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Loki scanned the pool for an empty lane. Later in the morning, after the before-work swimmers had rinsed off and headed to the office, he could usually grab a lane all to himself. He spied some of the usual swimming suspects as he made his way to an empty fast lane at the far end of the pool: silver-cap lady with a kick board, black cap lady with her enviable freestyle form, the old man who wore the cream speedos that Thor found disturbingly close to nude whenever he joined in Loki’s morning laps, and the bitchy lifeguard. Loki telegraphed a special ‘fuck you’ to the lifeguard as he popped on his goggles, curled his toes over the pool edge, and pushed off into an “illegal” shallow dive. He would never dive into a lane with another swimmer, of course not. But if the lane was empty: fuck the pool rules. They hadn’t banned him from lap swimming yet … yet. One of the perks of being faculty maybe.

He flew through the water. Lap after lap of freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and some breaststroke (begrudgingly). The freestyle laps were always the best. Face down in the pool, watching the black tiled lane line stream beneath him as he pushed his lungs to go one … more … stroke … before he finally came up for air. Flying. Weightless. Deep in his body and miles away from his chattering mind.

Bliss.

Loose limbed and toweled dry, he headed to the studio for their meeting with a prospective new collaborator - a young poet with a penchant for owls as metaphor. She was a decent writer with some potential if she didn’t get led astray by the need for an emergency savings accounts, retirement planning, the trappings of stable adulthood. Loki didn’t have too much hope for her in that respect. The call to cultural norms was a vicious undertow, pulling the sensitive and creative impulses out to a watery death.

Well. I’m looking forward to this, he thought.
I hope Thor has fresh coffee waiting.

The blended aroma of strong coffee, leather, and printing ink greeted him as he walked through the back door.

“You are an acceptable husband, Thor,” he called out into the studio. Doughnuts waited next to his coffee mug in the little pantry area. He had a mouthful of crumb cake when Thor walked in.

“I was about to say you didn’t have to wait to have a doughnut … but … here you are,” he chuckled and kissed Loki’s crumby lips. “Ahhh, chlorine.”

“I showered,” Loki huffed. “But it just seeps into my skin.” Thor leaned in for another kiss. Loki caught the lingering scent of leather on his hands from paring a piece for a new binding.

“I worry that you’re being pickled by pool chemicals.”

“That’s not how chlorine works. Besides you should be more worried about us pickling our livers with cocktails.”

Thor had arranged a selection of past work on the center work table for their meeting. There were a few chapbooks in a spectrum styles, traditionally refined pieces bound in leather with tastefully conservative typography and more experimental, playful work in untraditional materials where Loki had pushed the words around on the pages, a mix of typefaces and inks jumbled just so for maximum effect. A couple framed typographic prints and a whole suite of broadsides in one of Thor’s gorgeous custom clamshell boxes completed the grouping. Loki was surprised to see the prints out for this discussion. He suspected she wasn’t *that kind* of poet, but he trusted Thor. It was a good overview. He loved seeing the physical gathering of their creative relationship laid out before him.

“Are we really listening to the “acoustic indie” playlist again?” Loki grumbled.

“I don’t even know why…” Thor whispered in mock exasperation with a slow shake of his head.

“Oh you do. Shut up.”

Thor leaned into the table, dropped his chin to his chest and sighed for dramatic effect. He had shaved his head at the beginning of summer. Loki did and did not approve. He loved the shock of the change, all that silky blonde hair gone. But he also missed it, all that silky blonde hair … gone. He ran a hand along Thor’s bearded jaw and kissed his cheek softly. He felt Thor’s cheek rise with a smile.

“To battle,” Loki whispered in his ear.

Thor chuckled. “It’s not a battle, Loki. It’s a conversation.”

“Oh,” he stepped back and crossed his arms. “It’s always a battle, my love.”

The young poetess arrived on time. She reminded Loki of so many students that had passed through his print studio over the last ten years. She ran her hands over the clamshell press reverently. Oohed and awwwed over the cases of metal type. Stood back respectfully as Thor pulled out rolls of bookcloth and laid out leather samples.

“This place is magical. I’m at a total loss for words,” she gushed.

Apparently not at a total loss, Loki thought.

“So my choices are a chapbook or some broadsides?” She fingered a blind-tooled goat skin binding.

“It’s not exactly a binary either or choice,” Loki said. “We’re here to talk about creating something unique, specifically for your work.”

