The long, almost hesitant call roused Mary from her place on the couch. She had, for the first time in days, found the time to read. She managed all of three words when Joe started shouting, and he didn't sound like he was going to stop anytime soon. With a deep breath, she reminded herself that she loved her family.
Then she rose and went to the backyard door, rubbing the small of her back through her shirt. Their yard, fairly large given how many houses builders tried to cram onto a street, was fenced in and lined on one side by trees. The other boundaries were dictated by her garden on one side and mud on the other. Nothing she did got rid of the mud.
"There's a body in the yard," Joe said, turning his big blue eyes to her, a look of concern on his face.
"Of course there is," she muttered, pushing open the patio door. She had two girls and three boys, all between the ages of sixteen and four, and nothing fazed her any more.
Not even the dark haired man laying face down in the mud beside the fence could bother her. She turned toward the window, where Joe and his younger sister Lyn stood, their faces plastered to the glass. She pointed at them and crooked her finger. Joe's face vanished only to reappear around the edge of the house a moment later.
"Go get Mike," she told him, "and your dad. And tell Lyn to stop licking the glass." Her youngest daughter, four years old, pressed her open mouth against the window and dragged her tongue all over it.
Shoving her hands through her blonde hair, which had the unfortunate habit of frizzing into a giant mess of curls whenever the humidity got above zero, Mary yanked it back into some semblance of a ponytail and waited for her husband and oldest son.
Mike crashed his way out the patio door five minutes later, bare feet slapping the flagstones, looking like he had just rolled out of bed. She wouldn't be surprised if he had. "Get your ass back in that house and put shoes on," she told him, and he spun about with a look fit for a martyr.
Bob slid out from behind him, a beanpole of a man who stood a few inches over six feet, his wireframe glasses slipping down his nose. He and Mike were of a height, but Mike was a massive slab of muscle, built to be a middle linebacker where Bob looked like a strong wind would blow him over. "There's a body in your mud."
"Your mud," Mary corrected. "You said you would cut down those tree branches so this part of the yard gets more sun."
Bob sighed. "We've been over this, Mary. The tree is on the neighbor's yard, and I can't cut down branches without permission."
"No one lives there!" she exclaimed. The house, owned by a foreign company, was rented out to employees. It had been empty for nearly four years.
Mike banged his way out of the house, wearing dirty tennis shoes. Mary's lips pressed into a long, thin line. He had probably tromped all the way from the mess room, through the family room, into the kitchen, and out the door in those shoes. Her rugs would be filthy. He drew up short, though, when he saw the body in the mud. "Why's there a dead dude in mom's mud?"
Mary let out a hiss of breath. "He's not dead. Just help me pick him up and get him inside."
It took them about fifteen minutes to get the man from the mud into the house, up the stairs, and deposited in the guest bedroom. Lyn and Joe watched, wide-eyed and underfoot, while Mike tracked his dirty feet up and down the white carpet of their second floor. When they got the mud-covered man to the guest room, Mary realized she had failed to plan ahead. There was no way, absolutely no way, she was dropping a dirty body on the guest bedroom's comforter.
"Anna!" she shouted, giving Mike and Bob a severe look that said, quite clearly, if you drop this man, I will kill you dead. "Jack!"
Jack responded first, likely because Anna was plugged into her iPod and growing roots into her phone. "Who's the dead guy?" were the first words out of his mouth.
Mary chose to ignore them. "Jack, go into the hall closet and grab one of the camping blankets," she said. He gave her a dubious look before vanishing from the doorway. There was a loud crash from the direction of the hall closet, and Mary closed her eyes, counted to ten, and reminded herself that she loved her family.
After Jack and Joe spread the camping blanket across the bed to Mary's satisfaction, they placed the unconscious man on it. Mike vanished, likely returning to his cave in the basement, and her suspicions were confirmed a few minutes later when the dull sound of drums thudded through the house.
As if cued, Anna swung into the guest room, her blonde hair, frizzy like Mary's, exploding around her angry face like a halo. "Mom, tell Mike to knock it off," she demanded, shooting the stairs to the first floor a look fit to kill. "I can't study when he's doing that."
"You're not studying," Jack retorted. "You're texting your boyfriend."
Joe made kissy faces, plastering his hands to his cheeks, looking like a fish. "Boyfriend, boyfriend," he parroted.
Anna let out a snort of indignation and stomped away. The door to the room she shared with Lyn slammed shut a minute later. Of course, Lyn had followed Anna back to their room, and now she let out a long wail. "Mom! Anna locked the door!"
Mary pinched the bridge of her nose. "Mom is busy right now, Lyn," she called back as Bob edged toward the door. "Oh, no, don't go anywhere. We are going to sit down and talk about what we're doing with the unconscious man on this bed."
Immediately, Joe started shouting, "Dead men tell no tales." He crooked his finger like a hook and tore out of the room, laughing hysterically.
Jack took off after his younger brother. "Pirates!" he shouted, and Mary was consoled by the fact that the boys would spend at least the next four hours bingeing on Pirates of the Caribbean in its many and varied forms.
That left Bob and Mary alone in the room, and Mary heaved a sigh, crossed her arms, and leaned her hip against the antique dresser. "So. What do we do with the guy covered in mud on the bed?" she asked, letting her weariness show now that the kids were out of the room.
