  Maybe he was a better actor and liar than he thought.

“Um,” he said.

“I understand your misgivings.  It must seem dishonest of me, asking you to treat my brother like a naughty child instead of confronting him like a grown man.  But Signor Carbonello, I have tried.  I have tried everything in my power over so many years to help Loki, and now I believe the fault lies within the fact that he simply will not listen to me because I am his brother.  He likes nothing better than to remind me how I have no power over him.  But I think you, as an outsider, may have more luck.  So I would like you to become his friend.  Accompany him when he leaves the house, and keep him out of too much trouble.  Steer him toward honorable pastimes.  Could you do this for me?”

Could Tony take up the immense burden of spending time with Loki Lind?

“Well,” Tony said slowly. “It’s not the sort of work I’ve ever done before.  But... I think I should be able to manage.”

ooo

Three justacorps suits, not including the one he was wearing. Six shirts. One pair of shoes. Three pairs of stockings, one cravat, and one pair of gloves. A nightshirt, a mouchoir, a belt, a purse, a rapier, a dagger, a hat, a cloak. A comb for his wig, a nearly-empty bottle of perfume, a completely empty snuff box, a disastrous folio of loose music leaves, and one viol badly in need of tuning. A rosary from his cousin Jeanette, and a ring his father had given him. Everything Tony owned, he could carry on his back with only marginal difficulty. And to be fair, most of that difficulty as he made his way to the Asgersen household came as the direct result of slippery streets after a long night of rain.

By the time he arrived, his (one pair of) shoes were caked with more mud than usual, and he had a new dirty spatter up the right leg of his cleanest pair of stockings. Jane Asgersen took one look at him standing at her suspiciously clean front door and said, while barring the way for him to come into the house in that state, “Why don’t you wait here while I call Thor and Loki to help you with your things?”

“No need to trouble them,” Tony told her. “I can carry everything myself.”

“Then you must at least put it all down for a moment and make two trips up the stairs. Everything is so...” Dirty and wet, he knew she wanted to say. “Well, the stairs are very narrow.”

“Of course,” said Tony. Very carefully, he stepped out of his shoes, leaving them outside.

“I’ll have Louisa clean those for you.”

“I can clean-”

“No, no, it’s no trouble, she can do it.”

Either Jane was being overly generous, or she suspected Tony’s cleaning abilities would not pass her stringent approval. Something made him think it was the latter. “...Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”

He sat his viol case and the satchel with his music down next to the door, and for Jane’s sake made a performance of holding his soldier’s sack of clothing out in front of him as if it were as delicate as an infant and twice as valuable. Still, Jane followed him up the stairs to make sure none of his muck touched the perfectly clean walls of her perfectly clean staircases.

“And here you are,” she said after they made the second trip up together. “Take your time to arrange your things. Supper will be at eight o’clock, and you are most welcome to join us, or Louisa can bring you something up here. If any of your clothes require laundering, you may leave them at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor.”

That was not a subtle hint.

“I’ve also left you a pitcher of water for your wash basin. I’m sure you’d like to refresh yourself before supper.”

Neither was that. “I’m certain I would,” he said to appease her. “Thank you for your generous hospitality, Mrs. Asgersen.”

She turned with a curtsey and closed the door behind her, leaving Tony alone with nothing to do but unpack his few meager belongings into yet another temporary residence. The absurd thought that kept filtering into his head as he sorted soiled from clean-enough-to-wear clothing was the question of whether or not Loki was currently in the house. Loki’s work room would be directly below the corner where Tony’s bed stood. Was he in there, one floor down? Perhaps crafting some new musical magic?

Wherever Loki was, he did not make an appearance at supper that evening. Tony ate in the dining room with Thor and Jane, thankful for something other than bread and sausages for the first time in weeks. They naturally asked for his life story, most of which he made up on the spot. A nondescript childhood in a little town not too far from Rome. Father was a doctor (true), mother devoted her life to raising eleven children, eight of whom survived to adulthood (absolute lie). Tony joined the church choir at the age of six (lie) and made the choice to follow a career in music at fifteen (close enough to the truth). After fibbing his way through that conversation, they moved onto the much safer topic of Thor.

Thor and Loki were originally from Denmark, but travelled extensively throughout their early years, living in Flanders, England, Hanover, Sweden, and likely some other places as well that Thor could not immediately recall. All his life, Thor had never wanted to do anything more than to make his father proud by forging a good career for himself. He now worked, as Tony suspected, in import for the Dutch East India Company, with a focus on nutmeg. He met Jane while on a trade excursion to London. The two fell in love at first sight and spent a whole week courting before he had to return to Amsterdam. But true to his word, he came back for her four months later, and they were married immediately. It was the sort of story Tony would normally consider complete nonsense worthy only of a bad stage romance, if only the two stars were not sitting right before him at the table, exchanging lovesick glances and clasping each other’s hands over the nutmeg-heavy pork loin with baked apples.

“Why did Loki choose music?” Tony asked. “Instead of joining you as a partner in trade?”

Thor shrugged. “He has always been contrary. Whatever father told him, he would strive to do the opposite. Father considered music to be a waste of Loki’s intellect, so naturally he became a singer. Sometimes I believe he became as famous as he is simply out of spite.”

“Everything Loki does is out of spite,” Jane added with a little smirk.

“I know he does not enjoy the fame,” said Thor. “He could live as an honored guest at the court of any king in Christendom, and instead he chooses to stay here. Alone. Hiding in his bedroom like a sullen child.”

“He is at home?”

“He rarely eats with us,” Jane replied. “Half the time he takes his food up in his room, and the other half he is out of an evening doing... whatever things he does.”

Clearly something awful, to judge by Thor’s frown. “Which brings us back to what we discussed yesterday, Signor Carbonello. I believe you could be a positive influence on Loki. He is dismissive of the south and any Italian or French ‘contamination’, as he says, of his music, but I am convinced that if he came to know you, you could... Well, perhaps not change so much as open his mind. Show him the positive aspects of your world. And if the stage does not suit him, as I think it does not based on his behavior and contempt for his audiences, perhaps a role as a composer or even teacher would do him better. Be a friend to him. And I believe that will improve his outlook on life.”

“I will do my best,” Tony promised. He meant it, too. This was Thor’s blessing to pursue his interest in Loki and Loki’s music, and he intended to take full advantage of that blessing whenever and wherever possible. Now whether or not he would exactly be a ‘positive influence’ on Loki was very much open to interpretation, but he had no doubt he could make a good show of the ‘friend’ part. If Loki allowed such things.

“I think Loki just needs to find a nice girl to settle down and start a family,” said Jane. “Certainly he’d be much happier if he weren’t alone all the time.”

Thor made a face. “You remember what a disaster he was with de Haan’s niece skating at the Christmas fair. He told the poor girl she looked like a horse.”

“She did look like a horse,” Jane said by way of explanation, turning to Tony. “Very wealthy, but looked like a horse.”

“He won’t choose any of those girls you keep introducing to him at church.”

“He might one day. More wine, Signor Carbonello?”

“Ah, yes, thank you,” said Tony, holding out his cup. As long as Jane kept offering, he could reasonably tell himself he was not being rude by drinking all the wine at the table.

“And what about you?” she asked. “Do you have a sweetheart back home?”

A sweetheart? No, he could not exactly say that he had a singular sweetheart back in Rome. “No, no. I’m afraid I am quite as alone as Loki.”

“How sad. But that can always change, and a handsome and talented fellow such as you won’t remain alone for long. Any pretty Dutch girls catch your eye yet?”

Many. And a few had managed to get hold of more than just his eye, though there was no way he was about to tell Jane Asgersen any such thing. “I’m afraid I’ve been far too immersed in my work to spend any time on the frivolity of pretty girls. I have only been in Amsterdam for eleven days now. But once I have settled and established myself... One never knows.”

“Then let us toast to love, both current and future,” Jane said, lifting her glass first to her husband and then to Tony. “To love!”

“To love,” Tony and Thor echoed, and Tony drained his glass.

Jane very generously refilled it for the sixth time.

ooo

The wine made everything fuzzy, but Tony only suspected that would help him sleep better in a new, strange environment. He stripped down to his breeches and poured the cold water Jane supplied into the basin so he could wash his hands and under his arms, and wipe a cloth over his hair. It was getting long: over four inches now, and he’d have to cut it again soon to keep it from being too unbearable under his wig. And he needed a shave. Something to do in the morning, perhaps: ask Thor for recommendations for a nearby barber.

He had forgotten to ask Jane when he should put out his dirty clothes for laundering, but the dark of night seemed like as fine a time as any. The soiled pile, with the new addition of that day’s shirt, seemed substantially larger than the clean-enough-to-wear pile, but he gathered it all up in one armload and padded down the stairs in his bare feet to deposit everything in the appointed place. Perhaps he should have neatly folded the dirty clothes. It looked like the kind of mess that would be unwelcome in Jane’s hallway.

“You look much smaller without all your... finery.”

Tony almost jumped at the sound, whipping around to see the shadowy outline of a person standing in the doorway to Loki’s room. The dim moonlight from one small window gave only a faint edge of illumination to black hair, pale skin, and sharply angled features. Loki Lind, without any of the finery Tony had seen in the theater, looked exactly the same. Elegant and ethereal. Cold and remote.

“Master Lind,” Tony said, dipping his head in a small bow.

“Why are you up sneaking about the house at this hour?”

“Supper ran late. Now I am bringing my clothing down for-”

“Thor and Jane went to bed well over an hour ago,” Loki interrupted. “Why are you still awake?”

An hour ago? Was that true? It didn’t seem like nearly that long, but Tony did spend some time drunkenly sitting on the end of his bed, trying to come up with a hasty plan for what kind of lesson he would give Jane in the morning. “I was... thinking about music,” he said, “and then I-”

“And then you thought you would slither down here to spy on me?”

The accusation took Tony aback. “...What? Spy? Why would I spy on you?”

“You were at my performance on Friday night.”

“You recognize me?”

“I recognized your preposterous wig. And now you are here, having somehow found yourself invited to live in my brother’s home. How very convenient. Now what do you want from me?”

“I... nothing!” Tony insisted. Not that this was exactly true, but he wanted nothing in the manner Loki was insinuating. “This is coincidence only! I did attend your performance, yes, but I posted a bill outside the door advertising my services as a music teacher. I found your brother reading it after the show, and he invited me here. I did not even know he was your brother, or that you lived here until I saw you sitting in the kitchen yesterday morning!”

“Then why are you not in bed right now?”

Tony looked down at the pile of clothing at his feet. “Laundry?”

As he stepped out from the doorway, the moonlight turned Loki’s suspicious scowl into something that looked far more sinister, and Tony found himself sliding back until his shoulder bumped against the wall. Still, Loki advanced toward him, step by step, until the two stood only inches apart.

Loki’s scowl twisted into a sneer of disgust. “...Are you drunk?”

“No,” Tony quickly lied.

“I can smell the wine on your breath.”

“I may be very slightly drunk.”

“If you are lying to me about being a spy...”

“I would never lie to you.”

“You lied to me just now about being drunk.”

“Well yes, but that wasn’t a real lie,” Tony insisted. “It was an... unimportant lie of embarrassment. I swear on God’s name I would never lie to you about anything more important than drinking too much wine at supper and now having to urinate quite badly, even though I cannot find the pot and am contemplating going in the wash basin or out the window.”

“I see.”

Loki held that judgmental sneer a moment longer before turning away with what Tony was certain, even in his half-drunkenness, was a hint of an unwanted smile. “The chamber pot will be in the cupboard of the little table next to your bed. Go to sleep, Master Carbonello.”

“I will,” Tony replied, and almost added ‘thank you’ before Loki slunk back into the shadows and closed the lightless door of his mysterious music-mess room behind him.

Chapter Text

“This feels silly.”

“Yes, it feels silly. It looks silly, and it sounds silly. But I promise you, Mrs. Asgersen, it works. Now puff out your cheeks and purse your lips, letting just a little stream of breath escape. We want a very airy ‘ooo’ sound. We’ll start at do, skip up an octave interval, then come back down. All on ‘ooo’, like this: ‘ooo-ooo-ooo’. Now you try.”

Tony played the interval on the keyboard, and Jane, despite the misgivings obvious on her face, sang along. “Ooo-ooo-ooo.”

“Good. Very good. Now we’ll do a whole series of those, up in semitones. I’ll play, you sing. Are you ready?”

“How high?” Jane asked.

“As high as you can go. We’ll see where that turns out to be. Now with me: ‘ooo-ooo-ooo’.”

Again, Tony played the interval, and Jane sang, climbing up by steps and leaps. “More air,” he told her. “Remember, you’re not trying to make a pretty, musical sound. You’re only stretching your voice. The more air you release, the higher you can go. Keep going.” He reached the end of the miniature keyboard and had to start again an octave lower. “A little more.”

“I can’t,” Jane gasped when her voice squeaked and failed. She reached for her cup of water. “That’s all I can manage. It seems absurdly high.”

“Much higher than you sang the other day, yes,” Tony told her. “Then, I would have guessed your comfortable range extended to mi above tenor do. Would you like to know what we just reached in that exercise?”

“I can’t even guess.”

“A full tone above soprano do,” he said, and added, when her eyes widened in surprise: “Not that this necessarily means anything about the potential extent of your range. It is far easier to reach those high notes using this technique than to do so in your full voice. I believe you are more suited to a contralto role than soprano, but I still think we can extend up to a ti or la. We shall practice with this ‘ooo’ together every voice day, and I would like you to continue practicing on your own outside of lesson time.”

“Of course,” Jane agreed.

“Now for our second exercise: this one to open the throat and improve tone. We start with a closed ‘mmm’, followed by an explosive ‘aah’ on the same tone. Sing ‘mmm-aah’ with me: mmm-aah.”

“Mmm-aah.”

“More power on the ‘aah’ part: mmm-AAH.”

“Mmm-AAH.”

Tony shook his head. “You need to support your voice with a deep breath, Mrs. Asgersen.”

“For the last time, please, call me Jane.”

“Jane, then. Deep breath. Pull the air deep down into your belly.”

“Signor Carbonello-”

“If I must call you Jane, you must call me Tony.”

“That seems improper.”

“As you wish, Mrs. Asgersen.”

Tony, I find that between this baby and my stays, it is quite impossible to draw a deep breath.”

“Then you must loosen or, better yet, entirely remove your stays.”

The look of absolute shock on Jane’s face would be enough to have one think he had just suggested she strip naked. “Now that is very improper! Signor Carbonello.

“Do forgive me for the offense, Mrs. Asgersen, but despite your play at sweetness and your pretty manners, I cannot fully bring myself to believe that, in your heart of hearts, you care one jot about what is ‘proper’.”

Jane’s shock quickly slid into an expression of furious distaste as she picked up her skirts and stormed past him. Down the hall. Up the stairs. And several minutes later, she returned, hateful expression only somewhat dissolved. “If you breathe a single word of this to Thor, you vile blackguard...” she hissed at him.

“On my honor as a vile blackguard, I swear I shall tell no-one of your secret immodesty,” Tony promised. “Now let us try again. Mmm-aah.”

Jane took a moment to glare at him a little longer before composing herself and repeating the exercise. “Mmm-aah.

“Better. Being able to breathe helps, does it not?”

“Yes,” Jane agreed, though in the most grudging tone she could muster.

“Now this time breathe deeply, as low as you can. On the ‘aah’, open your throat as if yawning, and release all that air. Mmm-aah.”

“Mmm-aah,” Jane sang, her voice already louder and richer.

“Good. Can you hear the difference?”

“Yes.” All hint of a contrary mood had disappeared from her demeanor, replaced instead by a spark of awe.

“Now one last thing: your projection. This time, I want you to imagine that instead of the sound forming in the back of your throat, it is concentrated a little higher, right at the juncture of the hard and soft palates. Sing ‘aah’ and hold as long as you can.”

“Aaaahhhh...”

“The breath comes up from deep in your belly, firm and steady. Open your throat wider, Jane. Yes! Like that! Good. Now try to move the sound forward. Your throat stays open, but the sound moves forward. Imagine you are singing out not from your mouth, but up through your eyes. There!” he shouted as her voice changed in tone and clarity. “That is where you must focus your singing! Remember what you are doing right now. Your goal will be to recreate this sound.”

Dropping the note, Jane reached for her water again. “I sound so different. But it’s difficult to hold.”

“It is,” Tony agreed, “which is why voice lessons are only a small part technique and a much larger part practising to master that technique. Let’s try an ascending scale of mmm-aah starting on do. Try to do everything we’ve just discussed.”

Standing up straight again and taking a deep breath, Jane sang her series of mmm-aahs as Tony played up the scale. “Good,” he told her, keeping up a stream of encouragement. “Your voice is sounding much stronger. Everything should be wide open with all the breath support it needs. Good. Very good. Keep going: a little higher. Two more steps. One more. Excellent. We’ll stop there.”

“My stomach hurts,” Jane gasped. “I never realized singing was such hard work...”

“That means you’re doing something right. Your muscles are working to support your breath. They’ll grow stronger with practice and soon this will be easier for you. But let’s take a minute to relax and breathe and...”

Something, some dark shape lurking in the hallway just outside the music room door, caught the corner of Tony’s eye. Loki. He was sure of it. And the way Loki hovered out there, trying to remain unseen, set off an unpleasant twinge in Tony’s gut.

“On second thought,” he said, “why don’t we pause for fifteen minutes. I’m afraid all that rich food from last night’s supper is not sitting well and I could use a quick stroll around the garden to settle my stomach.” He handed her a page of music. “When I return, we’ll start learning this song. It’s one of my own compositions. Are you comfortable with Italian lyrics?”

“Yes. Signor Fabbro rarely gave me anything but.”

“Lovely. Have a look at this and try to pick out the melody without playing the notes on the virginal. When I return, we’ll see how you did.”

He heard the faint click of the back door closing as he left Jane to her task and slipped out of the music room. So Loki had been eavesdropping, and he had taken Tony’s hint. And when Tony opened the door, there he was, leaning against the bricks next to the kitchen window with a smirk on his face like a schoolboy with a tattling tale to tell.

“Why are you interrupting my lesson?” Tony asked.

“Interrupting?” Loki replied with a perfect expression of mock surprise. “I neither said nor did a single thing. It seems to me that you interrupted yourself, leaving poor Jane all alone so you could chase after me.”

“You were hanging about the doorway and distracting me. Why?”

The smirk returned. “If you must know, Master Carbonello, I thought you might at least have the decency to wait a week before trying to convince your student into various states of undress.”

Like stones in a well, Tony’s heart and stomach both plummeted down to somewhere deep below the ground. “That... That was not what you think!”

“Wasn’t it? I think you asked Jane to remove her stays. And I think she did.”

“Yes, but only so she could breathe for-”

“My good sir,” Loki said, sounding nothing but patronizing. “Nobody ever cares for the why. All that matters is the what. Do you think my brother would accept-”

“Do not tell your brother!” Tony warned, stepping forward to close the gap of safety between them.

“Why not?”

“Because you are only doing it to cause grief when you know full well there was nothing improper going on between me and Jane!”

“I do know that,” Loki agreed. “But Thor does not.”

“Then why would you bother telling him anything?! Why are you trying to stir up trouble?!”

“You hardly need my help to stir up trouble. I have a great suspicion that you would find trouble for yourself, sooner or later, if left to your own devices. I am merely... shall we say... expediting the process.”

“Why? What do you want?”

The smirk again. That damnable, sly smirk. “I want a favor,” said Loki.

Tony took a step back. Was Loki actually trying to blackmail him? “...What?”

“You heard me. I want a favor.”

“What favor?” Tony asked, though given how well this confrontation had gone so far, he was already dreading the answer.

“Oh, I don’t know... I’ve not yet decided. Some as-yet-undetermined favor to be collected at some future time as I deem fit. In exchange, I remain silent on this whole sordid business of you demanding poor Jane remove her undergarments as a condition of your tutelage.”

“I did not-” Tony began, but was quickly silenced by Loki lifting his finger.

“I keep this secret, and you owe me a favor. Are we understood?”

They were understood. Granted that understanding came forced at a sword’s point, but what choice did Tony have? “Understood,” he muttered.

“Splendid,” said Loki. “I hope you don’t forget. I know I won’t.”

Forget. Loki struck Tony as the kind of person who never forgot a damn thing, for better or worse. Tony turned his back without so much as a grunt of farewell, leaving Loki out there in the garden like the snake he was and returning to Jane in the music room.

He forced a smile. “My apologies for the interruption. I’m feeling much better now. How are you coming along with the song?”

“Some difficulty,” she answered with a small frown. “I did warn you my sight singing ability is not where I would like it to be.”

“Then let’s start at the beginning and see how you do. You sing, then I play the note. On mi: are you ready?”

ooo

Life in the Asgersen household quickly organized itself into a routine for Tony. Every morning he rose with the sun (whether he wanted to or not, due to the flimsy curtains on his windows), then ate breakfast with Thor and Jane. Boiled eggs, usually, with fresh bread and ripe cheese. Sometimes sliced ham. Between breakfast and dinner Jane helped Louisa with the housework and cooking, leaving Tony free to sit with his viol in the garden on sunny days, or, more often, sequester himself in his attic room when it rained. After a simple dinner of cold sausage with more bread and cheese, Tony and Jane had their music lesson. Thor worked out of his office at the front of the house, but would often leave of an afternoon to conduct his trade business. Tony was free to work on his compositions again after the lesson, and Jane allotted herself practice time before joining Louisa once again help cook supper. Thor was always home by quarter to seven. Thor, Jane, and Tony ate supper together at eight. Thor and Jane would then read a while in the sitting room with their imported Ceylon tea and delicate porcelain cups from China, and Tony could once again work at his music.

He had an awful lot of free time to work at his music. Unsurprisingly, he accomplished absolutely nothing other than wasting dozens of sheets of expensive paper.

He caught only rare glimpses of Loki over that first week, which suited him well enough. Admiration and awe had declined into anxiety and fear so quickly and so thoroughly he could barely remember ever having experienced the former. The less he saw of Loki – the less anybody saw of Loki – the less likely it was that Loki would ‘forget’ their arrangement simply to cause trouble. And then there was the business of the favor, which caused Tony even more anxiety on top of everything else. Loki had given no hint as to what sort of favor might be forthcoming. Nor had he even spoken more than a handful of words to Tony since that day in the garden. All of this led Tony to believe that something dreadful was in the works.

Saturday afternoon was bath day, which Tony avoided in favor of a quick splash in his basin upstairs. And also because Loki seemed set on spending all of Saturday afternoon lolling about in the kitchen. On Sunday, Thor demanded Loki get out of bed in time for breakfast so they could all together go to church. And that was when a small problem arose.

“Will you be joining us for church, Tony?” Thor asked over breakfast that first Sunday.

Tony froze with a spoon of boiled egg lifted halfway to his mouth. Busy as he had been doing nothing with his music, this was a situation he had utterly failed to prepare himself for. And something he should have thought to anticipate. Protestant church. “Ah,” he said. “Well...”

“Are you Catholic?” asked Jane.

All of the eyes of the table were on him. Tony could feel them: Jane, Thor, and Loki. All watching, all waiting for his response to a question that required him to either lie or admit to something their country of residence had outlawed.

“I assumed you were,” Jane continued, leaning forward as if to assure him with that friendly gesture. “Coming from Rome, you must be. We do not mind, if that’s something that worries you.”

“Oh,” said Tony. “In that case, yes, I am Catholic. And in the absence of a Catholic mass, I think I would prefer to stay home and conduct my own prayers.”

“As you wish it,” Thor said with a nod. He looked slightly less accepting of this turn of events than Jane, as if Tony should be expected to make do with whatever Protestant service they chose, but did not push the issue.

So the Asgersens left for their church, and Tony remained behind to mumble his way through a few bare minimum prayers for the pretence of keeping up some semblance of faith. They reconvened at supper time, and everyone (except Loki, who had, as usual, disappeared) was very careful to avoid the touchy subject of religion. If they did not mention it, perhaps all the problems associated therewith would simply go away. Thor and Jane did not ask about Tony’s faith, and he felt no need to say anything. An easy compromise.

And that was the first week done. The second week went much the same, beginning on Monday with the voice lesson and ending on Sunday night with a roast goose for supper after church for the Asgersens and home prayers for Tony. Then came the third week. Monday, voice. Tuesday, virginal. Wednesday, theory. Thursday, voice. And on Friday, during the virginal lesson, the tenuous peace with Loki came to an end.

“Now try this one, at measure twenty-six,” Tony told Jane. “You can see that the passage is written to be very plain, but you mustn’t take it to be exactly as you see. It’s a return to the previous melody we heard at the start of the piece, but simplified, and what that tells us is we’re meant to add in our own ornamentation. So try play it through, but add a few trills and runs to make it more interesting. Here, for example, where it jumps a fifth, could be a run, and this held note should be trilled. But play from twenty-six and see what you think works.”

“How unnecessary,” said a voice from the doorway. Loki’s voice. Loki’s unmistakable, liquid voice. “I would think the composer would be insulted to have his work so mutilated.”

“I hardly believe that,” Tony flung back at him, “owing to the fact that I am the composer of this piece and I know exactly what I intended when I wrote the song in this way.”

“You wrote your song to be changed and bastardized by any amateur to sit at a keyboard?”

“Yes. That’s half the fun in playing.”

Loki snorted. “I prefer the simple melody. The less ‘fun’ version. It actually sounds almost like music, instead of this over-ornamented foolishness you insist on peddling.”

“Loki...” Jane sighed. “You are interrupting my lesson.”

“Yes, you are interrupting the lady’s lesson,” said Tony. “Now unless you have anything constructive to add?”

“I thought I was adding something constructive. I am telling you, most constructively, that this excessive padding you are attempting to force onto that poor melody completely destroys it. What is so wrong with simplicity?”

“It’s a matter of taste,” said Jane, still trying to be polite, but Tony had heard enough.

“Do you know anything at all about the mechanics of a plucked string instrument such as a harpsichord or virginal, you smug fool?” Tony demanded, staring Loki square in the eye.

His outburst only served to coax out a crooked smile. Was this enjoyable for Loki? “I quite likely know more than you, Master Carbonello.”

“You quite likely do not, otherwise you would be aware that the plucked string on a harpsichord produces a quick, sharp, and, most importantly, unsustained note. Do you know what your preferred dirges sound like on a harpsichord? Very much like this!” Leaning over Jane, played three slow, widely spaced notes. “Each one fades into silence a moment after it sounds! What sort of music is that? And even if you think that, perhaps, it could work on its own, what happens when the harpsichord is then set to accompany a violin? Or an arrangement of strings? I will tell you, Master Lind: the harmony is lost almost as soon as it begins! That is why this song has so much of what you claim to be excessive ornamentation. A trill here, a run there... they are to fill in the blank spaces. The harpsichord trills, and the violin trills to match the harpsichord, and the viola trills to match the violin, and the flute trills to match the viola, because it simply sounds better when all the instruments play in the same style. Or does such a simple concept as musical cohesion escape the confines of your incredibly narrow mind?”

He expected a scathing retort to that. Or, at the very least, a scowl and a spitting of a few choice words. And certainly a threat to their agreement of not telling Thor the story of the stays. Instead, Loki laughed. Out loud, head thrown back laughed. And he said nothing more, but left the music room with his laugh still echoing back down the hallway.

Tony, realizing he held his fists clenched so tight his fingernails bit into his palms, relaxed his hands. “I’m... I’m so sorry,” he mumbled to Jane. “I don’t know what came over me. I should not have done that.”

“Oh yes you should have,” Jane growled in reply. “He certainly deserved it. Interrupting my lesson and insulting you like that. He deserved every harsh word you said.”

That was probably true, but nonetheless Tony could not rid himself of the awful feeling he should have kept his mouth shut. Whatever the case,” he said, shaking his head. “That was rude of me. I must apologize to Loki later. For now, though...”

They would carry on with the lesson, and hope Loki was not too quick to run to his brother with stories that should not see the light of day.

ooo

Tony half expected Loki to accost him at the top of the stairs after the music lesson’s completion, and this was exactly what Loki did. It was, however, not in the manner Tony expected.

“Grab your cloak and hat, Master Carbonello,” Loki said to him. “We’re going out.”

Tony blinked. “We’re...”

“Going out. Are you hard of hearing as well as lacking in any musical taste? Grab your cloak. It looks like rain.”

“Why in God’s name would I agree to go anywhere with you?” Tony asked.

“Because,” said Loki. “If I know my brother, he has already asked you to act as somewhat of a spy and report back to him on my actions.”

“Of course not.” There was absolutely nothing in Tony’s agreement with Thor about reporting back on Loki’s actions.

“But besides that, I must confess I find you interesting. You have a hidden temper, and you speak your mind. And you do possess a most impressive array of knowledge on the topic of harpsichord mechanics. I should like to know you better. Therefore, we are going out. Go fetch your cloak and hat.”

“I don’t understand what you are trying to do,” Tony told him. Was this some sort of jest? Or a trap?

Placing both hands on Tony’s shoulders as if he were an imbecile, Loki spoke very slowly. “I am trying... to invite you... to come out... with me.”

“Why?”

“Did you not hear a word I just said? I find you interesting? And I think we are very alike, you and I. And as a show of good faith, I will even allow you to spy on me and tell Thor every questionable thing I do.”

“I told you, I’m not spying for-”

“Go fetch your cloak and hat. I’m leaving. You’re coming with me. Understood?”

“Is this your favor?”

“No. This is because we are about to become such good friends.”

With a sigh that sounded far too much like an admission of defeat, Tony rubbed his hands over his face. Was it worth fighting with Loki over this and risking landing on his bad side? Or should he take the easy way out and just go along with whatever hare-brained idea Loki was having? Thor did want him to spend more time with Loki, and he had been actively neglecting that condition of his employment so far...

“Fine,” he grudgingly agreed. “If you wish me to accompany you, accompany you I will. My cloak and hat are just upstairs. Where are we going?”

A coffee house. They were going to a coffee house. Though naturally Loki said nothing of the plan until they were already well on their way, giving Tony no opportunity to object.

“Coffee?” he asked. “You decide to drag me out of the house in this interminable rain for coffee?”

“What were you expecting?” Loki replied. Tony could not see his face, but he could hear the usual Loki-smirk just the same.

“I don’t know.” Something good. An inn with a nice, strong beer. A brothel. Something that lived up to the expectations Thor had planted in his head with those hints at Loki’s ‘troubled’ life. Following Loki to something as innocent as a coffee house seemed hardly worth the effort. “I honestly thought we would be going somewhere more... contentious.”

“Such as?”

“Please don’t make me say it out loud.”

“Ah you must mean a house of ill repute,” Loki said. Significantly louder than Tony found comfortable. “Well, I am dreadfully sorry to disappoint you, Master Carbonello, but I never visit such places. I can’t think why that would have been your first guess... Are you a frequent patron of such establishments?”

“Certainly not,” said Tony, since his meager purse these days by no means afforded him the luxury of being ‘frequent’. “But why a coffee house?” he asked to change the subject.

“Conversation,” came Loki’s answer, and nothing more.

‘Political speculation’, he meant. The kind of conversation Tony found soporifically dull even after three cups of coffee: a drink for which he had never quite acquired a taste (though he still ordered a fourth serving simply for something to do). All around, men shouted and argued and laughed, trading their opinions and anecdotes. All in Dutch. None of which Tony could understand. Whatever they discussed seemed terribly exciting to them, though Loki’s intermittent translation provided nothing that Tony found the least bit interesting.

“It’s one of the same things they always talk about,” said Loki. “King Charles of England. The man is fifty-four years old and has no legitimate heir.”

“Oh, why do they care?” Tony muttered into his cup. “The English and Dutch hate each other.” He remembered the stories from when he was a child. Dutch soldiers in the East Indies murdering good British merchant sailors and raping native women and burning children alive. Of course, then he moved to France and heard suspiciously similar stories about English soldiers. So who knew what might actually be the truth? “Aren’t they always starting a war over something or other?”

“Well yes, that’s the problem. Another potential war. The English and Dutch have had peace for the past eleven years, but if Charles dies without an heir we could be facing something much worse. The crown could go to his brother, James.”

“So?”

So?!” Loki echoed, giving Tony a look that suggested he was quite stupid indeed for not knowing what that meant. “James is Catholic.”

Tony almost said ‘so’ again, but caught himself and switched over to, “Oh.” As if that might help him sound like he knew what Loki meant by any of this.

Loki, naturally, was not fooled. “You’re hopeless. But you did just recently arrive from Rome, so I suppose I can forgive your ignorance. If a Catholic king ascends to the English throne, Tony, it could mean another civil war in England. Nobody wants a Catholic king.”

Tony supposed English Catholics might, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.

“Worse, though, is there are rumors that if this were to happen, English Protestants would try to overthrow James and place his Protestant daughter Mary on the throne, which could easily drag the Dutch into the war. And if the Dutch go to war, perhaps Louis of France will join sides with James, and then everything goes to hell.”

“Or Charles could live another ten years and James could die next week,” said Tony. “In which case Mary would take the crown by default and everything would carry on just fine.”

“Ah, so you do know what I’m talking about.”

Unfortunately, yes. The names were all starting to come back to Tony from his childhood schooling and slivers of news he had heard through the years. King Charles had at least a dozen bastards and not one legitimate heir. His brother, James, had two daughters yet living: Mary and Anne. Mary’s husband was Prince William of Orange-Nassau; Anne had married Prince George of Denmark. Why he still remembered any of this was a total mystery, since he certainly did not care. “Yes, I know,” he said. “But that does not mean I find it interesting in the slightest. Everyone is making a fuss over nothing. King Charles is not dying, and shows no indication of dying any time soon. This is nothing more than speculation by men who like nothing better than to think up the worst possible thing that can happen.”

“Better to needlessly prepare for a storm than to have it catch you unaware.”

Tony snorted. “Pessimistic talk. I prefer to live with optimism. Why not celebrate what we have today?”

“How?” Loki asked, looking both suspicious and, yes, pessimistic.

“With wine. Lots of wine. Please believe me that it’s far more enjoyable to be a happy drunk than an agitated coffee addict. Now shall we go someplace else?”

Chapter Text

Tony couldn’t even remember what they were laughing about as Loki fumbled with the key in the front door’s lock, dropped it onto the stone step, and had to try again. “Loki?” he whispered.

“What?” Loki whispered back.

“I’m drunk.”

Loki looked at him with an exaggerated expression of surprise. “Noooo, surely not...”

“Very much so.”

“Might I confess something shocking, Master Carbonello?”

Tony nodded, trying to look as solemn as possible.

“So am I.” Then a grin cracked across Loki’s face and he started laughing all over again, biting down on his lower lip to keep from being too loud. “Shh,” he said as he opened the door and gestured for Tony to go first up the stairs. “Thor and Jane will be asleep. Don’t-”

He was probably going to say something like ‘don’t trip up the stairs’, but Tony rendered that bit of advice obsolete by immediately tripping on the second stair. Loki had to help him up, but then there was the slight impediment of them both silently laughing too hard to stand properly. They both tripped again at the top step, Tony landing on his hands and knees and Loki stumbling on top of him.

“Shh!” Loki hissed.

“Sorry!” Tony hissed back.

“Your clumsiness will wake Thor and Jane!”

“I don’t think so.”

“What? Why not?”

Tony motioned with his head to the bedroom, prompting Loki to lean forward and listen. The sound coming from within was unmistakable. A creak of wood, a low groan, a choked-back cry, and gasped breath loud enough to be audible even through the closed door. Entirely, without a doubt, unmistakable.

“Oh for the love of God,” Loki muttered, rolling off Tony’s back and sitting down hard on the top step. “Again.

“They are married,” said Tony. He had to suppress the urge to start laughing again as he shifted around to sit next to Loki. “I mean, you have to expect...”

“Every night, Tony. Every night, I hear them through the wall! It’s enough to drive one mad. They did stop for a short while when they first learned she was pregnant, but it was a very short while and they were back to their usual antics within two weeks.”

“Are you envious?” Tony asked.

“Not at all. I am irritated by the noise and disturbance.”

“You don’t wish you had a pretty wife in your bed?”

Loki stared him down with one raised eyebrow. “Not as such. Why? Do you?”

“Wife? No,” said Tony. “I don’t think I’m quite ready for that level of commitment. But I wouldn’t be sorry to see something pretty in my bed.”

“Hm.”

Loki held that stare, neither moving nor even blinking. His face was mostly shadowed in the darkness of the stairway, but his eyes gleamed bright with the kind of intensity that made Tony... not quite nervous, but wary, perhaps. Anxious. His heart beat a little faster, and his throat felt a little drier even when he swallowed the ghosts of wine still left on his tongue. The air felt suddenly heavy between them. Seconds ago it had been light with laughter, but in the blink of an eye, unspoken tension crackled like sparks of flame and saturated the silence.

Silence disturbed only by a ragged, drawn-out, “Ohhhhhhh...” from the bedroom.

“I need to lie down,” said Loki. He turned away, and all that heavy tension went with him. “I just...”

He managed to stand by himself, but missed the hand rail on his first step and almost fell again. Tony caught him under the arm. “Here, let me help.”

“You’re just as drunk as I am.”

“Yes, but I think I’m somewhat more accustomed to this state. Hand?”

Despite a doubtful look, Loki still held out one shaky hand. Tony took hold, and with his other arm around Loki’s waist as a steadying brace, they made their way to Loki’s bedroom door. “I need to lie down,” Loki said again. “I feel dizzy.”

“Will you be ill?”

“I don’t know. If I am, I’ll do it out the window.” He stopped with his free hand on the latch but didn’t open it, instead standing there with his eyes closed and his forehead against the door frame.

“Will you be ill right now?” Tony asked.                         

“No. No. I’ll be fine. I’m only wondering about...”

“What?”

He spun around so quickly for somebody who had trouble staying on his feet, hand moving from the door to the back of Tony’s neck faster than eyes could track. Leaning in – it was definitely leaning, not falling, despite his unsteadiness – his face stopped an inch or less from Tony’s. Close enough for the heat of his breath to graze the stubble on Tony’s cheek. Too close for eye contact. Too close for this to be anything other than...

“You didn’t pull away,” Loki whispered.

“No.”

“Why not?”

