The walk to Antonius' abode did not take very long, even though it was located further away from the town center. When the house came into view, however, Steve was hard pressed not to gawk. It was a mansion, and one that could almost rival the size of smaller palaces. There were defensive walls surrounding the mansion and possibly much of the land around it. In the waning evening light, the banners that he could see fluttering in the gentle breeze were colored in vibrant, ostentatious red and gold. This was the home of a man who sought and thrived under attention. Natasha led them through the open gates (thankfully not done up in red and gold, but instead was in imposing, black steel), and as they passed through, Steve felt the ripple of magic wash around him. Wards. The entire place was covered heavily with protective magic.
As they drew closer to the main doors, they came open and a dark-skinned man and a lady with long strawberry-blond hair stepped out.
"Natasha, I see you've had no problems with sending out our invitation," said the lady with a warm smile on her face.
Natasha gave a slight shrug that looked more like an elegant, languid roll of her shoulders. Steve could once again see that the redhead was definitely highly-trained. He directed his gaze to the other two newcomers. The man was dressed semi-causally and held himself in parade rest though Steve could tell the man was poised on his feet, ready to spring into action should the slightest threat arise. Definitely ex-military. The other woman, however, did not seem to be cut from the same cloth as Natasha nor the man. Her smile was genuinely friendly and welcoming. Her ease with the other two, though, spoke of familiarity, and Steve supposed that while she was probably not a combatant herself, she would know how to handle herself should a confrontation break out.
Then the lady stepped forward, looking at Steve one hand extended forward. "I'm Virginia Potts and I help Tony run his business and his town. You can call me Pepper."
Steve momentarily wondered who "Tony" was, until he realized it was a shortened form of Antonius' name. There was probably more to Antonius and Pepper's relationship than merely employer-employee if her term of address was anything to go by. He took Pepper's hand to give it a firm shake as he introduced himself and the rest of his companions. The man came forward too, and introduced himself as James Rhodes. Together with Natasha, he was in-charge of overseeing security of the town.
With introductions over, Pepper invited all of them in. The inside of the mansion was just as lavish as its sheer size had suggested, and the red-and-gold color scheme was more evident than ever. The vermilion carpets were plush and well cared for. Most of the furniture was made out of quality mahogany that had been well-polished, and a good portion had intricate designs on the legs gilded with gold and some pieces had red gemstones set in them. Steve could not decide if they were rubies or extremely rare, colored diamonds because Antonius looked like he'd be well able to afford them. There was also a surprising number of elegant art pieces on the wall, and Steve found himself looking at some of them a lot more and felt it was slightly incongruous that Antonius' mostly flashy décor thus far, did not result in more ostentatious pieces of work.
"Pepper chose the art pieces," Natasha murmured and Steve had to fight not to jump in surprise. He had not heard the spy come close at all.
Well, that would explain the choice of paintings, and implied, once again, that Antonius and Pepper had a closer relationship. Steve was not one to gossip or put his nose into other people's business, but it still seemed a little strange that someone like Pepper would be with Antonius. Then he reminded himself that all he knew about Antonius at the moment were mere hearsay and he really should reserve any actual judgment until he had met the man himself. Not to mention whatever he thought was between Antonius and Pepper could just be his imagination.
Following a quick tour of the premises, including the dining hall so that they would not get lost while trying to get to the common areas, they were shown to the guestrooms to put down their baggage, although Pepper had suggested that they could bring along their weapons because Antonius loved to see weaponry made by other smiths. There was a wry twist to her lips that also seemed to imply that Antonius' interest wasn't entirely for learning from the other blacksmiths. They were also informed that a bell would ring to inform them when dinner was ready.
When he stepped into the room given to him, Steve revised his idea of what a guestroom in the wealthy warlock's mansion was. It was almost like a suite of rooms. He had his own lounge area that contained a cupboard stocked with a variety of alcohol. In the furthest reach of the room was a massive four-poster bed and a closed set of double doors that he guessed was the closet – a very large closet. Another single door was left slightly ajar and he could tell that it was likely the bathroom. Lastly, on the side opposite the bedroom, there was a mini library complete with a study desk.
He wasn't quite sure what to do with all this space. Well, he was probably going to have to settle in, so he headed towards the closet's double doors and pulled them open.
Steve boggled for a second. The closet itself was large enough to be a decently sized room for someone to live in. In one corner of the closet was an array of pillows, cushions and duvets that seemed excessive when the bed already had more pillows than Steve knew what to do with and the lounge seats were similarly covered with enough cushions. He also didn't think it would get cold enough to warrant using more duvets, especially since the one on the bed looked thick enough. The rest of the space was left empty, probably for guests to store their clothes for the duration of their stay.
Who would bring enough clothes to fill the entire closet? It seemed far too excessive, though he was getting the impression that Antonius did many things in excess. So far the only people he'd seen in the house were Pepper and Rhodey. Even if Steve assumed that Natasha also had rooms in the mansion, that meant there were four people living in this large house. Perhaps there were other servants that he just hadn't come across yet? Nonetheless, it felt a little lonely to Steve.
He went about unpacking his belongings, placing them in the corner closest to the doors and absently noted that they took up less than a tenth of the space in the closet. As he undid his heavy armor, he considered what Pepper said about Antonius being interested in seeing their weaponry and decided that he considered his shield as a weapon just as he did his longsword. So he carefully set aside both shield and sword to be brought down later.