“I assume you’ve read my manuscript. What do you see for it?” Overhead Lord Huron’s lead singer garbled though his indie refrain as the poet waited for Loki’s reply.

“It could be a book or some prints,” Loki responded flatly. She caught the dismissive edge in his remark and turned to Thor with a raised eyebrow.

“This is custom work for your first manuscript. We can make it whatever you can dream up. Within reason.” Thor smiled warmly.

“That means within budget,” Loki added.

“Well. I had been thinking of the classic chapbook. I mean, I never thought, I’d even have a small press publisher interested in my work. Much less the budget for a limited edition.” She shuffled through the broadsides, lingering on one of Loki’s personal favorites with a ghostly background print of a mountainscape in a soft, barely visible mix of silver and gray ink, under the stronger sans serif type of the text. He had worked through so much ink to mix just the right shade for this print. The mere memory of that moment sparked a phantom ache in his bicep. In the end, he surely lost money, but he loved the end result so much he simply didn’t care. “I love these broadsides. I do,” she continued. “But I think I’m picturing something more classic that my Grandmother would recognize as a book of poetry.”

As if she had flipped a switch, Loki checked out from the conversation instantaneously. As Thor talked her through some paper options, he leafed through type specimen sheets for the more Grandmother-friendly options: Palatino perhaps or Baskerville. He virtually sleepwalked through the ensuing discussion. Thor would get the particulars, he knew that. He loved him for it. Loki would help put it on the page and pull it all together. His name would be in the colophon. But his heart would be absent from yet another project.

He sighed as they watched the poet drive away.

“Boring.”

“Loki. You know this is the kind of work that pays the bills. Channel your creative need into—”

Loki cut him off. “I know. I know. Personal projects. Competition work. Like what you do. I know. But…” That sounded boring, too. It was all so very boring. He watched Thor pack away the displayed work. Thor was right. And Thor was also wrong. Did he not see that? How could he be satisfied? Was he really satisfied with … just … this?

“You’re plotting. What are you plotting?”

“I’m praying.”

“Ha!”

“For delivery from boredom.”

“Okay, now I’m getting a complex.”

“Not delivery from you. Delivery from this.” He swept his hand toward the studio.

“Well. Aren’t you lucky that a new semester starts next week.”

Ah. Yes. Maybe this year there would be someone *not* boring?

Chapter Text

“Welcome,” Thor clapped his hands, commanding the room’s attention. “You have found the book arts studio. And I assume you are all registered for the Introduction to Book Arts class. I think I recognize a couple of you. Hello. How many of you have been here before?” Twelve hands went up with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence. “Excellent,” he continued. “That may be a first for us,” he said with a nod to Loki who nodded back. They would volley the introductory lecture back and forth today as they had done for so many semesters before this one. Once they had found their teaching rhythm after the first couple years of trial and error, it flowed naturally and hadn't gotten too dull yet.

Plus Loki liked watching his husband work.
And he liked Thor watching him in return.

Before them around the work tables sat twelve veritable strangers. Well, strange to Loki and Thor at least. They most likely already know each other from classes or dorms or general campus life. But Loki liked to think of them as completely disconnected, coming together for the first time in the book arts studio. Not exactly blank slates though. He hoped they came to the studio full of their own lives and loves and aches and joys of the last 18-22 years. Bring all your glorious messiness here, children, he thought. Work it all out on the presses. Smash it into the paper. Make clumsy ink blobbed monstrosities. Give it all physical shape. Release it into the ether of art.

“We’ll go over the syllabus today,” Thor explained. “We’ll talk about your projects. We’re still finalizing our guest speakers, so not too much about those just yet. And we’ll end with a brief tour of the press and bindery that will be your creative home for the next fourteen weeks. But we like to tell you a bit about ourselves first. We assume you’re all coming here from vastly different tracks. None of us in this day and age grow up in book-making families.” There were some chuckles from the group. “There are different paths into this world - printmaking and photography are two of the most common.” A few heads nodded in response. And thus began the abridged history lesson of Thor and Loki’s creative lives.

Thor talked about his studies at the North Bennett Street School, where he dove into the world of hand bookbinding in the midst of student carpenters, jewelers, and luthiers. How he had found his path through the tastes of his genteel father who appreciated well made things and the artisans who made them, from leather goods to bespoke suits to handbound books, and often arranged for private tours of studios and workshops, taking his son with him for bonding and education. Thor’s creative awakening happened in a paper making studio in Vermont on a family vacation which led him to the book arts world and finally to bookbinding itself. It was close to idyllic and Loki relished the difference in their personal histories as he took center stage.