Bob moved to her side and slipped an arm around her waist. She wasted no time dropping her head against his shoulder. "Start by asking the police if there are any missing people or wanted criminals wandering around," he said, ever the pragmatist. It grated from time to time, how objectively he viewed the world, but she had wanted to marry an academic, and so she had. Bob had a Ph.D. in some kind of complicated math that looked more like Greek than anything else, and he was brilliant, and she loved him.
He was just very, very pragmatic.
"And then what?" she asked.
Bob lifted his hand to her neck, rubbing lightly. "The nice thing to do would be to give him a place to stay until he gets back on his feet."
A tiny smile pulled at her lips. Pragmatic, but kind. "I guess we can do that," she agreed. Then she pulled back and smacked him lightly on the butt. "Now go get some of your sweats. We're taking off that…" She paused, frowning at the man on the bed. "That Renaissance Fair amour. We're taking it off. And washing it."
The armor turned out to be the most complicated outfit she had ever touched. There were at least fifteen layers, thick straps of leather and metal, buckles and clips in the strangest of places, and by the time she and Bob had gotten him stripped down to his underwear, a thin layer of sweat covered her skin.
"And what is that anyway?" she asked, pointing at the man's groin.
"A loincloth," Bob suggested.
Pragmatic bastard. "Whatever. Help me get him into your sweats."
It took them another ten minutes to get him dressed, and as they shut the door to his room behind them, Mary leaned against her husband's side, the man's dirty clothes in her arms. "Do you think this is a good idea?" she asked quietly, careful to keep her voice from carrying across the very open second story of their home.
With a heavy sigh, Bob settled one arm around her hips and ran his hand down his face. "Maybe," he said, and she heard the reservation in his voice. Thirty years ago, she knew her parents wouldn't have balked. They wouldn't have hesitated to take a strange man in and care for him while he recovered. But there were so many more disturbed and deranged people in the world, and she had a house full of children. "He probably won't be here long, though."
"You don't think?" She drew away from him, making her way into their room to change her shirt. She dumped the armor into an empty laundry basket and pushed it out of her way with her toes.
"No." Bob followed her. "That's a nice costume. Expensive. He's probably an enthusiast, so he's probably got friends who will notice him missing."
As Mary tugged her shirt over her head, Bob picked up the phone on his nightstand and began punching numbers. She frowned, disappearing into their walk-in closet to find another shirt to put on, and Bob's quiet voice filtered through the half-shut door as he explained the situation to the police officer on the other end of the line.
She sighed, plucking a shirt from a hanger and running her fingers over the soft fabric. Even if no one claimed him, after a few days, they would probably be able to send him on his way. Let him recover, get his bearings, and then turn him loose.
Slipping out of the closet, she smiled at Bob as he hung up the phone. The evening light, filtering in through their windows, cast a golden light across the floor, and made visible little motes of dust, floating in the air. "Who were you on the phone with?" she asked, thinking they needed to talk about their guest with their children.
"The phone?" Bob asked, looking at the handset he held. "Oh, no one. I was going to call my mom."
Mary gave him a brilliant smile. "Why I married you, that," she said, giving his cheek a kiss. "I'm going to ask Anna to keep an eye on our guest until he wakes up."
She felt no reservations or concerns over that decision. That she should have at least some reservations didn't even occur to her, and she installed Anna in the guest room with minimal fuss.
Loki came to with a throbbing headache, and he pressed his fingers to his eyes until bursts of color exploded against his eyelids, as though that might help. Then, with a shuddering breath, he lowered his hand, opened his eyes, and found himself staring at a vaulted white ceiling that was utterly foreign.
It took him only a moment to take stock of himself. His armor was missing, he was not dead, he had fallen through time and space and ended up somewhere that wasn't Niflheim, and there was a strange weight on his shins.
He bolted upright. Nausea turned his stomach, black dots clouded his vision, and a small child clutching a stuffed rabbit as large as she was stared up at him from her place on his legs. Her eyes were opened wide, the same sky-blue color as Thor's, and her fine blonde hair was a mess of curls pinned back with an atrocious rainbow colored bow. She gave him a toothy smile.
"Anna! Anna!" Her head turned to Loki's right, and he shifted his gaze to follow her line of sight. A teenager sat on a chair beside him, white plugs in her ears, head bobbing as though to music, as her fingers flew over the screen on a small, hand-held device.
When Anna, for he assumed that was who the teenager was, did not respond, the little girl threw her rabbit. The rabbit hit Anna full in the face, and the girl wrenched the white buds from her ears with a snarled, "What do you want, you little—oh." She stared at him. "Uh. Hi."
He stared back, cataloguing her facial features. Long, slim nose, brown eyes, curly hair of a coarser texture than the little girl's. A pointed chin, high cheek bones. She might be pretty, one day, to someone who was not him. "Hello," he said slowly.
She turned her face from him, sucked in a breath, and shouted, "Mom! The dead guy's awake!"
Loki flinched back, the volume of her voice sending a stabbing pain through his skull that bounced around his head until he thought he might vomit or pass out or both. It was through a phenomenal force of will that he didn't do either.
Another woman stepped into the room, and for a wild moment Loki thought he had been seized by the Valkyries. Except the Valkyries would never dress in the flimsy dark blue pants and loose-fitting top the new woman wore. Nor did they have children, and Anna and the child on his shins were obviously hers.