A while later, Steve, Clint and Peggy all came down to the dining hall with Pepper welcoming them and directing them to their seats like the perfect hostess. Despite having been exposed to parts of the mansion already, it was still a little difficult for Steve's eyes to stop roaming the room. The artist in him was cataloguing all the details in the furnishings, as well as admiring the landscapes in the room. He was probably going to sketch some parts of the mansion at some point. Rhodes and Natasha entered shortly after, the latter having changed out of her barmaid attire into a dark-colored top and matching pants. Small talk and more pleasantries were exchanged.
"Pepper, do I need to remind Tony of dinner?" Natasha asked at one point.
As if on cue, Antonius strode into the dining hall with a smile on his face. He was dressed in a well-cut dark red shirt and fitting black pants. The materials were clearly expensive but they were surprisingly less extravagant than what Steve had expected from looking at the man's home. The man also did not look like a feared warlock with a reputation forged from the depths of battles, despite having a clear aura of confidence and seeming to be larger than life.
"I haven't kept anyone waiting, have I?"
"For once, no," Pepper said, a fond expression on her face.
"I would never disappoint you, would I, Pepper?" Turning to look at his guests, the man's smile widened a little as he said, "I'd apologize, but nobody did tell me your names."
A quick round of introductions was once again made and Antonius smiled and greeted all of them with a firm handshake, although Peggy was also given a kiss on the back of her hand. Steve also thanked the man for letting his party stay in his abode, to which Antonius laughed and insisted that it was no trouble at all.
Throughout their travels, all they had heard about Antonius did not even begin to cover the man's actual personality. The man seemed to fairly radiate charm in the easy manner of his wide smiles and Steve had seen genuine fondness in Antonius' brown eyes when the warlock was looking at Pepper. He really wasn't quite able to see the image that he'd originally painted of Antonius the Capricious.
"Right, I think we're all hungry from the long day," Antonius stated after everyone had settled back down at the table. "Let's have the food served, shall we?"
Steve expected serving staff to appear following Antonius' proclamation, what actually happened, though, was very different. The food did appear, but the dishes were not carried out by humans. In fact, what looked like three metallic, mechanical hands on wheels rolled out, as if on their own power, balancing trays of food .
Pepper, Rhodes and Natasha looked like this was nothing out of the ordinary but both Clint and Peggy were openly staring, just like Steve. The hands wheeled themselves, somehow, into what was likely a pre-agreed position around the table and deposited the trays, a little clumsily for one of them. Then they began to carefully distribute the plates.
"Don't worry, my kitchen staff are actually human and not mechanical hands. Your taste buds won't suffer," Antonius assured them, mirth twinkling bright in his eyes. "I wouldn't let Dummy near open fire anyway. He'd burn the entire place down."
The mechanical hand that was hovering nearest to Antonius drooped, as if dejected. But it visibly perked up again when Antonius extended a hand to pat it and murmured, "Good work today, Dummy."
That comment spurred the other two mechanical hands to go up to Antonius too, and to Steve's eye, looked as if they were demanding some sort of praise from the warlock as well, which Antonius freely gave each of them with fond exasperation evident in his tone of voice.
When the three mechanical hands finally rolled out of the room, Steve couldn't help but ask, "Did you create them, Lord Antonius?"
"First, please drop the "lord". Titles are all so stuffy and formal. And yes, I did create them. Dummy was the first, and he was something of an accident, at least the part where he became semi-sentient was due to accidental imbuing of magical energy, but it was a happy accident all the same."
Steve nodded. He had a slight worry though, about how Antonius had described his mechanized helpers as being semi-sentient. It seemed that it could be dangerous if full sentience somehow became possible, but he'd only just met Antonius and he didn't think it would be polite to pursue the topic further.
Then the dining part of the dinner came in earnest as everyone started on their food. Conversation started up and then began to flow more naturally as dinner progressed. Somehow, Pepper had picked up on his interest in the paintings and drew him into a conversation about art. Antonius was trying his best to charm Peggy, bordering on flirtatious at some points, although he made sure to engage Clint as well. As far as Steve could tell, all the conversations were focus on light topics although surely, Antonius had to be curious about their presence in his town.
When there was a lull in the hubbub of conversations, Antonius finally asked the question Steve had been expecting. "What business brings all of you up north? I'm afraid there isn't really anything of note further up north of my town. It just gets colder and much less pleasant."
"We're exploring, mainly," Peggy answered smoothly.
Prior to their departure, Steve and Peggy had decided to come up with a plausible cover story for their quest. Since Coulson had advised them to be cautious about revealing the true nature of their journey, it would be for the best that they knew what story to stick to should anyone ask them, be it out of curiosity or in more sinister situations. They had decided on an exploratory expedition.
"Exploring? Really? Ironfields is pretty much one of the last decently sized towns this far up north, well at least on the west side I suppose." Then suddenly, Antonius' grin became a little sharper. "Or… well, it wouldn't have anything to do with the strange happenings up in the mountains, would it?"
Steve was reminded in this instance that another reason why Antonius had been feared on the battlefields was not only because of his raw power. The man was very intelligent, a genius even.
"Strange happenings?" he asked.
