Sir Steven Rogers is used to strange things falling into his life and settling there like a murder of talking ravens: he is, after all, himself a blasphemous walking piece of magic, his very bones and blood infused with the essence of a minor God, his flesh nigh-immortal. He's accepted the preternatural speed and grace of Natasha Romanov, the uncanny accuracy of Clint Barton, the savage were-beast that dwells within the mild mask of Bruce Banner, and yes, he's even fought alongside a full-blooded God, and been proud to call Thor his shield-brother. They form an alliance fit to defend the Midland Kingdoms from any enemy that dares to threaten the peace of those ancient and prosperous lands —
— but Lord Antony Stark, immensely wealthy nobleman of Iosia and rakish wooer of every pretty woman in sight, is one of the strangest things that Steven seen in a very long time — perhaps in his entire eventful life thus far, even counting his own history of magical enhancement and enchanted sleep. In part this is attributable to Stark's genius as a weapon smith: the armour he has created for himself, a sleek iron construct imbued with dire magics that render it as light (to Stark) as a fine summer tunic and which is capable of smiting his enemies with eldrich energies at distance, is a marvel of high magical art, and Steven has never seen its like anywhere else.
But even when he is not wearing the carapace which turns him into Iron Man, the strangeness remains, because Lord Stark is never alone. He always walks with a pale shadow at his shoulder, a slender graceful man half a head taller than he and given to murmuring in his ear — or in his mind, when Stark is locked in the heat of mortal combat. On first glance Jarvis appears human, albeit a singularly slim and beautiful human, his skin as creamy as milk and his short-cropped hair like white gold thistledown… until one looks into his eyes, as blue as sapphires, and sees there the brilliance of reflected lightning imprisoned in clear glass.
And until one sees him work magics of his own, using his melodious singing voice to gentle savage beasts or to heal the wounds of battle, or to weave a glamour that leaves even hostile warriors staring at him in dazed and besotted admiration, open for a killing blow by another member of Sir Rogers' party. Nobody knows quite how Lord Stark came to have a half-human Fae-born in his retinue, and no one dares ask — except Steven himself, because it is his business to know every element of the forces under his command. But when he'd approached Stark before their second battle and tendered that question directly, the result had been far less than satisfying.
"Why?" Stark had snapped back smartly while running an oiled cloth over his own blade (too bright for mere steel): "Do you want one of your own?" He'd glanced sidelong at Jarvis, who was unpacking the pieces of Iron Man's red and gold carapace from their own oiled wrappings with hands clad in thin plain gloves of what looked like insanely expensive dragon leather: iron was, after all, poison to those with Fae blood. "Well, if you have ten unicorn hearts and a coal salvaged from the ninth level of Hell to burn them with, perhaps I might be persuaded to discuss the ritual with you. Otherwise, I'm afraid it's no concern of yours how Jarvis came to be in my service."
Steven had recognized that look in Stark's black eyes — an iron-banded door closed and tightly barred — and had nodded and turned away, knowing that he was going to get nothing more out of the Iosian noble this day. But perverse impulse had made him pause and glance back over his shoulder, and ask: "Where did you get ten unicorn hearts?"
"Hm?" Wiping the shining blade with slow strokes, as lovingly if it were a woman.
"All the world knows you're not exactly chaste."
And Stark had laughed, glancing up with merry eyes. "Not now, no — but everyone was young once, Sir Rogers. And should I find myself in need of a lure for more hearts, I'll be sure to come looking for you."
Steven had continued on his way, shaking his head, and gone to talk to Natasha instead. She at least could be depended upon to give him direct answers, even if she did not always tell the entire truth.
Strange indeed. And as time went on, it only became more inexplicable.
As he stripped off his armour after the Avengers' fourth battle, wincing at the pull of the straps against wounds which would heal in an hour, Steven was peripherally aware of Jarvis helping Stark out of his own.
"Ah!" Stark protested as the front left thigh plate was removed.
"My apologies, Sir," the Fae-born murmured where he knelt, setting the piece of iron carefully aside with his dragon leather gloved hands and starting on the groin plate. "That is a nasty cut, isn't it?"
Stark grunted. "It's not —" Then hissed as Jarvis applied brief pressure to unseat the groin piece before pulling it free.