“I, on the other hand, am a DIY poster child, you might say,” Loki said. “I took the less formal route, experimenting with printmaking in my kitchen with linoleum blocks and large spoons, cobbling together art classes at community colleges, and finally stumbling upon letterpress printing and classes at a local book arts centers. I’ve done my fair share of bookbinding and papermaking, but my true love is the black art: letterpress, handset metal type, the hand press.”

Loki’s highly edited story omitted the pain of growing up with a father who did not support his creative impulses or much else about his sons life and choices. He persevered thanks to the encouragement of a string of public school art teachers and a supportive older brother. As soon as he turned eighteen, he moved out on his own. College support from his father came with unbearable strings. Loki would rather struggle and potentially starve than waste any time on a bullshit degree in something his father deemed practical. He moved to New York, living with a cast of roommates in housing ranging from slum to hovel, before he finally found a more stable situation in pre-hipster Brooklyn. He alternated working as a waiter and a barista, taking all the art classes he could afford and building a portfolio that eventually landed him a part-time job managing the print studio at the New York Center for the Book where he met Thor one fateful fall.

Loki so clearly remembered the first time he saw Thor. He loathed him. He walked into the Center with his mentor, a renowned bookbinder with a three-month gig as artist-in-residence, and radiated a golden self-confidence and ease that made Loki want to retch. Thor seemed to be everything Loki wasn’t: comfortable in his own skin with nothing to prove.

Loki, in contrast, felt he had to prove everything, especially his right to a creative life. Thor was kind and open, where Loki was barbed and judgmental. Thor was lighthearted, where Loki was guarded. Thor was genuinely interested in Loki’s printing work. Then Thor was genuinely interested in Loki. It was a beautiful if stubbornly slow start, but once Loki fell, he fell hard, ultimately moving north to Boston to be with Thor as he finished his studies and then following Thor out to California as the “trailing spouse” of an academic hire. Thor’s charmed life seem to extend to Loki, though Thor argued it was actually Loki’s own talent that landed him his own teaching gigs, clients, and finally the assistant directorship of the Book Arts program with Thor.

It had been more than ten years, but Loki still felt it would all evaporate before his eyes if Thor were gone. Yes, he had helped build their private studio and the book arts program they now led together, but some days it still felt like Loki was simply a part of Thor’s life, not a full partner in a life they shared. He never forgot how hard it was to leave home to make his own way and he shared that story with those students he realized needed to hear it, needed that kind of support, needed to know someone had walked a similar path. For that reason, he still taught an occasional class at the San Francisco Center for the Book and supported the book arts and printmaking classes at area community colleges and arts centers. And at his insistence, though he didn’t have to insist all that hard, they always hired one studio intern from the community to complement their studio intern from the school.

They wrapped up the first class with the usual wide-eyed tour of the studio and all it’s equipment and supplies. Loki always watched for students with an overt interest in printing versus binding, though over the years some of his most surprising student relationships were with those who came for binding and ended up printers.

“First thoughts?” He stood opposite Thor at a center worktable.

“Looks like we might have more printers this year. Your reputation looms large.”

“But you know a few will switch allegiances. Especially once they learn that gold tooling is basically sparkly printmaking on leather,” Loki said. Thor chuckled in response. “Ready to talk about these two or do we need a break first.” Loki tapped two portfolios in front of him. This year’s interns would start next week. It was time to finalize the plan. Thor moved to his side of the table and pulled him in for a hug.

“A kiss break?” Loki smirked. “But what if a child walks in, Professor Odinson?”

Thor leaned into him for a gentle peck on the lips. “Ok. Now I’m ready to talk interns.”

“Natasha Romanov,” Loki tapped one portfolio. “And Clint Barton.”

“Yeah,” Thor exhaled as he flipped through Natasha’s book. “I like both of their work so much already. Sometimes you wonder what more you can teach. Clint starts here and Natasha starts at home?”

“That’s what I was thinking, too. Per usual. Keep them in quasi familiar environments before we switch ‘em up.”

“Let’s have them meet over dinner this year again. That seemed to work well with Steve and Bucky last year.”