They had heard that slowly, but surely, residents up in the north were starting to notice things that were potentially due to HYDRA's growing activities. But nobody in this town had shown signs of having that knowledge
"Freak storms, people disappearing, general strangeness in energy currents to those who can feel them, and all that. It's not all that bad here yet, but well, I hear things faster than most people thanks to Natasha's very extremely efficient information network."
He was met with silence as Steve and Peggy looked to each other, both wondering just how much Antonius knew and how much he wasn't revealing. The implications that Natasha was probably Antonius' spymaster was unsettling. Yet Pepper and Rhodes were both clearly friends with Antonius despite also working for him, and that painted a rather contradictory picture of Antonius.
"You don't have to be so worried. I'm not planning on interfering with whatever top-secret mission you have. But I have been apprised of the situation up north and well, I don't like the increasing saturation of dark energy in the air."
"What exactly do you know?" Peggy finally said.
"That there's some evil cult making a home up in the mountains and some really unnatural things have been happening over a rather long time already. I think it might be in your interests to expand your traveling group if you really are aiming to investigate up north."
"Are you offering your services?" Clint interjected with a cynical twist of his lips.
Both Pepper and Rhodes looked at Antonius in surprise. Clearly, this was a decision that had come out of nowhere. Natasha, on the other hand, still appeared utterly unflustered. If Steve had thought Clint was usually one of the least easily perturbed person, then Natasha was certainly up there too and was perhaps even more unflappable than the archer.
"Tony," Rhodes started to say, a disapproving frown forming on his face.
"Think about it, Rhodey. If something bad is happening up there, we'll definitely be hit with the repercussions. I'm just looking out for my town. You and Pepper are always saying I don't do enough for the day-to-day running of this place," Antonius cut in before the other man could finish. Then to the rest of them, he added, "Besides, more firepower wouldn't hurt for you, would it?"
"No," Peggy conceded even as she looked at Steve to gauge his response.
"It could be helpful. We were sent to neutralize a fortress base," Steve said.
"Sounds like you need all the help you can get, unless "fortress" was just an exaggeration."
"Doubtful," Natasha opined.
Dinner proceeded despite the more serious turn in the conversation. Antonius provided valid reasons for his inclusion in their traveling group, and despite his reservations, he had to admit that having Antonius' expertise would be beneficial. Peggy, too, seemed to be coming around to the idea and Clint had not voiced any objections, which coming from the archer was equivalent to an agreement. In the end, Steve and Peggy did have Coulson's permission to recruit people at their own discretion. When a conclusion had more or less been made, wherein Antonius managed to convince them into letting him join them despite some protests from Rhodes, Antonius expertly diverted everyone's attention by announcing it was time for desserts.
After their dessert had been cleared away, Antonius spoke again with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes. "I hope you all enjoyed dinner; I know I did. So, if it's not too forward of me, I really am interested in seeing your weapons. For science."
In short order, a variety of weapons were laid carefully on the table and after a long look from the head of the table where he'd been standing, Antonius came over to Clint's bow and arrows. In a show of good etiquette, despite the clear interest the warlock had with weaponry and weapon craft, he asked for permission before picking up the bow for closer examination. Then he was making some rapid-fire suggestions for possible improvements to the bow and engaging Clint in a discussion.
Steve had noticed, though, that Antonius' gaze lingered on his shield the longest over all the weapons before the warlock had gone on to engage Clint in conversation. Not many people knew the significance of his shield, and how he tended to favor it over a sword in combat. He had been selected by the shield as it had been apparently been imbued with something resembling a conscious mind, limited in capacity though it was, that it could not be used proficiently by most people. He still remembered that many good men had come before the shield, but had walked away without its acceptance. It was a great honor to Steve that it had chosen him to wield it and on some days, still left him in awe that he'd been chosen at all.
"I could make you a new bow, if you give me some time," Antonius offered.
"You don't have to," Clint protested. "She hasn't really given me any trouble."
"No charge! I'm going to be joining your little group, aren't I? That makes it in my best interests to look out for your interests. I'd offer to improve everyone's weapons, but I get the feeling that time is an issue and it's generally difficult to find much fault in Stark weaponry anyway."
Antonius' last sentence was directed mostly to Peggy and Steve, and Steve found himself rather impressed that the warlock was able to identify the origins of the weapons with just a cursory glance.
"We don't really have time to stop for long," Peggy acknowledged.
"As I thought. Well, I'll start with Clint's bow first. I can probably finish it tonight, maybe tomorrow."
Clint looked like he was about to protest again, but then Natasha glided closer to the man and said, "When he gets like this, there's no use arguing."
The duo shared a long look and seemed to be communicating with minor quirks of their facial muscles before Clint relented with a shrug. Then Natasha took her leave and Clint followed. Something about the way they left had Steve thinking that perhaps they were going to sort out whatever issues that still remained between them since their last meeting. Antonius looked like he was on the verge of making a quip but seemed to decide against it.
Instead, he turned to Steve. "Captain, if you don't mind, I would like to examine your shield in further detail in my workshop."
"I…" He was surprised, but found that he wasn't really adverse to the idea. Which was rather curious in and of itself. "That's fine."
"Wonderful! Pepper can give you directions. I'm going to work on the bow now. Come down whenever you want to, I'll probably be there all night."
So, Tony hadn't been expecting that all three of his guests would be as physically attractive as they were. Pepper hadn't mentioned it, but she had to have known that being taken away from his work to deal with pleasant-looking people would make it less likely for him to whine to her afterwards, and that it would greatly aid in him playing nice.
