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The Affairs of Wizards

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Loki was three when he first realized he wasn't normal.

Up until that point, like every other toddler, he had spared no thought to anyone other than himself. He hadn't noticed that he was the only one in the whole orphanage who could call toys to his bed from where they were locked two floors below with a mere hand wave or that the pictures in the picture books he read would move only for him and him alone.

The matron, Mrs. Nichols, found out about it when all the other snot-riddled brats complained to her that Loki was sleeping with their favorite teddy bear or some such similar drivel. It earned him a few very public spanks for purportedly 'stealing the toys,' her pretty golden bracelets had clinked with the force of it. It had seemed like a beating to him, whom had never ever been punished for anything until that moment.

Afterwards, once the ignorant masses had been mollified and driven away, Mrs. Nichols had taken him aside and explained in no uncertain terms that he must never ever use his magic again or else the policemen would take him away. Not even if he really-really wanted something or if he tripped and skinned his knee; Loki made sure to ask.

It had been quite the rude wake-up call. Not only did Loki realize that what he did was magic, just like all the evil people in the storybooks Miss Julie read them before bed, and that it needed to be hidden, but he also lost his goal in life, as had wanted to be a policeman when he grew up to that moment.

So he found a new life goal (it wasn't too hard, they changed every week or so at that age) and tried really, really hard to stop using his unnatural monster powers. That was also when he started becoming really sick at the drop of a hat, too, but Mrs. Nichols, who was also sick a lot, said not to worry, that it was normal.

Loki was six when he was first adopted.

The adoption didn't stick.

He was very smart by then, although very prone to getting colds and bruises. He had taken to staying inside and reading books instead of going to the playground and running around, yelling, knocking over other children and generally making a nuisance of himself like everyone else did. He couldn't afford to. Mrs. Nichols knew he was a monster like in the stories, just like she was, so he had to behave really-really well to make up for it.

The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hargis, were some high-class socialites who wanted a child — because having children was in vogue among their friends — but wanted none of the hassle inherent with actually having one. They picked out Loki because he was quiet and stayed put and because he wasn't high-maintenance.

Loki loved it because it meant new clothes that no one had ever worn before him and books that weren't missing half a page in places or crumbling apart. He made his best effort to be always washed and neat.

Then, one day, his new parents came into his room to wake him up for school and found all his numerous toys floating around the room, twirling around while Loki slept.

Loki found himself back in the orphanage that same day, without his new clothes or his new books, or the new stuffed dog plushy that he had named Fenris. He was lucky that the Hargis were too snobby to report him to the authorities and let it out that they had harbored an unnatural magic user.

The adoption had only lasted one week.

The experience taught him two things. One, that trying really hard not to be a monster was stupid because it showed anyway at the most unexpected moments, so he should be one anyway and learn to hide it better. Two, that nothing good ever lasted, so he shouldn't bother getting attached.

Loki was eight when he was adopted by the Olsons. It was the third time he was adopted and this one stuck.

His health was much improved by this point, and he was so clever that not only he had skipped three grades at school, he had also successfully fooled the state-mandated screening for magic everyone got in second grade. His magic wasn't very strong, but he had very fine control over it, thanks to all the time he had spent practicing in his room without anyone noticing.

The Olsons had a son, Thor, who was 12, blonde, fat and loud. He was also, in Loki's opinion, painfully stupid, which enabled him to love Loki to death despite Loki's cool reception of his efforts. He didn't believe Loki for one second when the slip of a child suggested (very nastily, one might add) that he would rather stay home and read Sweet Valley books than play with Thor.

It was the nastiest insult Loki could come up with on such short notice.

Thor only scrunched his face, whined "Ugh, but those are for girls," and dragged Loki outside to explore the 'woods' behind the house anyway. Then the exploring turned to playing, where Thor was the hero and Loki the evil witch of the forest.

Loki, wanting to frighten him, was very creepy and frightening and even used magic.

Thor, against all odds, thought it was incredibly cool, and that Loki made the best evil witch ever and they played the day away.