She looked at him for the barest of moments before her gaze settled upon Anna, who had hunched over the handheld device once more, a look of fierce concentration on her face. "Anna, what are you doing?"
"Texting," came Anna's reply.
"Boyfriend, boyfriend!" the little girl on his shins said in a sing-song voice, bouncing up and down. He thought, again, he might be violently ill.
Anna made a sound of disgust and rolled her eyes, but didn't look up. "Ben and I aren't talking right now, duh. God, Lyn, you're so stupid."
"She's not stupid. She's four," the mother returned, her expression and tone lacking any amusement. "Anna. Did you even ask our guest how he's feeling?"
Anna's eyes flicked briefly over him, and Loki stared back, nonplussed. "How are you?" she asked, but it was obvious she didn't care.
"Anna Marie Fredrickson!"
The teenager flung her hands into the air. "Mom, look, I'm sorry, but I have way more important things to do than make sure a not-dead guy in dad's sweats—" Loki looked down and lifted a brow. He was wearing a ratty, old garment not fit for a peasant. "—is okay. Stacey just broke up with Jeremy and we all knew this was coming, but she's totally distraught, so I'm telling her that Jordan wants to make out with her, but I don't think that's helping because she thinks Jordan wants to date Megan, but Megan wants to date Kevin, and I have a lot on my mind right now, okay?" With that, the girl stormed out of the room.
Her mother dragged a hand over her face before turning to Loki with a weak smile. "Hi," she said.
"Hello," he returned.
The little girl on his shins chose that moment to move, crawling up his legs to settle on his lap. She grabbed his hands, wrapped them around her body, and gave him a grin so large he thought her face would split in half. "New rabbit," she announced.
The mother made a strangled noise similar in sound to a drowning cat. "I'm sorry, here, let me just—" And the woman hurried to the side of the bed and pried the child, Lyn, from his lap. She gave the child the stuffed rabbit, pointed to the door, and said in a tone with which no child would argue, "Out. Now." Then Lyn was gone, the rabbit trailing behind her, and he looked at the mother, expectant.
She dropped onto the chair previously occupied by the teenager. Anna. "How are you feeling?" she asked, and the question was so bizarrely misplaced in the aftermath of her family that Loki wasn't entirely sure how to respond.
Honestly, he supposed. "I have a very large headache," he said.
"I can get you some aspirin." He assumed that was some kind of mortal medicine, and he shook his head because he had no intention of taking it.
That only made the headache worse.
She must have seen something on his face, a wince, perhaps, that convinced her he needed the medicine regardless, because she excused herself and left the room. In her absence, he took more thorough stock of himself, pressing his hands to his face as he studied himself in the mirror opposite the bed.
Everything was where it was supposed to be, but there was something wrong. Perhaps it was in the shadows under his eyes, or in the tightly drawn grimace on his face, an expression he couldn't seem to shake. Perhaps it was in the groan of his stomach or the prickle of his skin when he heard the mother's feet on the carpeted hallway. Or perhaps it was in the utter lack he felt deep inside, in that visceral place where his magic poured forth.
He had no time to react to the realization; the mother stepped into the room, a glass in one hand and pills in the other. "Here," she said, offering them both to him as she sat on the chair beside the bed once more.
Despite the knowing, he tried to use his magic to make the pills disappear when he held his hand to his mouth. It didn't work, and he fought a brief, terrible battle against panic, for what was Loki if Loki had no magic? Instinct won over panic, and a simple sleight of hand trick had the pills safely hidden under his clothing. He gulped down a mouthful of water, discovered he was incredibly thirsty, and polished off the whole glass in seconds.
"Thank you," he said, and she took the glass from him.
She studied him for a moment with an open scrutiny he wasn't used to, a perplexed expression forming on her face. He wasn't much used to that, either; on a whole, Asgardians had always worn closed expressions about him. But her curiosity played across her face. "Do you know how you ended up in my backyard?" she asked.
Of course he did, but he wasn't about to share that with her. "No, I—" He managed a choked sound, widening his eyes so the air stung them and they filled with tears. The teary expression had the desired reaction. The woman's face melted with sympathy, and she leaned toward him. He hadn't counted on her touching him, but he accepted what was supposed to be a comforting hand on his arm with grace and dignity. "I don't remember— My name— That's the only thing."
"What's your name, sweetie?"
As soon as he discovered why he had no magic and rectified the situation, he would play some mischief on her she would never forget in return for that question. And that nickname. "Loki," he said, pressing his face into his hand because he was certain he would start laughing at any moment.
But the laughter had its use. When his shoulders shook, she surely thought he cried, and the little gasps he couldn't suppress she likely mistook for sobs instead of half-muffled giggles.
Forty minutes and a bath later saw him seated in a high-backed, overstuffed armchair and the object of much attention. The woman's youngest three children stared at him with unabashed interest, which truthfully made him a little uncomfortable. Loki did not like to be the center of attention; he preferred to go unnoticed, skulking through shadows and secret places.
The eldest girl, Anna, was once again glued to the strange hand-held device, and the eldest boy seemed to be similarly transfixed with a device of his own. He stared at it in his hand until it made a faint chiming noise, and then he was a flurry of activity.