What threw him off completely, however, was the paladin, Steven. His shield, to be precise. Because Tony recognized it.
Certainly, he knew that the weapons that both Steven and Margaret used were of Stark-make, and could assume the same for the rest of their armor. But the shield, with its distinctive round shape and the star etched onto its surface… He knew, without even needing to feel the magical signature emanating from it, that this was the shield his father had personally crafted and enchanted, the one shield that he'd forbidden anyone else and quite expressly, Tony, to ever touch. He had later found out that it was because this shield was created with the ability to choose the warrior it would protect, a special, holy shield that Howard Stark hadn't wanted tainted.
The shield had been completed just a few days prior to Tony's own awakening as a warlock, and that knowledge was the quickest and most definite way for Tony to know how much his father detested him.
Now, confronted with that same shield and the person it now belonged to, the warped, unhealthy complex he'd developed towards his father was surfacing again. It was as if the shield represented all of Howard's disdain, and faced with Steven, a paladin who held the shield… It was as if Howard was showing Tony the type of person that Tony would never be and that Tony would never be able to meet Howard's expectations.
It was part actual interest in the shield and part perverse way of torture that prompted him to ask for a closer look at the shield. And it had to be the innate goodness in Steven that made him agree to it. Tony could tell that Steven had an attachment to the shield and clearly was slightly reluctant to hand it over to Tony, though he couldn't help but wonder if that reluctance came from the fact that Tony's powers were from dark origins and not because of Steven's own attachment.
It was a prejudice he wasn't unfamiliar with, especially in the days before he'd settled down. It no longer bothered him, what people who didn't matter to him thought. But when he thought that Steven could possibly be that way too, well, it had been awhile since he felt that twist in his gut. The only reason he could think of for that reaction was that Steven was like a physical representation of his father and it was a twisted, roundabout way of gaining approval.
(If someone whom Dad liked approved of him, then wouldn't Dad do so too?)
When Steven turned up at his workshop with his shield in tow, Tony had changed into more comfortable, well-worn clothes and was in the midst of improving the balance of Clint's composite longbow. It wasn't uncommon for him to ruin his formal wear by toiling in them whenever inspiration struck, but it always made Pepper upset and he didn't want to risk that any time soon. If it also served to make Steven do a slight double take at his appearance – far from the rich, spoiled man that his entire property screamed – well, that was just a bonus.
"Captain, come in. I hope you don't mind the mess. I don't often bother with cleaning it up much; it just gets chaotic again the next day," he said with a welcoming smile as he put aside the bow carefully to continue working on it later.
Steve didn't quite know what he really was expecting when he agreed to let Antonius take a closer look at his shield. But he didn't expect to see the warlock dressed down in casual workmen's clothes that were already slightly soot-stained. He had thought that with almost an entire town of blacksmiths working for him, Antonius wouldn't need to ever set foot in a workshop to make anything himself, even if he still had one in his home. Steve had also assumed that perhaps Antonius would not personally be working on Clint's bow, but he was clearly mistaken on both accounts.
Antonius most definitely worked in his own workshop and, judging by the faint embers of coal, had probably been working (and planning on continuing his work) until shortly before dinner. He was most certainly working on Clint's bow when Steve had walked in. All in all, it didn't fit his image of Antonius after first seeing the man's opulent manor. Truth be told, Antonius had been making Steve revise his opinions of him since the moment they'd met. Then he remembered that Antonius gained his reputation on the battlefield, and it wouldn't have been uncommon for him to have worked in the camps where weapons could sometimes be short or in need of repair, or probably before he became famous. Or infamous, as it were.
He could appreciate a hard worker, even if he wasn't too comfortable with Antonius' past. Or with most of the man at present, really. Steve tried hard not to let prejudice influence him, but he couldn't pinpoint another reason for why Antonius seemed to cause a sense of unease in him. He just hoped it wasn't too obvious to the other man.
"I don't mind it," he said instead. "Thank you again for your gracious offer for us to stay the night."
Antonius laughed. "Oh no, I should be thanking you for letting me look at your shield. It's not every day you see something personally crafted by Howard Stark."
"How did you know that it was made by Lord Stark?"
"I studied weapon and armor craft extensively, Captain. I need to know my competitors well, especially the best of the best. Much as I hate to admit it, Howard Stark is that."
Steve put it down to rivalry between fellow weapon-makers for the dark expression that clouded Antonius' face at the mention of Howard's name even as it disappeared a split second later. A part of him couldn't help but note that rivalry didn't usually put a haunted and uncommonly vulnerable expression on a person's face. It was an incongruous look on Antonius' visage, which had, up until now, only showed confidence bordering on arrogance and flirtatious charm.
"Would you like me to put the shield on your workbench?" Steve asked in lieu of furthering his train of thought. Even as he looked around, there didn't actually seem to be space on any of the tables scattered around the workshop and he wasn't sure if he wanted to place it on top of the array of tools and other items lying around.
"Yes, that'll be good. Just let me…"
Antonius headed towards the furthest table from the door, which had the least amount of clutter, and began clearing a space. When he was done, he motioned Steve over, patting the empty space for the shield.