At some point, Thor showed Loki how he could make some sparks come out of his hand, in his innocence. After that, instead of playing witches and hunters, they played just witches, zapping and tripping each other. Loki had never had so much fun in his life, although he would never admit it.

Loki was ten when he and Thor started High School.

Suddenly, being young and smart was a curse. Being pale and thin and having black hair made him even more of a target because everyone knew that those murdering, rapist, criminal, unnie numbers all had black hair. Still, Loki could count on Thor, who even at fourteen not so much fat as muscular, and thus bigger than most of the bullying seniors.

But then Thor made new friends, and he spent less and less time with Loki or protecting Loki. He also got a girlfriend, Sif, whom Loki hated with a passion and cursed so that all her hair would fall off her head and then grow up black like Loki's own, giving her the sign of evil.

Not even fellow nerds wanted to band with Loki after that, since everyone knew he had done magic on Sif, though no one could prove it.

So he stayed home when he could, fleeing from big crowds. When Frigga, Thor's mother, asked him about the bruises, Loki lied and told her that he had got them during PE. Mr. Olson, Thor's father, went to speak with the school about letting a ten-year-old play with kids four years older than him, saving Loki the hassle of attending P.E. or suffering the post-class locker-room reunions.

Loki learned that lying wouldn't only get him out of immediate trouble, but that it could also be used to manipulate people into giving him what he wanted, no magic required.

He used the extra time constructively, researching more magic, practicing, experimenting. He brewed potions, taught himself how to inscribe magic into something using only runes, developed a system of sygaldry that manipulated the free magic into doing what he wanted it to without using a drop of his own; in essence, he became, without anyone's knowledge, one of the musers with best ratio of magic input to effect.

He used these abilities to play pranks, ranging from the educational to the just plain cruel. He set the chemistry lab to explode in tear gas when the class of his main bully got in. He filled various lockers in the gym with anchovies so everyone would stink, after they pushed him into the mud during a competition everyone was required to participate in. He rigged the showers so that everyone who used them would turn blue. He stole tests from the teachers and passed them around with all the wrong answers.

It was rare for them to even pin it on him and even then he only needed to talk his way out of various punishments.

By the time he graduated at the end of his twelfth year, he had no friends and couldn't speak with Thor without earning himself a punch in the face or worse. His magic, fueled by his anger and resentment, was stronger and more destructive than ever.

Loki was fourteen and halfway through finishing undergrad school on a complete scholarship when he made his first friend.

Well, 'friend' is mostly an overstatement.

The professor of History of Psionics and Its Influence on Modern Society, Dr. Stephen Strange, worked out that Loki was magic. And instead of ratting him out to the authorities, he told Loki he also had magic and offered to teach Loki.

Performing magic unsanctioned by the State was completely against the law, and more so the teaching of it outside heavily regulated environments, so Loki had no worries about being outed when he accepted.

Though Loki had thought that he would be Dr. Strange's apprentice of sorts, it turned out there was an actual, though tiny, underground community of magic users, neutered and non, though they preferred the less PC terms of witches and sorcerers. Strange himself, through years of study, had achieved the rank of wizard, because it turned out that yes, this community was organized, and doctors in magic had titles.

It was amazing.

So Loki stayed in the University even after he finished, ostensibly to start a graduate degree, which he did work on when he had free time, but also studying magic, basking in the companionship of people who were like him. He officially made a best friend, Victor Von Doom and, to his delight, got beautiful and wicked girlfriend, Leena Moran, Amora to her friends.

Life was good.

Loki was seventeen and studying to be a wizard when the new law allowing private ownership of Arcanists came out.

The State had always done periodical screenings to catch musers and separate them from proper people, such as the standardized tests everyone got at seven, fourteen and twenty one; but smart people knew how to pass them, knew how to hide and suppress their magic with enough preparation.

All of a sudden, the MCU became really keen on catching musers. They began actively hunting for them, surreptitiously. The authorities mandated other screenings, randomized; for example, setting magic detectors at the entrances to malls, or making medical practitioners test their patients without their knowledge.

One month after the Leasing of Arcanists Act came out, Amora was nabbed, while getting a checkup with her gynecologist, and cuffed. She should have seen it coming when the secretary told her that her usual doctor wasn't going to make it and that that there would be a replacement taking her patients.