Was there any way to answer that question without sounding like a total fool? “Well, um, I thought... I thought... This is going to sound incredibly stupid, but...” Pausing, Tony cleared his throat. “I thought you might be about to kiss me.”

“I was, yes.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I wanted to give you a chance to... not.”

“I see,” said Tony. “In that case, do you mind if I...?”

Oh, this was a terrible idea. He would regret it in the morning. He would likely regret it in five minutes. But he was also drunk, and, well, that made for a good enough excuse at the time. Both of his hands rose up to cup Loki’s face. Then all he had to do was move forward just the smallest amount to close the space between them. To press his lips against Loki’s. To feel Loki’s little inhalation of surprise and the soft warmth of his mouth, enhanced by the lingering taste of wine. Loki leaned back, and Tony with him. Against the bedroom door, Loki’s hands sliding down to Tony’s waist, inside his cloak, inside his coat, grasping his hips to pull him closer.

“Would I qualify as pretty enough for your bed?” Loki whispered. His tongue darted out to trace the shape of Tony’s lip.

The burst of heat and desire coiling in Tony’s stomach answered for him on instinct before he had time to consider the words. “Um, yes. You would. You really would. Absolutely, a hundred times over.”

“Mine or yours?”

“Yours,” said Tony. “It’s closer.” And didn’t involve another flight of stairs. Just one latch, which was proving obstacle enough for Tony as he reached blindly around Loki’s back while trying not to break their kiss.

“Just press the-”

“I know. I’m trying. But it’s-”

“You’re groping my arse more than the door latch.”

“What, I can’t do two things at once?”

“No, but the groping will be much easier once we’re on the other side of that door.”

“True,” Tony allowed. Groping would be far easier on the other side of that door, and without clothing in the way. With one last claiming kiss, he urged Loki aside and grabbed the door latch.

A different door opened before Tony could sort out Loki’s. It creaked open, Loki spun around to see (almost falling over), and there was Thor. Standing in nothing but a loosely fastened nightshirt.

“Oh,” said Thor.

“Oh,” Tony echoed.

“Thor,” said Loki.

Thor coughed, standing up straighter, as if that could possibly help him look more dignified in his scandalous state of undress. “I was...” He coughed again, swiping a hand over his face. “The baby makes Jane quite hungry. I was going to fetch her an apple from the kitchen.”

“I see,” said Tony, just to say anything when Loki remained suspiciously silent. “Well, Loki is feeling somewhat poorly, and I am... helping him to bed.”

“Are you drunk?”

Loki nodded. “Absolutely.”

“Then allow me to deal with my drunk brother, Signor Carbonello,” Thor said to Tony. “I do thank you for your concern – this is very kind of you to look after him – but he should not impose on your kindness this way. I will see him to bed.”

There was nothing Tony could say but, “Thank you,” as Thor took Loki under the arm and pushed the bedroom door open to lead him inside. “You know, I don’t mind-”

“No, you go to bed. Loki will be my concern.”

“I don’t need help,” Loki tried, but Thor was clearly having none of his backtalk. He hauled Loki into the bedroom, and Tony watched from the doorway as everything was thoroughly ruined by Thor opening the bed curtains, pulling back the blankets, depositing Loki onto the mattress, and tucking him snugly into bed. And that was that. Now Thor knew Loki was drunk, and probably suspected Loki and Tony had spent the evening finding their way into trouble. That meant chances of Thor returning later in the night to check up on Loki were high.

“Damn it all,” Tony muttered. Before Thor could come back out of Loki’s room and ask any uncomfortable questions, he stumbled over to the stairs and somehow managed to make his way up to the attic without falling. He dumped his damp hat and cloak on the floor, but took more care with his wig, draping the cap over a post on the mirror above his dressing table. The rest of his clothes landed with something between care and carelessness on the seat of a wooden chair before he pulled on his nightshirt and fell into bed.

And then the regret came. How long had it been? Five minutes, if that? He kissed Loki. One wine-fuelled lapse of judgement, and he kissed Loki, the brother of his employer, right there in the hall where anyone could have seen. If Thor had come out of his own bedroom only seconds earlier, they would have been seen. He kissed Loki, who lived in this house, who would continue to live in this house, and whom Tony would now have to see every morning, day, and night. Around the house and at meals. He would have to speak to Loki, in front of Thor and in front of Jane, and pretend as if everything were still completely normal and nothing out of the ordinary had happened and he had not kissed Loki. And had not fully intended to do far more and far worse with Loki if Thor had not interrupted.

“Oh God, what was I thinking?” he groaned into his pillow.

No, he knew exactly what he had been thinking. He had been thinking that he wanted to kiss Loki and take Loki to bed and, to use a crude term, fuck Loki rather mercilessly. Those were the very specific, irrefutable things he had been thinking. Unfortunately, they had now all been replaced by more sobering thoughts along the lines of how he would act the next morning at breakfast and whether or not he would end up having to abandon his employment at the Asgersen residence.

Would Loki say anything? No, probably not. Would he make dozens of sly little comments, hinting at some mysterious indiscretion, that drove Tony to want to strangle him? Yes, that sounded exactly like what Loki would do. Would Thor and Jane eventually find out? That, Tony didn’t want to spend too much time considering. He was rather fond of lying to himself that this would stay a secret forever. In the morning, he would talk to Loki and secure assurance that they both saw things in the same light.

Tonight, he would pull the blankets up over his head, slide his hand down between his thighs, and let this impossible fantasy live on just a little longer.

ooo

To Tony’s immense relief, Loki did not show up for breakfast, which meant there would be no danger of any secrets being divulged and therefore no immediate need for Tony to excuse himself to go jump into the canal out front. And Thor made no mention of the previous night’s encounter in front of Jane, waiting instead until he and Tony had a moment alone before apologizing on Loki’s behalf. Somehow he still operated under the delusion that Loki was the troublesome one and Tony was nothing but a good influence. Tony was not stupid enough to do anything to correct this misconception.

“But perhaps,” Thor suggested, “in the future, you might direct him away from the wine and towards more respectable pursuits instead?”

“I will certainly try,” promised Tony. “In fact, I did suggest that perhaps we go to a coffee house, but he seemed reluctant to take my advice. Maybe next time.”

Thor seemed satisfied with that.

Loki remained absent through lunch, but did stumble downstairs looking pale and drawn near the end of Jane’s theory lesson. He paused in the doorway to the music room, leaning against the frame, and it was only good luck that Jane was too engrossed in her counterpoint to look up. And better luck that Loki only stayed there for a moment, long enough to meet Tony’s eyes and nothing more, before moving on and slinking his way over to the kitchen to sit at the table with his head in his hands. Tony chose not to follow him just yet, instead focusing all his attention on Jane.

“How is your exercise coming?”

“Oh, fine,” she said. “I think I may be finished, though I want to look it through again. I always change something and end up with accidental parallel fifths.”

“Would playing it help?”

“No. I’m determined to finish this one without having to play it. But I think it’s good. Can you check?”

If Tony took three times as long as he should have checking and double-checking Jane’s treble counterpoint to the cantus firmus he assigned, it was for a very good reason. And that reason was the minute this lesson ended, Jane would go into the kitchen to start helping Louisa with supper. Then Loki, not wanting to be part of the women’s work, would inevitably leave the kitchen to come see Tony in the music room. Then they would have to talk, and Tony would have to say things, and for the love of Christ, he was already dreading it.

“...Tony?”

“Hm?” He glanced up to see Jane looking down at him in worry.

“You’ve been staring at my exercise a very long time. Is it completely wrong?”

“Oh, um, no,” he said, handing the paper back to her. “In fact it’s perfect. Very well done.”

Her face lit up with a wide smile. “Really?”

“I could not have done it better myself.”

“You’re a good teacher,” she told him. “The way Signor Fabbro spoke of theory and composition, he made it sound like some mystical, secretive language and set of formulae that I could never possibly understand. But you make everything simple. It’s not a mystery at all. It’s rules and mathematics.”

“That’s true,” Tony said, nodding. “Much of it is mathematics, which... I admit, I would not have expected you to enjoy.”

“May I tell you a secret, Tony?”

Nodding again, he gestured for her to sit, and she pulled her chair up close to his.

“When I was a little girl,” Jane began, “everyone – my aunts, my parent’s friends, any guests who came through our home – they all said how pretty I was, how well-behaved I was, and what a good wife I would make. As I grew older, they asked me what color of dress I wanted to wear to my wedding, or how many children I wanted. No one ever, ever, asked me what I wanted to do with my life. If I wanted anything for myself other than being a wife and mother.”

“Then what did you want?” Tony asked.

She looked almost embarrassed to answer, biting her lip and staring down at the floor. “I wanted to be an architect. Or an astronomer. Or anything where I could think instead of just do. But of course the world insists a woman can’t be any of those things... So I had to force myself to be content with what I was allowed. I made myself dresses not because I love sewing – I hate it – but because I enjoy measuring out fabric and determining the curve of a sleeve or the cut of a gusset or how wide each section of a seven-panel bodice should be to fit a twenty-three inch waist. And I pursued music not because I wanted to be a great singer, but because I love recognizing harmonies and knowing that thirds and fifths create consonance but a diminished fifth does not. I don’t care about dresses and music because they are pretty. I care because they are things I can make, things I can control, things that require me to use my brain. I only wish that...”

“Wish what?” Tony prompted when Jane failed to continue.

“Oh, nothing,” she said, shaking her head as if to shake off whatever was bothering her, as easy as shedding a cape. “I shouldn’t complain. I have a lovely life here with Thor, and he treats me so well. He isn’t the problem, and I’m sure if I told him I wanted to study algebra, he’d find me a teacher for that as well. But sometimes I wish I’d been born a boy. Then at least society would take me seriously.”

“Alas, I can tell you from personal experience that being a boy would not necessarily help your position. Boys often have fathers who dictate their paths in life. Those who wish to be architects are forced into the military, those who wish to be physicians must instead study law, and those who wish to be astronomers have no choice but to work on the family farm.”

“And those who wish to study music are...?”

“Those who wish to study music,” Tony said slowly, “are shipped off to live with their aunts at the age of thirteen, where they are expected to attend university and make something respectable of themselves.”

“You still ended up studying music, though,” said Jane, standing up and smoothing out the front of her dress. “A girl would not even have had the chance.”

Tony had to concede her that point. At least as a boy, he had been able to disappear into the world and nobody gave him a second glance.

“But thank you for your understanding, Tony. And allow me to apologize for keeping you past our allotted time. I’ll tidy up all the papers later, but it’s wash day and I must take my turn before helping prepare supper.”

Ah yes, wash day. Even after three weeks, Tony still found the concept absurd.

“Now if you would like a bath this week,” Jane continued, “do feel free to use the tub after Loki.”

And as he had done on the previous two weeks, despite Jane’s offer, Tony declined. “No, thank you. It seems odd to me, this idea of sitting in a tub of water. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Well,” said Loki’s voice from its usual hovering vantage point of the doorway, “If you need help, I could always show you. I know it is such a difficult concept, sitting in the water and lathering your skin with soap. First-time bathers are often confused as to the exact method.”

“Oh, be quiet, Loki,” Jane said as she pushed past him on her way to the kitchen. “Nobody wants to hear from you.”

“Really?” countered Loki. “I was under the impression that people paid an awful lot of money to hear from me.”

“When you sing, maybe,” Jane called back to him. “Otherwise, you’re far more tolerable with your mouth shut.”

Snorting, Loki sauntered into the music room. “Oh, she thinks she’s so clever... So amusing...” He sat in the chair Jane had just vacated, opposite Tony, with one leg hooked over the delicately carved armrest and his hand left to drape down the velveteen-upholstered back.

“Unlike you?” Tony asked.

Loki smirked. “Very unlike me. I actually am clever and amusing.”

“The very words I would have chosen to describe you.”

“Ah, Tony,” Loki laughed, swinging his body around so that both feet rested on the floor and he could lean forward in his chair, elbows on his knees and chin resting in his hands, to stare at Tony with the kind of predatory, teeth-baring grin one would usually associate with exotic tales of lions and tigers. He said nothing else. Just grinned. Almost like a challenge, daring Tony to speak.

“Why are you staring at me like that?”

“Like what?” Tiger-Loki said.

“Like you’re about to do something very unpleasant to me.”

“Mm, I would never do anything unpleasant to you. At least not unless you asked very nicely.”

“Loki...” With a groan, Tony pressed his hands into his eyes and forced himself to look away. For all he’d tried to think this through, for however much he’d tried to plan, now that Loki was sitting there across from him he couldn’t come up with a damn thing to say. What in the world did one say at a time like this, in a situation like this, to a person like Loki? Especially when he felt the beginning threads of that same, unnerving tension he felt between the night before as they sat on the stairs? That same tension, and the same stirring of desire that came with it?

He could barely even look at Loki, let alone speak to him.

“Well,” Loki said to fill the void when Tony’s hunt for words continued to fail. “You’re not acting how I expected you would.”

“How am I supposed to act?” Tony asked without glancing up.

“Typically, either chase after me like a lovesick puppy or sternly tell me that last night was an abominable mistake that can never happen again.”

“I was thinking of the second option for a while,” Tony admitted, “though then I realized my entire life is a series of abominable mistakes, so what’s one more to add to the ever-growing list?”

“Which means?”

Tony looked back up, though tried to keep himself from becoming too ensnared by those piercing eyes and focused on the safety of Loki’s ear instead. “I make a lot of mistakes. All the time.”

“In the future as well as the past?”

“Oh, most certainly.”

“In the very near future?”

“Sadly, yes. Things are looking very bleak for my immortal soul.”

“I’d feel ever so sorry for you if I had half a turd to give about your damned Catholic soul,” said Loki, looking not the least bit sorry at all.

“Luckily you’re a heretic and have no soul to be damned,” Tony threw back.

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong,” Loki said, leaning even farther forward like a conspirator. “My soul is pure and white as new snow, because, unlike you, I never make mistakes.”

“No?”

“No. Everything I do is the result of a perfect choice, carefully planned and executed in exactly the manner I wish.”

Exactly the manner he wished... Something about that phrase caught in Tony’s brain. Did that mean their drunken liaison was something Loki had planned? From the time he invited Tony out the previous afternoon? Or did it develop later on, as they moved from coffee to wine? Or was Tony reading too much into empty, playful banter? He forced those thoughts aside, dragging himself back into the moment. “So if you never make mistakes,” he said carefully, “then I can trust you to not make the mistake of mentioning any of this to your brother?”

“Now why would I do that?” Loki asked. “Telling Thor would ruin everything.”

“Thank you,” said Tony, and he allowed himself to relax a little in his chair.

“Besides,” Loki added, “If I’m going to ruin your reputation, I’m certainly going to do something worth ruining it over first.”

Tony was going to make a conscious effort at believing that was a joke. But joke or not, this conversation was going too far, and too much was being said out in the open where Thor could walk by at any moment. “You’re coming dangerously close to saying too much already.”

The tiger-grin returned as Loki licked his lips. “Do I alarm you?”

“In a great many ways,” Tony muttered.

“Good.”

Loki sounded like he meant that, too, but at least he also sounded like he had nothing further to say on the topic. Which made this moment the perfect opportunity for Tony to make his exit. “I should go back upstairs now,” he said, standing and angling his way towards the door. “Leave you to your wash day...”

An exaggerated, frowning pout graced Loki’s face. “You won’t be partaking?”

“No.”

“No?”

Instead of repeating himself, Tony just shook his head and moved closer to the door.

“Not even as a... favor?”

Oh, Loki had to be joking about that, even if the way he stared at Tony, calmly and expectantly, looked far too serious for comfort. “You would spend your favor on something this silly?”

“I would.”

Why?”

“If you must know,” Loki said, standing so he could join Tony in the doorway (and partially block it to prevent any hasty tactical retreat, or so it seemed), “unrelated to the obvious benefit of watching you undress, my main interest in this bathing endeavor today is predicated solely on the fact that you smell like a pig.”

“No I... don’t...” said Tony, trying turn his face away from Loki in what he hoped read as a gesture of annoyance so he could discreetly sniff his shoulder. As far as he could tell, it did not smell of pigs. Or anything at all, except perhaps a normal bit of sweat and the mildewy dampness that clung to everything in Amsterdam.

“You do. And please believe me that when I say this, I do not mean it in any hyperbolic or metaphorical sense. You do, in fact, smell remarkably similar to an actual pig.”

“Well then you smell like...” Spice and greens came to mind as he leaned over to inhale the scent of Loki’s shirt. Fresh and enticing. Damn it. “Do you put a pomander of clove and evergreen in your wardrobe?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Shifting back, Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s nice.”

“I know. Now will you agree to the bath, or will I have to assume you’ve retracted your favor? In which case I should feel obliged to tell Thor about-”

“Tell Thor about what?” Thor called out, bounding down the stairs. In the aftermath of his weekly bath, he was dressed in a long, informal house robe and slippers, and his damp hair had been neatly combed back and fastened with a ribbon into a sleek tail. An irritatingly good-natured grin tied the whole ensemble together. “What are you two plotting about?”

“Music,” Tony panic-answered, at the same time as Loki said, “Religion.” The two of them stared at each other for a moment before looking at Thor and saying, in tandem, “Religious music.”

Thor, who obviously did not care and was only making bland conversation, grinned wider, clapped Tony on the shoulder, and continued on his way into the kitchen to find something to tide him over until supper.

“Go upstairs,” Loki hissed to Tony in the sort of voice that one tended to simply obey without question. “Fetch a clean shirt. Then come directly back down here, and I will show you how one enjoys the noble custom of bathing.”

Chapter Text

The bathing room was even smaller than Tony remembered from his brief tour of the house with Jane on that first day. A small fireplace in the corner, a water barrel next to the fire, a large wooden tub in the middle of the room, a rack on which to hang clothes and towels, and very little space for anything else. Loki stood on one side of the tub near the fire, pouring in a boiling kettle to reheat the water, and Tony kept to the other side near the door with his arms crossed and tightly tucked around his middle. “What if,” he said, trying to reason with Loki, “I used it like a large basin to wash my face and hands?”

“Well yes,” Loki replied, “you theoretically could do that, but it would entirely defeat the purpose of having a tub large enough to sit in. In case you hadn’t guessed, the purpose of having a tub large enough to sit in would be to sit in the tub. And wash your entire body, not just conveniently placed appendages.”

“I just don’t think this is a very good idea. Bathing simply isn’t healthy. I’ve lived twenty-four years without and am pleased to say I’ve never suffered any ailment worse than a mild chill or fever. Why should I tempt fate by bathing now?”

“Because I’ve lived twenty-five years,” Loki retorted, “and have likewise suffered no illnesses of note. Yet I have bathed every week all my life, save when prohibited by travel. Perhaps the secret to living to see twenty-five is bathing. I would not tempt fate by refusing.”

Tony was clearly going to have to try a more intellectual approach, since logic was getting him nowhere. “Look,” he said. “If you knew anything at all of the medical arts, you would know that sitting in water allows all kinds of poisons to seep into the body. That’s why people sweat, Loki. Water is meant to come out from the skin, not go in. The body cleanses itself naturally though sweat. Hot water opens the pores so that toxins may enter. It’s dangerous. Men of science know that if one must wash at all, one should do so with cold water, and sparingly, to mitigate risk.”

Loki turned away with a snort, and refilled the kettle from the barrel before placing it back on the fire to boil anew. “Utter nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense at all. My father is a physician and I learned all of this from-”

With a sharp snap of the head, Loki turned back to face Tony. “What did you say?”

“I said my father is a physician. He studied at the University of Cambridge and I think he would know these things better than you.”

“Oh?” said Loki, moving forward. Around the tub. Carefully executing each step like a wolf on the prowl. “Did he? Signor Antonio Carbonello, did your father study at the University of Cambridge? Which, as I understand, is in England?”

Oh. Oh, God. Tony’s stomach plummeted sharply down, twisting as it fell, leaving a sick feeling in its wake. “I...” he tried to say, but nothing more would come out. It stuck in his throat, choked by the realization of what had just happened. What he had just said. What Loki had just heard. What he, in his stupid carelessness, had let slip. Instinctively, he took a step back and away from Loki’s advancing form, but when his fingers slipped over the door latch, Loki’s arm shot out to hold the door shut and keep him trapped in place.

“You what?” Loki asked with the most unsettling half-smile Tony had ever seen, made even more dangerous by the dim and flickering firelight. Tony had to look away, focusing on something else, something safer, while his mind spun and grasped blindly for anything he could say. It came up empty at every turn.

“You what, Antonio Carbonello?” Loki prompted again, leaning in close. “Was that a slip? Surely you meant to say your father studied at the University of Bologna! Is that it?”

Maybe it was the mocking lilt in Loki’s voice, or the cornered animal urge to fight back, but something fuelled the tiny spark of anger in Tony’s gut. There was no chance of lying his way out of this. That much was painfully obvious, and he had never been the kind of man to cling to the hopeless tatters of a lost cause. Better to change tactics and try to salvage any dignity he could, in whatever way possible. “What do you want, Loki?” he growled.

Loki’s terrible little smile grew into a terribly wide grin. “Oh, nothing. I have everything I want right now, though I thank you for asking. I’ve been waiting for this. I’d guessed a while ago you were not actually from Rome... Do you even speak Italian?”

“Non ritengo di essere idiota abbastanza per mentire riguardo qualcosa del genere.” 

“Yes well,” Loki said, finally leaning back and taking his hand off the door, “that sounds very authentic, so good for you. But I knew you looked familiar. I just couldn’t place when or where I’d seen you before. I thought perhaps Köln, three years ago. But no. Now I remember. You’re the son of that London physician. The boy who struck Thor in the eye. Tony Stark, isn’t it?”

Those words and the memories that came flooding back with them hit Tony like a physical blow, making his knees buckle as he sagged against the door. Nils Asgersen. Søren Asgersen. Their father, Jessy, the fight... It all rushed back in as clear as day. All those things he hadn’t been able to exactly recall: why Thor looked familiar, why the names sounded familiar, why he felt he was missing out on some key piece of information dangling just out of reach in his past. Because he was missing out on some key piece of information, and here it stood. “Nils Asgersen,” he whispered. “You broke my harpsichord.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” Loki groaned, and he leaned back even further, though probably only did so in order to have a better angle from which to glare at Tony. “I broke nothing. It was badly out of tune before I touched the useless thing.”

Tony’s memory may have been incomplete, but he was fairly certain Loki did break that harpsichord. “You-”

“Whatever the case,” Loki interrupted, “these events of eleven years ago are in the past. I am far more interested in the present. Aren’t you?”

No. Tony was not interested in the present at all. The present was where his entire, carefully constructed (or, to be fair, not-so-carefully constructed, but still very dear to him) world of lies was falling apart bit by bit under the assaults of Loki’s battering ram of inconvenient truth. “If I may be honest, I would rather go back to the past. Perhaps even five minutes ago. Before we began this... ah... discussion.”

Cocking his head to the side, Loki raised one eyebrow. “This discussion? You mean, this one we’re having right now? Our discussion of how this whole character of Antonio Carbonello is nothing more than a ruse? How your true name is, in fact, Tony Stark, and you are from London, not Rome? How you have been lying to poor Jane and Thor these past three weeks?”

The exact discussion Tony would rather avoid. And in the interest of avoiding it, he reached back for the door latch, giving Loki one quick and fairly insincere bow as he did. “Yes. Would you mind if we stopped right here? I’ll go gather my things from upstairs and show myself to the door.”

“Why would I let you do that?”

“Loki, we both know how this will play out,” Tony said. “If I stay, you’ll tell Thor, and I’ll instinctively deny everything even though I have no leg to stand on. Thor will fly into a rage and attack me either verbally or physically: not sure which but it’ll be a delightful surprise to find out. Then he’ll quite probably attack you as well for being the messenger. Jane will look heartbreakingly disappointed, and that will make me feel terrible. I will go drink away my sorrows in some awful turd-hole of a public house, lose consciousness in a dirty alley, and be robbed and murdered and have my naked body dumped into a canal. But that’s an awful lot of trouble for everyone to go to on my account, so what if I simply leave now and go straight to the drinking and dying? Or, even better, go drown myself in the canal out front? I’d hate to miss out on being drunk one last time before I die, but that would be the most efficient use of time.”

“True,” Loki agreed, “but your little chain of events there has one major flaw.”

“Being?”

Loki took his time answering, first taking a few lazy steps away and then leaning against the wall beside the drying rack. “Your scenario depends on me revealing your lies to Thor and Jane. Which I have no plans to do.”

Tony’s stomach dropped again as he stared at Loki, as if that would shed any light into what the devil he was up to. Something. It was certainly something: Loki’s nasty smile was far too prominent for this to be anything other than a very specific plot. “What keeps you from telling Thor?” Tony asked. His voice sounded too suspicious. He should have tried to keep it lighter.

“The fact that you’re about to agree to owe me so very many favors.”

Ah. The usual, then. Blackmail. “How many favors?” That inflection sounded better. Unconcerned and disinterested.

“Hmmm...” Like a snake trying to slough off his skin, Loki squirmed against the wall. “Six, I’d say.”

Six favors. That sounded like six too many, but given the choice Tony was facing, not wholly unreasonable. Only mostly unreasonable. He could live through six favors. So far Loki had spent the first ill-gotten favor on nothing worse than requiring him to take one bath. He hadn’t been asked to commit a robbery or murder. And by the way Loki watched him, awaiting agreement with a lascivious smirk... Tony could guess what the next six favors might involve.

Upon further reflection, perhaps this would not turn out to be so bad after all.

“Fine,” he told Loki. “Six favors. And you tell neither Thor nor Jane. About any of this.”

“Your ridiculous secret is safe with me, Master Carbonello.”

And with that Loki turned to face the clothes rack, unbuttoning his waistcoat and shirt and pulling off both before moving on to his breeches. Sighing, Tony began to do the same with the dozen or more tiny buttons down his front. If he wasted enough time undressing, maybe he could put this off for another few precious minutes.

“What are you doing?” Loki asked.

“I’m...” What did Loki mean, what was he doing? He was undressing, obviously enough. Wasn’t that what Loki wanted?

“We don’t bathe at the same time, you cretin. The tub is nowhere near large enough. I wash first, then it’s your turn.”

“So what, I just watch you for now?”

Loki did not exactly grin, but his expression was by no means wholesome. “If you like.”

It turned out that Tony did like. Not that he would admit to as much, but he was quite happy forcing his face into neutral flatness and pretending to be bored and angry as Loki put on more of a show of undressing. Woolen breeches, silk stockings, fine linen drawers to protect against the damp and cold... Loki made a great effort at folding each piece and delicately hanging everything over the clothes rack. He stepped carefully as a cat over the edge of the tub and into the water, lowering himself down with exaggerated slowness until its inky darkness swallowed him whole. And all the while, he never broke eye contact.

Nor did Tony. Everything Loki did was clearly in search of some kind of reaction, a hint of either embarrassment or desire, and Tony had no intention to play along with that game. He watched everything Loki did and neither spoke a word nor moved an inch, while inside his heart beat too fast and his blood grew hot and pooled low in his belly. The way the water licked at Loki’s shape, the way light reflected and rippled on its shadowy surface like rings of gold... The way every small muscle moved beneath Loki’s bare skin, with nothing but air for cover... Oh, this was not good. Not safe. Not at all.

And then Loki said something, which Tony completely missed due to both the concentration required for the upkeep of his stoicism and the mesmerising way Loki’s neck and chest met at the perfect line of his collar bone, situated just above the water. “...Hm? What was that?”

“I said, pass me a cloth.”

A white cloth hung on the drying rack: Tony tossed it to Loki rather than handing it. Safer that way. If he moved too far away from his place at the wall, glued as he currently was, he might touch something he shouldn’t.

“Thank you.”

Tony watched, breath held and teeth clamped over the tip of his tongue to keep from making a sound, as Loki soaped the cloth into a lather and began washing his skin with long, languid strokes. First down one arm, from fingertips to shoulder, then the other. Under his arm, across his chest, around the back of his neck. He knelt up in the tub so the water came to his waist and the cloth could swoop down around his middle. Touching every bit of his skin, already so smooth and enticing in the golden firelight and glistening with jewel-like droplets... He let out one little sound of contentment and Tony had to bite down hard to keep from echoing the same.

Loki’s tongue darted out to lick his lips, then his hand slid down below the water level. Even through the liquid-distorted darkness, Tony could see exactly what he was doing.

“What?” Loki purred, as if Tony had done or said a damn thing to chastise him. “One must wash everywhere, Tony.”

“Yes,” Tony replied. And would have said something more, something witty, if only he trusted his voice. Instead, he let all that breath he’d been holding out in one big sigh, hoping it sounded bored or impatient, and slumped against the wall.

Laughing, Loki sunk back into the water, submerging himself fully before surfacing again like a majestic mer-devil with his long black hair falling in a drenched, silky sheet over his shoulders. He lathered his hair with soap and dunked himself again to wash away the suds, then knelt back up with an arm stretched out to Tony. “Towel?”

This one, Tony couldn’t throw for risk of landing it in the water. This one, he had to hand over. From as far away as possible while precariously leaning in, balanced on one foot. Loki’s fingers brushed his with a spark of fire. No doubt Loki did that on purpose.

“Now you see?” Loki said. Bending over, he wrung the excess water from his hair before stepping out of the tub and wrapping the towel around the rest of his body. “Boil the kettle, reheat the tub, sit in the water, soap your skin and hair... Any fool could do it.”

“So I see by your example.”

Loki gave no reply to that as he pulled on fresh clothing. “Just do as I did. And hang my towel on the peg beside the fire,” he added, dumping the towel in Tony’s arms on his way to the door. “It should be dry enough by the time you need it.”

“What, you’re not staying?” Tony asked. “No desire to watch? Supervise me? Ensure I’m washing everything that needs to be washed?”

Firelight glinted off Loki’s teeth as he smiled. “Mm, perhaps another day. I’m sure you can manage to wash all your parts without my help. Just try not to befoul the water too badly... remember Louisa needs to use it once you’re done.”

“I’d much rather befoul you,” Tony muttered to himself as Loki slid out, shutting the door between them. And then he was alone in the bathing room, holding Loki’s damp towel and wondering what in the world he was getting himself into.

He did not heat the tub from the kettle. The water felt still warm enough to the touch, and the cooler it was, the healthier it would be. So that was that, and the only thing he could do now was get this idiotic process over with as quickly as possible and fulfil the terms of his first favor to Loki. There was no point trying to cheat: he had a strong sense in his head that Loki would somehow know. So he pulled off his wig, waistcoat and breeches, then his shirt and stockings, draping the dirty shirt beside Loki’s and putting the clean one he’d brought from upstairs on top of the rack. Already he felt stupid and vulnerable, being naked in this odd little room. He stepped quickly into the safety of the dark water before anyone could open the door and see him there.

It felt... not awful. Actually, the way the surface tension of the water tickled at the fine hairs on his chest was almost pleasant. The way every movement of his body sent little currents of water brushing against his skin sent an involuntary shiver up his spine. Not awful at all. But also not something he should spend too much time enjoying. He grabbed Loki’s wash cloth and the piece of soap and worked up a lather as Loki had done. The soap had a distinct smell of lavender to it, which meant Loki would easily smell it on him and know the bathing task had been completed. Good. He made a point of scrubbing that soapy cloth over every part of his body, even lifting one leg at a time from the water to wash between his toes. Lavender feet. Lavender ears. Lavender armpits. Lavender arse. Lavender everything, hair included.

By the time he finished and stepped out of the tub, lavender-scented bubbles floated on the surface of the water and every bit of his skin felt tingly in the fire-warmed air. Loki’s towel was not as dry as he would have wished, and his clean linen shirt clung to his damp shoulders and arms as he pulled it on. His stockings, he noted after all that lavender, had an unpleasantly sour smell. He should have brought fresh, like Loki did. But he had a clean pair upstairs and could change easily, now that he lived in the Asgersen household with its luxury of laundered smallclothes every week.

Outside the warm, contained environment of the bathing room, the household air came as a cold shock. Especially to Tony’s wet hair, though he couldn’t put his wig back on until his hair dried. Was he supposed to tell somebody he was done? Tell Louisa it was her turn? Or just leave the door open and let her notice on her own? Loki hadn’t mentioned that part. So Tony opted for the easier path of assuming somebody would eventually notice he had finished as he snuck quietly up to his attic to fully dress for supper.

Either luckily or unluckily, he met Thor on the stairs.

“Ah, Tony! Did you enjoy your bath?”

“Yes,” Tony answered. “It was... enlightening.” Somehow, for reasons he could not even begin to guess, an image of Loki in the tub’s gold-streaked waters swam back into his mind. It made looking Thor in the eye impossible; he stared down at his wig instead and pretended to fuss over a tangled curl. “Is Loki, er... around?”

“In his work room,” said Thor. “Said he would be working at his music for the rest of the evening and would take supper alone. Does not wish to be disturbed.”

“Oh, good,” Tony forced himself to say. “I’ll look forward to seeing what... I mean, hearing what he... Um. I beg your pardon, will you excuse me?”

“Yes, yes, please: go about your business. If you wish to eat with us tonight, supper is at eight, or I can have a plate sent up to your room.”

“No, I’ll eat with you.” Loki or not, there was always wine at the table, which Tony certainly needed following this afternoon’s activities.

He paused at the top of the stairs, looking over at Loki’s doors. Both were firmly shut, and no sound came from either. After everything that had just happened, he had honestly been expecting... something more? For Loki to be waiting for him after the bath? For more taunts? For some sort of follow-through to this ridiculous cat-and-mouse game they’d been playing? He stood there for a full minute, wondering if Loki would have heard his conversation with Thor and decide to open the door, but no. The door stayed shut, a silent message as impossible to read and judge as Loki himself.

Chapter Text

As promised, Loki did not make an appearance for supper, which left Tony either relieved or bleakly disappointed. It was impossible to tell which. He drank too much as usual, thanks to Jane’s generous hand, and trudged up the stairs wondering if he should ignore all common sense and open that work room door. See what Loki was up to. It wasn’t until he was lying in bed in the dark, shivering at the cold sounds of rain and wind whipping against the window panes, that the answer came to him. And then, it was so obvious he sat straight upright and threw the blankets clean off.

Of course he should have opened the door. Loki had said he didn’t want to be disturbed, but who did he say that to? Thor. Loki didn’t want to be disturbed by Thor. Which meant he probably did want to be disturbed by somebody else. Somebody who was neither Thor nor Jane. Somebody who spent the whole evening stupidly wondering why Loki was avoiding him when the answer dangled in front of his nose the whole time. Loki wanted to be alone, but not alone alone.

Tony slipped down the stairs as quietly as he could, pausing at the bottom to listen for Thor and Jane. No sounds came from their bedroom. Still, Tony’s heart beat faster than it should as he crept across the floor and slowly, painstakingly, opened Loki’s door latch. Inside the room, the curtains around Loki’s bed were drawn. Inside the curtains, everything was too black for Tony to make out a single detail. All he could tell, by feel, was that Loki was not on this side of the bed. Soft breathing came from somewhere very close, though.

The breathing startled and gasped as he climbed onto the mattress, and blankets shifted. “Hnn?” came Loki’s sleepy voice. “Who’s there?”

“Loki?” Tony whispered, though that was a stupid thing to say. Of course it was Loki.

“...Tony?”

“Yes.”

Loki groaned again, mattress dipping and the blankets rustling in a way that indicated he was sitting up. “What are you doing here?”

“Sorry I’m late,” said Tony. He reached out in search of Loki’s arm, but the two of them must have been situated much closer together than he realized because his hand met the side of Loki’s face instead. Skin warm with sleep and hair like satin to the touch.

“If I may reiterate,” Loki began, but that was as far as he got before Tony, guided in by one hand, kissed him hard on the mouth.

And oh, Loki’s lips were as perfect as Tony remembered, so soft and just lightly parted. He raised his other hand to cup the back of Loki’s neck and wind his fingers through that silken hair. Whatever sound Loki tried to make – was that a word or a groan? – was squeezed into nothing as Tony moved closer.

Loki turned his head just enough to break the kiss. “Tony-”

“Nn?” If Tony turned too, his mouth could just find Loki’s lower lip again.

Loki turned the other way. “Tony-”

“Stop moving,” Tony said, slurring against Loki’s cheek as he tried to chase the kiss.

Tony.” That time, Loki pushed him away. Hands on Tony’s shoulders like a wedge. “What are you doing?

“Um.” Was the answer to that question not self-explanatory? Was Loki not an active participant in what they were currently doing? “I know I’m very late, but-”

“Late?”

Tony couldn’t see in the black void of the curtained bed, but he still felt somehow certain that Loki’s eyebrow was rising along with the pitch in his questioning voice. “Well, yes. I’m sorry that Thor distracted me. I didn’t realize you wanted me to come until just now.”

Loki did not answer that. Loki did not need to answer that. The awkward silence was more than enough for his thoughts to come across through the darkness. And for Tony’s stomach to start churning unpleasantly at the realization that, maybe, he had spectacularly misunderstood some part of Loki’s intention. “I...” he began, stumbling over the incomplete phrase refusing to fully form on his tongue. “You told Thor you wished not to be disturbed.”

“Yes,” said Loki. “That meant I did not wish to be disturbed.”

“But I though it meant you did not wish to be disturbed by Thor.

Loki’s answering sigh was, just like the silence, far too effective at wordlessly conveying what less evolved men would have been forced to say aloud. But he still spoke, if only to elaborate on the point. “Tony.” His right hand skimmed up Tony’s neck so fingers could play through hair. As if this little gesture of affection would somehow create a window of hope in the wall currently rising up between them. “It seems you have misinterpreted some things.”

Vastly misinterpreted, Tony would say, though how that was possible given the series of events that had unfolded since last night... “So you don’t want to... ah...”

“Not particularly, no.”

“Oh.”

Falling from Tony’s hair, Loki’s hand made a brief stop to caress his upper arm before disappearing into the dark of the bed. “And while I am flattered by your dedication, at the moment all I truly want is to go back to sleep. So if you don’t mind...?”