Carefully, Steve picked his way across the workshop. Some of the things lying around on the floor looked like nothing he'd ever seen before and he didn't want to touch them, just in case. Then when he reached the table where Antonius stood waiting, Steve gently placed his shield on the tabletop. Antonius stepped closer immediately, a hand reaching closer to touch its surface, but stopped just short. The warlock's eyes were glazed over as if he was suddenly lost in thought, and they didn't seem to be very pleasant ones.
"You can touch it if you want to…?" Steve said carefully.
That snapped Antonius back to the present and the man's now-guarded eyes flicked over to regard Steve for a moment. Then a sudden smirk lit up Antonius' face and Steve could see clearly for himself the roguish charm that Antonius had used on Peggy (though it had not really worked) turned onto him.
"Thank you for the permission, Captain," Antonius drawled.
"Call me Steve, please."
"Then call me Tony, Steve."
Steve honestly did not have much experience with being flirted at, having been small, skinny and physically weak for most of his life. Perhaps he was getting better at reading the signs. Or he was just reading everything wrongly, but it seemed like the other man was flirting with him with how Antonius' voice had become slightly lower as he said Steve's name for the first time. It was a little unsettling to see Antonius' manner change so suddenly towards him and Steve really hoped that he was mistaken.
Tony was pissed. At himself. Maybe a little at the good Captain too, for being so polite and not calling him out on his reaction to the shield, which had to have been strange to the paladin. It had been implicit that he already had permission to touch the shield since Steven hadn't protested when he'd suggested a closer examination. Mostly though, the anger was self-directed and kept in check.
Howard wasn't even physically present, would probably never learn about this, and yet he had stopped before his hand had made contact with the shield because the locks that he'd kept on his childhood memories decided to choose that very moment to suddenly disintegrate.
"I said that nobody except me was to touch the shield! Especially you, Anthony! Leave my workshop now!"
So many years had passed since he'd left his clan, and still he was unable to step out of his father's long shadow in certain ways. It was pathetic. Then Steven had to kindly offer permission, which shook Tony out of his thoughts but also reminded him that someone else had seen him in a weak moment, even if it might not have been obvious. That made his defensive reflexes kick in fast, and after a split second's appreciation for Steven's niceness, he was flirting on automatic.
"Thank you for the permission, Captain," he drawled with a smirk on his face.
"Call me Steve, please."
"Then call me Tony, Steve," he replied, lowering the tone of his voice as he said the paladin's name for the first time. It was a nice feeling, interestingly enough.
Tony would not claim to be an expert at reading people, but he could tell that Steve had picked up on the flirting and it was making him a little uncomfortable. Well, Tony only had two types of defense mechanisms: insult or flirt. He'd probably defaulted to flirting because of Steve's looks (and yes, the blond was definitely rating very high on that front), plus the man hadn't actually gotten on his nerves. At least Tony hadn't been making blatant passes at Steve; Pepper would be disappointed if he'd ruined things by scandalizing the paladin when dinner had actually gone relatively smooth.
Deciding that he'd better move on to safer topics, Tony refocused his attention to the shield that was bare inches from his fingertips. With a last smile at Steve, he lowered his fingers to brush them across the metallic surface.
To Tony's relief, though he would never admit it, there was no sudden explosion or any other magical phenomenon when his skin contacted the metal. He honestly wouldn't put it past Howard to design some sort of a trap that activated when Tony handled it. Or possibly, the trap was no longer active since the shield had chosen its owner.
What were the chances that Tony would come into contact with the shield once that had happened?
In any case, Tony concentrated on examining the shield instead of pondering over that pointless question. It wasn't every day that one got their hands – literally – on Howard Stark's personal craft, and this was possibly his greatest work. Tony spared a moment to appreciate the irony that it was a shield, and not the varied weaponry that the Starks were renowned for, that had that particularly honored distinction before turning his thoughts back to less frivolous business.
He slowly slid the pads of his fingers over the curved surface, feeling the hum of magic imbued in the metal and the smoothness of the shield. There was nary a dent or scrape on its entire surface, despite the fact that Steve's party was sure to have met with fights and skirmishes before they'd reached his town. The protective magic cast on it had to have been potent. Tony wondered what other magic hid under this outermost layer.
Spreading his fingers out wide and flat, he pressed his entire right palm onto the center of the shield while his left hand continued to gently caress the rim of the shield. Tony shut his eyes, concentrating on the layers of magical energy. He would probably never be able to correctly determine every single spell cast or even identify the nature of some of them, but Tony had practiced hard at this – far more than any warlock he knew or had heard of – and he wasn't going to pity himself for the fact that, for some reason, he hadn't inherited his family's magical aptitude.
Gradually, he began to sense the ripples and pulses of the individual spells. For the moment, he ignored the gently rippling auras that were characteristic of protective or healing spells and instead, concentrated on the stronger, heavier pulses present just beneath the surface. They didn't feel like straight-up offensive spells. Those he had the easiest times detecting as they resonated the most clearly with his chaotic raw energies, all contained within boundaries but just waiting, waiting for the chance to burst forth and revel in their glorious, destructive and uncaring beauty.
Tony had once compared, in the privacy of his mind, sensing the explosion of contained power from one of his eldritch blasts to getting a rush of pleasure straight from his nerves from an orgasm. He'd never admit it to anyone else because it would lead to certain misunderstanding.
