"What are you doing?"
Loki turns, slowly, toward the source of the inquiry. A seal is propped halfway out of the water, belly flat on the smooth sand. Its eyes are unnaturally bright, its body a dark, graceful thing that absorbs what faint light illuminating the night. It is decidedly not a normal seal. For one, it speaks. Also, it has somehow infiltrated the many magical barriers that Loki meticulously set around the entire circumference of the island.
"Did your dam not teach you to offer before you demand?" Loki says, shaking his hands to rid them of the residual ash. The fire is a steady thing built from more spells than he can count, set on a ring of stones collected from all seven seas of Vanaheim. The seal- the selkie, apparently- stares at it, mesmerized by the flames.
"Nah, not in the six years I had her before she passed."
It scoots further inland, the ocean gripping at its tail like a mother clutching at her oblivious child in the face of danger. "I'm Anthony, of the Starks. But I hate that name. Call me Tony."
Loki straightens from his crouch by the fire. Tony's wide brown eyes widen even more, and he cranes his neck to keep his eyes on Loki's face. "So, what are you doing?" He asks again, much more tentatively.
"How did you get in here?" Loki asks back instead of answering. Tony has no eyebrows, but his scowl is unmistakable. Loki looks at him steadily, unmoved.
Tony is the one who looks away first.
"I have a system of tunnels. I tried approaching in the water and got blocked, so- I tried underground."
Loki is impressed. Selkies are not known for being particularly magical; Tony must have relied on purely non-magical technology. "How?"
Tony flicks his flippers impatiently. "You've had your turn. I'm doing the asking now. What are you doing? This side of the shore's mine, I've had dibs on it for the past decade."
Loki considers his choices. On the one hand, lying comes as the more natural course of action. On the other, Tony has been honest with him. The glossy maroon of his coat indeed speaks of Stark blood.
"I am looking to open a gate to Helheim." Loki says, having decided on blunt honesty. "My king landed himself there, and fool as he is, it is not his rightful place. I seek to return him to his throne."
Tony tilts his head, whiskers twitching thoughtfully. "You don't sound all that respectful considering, you know, you're talking about your king."
"Because my king also happens to be my idiot brother. And really, that of all things piques your interest? I just revealed I am about to connect your territory to the realm of the dead. I know you Starks reign over this side of the sea."
Tony hums. It is a strange trilling sound, soft and pleasant to hear. He waddles closer, then closer some more, then all the way close until his snout bumps against Loki's ankle. Loki takes in the sleek curve of his back and wonders what it would be like to keep such a creature as his own. But he knows it is a futile thought, because...
"Are you the firstborn of your litter?" Loki says, letting Tony sniff along his leather-clad legs. He kicks at Tony a little when Tony starts nibbling on the material. Feeding his pants to a wayward selkie would be taking matters a little too far.
"Yes. First and only." Tony mumbles petulantly. He props his head on Loki's shin and looks up with an unsettlingly shrewd gaze. "And you can quit sneaking around with your magic. I'm not leaving without a trapping spell to make me stay, and it's nowhere near as subtle as you think."
In his defense, it has been some while since Loki cast that particular spell, and selkies as frequently targeted creatures tend to be exceptionally sensitive to danger. Which makes Tony's behavior nothing less than suicidal.
"You want my pelt." Tony accuses, with a nonchalance that does not fit the situation.
"Yes." Loki says simply.
"You can take it."
This- the boy really is suicidal. At the incredulity that Loki can feel is plastered all over his face, Tony huffs and curls closer around Loki's legs.
"I know you're going to burn it, moron. I'm a firstborn selkie of noble blood, my pelt will be sacrifice enough to open the path to your brother. And you have a sacrificial fire built- I can put two and two together. I'm saying it's okay."
Tony promptly flops over, baring his belly, and starts grinding his back on the sand. Loki watches, taken aback and unwilling to show it, as Tony peels his seal skin off himself.
"Here." Tony offers, rising unsteadily to his feet. The pelt gleams a beautiful unearthly color in his hold. His skin has now the paleness of a seashell, but his eyes are the same warm brown with its redness catching occasionally in the moonlight. Loki steadies him with one hand and wordlessly takes the pelt with the other. It drapes soft and heavy over his forearm, heavier than he thought- but it holds the life of a selkie, so Loki supposes it ought to weigh its value. Tony glances down at his shed skin, and his lashes flutter against his unblemished cheeks. He is easy on the eyes. He is extremely easy on the eyes. But his beauty will burn away to ash when Loki drops the pelt into the flames.
"Have you ever been burned?" Loki asks, reluctant despite knowing better. Tony gives him an unimpressed look. His face is even more expressive now that it is human.
"Not on the outside." He replies, then is silent for a moment. "Sorry about the scratches, though- my pelt's not in the best of conditions now, probably."
He turns his back to Loki. It is only centuries of experience concealing his reactions that keep Loki's expression blank; Tony's back is nothing like the pale expanse of his front. It is mottled, and bruised, and missing chunks of flesh down the left side. Someone bit the back of his shoulder, someone with fangs. None of the wounds are bleeding still. The skin is a horrible shade of red, though, upset by the salt in the water. Loki is impressed once more, this time in that the boy is upright at all.
"Stark Senior." Tony says dryly, in way of explaining. "My dad. And also my king. I personally wouldn't try to rescue him if he ever wandered his way into hell."
Loki reaches out, almost against his will. His hand hovers near Tony's neck, not touching, not withdrawing.
"I see." Loki says. He should say something else, and he will, as soon he can decide whether to burn Tony's pelt and open Helheim already or to wrap him in an embrace and will his hurt away with careful spells and whispered words. It should not be a decision at all, yet Loki hesitates. His loyalty is to Thor. There is quite possibly nothing in this realm that makes for a better sacrifice than Tony's life.
Tony chatters on, oblivious to Loki's thoughts. "In fact, I'd go to hell if it means I don't have to breathe the same water as he does. He's fucking creative, you know, all my brilliance has to have come from somewhere, and he gets nasty with his mind when he's drunk. Which happens nine days out of ten. So, what I'm saying is-" Tony falters, and studies Loki uncertainly. The sea brushes the shore again and again, quiet sloshes that sound as if they are mourning something. "What I'm saying is, you don't have anything to guilt yourself over. You're actually doing me a favor." Tony finishes quietly.
And Loki understands. He had a purpose in mind when he built the sacrificial fire; it seems Tony had a purpose of his own when he swam toward it. Loki finds he is unwilling to help Tony fulfill it, even if it means the completion of Loki's own.
Loki lets his fingertips close in the last few inches and skim the nape of Tony's neck. Tony doesn't flinch away. Loki runs his fingers gently past his shoulderblades, avoiding the punctures down his shoulder, and splays his hand over the unmarked skin of Tony's side. He tugs and Tony follows without resisting, until they stand face-to-face on the sand.
"Tell me." Loki murmurs, pressing his knuckles to the corner of Tony's mouth. "Is your sire also a firstborn?"
Tony grins, his fangs white in the moonlight. Behind them the waves recede, muttering their relief amongst themselves.