“Right, yes,” Tony said, sliding one foot out from the curtains. The floor felt cold as ice against his skin. He paused. “Ah. This may sound ridiculous, but do you mind if I stay here with you tonight? Not for any business,” he was quick to clarify, “but only because it’s cold and damp upstairs and I have no curtains around my bed and my blankets are very sad and rough compared to yours. Is this silk?”

“Yes,” Loki grudgingly replied.

“Was that yes to silk or yes to me staying?”

Tony knew Loki was glaring at him. He just knew it. He could feel it. “That was a yes to the question of whether or not my covers are silk, but since you are here and have already made such an idiot of yourself, I suppose I can be merciful and allow you to stay.”

“Thank you,” Tony said, climbing back onto the bed and hastily tucking himself under the covers. Somehow, this felt less awkward than slinking back upstairs to lie awake all night and berate himself for his impetuous overstepping of boundaries. Loki shifted over to make room, leaving a thermal imprint down the center of the mattress. Tony’s bare shin touched the ghost of Loki’s warmth. “It really is cold up in the attic,” he said, as if he could rationalize away the absurdity of the situation. “Do you think it might snow?”

“No,” Loki snorted. “It’s the eighteenth of October. We likely won’t have snow for two months yet.”

“Can I ask you a somewhat important question?”

The blankets moved and Loki must have rolled over, because when he answered his voice was only inches from Tony’s face. “If I said ‘no’, would you accept my refusal, or would you keep bothering me until I surrendered?”

“I’d bother you.”

“Fine. One question. Phrase it carefully, because after I’ve answered, I’m going to sleep.”

“Why did you...” Tony started, but careful phrasing was not something he had in abundance when his mouth started speaking before his head could consider the words. Now he had to finish that opening in a concise way so Loki would give a satisfactory reply. “...Everything?” Damn.

Loki inhaled, and held that breath so long Tony started to think he’d never answer. “If you mean, why did I do everything I’ve done since last night,” he finally said, “well... I think the only true answer to that is: because I’m a complete bastard. I like being scandalous, and I like being improper, and I like making people uncomfortable. It’s the only reliable way to get them to leave me alone.”

“You... want me to leave you alone?” Tony asked, feeling his heart sink as he spoke.

Again, Loki inhaled, holding his silence in the dark. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I acted like an ass and gave you the wrong impression, which was actually the right impression in terms of what I wanted you to think but wrong when it came to what I truly wanted to do. It was nothing more than talk, Tony. Foolish, poorly considered talk. Teasing. Nonsense. I apologize. It went much farther than it should have because I didn’t anticipate you might... fight back.”

“And last night?”

“Last night I was drunk. And listening to Thor and Jane always puts me in a terribly contrary mood, so...”

So it had nothing to do with Tony and everything to do with Loki being selfish and inconsiderate. (Though that sounded so harsh and Tony immediately regretted thinking it...) “Do you want me to leave then?”

“No,” Loki replied, this time without a pause to search for words. “You’re tolerable. Far better than I feared you’d be when you first arrived.”

Tolerable. Well, that was better than a lot of things Tony could be in Loki’s eye.

“And now you smell of lavender rather than pig, which makes you almost pleasant.”

“Thank you,” said Tony. “It’s entirely for you.”

“I know.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“You’ve already asked four,” Loki groaned, “which is three more than I wanted, though I suppose that’s my fault for not stopping you. So go ahead.”

“Do you prefer women?” he asked. “Or occasionally men? Or...?”

The blankets pulled as Loki rolled onto his back, groaning into his hands by the sound of things. “I will only answer that on the condition that you do so first.”

“Oh, I like both,” Tony told him, without hesitation. “I mean, in different ways, obviously. I do like tits an awful lot, and big fat round bottoms, so I may lean a little in favor of women. But then I consider how men can’t get pregnant and try to force me to marry them. And that is, I must say, a very powerful draw. You?”

“I hate everyone,” said Loki. And then, with that said, he rolled back over to face away into the darkness.

Thus ended the conversation and all hope of anything more. “Good night, Loki,” Tony whispered.

Loki only grunted in reply.

Chapter Text

Sometime in the night, Loki must have rolled over to face Tony. Sometime in the night, Tony must have moved closer to the center of the bed. Now, Tony lay on his back with his right arm outstretched, while Loki had snuggled in to use his shoulder as a pillow and had one hand carelessly resting on his chest. For the time being, Loki was still asleep. His back rose and fell with the rhythm of each slow, even breath. And for the time being, Tony had absolutely no desire to move.

He blinked hard to clear the sleep-bleariness from his eyes, not wanting to risk raising his free arm to rub his face. Everything inside the canopy was still dark and shadowy, lit only by thin cracks of light where the curtains met, and by the minute amount of sun that filtered through the heavy, green fabric. Within the dim little bed-cave, in the innocence of sleep, Loki looked so very different. His hair spilled around his head in a pool of black waves. His face softened without that ever-present smirk and the harsh angle of his sharp-eyed stare. The morning’s meager light caught the edge of his shirt sleeve to make it glow. And somehow, for the first time in three weeks, despite this sudden familiarity and intimacy... Tony felt as if he were back in the presence of the Loki Lind he had come to Amsterdam to find.

Not Loki Asgersen, Thor’s brother. Not Loki who lived in this house and laughed at him from the music room doorway. Not quick-tongued Loki who always had the right (or wrong) thing poised to quip back at Tony no matter the topic of conversation. But Loki Lind, the singer who defied all description, the angel-demon who stood on the stage that night and coaxed Tony’s blood to race and heart to stop with nothing more than a snippet of melody. That Loki. The ethereal Loki, the Loki too abstract and pure for him to touch – truly touch, on some heightened plane – even though they lay so close. That Loki, but at the same time, a Loki who was just a man as any other, with a warm, tangible body and breath that tickled against Tony’s shirt.

Something about this Loki, the perfect melding of god and mortal, made Tony think he would never be happy with anything less. This is what he wanted. This, right here. Loki. In any small way that Loki would allow.

As carefully as he could, he turned his head so his lips could meet Loki’s forehead and hairline.

Either he was less careful than intended or else had remarkably poor timing, but with one kiss, Loki groaned, sighed, and blinked into that hazy moment between waking and sleep. “Nn?” he said, obviously some form of question.

“Good morning,” Tony softly answered, not yet ready to break contact between his lips and Loki’s skin.

“You’re... still here.” That one wasn’t a question, but an observation tinged with moderate surprise.

“Should I have left?”

“No, I... I just thought you might have decided to go back to your own bed sometime in the night.” After it became clear there was no hope of having sex, being the unspoken yet obvious meaning there.

“No, I’m perfectly content here,” Tony said. “Much cozier than upstairs.”

“Mm.”

“This is nice, isn’t it?”

It only happened after a long pause, but to Tony’s surprise, Loki actually answered. “I suppose it is,” he said. “Rather nice...” It was probably half-asleep-Loki rather than fully-coherent-Loki speaking those words, but they wormed their way into Tony’s stomach to pleasantly squirm and tingle all the same. Then, with a yawn, Loki tugged the blankets up higher to cover most of his face and snugged in closer. Tony didn’t even have to think about wrapping both arms around Loki’s back, holding him tight as he drifted off again.

That blissful little scene lasted at least a good five minutes before Loki startled awake to a knock at the door.

“Loki?”

Thor: that was Thor’s voice, leading Tony to the sudden, alarming realization that it was Sunday morning. And what happened every Sunday morning? Thor woke Loki for breakfast before church. Every other day Loki stayed in bed until whatever ridiculous hour he fancied, but on Sunday... The bed curtains blocked too much light. Unable to see the sun, Tony had no clue as to the time. But if Thor was there at the door, it had to be eight o’clock already. They had slept far too long.

With a few snarled words that had to be Danish curses, Loki sat up in bed and shouted back. “I’m awake! Just dressing!”

“Breakfast is ready and Jane is waiting. Both you and Tony are late this morning. I’m going up to wake him now, and you had better be dressed by the time I come back down.”

“No!” Loki practically flew from the bed, wrenching the curtains open and dashing to the door just in time to catch his brother. Tony stayed frozen in the shadows, hidden behind one half-drawn curtain, afraid to even move in case Thor decided to barge in. “If Jane is waiting,” he heard Loki say, “go downstairs. Start eating without me. I will fetch Tony.”

“You’ll be late for-”

“Oh, what does another minute or two matter? I can eat quickly. Go. I’ll join you shortly.”

Loki stayed by the door a moment longer, no doubt watching to be certain Thor really did go downstairs, then rushed back to pull the curtains all the way open. “If you know what’s good for you,” he growled.

There was no need to even finish that threat. “Understood,” Tony replied, jumping out of bed. As quick as he could manage without raising suspicion from downstairs by sounding like a horse galloping across the floor, he dashed out of Loki’s room and up to the attic. Yesterday’s clothes draped over the chair would have to do, and... No time for the wig. The damned waistcoat buttons were taking too long as it was. He finished the last three while running back down the stairs. Loki’s bedroom door hung open as he passed, showing emptiness inside. Loki had already gone down. Good: arriving together would have looked too suspicious.

He felt a mild pang of guilt at Jane’s polite yet frustrated smile once he reached the kitchen, but forced it out of his mind as he took the chair next to Loki. “Good morning, and please accept my apologies,” he said to all at the table. “I must have overslept.”

“How interesting,” said Jane. “Myself, I would find it quite difficult to sleep this late with all the morning light reflecting off the snow and making everything so bright.”

Tony’s eyes immediately darted from the bread plate to the kitchen window. “Snow?” Indeed, out on the garden wall and the leaves of the boxwood hedge, a delicate dusting of snow glittered in the sun. “How odd,” he said. “I had my curtains closed and didn’t even notice. I wouldn’t have expected snow so early. Not until December at least.” He looked pointedly at Loki.

“Such is the nature of weather,” Loki replied without returning the glance. “One never knows what surprises it might have in store.”

“Does it ever snow in Rome?” Thor asked.

“Very rarely,” Tony said as he grabbed two pieces of bread. End pieces. For some reason the crust had always been his favorite part of bread, and he was always happy to take the ends while everyone else fought over the softest part of the middle. “Only once in the entire time I’ve lived there. Usually only rain.”

“I hope you have adequate clothing for this weather,” said Jane. “And shoes. The streets can become quite treacherous.”

“Mm, yes,” Tony answered, only half listening or caring. Cheese was more important than snow at the moment.

“Yes, we wouldn’t want you to be cold in your Roman fashions,” Loki added in. “And how unfortunate that there must be snow, when yesterday you expressed such interest in attending a Lutheran service with us.”

Tony blinked. “I what?” He had certainly done nothing of the sort, but if this was one of Loki’s bizarre schemes and he was meant to play along...

“Yes, after Jane’s lesson, while we were discussion religion. I recall that you told me you wished to visit a Lutheran church to experience the differences firsthand.”

This absolutely was one of Loki’s schemes, but not one that was in any way to Tony’s liking. And he would not play along in the way Loki intended. “Ah, no,” he said. “You must have misunderstood. What I said was I was curious as to the differences between the two churches, not that I wished to see for myself. A description from you would more than suffice.”

Loki’s knife dipped into the butter and began to painstakingly spread the thinnest possible scraping of a layer over the surface of his bread. “No,” he said, speaking just as slowly as his knife moved, “seeing for oneself is always far superior to relying on the poor narrative skills of others. You should come with us this morning.”

“I fear that might be improper.”

“I insist. As a personal favor.

Good God, why did the soft, ethereal, bedroom Loki have to disappear during daylight hours and leave this monster in its place? With his hand clenched around his own knife, it took an awful lot of willpower for Tony to stab the butter instead of Loki’s evilly smiling face. “Well if it’s that important to you,” he said, keeping his voice as cool and even as he could manage.

“It is.”

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt...” said Jane, though she looked doubtful over the whole church-swap prospect. Thor, meanwhile, had half a sausage sticking out of his mouth and clearly hadn’t been listening.

“What does one wear to Lutheran church?” Tony asked.

Loki answered that with his usual smirk. “Nothing that you own. I’ll lend you something.”

Tony considered that a venture destined to fail, since they were hardly the same size, but after breakfast Loki led the way upstairs and pulled a dark gray suit out of his wardrobe. The wool was of a thick, good quality that would be warm against the snow, but the suit itself had hardly any ornamentation outside of rose-embossed silver buttons and a few bits of dark blue braid around the cuffs and vents. The last time Tony had worn something so drab, he had been a boy in grammar school.

The worst part was, despite the coat and breeches being a little long on account of having been cut for someone of Loki’s height, the suit fit very well in the shoulders and waist. And no excuse would get Tony out of it.

“But it really wouldn’t look right with my wig...”

“Then leave the wig,” Loki replied. Utterly without sympathy.

Tony’s hand rose to his hair, brushing a stray tendril back from his forehead. His hair was too short by far. It barely covered his ears. “No. I’ll look foolish.”

“What looks foolish,” said Loki, “is wearing that ridiculous, tangled mess of a dead cat on your head. Leave it. You look far better without.”

Now there was a phrase that caught Tony’s interest. He raked his hand through his hair again. “...Far better?” Where his own tastes were concerned he knew he looked better with the wig on, but who knew what inexplicable preferences lurked in the mind of somebody as impossible to decipher as Loki?

An overly dramatic eye-roll accompanied Loki’s retort. “Yes, terribly handsome. All the pretty girls will flock to you like birds. But regardless of your looks, I can already hear Thor and Jane impatiently shuffling about by the front door, so please grab your hat and cloak so we may leave before they start shouting at us that we’ll be late.”

Ah yes, the hat and cloak. Those would cover his short hair and Loki’s dull suit nicely as they walked through the streets. At least until they reached the church. And inside a Protestant church full of equally drab attendees, who would care what he looked like? He grabbed both items from his bedroom upstairs and wrapped the cloak tightly around himself before following Thor and Jane out onto the narrow street that ran between the row of housing and the canal.

His shoes promptly slid on the snow and he fell flat on his arse.

“Snow is slippery,” Loki very helpfully offered.

“Yes, thank you,” Tony growled. He was almost annoyed enough to refuse Loki’s offer of a helping hand to right himself again. Almost.

“You’d best hold my arm as we walk.”

Tony accepted that offer, too. Potentially for more reasons than simply staying on his feet. “How do I know you won’t slip?”

“I’ve lived with snow my whole life. Also I think I’m just generally superior to you in every known way.”

Loki probably wouldn’t look all that superior flailing and drowning in the canal, but Tony refrained from testing that theory outside of his imagination. “Why are you so damn maddening?” he muttered.

It wasn’t meant to be a question for Loki to answer, but Loki took the opportunity anyhow. “It’s part of my charm.”

“No. I think you’re much more charming while silently asleep. At least then you look like an angel with no demonic words spouting from your mouth to ruin the illusion.”

For that, Loki surprisingly had no reply.

They walked in silence most of the journey, following Thor and Jane, who were also arm in arm. It was easier to balance that way, and easier to avoid falling if one did slip. To Tony’s childish delight, not even perfect Loki was above taking a wrong step here and there and sliding on a patch of ice. Loki only spoke again once they were within sight of the church, and only in a low voice that Tony knew Thor and Jane weren’t meant to overhear.

“Are you truly Catholic, or is it part of the ruse?” Loki asked. “Being English, after all...”

“Surprisingly, I am. I was born in London, but my father was Irish and my mother French. Even then, though, we were not a devout household, and we attended the English church service because it was easier and safer to fit into the crowd. I only began regularly hearing Catholic mass when I went to live with my mother’s family in France. And of course continued in Rome. It’s impossible to avoid there if you want to have any future in anything.”

“So you are a religious man.”

Tony wouldn’t exactly say that. Though he also wouldn’t not say that, given the danger admitting to atheism potentially posed. “I appreciate the Catholic church,” he said instead, halfway sidestepping the question. “The beauty. The art. The music. Have you ever been inside a cathedral, Loki? A truly grand cathedral?”

“Not of the scale you’ve seen, I’m sure.”

“Then you must one day go. Just to see. The light through the colored glass, the craftsmanship of carven pillars and vaulted ceilings, the wondrous music echoing through a vast, cavernous building like heaven itself has opened a channel so that we can hear the singing of angels... You cannot help but feel as if you’re in the presence of something greater than yourself when you enter a place like that. Not just God, but the sum of all human achievement. People built that magnificent structure. People made those windows, and wrote that music. It’s both humbling and inspiring and drives me to want to be part of it and join in that greatness. It’s what made me want to write music.”

“Fascinating,” Loki said as they stepped into the church.

Inside was approximately what Tony had been expecting, with one notable exception. The building was large and plain, clean and bright, with rows of wooden pews arranged in two columns with a center aisle. But there was no crucifix. Not even an unadorned cross. Was that something Lutherans forbade? Except no, he knew Jane owned a cross pendant of gold with inlaid pearls, and he was certain she had been wearing it at breakfast. “Do Lutheran churches not have crucifixes?” he whispered to Loki as they took their seats.

Lutheran churches typically do,” Loki whispered back. “However, this would more accurately be called a Calvinist church where we are permitted to hold a Lutheran service. Calvinists do not allow crucifixes.”

“Oh.” That sounded like more Protestant in-fighting than Tony cared to spend time thinking about. He had a vague idea of what the names Luther and Calvin meant, and extremely limited interest in learning more. “If I may ask, why did you insist on bringing me here this morning?”

“Are you that bothered by the lack of crucifix?” Loki asked with an amused smile.

“No.” The crucifix was only something Tony had a habit of staring at in unfamiliar churches, concentrating on its details of carven wood or cast metal as a way to distract himself from the tedious service. In the absence of that or any other noteworthy architectural feature in this whitewashed room, he was looking at one very boring morning. But it wasn’t why he asked. “I mean that as a general question. Why did you use one of your favors on this?”

“I thought it would be the best way to repay you for disturbing my sleep last night.”

Both of Tony’s eyebrows rose of their own accord. “You... brought me to your church as punishment?”

Still smiling, though now maybe with satisfaction rather than amusement, Loki nodded. “I did.”

Well. Tony couldn’t say it wasn’t effective. The service hadn’t even started yet and already he was vowing never to wake Loki again if it meant enduring more of this Lutheran-Calvinist drudgery. He leaned back against the hard wooden pew and hissed his breath out through his teeth. “You’re a real ass.”

“I know.”

Then as they all stood and the service started, and Tony wished he could call Loki something a hundred times worse than ‘ass’. The processional hymn was sung in Dutch. And after the Kyrie, the priest or... whatever the Lutheran equivalent was called (Tony was fairly certain it wasn’t ‘priest’, but he wasn’t about to ask Loki) began chanting the service in Dutch. At least Tony was assuming it was Dutch because he couldn’t understand a word of it. What happened to Latin? With a Catholic mass, anyone could find his way to any church all over Christendom and always be assured of the same, familiar Latin. This was just ridiculous. And he could feel Loki grinning beside him.

He wouldn’t give Loki the satisfaction of complaining. He stood and sat with everyone else, took communion with them, pretended to pray, and quietly sang along in Latin with what he guessed were the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. Without anything interesting to stare at, singing and inventing harmonies were about the only things preventing him from dying of boredom.

A-a-a-a-gnus De-e-i, qui tol-lis pec-ca-ta mun-di...

(No, that last ascending semitone was too obvious a resolution... what if he jumped up a fourth instead?)

“What are you doing?” Loki growled, elbowing him in the ribs.

“Writing a song.”

“In church?”

“It’s as good a place as any.” The vast majority of music was written for church. Really, writing music in church had to be the next logical step.

A -a-a-a-gnus De-e-i, qui tol-lis pec-ca-ta mun-di Mi-se-re-re no-o-o-o-bis Do-o-na no-o-bis pa-a-a-a-cem...

That was good. That was actually very good. The beginning of something. He needed to get it down on paper, but if he kept repeating the lines in his head he could keep them alive until he was home. Maybe changing an interval here or there. The ending sounded better as a major third up followed by a minor second.

“You’re too loud,” said Loki, but what did that matter? The service was ending. Everyone slowly filed out of the church, milling around outside the door to speak to their friends and neighbors. Thor and Jane were... nowhere to be seen, as Tony scanned the crowd. They had been right beside him a moment ago, but had disappeared somewhere amid the throng of people.

“And where do you think you’re going so quickly?” Loki asked, slinking up behind him.

“Home,” Tony answered. “I need to go home.” He needed to write the melody down before he lost any part of it.

“Was the Lutheran service that disturbing to you?”

“No,” he said in quick dismissal. If there was ever a time not to indulge in bantering with Loki, this would be it. He just wanted to leave. “I have things to do. Where are Thor and Jane?”

“Still inside, talking to Mr. and Mrs. Holm. I believe they’ll be spending the afternoon visiting at the Holm residence.”

“Good, so we can leave,” said Tony, linking his arm through Loki’s in preparation for the journey home even though the snow had mostly melted in the late morning sunlight and the streets were back to their usual condition of wet muck.

“No, I need to stay. I need to speak to some of Thor’s acquaintances regarding patronage for an upcoming performance.”

“Then give me your key. I’ll find my own way.”

The look Loki gave him would, under normal circumstances, probably qualify as strange or even unsettling. Out there in front of the church, though, with the Agnus Dei pounding inside his skull, Tony couldn’t bring himself to care. All that mattered was getting home. Home, paper, ink, now.

“If you insist,” Loki finally said after a moment of waiting for and failing to receive any further explanation. He handed over the key with a suspicious squint.

Tony still didn’t care. “Thank you,” he said, and took the key before Loki could snatch it back. “I’ll see you later.”

Chapter Text

It was a mess, but legible enough. Nothing more than poorly scrawled ink blotches on a page of uneven staves, but Tony had down the full melody plus cantus firmus and half of a third line in counterpoint (with a few scratched-out trial-and-error alterations). He could write out a fine copy when he was finished. For the time being, though, everything was coming together perfectly. The piece all but wrote itself.

He picked up his viol and began to play the last few bars of the third line, humming the original melody along as he went. Ascending major second, perfect fourth, descending minor third, minor third, ascending major second, stay, descending major third. That worked, and for the next segment he could repeat the same up a major sixth, though instead of a descending major third after the stay he’d have a descending octave. Quickly, he scribbled the notes onto the page. That brought him up to measure thirty-two. Then for the next section... Maybe something offset?

From the beginning, he played the whole completed part of the song through again, listening to the flow of the line and imagining how it should continue once he reached the end. Descending minor third, ascending major second, descending minor third, ascending major second, perfect fifth, descending major second, ascending minor third... He stopped at the flicker of movement in the corner of his eye.

Loki stood in the doorway. “Ah, listen to you, breaking so many rules! Were those illegal skips I heard? I am appalled, sir! Simply appalled!”

“Oh, what do you know about counterpoint?” Tony asked, setting his viol back down on the bed.

“I know one mustn’t follow one skip with another, and was that a major sixth I heard? Followed by an ascent, followed by a fourth?!Scandalous!”

“You know nobody’s actually followed those rules in the last hundred years. They’re only for teaching exercises.”

“Oh good,” said Loki, wandering his way across the room. When he came to the bed, he pushed aside all the extra leaves of blank paper and took a seat across from Tony. “Rules are so dull. Please keep breaking them. It makes the music much more interesting. Would you mind playing again from the beginning?”

Tony couldn’t help but be suspicious. “Why?”

“Because I want to hear. Why else?”

To mock? That was the reason that came first to Tony’s mind. But if Loki wanted to hear, he could play. Humming the original melodic line and playing the third on the viol, he made it through the entire finished part of the song without looking over at Loki. Only once he was finished did he take his eyes off the page. Already scowling in anticipation of what Loki might have to say.

But all Loki had to say was, “One more time?”

If his majesty wished. Tony played again from the top, but this time, Loki’s voice joined in. Low and quiet. Whatever words Loki sang were too slow and drawn out for Tony to really hear, in a language he didn’t understand. Dark words with a dangerous sound. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and for a moment, he was back in that concert hall seeing Loki for the first time – hearing Loki for the first time – feeling his mind slip away on drifts of forgotten dreams.

“What... was that?” Tony asked when they reached the end.

“Another line,” Loki said, shrugging is if what he had just done were not in the least remarkable. “Would you mind if...” He paused and looked down at the sheet of music. “I did secure a performance. Friday, just under two weeks from now. Smaller than I usually accept, but it turns out I need money. I’ll be singing at a private soiree in honor of some influential trade merchant from Citi-... Civiva... Something.”

“Civitavecchia?”

“That’s it. And I was thinking that my usual musical repertory may not be entirely suitable to impress this man from Citiva... Sorry, what was it again?”

“Civitavecchia,” Tony repeated slowly. “It’s a port town under the control of Rome. Just say Rome.”

“Thank you. So I began thinking, where would I be able to quickly find the type of predictable, safe, unremarkable songs that a merchant from Rome would appreciate?”

“I have no idea,” said Tony, and he gathered his pages up off the bed to tuck them away into a neat pile. “But if I run across anyone who writes predictable, safe, and unremarkable songs, I’ll let you know. Perhaps ask Jane. She’s now highly proficient in strict counterpoint and follows all the rules perfectly.”

“What about somebody who writes in the accepted Italian style, but breaks just enough rules and thinks just enough for himself that I can’t help but find his music pleasing despite myself?”

If only Tony were foolish enough to fall for that. “You’re trying to flatter me into giving you my songs.”

“No no no,” said Loki, shaking his head. “I’m trying to flatter you into collaborating with me on songs. You write what you like, or give me things you’ve already written, and I add in my own vocal line. Exactly as I just did with this new song. In payment, I give you twenty percent of my fee and full credit as composer.”

“Fifty percent,” said Tony.

“There’s no way I’d give you fifty and you know that. Twenty is more than generous.”

“How much is your fee?”

“Forty guilder.”

Meaning Tony would receive eight, which was almost as much as he would make in three months as Jane’s teacher. Good God. No wonder Loki could afford to spend every day lounging about the house doing nothing if he made forty guilder in one night of singing. And that was just for a small private appearance. What did he earn for his large public show? Tony held out his hand to shake on the agreement. “I accept.”

“I thought you might.”

“Not just because of the money,” he was quick to clarify, feeling the need to put up some kind of respectable justification for this choice. “For the exposure. I need to start making a name for myself, and this will be a good opportunity.” It was why he came to Amsterdam, after all. Well, that and chasing after Loki Lind. Perhaps it was only fitting that the two pursuits should merge and find him writing music for Loki Lind.

“I will ensure that everyone knows who wrote my songs,” Loki promised. “Now let me see: what else do you have? I need music enough for two hours, and I think it best that most of the music be yours.”

“Let me get my folio.”

Some of the music in his stack of crinkled pages would be useless or inappropriate for Loki’s purposes, but as Tony sifted through each piece one by one it seemed that more might potentially work than not. Two out of three at least he pulled out, passing them over for Loki’s inspection. Many of them were unfinished or only plain melodies written for a single viol. That hardly mattered, though, if he was to work with Loki to transform these bare lines into a vocal arrangement. A few Loki gave back, declaring them unsuitable. Most he kept. Twenty-two in all: full songs or melodies or incomplete fragments.

“I don’t think that will last you two hours,” Tony said as he looked through the pages. “Most of these are very short.”

“They’re a start. What about this one?” he asked. The page in his hand was half finished at best, only a few scribbled lines that Tony recognized as one of the oldest pieces in the pile. Something he’d started when he was seventeen and never bothered to finish because he couldn’t think up a satisfactory ending. The melody just kept going in circles, up and down, never resolving. He kept the draft because he’d always liked the beginning. Even if he’d been told to burn the damn thing.

“That one is, according to my old teacher, a worthless monstrosity fit only for the Devil.”

“It does contain a surprising number of augmented fourths. Is that why you didn’t finish it?”

Taking the page back from Loki, Tony’s eyes skimmed over the notes. “No.” He still liked the beginning. The song opened well, unusual and memorable. What he didn’t like was how it weakened after the eighth measure and fell apart completely after the twelfth. “I stopped because I don’t know where it should go from here. You see where it starts to repeat after twelve... I don’t like any of this. But I don’t know how to fix it.”

Loki nodded. “I think it’s fine through fourteen. But what if after that, instead of going back to the beginning, you leapt back up the octave and started a series of descending steps? The song to this point is built around alternating major and minor thirds, which gives it an unpredictable opening that forces one to pay attention, but there’s only so much you can do with that novelty before it just sounds repetitious. Past measure fourteen, I’d say stick to structuring your line around minor thirds to build up more of a melody, then switch wholly to major. Only return to the major-minor alternation at the end, in a variant recollection of the opening theme.”

Tony’s immediate response to that suggestion was to stare in silent shock. Had Loki just solved a seven-year-old compositional impasse in a matter of seconds? A problem that Tony had come back to, over and over throughout the years, with no progress? Just like that?

His second response was to grab the viol.

“Yes,” Loki said as he reached the end of measure fourteen and began playing stepped descent. “Exactly.” Then rolling into the melody based on a framework of minor thirds... It sounded similar to the beginning, a closely related pattern of skips and steps, but less volatile. More refined, perhaps? An evolution of his reckless, younger self.

He paused to reach for his pen in the ink pot.

“No, keep going!”

“I can’t. I have to write this down before I lose it.”

“But everything was progressing so beautifully. What about the rest?”

The rest, Tony felt sure, would pose no problem now. Everything had fallen into place. The notes in the strings. The black ink now gleaming in fresh on paper. “I know how it goes. I know how it has to end.”

“Without playing it through?”

“Yes.”

One interval at a time, line by line, the notation grew across the first page and onto a second and third. Every now and then Tony did have to pick up the viol to play something through, trying different variations to find the right notes. But it came together. The contrary beginning flowed into a minor variation into a major resolution into a contrary but less aggressively unpredictable, more elegant and liquid conclusion. When he finished playing the completed piece through, he looked to Loki’s reaction.

A simple nod, solemn and concise. That was all Tony needed.

“I’ll start building on the harmonies, then,” he said.

“I’ll get us some food,” Loki replied. “You’ve not eaten since breakfast, have you?”

Come to think of it, Tony had not. He’d been too caught up in his composition to notice anything else or pay attention to anything as mundane as his stomach. Which now growled in agreement with Loki’s suggestion. So while Loki set out on a quest to discover something to eat from the kitchen, Tony lay down widthwise across the mattress with the pages of music between his elbows and the ink pot on the floor within reach. A stricter, rule-adhering (almost) counterpoint for the middle section, he was thinking, to contrast and balance with the chaotic opening. Then relax and intentionally break more rules to close. Who knew if the merchant from Civitavecchia would appreciate such a departure from tradition (probably not), but Tony had a feeling Loki would. And that seemed more important.

When Loki returned, he brought with him a tray of bread, cheese, cold ham, and pickles, and a jug of water. He lay down on the bed at Tony’s side and set the tray between them, allowing them to pick at their late lunch and trade opinions on the musical progression at the same time. Measure nineteen sounded good. Measure twenty-two was weak. The opening interval in twenty-seven did not work, but if they changed it they would also have to change the second interval, and the third, to avoid parallel fifths. (God’s blood, perfect counterpoint dredged up so many strangling layers of frustration. And an equal number of unpleasant memories of all those hours spent at endless exercises as a student.) Such slow work. Such painful, headache-inducing, slow work.

The golden afternoon light darkened into orange sunset followed by deep blue twilight, and Loki lit candles. Downstairs, an absence of all sound indicated Thor and Jane had decided to stay with the Holms for supper. Loki fetched more bread and cheese and a few sausages, along with an apple each. No wine for the first supper since Tony had moved into this house. Though that was probably for the best, given that having Loki lying next to him on the bed was distraction enough.

“You were right; it is cold up here,” Loki murmured. He’d pulled back the top blanket from the head of the bed, folding it over himself in a little tunnel, and kept his hands tucked each under the opposite arm for warmth.

Another thing Tony had registered but not paid much attention. “It’s getting late, too. You can go down to your own room if you want. I’m nearly done for the night.” Only two final measures left.

“No. I enjoy watching you work like this.”

That was either an innocent compliment or... something that made Tony’s stomach tighten and fill with the kind of tingling that was really not conducive to getting any work done. It was all he could do to stop himself from saying anything back. From even looking at Loki. Loki, who had moved far too close to him on the bed, only inches apart in his blanket-tunnel, now that the food tray had been relegated to the floor... Two measures left. Only two measures. Two simple measures, and the second had to end on an octave, so he already had the final note. He played them out with fingertips on the palm of his hand, listening to the harmony inside his head. Note, stay, descending minor second, two ascending minor seconds, descending minor third, and step up to a minor second for the cadence and to end on a perfect consonance.

Finished,” he announced, throwing down his pen and turning to Loki with a triumphant grin.

Loki held out both hands like an eager child. “Let me see.”

He rolled onto his back as he took the leaves of paper from Tony, holding them up above his face to read without the interruption of shadows. Still grinning, Tony grabbed the edge of the blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around himself in his own tunnel to curl up beside Loki and watch his reaction. Loki’s eyes tracked across the page while his lips moved in the formation of a silent song, note to note. His thumb tapped the rhythm against the paper’s edge.

Did he know how perfect he looked, in that moment, in the candlelight, with his eyes dark in shadow and his skin glowing gold and the traces of deep red fire echoing as highlights in his hair? No. It didn’t look as if he did. There was no conscious effort or anything artificial in his face. Just Loki, reading notation on a page. Absorbed in the task. When he reached the end, he held his breath for a moment, then smiled. “Yes,” he whispered. “That’s good.”

No florid praise, but Tony didn’t need that. The sincerity in Loki’s voice in those few words was enough. “So you’ll add a third vocal part?”

Loki nodded and turned his head to look Tony in the eye. “Tomorrow, I’ll have you play both parts on the virginal so I can work it through.”

“I can do that.”

“Thank you.”

And... what else? What could Tony say to that? ‘You’re welcome’? He had to say something, because this silence by the soft glow of just two little candles was starting to feel far too thick. Too full of Loki’s dark gaze and the smell of lavender. Heat crept into his ears despite the chill in the room, and a dry lump into his throat that refused to be swallowed. The skin down his spine tingled.

“Um,” he whispered. “Loki?”

“Hm?” Loki whispered back, every bit as quiet, like sharing a secret.

“What you said... yesterday... about hating everyone? What did that... mean?”

Loki’s gaze broke away, moving down to look at the border zone of blanket between them. “I mean that in general. I hate people as a whole. Not necessarily all individuals. You... As I said, I find you tolerable.”

“Tolerable in what way?”

He spent a long time slowly breathing, in and out, shoulder rising and falling, before he answered that. “I don’t know.”

“But I think you know what I want,” Tony said, forcing himself to speak those words even though they made his heart pound and his nerves scream.

“You made that clear last night.”

A reminder which Tony could have done without. He pushed that particular embarrassment aside. “But you’re still here. Lying on my bed, wrapped up in this blanket, instead of safely making your exit when you...”

“When I what?”

“When you had to have guessed I’d try something stupid like this.”

The music pages had to go. Tony took them from Loki’s hands, setting them carefully aside on the floor next to his viol. Then his hand moved to Loki’s cheek. Fingertips traced the outline of Loki’s ear and paused just below his jaw to feel the pulse through his skin. Quick. Growing quicker. But Loki didn’t pull away. Not from that herald of a touch, and not from the kiss Tony pressed lightly against his lips.

“So you’re agreeable to this?” Tony asked.

“I think so,” came Loki’s barely audible answer.

Tony would have rather had Loki know so, but... Thinking would have to do for now. As long as he moved slowly to avoid a repeat of the previous night’s poor choices. He slid in closer until their knees touched, and re-wrapped the blanket so it encompassed both of them together. Loki’s body felt so warm, even through the layers of clothing. At his knee. At his waist, where Tony laid one hand. Especially at his neck, where Tony’s other hand could still feel that racing pulse. In response, Loki’s own hands, though less certain, found their way to Tony’s body. One on the side of his ribcage. The other resting on his upper chest.

Nothing more than kisses to start, and soft kisses at that. Little exploratory kisses to map the placement of Loki’s mouth, over to his cheek, down the angle of his jaw, and below his chin. Then back up to his mouth. He had parted his lips just enough for Tony’s tongue to trace their shape. Such soft lips. Such soft breath... Tony shivered at the feel of it on his skin, tickling its way under his nose with the sweet scent of apple, and shifted nearer. The hand on Loki’s waist moved to his hip to urge him close. One knee found its way between Loki’s.

Slow, Tony told himself. And repeated the word in head a few more times for good measure: Slow, slow, slow. Just kiss, just kiss... Just let his tongue flit between Loki’s lips, skimming teeth and drawing out a tiny gasp of surprise. No, Loki didn’t pull away. Instead, the hand on Tony’s ribs clenched and tugged at his clothing. More, then. Another kiss, a deeper kiss... And when Tony felt Loki’s tongue catch his own... The fiery jolt of that contact shot all the way down through his veins to between his legs, and a low moan of desire rose up from deep inside.

He was hard. Oh God, he was hard already, and pressing against Loki’s thigh.

Just kisses. Just kisses! But maybe stronger kisses. Needier kisses. Kisses that let Tony bite down on Loki’s lower lip and wrap his arms tightly around Loki’s back. Kisses that coaxed Loki to do the same with an embrace encircling Tony’s shoulders. Kisses that were enough to wipe all other reality from Tony’s mind, until somehow he found himself lying on top of Loki while one hand fumbled to undo all those tiny, finicky covered buttons standing like a barricade down the front of Loki’s waistcoat.

So much for slow.

But this was fine, wasn’t it? Tony pulled back just enough to see the heated flush of pink in Loki’s cheeks and the red in his lips. Loki’s eyes stared right back into his with their answer. Yes. Fine. He leaned back in for one more soft kiss to the corner of Loki’s mouth before bracing himself with elbows on either side of Loki’s chest to use both hands on those damned buttons. It was quicker that way. Within moments, Tony had the waistcoat open, and moved to the button at the neck of Loki’s shirt.

Loki shivered under his touch.

“Are you cold?”

“No.”

Not a shiver. A tremble. “...Nervous?”

“I don’t know,” Loki whispered.

But no, he was shaking, all over, as if hit by a sudden chill. And if his jaw weren’t clenched as tightly as it was, Tony felt sure his teeth would be chattering as well. Something he had said before the bath sprang back into Tony’s mind. Something about a soul as pure as new snow. Did he mean...?