His mother – Mary she said her name was – plucked it from his hands, to which he managed half a protest before a severe, cutting look stopped him, and then she took Anna's as well. "No cell phones," she told them, and Loki had to admire the way three words and a single expression could cow any objections.
"Your personal drama can wait," the father said, settling on a couch beside the eldest son. He turned a sharp gaze on Loki, and Loki assessed him in an instant – academic, thoughtful, generally quiet. The type who thought before speaking, was usually soft-spoken, relatively erudite. A complete contrast, then, to the rest of his family who seemed to take after their mother with sharp tongues and volatile tempers.
After placing the devices on a small side table, Mary moved to stand beside Loki's chair. The gesture, he thought, was strangely protective. But, then, a woman with five children would likely fall with relative ease into a mothering role with any seemingly wounded individual. He loathed that they thought him so weak, vowing at the first opportunity to leave them.
"Kids, this is Loki," Mary said. "He's had an accident and can't remember anything about himself, so until something comes up, your father and I have decided to let him stay with us."
Anna's hand shot in the air, and she said nothing until her mother acknowledged her. A curious manner of requesting permission to speak. Loki filed that tidbit away, too. "Okay, so, wait, is this going to mess up the shower schedule? Because Jack showering in the morning already cuts into the time I need to do my hair."
Contentious little bitch. "I can shower in the evening," Loki said, and this statement made her flash him what she surely thought was a winning smile.
"We can rework the shower schedule later." Mary pointed at the youngest child. "Loki, this is Lyn."
Lyn held up four fingers. "I'm this many," she told him proudly. He gave her an indulgent smile, and she squealed, curling around the monstrously large stuffed rabbit in her hands.
"That's Joe." She pointed to the youngest boy, who looked quite like his father, likely between seven and eight, but judging mortal ages was next to impossible. One moment they were babies, and then they were dead. Loki had never felt the need to pay that much attention to their short lives. He resented his own short-sightedness. "And Jack."
Jack, with the same brown hair and brown eyes as his brother, just stared at him, silent.
"Anna, who you've met." Anna gave him another brilliant smile, and Loki managed to catch his grimace before it flashed across his face. "Mike, our eldest."
It was impossible not to despise Mike on sight. The boy had Thor's strong features, broad shoulders, and sparkling blue eyes. That sky blue eyes seemed to be common in this particular family didn't matter. The curling brown hair atop his head didn't matter either. They held themselves with the same casual arrogance, exuded the same self-indulgent charisma and self-assured charm.
"Yo," Mike said. Oh, and he was just as erudite as Thor. Wonderful.
"A pleasure," Loki managed, not trusting himself to say anything further.
The father leaned forward, offering his hand. Loki took it, only because it was expected. "Robert," he said. "Everyone calls me Bob."
There was a moment of silence wherein Loki was keenly aware of the fact that he should say something appreciative. "I am humbled by your kindness in taking me in," he finally said, putting as much sincerity as possible into his voice.
With a laugh that sounded a little flustered, Mary patted his shoulder. He had been conscious perhaps an hour and had already received more physical attention from strangers than ever he had from his family. "It's the least we can do," she said.
"So are we done here?" Anna asked. Mary gave her a look that Frigga would have appreciated, but it didn't do a thing to the girl. "What? Look, I have stuff to do, okay? I've got a math test tomorrow."
"Aw, shit, so do I," Mike said. His father smacked him on the side of the head, and Loki fought the burst of sympathy and anger that rolled through his stomach. "The hell, dad?"
"You're not big enough that I can't wash your mouth out with soap. Go set the table," Bob replied. Loki highly doubted Bob was capable of doing anything to Mike that Mike didn't want to allow, but the child, sulking, muttered an apology for his language and tromped into the kitchen.
He watched with relative amusement when the rest of the kids scattered en masse. Mary caught Joe and Jack before they could vanish to their room upstairs, and Bob stopped Anna with a finger in one of the belt loops of her pants. "Kitchen," Mary said, turning the children around and pushing them forward.
"But I have a math test—"
"You also have a dinner to help me make," Mary said, cutting Anna off and pointing to the kitchen. Anna groaned and followed the two boys, pushing at them when they didn't move fast enough for her.
Lyn, meanwhile, had dragged herself and her rabbit behind Loki's legs, under his chair. He looked down at her, and she gave him a toothy grin. "New rabbit," she said to him.
"Does she say anything else?" he asked, somewhat exasperated.
With a shake of his head, Bob rose from the couch, his knees popping. "Nope, not with people she likes," he replied. "You like sloppy joes?"
It was, Loki thought, a sad commentary on his life that his brain conjured an image of Joe covered in mud, clothing tattered and torn, in response to that question. "Ah… I don't…"
The look of sympathy that passed over Bob's face before being replaced with an energetic smile infuriated him. "Don't worry about it. We'll figure out what kinds of foods you like as we go."
As it turned out, sloppy joes were surprisingly edible. They lived up to their name, and watching Lyn and Joe eat them was perhaps the highlight of Loki's evening. By the end of the meal, Lyn's front was painted with the meat sauce, as were her arms up to her elbows. Mary seemed to take this with good nature; if she was bothered, it did not show. Joe managed to keep the meat mostly in the bun, a feat even Loki had to appreciate (his first two bites were almost as poorly executed as Lyn's entire meal), but still smeared it over the lower half of his face.