Contrary to popular belief based on his reputation, he did not take pleasure in killing. His work on the battlefields had been due to both immature, impulsive decision-making and the fact that it made good, fast money. He'd desperately needed the money then, having resolved to break off ties completely with his family. He would've gotten the same pleasure had he just been aiming for blowing up inanimate objects.
He had to admit, though, that in battle, especially those with other mages involved, the release of power from other spells also made his nerves and otherworldly senses sing with sensation and that often left him elated. He had also, with time and experience, noted the differences between arcane and divine spells, generally much preferring the feel of the more volatile magic channeled by the arcane, even if they were nowhere near the level of chaos that he harnessed for his own use.
In its own way, the battlefield had been a beautiful, if macabre, place for him to practice attuning and refining his sensitivity to magical energy. Though he had now since retired from being a mercenary, he sometimes still felt an itch for adventure and perhaps the feel of the magical arts at work again.
Steve watched silently as Antonius ran his hands over the shield. The warlock seemed to have entered a trance-like state as he eyes closed and a slight crease furrowed his eyebrows. Steve wasn't entirely sure what Antonius was doing. He'd seen Peggy adopt somewhat similar expressions before when she was trying to uncover what magic resided in an object or an area, though she didn't usually physically touch the items. Yet warlocks were different from other spell-casters, and from what he knew, they weren't as adept at identifying magic and spells. He knew there were mages who did not consider warlocks as true spell-casters.
Then again, Antonius had proven to be very intelligent, charismatic and rather different from the typical warlock. Perhaps the most obvious difference was how he actually worked in his own workshop to craft weapons and armor. Not only was it an unusual skill for a warlock – or most spell-casters – to have, Antonius' craft was widely reputed in the northern midlands and north to be superb. It wasn't too far of a stretch to think that Antonius would be better at determining the magical arts than most warlocks.
It was rather fascinating to observe Antonius as he worked. Steve was even more certain that the man he'd met in that opulent dining room was only one facet of Antonius, perhaps the facet most people saw and assumed to be all there was to the man. But that was false. He'd noticed how Antonius' eyes had lit up when asking about the shield and Steve was inclined to believe it was because of Antonius' love for blacksmithing and appreciation of the forms of craft that had caused it.
Perhaps, Steve mused, that was why he'd agreed to Antonius' request despite his apprehension at having a virtual stranger handle the shield for any period of time, and when it was well within his rights to decline it. He was fairly sure that Peggy had been surprised when he'd agreed.
Then Antonius' eyes abruptly shot open and his hands withdrew from the shield. If Steve hadn't been observing the man, he would've missed the brief wince on Antonius' face.
"Are you okay?" he asked carefully.
Nobody had been hurt by the shield from just touching it as far as Steve knew, but after getting to know Howard Stark, he wouldn't have put it past the older man to have booby-trapped the shield in some manner. The mage loved his explosions a bit too much even at his age.
"Hmm? Oh yes, I'm fine, just fine!"
"You winced a little just now."
"You caught that?" Antonius said and from the way his brow creased a moment later, Steve knew that the other man hadn't meant to let that slip out.
"Yes, I did," he replied. "Nobody's gotten hurt by touching my shield before, though nobody's tried what you did too."
"You mean nobody's tried to figure out what secrets your shield holds? Analyze the magic in it? Seriously?"
"I… don't let many people handle it."
"So I'm an exception?" Antonius' lips curved into a smile that seemed a touch smug, but a little flirtatious all at the same time.
Steve felt his face heat up a little and prayed that it wasn't too obvious. Bucky used to tease him about being overprotective of his shield and he'd protested it then. But Steve privately thought that Bucky did have a point and he was going to stop embarrassing himself further by halting this train of thought.
"Peggy's taken a look before," he admitted. "She didn't have much of a reaction to the magic though she didn't take a very long time with it, but Lord Stark may have added something to it that might trigger something when-"
"When people who're less than pure and good try to extend their touch too far in," Antonius interrupted, his tone falling abruptly flat and cold.
"No, that's not what I mean," Steve quickly said, feeling slightly bewildered by the swiftness of Antonius' change in moods. "It's just that Howard has always been very invested in the shield, so he might've added a… personal touch to it. I'm sure it's not targeted towards anybody."
Steve's explanation was almost lost on Tony when the paladin called his father by name. It meant that Steve had gotten to know Howard well enough to use the man's name without any formality; Tony was sure that Steve would've stuck with calling Howard "Lord Stark" in all situations if that hadn't been the case.
This was doing nothing to help his blackening mood. Howard wouldn't be interested in Steve if he hadn't been chosen by the shield, and from the looks of it, Howard had taken enough of a liking to Steve that they were on a first name basis. Well wasn't that just nice?
"Trust me, a "personal touch" from Howard Stark would've caused something to explode regardless of who'd touched it. This is far more selective for unsavory individuals. I'm just surprised that there wasn't an explosion."
His foray into deciphering the magic in the shield had revealed to him that the strong, steady pulse of energy was that of innate Good even though he still couldn't determine the type of spell it was. And it was that energy which had shocked him, physically. Good did not play well with darker energies and a warlock's abilities tended to originate from darkness, Evil and Chaos, regardless of the warlock's own birth nature. Those energies resided in the warlock, able to always be detected in some manner, and this set apart warlocks from most anyone else because no matter how they'd try to change, those abilities would never leave and they'd always have a tangible association with Evil.