“Loki... have you ever done this before?”

“Have I ever kissed you before?” Loki asked, though his voice lacked every bit of the cutting edge Tony knew he was trying to squeeze into it.

“No, you know what I mean.”

He looked away to focus on one of the candles. “I’m sure I’ve done worse than just kiss.”

And somehow, Tony was sure that he hadn’t. “Do you want me to go any further?”

Loki shrugged. The gesture looked forced through the trembling in his shoulders. “Maybe.”

“Alright then.” Lying back down at Loki’s side, Tony tucked the blanket over them once again and snugged his arm around Loki’s waist. Loki’s entire body still shook. “We can just kiss.”

“I said ‘maybe’, not ‘no’,” Loki sighed. “I won’t know until you try.”

“Mm,” said Tony, giving a little kiss to Loki’s shoulder. “The problem with that approach is that you could decide too late that you don’t like it, or try to force yourself to tolerate something in the hope that it might get better, or allow something you know you don’t want because you’re afraid to say anything... All of those possibilities lead to not much fun for me and far less fun for you. The only way to go about this is with two enthusiastic ‘yes’ votes from both sides. Trust me on that.”

“Then I say yes.”

Tony kissed his shoulder again. “I don’t believe you.”

“You don’t know what I want.”

“No,” Tony agreed, “I don’t.” He had no idea what Loki wanted. No idea at all. Everything Loki said and did and hinted and showed was nothing but contradictory and seemed to change by the hour. By the minute. Probably even by the second. “But I have a feeling you may not either.”

Whatever argument balanced on the tip of Loki’s tongue never materialized into anything more than a sharp breath with no follow-up. “Fine,” was all he said. He pushed the blanket aside and sat up. “I should go.”

“You don’t have to,” Tony started, but as soon as he spoke, the unmistakable sound of the front door swinging shut reverberated up through the walls, followed closely by Thor’s booming laughter.

“Oh yes I do!” Loki hissed, leaping up off the bed in one cat-like movement. His fingers scrambled to redo the buttons on his waistcoat as he hurried over to the stairs, but once he reached the doorway, he froze.

It took Tony only a second to figure out why. Somebody – Thor by the sound of the heavy creaking – was coming up from the ground floor. And if Thor coming up the main stairs saw Loki heading down the attic stairs, well...

“Loki?” Thor called out. “Are you home?”

Still frozen in the doorway, Loki turned back to look at Tony with the kind of horrified and panicked expression that probably would have been hilarious if they weren’t about to be caught in a very compromising situation for the second time in one day. (And they still hadn’t even managed to do any more than kiss!) Worse, though, there was nowhere to hide in the attic. No bed curtains. Not even a damn table big enough to crouch under. Loki made a dash back to the bed, but instead of burying himself under the covers in the absence of any better hiding place, he sat down, picked up the nearest few sheets of music, and shouted in reply to Thor: “I’m up here!”

Tony’s stomach twisted in knots. Had Loki gone insane? “What are you doing?!”

“He’s going to find me here one way or another, so better make this look innocent! Where’s your pen? Pretend you’re working on something!”

Ah. Yes. That did sound like a better plan than Loki hiding under the covers and hoping Thor wouldn’t notice a large Loki-shaped lump in the bed. Tony rolled over into a sitting position as far from Loki as he could manage, grabbing his pen and a paper from the floor. Seconds later, Thor tottered up the stairs.

“Ah! Loki! Tony! Having a pleasant evening?”

“I suppose we were until you burst in,” Loki retorted with the kind of cool disdain Tony never could have managed with his heart pounding as it was in his throat. “Have you been drinking?”

“Ah, we had some wine with supper,” Thor laughed, though from the flush in his skin, ‘some wine’ had to be a slight understatement. “You should have come! Agnete asked after you, of course.”

“Next time she asks, tell her I’ve moved to Russia.”

“She wrote you another poem.”

“I don’t want it.”

“I do,” said Tony, jumping in now that the conversation had established itself as decidedly banal and safe. “I love poems.” Especially ones that sounded as if they had been embarrassingly written for Loki.

As a smiling Thor tossed a paper folded into a tiny diamond shape in Tony’s direction, Loki sighed in a most overdramatic way and dumped his sheets of music on the floor. “Thor, if you don’t mind, the main reason I declined the Holms’ invitation was because I have been asked to perform in less than two weeks and need several new songs. Tony very kindly agreed to help me. Your interruption is not helping me.”

“Wait, I don’t even know what language this poem is in,” said Tony, staring at the poem, though he might as well have been staring at a secret code. It was full of letters that looked like they should never fit together, and vowels with odd marks.

“Danish,” Thor and Loki answered together.

Well that certainly made things less interesting. What use was a soppy love poem about Loki if he couldn’t even read it?

“Agnete’s a very pretty girl,” Thor told Loki. “But more importantly, for some baffling reason, she’s actually interested in being in the same room as you.”

“She’s thirteen,” Loki growled, which only prompted Thor’s smile to widen.

“Ah, but just think! By the time she’s twenty, you may have grown up enough to be ready for marriage!”

“Oh, I’m done,” Loki said as he stood. “Why do I even bother talking to you? I’m going to bed. Tony, we can continue this tomorrow.”

The odd way he stressed the word ‘this’ left Tony wondering exactly what he meant. ‘This’ as in working on music for the performance, or ‘this’ as in... everything else they had been doing?

“I suppose it is late,” Thor allowed as Loki disappeared down the stairs. “I should retire as well. Good night, Tony.” He turned to follow after Loki, but had only made it two steps before something made him reconsider. He looked back. “Why are you wearing Loki’s clothes?”

“Oh.” Caught up as he was in the composition, Tony had completely neglected to change. He looked down at himself. “I borrowed this for church. We were so busy with music I’d forgotten what I was wearing.”

“Ah yes, I remember. Speaking of which, how did you enjoy our church service? Does it compare favorably to your Catholic mass?”

“I found it most inspiring,” Tony answered, which was the honest truth. Just not in the way Thor might guess.

Thor beamed out his winning smile. “Good! Good. Then perhaps you will join us again next Sunday.”

“Yes, perhaps.” Or perhaps Tony would grow wings and spend the next Sunday morning flying over the city. Both were equally likely possibilities.

“Good night, Tony.”

“Good night, Thor.”

And then Tony was alone with his pen and ink and viol and papers. Disappointingly alone. He shoved all the music sheets onto the floor to deal with in the morning and lay back on the mattress. He was still wearing Loki’s clothes. Loki’s waistcoat. Loki’s breeches. Loki’s shirt. Everything of Loki’s enveloping his body. That thought made his skin hum as he reached up to undo the line of tiny buttons running from neck to thigh. The fabric still carried an echo of the scent of clove and evergreen.

Alas, scented imagination was a poor substitute for a body in bed beside him. But Tony had made himself a promise. When it came to Loki, he would take whatever he could get. The memory of kisses would have to be enough to tide him over for the time being.

Chapter Text

By the end of the first day, Tony knew beyond a doubt that working with Loki was going to be the single most infuriating thing he had ever willingly attempted in his life.  All of the previous evening’s collaborative spirit melted away like Sunday morning’s snow, leaving a frustrated Tony staring down an obstinate and uncompromising Loki over a sheet of paper with four bars of cantus firmus written on it.  An entire day’s work summed up in four insufficient notes.  Tony wanted to punch something.  Preferably Loki’s insufferable face.

“I am the composer,” he said, probably for the twentieth time.  “If you want me to write your songs-”

“If you want me to sing your songs,” Loki interrupted, also probably for the twentieth time, “you will write something I find agreeable!”

What Loki could possibly find disagreeable about four notes was beyond Tony’s grasp.  “What happened to you wanting music that this merchant from Civitavecchia would enjoy?”

“I want music with elements of your style.  I want a gloss of your style.  A dalliance with your style.  But applied to my music!”

“I thought last night you wanted the opposite!  Applying elements of your style to my music!”

“Yes, but that was for the songs you’ve already written.  If we write something entirely new, I want it to be something I like.  Now are you going to cooperate?  Do you want this commission at all?”

“Yes,” Tony grudgingly admitted.  He wanted the commission.  He wanted the exposure.  Mostly, he wanted the money.  And above all that, he dearly wanted to wrap his hands around Loki’s neck and slam the idiot repeatedly up against the wall.  (Exactly what he would do once he had Loki against the wall, well, his brain kept sending him mixed messages on that count.  But the slamming part remained a constant.)  “How about this,” he said, trying to shake that image out of his head.  “Instead of me pointlessly attempting to read your mind and guess what you want, because that’s taking us nowhere, let’s try a different approach.  You sing.  I transcribe and make minor alterations to your song in my style.  Would that work?”

Loki’s expression remained doubtful, because doubtful was one of approximately three facial expressions Loki was capable of producing.  He paced a wide arc around the room.  Apparently this was a proposition that would require a great deal of thought.  “What songs?” he finally asked in an equally doubtful voice, and Tony’s wall-slamming urge doubled.

“Anything.  I don’t care.  Some of your old pieces you performed in the concert hall.  With your next engagement in less than two weeks, I sincerely doubt we have time to write even half an entirely new song.  Not at our current pace.  So let’s keep fixing up some of my old works and rearranging some of yours, and with any luck that will be enough to provide you with one evening’s worth of suitable material.  But can we please try something?”

“Fine,” Loki grumbled in a tone that meant ‘this is a terrible idea and isn’t going to work’.  Pacing around again, he came to a stop in the middle of the room.  He shook out his arms and stretched his neck from side to side as if preparing for an audience far greater than just Tony sitting there on the bed with a stack of paper and an ink pot.

Tony took up his pen.  “Now go slowly.  And listen in case I need to stop you or have you repeat a section.”

The grunt in reply from Loki was probably something in the affirmative, or at least as affirmative as was possible given the circumstances and Loki’s dedication thereto.  But when he opened his mouth and took a breath and began to sing...

Damn, it was impossible for Tony to stay angry.  Or frustrated.  Or even mildly displeased.  Loki’s voice filled the air with the kind of pure and piercing sound that sent a shiver through Tony’s whole body.  Echoing through the wide, empty space of the attic, low and rich but clear as starlight.  For a moment it was enough to make Tony forget his task and just listen.  The first fluid stream of haunting melody slipped by before he remembered he was meant to be writing it down.  Quickly, he scrawled the intervals on the staff in crude shorthand.  On paper it looked like nothing remarkable, but to hear the notes as Loki sang them...  How could he ever adequately capture that?

When Loki finished, Tony had an ugly mess of musical crumbs on the page, and an entire orchestra of ideas in his head all crying for freedom.

“That looks nothing like what I sang,” Loki said, leaning over his shoulder.  “That looks like a nest of spiders hatched and immediately died in a semi-organized formation.”

“Thank you very much for that vivid descriptor,” grumbled Tony.  But really, Loki was right.  His writing did rather resemble a spider nest, with wispy little legs seeping out from fat splotches of ink.  “But this is nothing more than a hasty first draft to get the notes in order.  I’ll go back and make a finer copy and add some accompaniment.  What do you want?  Harpsichord and violin as you had in the concert hall?”

Unconvinced, Loki’s eyes stayed on the page.  “Yes, fine, harpsichord and violin.  But that still looks nothing like my song.”

“Well no, because I’m rewriting your song in my style.  Your style is very free and flowing and almost recitativo.  I’m trying to take that and rework it within a firm structure and time signature.”

“I don’t like it.”

Perhaps Tony could give into his feral urges and slam Loki up against the wall just a little?  Just once?  Just enough to knock him unconscious for a while?  “Loki,” he said instead.  “You asked me to do this.  Only minutes ago.”

“Yes, but I want you to do it differently.”

Differently.  Yes, this whole ridiculous plan needed to play out differently.  Standing, Tony grabbed the stack of his own compositions off the foot of the bed and shoved everything into Loki’s hands.  “Good idea.  Let’s do this differently.  And by that I mean you are going to take these down to your room, and I am going to stay up here working on this.  You add your vocal melody and lyrics to my accompaniment.  I will add my accompaniment to your melody.  Then both of us must swear to accept what the other has done without complaint.  Good?  Good.

“But that defeats the purpose of working together!” said Loki.

“Yes, it does,” Tony agreed while not-so-gently urging him in the direction of the stairs. If defeating the purpose of working together was the only way they could move ahead with tangentially working together, Tony was all in favor.  “Don’t come back until you have a completed piece to show me!”

With a very dark look on his face, Loki slunk down the stairs, but at least he went.  And with no further arguments, either.  Then, left alone, Tony was able to concentrate and actually make some sense out of the spider-explosion that was the transcription of Loki’s song.  By the time Jane called up to announce supper, he had finished the harpsichord part and most of the violin.  And that was Monday.

On Tuesday, Tony added a second student to his teaching schedule.

Sofia van Veenhuizen, who lived in the house next door, spoke no English and only a little French.  Nonetheless, at just nine years old, she was already a proficient musician who had learned how to read notation and play the harpsichord from her mother.  Tony’s job was to give her two one-hour lessons per week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.  An easy task despite the language barrier.  All he needed to do was watch her play, occasionally correct her finger placement, demonstrate new techniques, and assign new pieces to learn with increasing difficulty.  And he had the luxury of doing that on a full-scale harpsichord in the van Veenhuizens’ spacious parlor.

He really needed to start subtly suggesting to Jane that she should have a full-scale, five-octave harpsichord, so that Jane could start unsubtly asking Thor to buy one.  If they rearranged the music room and took out all the extra chairs, a harpsichord would fit.  Things might be somewhat cramped, but it would fit.  And then if they had a harpsichord in the music room, he could take the virginal upstairs to assist in composition.  And would no longer have to rely on the slow progress made with his single viol as Loki paced impatiently behind him.

“Wearing a groove in the floor won’t make things go any faster,” he said over his shoulder.

“How much longer are you going to be?” Loki asked.

However long it takes, Tony almost answered, but decided to keep all unhelpful comments to himself. 

“I’ve already finished adding a vocal part to seven of your songs.”

On second thought, an unhelpful comment or two seemed to be necessary.  “Yes, you’ve finished seven songs, and I’m on my third.  Though I think the scale of accomplishment is still tipped in my favor, seeing as how I am doing three times as much work as you are.”

“How-” Loki snapped, but Tony cut him off before he had a chance to say anything too irritating.

“One: transcription,” said Tony.  “Not to mention making a clean copy of that transcription.  Then, I add two harmonic lines for the harpsichord, and another for the violin.  I am writing out four lines of music for every one that you do.  And all that on top of giving three hours of lessons today while you sat around eating grapes and drinking tea!  So no, I don’t think I need to hear anything out of you until it’s time for you to sing again.  Go finish another seven songs.”

Loki shut up after that.  Not completely – he still seemed to be afflicted with the need to sigh loudly and kick his feet against the floor every few minutes like the grumpy little prince he was – but enough for Tony to easily ignore.  By supper time, Tony had fully completed the arrangement on three songs.  And thus passed Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Loki was in a far more agreeable mood, and they were able to work together to make significant progress on four more of Loki’s songs.  Thursday blissfully passed in much the same way.  But on Friday, frigid wind and rain driving in from the sea were enough to chill to the bone anyone who dared set foot outside.  Inclusive of those who needed only walk twenty steps over to the front door of the van Veenhuizen household.  Tony spent the entirety of Sofia’s lesson damp and shivering, and then had to face an even worse downpour on the twenty steps back.  After that, his only inclination was to sit wrapped up in a blanket next to the warmth of the chimney stack with a bowl of hot broth, waiting until it was time for Jane’s lesson.

After that, he would go back to bed.

“Poor Tony,” Loki sighed, though Tony’s best guess indicated he was there to annoy rather than comfort.  “Having to go outside, in this dreadful weather, aaaaaaaalllll the way to next door...”

“Shut up,” muttered Tony.  “The rain’s coming down like horse piss out there.”

“You should have worn a cloak and hat, idiot.”

“I didn’t anticipate needing them for such a short distance.”  Nor did he anticipate the equivalent to a full barrel of water being dumped directly over his head as the wind blew a vast wave off the gutter of the roof, but now he knew for next time.

“Here.  Let’s take this ridiculous thing off.”  Loki’s fingers found their way under the front of Tony’s wig.  Tony would have smacked them away if not for the bowl of broth occupying both hands.

“No, don’t.  If it dries in the wrong position it’ll ruin the shape.”

Ignoring Tony’s protest, Loki pulled the wig off.  “I’d say the shape is already more than ruined.  You’ll need a professional to fix it.”

“No, but-”

“Tony.”  Loki held up the wig for Tony to see: wet, flat, and bedraggled.  “This thing looks and smells like a wet dog.”

‘Wet dog’ was, alas, a highly accurate descriptor.  The style had been completely destroyed, rained down into nothing more than a slightly frizzy pelt.  “Oh no...”

“Don’t look so sad.  It’s a ridiculous fashion and you’re better off without it.”

“Do you know how much that wig cost?!”

“No.  Because I do not care.”

“Nearly equivalent to twenty-five guilder!” said Tony.  “And that was second-hand, because the original owner died in it!”

Loki made a face as he dropped the ruined wig.  “Syphilis?”

“God, no, I’m not that cheap.  He died normally, killed in a duel.  But in any case, wigs are costly, and that’s going to cost a lot of money to repair.  Money I don’t have.  Do you think...” he asked, balancing his broth bowl precariously in one hand as he reached out to poke at a wet former curl.  “Do you think Jane might know how to fix it?  She styles her own hair, doesn’t she?  Or does Louisa help?”

“You worry far too much,” Loki said, standing up and, to Tony’s relief, taking the non-syphilitic wig with him to carefully drape over mirror post to dry.  “If the wretched thing is that important to you, we can go out tomorrow to find somebody to restyle it and I will lend you whatever funds you require.”

 “Thank you.  It is important.”

“I still think your natural hair looks fine.”

“It’s not fashionable.”

“So?”

“So, I’m Catholic.  I’m religiously required to look glorious at all times.  There’s really no point to Catholicism unless I can use it to assure myself I’m better than Protestant nobodies like you.”

“And here I thought the mandate of all Christians was to be humble and charitable,” Loki said with a snort.

Tony shook his head. “Hm, no, that doesn’t sound right.  I’m far more familiar with the mandate of gathering a whole lot of money and then giving it all to the church when you die.”

“Yes, you would be,” said Loki.  He picked up Tony’s second blanket from the bed before returning to the chimney stack, where he proceeded to sit down and wrap the blanket around his own shoulders and over Tony’s huddled form.

“What are you doing?” Tony asked.

“I am being a most excellent Christian, humble and charitable, by sitting on the floor and sharing my blanket with you.  Is this not so much nicer than damp Catholic opulence?”

“What it lacks in gold it makes up for in comfort,” Tony agreed, leaning into the warmth of Loki’s body. “Though shouldn’t you be working on music? Your performance is in one week’s time and we still have so many songs to go through.”

“Oh, toss the music,” Loki muttered. “We should have nearly enough by now, and I can always sing very slowly or invent new lyrics and repeat things in verses. Today can we please have a rest from composition and arrangement? I feel as if my head might burst if I have to look at one more interval.”

“So you’d rather sit against my chimney and do nothing?”

“Yes.”

Tony could not argue with that. Sitting against the chimney and absorbing the small amount of heat it conducted up from the kitchen fire seemed like a perfectly acceptable way to spend a rainy day.

“And while we sit,” Loki went on, “you can tell me all about your life and how you came to be here.”

Groaning, Tony lifted the bowl to his mouth. “Why would you want to hear that?” he asked before swallowing the rest of the broth. “You already know the important parts.”

“Then tell me the unimportant parts.”

“Well, let me see. I was born in England, sent off to Paris when I was thirteen, ran away to Mantua when I was sixteen, then moved on to Rome. Then I came here, which brings us to today.”

“You know,” said Loki, “if you want me to take my blanket and leave you here to be cold on your own...”

“Are you trying to buy my life story with cuddles?”

“Mmm, perhaps.” And Loki leaned heavily against Tony’s side as if to prove his point.

“Oh, fine,” said Tony. “But this is a very boring story, so prepare to be very bored.” And so he began. “I was born on the twenty-ninth of May, 1660. Easily the most exciting part of this story is the fact that I was actually born on the day King Charles returned to London. This was also, coincidentally, Charles’ thirtieth birthday. So both my parents missed the king’s grand parade into the city due to the fact that I was being born at the time. Allegedly I met the new king some months later at a public festival, but have no memory of this. Probably because I was an infant. But throughout my childhood my father loved to remind me that I had been lucky enough to have been born on the day of the king’s return and not to have lived through even one minute of the awful English Commonwealth.”

“Very exciting indeed,” Loki agreed.

“Yes. My grandest moments all happened when I was less than a year old. Unless you count not dying of the plague as a small child when that swept through London. As a physician, my father refused to leave the city when everyone else fled, so I suppose the fact that my entire family survived is something of a miracle, isn’t it?”

“But your father, as a physician, would have known how to avoid sickness, yes?” Loki asked.

Tony shook his head. “Not necessarily. Nobody knew for certain what caused the plague, nor how to cure it. All that could be done was to separate the healthy from the dying and watch for symptoms. But by some grace of God we lived through that, and the fire the next year. And then after all that, my mother died of cancer in her breast when I was eight. Another thing my father the physician could not cure.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I. I still miss her. Marianne Carbonelle. That’s where I got my Italian name, incidentally: from her. She loved the theater, and as a wedding gift my father gave her a little set of books of ten of Shakespeare’s plays. Banned, of course, under Cromwell, but she could at least read them in secret if not see them performed. Her favorite was Antony and Cleopatra. She named me after Marc Antony. So I suppose it’s lucky I wasn’t born a girl, otherwise you might very possibly be sitting next to Cleopatra right now.”

“I shall call you that from now on,” Loki said with a smirk.

“No, you won’t. Otherwise I’ll call you...” Something annoying. He’d have to think of a good name. “Anyhow. After mother’s death things became dull. I stopped playing the harpsichord. I attended school and studied Latin. My father wanted me to go on to university and take up a respectable profession. And one day, I struck your brother in the eye, and my father ordered me to go to France and live a while with my mother’s family so I could learn to be worldly and responsible.”

“Ah yes,” Loki snorted.  “Worldly and responsible.  Two words that describe you so well.”

“Shut up,” said Tony, pinching Loki on the shoulder and earning nothing but a jab in the ribs back for his trouble.  “I’m terribly worldly.  I’ve met the Pope.”

“In Rome?”

“No, in a French mill town.  Of course in Rome.  At the Basilica di San Pietro.  Where else?”

“How in the world were you invited to meet the Pope?”

“I told you, I’m very worldly and important.”

“Or you followed along after more worthy guests?”

That was, alas, rather closer to the truth.  “If you must know, my old teacher wrote a mass for Easter.  I assisted in the performance, and Pope Innocentius was in attendance.”

“How fascinating.  Now tell me how you ended up going from France to Rome, which has to be one of the most musically oppressive places in the world.”

“I was naïve and knew nothing of the Pope’s restrictive policies?” Tony went on with a shrug.  “Honestly I should have stayed in Mantua or Bologna, but when one thinks of the Italian states, the shining jewel of Rome comes to the front of one’s mind.  The seat of the church, the home to so many wealthy and influential individuals... But to explain things fully, I stayed with my mother’s family in Paris for three years before determining that I had to leave if I ever wanted to make something of myself. I knew by then I wanted to be a musician, but I needed formal training. And the best place for that, I thought, would be Rome.”

“So you left at sixteen?”

“Yes. I traveled with my friend Harry, who had come with me from England, and we had this brilliant idea that being English was terribly unfashionable.  We both spoke perfect French by then so we travelled under the French names of Antoine Carbonelle and Henri Faucher, which is what most people had called us back in Paris anyhow.  Henry took his name from a neighbor, a butcher who had all but adopted him. The butcher had five daughters but no sons to help with the family business.  Anyhow, we made it as far as Dijon when Harry turned back. He preferred a stable butcher’s life in Paris over the unknown adventures I chased ahead.  I’m sure he’s still there, living as Henri Faucher, and he’s probably married one of those butcher’s girls by now.  But I went on alone to Mantua.  And I stayed there in Mantua for half a year, long enough to become fluent in the local language, before moving on to the final goal of Rome.  There I found myself a proper music teacher to build on the rudimentary education I had received in Paris, and…  Well.  Now I am here.”

“Now you are here,” Loki repeated.  “I assume you grew tired of the rigid structure of Rome.”

“Essentially, yes. Had I wanted to write music for the church I’m sure I could have been successful there.  I did write a mass.  But you speak of restriction, and after writing thirty iterations of the same Kyrie I thought I might go mad if I could not exercise somewhat more of my creative abilities.  You see the more I learned of music theory: the structure behind it, the mathematics, the science of harmony and dissonance…  I wanted to push those boundaries. I wanted to see how far I could go while still staying within the limits of what would be considered acceptable.  Yes, I wanted to write masses, but also concertos and suites and cantatas and sonatas and even an opera…”

“And you came to the freedom of the north.”

“I suppose.”

“Just suppose?”

He wasn’t sure what would be more embarrassing at this point: telling Loki his precise reason for coming to Amsterdam, or having Loki inevitably find out the truth later? The easy comfort of Loki’s body leaning against his seemed to sway in favor of the truth. This felt like a time for truths, awkward thought they may have been. “I actually, um... I came to... find you.”

Loki shifted as much as was possible without fracturing their little cocoon, turning to better face Tony. “Me? Why in God’s name would you come to find me?”

“Because you were...” How could he even explain it? “Because you were this symbol of musical innovation. This unknown northern mystery causing a ripple of rumors across the continent with people saying you were touched by angels or a devil worshipper or anything, really. They said your music fit no known rules or conventions and was either divine or damned.”

Who said?” Loki asked, looking nothing but incredulous.

“Anyone. Composers. Musicians. Singers. Nobles who fancied themselves knowledgeable patrons of the musical arts. You created a huge uproar in Rome.”

“But I’ve never even been anywhere near Rome!”

“Yes, exactly,” said Tony. “That was part of your allure. You might as well have been a ghost. Probably a fraction of the people who claimed they’d heard you sing actually had, because most of them described you as having fair golden hair. A guess, I’m sure, based on what they knew of Denmark. But those lies only helped add to your fame, and I thought... Well, this is something I must see for myself. I wanted to hear your controversial music and perhaps be inspired to do something similar.”

Stunned, Loki let himself flop back against the chimney stack. “That’s so...” He shook his head. “I mean, I’ve had letters from princes and dukes in far-off places I can’t even hope to pronounce, inviting me to sing in their court, but I never thought...”

“You should accept some of those.”

“No, I have no interest in traveling so far or finding myself under the thumb of some oppressive despot.”

“Or,” Tony said, leaning forward as an idea came to his mind, “you could travel south with me, we could arrange a series of public performances along the way as we make for Mantua, and everyone who’s ever worked themselves into a frenzy over the rumors of you will flock to the concert halls and we’ll both become very, very rich!”

Loki nodded, but it was a doubtful nod. A weighing-the-options-and-finding-them-unconvincing nod. “Perhaps. But I hardly think the bother and expense of all that travel would be worthwhile.”

“No, trust me, Loki. We stay here over the winter, working on a solid repertory of music to perform. Come spring, we sail to England, then on to France, winding south and east through key cities. If all goes well, we continue on to Sicily and even Spain! Then start another loop, and in a few years we’ll have made piles of money and can retire to wherever you like to write music and give occasional performances just for fun!”

Still a doubtful look from Loki. Always a doubtful look from Loki. How could he question his own greatness like this?

“Well, think on it, at least,” Tony told him. “I doubt you want to live with your brother forever, and instead of going somewhere else, why not go everywhere else?”

“With you?”

Something in the way Loki asked that question left Tony unsure of how exactly to answer. He shifted back to sit against the chimney again. Shoulder pressed up to Loki’s. Loki, for whatever it meant, didn’t move. “Yes,” Tony finally said. “As long as that’s what you want.”

“Hm.”

Loki didn’t elaborate on that sound, and Tony, despite the questions pounding in his head, found himself too afraid to ask what it meant.

 

Chapter Text

Friday came too quickly. By the end of the week they had twenty-eight completed songs, most of which were short little pieces that required Loki to write several lines of lyrics to allow him to repeat and stretch things out to fill the two hour performance time. It was only after Loki left for the evening, shutting the front door behind him, that Tony began to feel nervous. Actually, he felt sick. A queasy whirlpool churned in his stomach and crawled its way up his spine to the base of his skull in a trail of cold sweat. Loki had just left for their first collaborative performance. Loki had just left with a folio of twenty-eight incredibly rushed songs, only five or six of which Tony considered truly good enough and worthy of the occasion. Worst of all, Loki had just left alone. Tony should have gone with him. Good God, of course Tony should have gone with him. Tony could have played the string line instead of trusting it to Loki’s unnamed violinist. Their first collaborative performance, and everything felt all wrong.

“Worried he’s forgotten something?” Thor joked as Tony continued to stand at the front door long after Loki departed.

“Oh, um, yes,” Tony lied. “Just... going over the list of songs in my head and making sure he has everything he needs.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Thor. “Loki has been singing at these types of events for nearly ten years now and has never once failed to deliver a spectacular performance.”

With his own music, the anxious half of Tony’s brain answered. In his own style, in a performance completely of his own design.

“But supper is almost ready. Louisa is baking a fish with citrus and fresh herbs and pepper. Why don’t we sit at the table and have some wine while we wait?”

Well. Tony couldn’t exactly say no to that. So he sat at the dining room table, drinking probably at least twice as much wine as he reasonably should have and listening only half as much as would have been reasonably polite as Thor regaled him with the story of an incident that happened that afternoon at the docks. Something to do with a stray dog stealing a man’s dinner and said man falling into the bay trying to retrieve it. Then Jane arrived with a tray of cheese and dried fruits, followed by the main course of fish and three side dishes of vegetables (all seasoned with nutmeg). And more wine.

None of this was successful in taking Tony’s mind off the absent Loki, but it did dull the protruding spines of worry somewhat. It did not make him feel any better over missing his first collaborative performance with Loki Lind.

He crawled into bed miserable and slightly drunk, and pulled the blankets up over his head to block out the whistling chill of the oncoming winter’s wind. It took hours of restless turning, it seemed, to fall into any kind of sleep. And then when he finally began to dream, of large, hideous spiders lurking in the corners of his attic, something moved in his bed and he snapped back awake.

“Tony?”

He raised a hand to push his hair off his face. “...Loki?” It was too dark in the room to see much more than shadowy outlines, but that sounded like Loki’s voice and looked like Loki’s silhouette crawling under the covers. “What are you doing?”

“You want me here, don’t you?” Loki asked.

An odd question, but Tony still nodded. “Yes.”

With nothing else to say, Loki lay down in bed with his head sharing the pillow and his arm wrapped around Tony’s waist. Odd. But by no means unwelcome. Tony’s arms found their way around Loki’s back to pull him and his very welcome body heat closer. Very odd. What was Loki doing here, anyhow? Not that Tony minded at all, but still...

“How was the performance?” he mumbled, half into the pillow and half into Loki’s hair.

“Fine,” Loki answered after a too-long pause.

“Only ‘fine’? Not perfect? Not amazing?”

“Just fine. I arrived, I sang, I was paid my promised fee. The guests seemed to be enjoying themselves. Nobody paid the least bit of attention to anything I was doing, eating and drinking and talking and conducting their trade business throughout. I could have sang the same song over and over for two hours and nobody would have noticed. I have been invited to sing at the courts of princes and kings, and yet these ignorant cloth merchants see fit to tell me at the end of the night that I can help myself to a plate of leftover food and eat it in the kitchen with the servants! Which my accompanists disgraced themselves by doing! Not a single person asked my name, or yours, inquiring after the composer. So if you wish to know my thoughts on the evening... The music went well. Very well, in fact. I should like to perform it again, though next time for an audience that is not more interested in selling wool than listening to me.”

Tony’s hand slid up to cup the back of Loki’s neck, squeezing gently. “They don’t deserve you.”

“No, they don’t,” Loki agreed through his pout.

“They’re all cultureless idiots.”

“Yes, they are.”

“We should put on a new performance – a real performance – in a concert hall. For people who appreciate you.”

“Yes, we should. We should write an opera.”

Tony, who had felt himself beginning to drift off into the warmth of the bed on the melody of Loki’s voice, snapped suddenly wide awake. “Wait, what did you say? You want to write an opera?” Was Loki mad? After two weeks of fighting over the comparatively easy task of arranging and updating a few songs, he wanted to write an entire opera? He had to be insane. Not that Tony was about to voice this opinion, but the truth was clearly evident.

“Well yes,” Loki said, as if writing an opera were an undertaking of no consequence. “I shall write the melodies, and you will write the arrangements.”

He was insane. That was the only explanation. Which meant Tony had to be insane as well, because instead of refusing to be a part of this ludicrous plan like an intelligent person would do, he found himself nodding and agreeing. Drawn in by the intoxicating and mind-addling aura of Loki. “What will this opera be about?”

“I don’t know yet,” Loki yawned. “We can decide tomorrow.”

“Very well.” Except no, everything was not ‘very well’, because this had to be the silliest thing Tony had ever agreed to do. Write an opera with Loki, whom he nearly throttled at least a dozen times over the course of writing one song. The problem was, he couldn’t say no. He had no hope of saying no to Loki.

Surely, Loki had to know that?

“So you want to cuddle-bribe me into writing this opera with you? Is that why you’re here?”

Loki’s eyes flickered open. “What? No. I’m asking you to write this opera with me because you are the one who wanted to go on a grand tour and I think we should have something to show. We can’t go to Mantua on a handful of salon songs.”

“So you... do want to travel south?” Tony asked, certain he had misheard that.

“Possibly. I’m bored of Holland. Everyone here is more interested in commerce than music. We should leave come spring. But I think I would rather travel more east than directly south, starting in Düsseldorf. I believe I still have a letter of invitation from the Grand Duchess Maria Anna Josepha. Then on to Brandenburg via Hanover and Brunswick. I can revisit old patrons in those cities. After that, we turn south through Bohemia to Austria. Provided, of course, they stop being invaded by the Ottomans. It may be better to wait out the war in Brandenburg. But then, you never know what new wars will start up, so...”

“You really want to do this.”

“Were you listening at all to what I just said?”

“Yes, but...” It wasn’t as if this were a simple proposal. Things with Loki could never accurately be classified as ‘simple’. Tony tightened his hold on Loki, until he could feel Loki’s heartbeat steadily pulsing alongside his own. “I wish I had any clue as to your intentions.”

“My intentions are to travel with you and perform our music,” said Loki.

“No, I mean...” God damn everything; if he didn’t say this now, he’d never say it. “I don’t know what your intentions are towards me. Not music, not travel: me. You vary so wildly, wrapping yourself up in my blankets one day and then ignoring me for the next three. You let me kiss you, then raise all your defences and treat me like a distant, formal acquaintance from across the room. And even though you’re here in bed with me now, I don’t know what you’ll be like tomorrow. I wish I knew. I wish I knew what you wanted. Just so I could stop wondering and not have to feel tense as a cat around you all the time, waiting to see how you’re going to treat me from day to day or hour to hour. I’ve been fairly obvious in my intentions towards you, I think, and I only wish you’d do me the same courtesy. That’s why I asked you why you came to my bed tonight.”

To Tony’s great surprise, Loki didn’t pull away. Not even in the slightest. He stayed exactly where he was, head on the pillow, body pressed up tight against Tony’s, arm firmly around Tony’s back. After a moment, he snorted a little exhalation and turned his face up to the ceiling. “You’re the one who didn’t want to fuck me when you had the chance.”

“No,” Tony countered. “I did want to. I absolutely, very much, more than anything wanted to, and still do. What I didn’t want was to fuck you when you weren’t completely sure of whether or not you wanted me to.”

“Maybe I want to now. Maybe that’s why I came here.”

“I don’t think so. If that were your intention, you’d have woken me with a kiss and a grope instead of cuddling in like a fully clothed, innocent little bunny. So why did you come? Why do you stay in my bed like this?”

Tony expected the long pause that followed his question. But Loki’s eventual honest answer came as a surprise.

“I was upset after the disaster reception to my performance. I just wanted to be with somebody who would understand. And, believe it or not, as you will, I... enjoy being in your bed. Like this. Because I know that next to all the indifferent fools in the city, you, at least, want me.”

“I do want you,” Tony whispered, allowing himself the indulgence of one kiss to Loki’s shoulder. Which Loki accepted. But did not reciprocate.

And that was that. This is what Loki desired. Just this: to be cuddled and comforted and wanted. This and nothing more. And Tony could do that. He supposed. He could be Loki’s friend, or something a little more than friend. Wherever this fell on the spectrum of friend to lover. For a while, at least. He was certain that one day he’d grow tired of the game and being batted back and forth, but for now it was better than nothing. Better meager rations than starvation when one can’t have a feast. Until he finally came to his damn senses and moved on.

He only wished that for however much he wanted Loki, Loki wanted him back even a fraction as much.

ooo

Perhaps Tony was being too optimistic, but the idea of writing an opera with Loki became less terrifying over the next few days. Not that they were able to come up with so much as an idea for the plot, nor agree on a language (Tony favored Italian, the natural language of opera, while Loki wanted either German, to appeal to a northern audience, or English, so that both of them could understand the words). But no matter their progress or impediments thereto, Loki seemed to be more reasonable. He asked rather than demanded. He offered his opinions along with the line of thought behind them. When he disagreed with Tony, he did so politely and with a solid explanation of his objections.

A distinct possibility of actually writing an opera without killing each other began to emerge.

“But I do think,” Tony said, “that it should be sung in Italian. If we wish our work to be taken seriously, Italian is the only language acceptable. An audience in Brandenburg will listen to an opera in Italian, but an audience in Rome will not listen to an opera in German.”

“Their snobbery should not be our problem,” said Loki.

“No, it should not be. But it is. So I think that to be safe, we write our first opera in Italian. If it is a success and the audiences call for more, we can try the second in German. Or English. Or French? French might be best. Lully has been writing opere in French for years, though he doesn’t do them correctly. We could write a proper opera in French.”

“I don’t like Italian.”

“You don’t know Italian.”