There was a single, dangerous moment at the start of the meal when Loki nearly lost hold of the bun, and Anna mocked him shamelessly for it. Before he had a chance to retaliate (and he thought she should count herself lucky he could not use his magic), Mike, on Loki's left, kicked his sister under the table and reminded her of a time when she had covered herself in something called ice cream.
To his surprise, a round-robin game of who can embarrass the other most began. Mary and Bob joined in at one point, Mary recalling a time when Mike had ripped up all the flowers in a neighbor's garden. Bob's story left Anna gaping, her eyes swinging from Loki's face to her father's, as she alternately gasped out "Dad!" and "oh my God, I'm going to die."
And when the meal was finished, the whole family moved as a remarkable unit to have the table cleared and the dishes cleaned in no more than fifteen minutes. Mike took up a position rinsing dishes and scrubbing the pots and pans, Anna dried them, and it fell to Jack to place the dishes into a large contraption beside the sink and the pots and pans in their right places. Joe ran back and forth from the table to the counters, moving the plates to the sink for Mike and putting away the condiments and placemats. Mary vanished to clean up Lyn, and Bob settled on the loveseat in the family room; neither seemed particularly concerned that the jobs wouldn't be done.
Loki would have expected griping and complaining. He would not have been surprised if the children, as soon as their mother was out of sight and their father distracted, dropped their duties and scuttled off. But they did not. They worked in amicable silence, and he found the easy way they dealt with each other as surprising as it was uncomfortable.
When they were finished with their chores, they dispersed. Mike and Jack went down a flight of stairs to the basement, Mike saying something about Call of Duty to which Bob replied Jack was too young for it and they should play something else. Anna disappeared upstairs, likely to her room, while Joe clambered onto the couch beside his father, stole the plastic slab Bob held in his hands, and began pushing buttons. A lighted screen – television, Loki thought idly – switched from one image to another until Bob took the plastic device back and set the television to what was clearly the preferred station.
"Grab a seat," Bob said, gesturing to the longer sofa that backed up to the kitchen wall.
Loki settled on one end, perched on the edge of the seat. "Your children are well-trained," he observed, and Bob laughed.
"Only because they know their mother would take away their cell phone privileges in a heartbeat if they didn't do their chores," he replied. "Mary deals with the discipline. I hide in my office in the basement and crunch numbers. You remember any of the shows you like?" He lifted the plastic in his hand, and the word remote filtered through Loki's brain like an afterthought. "We can flip through the stations until you recognize something."
He shook his head. "Whatever you prefer is fine."
"Home Makeover?" Mary asked as she came down the step from the tiled foyer into the family room. Her husband nodded, and Loki watched them surreptitiously as she settled with Lyn on the couch beside Bob and Joe.
Almost as soon as Mary was down, the children began jockeying for position, and Loki suppressed a wince, certain there would be shouting and yelling in a moment. But there wasn't; Lyn settled happily on her father's lap, and Joe squished himself between his parents' legs. His expression a study in neutrality, Loki pretended to watch their show of choice while studying the four mortals.
Lyn was asleep within ten minutes, curled up in her father's lap. One of his hands rested easily on her hip, and from time to time, as if he didn't realize what he was doing, he would drop his lips to the top of her head and give her a light kiss. Mary leaned toward her husband, their bodies a protective canopy around Joe's, and by the end of the show she was drifting to sleep as well with her head on Bob's shoulder. Joe was the only one who seemed at all interested in what was on the television, but he sank lower and lower into the couch as the minutes ticked by, until he slouched so far down that he barely managed to stay on the couch.
All this, Loki took in and catalogued, intending to mull over it at great length later that night. But when he climbed into the bed he had been given, he was asleep within moments.
He woke slowly to the feeling of pressure and heat and sweat, and for a moment, he wondered if he was in Muspelheim and the previous day had been some wild dreaming. Then Loki opened his eyes and discovered the heat and pressure was from the small child sprawled across his chest.
He was still formulating a proper and articulate response to the situation when Lyn yawned and opened her eyes. "Hi," she said, rubbing a hand over her face.
"Good morning," he replied slowly. "When did you get here?"
"Bad dreams," she told him. "Anna kicks."
Ah, well. He supposed he wouldn't want to share a bed with her sister, either, and he wrapped his arms around the child as he sat. Settling her on his hips, he rose from his bed, nearly tripping over the stuffed rabbit and his discarded sweatshirt. A sneer slashed across his face; he needed his own clothes.
He pulled open the door to his room and came face to face with what he could only describe as chaos in its purest form.
Joe, naked, ran from the master bedroom toward his own room, giggling madly, his mother chasing after him. Half of her body was soaked, covered in soap. The door across from him opened, and Anna, sopping wet and wrapped in a towel with the shower still running, shouted "Mom, Mike used all the hot water!"
"Then shower faster!" was her mother's response as she vanished into Joe's room.
Jack shouldered past Anna, and she turned to her brother, yelling at him to get out so she could get dressed. Jack, nonplussed, took his time in collecting his things before running toward the master bedroom. Bob crested the stairs, holding a basket of laundry, and neatly sidestepped Jack before the boy could bowl him over. "Who needed underwear?" he asked.
"I did!" Anna hurried over to her father, snatched some clothing from the basket, and finally noticed Loki standing there. He lifted a brow as she shrieked, "Stop looking at me, you pervert!" before dashing back into the bathroom and slamming the door.