But those energies weren't as easily detected in individuals who did not immerse themselves in what those powers represented. Tony had rarely experienced the physical shock when analyzing items that were innately Good. There was the rational thought that Howard was just that good in his spells that even if he hadn't set out to set up traps, they inadvertently became traps due to Howard's power. But Tony didn't accept that. His father rarely did anything without a purpose, especially when it came to things he was invested in. And Tony could personally vouch for knowing just how invested Howard had been when making this shield.
As a child, he'd seen his father being extremely busy when caught up in his inventing moods. But nothing, before or after, had even come close to the man's near-manic fervor when he'd been creating the shield. Tony had grown up without really experiencing affection from his father, and while it hurt, he had kind of gotten used to it. Yet that period of time had been different too.
Howard didn't really like it when Tony worked in the workshop, though he'd never been against it. Probably because that had been an aspect of the Stark lineage that Tony had managed to inherit splendidly even when he failed spectacularly at any kind of arcane magic. He was, however, banned from the workshop when Howard started work on this particular shield even when he swore that he wouldn't interfere with Howard's work.
"I don't need you around to distract me, Tony. You're not allowed in here until I say so."
As if he'd ever been a distraction when Howard never paid him any attention during the times they were both in the shop, working at opposite ends as far away from each other as they possibly could. As if Tony had actively sought attention from Howard inside the workshop.
(That was a lie. He always wanted his father to notice him, to approve of him. But that didn't mean that he hadn't given up on that childish notion years ago.
And maybe that was also a lie. Maybe.)
He hadn't kept away, though. Much as he wanted to win Howard's approval and please the man, curiosity and burgeoning rebelliousness in equal parts had driven him to sneak into the workshop to take a peek at the mysterious shield when Howard had been called away by pressing matters. Unfortunately, Howard had set up wards around the unfinished shield. Tony hadn't been able to touch it, and he'd been quickly found out by Jarvis, the family butler, due to the alarm wards. Jarvis had been quick to usher him out of the workshop, but it hadn't stopped Howard from finding out and punishing him the second he'd gotten back to the manor.
So Tony could not shake the feeling that Howard had decided to take drastic measures, especially once his warlock abilities had manifested. After Howard's shock had faded, he'd hidden himself away in the workshop for a few days, not even coming out for food. Tony used to think that Howard just didn't want to see his complete, utter failure of a son. Now, he wondered if Howard had been adding more protective measures to the shield instead.
He was broken out of brooding over his dark thoughts by Steve's voice, sounding just a little apprehensive.
"You sound as if you know Lord Stark well."
"Oh, so we're back to formalities? What happened to calling him "Howard"? That certainly sounded like you're extremely familiar with him," he retorted, his tone still unfriendly and a little disdainful.
Steve flushed slightly. Tony could tell that he was embarrassed, and just the slightest hint of confusion was showing in the paladin's blue eyes. Steve was probably wondering about his abrupt and nasty change in attitude. But while Tony knew logically that Steve had no idea that he'd stepped blindly into a warzone littered with extremely sensitive mines, he just couldn't stop himself from lashing out.
"I… I just… He's like my mentor, that's all."
"Mentor? The Starks are mainly wizards, with the occasional sorcerer. I fail to see how he'd mentor you."
Tony knew that his dismissive, snide tone was getting to Steve from the way the beginnings of a frown were turning down the corners of the paladin's lips.
"He didn't really mentor me in magic, but there were many other things that he was knowledgeable about."
Steve was still trying to be polite. Not many people were able to keep their cool when Tony was being abrasive, be it deliberately or not; but at this moment, he wasn't able to appreciate it. If Howard had been able to teach Steve anything, then Tony certainly had no idea what it could be. Howard had barely spared any time for him as a child, and what little guidance he'd received from his father had been on metalworking. He honestly doubted that that was what Steve had supposedly learned from Howard, and if anybody mentioned morals, he was going to blast them, consequences be damned.
"Really?" he said with a raised eyebrow. Then he gave Steve a thorough, deliberate onceover before adding on with an obvious leer, "Well, unless you meant mentoring in the fine art of bed-"
The punch blindsided him. It was not merely the force of it, which had sent him sprawling onto the ground, but how he hadn't seen it coming until hard knuckles connected with his cheek. Steve had moved so. Damn. Fast.
Well, he probably deserved that and he didn't think he was going to get up of his own accord anytime soon. The rest of his body ached from the sudden, unwelcome contact with the hard floor and he was going to have a remarkable bruise on his left cheek. He was lucky that he hadn't landed on his tools or whatever else he had lying on the floor, of which many were sharp, pointy and possibly explosive all at the same time.
From his prone position, Tony looked up at Steve. The blond was glaring down at him, face red with anger this time, as he used his height advantage to loom over Tony's form.
"Don't you dare imply such a thing! I don't know why you dislike Howard so much, but you will not insult him in this manner!"
It wasn't the brightest of moves, but Tony couldn't stop the bitter laugh that escaped him. Of course Steve didn't know why he disliked Howard, to put it mildly. Nobody outside the Starks, Pepper, Rhodey and Natasha would know. It was also very unlikely that Steve would ever learn about it from any of them. The Starks would deny his existence and they had never been the type to air their dirty laundry in front of outsiders no matter how close a friend of the family the person may be; nobility was well-versed in the art of putting up a happy, harmonious front regardless of the true state of affairs. The other three people who knew would not tell anyone else. Keeping Tony's identity a secret was one of the few things they'd all ever agreed on (even if it might be for different reasons) without question, and so by extension, was everything that was too close to his past.