“Agreed, Professor Odinson. I’ll email them right now.”

Excellent, Professor Laufeyson.”

Loki opened his laptop as Thor straightened up and prepped the studio supplies for tomorrow’s class:

Dear Natasha and Clint,

Thor and I are looking forward to working with the two of you this year. We thought we might get our new team together for an introductory dinner before we launch into a busy semester. Let me know your availability this week and we’ll set a plan.

~Loki

“And send.”

Chapter Text

“Wow. It looks like it’s been a busy week. Scratch that. It looks like it’s been a busy year.” Sif cleared a small island of space among the paper and bookcloth sample books that covered a bindery worktop. She put down her satchel gingerly.

“Feels more like busy decade,” Thor answered. He greeted his old friend with open arms, pulling her in for an absolutely bone crushing hug. “So it’s a mess in here right now. But at least it’s a productive mess.”

“I think it’s gone beyond mess and is quickly approaching disaster zone. I’m surprised even Loki allows this level of chaos.” She turned to take in the press room in a similar state of disarray.

“I heard my name,” Loki called from another room. Thor and Sif chuckled.

“Seriously though Thor, did you forget I was coming today or did I get the date wrong?”

“No, you were expected. We just have a new intern starting today.”

“So you trashed the studio as part of a first day lesson? Is this your idea of initiation?”

“We started doing a supply inventory.” He sighed and stacked a few paper sample books into a precarious tower. “And it got a little out of control.” A crashing noise came from a back room.

“Nothing’s out of control. Everything’s okay,” Loki called out from a distance.

“Well, let’s get started, um, over here,” he hastily cleared a nearby table. “We have a couple things to show you. Ok. Good. This is more than enough space.” He stood back to admire this minor accomplishment.

“Honestly, sometimes I wonder how you two get any clients. But then I remember how fucking amazing your work is.”

“Oh, Sif, we only treat you with this level of utter disdain. We try to keep all the bad behavior in the family.” Loki appeared, wiping wet hands on an ink stained linen apron.

“How sweet,” she grumbled and rolled her eyes.

Thor set two fabric covered boxes down before Sif. The first, covered in a teal silk, shimmered and undulated under the studio lights like sunlight rippling on the surface of a lake. The second, covered in a blue linen so deep it bordered on black, glimmered with a sparse dusting of gold and dark silver flecks. She inhaled sharply with anticipation then slowly exhaled. “Start with whichever one you want, Sif.” Thor and Loki hovered quietly behind her.

She carefully opened the teal box first, built like a clamshell, with one tray locking seamlessly into another. The lid pulled open with a soft whisper as the fabric covered sides slid against each other. Inside a shallow tray covered in cream linen held a pamphlet, a blank, a dummy purely created for this model as a suggestion, a placeholder. Grasping two elegant silk tabs she lifted the tray up to reveal a silk-lined cavity below. The fabric, formed a gentle swell that cradled what appeared to be a simple stack of paper. She lifted the unassuming rectangle and placed the inch thick stack of paper on the table surface. Turning the first page, she found a monoprint of a ghostly clouded seascape facing the title page of her poem printed in a teal ink perfectly matched to the box. With a cautious pull the piece opened out into an accordion structure, sharp creased peaks and valleys rippling across the tabletop. Loki hadn’t printed the entire poem for the model, only given some indication of layout and color change as the storm of the poem swelled and moved through the pages in a strong sans serif type.

Gorgeous.

She turned her attention to the second clamshell box. Again, she gently pulled the lid up and open. Inside, she found a burst of colorful silk, surprisingly riotous after the somber deep tones of the exterior. A wide ribbon of semi-stiff silk pooled in the left-hand tray of the opened box. Thor leaned over, lightly grasped the end of the ribbon between thumb and forefinger, and pulled it gently to the right side of the box. With a brush of his pinky the right wall of the interior tray fell softly to table and the ribbon spilled out across the table top, like a flood of poetry bursting a river bank. Loki reached over and gave the end of the silk a gentle tug revealing a discreet magnet that held it securely to the box. Sif lifted it completely from the clamshell. It fluttered down to the surface before her, slightly weighted at both ends.

“Magnets hidden at both ends?”

“Mm hmm,” Thor hummed.

“Flexible display options,” Loki whispered.

The small visible sample of letterpress, a line of poetry here and there, bit impossibly into the surface of the silk as if it were paper.