"Don't worry about it," Bob said serenely, passing Loki by to drop the basket in Lyn and Anna's room at the end of the hallway.
Loki swung after him, adjusting Lyn on his hip. "I believe this belongs to you."
Bob's gaze finally landed on the girl, and he laughed. "Did she sneak into your room? Sorry, I hope you don't mind. She does that." He held out his arms. "Come on, Lyn." The girl flopped against Bob's chest, curling her arms around his neck.
"Mom, Ethan's here!" Mike shouted from the first floor. "See you!"
Mary's head popped out of Joe's room, and Loki could see the strain in her arms as she attempted to hold onto Joe's wriggling body. "Wear your seatbelt! Have a good day!" Then she vanished into the room again, leaving Loki alone in the hallway. Bob, he thought, had likely taken Lyn to be dressed.
Unsure what he should do with himself, he started ducking back into his room when Jack appeared and waved to him. "It's crazy in the morning," the boy said when Loki walked over.
"Yet you're ready," Loki observed.
Jack nodded. "Lyn needs lots of help, and Joe could do everything on his own, but he doesn't want to. Mike and Anna yell at each other most mornings. I just get ready. I don't bug anyone." He shrugged, and Loki found the young boy's attitude almost refreshing. Mortal though he was. "Want some breakfast?"
Actually, he didn't. But refusing would be rude, so he inclined his head. "You can make your own meals as well?" he asked as they made their way down the curved staircase.
Jack grinned. "No, just cereal and bagels," he said. "Want some Cap'n?"
"Cap'n?" Loki asked, leaning on the granite countertop in the center of the kitchen.
Crouching in front of a cabinet, Jack pulled open the doors. "Cereal." He held up a garishly colored box featuring an impossibly proportioned man in a ludicrous outfit. "It's my favorite. We also have Lucky Charms and Kix and some whole grain granola stuff that dad swears makes you smarter." He stuck out his tongue. "It tastes like carpet."
"And you know what carpet tastes like?"
Jack rolled his eyes. "Duh, I have an older brother. We wrestle. He wins 'cause he's bigger and plays football." The boy went to the other side of the oven and stood on his toes to open the cabinet hanging above the counter. He pulled down two plastic bowls and two glass cups before making his way to the large black box opposite Loki.
Loki drew away from the island counter and plucked the dishes from where Jack left them. He took them to the table, where placemats were already laid out, and set them down. "Do you enjoy wrestling with your brother?"
"Sure," Jack said, putting the milk, juice, and cereal box down on the table. He grabbed spoons for them and began pouring the cereal into the bowls. "It sucks, though, because he always wins."
Loki's lips drew into a flat line. "Yes. I am familiar with that."
Earnest eyes met him. "You have a brother? You remember something?" the child asked, clearly excited.
Damn. He backpedalled. "I—maybe. The words simply came out," Loki said, his tone smooth and collected, but he was quickly assessing how best to do damage control. "Perhaps I must have a brother, and it was simply a natural thing to say."
Jack watched him suspiciously, with the guileless and open face of a child, and then he shrugged. "Yeah, sure," he agreed, pouring milk into their cereal. "But it's cool, you know? Like, he's always around to protect me." He poured their juice and then sat, patting the chair beside him, and Loki settled as well, carefully picking up the spoon and tentatively taking a bite of their breakfast.
It was nauseatingly sweet, crunched unpleasantly, and had the texture of dirt. He forced himself to swallow, taking a large drink of his juice. That, too, was exceedingly sweet, and he wondered if children on Midgard consumed anything without copious amounts of sugar.
"How very fortunate."
"I think so. Cause I get picked on sometimes. Cause I'm quiet," Jack continued, spooning his cereal into his mouth around his words, talking and chewing at the same time. Loki kept his attention on the windows opposite them, and on the dog that wandered across the backyard, its nose to the grass. "And, like, so there are these guys in my class who are really mean. But Mike told them to back off one time."
The thought of Mike chastising a group of pre-adolescent children reminded him of Thor. There were, it seemed, some universal truths, and one of them was that big brothers were obnoxious, overbearing, and smothering.
"But it was cool," Jack said. "I'm littler than most people my age."
The parallel was not lost on Loki, and he wondered if the universe might be attempting to manage some sort of mischief at his expense. Less than pleased by that idea, he attempted another bite of his cereal and found it just as repulsive as the first. "Then you shall have to find other ways to succeed than size and strength."
"Dad says that." Jack grinned around his mouthful of cereal, and Loki pretended not to notice. "He's really smart."
"What does he do?"
"Science," came the immediate and uninspiring reply. Loki was about to ask what kind of science, though he doubted Jack would know, when Mary appeared in the archway from the family room to the kitchen.
"Move it or lose it," she said to Jack. "You've got five minutes before we leave."
"Eugh, no way!" Jack picked up the bowl, tipping its contents into his mouth, and then jumped from his seat. He dropped the cereal in the sink and rushed out of the room while his mother sighed and threw her hands into the air.
"Another twelve years of this," she muttered. She was halfway through the family room when she paused and turned her gaze to Loki. "After I get the kids dropped off and do the grocery shopping, I'll take you to get some clothes, how's that sound?"
Loki choked down a third spoonful of cereal and nodded. "Delightful," he said, not meaning it at all.