“No,” Loki agreed. “But also don’t know what rolling in a large mound of shit would be like, yet I am confident I would not enjoy it. How about this. We concentrate first on choosing a story. And we write a few songs. Then we determine which language best fits our subject matter and style.”

“Oh fine,” Tony said, mainly to move on to a more agreeable topic. He could always think of a way to draw Loki’s opinion around to an Italian opera later on. Especially since all good stories originated in Greek or Roman mythology, and singing that in German would make no sense. “What do you think of the story of Narcissus and Ameinias? You would be a splendid Narcissus.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“Ah, well, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who eschewed all romantic love. Ameinias loved him, but Narcissus cruelly spurned Ameinias with the mocking gift of a sword. In grief, Ameinias used the sword to kill himself on Narcissus’ doorstep, and the god Nemesis punished Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own image reflected in a pond. Once Narcissus realized that the man he loved was nothing more than a reflection that would never be made flesh, he killed himself with the same sword he had given Ameinias. His body became the narcissus flower that still grows at the water’s edge.”

“How morbid,” Loki said with a smile. “I like it. But whoever would play the role of poor Ameinias?”

Tony shrugged. “Not me. I play the viol. And am not lovesick enough to kill myself over some arrogant Narcissus.”

“But such a story would lend itself better to the Italian language,” Loki continued, saying exactly what Tony had hoped he would fail to notice. “A German opera would be better served by Norse tales, recalling the great deeds of Sigurðr or Gefjon or-” he paused to grin; “Loki.”

“We can think on this later,” Tony said as the little clock on the sitting room mantle chimed two, saving him from having to either agree to or reject anything. “Jane will be here any minute for her lesson. Why don’t you spend some time trying to think of a story we both know.”

Probably an impossible feat, but at least it would be something to keep Loki busy and out of the way for Jane’s virginal lesson. As hoped, Loki retired to his bedroom upstairs, leaving Tony to arrange the day’s music at the keyboard. It was one of the new pieces from Loki’s performance. An idea had recently begun forming in Tony’s head that Jane should be the one to play the harpsichord at Loki’s next performance, while Tony took the viol part, allowing them all to rehearse together and come to a greater musical understanding. The musicians accompanying Loki at the concert hall were, in Tony’s memory, very proficient, but dry technical skill was not always as important as the kind of instinct born of close personal bonds. Loki and Jane knew each other well. That could translate into an almost telepathic connection, each one predicting what the other was about to do on stage.

Or their thorny antagonism could explode in disaster, but it would be worth a try, wouldn’t it?

Tony turned to greet Jane with a wide smile when she entered the room. His smile faded at the sight of her somber countenance. Followed by Thor’s. Followed by Loki’s.

“Tony,” she said. “I’m so sorry to have to do this at the start of our lesson, but Thor and I find ourselves in need of speaking to both you and Loki immediately.”

Immediately. Of all Jane’s words, none of which sounded like anything Tony wished to hear, that one set his gut churning and a cold, sick feeling bubbling up into his chest. He looked to Loki on instinct, searching for any hint as to what Jane was about to say, but found only the same barely masked fear in Loki’s eyes. Neither of them had any clue. But the expression on Jane’s face paired with the inflection in her voice... None of this would be anything either of them wanted to hear.

Tony licked a dry tongue over drier lips and tried desperately to hold together his rapidly disintegrating composure. Did Jane and Thor suspect or know something of what had been going on between him and Loki? If so, what did they know, and to what extent? Were they disappointed in Tony’s behavior? Disappointed in his friendship with Loki, despite that being something Thor had asked him to cultivate?

“Oh?” he managed to squeeze out on a wobbly voice while the preservation instinct in his head pounded out its advice: Deny everything. Deny everything! Deny, deny, deny. Whatever she says, it never happened, no matter the evidence. Deny it! He prayed Loki would have the sense to do the same.

“As you know,” Jane began, “the baby should be born near the middle of January.”

At that, Tony exchanged a confused glance with Loki. What did this have to do with them at all?

“For some time now, Thor and I have been planning to travel to England to stay with my mother and father for the birth. I should like my mother to assist, and their household is, I believe, better prepared to care for the child during my confinement. We wanted to leave after Christmas, but now...”

She looked up at Thor, and he, taking her hand, continued. “There is talk among the sailors that this will be a hard winter, much like the last, with a possibility parts of the bay may freeze over again. The river Thames in London as well. With that in mind, we have decided to leave as soon as possible so we might have easier and safer travels.”

Tony looked from Loki to Jane to Thor, trying to make any sense of this. So... he and Loki had not been found out? This was all about Jane and Thor traveling to London? Then why did they look so grim?

“I should have liked to continue my music lessons right up until Christmas,” Jane said, finally getting around to something that concerned Tony. “And I should dearly have liked to give you more warning than this, but the only passage to London we could secure on such short notice is on a ship leaving next Thursday, the thirteenth. Thor finalized the plans only this morning. And with all the preparation that must be done before we leave, I don’t think I shall have time for many more lessons. I should like to finish this week. But my last music lesson on will be Saturday.”

“Oh,” said Tony, as the realization of what Jane was saying and why she was saying it to him began to take shape. “Oh.” He wasn’t in trouble for anything to do with Loki. He was being sacked.

That was, in varying ways, both better and worse.

“We will pay you a good settlement to compensate for this unexpected turn of events,” said Thor. “In gratitude for your service so far, short as it has been, we will pay all wages owing through the remainder of the month. And if you require it, I will help you find new lodgings. I know many respectable families with rooms to let.”

Lodgings. Of course. With Jane and Thor gone, Tony would have no more cause to stay in their home. And suddenly, that thought caused an even worse feeling of sickness than before. Leaving the house meant leaving Loki. Except no, that couldn’t happen yet? Loki wouldn’t allow it. Would he? They were writing an opera together, and had tenuous plans to travel to Düsseldorf in the spring. Could the van Veenhuizens be persuaded to take Tony as a lodger? Or with Thor gone, would Loki leave the house as well? Should they leave for Düsseldorf immediately before the hard winter hit?

Loki spoke before Tony had a chance to boil down any of those chaotic thoughts into one question he could reasonably ask Thor. “And what am I to do?”

“That will be your choice,” Thor told him. “If you wish, you may join us in London. Though with a cold winter coming, I suggest you accept one of those numerous invitations you have to travel south.”

“I would rather remain here over the winter.”

Thor sighed. “If you wish. I had planned to board up the house, but if you wish to stay here, you may. You will have to hire a housekeeper to do your cooking and cleaning, though, as Louisa is coming with us. And I fear it will be very lonely all by yourself for the next several months.”

“Not by myself,” said Loki. “I should like Tony to stay here with me.”

“Why would Tony stay with you?” Jane asked. “I’m sure if he finds employment elsewhere he would not want to be tied to this place.”

In fact Tony would, but he had no time to say so because Loki was already answering for him.

“He has the van Veenhuizen girl as his student still. But on top of that, he and I, as you may have recently noticed, have been collaborating on music. We composed several songs for my performance the other night, and are now writing an opera.”

“An opera?” asked Thor, at the same time Jane said, “About what?” Both sounded skeptical.

“Oh, we’ve not completely decided yet,” Loki replied. His voice sounded rather more biting and mischievous than Tony wanted to hear, and based on past usages of that tone, he was about to say something dangerous for the sole purpose of aggravating Jane. “Perhaps the story of Ameinias and Narcissus?”

Tony felt his jaw involuntarily clench – dear God, why did Loki say things like that – but by some luck Jane’s eyebrow only rose in confusion.

“I’ve heard the story of Echo and Narcissus. Is it the same?”

“No, no very different. But it is only one idea we’ve had. Another idea, which came to me just recently, was that instead of relying on these dull old stories that have been told and retold so many times, we should try something new. Something modern. The life of King James of England? I can quite easily see myself performing the role of the Duke of Buckingham.”

There was no way Jane could mistake that reference. And, sure enough, as Tony helplessly watched, her mouth dropped open in shock. “You...”

“I what?” Loki taunted.

“You are a complete ass, Loki,” Jane hissed, “and I wish you would go south so I could be rid of you!”

And with that said, she pushed past him out into the hallway. Thor, who seemed to neither know nor care what Loki meant by that Duke of Buckingham comment, followed after her. “Jane! Wait!”

That left Tony alone with a smirking, self-satisfied Loki. “My God, Loki,” he whispered once the noise of Jane and Thor had retreated up the stairs. “Why would you say something like that? You’ll get us both hanged!”

“For what?” Loki laughed. “As last I recall, nothing we have done is against any law. Nobody can prove a thing.”

“That doesn’t matter! Accusations do harm enough!”

“Accusations from a person of note, maybe. Not from an envious housewife. Now do excuse me, but I think I shall take a walk out in the brisk afternoon air and think over this idea for an opera about King James. It may be just the thing for us.”

Tony groaned, but that was all he could do as Loki also left the music room. The pages of the song he had set out for Jane still stood at attention at the keyboard. He knocked them roughly aside, letting them float down to the floor. They were unneeded now. With Jane poised to leave for England, not to mention a spectacular unlikelihood of her ever wanting to assist Loki in any way, bringing up the idea of training her as an accompanist seemed pointless.

Overall, continuing with her lessons currently seemed more than a little pointless, but on the off chance she decided to not include King Tony in her hatred of Duke Loki of Buckingham...

Some twenty minutes later, Jane returned with the scent of wine on her breath and a much calmer demeanor. “Please accept my apology,” she said as she sat at the virginal. “I should not have acted so crudely, but Loki always knows just how to infuriate me.”

“I understand that feeling very well,” Tony replied.

“He says the most abominable things! Are you truly writing an opera? About King James?”

“No,” Tony quickly assured her. “Absolutely not. We are writing an opera, but certainly not about King James. I don’t know why he said such a ridiculous thing. He probably wanted to upset you.”

“Probably, yes. So let’s ignore him. What’s this? New music for today?”

“Yes,” said Tony, turning his attention to the new pages he had laid out for Jane. “I had an idea. Seeing as you are leaving next week, I thought it might be nice to put on a small performance before you go. You and Sofia can perform for Thor and her parents, and any friends you may wish to invite. A little show of just a few songs, to show off what you have learned. We can hold it on Saturday afternoon.”

“That might be nice,” Jane agreed. “Is this song something you want me to play?”

“Not play. Sing. Jane, have you ever heard of the opera L’Orfeo by Monteverdi? This is the opening song: ‘Dal mio permesso amato’.”

Suddenly uncertain, Jane drew back and took her hands off the keyboard. “Oh. I don’t know about that. Four days to learn an entirely new song... from an opera... in Italian...”

“You need not memorize the words. You can hold the music as you sing, and the song is not difficult. But it is one of my favorites. And you would be performing it for a very important cause.”

“What cause?”

Gathering both of Jane’s hands in his own, Tony turned toward her as if to express the noblest of confidences. “Our beloved Loki is laboring under the misguided opinion that all Italian opera is dull, predictable, and uninteresting. I wish to prove him catastrophically wrong.

Chapter Text

“You need to be calm, Jane. Concentrate on breathing well and projecting your voice. Full and bright. Just like we’ve been practicing. You sang beautifully when we went through it this morning, and I know you can do well today.”

She ran her hands down the front of her dress again, a recurring nervous gesture, and toyed with a ribbon on her sleeve. “I’ve never performed for an audience before.”

“You’ve sung for Thor,” Tony told her. “And for me. This is no different. It’s just Thor and the van Veenhuizens and your friends the Holms and the Bloemers.”

“And Loki.”

“Loki doesn’t count,” said Tony, hoping to draw out a smile.

“But he’s a singer, Tony, and if he thinks I’m not very good...”

Tony took her hand to stop her fidgeting. “You’re not singing for Loki. Remember that. You are singing for yourself. You are the one who wanted to take music lessons. You are the one who wanted to better your singing, which you have done, exceptionally. You’re not here to prove anything, Jane. You’re not here for any reason other than to show off for yourself how far you have come in these last few short weeks. And if Loki says anything nasty – which he won’t, because your singing is lovely, but if he does – I will hit him. Does that sound fair?”

At least that coaxed a smile onto Jane’s pale, thin lips. “If you say so.”

“Good. Now are we ready?”

With a resolute nod, Jane stepped forward and made her entrance into the van Veenhuizen’s parlor, followed by Tony, followed by Sofia. Both ladies curtseyed and Tony bowed to an expectant round of applause from the handful of people in attendance. Thor. Loki. Sofia’s parents and her younger brother. The Holms (minus any daughter who might be Agnete) and the Bloemers. All looked rather pleased to be in attendance that afternoon, with the notable exception of Loki, who just looked bored and irritated at having been dragged (physically by Thor, for part of the way) out of the house.

Well, Tony could ignore him and focus only on the positive. Sofia looked confident and prepared, taking a seat at the harpsichord. Jane looked, if not as confident, at least almost as prepared as she stood at the harpsichord’s cheek. Tony took up his viol bow. It would have to serve as a makeshift conductor’s baton. Placing himself between the performers and the audience, he lifted the bow in signal for Sofia to begin.

In only four days, Sofia’s ability to not only play the song but improvise ornamentation to the simple written line had surpassed even Tony’s highest expectations. Her hands adeptly worked the keyboard while her eyes remained firmly on him, watching for timing and direction. When they reached the end of the first ritornello, she paused, waiting for his signal, then laid out an ornate arpeggio to introduce Jane’s opening stroph.

Jane took a breath. And began with her eyes closed. “Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno...”

Her voice was not as rich and assured as Tony knew it could be, but as a credit to her, it did not waver. The sound was sweet, and the notes were exact. She took a quick glance down at the leaves of music on her stand and that sight of solid notes on a page seemed to bolster her confidence. If she read as she sang, the words came out louder and with more power of support behind them.

The second stroph after Sofia’s harpsichord ritornello began even stronger. Io la Musica son... I am Music... She sang those words with such surety and grace, filling the room with their bittersweet melody. Gone was the breathy uncertainty Tony had first heard in her all those weeks ago. The words rang out golden and pure, rolling with liquid ease one into the next. The third stroph and the fourth each grew greater than the last as Jane settled into her voice and allowed the music to flow from her lips. But the final... Those final lines set a shiver down Tony’s back as Jane sang quietly, and slowly, and perfectly.

Hor mentre i canti alterno, hor lieti hor mesti,
Non si mova augellin fra queste piante,
Né s'oda in queste rive onda sonante,
Et ogni auretta in suo cammin s'arresti.

As her voice faded, Tony waited a span of several heartbeats in absolute silence before lifting his viol to play the last ritornello along with Sofia. Slower than before, drawing it out, stretching the beauty of the notes into everything he could for the last lilting measure.

He turned around to enthusiastic applause, the radiant grin on Thor’s face echoed in the approving smiles of everyone else. Quickly, he stepped aside to allow Jane and Sofia to take in their audience’s appreciation, Jane with a somewhat astonished blush and a modest hand lifted to cover her mouth.

“Beautiful!” Thor shouted, ever his wife’s most ardent supporter. “The music of heaven itself!” But while Thor stood to kiss Jane’s cheek and Mrs. van Veenhuizen rose to congratulate both performers, it was Loki’s reaction that most interested Tony. And Loki, positioned off to the side apart from the rest of the group, sat leaning forward on the edge of his chair with eyebrows raised and mouth just open.

He looked as if he had just witnessed something shocking. Or, perhaps, inspiring.

ooo

Loki’s hand shot out to grab Tony by the sleeve the minute they were through the door and back home. “That song,” he said. “Did you write it?”

“Me?” Tony laughed. “By God, no. That was written by one of the greatest composers the world has ever seen, Claudio Monteverdi, nearly eighty years ago. Why? Did you like it?”

“I...” At the bottom of the stairs, Loki stopped himself, searching for the right words. “It was astounding. That melody... It is lodged in my head and I feel it will be for some time.”

“I thought you might enjoy it. It’s probably the greatest piece of music I’ve ever encountered. You see, we aren’t so different in our musical tastes, you and I.”

“Play it for me.”

Halfway up the stairs, Tony paused to look back down. “Right now?”

Loki nodded, looking almost feverish in his demand. “Yes. I need to hear it again.”

“As my lord wishes,” Tony replied with a smirk, revelling in that sudden rush of vindication that only proving himself right could bring. “But let the record show: you have now declared your appreciation for a song from an Italian opera. How does that make you feel?”

“Oh, be quiet,” said Loki. Pushing past Tony, he led the rest of the way up the stairs and over to the door to his work room. “I keep you around for your music, not your opinions.”

Tony had not seen inside Loki’s musical mess room since his brief tour on that first day in the Asgersen household. After that, Loki had kept the door firmly closed, secrets all carefully contained. Tony paused as he came to the doorway. After all these weeks of being shut out, it felt odd now to simply walk in. Shouldn’t there be some form of protocol or ritual to mark the occasion of being finally considered worthy of being able to see Loki’s creative disaster? But no, Loki kept going right on in, and Tony felt compelled to unceremoniously follow. Loki shut the door behind them.

Inside looked exactly the same as Tony remembered. Piles of disorganized papers, stacks of books, a lute missing a string, several used wine cups, a basket full of what appeared to be unanswered correspondence, and generally a lot of other mess. How Loki was able to find anything in this place (if he could find it at all; chances looked thin) was an utter mystery. But as Tony wondered, Loki went around to the opposite side of what might have been a desk, stuck his hand under a layer of scratched-out, rough copy music, and pulled out a battered old recorder with no search or trouble at all.

“Are you going to play along?” Tony asked.

“We shall see.”

“Follow my lead, then?”

Loki nodded, but barely had time to raise the recorder to his lips when they were interrupted by the sound of two incredibly noisy people coming up the stairs. Thor and Jane. It had to be, from the muffled low rumble of words accompanied by a high-pitched laugh.

“Oh no...” Loki muttered.

“What?” asked Tony. Listening at the wall, it sounded as if Thor and Jane had no intention of interrupting things in the music mess. They giggled their way from the stairs to their bedroom with fast footsteps on the floor, then Tony heard a door slam shut. “They went into their room,” he told Loki. “I don’t think they’ll be disturbing us.”

“You might be surprised. But shall we try anyhow?”

“I’ll start. You join in.”

Tony played the first part of the ritornello alone, going somewhat slower than usual for Loki’s benefit and to allow him to clearly hear all the notes. Loki joined in halfway through with an improvised harmony, which he altered into something slightly different on the second ritornello (a darker sound, Tony thought), and again on the third (lighter and more hopeful in its resolution). By the time they came to the fourth, however...

With the unmistakable rhythm of a bedframe pounding against a wall, accompanied by an entire range of very expressive moans and phrases of encouragement, Tony suddenly understood what Loki meant with the ‘surprised’ comment. “Oh,” he said. “Right. Um. Well they sound... pleased.”

Grunting as if the noise personally offended him, Loki tossed his recorder onto a pile of papers and leaned back in his chair, letting his hair hang down. “Five days,” he said. It sounded like he was giving himself a reminder. Or motivation. Or a prayer for patience. “Five more days and they will leave for England, and I will no longer have to listen to their amorous romps. And once they return in the spring, you and I must leave immediately for Düsseldorf so that I will never again have to hear them!”

“It’s not really that bad,” Tony offered, but was immediately sorry he said anything when Loki snapped back upright and lurched forward.

“Not bad! Not bad! This is what I have to listen to every day, Tony! Every day! It’s preposterous!”

“It sounds like a happy marriage to me.”

“It can’t be normal.”

Tony shrugged. “Well...” Which earned him a look from Loki as if he had three heads.

“If you were married, would you? Every day?”

“Absolutely, yes.”

Again, that three-headed look. “Why?!

“Because it’s... fun?” Oh, that sounded like the stupidest and least convincing reason ever. Tony set down his viol, now that Loki’s interest in music seemed to have been crowded out by less dignified sounds, and removed a stack of books from the room’s other chair so he could take a seat near the window. “Have you never known someone, or even seen someone, perhaps in passing, briefly on the street, someone so alluring and fascinating and beautiful and perfect? Or maybe just someone present and available? But have you never looked at someone and thought, my God, I want to throw that person onto the nearest available bed and fuck like rabbits?”

“No.”

The strange thing was, Loki looked entirely honest when he said that. “...Never?” Tony asked. “You’ve never thought about going to bed with someone?”

“Of course I’ve thought about it. Occasionally. Just not in the sense that you describe with it being a thing that I desperately wanted to do. Or considered a worthwhile endeavor.”

“You’ve never felt that smouldering desire and need to be with another person in that way? To the point where you think you’ll actually go mad if you have to spend one more lonely night with just your hand?”

“Your hand every night?” Loki asked, eyebrows rising.

“Pretend I didn’t say that part,” said Tony. “The first question still stands, though.”

“What are you, fifteen? But no. I do not feel any ‘need’ to be with anyone. At least not in any way more than I have recently been with you. I suppose at most I’ve been... curious. As to what everyone apparently finds so fascinating that they’re unable to live without it.”

Curious. Curious sounded better to Tony that flatly disinterested, but still left little hints of churning unease in his stomach. Because curious also tended to mean interest that was nothing more than fleeting. Once that curiosity was satisfied, what happened then? “I suppose that’s... something...” he mumbled.

In the long and awkward pause that followed, the pounding beat of Thor and Jane’s exuberant bedframe percussion continued to slam through the walls. Loki rubbed his hands over his eyes. Tony stared down at the floor.

“Do you...” Loki started, but let the question fall short of completion, drowned out by a shrill, ragged cry.

“Do I what?” Tony prompted.

“Do you feel that way... as you described... wanting to throw a person down on the nearest bed? Do you feel that way about me?”

Sometimes, Tony was convinced Loki perpetuated these kinds of conversations just to torment him. “Yes. I thought we’d already established that. I do, in fact, want to throw you down onto the nearest bed or bench or floor or wall or any available surface and do terrible, terrible, sinful things to you.”

“I see,” said Loki, with the kind of detached, contemplative nod that would have been a more appropriate response to Tony making a comment about the absurd quantity of paper littering the floor. “This is a desire you have frequently?”

“At least twice a day. And by day I mean hour. And by hour I do mean, of course, minute.”

“Hm.” Exactly in time with a stretched-out moan of a word that was probably Thor’s name, Loki stood up from his chair and crossed the room with one hand extended to Tony.

“What?” Tony asked.

“Come on. Let’s go. Now. Let’s try this.”

Tony had to have misheard that. Or misunderstand, because it took several seconds for the words to sink in and for Tony to grasp what it sounded like Loki had just said. Then he felt his mouth drop open in an expression that probably looked incredibly foolish, and all he could do was stare. “You... what?”

“I said, come on. Thor and Jane are obviously enjoying themselves, so let’s see what all this fuss is about. I’m curious. Let’s go.”

“No, that’s... that’s now how this works,” said Tony, knocking Loki’s hand aside. “You don’t just decide to fall into bed for the fun of it. I mean, you do, but...”

“But what? Why are you so against the idea of coming to bed with me?”

“I’m not,” Tony insisted. “Really, I’m not. I just think...” Why was this so hard to explain? And so hard for him to understand himself? In any other situation, with any other person, chances are he’d already be out the door on the way to the nearest bed with his clothes halfway off at the first hint of interest. Why was the idea of being with Loki so terrifyingly different? “You’re my friend, Loki. But as I’ve been trying to tell you all along, I don’t want to do anything you don’t fully want. I don’t want to end up doing something that might make you... hate me...”

Crouching down in front of the chair, Loki placed his hands on Tony’s knees. An oddly intimate gesture. “I wouldn’t hate you.”

Maybe not. But there were a lot of things that could happen besides hate, and too many of those things held the possibility of adding a whole new level of tension and distance between them. “Do you feel any desire at all?”

“I don’t know,” Loki answered.

“Anything?”

His fingertips fanned out over the curve of Tony’s knees, tracing parallel lines up from the cuff of his breeches. “Not in the same way you do, I don’t think.”

“Then what do you feel?”

That might as well have been the most difficult question in the world. Loki’s hands stopped moving. “Tony, I don’t know,” he murmured. “I know that must sound ridiculous to you, with such a clear understanding of your own desires. But I’ve thought about it so much since that night when you first refused. Trying to determine what I want. If I want anything at all. And having considered...” His fingers tightened their hold. “I want to try. You may not understand, why somebody would want that without any strong need or desire, as you say. But this may be my version of desire. And why should that be counted any less valid than yours? I want to do this. I want to do this specifically with you, and only with you. I trust you.”

Oh God, Tony couldn’t even bring himself to look Loki in the eye. He could feel his blood hammering through his veins, pounding down to pool between his legs, flushing every inch of his skin with the kind of heat that demands to be touched by the warmth of another body. He licked his lips, suddenly dry. And somehow, his hands found their way down to his knees where his fingers slipped between Loki’s to lock together. He slid out of his chair. Knelt on the floor. He was close enough to lean against Loki, and drop his head against Loki’s shoulder, but... “Alright,” he whispered, forcing himself to look up and meet Loki’s gaze. All pale intensity, and it felt as if merely looking into those eyes bound him by some kind of otherworldly contract. He shivered. “Um. What if you dislike it?”

“Then I will thank you for your efforts, and we will never do it again.

“And if you do like it?”

“Well,” Loki said through a crooked smile, “I’m sure we’ll have lots of dull hours to fill once Thor and Jane leave for England. Now shall we go to my room? My bed is more comfortable than yours by far.”

“Yes. Your room. You go, I’ll be there directly. Need to get something first.”

Loki’s eyebrows drew together to ask the question even before it came out of his mouth. “What?”

“Oil.”

“Why?”

“Ah... you’ll find out shortly. Go make yourself comfortable. I’ll be there right away.”

It was nothing less than surreal, walking out of that room. The door handle slipped through Tony’s grasp like smoke, and then he was at the top of the stairs, and then he was standing at the bottom, but with no memory of his feet ever meeting the steps. He might have floated as a ghost to the kitchen. There, his hands worked without instruction from his absent mind to take an eggcup from the shelf and fill it with a bit of clear yellow oil. Then back to the stairs.

To come face to face with Thor and Jane.

Both had a healthy pink glow to their cheeks, and Jane’s hair seemed slightly less perfectly curled than it had been an hour earlier. But both were fully dressed with hats and cloaks. On their way out somewhere after all they’d just been through?

“Ah, Tony!” said Thor. “Jane and I have been invited to supper with the Bloemers. We shall be out all evening. Louisa had to go to the shop for more salt, but should return soon enough to make supper for you and Loki. Fried pork with...” His eyes wandered down to the oil cup in Tony’s hand. “What’s that? Oil?”

“Oh, um, yes,” Tony replied. “Oil. For my... uh, viol. I need to... oil the... wood. To keep it... resonant.”

Sometimes, Tony greatly appreciated Thor’s complete disinterest in anything to do with music outside of listening to his wife sing and play the virginal. “Of course! Must keep everything in order. Especially after today’s performance. That was wonderful. Wonderful! I knew Jane had a great talent, but today was the greatest I have ever heard!”

“Thor...” Jane warned, in the voice of somebody who had been listening to Thor’s effusive compliments all afternoon and was now growing embarrassed by them.

“What? It’s true. To my ears, there is no better singer than my own perfect Jane.” He wrapped one large arm over her shoulders, and she rolled her eyes. “But I’m afraid we’re in a hurry. The Bloemers are expecting us. Have a good evening, Tony, and thank you again for arranging today’s entertainment. I enjoyed it immensely.”

“Yes, have a good evening...” Tony said to the retreating backs of Thor and Jane. Was this some form of divine signal? Thor, Jane, and Louisa all out of the house at the exact time he was on his way to Loki’s bed?

He looked at the cup of oil in his hand, and felt a little more anchored and a little less surreal on his way up the stairs than he had done on the way down. Maybe this was meant to be. And even if it wasn’t... Well, he wasn’t about to argue with a series of very good coincidences. He pushed open Loki’s bedroom door, and carefully shut it behind him.

Loki was sitting on the bed. Already undressed down to his shirt, hair untied and spilling over his shoulders in haphazard waves. He had abandoned the rest of his clothes in a pile on the floor, and Tony, after safely stowing the oil cup on the table at Loki’s bedside, quietly did the same.

He shrugged off his coat and stepped out of his shoes. Pulled his stockings off one by one and let his breeches fall. “Wig off,” Loki demanded, and Tony complied, but not without making a rude face. He draped the wig carefully over his coat to protect the recently set curls. Only once he too was undressed down to his shirt did he go to stand in front of Loki. And lean over. And kiss Loki softly on the lips.

“You look...” Perfect. In the fading, golden sunlight slanting in through the window, Loki looked nothing less than perfect. “Nice.”

“Come here,” Loki whispered.

His hands rose up to Tony’s shoulders, pulling Tony closer and guiding them both to move onto the bed. He slid back until his head rested among the pillows and Tony crawled along with him, seeking out another kiss. Seeking out another touch. Loki’s breath against his lips, Loki’s fingers in his hair. A pleasurable shudder rolled through Tony’s body. Loki’s lips were so soft beneath his, and parted so willingly.

His kisses moved to Loki’s jaw, then neck, then the pale triangle of collarbone left exposed at the top of Loki’s shirt. The smell of lavender soap from that morning’s bath filled his nose, sweet and fresh. Lavender and the usual, enticing scent of clove and evergreen he had quickly come to associate with Loki. Breathing it in, he let his hands roam down Loki’s sides to feel the outline of a warm body and... the same trembling shivers he felt before.

He looked up. “Do you still want-”

“Yes,” Loki interrupted.

“Would it help if I-”

“Took off your shirt and undressed completely? Yes.”

Tony was about to suggest closing the bed curtains to keep some heat enclosed about them, but Loki’s idea also held merit. “If I take off my shirt,” Tony murmured, “I might be very cold and have to cuddle close to you for warmth.”

Loki nodded. “I will accept that awful burden. Come under the covers.”

Yes. That sounded like an ideal solution. He rid himself of the shirt and crawled under the covers alongside Loki, who was still dressed for some reason. “What’s this?” he asked, tugging at Loki’s collar.

“You haven’t yet asked me to take it off,” Loki answered. A statement of the obvious.

“Oh. Do forgive me for that oversight. Shall I assist you?”

“Yes, please.”

Tony allowed his fingertips the guilty pleasure of brushing against Loki’s skin as he pulled the shirt up and away. Then Loki slid down into bed until the blankets came up to his chin, staring up at Tony with an expression on his face that looked half seductive and half absolutely stupid grin, trying not to laugh through teeth biting down on his bottom lip. Wordlessly, he reached out to coax Tony down to join him with arms encircling Tony’s back. Until they lay close. Body alongside body. Skin pressed up against skin. And Tony’s pulse beat so much faster.

“I like this part,” Loki murmured into Tony’s lips.

“The cuddling part?”

“Mm, yes.” His hand drifted up and down Tony’s back in a lazy pattern, scratching and caressing. “The cuddling part...” His touch dipped lower across the curve of Tony’s bottom and the line of his thigh. And with only a breath of hesitance, moved to Tony’s front to rest precariously on his lower belly and stir up a crackling blaze of anticipation.

“I like, um,” Tony whispered.

“Yes?”

Loki’s hand progressed lower, inch by agonizing inch, and Tony couldn’t hold back the involuntary groan that pushed its way up from deep inside. He leaned against Loki’s neck, burying his face in the lavender-scented hair. Loki. Oh God, it was Loki touching him and Loki here in bed naked beside him and Loki whose breath fluttered across his ear... “I like this part...” he gasped, “much better.”

It was too impossible to keep his own hands to himself. Everything needed to be explored: every part of Loki. Chest and arms and waist and hips and thighs. Lean muscles and smooth, pale limbs. He needed to touch it all. And know it all. And see. And kiss... He could probably kiss Loki forever. Mouth and jaw, ear and neck. Hands on Loki’s ribs and lips gliding over skin as he slipped beneath the covers to kiss his way lower. Loki’s hitched gasps and broken sighs urged him on. Until his tongue traced its slow way back up to the sweat-damp crook of Loki’s shoulder.

He wrapped one possessive arm around Loki’s waist and hooked one leg around Loki’s knee. Everything needed to be closer. So much closer.

“Loki...”

“Mm,” Loki hummed against his cheek, wordlessly answering an unvoiced question.

So much closer...

He dipped his fingers in the oil cup and let his hand find its way down to where it needed to be. Loki’s welcoming hiss and arch of the back pushed him farther, seeking more. Needing all that much more. Bare skin moving against skin... He bit down on Loki’s neck as Loki’s fingers dug into his shoulder blades. Finding a rhythm, instinctive and flawless, while Loki’s breath quickened and Tony tightened his protective embrace. Tension coiled through him, building to a peak, and he could feel it in Loki too. The tightened muscles, the straining hold... Then Loki cried out with a shudder that shot like a spasm through his whole body, legs squeezing hard around Tony’s hips.

Tony let himself go a moment later. Let himself fall into Loki with a groan of completion as fire pounded through every vein and nerve radiating out from his core. He inhaled the scent of lavender now mingled with the salt of sweat, breathing against the cradling curve of Loki’s neck before pulling himself up for a kiss. Two kisses. Lips lazily claiming their place, too content to move.

“Was that, um...” he asked once he finally found the courage to speak again.

Loki reached up to rake the scattered strands of damp hair back from his forehead, though they only fell right back down again. “Fine.”

Nodding, Tony dropped his head back down. “Oh good.” Loki’s shoulder and neck made too good a pillow for him to not take advantage of it. His hand still caressed the contours of Loki’s chest. Hot and sticky in the trapped heat of the blankets. He shoved the covers back to allow them some cool air. “How do you feel?”

“Terribly filthy and sinful,” Loki sighed.

“In a good way?”

“Very much so. Though I think I shall feel quite shamefully guilty in church tomorrow.”

Tony grinned. “You should convert. And next time I come across a proper Catholic mass, you can confess and get an indulgence and everything will be fine and you won’t go to hell. It’s a lovely system.”

“You are aware, aren’t you, that this kind of abuse of indulgences is one of the specific reasons Lutherans broke from the Catholic church in the first place?”

“No,” Tony answered. He didn’t know that, and nor did he care. But why were they talking about religion in bed anyhow? He shifted himself up again for another kiss, which he was glad to feel Loki reciprocate. “You did like it, then?”

“I did,” Loki said, a teasing smile on his reddened lips. “Why do you keep asking?”

“Just wanting to make sure. And to see if you might be amenable to, um, doing it again?”

“Oh, probably. I did find it enjoyable.” Yawning, he rolled over and rearranged both of them so he could be the one to use Tony’s shoulder as a pillow. “I could likely be persuaded to do it again next week.”

“Next week?!”

Loki looked up with an eyebrow raised in question. To be honest, Tony had fully expected him to laugh with reassurance that the ‘week’ comment had been a joke, but he looked serious. In a most dreadful way. “Yes, why? What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Tony muttered. “Maybe tomorrow or... later this evening...”

That time, Loki did laugh. Derisively. “Later this evening!” he snorted. “You’re very optimistic. No. But perhaps we can have ourselves a celebration on Thursday after Thor and Jane depart.”

Five days might as well have been a year for how far away it felt. The problem now posed by having sex with Loki was that completion of the act in no way diminished Tony’s desire. It only made things worse. Now that he knew what he could have... How in God’s name could he wait five whole days to have it again? He might die. Chances were high he might actually die of longing. He was already starting to fill with the burden of insatiable need even as he still lay with Loki there in his arms.

However. Supressing all those thoughts, what he said was, “Thursday, then.”

Chapter Text

The night before Thor and Jane left, Tony wrote a letter to his father.

In the past he had tried to do so four times a year. But leaving Rome had thrown things into a turmoil, and the last time he had found time to write had been the previous February, telling of his intention to go north in the spring and that he would be unreachable in Rome. He had promised to write again when he had an address to which his father could reply. And now that he did, it was high time for another letter.

Writing to his father had never been easy. They had never been particularly close, and thus their correspondences tended to be factual only. They discussed what had recently happened, what was expected to happen in the near future, and so on. It was more like writing a small memoir than anything too personal. So Tony summarized his journey to Amsterdam, told about his employment as Jane’s teacher, and very briefly mentioned Loki. In the most distant way possible. The whole thing when done spanned only two pages, which seemed inadequate to pay to send all the way to London, but there was nothing else he could think of to be said. He folded it up, wrote out his father’s address, and sealed everything with a bit of wax Loki had given him.

On Thursday morning, Thor and Jane loaded their trunks onto a small barge and set off down the canal for the port, where a larger boat would ferry them out to the seafaring ship anchored farther up in the deep waters of the bay. Tony did not go to the docks to see Thor and Jane off, but Loki did. And Loki took the letter to give to the ship’s captain. Thor and Jane had left behind far more of their belongings than they would have done had they followed Thor’s original plan to board up the house in their absence, but still the rooms seemed empty to Tony. Not necessarily a lack of things, since everything save the most valuable and necessary items remained behind, but a lack of life. No sounds from Louisa in the kitchen or Jane practicing her lessons or Thor being his usual loud self, stomping up and down the stairs and calling for Loki.

It was odd, sitting down at the virginal to play a quick tune and hearing it echo in silence. Equally odd was standing at the kitchen table to prepare a slice of bread and cheese without the smell of something cooking for later. Tony’s footsteps clicked too loudly on the tile floor. And when the inevitable rain clouds began to gather in the early afternoon, blocking out the sun’s weak light, it felt wasteful for one person to burn enough candles to light the dark rooms. He settled for lighting a fire in the front sitting room instead. For the rest of the afternoon, until Loki returned, he sat listening to the rain spatter against the window as he read one of the few English books Jane had left behind. Eating more bread and more cheese.

By the time Loki burst through the front door after sundown, the rain had turned to snow, the streets were frosted with white, and the air outside was bitterly cold. “Oh good,” Loki said at the sight of the fire. He dumped his hat and cloak in the middle of the floor and immediately pulled up a chair to both warm and dry himself. It looked as if his hair and clothes were soaked through, and he shivered violently as he leaned close to the flames.

“Good God,” said Tony. “What happened, and what took you so long?”