They put cuffs on her, the new model, even, designed by inventor extraordinaire Howard Stark himself and produced by Stark Industries. Now she had the choice of remaining a second-class citizen, without even the right to vote or ask for loans, or becoming a State Arcanist, a dog of the government, and work for them in exchange for food and board in prison-like buildings designed to host magic users.

Well, Loki knew what she would choose. Freedom wasn't worth never doing magic again. If she chose the second option, the bracelets would be removed at least some times so she could cast the spells they asked her to.

Dr. Strange was furious.

The culling of their rights had begun around the eleven hundreds, when the Church had finally developed a method of enslaving magic users to their will and had thus stopped killing them on sight. The practice had spread, even though only the rich had had the means to produce the magic-suppressing implements like collars and chastity belts. During the industrial revolution, people had invented a method of mass-producing the bracelets, and the various governments had begun hunting down and enslaving sorcerers. The practice had spread more and more, until it was the norm.

And even though their cousins in Europe had fought hard and won back their rights back at the start of the nineteenth century, the practice had already spread to the colonies, where it remained the norm even years after they declared independence.

It was nothing if not expected.

Still. This was one time too many Dr. Strange had lost one of his circle.

His apprentices, who respected him a lot, were of the same opinion. Victor started a freedom-fighting group without Dr. Strange's knowledge, and Loki joined, wanting to rescue Amora. They recruited magic users from fellow apprentices, sorcerers and wizards, and organized a resistance.

They would not take this oppression lying down.

Loki was eighteen when their plot to break out the enslaved State Arcanists, and Amora among them, succeeded.

It was a pyrrhic victory, though, because they caught him as he waited for the last of them to cross the portal he and Victor had built. He had managed to push Amora through and close it before the Anti-Psionic grenades, also especially designed by S.I., took him down.

They 'registered' him, put the magic-suppressing cuffs on him and tried to put him into one of the recently-vacated cells. But Loki was ridiculously knowledgeable about magic. Even neutered and with no access to his own magic, he still had enough energy left to kill the man who was guarding him, use the special key to unlock the cuffs, escape, and use sygaldry and alchemy to bring the building down around their ears.

He was knocked out by falling debris, and caught again when they found him unconscious in the rubble.

Since he was too dangerous to be used as they had been using the other sorcerers, and ostensibly because a lot of the guards (who unlike Loki were proper citizens) had died due of his actions, he was leased out — for what amounted to meager change — to Stark Industries to experiment on.

They received him practically gift-wrapped and frothing at the mouth and stuck him in the deepest sub-level, in a cage not only made from two-foot-thick psion-insulating glass, but also built in the middle of an energy-disrupting pentagram cast in cold iron on the floor. They were taking no chances with him.

Scientists measured his magic to try to fit him in the power-ranking system, thinking he would be very high on the scale because he had managed to implode a building even with cuffs on. They expected him to be one of the mythical six or seven magic users of rank five the statics predicted. Of course, they didn't know he hadn't used his magic.

It came as quite a surprise, then, when, even angry as he was, with his emotions supercharging his magic, he barely scraped into the third rank.

Still, it meant he was more powerful than ninety-nine percent of the population. And that, in turn, meant that whatever results S.I. yielded with their prototypes were more than representative. If they managed to strike Loki down for real, then few other magic users stood a chance.

They had to tie Loki down in a straightjacket between experiments just to keep him from killing someone. At least at first: within the year, they were doing it prevent Loki from killing himself.

Tony was eight when he accidentally set a magical criminal free.

His nanny had come down with the flu and Tony had managed to cause an explosion in his father's lab that leveled the east wing of the mansion the last time he'd been left alone, Howard had to take him to work. Of course, Howard wasn't about to keep an eye on his son all the time when there was science he could be doing, so he told Tony to stay put in the lobby and behave, and left to oversee his company.

Tony didn't do either.

Or rather, he meant to. But then he saw the sheets with the super-secret elevator codes and he just had to try them and see where they led.