In an effort to keep his mind occupied, he took to wandering the Fredricksons' home while he waited for Mary to return. A mortal would have seen him poking through Lyn and Anna's room an egregious overstepping of boundaries. But Loki refused to be without knowledge. Knowledge was his weapon. And in any event, mortal personal boundaries meant little to him.
Lyn was uninteresting; aside from an unhealthy obsession with rabbits, she seemed to like the color pink and puppies. Anna was much more interesting. She kept a diary. Locked, of course, but it was a flimsy thing that required only a bent paperclip to release. Her diary was filled with the insipid ramblings of a child, but he did find several interesting points. Namely, she was failing biology, her boyfriend was pressuring her into a physical relationship she didn't want, and she thought Mike wasn't a complete "douche" (her words, not his) when he didn't smell like jockstrap.
Whatever jockstrap was.
She also had a massive collection of shoes. He stood before her closet, eyeing the collection with a perturbed expression. Why anyone would need that much footwear was beyond him.
His foray into Joe and Jack's room revealed little. Joe liked trucks and building, having a healthy collection of blocky toys with the words Lego printed on them in a box with his name on it. Jack, to his surprise, collected books like Anna collected shoes, and he found them stuffed in nooks and crannies throughout the room. They ranged from the banal to the fascinating, as far as children's literature went, and he actually considered reading one of the titles about a demi-God named Percy Jackson.
Mary and Bob's room revealed precious little about them. They kept little there aside from clothing and a picture of them from their wedding. But the state of their closet, meticulously organized, did tell him about one of them. He suspected the organization was Bob's doing, but couldn't be sure.
He made his way to the first floor, nearly tripping over their dog at the bottom, and turned to his left to make his way to the basement. Mike's room was there, and that was his next destination. Though certain he knew what he'd find there, it was a matter of thoroughness to turn over every corner of that child's room.
Unfortunately, Bob was in the basement. A basement that, aside from the unnecessarily large television, was filled with books from floor to ceiling.
"I like to read," the man said, as though he needed an excuse, while rising from a small, circular table strewn with papers.
"So I see," Loki murmured, reaching for the bookshelf closest to him. He plucked a paperback from the shelf and turned it over in his hands. "Partial Differential Equations," he read, turning toward Bob as he drew near.
The man rocked on his feet, his height placing him within a scant inch of the ceiling. "I do number crunching," he said as Loki paged through the book. It contained, as the title suggested, lists of equations. He assumed the blocks of texts were explanations. "Mostly for researchers. The fiction section is over there."
Loki lifted his eyes, following Bob's gesture to the shelves on the opposite wall. He closed the book and replaced it on the shelf, crossing the room. "Do you have a favorite?" he asked, idly skimming his fingers over the spines of the books.
"Not particularly," Bob admitted. "I don't read as much as I used to." Loki felt Bob's eyes on him as he continued to make his way down the row of books, pretending to look for one that might pique his memory. "Just so you know…" Loki's gaze lifted to Bob's. "We did let the police know we found you. So if anyone files a missing persons report before you start remembering things, we'll be informed."
Gratitude, he supposed, was the proper response. "Thank you, Bob." He pulled a book at random from the shelf. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Mortal literature didn't hold him in any amount of thrall, but he thought he might be able to slog through some of their tripe in the evenings before bed. Then, at least, he would have an excuse to send the family on their way as he investigated the loss of his magic.
Definitely going the M-W-F update road with two chapters a day.
Loki was well on his way toward establishing the ruse of reading when Mary returned from her morning errands. He sat on one of the two couches in the basement, legs stretched before him, bare feet resting on the large leather ottoman, as he turned the pages of the book and contemplated his magic. It wasn't gone, not in the sense that there was an empty space inside him; it was more that he couldn't touch it. Every time he reached for it, it slid away from him, slick and slippery.
Mary's return necessitated a change in his attentions, and he left the basement to find her holding up two of her husband's sweat suits. "Pick one," she said as soon as she saw him, thrusting the suits toward him.
Neither looked particularly inviting so he chose the one on the left simply because it was mostly black and sported two green stripes up either side. He changed into it in the powder room, as Mary called it, and was then offered a pair of what she called flip-flops.
He didn't know whether or not to be offended more by their poor quality or the fact that they belonged to Mike. He put them on regardless, and she herded him into a very large car. "Seatbelt," she told him, and he took his cue from her, buckling a strap across his chest and lap.
"I was thinking we could start at Macy's," she said, and Loki nodded. "Or maybe Penny's. Thoughts?"
"None," he replied, and that made her laugh for some reason.
"Sorry, yeah, I forgot. No memories."
He made a noise of agreement and lapsed into silence, studying the world outside the car as they sped down the road. Mary seemed content to chatter endlessly at him, and he spared only the barest attention to her words. A lot of what she said was meaningless; he had no interest in current events or political leaders or new innovations. None of those would trigger his "missing" memory. Their destination, however, was suitably impressive and arrested his interest quite quickly.
"You don't remember malls?" Mary asked as they exited her vehicle and approached an entrance.
"No," he said, wondering when humanity had managed something like this. It was true that he spent more time paying attention to the mortal realm than most thought, but buildings like this had escaped his attention.