“Oh, I was stupid and stopped by the coffee house on my way home. I thought the rain might blow over, but no, it kept worsening. Then I thought that I didn’t want to be stuck out all night, but I must’ve chosen the worst possible time to come home because I caught the tail end of the freezing rain and much of the snow. By the time I was a third of the way back the streets were covered in slush and ice, and I slipped and fell in a half-frozen puddle. Now I’ll probably die of cold. All thanks to damned Thor. I feel chilled right through.”

Loki looked chilled right through, wet and shaking. But Tony could help with that. Standing up, he pulled the curtains shut. “You’d better undress.”

“Here?”

“Yes. Take everything wet off and lay it by the fire. I’ll get you dry clothes from upstairs.”

Loki looked suspicious, as Loki often did, but either he trusted Tony’s method or was too frozen to argue. His slithered out of his coat and pulled his damp shirt over his shivering shoulders as Tony went upstairs to fetch something dry. A new shirt and drawers, and a heavy quilted house robe. And a couple of blankets for good measure. He hauled it all back down and helped Loki to dress, draping the blankets over his back like shawls. “Feeling better?”

“A little,” Loki replied, but he still shook with cold.

A hot drink would help that. And with all the spices Thor kept in the house, Tony had just the thing in mind. He grabbed the little jars of cinnamon and cloves and dried orange peel in the kitchen, along with one of the few bottles of wine left behind. It all went into a heavy pot, which he brought back out to the front room with two earthenware mugs and stuck close to the fire. “That will take a while to warm,” he said. “I’ll grab a few more things while we wait.”

A few more things like pillows, both of the flat sort found on the furniture and the sleeping sort from Loki’s bed. As Loki watched, bemused smile firmly in place, Tony arranged all the pillows in a large rectangle on the floor.

“What in the world are you doing?”

“I’m making us a nest,” said Tony. “You’re cold. And the fire is here. But here is not very comfortable with the cold tile floor, so...” He made a grand gesture to the pillows. “Nest. Come lie down. I’ll wrap the blankets around us.”

Nobody could say no to such a compelling argument. Loki shuffled forward onto the pillow nest and dutifully let Tony arrange the blankets around the both of them. “I suppose it is much cozier and more comfortable this way,” he allowed.

“It is. Are you still cold?”

Loki nodded. “Yes.” But at least he was no longer constantly shivering. Just an occasional shudder that chattered his teeth.

“Wine?” It seemed hot enough, steaming in the pot.

“Please.”

Tony poured out two mugs and then settled back into the nest, cupping both hands around his wine to trap the heat and leaning over to inhale the scent of spice. Somehow, it didn’t smell quite as good as the stuff his aunt Albertine used to make.

“Isn’t this meant to have brandy in it?” Loki asked after taking a sip. “And honey?”

“Oh. Is it?” Maybe that’s what was missing.

“I think so. But it’s not bad.”

After tasting it, Tony could certainly see how honey would improve the flavor. Hot spiced wine on its own was somewhat lacking. But, as Loki said, it was not bad. Not great, but not bad. At least it was hot. And wine.

“Are we planning to sleep down here tonight?” asked Loki.

Tony hadn’t thought that far ahead yet, but now that Loki mentioned it... “I think so?” he said. “I mean, unless you’re set on going up to your cold bedroom.”

“I am not. Down here will be fine.”

“Good.”

It was harder to drink while leaning at an angle against Loki, but Tony still managed without (much) spilling. Leaning against Loki was more important than efficient wine drinking. Especially since Loki leaned right back. Warm wine, warm nest, and warm Loki. What could be better than that, as the snowy wind outside whistled down the canal and rattled the windows?

“Do you suppose Thor and Jane will be safe in this storm?”

“I think so,” said Loki. “The wind sounds far worse than it is. It’s not enough to cause any danger at sea. Besides, their ship’s captain is an experienced man, and Thor is knowledgeable about these things. Neither would have gone had they deemed the journey unsafe.”

“How long is the crossing to London?”

“It varies according to conditions. Ideally three days? Could be more, could be less. But they are scheduled to arrive in London on Sunday afternoon.”

Three days on a ship. That sounded awful. Tony had only sailed once before, on the crossing from Dover to Calais, on what he had been told was a very good day. And those had been the worst five hours of his life. At sea for three days, he’d probably die. How could anyone possibly want to be a sailor? Especially at this cold, wet time of year.

He poured himself more wine, and more for Loki as well, which they drank in silence. Just listening to the cold groaning of the wind and the sizzling crackles of the fire. After a while, Loki lay down to sleep. Tony, after undressing down to his shirt, joined a minute later. All cozy and bundled up in the nest with a gentle fire at their heads and spiced wine warming them from the inside out.

“I’m sorry we missed our celebration,” Loki mumbled against Tony’s neck.

“Our...?” Tony started to ask before the memory of what Loki had said on Saturday came back to him. He had completely forgotten. Odd, since he remembered thinking about it earlier in the day, but as soon as frozen Loki had come home, the idea fell from his mind. They had intended to spend all evening in bed together. But really, in a way, wasn’t that exactly what had ended up happening? Just not as Tony had expected. He tightened his hold around Loki’s back, squeezing him closer. “It’s fine.”

“Are you sure? I know I said we would, but then...”

“I know. And I don’t mind. We can celebrate tomorrow. Or the next day. Or any other day after that now that Thor and Jane are gone. When are they coming back, anyhow?”

“Hmm... April, I believe Thor said?”

“April. Perfect.” That left at least five solid months for celebrations with Loki. And maybe sometime in there amid all that celebrating, they’d even find time to write an opera. “Then we head for Düsseldorf and begin our grand adventure?”

“Mm,” Loki agreed. “And then we begin our grand adventure.”

ooo

Tony awoke in disorienting darkness. It took him a good minute to get his wits together enough to remember where he was and why: on the floor, in the front room, in a pile of pillows, because Loki came home soaking wet and covered in snow. But the fire had gone out sometime in the night and the room had fallen cold and dark. Beside him, sleeping Loki still gave off a pleasant amount of heat in their little nest. Outside, the wind still howled.

Really, what Tony should have done was go back to sleep, but two things unfortunately prevented him from doing so. One: he had to piss. Two: he was starving. And taking care of both of those needs required leaving the nest and venturing out into the cold.

He took care of number one first, relieving himself in a pot in the bathing room and leaving it there to throw into the canal later when he felt brave enough to open the front door and face the snow. As for number two, the only food left in the house seemed to be bread, cheese, sausages, one lone cabbage, some turnips and onions, and a few jars of pickles. And since he had no idea how to cook... Shivering in the cold kitchen, he quickly assembled a tray of bread, cheese, and pickles as Loki had done on their first day of collaboration, then stumbled his way in the dark back to the nest. There he found Loki awake yet reluctant to leave the warmth of the blankets. Tony, freezing from five minutes out in the open, fully understood that sentiment.

“I think we need to find a housekeeper today,” he told Loki as they ate.

“Why? You don’t want to survive on bread and cheese for the next five months?”

“No. I want to find a nice motherly woman to cook us porridge and fried ham and currant rolls every morning. And hot stew and meat pies for dinner and baked fish for supper.”

“You make a compelling argument,” Loki said. “This bread isn’t even fresh, and the cheese is going hard at the edges. How about we make a plan. As soon as we’re dressed, I will go out to hire a housekeeper and take her to the market to buy food, and you will light the fires and clean up these pillows and sweep the snow away to make this place presentable before your lesson with Sofia. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said Tony, though the part about sweeping snow didn’t sound like anything he wanted to do. But compared to Loki’s task of going out into the city to find a housekeeper... He could force himself to deal with the lesser of two evils.

So once they had finished breakfast and dressed for the day, Loki set off wearing Tony’s hat and cloak in place of his own still-damp garments, and Tony hung Loki’s cloak to dry by the fire while he dismantled the nest. There seemed to be far more pillows in need of putting away than he had collected the previous night, and he couldn’t remember where half of them belonged. A lot of guesswork was in order. Then he reluctantly put on his gloves and Loki’s cloak and hat and went out to sweep the snow. Which seemed pointless as the damn stuff was still coming down so hard and fast. Loki’s footprints had already filled in, and Loki had been gone less than an hour.

But Tony swept off the front step. And he swept off the ground floor windows, which had somehow accumulated a thick layer of vertical snow on the glass, preventing the dull gray light from coming through. He swept a path over to the canal so he could dump his piss pot, then swept the step again because another half-inch of snow had already accumulated. He’d have to sweep it every half hour until Loki came home to keep it even relatively clean.

When Loki did return (to a step with a significant covering of snow despite it having been swept only ten minutes earlier when Tony arrived home from teaching at the van Veenhuizens), he very obviously did not have a new housekeeper with him. All he had was a promise that a housekeeper would come in the morning. Thus it was bread and cheese and pickles to eat for the rest of the day, along with a few sausages for supper that Loki managed to cook on a stick over the fire in the front room.

The next day, to Tony’s relief, a housekeeper did come.

Mrs. Meijer was a short, round woman in her forties with gray hair, a gray dress, a gray shawl, and a stern look on her very pink face. She spoke only Dutch, meaning Loki had to translate every instruction and request, along with her answers back. She was a strict Calvinist, Loki said, and therefore did not approve of Loki’s hedonistic Lutheranism, but agreed to the job because she needed money to support her ailing husband. Loki and Tony silently agreed not to bother telling her about Tony’s religious leanings. But apart from their differences in faith, she was a good and an efficient worker. Loki gave her a list of chores to do each day, beginning with breakfast. Once she had finished, usually around three o’clock, she went home.

Except on Saturdays: bath day. Over the last few weeks Tony had somehow become a keen participant in bath day. So far he had suffered no ill side effects from the hot water, so he figured it must be at least marginally safe, and he did enjoy the clean feeling the soap left behind on his skin. On top of that, bath day was the day most likely to find Loki in the mood for Tony’s favorite kind of celebration. Something about being naked and warm and freshly washed and smelling of lavender made Loki agreeable to Tony taking him upstairs and kissing every part of his body from head to toe with a good deal of exploration in between. So they sent Mrs. Meijer home early on Saturdays after the bathwater had been heated, and ate cold food for the rest of the day. It was a very acceptable tradeoff.

On every other day, Mrs. Meijer cooked them a large hot meal to eat round one o’clock. This became the main meal of the day, a slight change in routine, but it worked out well. And before she left, she would prepare cold plates for them to eat in the evening as they worked on their opera.

Or fought over their opera. Fighting was just as likely to happen as working. Maybe even more so.

“But we don’t even have a plot yet!” Tony said when Loki began yet another new song. “How can we write music when we have no idea what story we’re trying to tell?”

“We write the music and then see what it sounds like it’s saying,” replied Loki. “For example, this song is saying to me, ‘I would dearly love some peace and quiet without Tony whining so much.’ It’s quite insistent.”

“I’m serious, Loki. We need a plot. Or at least a theme. Anything. A general idea so we know the tone of music we’re writing. If we have a theme, we can write a variety of songs, then think of specific scenes to fit those songs. But we need something.”

“Two people are in love but can never be together because society forbids their relationship. There. Theme. I am a theatrical genius.”

“Oh as if that won’t make people wonder...” Tony muttered.

“We’ll say it’s a tribute to a beautiful daughter of a nobleman you knew in Rome. You saw her from afar, fell instantly in love, yet knew you could never have her. She does not even know you exist. This opera is your tribute to her unattainable beauty. We shall call it Antonio and... What’s a good Italian girl’s name?”

“I had a cat named Fioretta once. She gave birth to five kittens in my viol case.”

“Well that would make for a riveting opera,” Loki said with a nod. “Antonio and Fioretta and the Five Surprise Kittens. What happened to her?”

“I don’t know. One day when the kittens were all grown up, she left and never came back.”

“Love lost. Perfect. Now write a song about it.”

Tony was about to say something snappish, but thought better of it. If Loki wanted him to write a song about a cat? Fine. He would write a song about a cat. He picked up his bow and began drawing it across the viol strings, playing the kind of smooth, sly notes he associated with a cat’s movements. Slinky and sinuous like the curving flick of a cat’s tail. Actually it felt like a Loki song. A sneaking song.

“What is that?” Loki asked.

“I’m writing a song about you. I shall call it ‘Loki’s Sneaking Song’. It’s about you sneaking around at night like a cat. Do you like it?”

Surprisingly, Loki answered with a nod. “I do.”

“Really?” Tony asked, eyebrows rising.

“It’s interesting. Keep playing.”

It sounded like nonsense to Tony, but if Loki liked it... Maybe he could add a little more structure. Steps up and down, one trio flowing into the next. Loki watched him so intently as he played it was unnerving. Those piercing eyes on his face... he couldn’t look at them. He had to keep his gaze focused on the strings instead, watching his fingers find their notes, and watching the bow glide back and forth.

When he came to the end of the snippet of melody, Loki picked up the battered wooden recorder. “Remember that. Remember what you just played. You said it was about sneaking?”

“Yes,” said Tony. “Or catting. Why?”

Loki’s answer was one word only as he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Lyrics.”

“They’d better be in Italian for this opera.”

“Of course they’re not. Don’t be silly.”

As Loki sat and tootled out a few notes here and there on his recorder, Tony played parts of the melody again. It wasn’t too bad. Completely inappropriate for an opera, but perhaps something Loki could use for a stage performance. They could come up with some good overlapping, intertwining harmonies.

“Alright,” Loki finally said. “I think I have one verse. Would you play it again? Start with a few measures leading in.”

With a nod of agreement, Tony began to play. And when he came to the melody, Loki began to sing:

Should not the moon be brightly shining?
Should not the sun be earlier gone?
For on this night I seek my lover
As I before on many nights have done.

At the end of the line, Tony set down his viol and stared at Loki in wonder. “You just thought that up?”

“Your talent is for complex harmonies,” Loki said, “thinking of how different sounds weave together into one great consonance. Mine is for single melodic lines and lyrics. Which is why, despite our differences, we can work well together. Sometimes,” he added with a wry smile.

“I suppose I never paid attention to your lyrics before because they were all in...”

“A variety of northern languages.”

“...not English,” said Tony. “But that was wonderful. And it took you all of, what, five minutes?”

“It’s by no means a complete song,” said Loki, but Tony hardly cared.

“Doesn’t matter. You just need to come up with more verses. And I think we have an opening to our opera.”

“If you say so. Have you decided what the opera’s about, then?”

“No. I don’t know. Love. Loss. A cat. Something like that. Who cares? We’ll figure it out when we get there. Just keep thinking of words.”

“And what are you going to do?”

Feeling around on the mess of Loki’s music desk, Tony found what he was looking for and held it up for Loki to see. A pen. “I need to write this all down.”

ooo

By early December, the canal in front of the house had frozen over. According to Loki, who only had second-hand information from Thor due to having spent the previous winter elsewhere, this was the second year in a row for solid ice canals. Usually the freezing temperatures did not last long enough between warmer reprieves for ice to form. “Which means,” said Loki, looking down at the surface of what used to be water, “a hard and cold winter for certain.”

As if it weren’t hard and cold already, with snow and ice everywhere and a frigid north wind that never seemed to stop coming down the bay. “Fantastic,” Tony muttered into his scarf. “Can we go back inside now?”

“If you insist. Are you sure you don’t want to try skating?”

“Do I want to strap thin steel blades to my shoes and slide around on the ice in the freezing cold, trying not to fall over into a snow bank? No. I’m sure it’s delightful, but no.”

“You’re no fun.”

“No, I am fun,” Tony insisted. “I’m just warm fun. If we go back inside, I’m sure I can think of many fun things to do that are warm and don’t involve frostbite.”

“Let me guess. In bed?”

“Well obviously, yes. That’s the warmest place there is right now.”

“You’re hopeless,” said Loki. “How do you ever expect to acclimatize yourself to the cold if you never go out in it?”

“Who said I wanted to acclimatize myself to the cold?” Tony retorted. “I’m going back in. Time to make some mulled wine. Are you coming with me, or do you prefer to freeze out here?”

Loki went.

Speaking purely from a practical standpoint, Tony had no need to acclimatize himself to the cold. These days, he only went outside when he absolutely had to, which meant to the van Veenhuizens twice a week, and to the barber two streets over every week or so for a shave. Of those things, he would have gladly cut out lessons with Sofia in favor of staying in bed: if only he had any other source of meager income. Loki, on the other hand, being fully acclimatized to the terrible weather, went out often. He went out to with Mrs. Meijer to buy food, since she would choose only the plainest of supplies if left to her own choices whereas Loki required more luxurious fare. Oranges and chickens and white sugar and cinnamon to contrast with her cabbages and pork. He went out to the coffee houses for the latest political news and rumors at least twice a week. Sometimes he went out for no reason at all other than to be outside in the fresh, freezing air. And every Sunday, without fail, he still went to church.

After church, Mrs. Meijer made a good Sunday dinner, with roast meat and gravy and vegetables and pastries and sometimes even a fruitcake. Then, having determined that Sunday could be the one day per week they did not work on their opera, Tony and Loki sat by the fire and read or, on particularly cold days, made a cuddle-nest on the floor. Those cuddle-nest days were the only days Tony was glad for the freezing weather.

“Do you suppose it’s odd that we’ve not heard from Thor and Jane?” Tony asked in the cuddle-nest one Sunday afternoon.

“No,” said Loki. “They’ve barely been gone more than a month. They’ll write when the baby comes. Besides, all the ice is blocking passage into the port, and few ships can get through. So even when they do write, it will be a while before we receive their letter.”

That made sense. And meant any response Tony received from his father would take an equally long time in arriving. “Do you ever write to your parents?”

“My parents!” Loki laughed. “Occasionally I write to my mother. Why?”

“You never talk about them. You’ve never mentioned them.”

“Well you never mentioned your father either. Until you gave me that letter to send.”

“Which made me think you must be about as close with your father as I am with mine. Is that true?”

“I suppose it is,” Loki answered after a strangely long pause. “Father and I never did get along. He always favored Thor, and made no secret of it.”

“Why? Because Thor is the elder?”

Loki’s eyebrows rose, one at a time, to fix Tony with the kind of stare that made him think he was missing something very important. “I’m not sure if you’d noticed that Thor and I look absolutely nothing alike,” Loki eventually said. “But that would be due to the fact that I am adopted.”

“...Oh.” Tony heard himself say. Distantly, as his mind whirled to process what Loki had just told him. It was true: Loki and Thor did look nothing alike, apart from being very close in height. Thor was much broader, with golden hair, a ruddier complexion, and deep, vivid blue eyes. Loki’s eyes, while also blue, were of a paler, more neutral shade, with a certain translucence that tended to pick up other colors in the spectrum of greens and grays depending on the light. Loki’s skin was so much paler than Thor’s, and looked even whiter next to his black hair. And the shape of Loki’s face matched his body, slender and fine, while Thor was square and strong. No. They really did look nothing alike.

“You never guessed?” Loki asked.

Tony shook his head. “I never had reason to guess,” which made Loki snort.

“Jane picked it out on the first day we met. Commented on how dissimilar Thor and I are. She was too polite to ask outright, of course, but her confusion was evident and I told her the truth. I was adopted by the Asgersen family as an infant. I’ve been told my birth mother was a girl named Solvej Lindholm, though I’ve never met her. She was a maid for the Asgersens. And when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock, she was dismissed. But. In an act of compassion, the Asgersens offered to keep her bastard child and raise it as their own. She gladly accepted the offer, and, after giving me a name – Loke Lindholm – she abandoned me to their mercy. Nobody knows what happened to her after that. I assume she changed her name, shed her shameful past, and started a new life somewhere else, because there was no appropriately aged Solvej Lindholm to be found in Copenhagen. I looked. Several times.”

Not knowing what else to say, Tony simply said, “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be. I’m not. What life could I have had as the child of an unwed sixteen-year-old girl? Even second-best son of the Asgersens is far better than what I was born to. I was christened Nils Loke Lindholm Asgersen, and raised with all the privilege that name afforded me. I traveled the continent. I learned to read and write and speak Latin and French and German and English... And if our father preferred Thor, is true-born son, who was I to complain? I knew what I was. Always. From my earliest days, father made sure I knew. He introduced us as ‘my son’ and ‘my adopted son’. Thor always got the best of everything. And I got the second-best, and was grateful for it.”

“But Thor never refers to you as anything other than ‘brother’.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Loki agreed. “Thor never made any distinction. Nor did mother. To her, we were always her sons. Never qualified. Only father was ever careful in his distinction, which I suppose may be why I have no desire to keep contact with him now. He considered himself free of the responsibility of my care when I left home at seventeen. He had fulfilled his promise to my mother by giving me a childhood of wealth and luxury. But I’m no longer his burden now so...”

“If he,” Tony started, but Loki stopped him right there with two fingers pressed against his lips.

“I don’t want to talk about him any more. We’ll leave it at this. I said I was grateful for the life he did give me, and I am. It’s far more than a bastard like me deserved.”

No, Tony was certain somebody like Loki deserved much more than that: much more than being brushed aside. But, per Loki’s request, he said nothing. Just held Loki a little closer. Kissed the ridge of Loki’s cheek at the corner of his eye. “What would you rather talk about?”

“I don’t know,” Loki sighed. And it was an important-sounding sigh, as if the next words out of his mouth would be a profound philosophical statement.

“Anything? Anything you’re thinking about?”

Pulling back just enough that he could look at Tony face to face, Loki’s expression was so innocent. “How do you usually celebrate Christmas?”

Chapter Text

Generally, when Tony thought of preparation for Christmas, he thought of the immense amount of work required. Music to write. Copies to make. Musicians to rehearse. Singers to hire. Singers to release. Replacement singers to hire. More music to write. Staying up all night trying desperately to put the finishing touches on a Christmas mass to impress somebody important. Catching an hour of sleep before morning rehearsal, nodding off in the church, being kicked awake... This year, away from all that, he had been looking forward to a restful season.

Loki had other ideas.

In the Asgersen household, Christmas was celebrated with the following excesses: food, drink, and decoration. The first two Tony embraced gladly. The third, alas, required him to actually do something, and his interest in doing these days was severely limited. It did not extend to helping Loki collect evergreen boughs from the outskirts of the city, though he did this anyway because Loki bribed him with kisses, and likewise did not extend to trying to somehow weave those evergreen boughs into garlands. And he did that as well, because Loki threatened to not kiss him any more if he didn’t.

“I’m terrible at this,” he said, looking down at the mess of evergreen and string in his lap.

With a cursory glance over, Loki nodded. “Yes, you are.”

“Can’t I help you make yours? Hold the string? Cut the branches? You know what you’re doing. Yours looks good. Mine looks like it was made by a small child.”

“Then take it apart, and do it again.”

“But can’t I-”

“If you don’t,” Loki warned, “I will hang your garland right on the mantle for you to see every day, until it mocks you into remaking it properly.”

He really was the most unreasonable person Tony had ever met. Unreasonable, but skilled at constructing Christmas garlands. Tony had to watch how he worked and try to copy it. Lining up the boughs so their needles overlapped with no obvious bald spots, tightly wrapping the string, rearranging and filling in any holes... Tony’s second effort came out better, but still not as good as Loki’s.

“How many of these silly things do we need to make?”

“Oh, lots,” said Loki, gesturing over to the vast pile of greenery they had brought home. “At least one for every room. We’ll put them on all the tables and on the window ledges and coming down the stairs...”

Why?”

“So the house looks and smells green. Why not? It’s tradition.”

‘Tradition’ may have had more to do with it than anything else. Despite arguments to the contrary, Tony was starting to get the distinct impression that Loki missed Thor. This should have been their first brotherly Christmas back together after several apart. For the past eight years, Loki had spent every winter in a different city, in the household of a different patron. This year was meant to be a return to the family closeness they had known as children, but now Thor was gone. Loki mentioned this in a seemingly casual way. But did so more than once.

So Tony by default became the new participant in all of Loki’s traditional home Christmas requirements. Which meant, as far as Tony could tell at dinner time on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, eating all the special breads and puddings and pastries Loki had asked Mrs. Meijer to make, and washing it all down with a lot of fortified wine.

“I like your way of celebrating Christmas better,” he said through a mouthful of raisin tart while cutting another slice of almond bread. “Back in Rome it’s just church church church all the time. Maybe some prayers and solemn reflection in there to liven things up. Then more church. You never know true misery until you have to sit through Matins, and then have a whole two hours of sleep before some idiot shakes you awake for Lauds. And then again for Prime and so on for the whole day until you finally make it through Vespers and then there’s a feast for Christmas Day, but by that point you’re so tired the food has no appeal.”

“Don’t worry,” Loki told him. “There’ll be church later this evening.”

“For you, maybe. For me, I’ll be staying right here making sure none of this food goes to waste. Then I’ll go to bed, and I’ll stay in bed until morning. No vigil this year.”

“You should probably come to church with me on Christmas Eve, Tony. It’s not right to stay home.”

“No,” said Tony. And he stood up to grab another bottle of brandy from the cabinet. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m staying home. You can go out in the cold and snow if you like, but I’m staying home.” Was there even any brandy left, or had they finished it all? Only three bottles remained on the shelf: two of some awful clear stuff Thor had left behind, and one smaller bottle of dark glass with no label. “What’s this one?” he asked, holding it out and shaking it for Loki to see.

“A special concoction from Salzburg. Don’t drink it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I said so,” was all Loki gave by way of an answer.

So naturally, as soon as Loki was distracted with the task of cutting the meat from a ham hock, Tony pulled the stopper out of the bottle to take a sniff. Brandy. Some kind of brandy, but with a distinctly sweet, almost floral undertone to its scent. A vaguely familiar smell, but not something he could easily place. Something caught up in dusty archives of childhood. Something he had smelled long ago. “But what is it?” he asked again.

“I told you not to drink it.”

“I didn’t drink it, I smelled it. What is it?”

Whatever it was, it must have been either rare or expensive or both, with Loki being so reluctant to say. “It’s nothing too important. Just-”

“Laudanum,” Tony suddenly blurted out, the word popping into his head from the recesses of memory. “I knew I recognized the smell. From my father’s medicine chest. Were you ill?”

“Not necessarily...” Loki muttered.

“Then why would you have a bottle of laudanum?”

“You’ve never tried it?”

“No.” Never having suffered from serious pain or illness, he’d never had reason to.

Loki, ever the master of contradictory facial expressions, managed to look both thoughtful and mischievous at the same time. “Would you like to?”

Oh, that was always the worst thing to say to Tony. The absolute worst, because, inevitably, the very large part of his brain that controlled his more irresponsible and ridiculous urges would step forward and say, yes, good, why not? A new thing to try. He should probably do it. He sniffed the bottle again. “What, exactly, is in it?”

“Oh, various things...” was all Loki said.

Good enough. Who needed a list of tangible ingredients? Certainly not a sensible person like Tony Stark. Certainly not on Christmas Eve, which was shaping up to be a very fine day of merriment so far. He raised the bottle to his lips.

“Just a little,” Loki told him.

It tasted like strong brandy, though with a more organic and incredibly bitter aftertaste, like vegetables long past their prime. He set the bottle down on the table after one sip. “Hm. Not the best.”

“One doesn’t drink it for the taste,” said Loki, picking up the bottle and taking a sip for himself.

“Then what? Does it make you drunk faster?”

“Something like that.”

Maybe it did. Or maybe it was only Tony’s imagination, but he was certain he felt the warmth of the brandy slithering down his throat and into his veins, adding nicely to the glow of wine already incubating there. He poured himself another glass of wine and quickly downed it to wash the bitter taste of the laudanum from his mouth. He did feel a little drunker as the minutes ticked by into an hour and they slowly picked through their embarrassing excess of food. Maybe. It was difficult to tell.

Outside, snow was falling. Gently though, with feathery softness: not the hard, driving snow they’d had since Thor and Jane left, blasting in on the wind. This snow was light. Airy. Taking a handful of grapes with him, Tony got up to stand by the kitchen window and stare out into the glittering white garden as the new fall of snow frosted it with diamonds.

He had to admit it was beautiful. Inside the warm house looking out at the sparkling blue-white, he could appreciate its cold beauty. The way it laid a blanket over the landscape, turning hard edges into soft roundness, making everything so clean and bright in the gleaming of the wintery pale sun. “It looks so nice,” he said to Loki.

“Do you want to go out?” Loki asked. “We could walk down the canal.”

“No. I just want to look at it.” Going outside might break the spell. Everything was good the way it was. So shining and welcoming and good, and the wine was lifting his head up among the clouds while his body stayed warm and comfortable behind the kitchen’s glass, cradled by heat from the fire and the weight of wool in his clothes. Such a beautiful day. Such a perfect day. Only one thing could make it better.

He extended his hand out to beckon Loki and felt his blood flow down to his fingertips in strong, steady pulses. “Come over here?” His voice hummed in the back of his mouth.

Slowly, Loki stood, and slowly, Loki came, with snow-reflected sunlight shining in his hair. He took Tony’s hand, weaving their fingers together, and stood very close. He smelled of evergreen and clove. And lavender. And almond bread. And cinnamon. And wine. All those lovely scents all rolled up in one person. Tony leaned against his chest.

“I feel so wonderful right now.”

“So do I,” Loki murmured.

“So wonderful. So wonderful. Everything is perfect and beautiful. The snow and the light and the food and the wine.” He reached up to touch Loki’s face. Soft and smooth and flawless as marble. “You’re so perfect and beautiful. How can you be so perfect and beautiful?”

“I don’t know.”

Tony’s hand slipped around to the back of Loki’s neck while his other arm encircled Loki’s waist. “I need to hold onto you. Make sure you stay with me. You look like an angel and you smell like magic and you feel like... I don’t know. Something really good. We should lie down. Don’t you think? I think we should lie down. I keep seeing too many things and I can’t see this many things at once. The snow light is overwhelming. I need to close my eyes for a while so I can pay attention to everything else.”

He closed his eyes and buried his face in Loki’s coat, feeling the warmth and smelling the cloves and listening to Loki’s calm breath beside his ear as Loki stroked his hair and his back. “Have you had too much to drink?”

Tony shook his head. The textured fabric of Loki’s coat rubbed across his cheeks and nose and forehead like tiny hands. “No. Everything is exactly as it should be. But we should lie down. Then I want to kiss you. At least eight times.”

He felt and heard Loki’s smile even if he couldn’t see it. “Only eight?”

At least eight. Maybe eight hundred.”

“Come with me,” Loki whispered to him.

He felt so light, gliding across the floor and up the stairs. Through the curtain-portal into the dark cave of Loki’s bed. He pulled off his clothes before climbing between the sheets. Cold. Prickling the little hairs all over his skin. But Loki was warm, sliding up beside him so they could wind their legs together like vines and breathe each other’s breath.

“What time is it?” Tony asked.

“I don’t know. Three o’clock?”

Tony nodded. Three o’clock sounded excellent. “We should go to bed at three o’clock every day. This is very nice.”

“If we did that, we’d have very little time for working on our opera.”

True, but... “We can work on our opera in bed!” Good God, why had he never thought of that before? It made absolutely no sense to get out of bed and get dressed every day when they could work just as well right here. He could play the viol while lying down and using Loki as a pillow. Probably. How hard could it be?

“You wouldn’t get distracted?” asked Loki.

“Yes but only sometimes,” Tony promised.

“Most of the time?”

No. Maybe. Only if Loki were as terribly attractive and cuddly as he was in that moment. Which come to think of it, had a high probability of happening. “Oh, you’re likely right,” said Tony, and he pressed his face into the cool, lavender scent of Loki’s hair. “But it would be fun to try.”

He kissed Loki’s hair, and the soft strands stuck to his lips. He kissed Loki’s neck, and earlobe, and the curve of Loki’s ear. Over to Loki’s cheek and jawline and chin and nose and eyelid. That was eight kisses already. Eight hundred wouldn’t be nearly enough.

“Tony?” Loki whispered through a kiss to his eyebrow.

“Hm?”

“I, um.” He hesitated in his words, holding them cautiously back. “Thank you,” he eventually managed. “For staying with me.”

“What do you mean?” Tony asked.

“I mean... just staying with me. Instead of leaving when Thor and Jane went. You could have gone back to England with them or moved on to somewhere better, but you stayed here, even though I’m such an ass to you.”

“You’re not an ass.”

“Yes, I am,” said Loki. “I treat you very poorly and you know it, when you’re nothing but unfailingly good to me.”

Letting his lips brush against Loki’s skin, Tony shook his head. “I’m not good. I grab your bottom all the time and make you angry.”

“Usually I’m pretending to be angry. But, Tony, I... I do thank you for staying here. And for insisting on being a friend to me even when I don’t deserve you. I don’t know why you bother, but I appreciate it. Though I never act like I do.”

How could Loki say that? He deserved so much better than just Tony’s poor fawning. He deserved the love and admiration of kings, and more. “Don’t say that. You’re perfect.”

“I’m honestly not. But...” Raising his hand, he raked his fingers through Tony’s hair and leaned up for one soft kiss. “Thank you for being so absurdly positive about me. Sometimes I even find myself believing you.”

Seven hundred and ninety kisses to go. And then more. Loki’s hold pulled Tony closer: let him slide on top of Loki’s perfect body (so warm and radiant) and nestle down between welcoming thighs. Let him clutter kisses on Loki’s neck and shoulder, over every speck of skin that gleamed so invitingly in the dim, green-curtained light. Let his fingertips trace every secretive curve and hollow of Loki’s shape. Let the heady scent of Loki’s skin, the perfume and the heat, fill his senses.

Everything felt so wonderful...

ooo

“Tony. Tony, you have to wake up.”

Tony blinked his eyes open, looking up as a hazy yellow sphere solidified into a candle’s flame. “Hnn?” His head still felt light and dreamy, carried on waves of... Something? What had they been doing? They had been in the kitchen, with food, and wine, and...?

“Tony!”

“I’m awake,” he muttered, rolling onto his back. Every time he blinked his eyes would drift out of focus, and it took a second for the candle to reappear. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s three o’clock!”

“I know. You said so.”

“No, it’s three o’clock in the morning.

Oh. It was? How odd. Tony reached up to rub his face with both hands, though that did nothing to help. He could still barely see the golden outline of Loki’s face behind that candle. “So?” he asked. They fell asleep for twelve hours. A silly thing to do, but nothing that should cause Loki to be so agitated.

“So? We missed church!”

“Oh.” Was that it? Loki was upset about missing church? “Don’t worry,” he said, clumsily reaching up to pat Loki’s arm. “I missed Roman Christmas. We’ll be fine.”

“It’s not fine!”

Tony sighed and gave his head a little shake to try to wake up better. It almost worked. “Loki... What do you want me to do about it? We can’t turn back time.”

“I know, but...”

Maybe Tony could try something. “Will you lie down for a minute?”

“Why?” Loki asked.

“Because standing there in the cold won’t help anything. Put the candle on the table. Lie down. I have an idea.” An unconventional idea, but he was groggy and his head still felt funny and it was three in the morning. “I said, lie down.”

Even unreasonable Loki could see there was no sense in staying in the cold of the room. He did sigh and make a big fuss over setting the candle on the bedside table, as if that would make any difference as to the time, but at least he eventually climbed up onto the mattress and crawled over Tony to get back into bed.

“Now,” Tony said through a yawn once Loki was settled. “In the Catholic church-”

“I’m not interested in your Catholic church.”

“I told you to lie down, not talk back at me. You missed your service and woke me up in the middle of the night, so now you have to take what you can get. So. In the Catholic church,” he began again, “we have eight canonical offices, beginning with Matins at midnight. Then three hours later we have Lauds, and three hours after that we have Prime, followed in three-hour cycles by Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline until we get back to Matins. Now you may have missed your service, but seeing as it’s three in the morning... I think it’s about time for Lauds.”

“Tony, I told you, I have no interest in-”

Tony laid a hand over Loki’s mouth to shut him up. “And I told you, you have to take what you can get. Our churches used to be one and the same, Loki. The differences are small. I went to yours, now you can try imagining mine. So close your eyes and picture this: we are in a grand cathedral. At night. A grand, golden cathedral. The nave is so vast and the pillars so tall the candles and oil lamps used to light it cannot even hope to reach the soft shadows gathered in the ceiling vaults and the corners of the chapels. Up ahead, at the crossing of the transept, is a dome so airy it seems to hover in its place, supported by nothing. In the daytime its windows flood the building with bright white light from heaven, but now at night it is a warm, deep gold. And even though everything is dark and so huge you can’t help but feel tiny and humble standing there in its midst... You never feel alone. Or afraid. Its size is a protective shell, and the darkness is as comfortable as home.”

Maybe it was the wine or the laudanum, but Tony could almost see it. Shimmering like vapor in the dark canopy of the bed, he could see those colors and shadows. And smell... “The sweet, rich smoke of incense glides on the air,” he murmured. “Not too much. Just an enticing hint. Enough to tease you to lean forward in search of more. And in front of you, under the eye of the dome, the altar stands draped in gold. It’s lit by the orange glow of lamps that make the jewelled crosses sparkle. Everything shines like a bright beacon in the night. The Bishop is standing there in his ornamental robes to chant the hour’s psalms. Can you see it?”

“I suppose,” Loki whispered, which was better than a flat ‘no’.

“Good. And now that we are in our cathedral of the mind, you can recite your verses, or say any prayers. And who’s to say it’s not just as good as the real thing? Church isn’t a building, Loki. It’s what you take into your mind and soul. So just imagine.”

At first there was only silence. A brush of wind against the side of the house, the tiny hiss of melting candle wax, and nothing more. But Loki’s lips moved, and soon they were joined by whispered words too breathy to decipher. Danish words? Tony’s hand found its way down to Loki’s, and gently squeezed.

He had always liked psalm 150 in the Lauds office, with its musical references. He kept the image of that golden-lit altar in his mind as he began to whisper into the darkness: “Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius: laudate eum in firmamento virtutis eius...” Somehow he remembered the words. Somehow, through his hazy, swirling mind, he could still remember every syllable. Every sound. The sonorous rhythm of a chanting voice as it echoed through the cathedral. “...Laudate eum in tympano et choro: laudate eum in cordis, et organo...”

Whatever prayer Loki spoke, the whisper briefly became a murmur, then ended with a sigh that seemed to take most of his tension with it.

“Gloria Patri, et Filio: et Spiritui sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper: et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.”

“Amen,” Loki echoed in a voice so quiet it could barely be heard.

“Good night, Loki,” Tony said, turning to rest his head against Loki’s shoulder.