“How…?” She started then stopped. Loki winked when she turned to him mid-question. “This is astounding work. It’s phenomenal. It seems impossible. It’s pure magic.”

“All inspired by the poem, Sif.” Thor squeezed her shoulder.

“How do I choose? I mean, it seems pretty obvious…”

“You could do a deluxe limited edition and another larger fine press trade run,” Thor suggested.

“He’s always so pragmatic.” Loki swung an arm over Sif’s shoulder. “Be more adventurous, daring, save me from a straight letterpress ball-and-chain…”

“Loki,” Thor almost growled. “Let her make up her own mind.”

“No, he’s got a point, damn him. I would like to do something extraordinary. A showstopper. Why else hire you two?” Sif laughed.

The front door bell jingled announcing Natasha’s arrival.

“Hello,” she said.

“Natasha,” Thor said. “Come on over. Meet our friend Sif.”

“Wow.” Natasha walked slowly down the center aisle from the front door to the group clustered around the meeting table, absorbing the scene on both sides of the studio. “What storm hit in here?”

“Exactly,” Sif snorted.

Natasha extended her hand to Sif. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am big admirer of your work. I read a lot of it in high school. My favorite English teacher encouraged adventurous reading.” Thor and Loki raised their eyebrows and suppressed their giggles.

“Thanks. I feel old now but genuinely flattered. You must be the new intern. Very nice to meet you. I’m a little jealous of the year you’re about to have here.”

Natasha came up to the table and looked at the work laid out. She glanced over at Thor before touching anything.

“Go ahead. Don’t be afraid.” Thor said.

She opened and closed both boxes. Leafed through the partially printed accordion model. Examined the printed silk. Ran a cautious fingertip over the textured tray surface of the teal clamshell box.

“Yeah” she exhaled. “I want to learn all these things. Magnets?” Natasha turned to Loki, who nodded in response.“I definitely want to learn about magnets. And these boxes. It’s like the cloth grows out of the board, instead of being glued on. How do you do that?” She turned to Thor. “Are both of these for the next Codex?”

“One is,” Loki answered. “Whichever one Sif eventually chooses. No pressure.” All eyes turned to Sif now.

“How many of the ribbon one can you do by February?”

“Yes,” Loki groaned. “You have excellent taste.”

“Fifteen?”

Sif turned to look at them both and nodded. Loki clapped. Sif laughed. Thor pulled them all into a group hug.

“You, too,” he motioned for Natasha to join in the hug. “This edition is going to be your life for the next five months.”

After the excitement of Sif’s visit passed, Loki and Natasha gathered around a small table in the back garden for a meeting of sorts. Thor had left for an afternoon appointment, but Natasha needed to get started. Nine months would go very quickly.

“This is a two way street. We want to learn from you, too. It’s a mutually educational arrangement,” Loki said.

“Really now,” she quirked a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “After whatI just saw? What could I possibly teach you?”

“More than you even know. We all have tricks and short cuts we’ve picked up along the way. I find that’s especially true with self-taught artists. You haven’t had the pure creative experimentation theorized out of you yet.”

Natasha started to respond. Then stopped.

“Go ahead,” Loki laughed. “Speak your mind.”

“I was going to say: I thought I had a chip on my shoulder.”

“Don’t fool yourself. I have a boulder. Nay, a mountain range on my shoulder.”

“Ok then,” she smiled. “I will teach what I can about life today outside of the ivory tower art studio.”

“Well, I would like to learn more about zines, specifically. And you seem to be deep in that scene.”

“Yeah. Sure. I would be happy to show you around the zine world. I’m helping with the zine fair again this year too.”

“Great.”

“I bet you would make some cool zines. I mean, sure, you can do that awesome printing on ribbon thing. But what would you do with a humble piece of newsprint?”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Loki smirked.

“So is that why you’re starting me here and that guy Clint at the campus studio? To protect my natural creative instincts?”

“I suppose that’s partially true. Thor thinks it’s unfair to have you get used to the campus environment while you’re also getting used to us. Clint is already living on campus, so. Voila.”

“Hm.”

“Yes. He thinks he’s protecting you from something that I don’t even know he himself can describe. It makes very little difference to me whether you start here or there.”

“Are you really that difficult? You seem pretty okay here right now.”

“Oh. Don’t let today fool you. I’m a piece of work. Anyone will tell you that.”