Which was how he found himself in a basement level that was not in the plans of the building (not that he knew what those looked like), or even in the elevator display, watching an unwashed pale guy — gagged and tied up in a straightjacket — through a wall of glass only interrupted by a door and a flap to send food inside.

The curiosity burned in Tony. Why was there a guy in S.I? Why was he tied up? Why was he behind a glass wall like some snake in a zoo?

"Who are you?" Tony asked, his nose plastered to the glass to get a better look, his hands on either side of his face.

The guy seemed to startle, opening his eyes and seeking out where the voice had come from. His eyes were green and had circles so deep and purple underneath that they looked like someone had punched him on the nose. He made an enquiring noise.

"Right, you're gagged," Tony thought out loud, kicking the glass in disappointment. "Gah! This sucks. You are the first interesting thing I've seen in this whole damn place."

The guy nodded slowly and Tony could see the areas near the corner of his mouth wrinkle, as if saying 'yeah, I feel you, bro.'

Ah, well, Tony had never been accused of being particularly tactful. It was part of the reason he had no friends in school, leaving out the kids who were only nice to him so he would share his stuff. "What the hell did you do to be stuck here?" he asked.

Suddenly, the guy started rubbing his face against his shoulder furiously.

"What are you doing?" Tony asked, his mouth curling in distaste. Did he have fleas? Was he scratching himself? This guy was sooo weird. And yet Tony, full of morbid curiosity, watched on, not wanting to miss a thing.

The rubbing stopped, and Tony could see that the gag had come off. "Hello, Child." The voice of the man was rough and very, very creepy.

Awesome. "Sorry, Mom always says not to talk to strangers," Tony quipped, excited, his breath clouding the glass whenever he exhaled. "My name isn't 'child', by the way." This guy was like a comic book villain.

The guy, his face still red with friction, replied, "Your mother is very wise and you should listen to her, not-Child." A smirk, and then, "My name is Loki. Tell me yours, and we shall no longer be strangers."

"Tony," Tony laughed, delighted at the loophole. "I'm Tony. Hello!"

Loki grinned widely. "Pleased to meet you, Tony," he said pleasantly and turned onto his belly, creeping like a caterpillar over to Tony.

It was funny, and Tony couldn't help but laugh. "You are funny," he announced needlessly, his eyes glued to the man in the straightjacket as he crept closer and brought himself to his knees in front of Tony. "How old are you? I'm eight and one third. How did you end up here?" he blabbed excitedly.

"You ask a lot of questions." A slow grin spread over Loki's thin pale lips. "You don't think this information will come cheaply, do you?" he asked, his face so close to the glass that Tony could see the cracks in his lips.

Tony huffed. "Fine, fine. What do you want in exchange?" He palmed his pockets. "I don't have much on me. A bar of chocolate," he listed, pulling it out. It was half-melted and covered in pocket-debris. "A lipstick I stole from Mom because I'm angry at her for leaving me alone with Howard. It's her favorite. A baseball hat, but it'll be too small for you. I don't even know how to get it through the wall."

Loki's grin got wider, most of his teeth showing by now. "The lipstick will do nicely. But I need you to do something for me with it."

The guy wanted the make-up? Even when it was full of mom-cooties? Tony blinked, processing that, and shrugged. "Yeah, sure, okay. What do I do?"

"Draw something for me?" Loki asked. "This place is sooo boring. Some art will spice it up, don't you think?"

Tony wrinkled his nose. Ugh, he hated drawing. "I don't know what to draw," he protested, not wanting to tell Loki the truth: that he hated art class since Tony's archenemy, one of his classmates, kept stealing his supplies.

"Mmm, that's fine, I'll tell you what to draw," Loki replied easily, "but it will be our little secret, yeah?"

"Sure," Tony agreed, wanting to get on with it so he could ask Loki his questions.

Loki guided Tony through drawing a series of geometrical figures and a few squiggly things Loki showed him by blowing on the glass and drawing with his long nose on the condensation. Tony's first sigil, complete with arcane runes, though he didn't know it yet.

Tony trailed the lipstick on the glass, having a blast, and then, when they finished it, he used the chocolate bar to continue the drawing. "Okay, done. Now what?"