Loki’s eyes were already closed as he gave a lazy ‘hmm’ in answer.

ooo

They awoke groggily in the pre-dawn darkness some two hours later, just past five: Tony feeling distinctly sluggish and bogged down by the remnants of too much to drink (without any more pleasant weightlessness from the laudanum), and Loki looking pale and drawn and generally miserable. But since neither could sleep any longer and the bedroom was too cold for Tony’s hungover liking, they dressed and made their way down to the front room to sit by the fire. And were still sitting and staring into space when Mrs. Meijer arrived to make breakfast at six.

“I just want porridge with milk and butter and salt,” Loki said. “I can’t even think about any other food.”

Tony nodded. “I don’t even want that. I only want a bowl of plain cooked oats without any milk.”

Those requests suited Mrs. Meijer and her austere sensibilities just fine. Loki got his salted porridge, and Tony his bowl of plain oats, and both took half an apple cut into wedges. Then Mrs. Meijer went on to begin preparations for dinner. Rough dark bread and beef stew.

“I feel like we should be having something more than home-baked bread and plain stew for Christmas dinner,” said Loki, “but I can’t bring myself to want anything else.”

“Neither can I,” Tony agreed.

“We should be having a goose with rosemary and plum glaze, and almond custard pies, and peas cooked with bacon, and veal dumplings in honey milk...”

No, that all sounded terrible and made Tony’s stomach churn. “Beef stew.”

Loki nodded. “Beef stew with brown bread. But do you know what I think would make us feel better?”

“What?” Tony asked, thinking that as long as Loki didn’t say ‘going to church’ he could probably agree to whatever it was.

“Going out to breathe the fresh, cold air. We should go for a stroll. Over to the church.”

Damn everything. “What, my imaginary church isn’t good enough for you?”

“It’s Christmas Day, Tony,” Loki said to him. “If we don’t go, it will cause a scandal. I mean, if I don’t go. You’re already scandalous.”

“But-” Tony began. And that was exactly as far as he got before Loki interrupted with one of those dreaded words Tony had all but forgotten.

“You still owe me five favors.”

Damn everything again. “Loki...” Tony groaned, but as he sagged back into his chair, the only thing he could think was that it probably wasn’t even worth his time to fight and whine and complain and resist. He was too tired. And far too lazy. And absolutely too apathetic about everything in the world. Going along with whatever Loki said seemed infinitely easier than opposing him. And he was sure he’d regret this later, but at the moment... “One favor to get me into my outdoor clothes,” he said, holding up one finger. “Another favor to get me to set foot outside of the house,” he added with a second finger. Third finger: “For a third favor, I will walk to the church with you. For a fourth, I will go into the church. And for the fifth,” he finished with five fingers up, “I will stay in the church until it is time to go home.”

“Very well,” said Loki. “Five favors. Finish your oats and we will dress for the walk.”

It was almost as if they both knew the favors were useless, because Tony would eventually do anything Loki said either way. But it was nice, Tony thought, to keep up the pretence of autonomy.

Outside the city was cold and blanketed with new snow, but in the absence of any biting north wind, it was the sort of cold Tony could tolerate if he wrapped a scarf over his face and held his cloak tightly closed. And stayed to the swept areas of the streets to avoid getting snow in his shoes. It seemed less busy and festive to be outside on Christmas morning than Tony would have expected. Largely, it looked like any other winter day. Women sweeping the snow and returning from market with baskets of food, men holding conversations on the street corner or walking purposefully to some unknown destination, and a few children playing on the ice of the canal.

“The Calvinist majority does not celebrate Christmas,” Loki said in answer to the question Tony hadn’t yet been able to ask. “To them, this is just another unremarkable Thursday.”

“How dull,” said Tony. “I’m glad you’re not one of them.” Though, if Loki were a Calvinist, they wouldn’t have celebrated quite so forcefully the previous afternoon, and wouldn’t have consumed so much rich food and dizzying drink, and therefore would not be feeling so poorly. And would not be going to church. Still, it was nice to have a bit of festivity in the middle of an otherwise dull, colorless winter. It made the cold and snow more bearable.

At the square in front of the church, they were greeted with the livelier sight of dozens of colorfully dressed people milling about. Lively in Tony’s eyes, at least. To Loki, the scene brought on a frown.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked.

Loki shook his head. “I don’t know. But everyone should be inside by now. There’s no reason to be standing on the step out in the cold. Stay here; I’ll find out what’s happening.”

What was happening, it turned out, was a small yet impassable problem. The Calvinists had locked the church doors. Several black-clothed men armed with clubs stood inside, staring like intimidating sentinels through the segmented windows: a clear warning of violence for any who might try to break the lock and enter the building. Already a small group of the Lutheran men had gathered to discuss attacking the windows with rocks and forcing their way inside. More, though, with Loki among them, called for peaceful dispersion.

“If they attack now, it will cause a riot,” Loki said. “More Calvinist enforcers will come to join the fight, and there are far more of them than there are of us. People will be injured or killed. And in the end, we will be banned from holding our services entirely. We need to leave now before somebody does something stupid.”

“And go where?” asked Tony. He knew Loki was right; one simple action, one stone through one window pane, would cause a ripple effect of violence. “I don’t think they’ll go home calmly and forget about this. Unless there’s a resolution, somebody will do something, and it will end in some bad way.”

Loki gave a shallow nod of agreement, but didn’t say anything. Not right away. He ran his tongue over his teeth, thinking, and looked from the guarded windows to the muttering group. “There’s meant to be a winter festival this Saturday,” he finally said. “Skating, sledding, snow fights, food and drink... I don’t see why we can’t start today. Those gatekeepers of good cheer can lock us out of their church, but they can’t stop us from celebrating. Come on. Let’s tell everyone to follow us to the canal, and we can organize some games.”

“I don’t speak Dutch.”

“Oh right. Well then, lead the way and I’ll tell everyone to follow after you to the canal.”

“I don’t know which canal or where.”

Loki shot him an annoyed look, but really, it was all Loki’s fault for trying to scrounge up non-local help for a local Christmas festival. “Fine. Stand there until you see a large group of people going somewhere. At that point, follow them.”

That sounded more reasonable.

And Loki’s plan seemed to work. United by frustration and determined to win this fight against the humorless Calvinists in peaceful way, the church-goers disbanded. Some went straight to the canal to begin clearing away the snow, while others went home to grab skates, sleds, and food and drink to share. Loki went home for his skates and Thor’s for Tony to use, and came back with two bottles of wine and several tin cups as well. By that time, the young men had cleared the snow from a large stretch of ice, and the older men had built a bonfire. Directly on the surface of the canal. Which seemed terribly unsafe to Tony: wouldn’t it melt the ice and cause everyone to go crashing through into the frigid water below? But nobody else seemed the least bit worried, so he kept his concerns to himself. And stayed near the fire to watch for signs of danger. Also, it was warm.

After two hours, three cups of hot cider, a pancake, and one round of a bowling game on the ice that involved lots of falling over and very little of anything else, Tony felt almost brave enough to try skating. Almost: not quite. He’d need another cup or two of cider before that happened.

“But if not skating,” Loki said to him, “we could have a sleigh ride. One of the men brought his snow sleigh and a horse. It’s not large, just big enough for two people in the back and a driver up on the bench, but he’s going down the canal to the bay and back for anyone who wants a ride.”

“That sounds cold,” said Tony, sidling closer to the fire.

“The seat in back has furs to cover you and hot stones from the fire to warm your feet.”

On second thought, Tony took Loki’s arm. “That sounds excellent. And then we can go home for beef stew?”

“And then we can go home for beef stew.”

They climbed into the back of the sleigh as soon as it returned from its run, into seats warmed by the previous occupants and the hot stones on the floor. Wind whistled in Tony’s ears as the sleigh lurched forward and the horse began to pick up speed, but he sunk down farther into his scarf and pulled the furs up to his nose and leaned against Loki and... It wasn’t bad at all. With the sun overhead making the new snow sparkle, the city looked so fresh and pure. Peaceful and happy. All the ill will of the church confrontation was left behind to be forgotten. Forgiven, even. New faces had started to turn up on the cleared ice in the past hour to join in the fun, and Tony knew they weren’t from Loki’s circle of Lutherans. Whether or not they were less severe-minded Calvinists open to a little merrymaking, he couldn’t say, but they had been welcomed all the same with their skates and sleds and baskets of sweets.

“This has been a good Christmas, hasn’t it?” he said, turning to look at Loki.

Loki’s hand clasped his under the furs. “It has been, I think.”

All the good food. All the good drink. Imaginary Lauds, simply being with Loki, and the Christmas miracle of the church being locked so they could eat and drink around a bonfire and go for a sleigh ride instead. And hot beef stew waiting at home. “Yes. A very good Christmas.”

Chapter Text

At the end of January, a letter arrived for Loki.  Not from Thor and Jane, as they had been expecting, but from somebody important (Loki would not say whom) in someplace far away (Loki would not say where), with what Tony considered to be a very odd request.  Naturally, Loki would not divulge the exact text of the letter, and since Tony could not read what he guessed to be foreign German script, he had to settle for a vague summary.

In short, whoever this was, from whichever place, wished to commission a portrait of Loki in memory of the grand time they had shared the past Christmas: a time that the person in question (an old, grandmotherly widow Loki assured Tony to quell any sparks of jealousy) now looked back on very fondly.  She had paid what sounded to Tony like an astronomical sum of two hundred guilder to a painter named Peter Vandepol, who had been instructed to contact Loki on the third of February to arrange for sittings.  (By the Dutch calendar, the letter specified, which made Tony think the letter probably came from Prussia.)  It was to be a very formal, very elegant portrait.

Loki looked up from the letter.  “What even do you suppose that means?  A ‘formal’ portrait?  As opposed to what?  A portrait of me in my nightshirt?”

“It means you wear the nicest clothes possible and try to look like you’re important and have a lot of money,” said Tony.  “You pose in a boring way, seated and looking at the artist, and hold some item symbolic of your character in one hand.  A few pages of music, for example.  It’s not a painting of you in your everyday clothes doing an everyday thing, like the Dutch style favors.  You have to look your best.”

“Have you had your portrait done?”

“Once, yes, though by an apprentice who needed somebody to use as practice.  He was a friend of mine and thought I would be a good subject, holding a viola da gamba.”

“I suppose I could wear this,” Loki said with an appraising look down at his suit, though Tony disagreed.

“You can’t wear that.  It has no ornamentation and will just look flat and plain in a painting.  You need something more... impressive.”

“What, like the nonsense you wear?”

He obviously meant that as a statement of derision, but in actual fact...  “That’s not a bad idea,” Tony said as Loki fixed him with the predictable ‘are you serious’ look, complete with raised eyebrow.  “You should wear some of my clothes.”

“I don’t think-”

But Tony was already on his way over to the stairs.  “Wait here.  I have an idea.”

The blue suit.  That was easily his best one, with its black and silver trim and subtle, starry sheen.  Paired with one of Loki’s good lace cravats, it would look even better.  He ran it back downstairs, held it up for show, and was met with an immediate groan.

“I can’t wear that.”

“Why not?  I know it’ll fit you.”  A few inches short, perhaps, but that wouldn’t even show since Loki would be seated.

“Tony, if I wear that, I will look nothing like myself.  And as far as I am aware, the purpose of a portrait is to have a painting that looks like me.”

“No,” Tony corrected.  “The purpose of a portrait is to have a painting that looks like an ideal version of you.  A better, more important, more powerful, wealthier you.”  He would have also said ‘better looking’, but Loki was already fairly perfect as it was and needed no improvement in that department.  “The idealized essence of you.”

“The idealized essence of me wears what I am currently wearing,” said Loki.

A rather final statement if Tony had ever heard one.  “Fine, fine.  But if you look dull for your dear widow...  Whatever did you do to enchant her into spending two hundred guilder on a portrait of you, anyway?”

“Nothing of the sort you’d imagine,” Loki growled.  “Yes, sometimes she would try to inappropriately touch my leg or bottom, but mostly I just sat with her and sang or played the harpsichord, or we played cards.  She was seventy-nine years old.  Her children were all grown and married, and most of her grandchildren as well.  So while the grandchildren all ran around the house like undignified maniacs making fools of themselves with their lovers and mistresses, I simply spent time with her.”

“And you don’t think she’d appreciate you looking fancy for her?” Tony teased.

“No.  I don’t.”

An even more final statement.  And there was nothing Tony could do about that.

Four days later, precisely on the third of February (by the Dutch calendar), Peter Vandepol appeared at the front door shortly after breakfast.  He was much older than Tony had been anticipating: the picture formed in Tony’s mind, for reasons he could not explain, had been of somebody closer to his own and Loki’s age.  But Peter Vandepol was easily sixty, with a massive gray beard engulfing half of his heavily lined face.  With him came a young apprentice who carried all the supplies: canvas, easel, brushes, paints, oils, and the other miscellanea his profession required.

They set up in the music room, which both provided the necessary light from the bank of windows along the back wall and was spacious enough to accommodate all of Vandepol’s things.  A chair was appointed for Loki in the far corner, with the easel positioned at exactly the right angle to perfectly capture his likeness.  Loki sat down, and Vandepol asked him a question in Dutch.

Loki answered with the kind of tone and uncertain facial expression that could be understood universally by anyone regardless of language barrier: What?

Something, Vandepol explained with lots of hand gestures.  Pointing at Loki, pointing at the window, pointing at the blank canvas.  Whatever he said was completely incomprehensible to Tony, while Loki sat there making ineffective arguments back.  No matter what Loki said, Vandepol  countered it with a shake of his head.  Whatever he wanted Loki to do, he seemed adamant that it must happen.

Finally, with a sigh and a visible deflation of defeat, Loki capitulated.  He got up from his chair, came over to Tony, and said, “Go get your damned blue suit.”

“Are you sure?” Tony asked, feeling a stupid smile tug at his lips.

“Yes.  The great Lord of Paints insists I wear something more...”  Loki paused before spitting out the word like a bad taste in his mouth.  “...festive.”

As much as Tony wanted to shout ‘I knew it’ and do a little dance of victory, that very likely would have ended in violence.  He restricted himself to a quick nod instead.  “I’ll be right back.”

The blue suit, which he rarely had occasion to wear these days, lay exactly where he left it four days earlier.  He grabbed the coat, waistcoat, and breeches, and then, with only a moment’s hesitation, his wig from its place hanging on the mirror post.  He’d had occasion to wear that only rarely of late, too.  The curls still sat in pristine condition since Loki had paid to have them reset.  And after a quick stop in Loki’s room to pick out a fine lace cravat and shirt with embellished cuffs, he took it all downstairs.

“No,” Loki said upon spying the wig.  “No, absolutely not.  I can suffer through the absurd opulence of your clothing, but that’s just-”

Vandepol, on the other hand, had a completely different opinion.  Interrupting Loki, he stepped up with a continuous bobbing nod and several affirmative-sounding words.  He took the wig from Tony with a smile and something that certainly had to have meant, Yes, this is what I am looking for.

No,” Loki insisted.

“Oh, why not?” said Tony.  “It’s essentially another piece of clothing.  Like a fancy hat.”

“I’ll look ridiculous!”

“You’ll look powerful and important.  I bought that wig from a dead nobleman, you know.”

“That’s not exactly an incentive for me to put it on!”

“But everyone who’s anyone wears a wig to have their portrait done.”

“I won’t-”

Peter Vandepol ended the argument right there, taking Loki by the shoulders and steering him, in that fatherly way he had, over to the chair.  He sat the wig on Loki’s head, pushed the blue suit into his arms, and said something stern.

Loki, holding a most hateful glare steadily in Tony’s direction, gave in and started to undress.

“Here,” Tony said once Loki had finished with all the buttons down the front of the blue suit’s waistcoat.  “Let me help you with the wig.”

“I don’t need help,” Loki growled.

“Just let me.  It’s easier.”

“I don’t need-”

“You’re putting it on wrong.”  Grabbing the wig before it slipped off sideways and fell to the floor, Tony carefully rearranged it in his hands and used his fingers to spread out the cap.  “Tip your head back.  Brush your hair back from your face.”

“I am going to murder you,” Loki whispered through clenched teeth, though at least he followed Tony’s directions and pushed his hair away while leaning back in his chair.

“Murder me?” Tony whispered in reply.  “After I’m being so kind to you and allowing you to borrow my clothing for your portrait?”  Lining up the front of the wig with Loki’s hairline, he gently settled it into place and tucked away any stray tendrils that managed to escape.  He arranged the fall of curls over Loki’s shoulder and fluffed up the top.  Then stood back to admire his handiwork.  “You look like a prince,” he said.

“I look like an ass,” Loki shot back.

“How would you know?  You can’t see yourself.”

The only opinion that held any weight, however, belonged to Peter Vandepol.  And he, with a nod and a single clap of his hands, wordlessly proclaimed Loki’s transformation a triumph.

“One more thing,” Tony added, reaching to grab the nearest pages of music from the virginal.  “Here; hold these in your lap.”

“Am I not allowed to have any say in my own portrait?” Loki asked.

A silly question.  The answer to that was, of course, no.  Vandepol was the one with the final word, really the only word, and he approved the musical pages with a smile.  Just as he had done for Tony’s other contributions.  Meaning Tony’s score sat at three out of three for clothing, wig, and musical accessory, and Loki had no choice other than to sit there and accept his fate.

But he did look like a prince.  A grumpy prince at first, with an ugly scowl on his lips and furiously narrowed eyes, but that gradually softened into neutrality as Vandepol spoke to him in a soothing voice and gave little instructions on how he should pose.  Turn body a little to the right.  Turn head a little to the left.  Raise chin slightly.  Move hand up a little higher on leg.  The apprentice closed the curtains partway to control the light and Vandepol shifted the easel over an inch or two.  Then finally, after what seemed like ages of tiny adjustments, the real work began.

A charcoal sketch first: Loki’s eyes and nose and mouth and the shape of his face and the outline of his body.  Curls of hair cascading down over his shoulders and delicate swirls of lace at his wrists.  It was fascinating to watch how the picture began to take shape under Vandepol’s expert hand, perfectly capturing Loki’s haughty expression in just a few strokes.

Tony tried to stay out of the way. He was forced to leave for an hour for Sofia’s lesson, and then tried to stay upstairs working on arrangements for the opera, but somehow always found himself wandering back down to the music room on the flimsiest of pretences. He needed to get a cup of water from the kitchen, and stopped to watch a bit of progress on the portrait on his way back upstairs. Then it was dinner time and he had to have a quick peek at the canvas before helping Loki take the wig off to eat. Then he was restless and had to wander around the house for a while with frequent stops to check in and make sure Vandepol was still working. Then he needed a slice of bread to tide him over until supper. All in all, he managed to finish six measures of harpsichord accompaniment on one song, and spent a good three hours snooping around the music room making excuses to spy on the painting.

In his defence, Loki looked so regal, elegantly posed there in the chair with wig and blue suit and music in his lap. Regal and alluring. It was impossible to stay away. So in reality, Tony’s lack of productivity throughout the day was entirely Loki’s fault.

“Just... leave it on a little longer?” he asked Loki once Vandepol had packed up and left for the day. “So I can look at you?”

Loki stared into the mirror in the front sitting room, slowly turning his head from side to side and examining his reflection. “This is absurd. You must be able to see that. The wig has four times as much hair as any normal human could be expected to produce. How is it possibly considered attractive?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “It just is.” And it did funny, squirmy things to his insides seeing Loki dressed like that. “So just... leave it on? For a while? At least until supper?”

ooo

Vandepol came back the next Tuesday to continue his work. With base colors laid on the canvas, now came the long and painstaking process of filling in depth and highlights and textures and details. Compared to the quick progress made during the first sitting, the second seemed almost unbearably slow to Tony (who should not have been spending his time watching paint dry anyhow, but still could not force himself to stay away). When Vandepol packed up at the end of that second day, the portrait looked hardly any more finished than when he had begun.

The third week, he came on Monday, which suited Tony better since there would be no lesson with Sofia and therefore nothing to distract him from wasting the entire day watching Vandepol paint. That day, Tony made absolutely no attempt at even pretending to do anything else. He set up a chair at the back of the room so he had a good view of both the canvas and Loki. And sat.

Shortly after dinner there was a knock at the door, which Tony answered to find Thor’s friend Mr. Holm standing on the front step.

“Good afternoon,” Mr. Holm said with a little bow of his head. “Is Loki here?”

After so long spent with Loki and Thor, it was odd hearing English spoken so slowly and carefully and with such a heavy foreign accent. Tony bowed in return, and gestured for Mr. Holm to come inside. “Yes. But I’m afraid he cannot come to the door. Please, come in, and I’ll show you to him.”

Mr. Holm’s awkwardly half-smiling expression indicated he understood barely any of what Tony had said, but he understood the gesture. He followed Tony through the house to the music room and gave only the briefest of acknowledgement to Vandepol and the apprentice before speaking to Loki in rapid... something. Danish, Tony guessed, once he thought back to the poem Agnete Holm had written.

Throughout Mr. Holm’s story, Loki said nothing. But the serene expression of his portrait pose fell quickly from his face, replaced by a look of shock. Seeing that, Tony’s mind went immediately to the worst case scenario. As Mr. Holm was a friend of Thor’s, did that mean he had heard some terrible news concerning Thor and Jane? Had one of them taken ill? Had Jane died in the birth of the child? Had their ship sunk in the crossing to England, and had poor weather prevented news from reaching home until now?

After a long speech and a few brief questions from Loki, Mr. Holm departed as abruptly as he had arrived, with barely a farewell nod. Loki, visibly rattled, stood up from his chair. “News from London,” he said. Tony’s stomach dropped. But what Loki announced next was nothing Tony had even considered. “Charles the second of England has died. His brother, James, is now king.”

“But that’s a bit of a relief, isn’t it?” Tony asked after Loki dismissed Vandepol for the day. “I thought at first he was bringing news of Thor and Jane. I thought it would be something terrible.”

“This is terrible,” said Loki. “According to Mr. Holm, Charles converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed thanks to some infernal treaty with France. And the new King James is Catholic.”

“I think you spend entirely too much time worrying about Catholics.”

Loki flashed him a look of snarling annoyance while hurrying to unbutton the blue suit’s waistcoat. “It’s not the Catholicism that bothers me. It’s what James might do. He’ll be an incredibly unpopular monarch in England. If the English don’t rise up against him and start another civil war, what might he do to gain their favor? I’ll tell you what. An easy target to bolster national pride and succeed where Charles failed: another trade war with the Dutch. And in a war against the Dutch, a Catholic English king might try to make an alliance with Spain. Thus far Spain has stayed away from siding with England, but how might that change now? The Spanish could easily be tempted to send forces from Manila to attack Batavia if they had England on their side.”

He pulled on his plain gray suit over the fine lace-cuffed shirt and began on the task of those buttons. “So you see, Tony, it’s not specifically Catholicism that’s the problem. It’s how this new English Catholic king might shift the balance of power across the continent. What new alliances might form. What new wars might start if England and France rejoin to pick up where the last Anglo-Dutch war left off. England had plans to annex Holland eleven years ago, and only stopped because the English people feared France, their ally, had ulterior motives and wished to exert Catholic influence over Charles. That would not be a concern to James. So if the English and the French band together to attack Holland, what do you think might happen? Denmark and Norway might come to aid the Dutch, who then feel confident enough to try to invade the Spanish Netherlands, which brings Spain into the picture. Suddenly we have a war of religion. Sweden sets aside her hatred of Denmark to fight against the even more hated Catholics, Prussia does the same with Sweden, Poland opposes Prussia, the Hapsburgs inevitably get involved, and once that happens, the Ottomans decide, my word, what a grand time to make good on our promise to capture Vienna! You see where this is going?”

“I think that’s an awful lot of overwrought speculation,” said Tony. Far more than was warranted by one small change in English leadership, in any case.

“You don’t think that could happen?”

No. Tony thought the new King James would probably do nothing at all, in an effort to avoid meeting his father’s fate at the headsman’s block in another English civil war. But since Loki was so worked up into an explosive mood, he stayed silent on the matter and just shrugged. “Where are you going?” he asked as Loki grabbed a hat and cloak.

“Out. Coffee house. I need to seek further news of the situation. Do you want to come?”

That sounded like exactly the kind of thing Tony didn’t want to do, so he let Loki go with a wave and went to sit by the fire instead. Thinking about politics too much made his head hurt. Everyone behaved so stupidly for no good reason, wanting to start pointless wars with the scantiest of excuses. So until something concrete came to pass... Why worry about things beyond one’s control?

Of course Loki worried, because that’s what Loki did. Every day that week he went out hunting for new information and new ideas, coming back to Tony each night with the most outlandish theories and preposterous rumors. So and so heard that such and such country was preparing to invade someplace else. Somebody spotted a ship flying a Spanish flag suspiciously close to the coast. English spies were everywhere. The only difference it made was that Loki started to accompany Tony whenever Tony left the house, for fear that he might be attacked by overzealous vigilantes or arrested for the crime of being an unwelcome Papist foreigner.

Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, nothing happened at all apart from a lot of overinflated talk.

One week passed into two, and by the end of the month, fear began to settle down into tired wariness. Loki started coming home with different opinions to share. “The consensus is that we will wait for now,” he told Tony. “Everyone is ready for war, but nobody seems to want to start it.”

Finally, Tony thought: a practical statement.

“James is not a young man. Both his heirs, the princesses Mary and Anne, are protestant. Word from London is that the English people will wait him out and look forward to their new queen when she comes. King James will be nothing more than a temporary annoyance.”

“Good,” said Tony. “I’m sick of hearing about him. Now shall we do something else? Anything else? Literally, anything? Work on music?” Their opera had been sadly neglected of late, lying in unfinished piles on Loki’s bedroom floor.

“I suppose,” Loki sighed. “I could use a distraction from all this fuss.”

“I have some new arrangements from this past week I’d like to play for you. And another aria that will need lyrics. Upstairs?”

“Upstairs,” Loki agreed.

ooo

The first week in March brought more news from London, though this time of an entirely different sort. Loki received a letter from Thor. And Tony received a letter as well, meaning that the ice was starting to disappear from the shallow bay waters and ships could once again easily reach the port.

“Brilliana,” said Loki, staring down at the paper in his hands. “They named the baby Brilliana. She was born on the ninth of January. Thor wrote this letter on the twelfth, but said he did not have any faith it would reach us before Easter as the Thames is frozen solid. He set out walking downriver from Whitehall Stairs with one of Jane’s cousins to see how far the ice went, and when they grew tired and turned back at Tower Hill they had still found no open water. But Brilliana?”

Tony shrugged. “I think that’s a pretty name. Much better than yet another baby named Mary or Catherine. What other news?”

“Apart from the baby, who Thor says is fat and healthy and constantly hungry – no wonder, considering who her father is – the winter has been harsh. A man in Lambeth froze to death during a blizzard. They had good Christmas festivities. Thor paid a princely sum for one of those new turkey birds that originated in the colonies, but despite its impressive plumage they all agreed it did not taste as nice as goose. But it was a novelty. Jane is recovering well and refuses to stay in bed despite the midwife’s orders. She insists on looking after Brilliana herself.”

“Any word on when they plan to return?”

“Thor says April, but this was written before King Charles died. And he spends an entire paragraph complaining about the horrid stench of waste in the streets and the smell of people who never bathe, so between that and King James, I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to find earlier passage. What’s in your letter? Is it from your father?”

“Yes,” said Tony, looking down at the envelope, though he already knew that was a lie. The address on the letter, to Signor Antonio Carbonello as he had instructed, was not written in his father’s hand. Reading his name in those unfamiliar lines and loops set off a pang of dread in his gut. He knew what the letter would say. He knew without even opening it.

“You haven’t read it?”

“No, I’ll look at it later,” he said, and stuffed the letter into his jacket. “I’m feeling a little hungry. Let’s have supper early tonight. I hope Mrs. Meijer bought more of that sharp white cheese we had last week.”

Loki looked at him with a questioning gaze, but ultimately did not ask out loud, meaning Tony did not have to answer. They discussed it no further over supper, sticking instead to talk of what Thor wrote. It was not until much later that Tony dared to break the wax seal and read what was written in the latter. He waited until Loki had gone to bed, making excuses of wanting to finish one particular segment of a harmonic line, then pulled out the pages.

The letter had been written by Mr. Edwin Jarvis. His father’s steward.

Dear Master Stark:

It is my sad duty in writing this letter to inform you...

He put the letter down at that, reading no further. He folded it back up, tucked it away under his viol, and stuffed out the candle. And went to join Loki in bed.

Chapter Text

“June,” Loki said. His eyes skimmed over the page, seeking out relevant details to relay back to Tony. It was easier this way. Loki read the letter, and informed Tony of the facts. Everything was easier to accept when filtered through Loki’s soothing voice. “He suffered a stroke at the end of May last year, and died three weeks later. This Mr. Jarvis was most relieved to receive your letter, as he has been waiting on you since June to settle the estate. You’ve inherited your father’s house in London, along with his fortune approximating fourteen thousand pounds.”

Tony jerked forward in his chair. “Fourteen... No, that can’t be right. Fourteen hundred, surely? If that?”

“Mr. Jarvis says fourteen thousand. And I do not think it is an error, as he also includes a financial statement sheet listing all assets, including the house, notable contents, and all investment holdings comprising your father’s – now your – net worth. Nearly fourteen thousand pounds. Apparently you own considerable property in Ireland?”

“Let me see that.”

Everything Loki said sounded too preposterous to be true. He had to be lying. Teasing over an imaginary fortune. But the financial account page of Mr. Jarvis’ letter corroborated, in plain numbers, exactly what Loki had just stated. All carefully added up on a sheet of crisp, creamy paper.

Thirteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety eight pounds, twelve shillings, three and a half pence. All his.

“Oh my God.” His hands shook as he set the paper down. “What... What do I have to do?”

“Go to London,” said Loki. “Prove you are who you say you are. Sign the documents.”

“Right. London.” That made sense. Now that the traffic at sea was returning to a more regular schedule with the spring thaw, he could find a ship to London and conduct all the necessary business. But with a house and God only knew what new duties awaiting him back in England... “I suppose this will put a considerable obstacle in our plans for touring, won’t it?” he asked Loki.

“I suppose it will,” Loki answered.

“So instead of Düsseldorf, now we’ll start in London. We can stay there as long as required for me to settle my father’s estate, and then-”

“Tony, I can’t go to London.”

“Of course you can. We’ll go to London and-”

“I already wrote the Grand Duchess to inform her of our intention to arrive in Düsseldorf in late spring.”

“So, write her back and say that due to circumstances beyond your control, plans have changed, and now-”

“I can’t go to London.”

Tony, who had been absently pacing back and forth by his chair, stopped. Why did Loki sound so firm with that statement? “Is this about some stupid nonsense to do with the Catholic king?”

“No, it’s...” Loki could never look Tony in the eye when he was about to say some painful truth. “If you go to London, you won’t leave.”

“Ridiculous,” Tony scoffed. “Why wouldn’t I leave?”

“You don’t think an estate worth fourteen thousand pounds would persuade you to stay?”

“No,” said Tony, but even as he said it, he began to doubt himself.

“You don’t think that with all that money and an elegant roof over your head, not to mention the societal presence that goes with it, you could finally devote your life to your music without interruption? And easily find the recognition you desire? Why in God’s name would you leave the possibility of that life behind and come back to struggle on the continent?

“Because-”

“This is an opportunity to be somebody, handed to you as a gift, and all you need do is go back to London. And stay there. Introduce yourself to your new influential neighbors. Write a concerto. Organize a performance. Don’t you see? That sort of money changes everything.”

Fine,” said Tony, holding up his hands to break through the barrier of Loki’s interruptions. “If you think it best for me to stay in London, I will consider staying in London. But I don’t see why you can’t come with me. If the money benefits me, why can’t it benefit you, too? Why can’t you join me?”

Loki looked up at him with one of those unreadable, uniquely Loki expressions. “You can’t think of a reason?”

“...Thor?” Tony guessed, making Loki sigh and shake his head.

“How long would I stay?”

“I don’t know...”

“When would I leave?”

“You’re rewording the same question.”

“How can you be sure I could bring myself to leave?”

“Why are you talking about leaving?!”

“Because,” said Loki. “You don’t think the world would find it odd? Us two? Neither married? Together? You don’t think there would be scandalous talk?”

“You don’t seem to care about that now. As we live together. Never married.”

Loki shook his head and sighed, as if Tony were too ignorant to grasp the very simple concept of what he was saying. “Here it works because we are both foreigners, each here for our separate, specific reasons: I live in my brother’s house, and you are my brother’s wife’s music teacher awaiting her return. If we were to travel together, we would also be accepted as travelling companions, as it is dangerous for one to tour the continent alone. But once we are in London, in your home, what happens? I have no solid reason to be there. So what does that make me in the eyes of society?”

“I don’t know,” said Tony. “My valet?”

“I am not your damned valet!” Loki snapped.

“Fine!” Tony snapped right back. “You are my cousin, returned with me from France! Loïc is a good French name!”

“I don’t speak French well enough to pass!”

“Then a guest!”

“A guest is short term!”

“Then you establish your own permanent household in London!” Tony shouted. “And why are we shouting?! This is silly!”

“So you want me to permanently reside with you,” Loki said, much quieter than before.

“I...”

Tony stopped himself right there. Is that what he had said? He did say that Loki should come to London, and the word ‘permanent’ did arise. But now with Loki staring at him like that, he could feel a hot flush creep into his face. God damn it. God damn it. Damn Loki and his way of twisting and bending words into a confusing spiral, making Tony say and think things he didn’t exactly intend. Or maybe he did. It was impossible to tell now, with Loki staring at him so intently like a bird of prey.

“I... would like you... to accompany me to London,” Tony rephrased in halting words. “If you wish. For a while.”

“So it’s for a ‘while’ now. Not permanently.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Loki, I don’t know!” And they were back to shouting, but Tony didn’t care. “You’re making everything so complicated! You always make things so complicate! Why can’t you just come to London, and if you want to stay, we find a way for you to stay! And if not...”

Loki turned his eyes over to the wall again. The wall of painful truths. “You see, that’s the part I don’t like,” he muttered. “The ‘if not’ part. The part where I go to all this trouble of moving to London for you and then it falls to pieces because we refuse to accept the fact that there is no reasonable way for us to be together.”

“So you’d rather give up than try,” said Tony.

“I would. You know there’s no way this can end well. Eventually we will grow tired of lying and hiding and living in the shadows.”

“You don’t know that. Something could change and-”

“What?” Loki demanded. “What, Tony, could possibly change?”

I don’t know!” Oh, he didn’t mean to shout that loud, but Loki was just so wretchedly infuriating. “I don’t know! I don’t know what might change, I don’t know what might happen, and I don’t know how things will turn out! But I also don’t want to simply give up because one unexpected thing came up to change our plans! Yes, I have to go back to England! Yes, I may end up staying there! But you’re my friend, Loki, and something more than just a friend, I’d like to think! Whatever I have to do to preserve that, I want to try! If that means going to England just long enough to conduct my business and then returning in time to accompany you to Düsseldorf, fine! I’ll put off my permanent return for a few years. I’ll stay on the continent with you. We can finish our opera and travel while we decide what needs to happen in the future. Mr. Jarvis can look after my affairs in England for... Where are you going?” he asked as Loki abruptly stood.

“Out,” was all Loki said.

“You’d rather leave than talk this through like reasonable people?”

“It’s not reasonable,” Loki retorted as he grabbed his cloak. “No part of this discussion is reasonable. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He reached for his hat, but Tony grabbed his wrist. “So you’d rather run away?”

“Let go of my wrist, Tony.”

“No. I want to know why you’re so upset. Why are you acting like this?”

“Let go of my wrist!” He snapped his arm back but couldn’t break Tony’s grip.

“No! I don’t want you running away! What are you so afraid of?!”

“I’m not afraid! Let go!”

“Then why won’t you give me a chance?!”

For a moment, Loki stopped struggling. For one moment, he stood still with his pale blue eyes meeting Tony’s, full of hidden hints of all those thoughts he never expressed and all those desire he kept so effectively locked away. Just for one moment. Then he looked to the side, over at the wall once again, and twisted his arm around in a way Tony couldn’t keep hold. “I did give you a chance,” he said. “And you see where it’s left me, because now you’re leaving.”

“But I want you to come with me!” Tony insisted.

Loki only repeated his same damned words from before. “I can’t.”

He walked out into the mud-covered street with one quick backwards glance. Tony, then left alone with the letter from Mr. Jarvis and nothing else, swore loudly and slammed the door. Unreasonable. That was the only word to describe Loki’s behavior. Unreasonable and maybe erratic. Childish? Perhaps. What prejudices or preconceived notions did he have that he was so against going to London? That people would guess at the nature of their relationship? Or that Tony, once there, would be distracted by greater matters and forget him? Move on to more important pursuits? That their friendship would, as Loki said, fall to pieces, and Loki would be left in London with nothing?

Then why didn’t the damned fool just say so?!

Tony grabbed all the pages of the letter from the little table next to Loki’s chair and folded them back together too harshly before stuffing them down the front of his coat. By God, why did everything have to be so complicated?! Why couldn’t he and Loki just continue doing what they had been doing? Either in London or... wherever Loki wanted to go, provided he ever gave a constructive opinion. Why did Loki have to be so pessimistically contrary? Why couldn’t he just try?

That was an awful lot of whys without answers, and without hope of having answers as long as Loki stayed so stubborn and silent. Which was to say, for ever.

Loki did not return for supper. And that night, for the first time since Thor and Jane left, Tony went to sleep in his own bed in the attic. It felt so odd, shivering alone under the covers after nearly five months of warm companionship. Why he even bothered to lie down was a mystery. There was no hope of sleep. His mind felt wide awake, buzzing with questions and arguments and worries over where exactly Loki had gone, whether or not Loki was safe, and when he would come home. After what felt like two hours of rolling over and rearranging the blankets and trying to find comfort in every possible position, Tony was about to give up and go back downstairs to read by the fire.

Then he heard the front door open, and swing shut, and feet on the floor. Then a voice called up the stairs.

“Loki?”