"Indeed, Sir." He gazed for a moment at the slash bleeding red onto Stark's breeches from the juncture of hip and thigh, then stripped off his right glove and laid his hand directly to the wound, singing soft sweet words in an alien language that seemed to fill the air with the scent of burning roses. After a few more seconds Stark hissed again, this time with relief. "I trust that is better?"
"Much." He opened his eyes and smiled down at his body servant, surprising Steven with the… yes, the fondness of it. "Thank you, Jarvis. Well done, as always."
"I live to serve." The Fae-born inclined his head submissively, then slipped the glove back on to continue his task.
Later, when he went round the small camp singing over other wounds, Steven noticed that the fragrance of attar was missing when he was not touching the flesh of his master.
Steven did not devote much thought to it: with an entire crew of unique and powerful warriors under his command, he had too much else to think about on a daily basis. But every so often something would happen that brought the whole thing sharply back into focus, and generated far more questions than answers.
Off in the darkness Banner's beast was howling and smashing, but the screams that pierced the night now were fleeing into the woods, and Steven recognized none as voices under his command. At his side Stark wiped his forehead with a quick savage swipe of the back of his hand, panting, clad only in the pants he had worn to bed, his magical blade red with enemy blood.
"Fucking cowards!" he swore in a low growl, and although Steven did not approve of the profanity he could certainly agree with the sentiment. "Attacking a convoy under the sacred flag!"
Steven nodded grimly, and was just opening his mouth to say that Stark should do a perimeter sweep while he himself went to see that the Vestal Virgins were unharmed when Stark's head came sharply up and around, and even in the ruddy light of the nearby fire Steven could see that he had gone pale.
"Jarvis!" he whispered, and took off at a run for the Virgin's tent with Steven in hot pursuit.
The tent's flap was lolling open, the sound of sobs coming from within, and Stark ducked inside without even offering a sketch of the Gesture of Obeisance required before approaching a Virgin. Steven performed two of them to make up for such heresy, and by the time he entered Stark was already down on one knee beside the fallen form of Jarvis, sliding his right arm under those narrow shoulders and lifting him carefully to rest against his master's bare breast. In front of him two mercenaries lay on the floor with naked blades in still clenched in their hands, their staring eyes and gaping mouths eloquent of a nasty death, and beyond him the Grand Virgin stood gazing down on the tableau imperiously, while behind her the ten Lesser Virgins huddled in each other's arms and wept.
Steven bowed low, offering the Grand Virgin another Gesture and accepting her slight nod before striding to Stark's side. The nobleman's attention was fully focussed on Jarvis's pale face upturned to his, and on the half-Fae's whisper, barely more than an articulated breath: "…no blood… I shed no blood…"
"Thank all the Gods," Stark almost moaned, and sat down full on the canvas floor of the tent to wrap his trembling servant in both arms. He still hadn't let go by the time Steven had ascertained that none of the Virgins had been harmed — and that Jarvis had saved them from the men who had intended to slay them with three swift notes, an exquisite song of instantaneous and terrible death. When he turned back to Stark the Iosian was murmuring to the Fae-born in his embrace, soft words in a language that Steven did not recognize. He scarcely glanced up when Steven laid a careful hand on his shoulder.
"Is he —?"
"Asleep," Stark said in a low voice, smiling strangely. He nodded toward the mercenaries. "This took all the power at his disposal."
"But he will live?" Jarvis's healing skills were too valuable to lose, especially out here in the Wilds.
"Aye." He got his right arm under Jarvis's knees and stood, lifting the slim body easily: Stark might be short, but he was a mass of compact muscle. "But he'll need rest, and time to recover what he's lost. Our timetable has just changed. We'll be camping here for the next two days."
"Two —?" Steven frowned darkly. "We're due in Jumarji in —"
The look Stark turned on him was colder than steel, and as adamant. "Two days," he stated flatly. "Leave us behind if you choose, but we're staying here." And with that he turned and departed the tent, gazing down at the burden he bore and murmuring again in that unknown tongue.
Steven left them behind: he had made a vow to deliver the Virgins in time for the Autumn Festival, and he was not a man who broke his vows for any but the most dire reasons. Nevertheless, he was relieved — and dare he admit it, even happy? — when Lord Stark and Jarvis showed up in Jumarji on the day of the Festival, looking respectively just as smug and as solemn as ever. He even took Stark's blatant seduction of the Prefect's daughter in good part, which was surely as true a measure as any of his pleasure in the company of that profoundly annoying and perversely fascinating little man.