Loki walked on his knees until he was next to the magic circle, and plastered himself to the glass. "Now step away," he said, "and watch the magic happen." He took a deep breath and held it, closing his eyes.

"Magic?" was all that Tony managed to get out before the glass under his drawing exploded outwardly, sending him flying. He landed on his back with a cry of pain, his head bouncing on the floor. When he inhaled next, the air was like fire in his throat and lungs, the tiny shards of pulverized fiberglass suspended in the air cutting his throat and lungs to ribbons. And his eyes — they hurt even as they watered from his violent coughing,

He heard an alarm sounding, and he could see red light flashing behind his closed eyelids. Then, he felt hands grabbing his arms and picking him up, dragging him away from the deadly mist.

The last thing he remembered was Loki's rough voice whispering in his ear, though he couldn't make out what was said.

Tony woke up from the drug-induced coma one week later. He had been operated on to remove the fiberglass dust from his lungs, but he would never be able to do strenuous physical activity ever again, and he would need an inhaler the rest of his life. His head was swathed in gauze. He had lost his sight not to the explosion, but to subsequent infection, and when they removed the bandages, to see how the damage was evolving, everything was dark.

The doctors excused themselves and walked out of his room, giving him privacy to cry. Neither his mother nor his father visited him, but Tony didn't blame them. Who would want a stupid gullible blind kid for a son?

Tony had just turned nine when his faith in magic was restored again.

He had insisted to Jarvis, the butler, that yes, he wanted to go to the park for his birthday. They had fed ducks and eaten ice-cream, even though it was chilly. Afterwards, Jarvis had given him a piggy-back ride back, because Tony had been too out of breath to walk.

The cold and the effort had been too much even so, and Tony had landed himself in the hospital with a brand new bout of pneumonia. It was OK, he had them often, he was used to it.

He had been dozing when someone came in and touched his hand, calling his attention.

"Hello, Tony," the man said, and his voice was not that of Dr. Bourgault, the usual pediatrician.

In fact, Tony couldn't place it at all. "You are new," he blurted out, his voice rough and frail, barely above a whisper. The distrust was clear — the stint with that Loki guy had taught him to distrust every adult he met that wasn't pre-approved by Maria, Uncle Obie or Jarvis.

"It's alright, Sweetie, I'm just a doctor," the adult explained. His voice was low and comforting.

Tony relaxed upon hearing it.

"Your usual doc called me to consult on you," the doctor explained. "He said the broad-spectrum antibiotics aren't cutting it. Do you know what those are?"

Tony did. He was an expert on them by now, as he had to take them every time his lungs acted up. "Pills," he answered, his hands clenching in the blankets. "Or IVs." He gestured to the IV drip by his side. Amoxicillin was the best he had had so far, but they had to switch them every time so the strains of bacteria wouldn't grow resistant.

"Usually, yes," the kind voice replied. "But this one I brought you is a bit different because your case is special. It's a natural concoction, mainly made of herbs and fruits."

Tony shrugged. "Yeah, sure, okay. Gimme." He held his hand out. Suddenly there was a glass in it. "Okay," he said, raising the glass to sniff it. It did smell like fruity tea, so he brought it to his mouth and took a sip — and immediately spat it out. "Ugh, this tastes like boiled shit!" he complained, indignant.

The new doctor patted him on the head with a heavy hand. "Just man up and drink it, you crybaby," he chastised, his voice still amiable but now with a cold, hard edge to it.

Tony gulped. "Okay, okay, drinking it," he said hurriedly, hoping the man wouldn't tell Howard what a sissy Tony was being. He pinched his nose with his free hand and chugged the whole glass like it was milk, and then covered his mouth so he wouldn't puke it up afterwards.

He suddenly felt really tired and he dropped sideways.

The doctor caught him against his chest and put him back on the pillow without saying a word.

Tony wanted to say he smelled familiar, but he nodded off, his chest and eyes tingling pleasantly.

Next time he woke up, he could breathe. Even better, he could see.

In his hand, he found an empty tube of lipstick in Maria's favorite shade.


Composite of the last two scenes