The name was followed by the fussing wail of an infant, and another, female voice: “Not so loud! Now see what you’ve done!”

ooo

To welcome Thor and Jane and the baby home in the middle of the cold and rainy night, Tony did the one thing he knew how to do. He made mulled wine.

Thor looked tired and gray, with uncombed hair and a stain down the front of his coat. Jane’s face was thinner than Tony remembered, and her fashionable ringlets had been replaced by a plain knot at the back of her head, tucked under a linen cap. Both sat at the table wearing haggard expressions while baby Brilliana (Baby Bee, as Jane affectionately called her) slept in a bundle on Thor’s lap. They gladly accepted the hot wine, downed it quickly, and took another serving each.

“So,” Tony said, trying to make conversation and fill the heavy silence. “How was the ship?”

“Terrible,” said Thor, which came as no surprise given his state. “Waters were rough, and we sailed through three separate storms. We were supposed to land two days ago. Bee was sick the whole way and all of us could hardly sleep for the waves tossing the ship. I wish we could have waited another month or two in London, but we thought it prudent to return home as soon as possible before war stranded us.”

“You mean there is to be a war?” Tony asked.

“I don’t know. There’s talk, of course. At the moment I believe it to be nothing more than talk, but that can change overnight. To be safe, we came home. Now where is Loki? It’s nearly one in the morning.”

“We, ah... had a bit of an argument,” said Tony. “He left before supper and didn’t tell me where he was going or when he’d be back.”

“Over what?”

“I... told him I would be leaving Amsterdam.”

“Leaving?” said Jane. “Why?”

Tony looked from one set of eyes to the other, then down at his wine. “I received a letter yesterday informing me that my father has died. I need to return home to settle some matters of his estate.”

“Oh, Tony, I’m so sorry,” Jane said, reaching out to touch his hand.

“Yes, so, I’m afraid I must soon take my leave. Loki is upset, of course, that I won’t stay to finish our opera, and we exchanged some hard words.”

“Well that’s rather unreasonable of him,” Jane muttered. “Considering your father died...”

Tony nodded at her. “Exactly what I thought. Anyhow. I plan on going to the port tomorrow to see if I can find passage on a ship leaving within the next few weeks.”

“Is it easier to sail to Rome than travel overland?” Thor asked.

Oh. Right. Rome. After spending so long with only Loki and letting his Italian façade fall, Tony would have to be careful not to slip and say the wrong thing around Thor and Jane. “...Er, yes. One doesn’t want to cross the Alps this time of year. Very dangerous. But Loki knows a man who knows a merchant from Civitavecchia, so I was hoping there may be a ship running that route.”

“I will ask my contacts tomorrow,” Thor said, and punctuated his statement with a stalwart nod.

“That’s very kind,” said Tony, “but I’m sure you are weary and would like to rest a while. There is no rush. I will go tomorrow, and if I cannot find anything on my own, I will graciously accept your help.”

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely.” There was no doubt in Tony’s mind about how little he needed Thor’s help in finding an unwanted ship to Civitavecchia. “Now should I prepare more wine?”

Yawning, Jane shook her head. “No, thank you, Tony. I believe it’s time to sleep. Do you have a housekeeper here to help me make up our bed?”

“Sorry, no. Mrs. Meijer only comes in the morning and leaves before dinner. She doesn’t stay with us.” It was only then that Tony noticed something he hadn’t thought of before. “Where’s Louisa?”

Thor and Jane exchanged a pointed look. “She fell pregnant by some ignorant baker’s son and stayed in London to marry him,” said Jane. “Of course she did not think to tell us this until the day before we left, leaving us no time to find another girl willing to come back to Amsterdam. Trying to look after Baby Bee on the voyage without her while keeping track of all our belongings and watching out for thieves was an experience I never wish to repeat.”

Well there was nothing Tony could do about that. And no way to produce a housekeeper in the middle of the night to make up Jane’s bed while Jane herself looked tired enough to fall over unconscious on the spot. “How about this,” he said. “Loki’s bed is prepared. You sleep there. If Loki comes home, he can have my bed, and I will make do with some cushions on the floor.”

“You don’t think Loki will mind?” asked Thor.

Did Tony care if Loki minded? “Not at all. He will be as glad to see you as I am. We’ve been wondering about your plans to return ever since we heard of King Charles’ death. Go up to Loki’s room for tonight, and in the morning Mrs. Meijer can help you resettle.”

That was good enough for Thor and Jane. They dragged themselves and Baby Bee up the stairs with little more to say and fell gratefully into Loki’s bed. Tony, as a warning to Loki should he come home and find himself evicted, put Thor and Jane’s shoes outside the bedroom door before climbing the stairs and crawling back into his own bed.

He was woken some time later by the squeak of a door hinge and soft footsteps coming up the stairs. Surely it wasn’t Thor, and absolutely not Jane... A shadowed figure approached through the darkness, kneeling down at the bedside with a whiff of evergreen, clove, and coffee.

“Tony?” Loki whispered.

“I’m awake.”

Without another word, Loki pulled off his outer clothes and slid into bed. Arm around Tony’s back. Head sharing Tony’s pillow. And as much as Tony wanted to say something snappish and demand a few answers, he couldn’t in his right mind choose another fight when offered the alternative of the inviting pull of Loki’s body.

“So... you saw the shoes?”

“What shoes?” Loki whispered.

“Thor and Jane. They arrived home around half past midnight and are sleeping in your bed because theirs isn’t made up. I left their shoes outside your bedroom door to warn you.”

“Oh... No. I didn’t even look. I came right up here.”

Of all the things Loki could have said, that was the one that made the remainder of Tony’s anger melt away. “You didn’t want to be sleep alone?”

“No. Tony, I... I’m sorry,” he said. The rarest of all phrases from Loki.

“It’s fine,” Tony replied. His kiss missed Loki’s mouth in the dark, but landed on Loki’s chin.

“It’s not fine. But I don’t want to talk about it any more, so...”

“So sleep and see what happens tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

Smiling, Tony tightened his hold on Loki’s waist. “Do you think we should worry about Thor and Jane finding us?”

“No. If they stole my bed, it’s to be expected I would share yours.”

Good enough for Tony. With the return to England looming on the horizon, he would gladly take every last scrap of time with Loki he could get.

Chapter Text

“You should keep the wig,” Tony said as he caught Loki prodding one of the curls. “And the blue suit. You’ll need them if Peter Vandepol ever comes back to finish your portrait.”

“Vandepol,” Loki snorted. “I did contact to him recently. Sent a messenger. I suppose I frightened him into thinking I was some mad political activist that day and he’s been afraid to return. He promised he would come by next week. But won’t you need these?”

Tony grinned. “Those old things? Second hand clothing? No, thank you. The minute I am back on English soil, I shall buy all the finest and most preposterous new fashions London has to offer. Silk velvet and miles of ribbon and the most delicate lace and shoes that have diamonds in the buckles. With fourteen thousand pounds to my name, I should be allowed to spend some of it frivolously, don’t you think?”

“So an even bigger wig?”

“The biggest. Absolutely enormous. Piled up really high in the front so everyone knows how important I am. And why stop at one? I could have black and brown and golden and auburn, and change my hair to suit my mood. Do you think I would look good with red hair?”

“Not at all.”

“Oh, what do you know? You’re lucky I’m leaving that blue suit so you’ll at least have one nice thing to wear when you stand in the presence of that Grand Duchess.”

As for his other three suits, Tony decided, they needed to be washed somewhat before he left. All had little spots and stains. Mrs. Meijer could take care of that. And his shirts and stockings, so he could arrive with fresh clothing to wear when he met Mr. Jarvis to sign off the estate papers. He put all the laundry items to be boiled in one pile, and the suits to be spot-washed in another. Then there was just the task of collecting all the rest of his things together. A very few things, but they had managed to scatter themselves throughout the attic nonetheless. His gloves, his rapier, his dagger, his snuff box, the rosary from Jeanette, and all the endless, impossible-to-contain leaves of music...

“We should perform this,” he said, sifting through the pages of the opera, which stood stacked near the foot of his bed.. “We’ve put so much work into it...”

“But it’s not completed,” Loki countered. “We have, what, perhaps two thirds of an opera? If that?”

That was, alas, true. However... “Two thirds of an opera is more than enough for a cantata. With a bit of rearranging...”

“Tony...”

“What? I do honestly think we should perform this. We have some excellent music that would work just fine as a-”

“Tony, your ship leaves in three days,” Loki interrupted. “We have no time to rearrange this mess into a cantata, let alone find musicians to perform it! I can’t sing a duet or a chorus by myself. You can’t play the viol and harpsichord and flute and whatever else you’ve put in there all at the same time.”

“But everything we’ve done...”

It felt like such a waste. Such a tragic waste, abandoning all this when it was so close to completion and they had worked so hard and created so much. All the songs, every individual melody and harmony... How many hours and days and weeks and months of effort had gone into these pages? All the crossed-out mistakes that transformed into precise notes on a fine copy. All of his instrumentation set to Loki’s lyrics. In English, because that was just how things turned out. Originally a placeholder, but it stuck.

And all the associated memories. Transitions discussed while huddled together on snowy mornings. Orchestration determined by weak candlelight while the blizzard wind howled over the roof. Writing this part while Loki’s hand traced patterns up and down his back, or that passage following an afternoon spent in bed. The sight of Loki’s elegant hands holding a pen, the sound of Loki’s voice softly singing to work out a melody, the touch of Loki’s hand brushing his as they sifted through loose pages in a mess on the floor.

All of that was over. All those perfect, simple moments that had burned themselves into his memory. All done. If he left for England now, he would never have them again.

A lump crept up into his throat, and heat prickled the corners of his eyes. He had to lift a hand to cover his face.

“Tony?” Loki asked.

“Nothing,” he quickly replied. “It’s fine. I’m fine. You should, um.” He forced a cough, trying to clear his throat and chase away the heavy pain growing steadily in his chest. “You should finish this. You’re better than I am.”

“Not at the harmonies and arrangement. You’re far better at that.”

“No, but the melodies are all yours,” Tony insisted. “You finish it. Anyone can add the accompaniment. Jane can help you. Finish it, and when I, um... When I come back...”

“I thought we decided-”

When I come back. I’m coming back. This is just a brief detour. Nothing more. I’m coming back, Loki, and when I do...” God, why did his voice have to waver so much? Pinched and turned weak by the ache inside that filled his airway and made it impossible to breathe... He squeezed his eyelids shut against their stinging fire.

Without any unnecessary words of explanation, Loki’s arms wrapped around his middle from behind, and he felt Loki’s chin rest on his shoulder. Loki’s soft breath against his ear.

(How could these next few days be the last time he felt Loki’s breath on his skin? Or Loki’s hair tickling his neck? Or Loki’s arms around his waist, or Loki’s body pressed up against his... That seemed impossible. He’d feel that all again. He had to. He would come back. He would...)

His jaw clenched so tight it made his teeth hurt, and the ache in his chest swelled like gnawing hunger.

“I’m coming back,” he said through trembling lips. “I’ll find you and we’ll, um, we’ll go to Düsseldorf. Or maybe you’ll already be there. I can find you there. Then we’ll go to Hanover. And Brunswick. And... and Brandenburg. Then Bohemia. Austria. End up in Mantua. And our opera will be finished and, um, and we’ll stay there a while and be very rich because everyone will want to hear your music...”

(He would never hear Loki sing again. Never hear Loki’s voice again.)

“I’m sure we will,” Loki murmured against his ear.

“I’m coming back, Loki.”

“If you wish.”

“I am.”

“I know.”

(They could lie to themselves, couldn’t they, to make this easier? Except it didn’t. It didn’t make anything easier. The lump in Tony’s throat still squeezed his breath, and the stone weight growing inside made him sick to his stomach.)

Gently, Loki took the pages of music from his hand and led him over to the bed. Tony sat, and Loki brushed his eyes closed with soft fingertips. (The salt was blurring his vision anyway.) One kiss on his forehead. One kiss on one cheek. One kiss on the other cheek. And one on his lips, even though he still clenched his jaw to keep everything from shaking. Loki’s hands slid his coat from his shoulders, and unbuttoned his waistcoat, and loosened his shirt and his breeches. He shed all his clothes with Loki as a guide, and lay back on the bed. Covers cool against his burning skin.

“Come to London with me,” he whispered as Loki’s hands skimmed over his chest. “Please Loki, just... It could work. You don’t know it won’t. Come to London. Please come to London. I need you to... I need...” He gulped in his breath as he tried to stop shaking. “I need you.”

Loki answered with a kiss. Silent but certain. Lips on Tony’s mouth, with a taste of his tongue and the possessive scratch of teeth. The kind of kiss somebody would want to remember...

And Tony fell apart in his arms.

ooo

Jane, holding Baby Bee, was the last person Tony saw in the house on the morning of March twenty-fourth. He had given Loki specific instructions not to come downstairs. He couldn’t bear it. He had stayed the night in Loki’s bed, rising early enough to steal away and avoid being seen, and that was what he wanted to remember. Loki, sleeping. Loki, peaceful and beautiful in the bedroom twilight. Loki, who only sighed but did not wake when Tony pressed one final kiss to the ridge where his cheek met his ear. That Loki. Not any distant, subdued Loki, trying too hard to be formal and proper in the face of one last goodbye, hardening himself against emotion. That wasn’t his Loki. His Loki remained in bed. And always would.

“I would ask one last favor of you,” Jane said as they stood at the door. She also would stay behind rather than come to the port, and Thor with her. So as not to inconvenience them, Tony insisted. (So they would not see him prepare to board an English ship...)

He had made Loki promise never to tell her the truth. It would be an unnecessary cruelty, and he would rather be remembered fondly in a lie.

“If it is within my power to do, I will do it,” Tony told her.

She handed him a leather folio. “These are some of my compositions. I’ve been working on them since shortly after you started teaching me counterpoint and...” Color rose to her face as she fidgeted with Bee’s swaddling. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t bring myself to show you before because I was so embarrassed – what if I did something completely wrong and foolish? – but I’ve been working on them for months and...”

“Jane, I’m sure they’re fine. And I wish I could look over them for you, but I do not have the time.” Already, his belongings were loaded on the barge to row down the canal. “I’m so sorry.”

“Not look over,” she said. “I want you to take them. And if you can, I want you to publish them.”

He blinked at her in surprise. “Publish?”

“I tried. I tried to publish them on my own. In London. I went to three different houses right before Bee was born and none of them would so much as speak to me. Then I sent Thor, but once they learned the music was mine and not his, they rejected it. Without even looking! So Tony, I want you to take them. I want you to publish them in Rome. Under your name. They’ll take you seriously. I don’t care if my name isn’t on the work. I just want it to be seen. I want it to be played. By anyone. By some little girl in Rome learning to play the virginal.”

Shaking his head, Tony handed the folio back. “I can’t do that, Jane.”

“Yes you can! You can! I want you to! The songs are good, I promise! Even the neighbors in London thought so!”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Tony. “You have a musical gift. But that’s not why I can’t do this. I can’t take these because it would be unfair. Unfair to me, giving me credit for something I didn’t do, and unfair to you, to be overlooked and forgotten. What if these songs of yours become wildly popular? And everyone thinks they’re mine? And I’m remembered a hundred years from now for your work?”

“I don’t think-”

“No, but here’s what you should do instead. You should have the credit for your own compositions. So give yourself a male name. Call yourself John. Send your music to a German publisher, so they can contact you only through letters. They will be forced to judge you on your skill alone. And I think you will succeed.”

Reluctantly, she nodded, and set the folio down on the little table by the door. “You’re right,” she said. “I should try...”

“You owe it to yourself.” Smiling, Tony leaned in to kiss Baby Bee on the forehead, and then Jane’s hand. “I hope to see a grand concerto by Mr. John Asgersen make its way to Rome one day. Good bye, Jane. Give my regards to Thor.”

“I will. Good bye, Tony.”

The front door swung shut for one last time. A final barrier between Tony and the Asgersen house. One more little thing he would never see again. With that final gesture, the house had suddenly become nothing more than a memory.

He walked down to the canal steps feeling so heavy it would be a wonder if the barge didn’t sink, but somehow it stayed afloat. Somehow the bargemen poled their way down to the bay, with cold blue water sloshing in their wake. Tony stared at the banks as they glided along. The houses. The bridges. The market square. All around, life went on. All these things would continue in his absence, though they became only ghosts in his mind. Children shrieked and played on the banks, parents shouted, dogs barked, and the sun rose above the rooftops to shine brightly down on Amsterdam. All for the last time.

Tony kept his hat pulled down and a scarf wrapped over his face as he queued at the dock for the ferry boat for passengers out to the large English ship anchored beyond the shifting sand dunes at the mouth of the bay. Not many passengers. Two dozen at the most. Even with all their belongings they fit easily into the boat. Once aboard the English ship they spread out, blending in amongst the crew or going below to mark their claim on the best berth space. Tony hardly cared. He could sleep up on deck for all it mattered to him. Or not sleep at all. Maybe he could spend the entire voyage sitting where he was, already numb enough to the world to bother noticing the wind coming up from the water. He kept his back against a wall and his clothing pack on one side and his viol case on the other. Music folio in his lap.

The music folio... Heavy and thick with wasted promise.

Heavier and thicker than it should have been.

His stomach twisted with a sudden wrench of panic as he pulled at the ties holding it shut. Heavier and thicker could mean only one thing. The opera. He had wanted to leave the opera with Loki to finish. It would be Loki’s opera. Loki’s melodies. Loki’s lyrics. But... Pulling back the front cover, he saw the contents of the folio. And what Loki had done.

All the fine copies of the songs. All of them, in a stack an inch thick. There they were. In Tony’s possession. Loki had put them in with the rest of his music. The opera, and one folded sheet of paper sitting right on top.

Tony slowly unfolded it, almost dreading what he might see and what Loki might have sent. He couldn’t... he just couldn’t face...

At the top of the page, it said simply ‘Cat Song’. The song Tony had started but never finished. The song that needed words Loki could never quite finalize, because they could never decide what the music needed to say. Now, on that page, the lyrics were laid out in six complete verses.

Should not the moon be brightly shining?
Should not the sun be earlier gone?
For on this night I seek my lover
As I before on many nights have done.

Now as I stand by my true love’s window
I choose a song most carefully
And sing out boldly, clearly sweetly
To call her up and from her bed to me.

“Be still,” she says, “my dearest love!
Be still, be still: raise not your song!
Else you’ll wake father, else you’ll wake mother!
And that for us I fear is not well done.”

What care I for father, what care I for mother?
Before your window I must stay!
I wish to see my heart’s true love
Before I must sail far away.

There stand we two so close together
Where lips so sweet exchange their kiss.
The watchman blows his horn to wake the dawn.
Farewell, farewell, why must we part like this?

Parting, parting, sorrowed parting,
Parting gives my wretched heart such pain!
That I must shun my one true love,
Never to feel joy again.

At the bottom of the page was a signature in plain black ink. Loki Lind.

Tony refolded the page. Lifted it to his face. Felt the smoothness of the paper against his lips and breathed in its scent. Evergreen and cloves. And lavender.

And on the deck of the ship, as the Dutch coastline slowly shrunk on the horizon, Tony Stark broke down and wept into his hands.

Chapter Text

“Any letters this morning, Mrs. Potts?”

The clinking of the breakfast tray coming up the stairs always preceded the housekeeper’s arrival by a good twenty seconds, giving Tony enough time to leisurely turn in his chair and pose in a very pitiable way with one arm draped over the back and his head lolling to the side.   As if he had been waiting for hours.  As if he were about to starve to death.

Coming through the office door, Mrs. Potts replied with her usual pinched frown of exasperation before setting the tray down on Tony’s desk.  “Two letters,” she said.  “Mr. Jarvis has already read them and summarized.  The first is from your friend Mr. Blow, inviting you to Westminster Sunday next as he has something special planned.”

“Send a reply with my acceptance.”

“The second is from Mr. Daniel Purcell, with yet another inquiry as to when you might return his late brother’s manuscript.”

“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” said Tony.

“There is an unbound music book is sitting in your library downstairs-”

“Absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.”

“-in a blue leather folio with the name ‘H. Purcell’ embossed on the front.”

“No idea at all.”

 “I’ll have Mr. Jarvis package it up for delivery this afternoon.”

“No, I need it!” Tony insisted.  “I’ve not finished my review!”

Mrs. Potts just raised her eyebrow in that way she had, which never failed to effectively shut Tony up.  “Sir.  The folio has been sitting on a shelf for the past three years.  I have dusted it every week and it never moves.  I think you are quite finished with it.”

“Fine, fine,” said Tony, waving her away.  “Send it back.  Anything else?”

“Mr. Jarvis received a pamphlet that may be of interest to you.  A young virtuoso soprano will be singing at The Duke’s Playhouse tonight in her London debut.  A Danish girl: only fourteen, but the pamphlet says she delighted Princess Anne with her angelic voice.”

Tony cracked open one of his soft-cooked eggs.  “Hm.  Have I anything better on this evening?”

“No, sir.”

“No reply from Miss Dashney?”

Mrs. Potts did not answer, prompting Tony to look up at her.

“Mrs. Potts?”

“Nothing from Miss Dashney,” Mrs. Potts answered stiffly, nursing a sour expression.

“Why do you object to her so much?”

“You know she is only after your money.”

“Well I don’t intend to marry her.”

“I object to that as well.  Sir, if you want my opinion-”

“I do not.”

As usual , Mrs. Potts did not care what he wanted, and provided her opinion just the same.  “It’s past time you found a nice lady to marry.  You’re nearly forty.”

“I’m barely thirty-nine.  Just thirty-nine.  Thirty-nine last month.”

“And at thirty-nine you should be married with several children.”

Nonsense.  Tony picked up a little silver spoon and began scooping egg onto his bread.  “Mrs. Potts, I employ you for your capable work ethic, not your scolding tongue.  Now let me eat my breakfast in peace.  Go dust Mr. Purcell’s manuscript again.”

“If you wish,” Mrs. Potts sighed.  “Though do know that both Mr. Jarvis and I agree you should forget Miss Dashney and go see Brilliana Lind tonight.”

A sudden tremor shot through Tony’s hand, and the egg spoon clattered down onto his place.  He snapped his head up to look at Mrs. Potts.  “What?  What did you say?”

“Brilliana Lind,” Mrs. Potts repeated.  “The Danish soprano.  That’s her name.  Unusual, but...”

Unusual, but so terribly familiar.  Brilliana.  Brilliana Lind.  Two names he had not heard in fourteen years.  Could it possibly be...?  “Let me see that pamphlet.”

Her look of surprise shifted to a look of concern as he snatched it from her hand.  “Lord Stark, are you alright?  Your face has gone white!”

“I’m fine,” said Tony.  “Perfectly fine.  It’s just this name...”  His eyes scoured the paper for any useful details, but came up short.  The name of the theater, the time and date, a long-winded paragraph describing Brilliana’s astonishing voice at such a tender age, and a note that she would be singing works by Mr. John Foster.  An engraved portrait decorated the top of the page, but it was too small and vague to give any real idea of what she looked like apart from having lots of elaborately curled hair.

“Have you heard of this girl?”

“No.  Maybe.  I’ve heard of...”  He couldn’t say the name.  “Someone named Lind.  A famous singer, a long time ago.  Danish.  He had a niece named Brilliana Asgersen.”  Baby Bee.  “Born in 1685.  She would be fourteen now.”

“Then I’m sure they must be connected,” said Mrs. Potts.  “How many Danish singers named Lind are there in the world?  And how many fourteen-year-old girls named Brilliana?”

“Not many, I’m sure...” Tony murmured.  He set the paper down on his desk, smoothing his hand over the folded crease.  The engraving of Brilliana Lind smiled gently up at him.  And something old, something hidden away and locked up and almost forgotten, began to rekindle deep inside.  “Mrs. Potts,” he said.  “Inform Mr. Jarvis that I will need a coach for tonight.  I’ll be going to Duke’s.”

ooo

Tony’s hand shook on the carriage door as he stepped out into the street, biting down on his tongue to keep his teeth from chattering in time with his racing heartbeat.  Why in God’s name was he so nervous?  He wasn’t a stupid young boy any more.  He was a very important and powerful man, and yet he stood at the back door to the theater forcing himself to take deep breaths in and out in a futile effort to regain some sense of calm.  With the head of his cane, he rapped at the door.  And then stood back, slowly exhaling, and tried not to let himself get too carried away with wild postulations of what might be inside.  The only thing worse than this terror he felt would be the crushing disappointment of unfounded fears.

The door opened just enough for a spotty teenage boy with unwashed hair to peek out. “No backstage visitors before the show tonight.  Manager’s orders.”

No common visitors, maybe.  “Tell Mr. Ashton that the Viscount Stark is here.”

“Mr. Ashton said-”

“Do you know who I am?”

The spotty boy looked Tony over from head to toe.  “...Viscount Stark?”

“Exactly.  And not only that, I am also a close friend of Mr. Ashton’s.  Now be a good lad and tell him I’m here, will you?”

The boy shut the door, forcing Tony to wait out in the alley, but honestly it was for the best.  The annoyance of being treated rudely by a spotty boy did wonders for his nerves.  Irritation crowded out anxiety rather nicely.

Mr. Ashton appeared at the door only a few minutes later to usher Tony inside with profuse apologies.  “So sorry about Jacky.  Idiot boy should have known better.  I hope you weren’t left waiting long?”

“No, I’m fine,” said Tony.  “Had I been thinking-” which he clearly hadn’t been due to certain reasons; “-I would have sent a message announcing my intention to come tonight.”

“Had I known you were over your aversion to vocal performances, I would have invited you personally.  But you’re here now and I’m glad to see you.  I’ll find you a good seat in one of the boxes.”

Tony clapped the man’s shoulder.  “Thank you.  Now I have a small favor to ask, if it is not too much trouble.”

“I’m sure I can accommodate you,” Mr. Ashton told him.

“This Brilliana Lind.  If at all possible, I should like to speak with her before the performance.  Is she available?”

“Yes, she’s just upstairs in the rehearsal room taking a bit of refreshment.  You know the way.  I would introduce you but...”  He made a face as somebody started shouting from the aisles.  “Duties.”

“Thank you.  And this may seem like an odd question, but would you happen to know who she is travelling with?  Her parents?  A teacher?”  He shouldn’t even dare to hope...

“Her teacher.  Who is, I believe, her uncle.  I heard he used to be a singer himself in his youth, but now barely says a word. A rather cold and haughty man.  You can’t miss him: all dressed in black, looks like a raven.  No-one here much cares for him, but at least Brilliana herself is a darling.  Lovely girl. Now let me go knock some heads together.  Once you’ve seen Brilliana, ask Cathy at the front to show you to your seat.  Enjoy the show!”

“Thank you,” Tony managed to mumble, though his head was reeling and he couldn’t even be sure exactly what Mr. Ashton had said.  ‘Her uncle’. Everything after that had sounded tinny and distant. ‘Her uncle’... Just those two words brought all the nerves scrambling back into his body.

Loki. In London. Just upstairs. After so many years.

What on Earth would he say?

He started up the stairs with that question pulsing in his mind. Something. He needed something to say: something better than the inevitable flustered idiocy he knew would tumble out of his mouth if he didn’t think this through. Good evening, Loki. I learned you were in London. No, that sounded dull and disingenuous. Loki, I’ve waited fourteen agonizing years without any hope of seeing you again, and now that you are here I think I will legitimately die if I do not kiss you within the next two minutes. And that was too fanatic. Loki I... What? He had to think.

He turned the corner at the top of the stairs to head to the rehearsal room, and immediately bumped into somebody’s back. “Sorry.”

“Oh. Are you here with Brilliana’s grapes?” the man asked.

The second he heard it, Tony knew that voice. Even after all this time. It wasn’t the sort of thing he would ever forget. Low and rich and smooth as satin. The man in the black suit turned around, though Tony already knew whose face he would see.

Those eyes were the same. Exactly as Tony remembered. The pale blue-gray of a winter sky. Now framed by fine lines that creased the corners, though in every way that mattered, no different at all. High-boned cheeks had been made sharper by the hollowing effect of time and black hair was now streaked with pewter gray. But everything Tony saw still looked, undeniably, like Loki. His Loki. His beautiful, perfect Loki.

“Loki,” he heard himself say without even thinking to voice the name.

Loki’s mouth fell open with a soundless gasp. Frozen for that moment, all either of them seemed able to do was stare, until Loki shook off the spell with a twitch of his shoulders and managed to close his mouth. And open it again. And close it, scrambling for words.

That he looked every bit as shocked and paralyzed by nerves as Tony felt made everything a little less terrifying.

“Antony Stark,” Loki eventually forced out.

“Actually it’s Lord Stark now,” Tony replied, figuring that if he couldn’t say something profound or meaningful, he might as well say something flippant to ease their way into conversation.

It seemed to work; Loki nodded, regaining his usual elegant composure, and took a step back. “Lord Stark,” he repeated. “You’ve certainly done well for yourself.”

“I have a lot of money now,” Tony agreed. “It’s glorious.”

“Do tell.”

“Well.” Taking off his hat so he had something to hide the obsessive clenching and unclenching of his hands, Tony began the story. “When I returned to London I settled into my inheritance well enough, as you can imagine one might do when one has fourteen thousand pounds. And all was well for some years, until this nasty business arose with my uncle Edward declaring as a Jacobite. That naturally cast suspicion on me, and I was arrested, and in order to prove my loyalty to King William I had to give him a disgusting sum of money that made me very sick at the time, and swear my allegiance. Which I did. Because it was either that or die. I don’t care enough about politics to die over something as trivial as who is the king of England. But after my uncle Edward was executed, the king rewarded me for my loyalty, such as it was, by making me Viscount Stark and awarding me all the Stark family land. And the best part is, it’s an Irish peerage, so there’s no danger of being called to parliament. I have a title with no responsibilities other than going to Ireland once a year to ensure my land is well managed, and everyone must call me Lord Stark. Oh, and I’m Anglican now. That was one of the King’s terms.”

“Oh you are?” Loki asked.

“Yes. I thought you might appreciate that.”

“Anglicans are the Catholics of the Protestant world.”

“I have no idea what that means, and nor do I care to,” said Tony. “But tell me now how you have been. Did you leave Amsterdam?”

Loki nodded. “I did. In the spring after you left, I did go on to Brandenburg, but stayed there. For six years. I only returned to Amsterdam after receiving a letter from Thor stating that Jane was very ill.”

At that bit of news, Tony felt his heart sink. He had wondered what might have happened to leave Brilliana in Loki’s care, and if some illness befell Jane... “Is she...?”

“She died before I made it back. A cancer, Thor said. Very quick. At Bee’s sixth birthday she was healthy and happy, and two months later she had wasted away and was too weak to even eat. After that, Thor could not bear to stay in the house without her, and eventually, he decided he could not even bear to stay in Amsterdam. We all left, he and Bee and I, and went to Copenhagen.   Just in time to watch our mother succumb to nearly an identical fate just before Christmas. And our father had died the previous year. All that loss hit Thor hard.”

“Where is he now?” Tony asked, dreading the answer.

The look of disapproval on Loki’s face quickly reassured him that nothing too awful had happened. “He wanted to leave everything behind. Including civilization. The last I heard, he had established himself as a fur trader out of a place called Fort Severn in Rupert’s Land with the Hudson’s Bay Company. But he couldn’t subject Bee to that hard life, so she stayed behind with me in Copenhagen. Jane had been encouraging her to sing and giving her voice lessons since she was three. I picked up where Jane left off and... Here we are.”

“Here we are,” Tony echoed.

“How did you find us?”

The pamphlet from that morning sat folded in Tony’s pocket. He pulled it out and handed it to Loki. “As my housekeeper so aptly pointed out, how many Danish singers named Lind are there in the world? And how many fourteen-year-old girls named Brilliana? If your intention was to come to London and not immediately attract my attention, I’m afraid you’ve failed.”

“So you did see it,” Loki murmured, looking over the pamphlet.

A smile began to crack across Tony’s face. “You were hoping I would.”

Loki, being that same old Loki he had always and would always be, raised one imperious eyebrow. “You think I dragged my niece, who is like a daughter to me, all the way from Denmark to England on the off chance you might still be in London and happen to pick up a pamphlet on the street?”

“I didn’t pick it up in the street,” said Tony. “It was placed among my morning letters. And come to think of it, that page is in very clean, very new condition, with one single crease down the middle. Almost as if it had been placed in an envelope and delivered to my household. To my steward. Mr. Edwin Jarvis. Perhaps you remember that name?”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean to imply by all that,” Loki returned, glancing off down the hallway. “You always did come to the most ludicrous conclusions. But why don’t I take you to see Brilliana? I’m sure she’s much changed since you last saw her.”

“Considering I last saw her when she was two months old...”

Loki led the way. “Come. And tell me: have you written any good music lately?”

As much as it pained him to admit it, Tony shook his head. “Alas, no. I found I lost my passion for it upon returning to England. I wrote a few little things here and there, but...” After the unfinished opera, most days he could not even bring himself to look at a sheet of blank staves. It reminded him too acutely of things he had lost. “I find myself more in the role of patron these days. You?”

“I’ve not performed since I left Brandenburg. These days I tutor and advise Brilliana.” He took a deep breath as they walked, inhaling in either courage or eloquence or something else Tony could not see. “Why did you never write me?” he whispered after a moment.

“Why did you never write me?” Tony asked.

Loki countered with a sharp look, forcing Tony to answer first.

“I tried,” he said. “God, Loki, I tried so many times. I don’t even know how many pages I wasted trying to think of what to write to you or how to say anything I wanted to say. But it always came out wrong. At first I couldn’t stand the thought of sending you a letter I did not consider worthy, and then I couldn’t stand the thought of sending you anything at all because... What if you didn’t reply? Or worse, what if you did, and we kept torturing ourselves with me in London and you wherever you were on the continent. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reopen those wounds. I thought the best thing to do would be to forget you and let them heal. Move on with my life. Sometimes I thought that if you wrote me I might write back, but...”

“Every letter would be like having to leave each other all over again,” Loki quietly finished.

“Every word,” Tony agreed.

“Death by a thousand cuts.”

“Paper cuts?”

Loki looked down at him with a full-on, incredulous glare. “Why do you always ruin everything by saying something stupid?”

“I’m... cursed?” Tony guessed.

“No, I think I’m the one who’s cursed...” Loki muttered as he pushed open the rehearsal room door. “Never mind. Come inside. Allow you to introduce you to my niece, Miss Brilliana Asgersen, known on the stage as Brilliana Lind. Brilliana, this is an old friend of mine: Mr. Antony Stark. Oh, I’m sorry,” he corrected himself with a smirk. “Lord Antony Stark.”

“And don’t forget it,” Tony said to him before stepping forward to kiss Brilliana’s hand. “Miss Asgersen. How pleasant to meet you.”

She looked so much like Jane. Those were Jane’s wide brown eyes, and that was Jane’s smile. That gown might have been something Jane would choose to wear, and she had paired it with a delicate chain holding Jane’s cross pendant. The one with the inlaid pearls. She even styled her hair like Jane, though her ringlets were dark gold instead of rich brown. That, she had taken from her father. And some of her height as well. When she stood from her cushioned chaise to curtsey, Tony could see she was already taller at fourteen than her mother ever had been.

“How lovely it is to meet you too, Lord Stark,” she said.  “Are you an acquaintance of Uncle Loki’s?”

“Yes.  Though it’s been years.  Actually, I knew your parents as well.  I used to be your mother’s music teacher, before you were born.”

“Is that so?  I thought all her teachers were Italian.”

“I used to be Italian,” said Tony, which made Loki snort in the background.  Brilliana, not understanding the joke, just held her pretty smile.  “But where are you staying in London?” he asked.  “I hope you have good lodgings.”

She nodded. “Yes, with family on my mother’s side: my Grandmother Foster.”

“Foster?” Tony asked, trying to think of where he had recently heard that name.  It came an instant later.  “The composer of tonight’s music.  John Foster.  Is he...?”

Everything clicked into place as soon as he had spoken the words.  John Foster.  John.  What exact advice had he given Jane all those years ago before leaving Amsterdam?

“Jane took your advice,” said Loki as he stepped forward to stand at Tony’s side.  “Sent all her music to a publisher in Hamburg, as John Foster.  She enjoyed a small but respectable success mainly writing books of study exercises and little performance pieces for the virginal.  Mostly for beginners and those who wanted to play recreationally at home, but a few more advanced collections as well.”

“But I’ll be performing her vocal compositions tonight,” Brilliana added, “which she never did publish.  Though if the reception is good, perhaps we can change that and have them published in London.”

“I’m sure I could help,” said Tony.  So his student had found her place in the music world after all.  The thought made him feel embarrassingly warm and self-satisfied.

At the back of the room, a stage girl poked her head through the doorway.  “Ten minutes, Miss Lind.”

“Thank you,” Brilliana called out.  Then smoothed down her dress and began fidgeting with the lace on her sleeves.   Exactly as Jane used to do.  “I should take my place backstage.  But I hope to see you again after the performance, Lord Stark?  I would dearly love to speak to you more about my mother.”

Tony bowed.  “Of course.  I will be here.”

“I suppose I should also go down,” Loki said as Brilliana hurried out the door.  “I can watch from the wings.”

“No, absolutely not,” Tony told him.  “You will sit with me.”

“I will?”

“Loki Lind, I have regretted every day of the past fourteen years since I last let you out of my sight.  And now I have a terrible fear that this is nothing but a dream, and if I let you go, even for a moment, it will all shatter around me and you will disappear like a ghost...  And I don’t intend to let that happen.”  He held out his hand.  “Sit with me.  So I can be sure you are real.”

Only a moment of hesitation.  Only a breath of uncertainty. Then Loki’s hand, very real, slipped into his.  A spark of energy shot through him at the touch. Fourteen years since he had last felt the warmth of Loki’s body, and now even through his gloves it made his head light. Was that scent of evergreen and clove just in his imagination, or was it real?

“I am real,” Loki promised.

He felt real.  Warm and real.  “Can I... grab your bottom, just to be sure?”

Loki’s forced scowl wasn’t enough to hide the smile underneath.  “You’re ridiculous.  Come on.”  He tugged at Tony’s hand.  “Let’s go find seats.  We have a performance to watch.”