As for insulting Howard, it was a little interesting how Steve read it the way he had rather than an insult to the paladin himself. It could certainly have been taken that way, and Tony wouldn't have found it strange. Was Steve really that uncompromisingly good?
"Why Captain, I didn't think you had it in you to hit an unarmed man," he drawled instead, despite the sharp pain that lanced through his nerves from moving his jaw and how he was in a more vulnerable position.
Steve's eyes narrowed. "What you are implying… You're not unarmed, Lord Antonius. You could strike at me even now, lying on the ground."
"I implied nothing, Captain. And you think too highly of me," he replied, his tone of voice innocent in the manner that never could deceive Pepper or Rhodey (he didn't even try with Natasha).
It seemed that it wasn't working on Steve either.
"You know your reputation better than anyone else, and I'm starting to think that there was no exaggeration involved. You deal out death as easily as you breathe."
"More compliments, Captain? How kind of you."
"It was not a compliment!"
"But I see it as one. Everyone's different. Uniquely good at something. I happen to be uniquely exquisite at killing," Tony replied with a sharp, shark-like grin that belied his true feelings.
Let Steve think that he was proud of his reputation, that there was truth in everything that was being said about him. It was true, Tony was good at killing. Not in the way that Natasha could do assassinations clean and quick while leaving no trace of herself, but there had been a very good reason why he had been so sought after as a mercenary and he was not so out of shape now that he could not be lethal if he had to. There was also no doubt that he was still involved in snuffing out life even after his retirement. There was no way to know for certain where all the weapons his blacksmiths made went, to people who just used them to defend and protect or to people who actively looked to cause destruction.
But he didn't like it. He didn't revel in knowing how people feared him. He had long since accepted the fact that just because he was a warlock, he would always be feared by others on some level. That still didn't mean he had to like it, and it didn't mean that he really took pride in it. Because in the end, he still hadn't walked out completely of his father's shadow, of his father's utter rejection of who he was.
He'd commit suicide before letting Steve know though.
The look of disgust on Steve's face in response to his deliberately inciting words was not unexpected, though no less hurtful for it. He gingerly began to sit up, warily eyeing Steve just in case the paladin decided to take another shot at him – verbal or physical. Considering the almost-venomous way Steve was still looking at him, Tony expected at least a verbal assault.
Steve opened his mouth and Tony braced himself for what would come out next. However, he never found out what Steve wanted to say because there was a perfunctory knock on the workshop door and then Pepper strode in.
"Tony? Do you have a minute? If you're serious about going with…" Pepper started before trailing off as she took in the sight before her.
Tony was still sitting on the floor and he guessed that with how Pepper's eyes suddenly focused on his face, there had to be a bruise blooming across his jaw. Great. Someone was going to be in trouble, and chances were that it would be him.
"What happened?" she demanded, voice cool and gaze hard.
She was clearly meaning business and through the corners of his eyes, he could also see Steve straighten a little, as if responding to the sharpness of her tone. Tony mentally sighed in his head. He did not want to let Pepper know the true reasons, nor did he feel like enduring another lecture, especially not in front of an audience. So much for not breaking his promise to Pepper. He did not think he could escape the lecture entirely, but he could hopefully make it so that Steve would leave of his own accord immediately.
"Oh it's nothing, we just had a minor disagreement," he answered, getting to his feet swiftly and stepping towards Pepper.
"Yes, really," he said firmly, hoping that Steve would get the hint and leave.
To his relief, he heard the sound of the paladin moving behind him and then a slight scrape that signified that Steve had taken hold of his shield. Then there was movement before Steve appeared in his peripheral vision. The blond was no longer looking angry, but there was a slight strain to the smile he had on for Pepper. A childish part of Tony gloated that Steve was having a hard time trying to appease Pepper too.
"Pepper, we just had differing opinions. I'm sorry if we startled you," Steve said. Then with an incline of his head, the other man bade them both goodbye and hurriedly retreated from the workshop.
As soon as the workshop's doors closed, Pepper rounded on Tony like he expected that she would do. He quickly held up his hands in an appeasing gesture.
"Now, now Pep, you heard the good man. We just had a minor disagreement."
"You do not end up on the ground with a bruise on your face because of a minor disagreement. I want the truth Tony. What happened?"
He had time to idly muse that at least Pepper hadn't automatically assumed that he was to blame. He wouldn't have faulted her if she did though. Then Pepper's glare became just that side of don't-make-me-force-you-Tony and the next thing Tony knew, he found himself spilling his guts to her. He told her how he'd recognized Steve's shield, that the shield was made by Howard and how he had provoked the paladin because of his issues rearing their ugly heads. He still had enough presence of mind to hide as much as his self-esteem issues from her though. Nevertheless, by the end of his little spiel, Pepper's expression was a lot more sympathetic.
"Oh Tony…" she sighed.
"Yeah well, I guess it's kind of my fault to begin with."
"He shouldn't have hit you regardless," Pepper defended him fiercely with conviction and Tony knew that he loved her best for a reason.
"It's fine, Pep. I probably hit his berserk button or something. You know I excel at doing that, consciously or not."
Pepper smiled wryly in acknowledgement of his point and Tony counted that as a win.