The inside was… overwhelming, actually, was the perfect descriptor. The building boasted outrageously high ceilings, and racks of clothing that stretched for what seemed like miles. A dull and muted roar filled the store, and just under that he could hear the strains of something resembling music. The air was thick with the smell of perfume, the temperature too high, and he was overcome with vertigo.
Loki Odinson, a god who stood on Bifrost and gazed outward at the universe, fell prey to vertigo in a clothing store.
"Loki?" Mary placed a cool hand on the side of his face. "Are you okay?"
He shook himself, finding several places throughout the shop with his eyes that allowed him to ground himself, and he nodded. "Yes. I am fine, thank you."
The look on her face said she wasn't convinced, but she didn't pursue him with questions, and for that he was grateful. Instead, she led the way toward several racks of clothing. "I figured we could start here," she said, holding up a plain jacket of poor make.
With a mild frown, Loki examined the jacket. He replaced it, pushing aside other jackets, all the same design, their only difference in their varied sizes. Disgust coiled in his belly. The idea of wearing clothes mass-produced for the general population, especially clothing so cheaply constructed, sat poorly with him.
"Not your style?" she asked as he moved to another rack. Loki took quick stock of the clothing and passed that by as well. "Loki?"
He ignored her, intent on his search. So much of what was on sale was clearly lacking in quality. The weavers of Midgard had no sense of pride in their wares. Mass-produced drudgery. Clothes for peasants, not a prince of Asgard. But you are not a prince of Asgard , his traitor mind murmured.
Rebellion against that thought stalled him before a wall of suits. They were certainly not as fine as the things made for him, but closer inspection revealed they were of better quality than the clothes on the racks.
Loki turned to Mary. She looked like she had swallowed something unpleasant. "The quality is acceptable," he said, lifting a jacket from the wall.
Her fingers closed around something hanging from the sleeve, and the hiss of air through her lips suggested she was not entirely pleased. "Five hundred dollars for a jacket?" she muttered.
"This is expensive?"
"It's about as much as I pay for my family to eat every two weeks."
Reading her was simple. Displeasure turned her words sour, and concern pressed her mouth into a thin line. Reticence rendered her usually grandiose gestures and overstated actions small and hesitant, and she plucked at another jacket with nervous fingers. All this served not to make him sympathetic or feel compassion; rather, he became annoyed with her and with himself. He could not tell her that he was a prince of Asgard. He wasn't one any longer. But also because she would, he knew, assume he was mad. He couldn't justify his desire for nice things, except, perhaps, in a puissant way, suggesting he came from money.
Yet if he were to paint a picture of himself as a wealthy mortal, surely people would look for him. The fact that no one would come for him would make no sense. He was an unwanted, miserable creature.
Who was being cared for by a family that had no reason to care, a family that feed him and was attempting to clothe him.
In a wild, uncontrolled rush, magic lurched from his body, an invisible wall of power. He stumbled, catching himself almost casually on a rack of clothes. He hadn't experienced such an outpouring of power in years, having learned long ago how to control and direct the magic inside him. Now, though, it was like a dam broke inside him, and the waters of power crashed through the tributaries of his body and into the world, directionless.
He waited for the disaster. Uncontrolled magic always resulted in disaster. But nothing went wrong. The lights didn't even flicker.
Confused, he made a careful assessment of himself, reaching for his vastly depleted reservoirs of power. As before, when he tried to pull that power out and direct it, it slipped through his fingers. Frustrated, he left his magic alone, turning toward Mary, who was rifling through the clothes on the racks, clearly distressed.
"Mary, why don't—"
"Attention shoppers!" The disembodied voice came from above him, and Loki startled, fingers curling in preparation for an attack. "We'd like to announce the winner of Macy's ten thousand dollar shopping spree! Loki Frederickson, please report to customer service to claim your prize!"
Mary's eyes might as well have popped out of her head. She mouthed "ten thousand dollars" and stared at him. Loki was merely annoyed that his magic had thought it clever to identify him as Frederickson.
"When did you enter that?" she asked as she came over to him and curled her fingers around his wrist.
He hadn't the slightest. "Your husband noticed an advertisement on his computer. We thought it might be wise to chance entering at the last moment." He would figure out a way to spin a lie to Bob later. "Apparently the gamble paid off."
A few hours later, Loki possessed a brand new wardrobe and found it quite to his tastes. He adjusted the cuffs of his shirt as he stepped from the changing room, having opted to put on one of the new suits in lieu of returning to the Fredericksons' home in Bob's old sweats. From her seat on a couch, Mary glanced his way. "The shoes fit?" she asked.
He glanced down at the polished black dress shoes and flashed her a genuine smile. "Quite well, yes," he replied.
"Good, we'll break them in." She rose and handed him the bags of clothes.
Taking them, he frowned. "Break them in?"
"I need to pick up a few things while I'm here. Let's go."
It turned out that she needed more than a few things, and by the time they left the mall another two hours later, he was laden with bags. Many of them contained bulky packages that dug into his body no matter how he held them, and it was a great struggle to keep disgust from coloring his features. He had been reduced to a menial pack mule. If only Mary knew who carried her things.
They didn't return directly to her home. Instead, she explained the children only had a half-day of school, and she needed to pick up Anna, Jack, and Joe. Though aggrieved by the inconvenience, Loki held his peace. The school itself was rather impressive, a breeding ground of teenage angst and idiocy. As they pulled up to the front, Loki observed no less than six fist-fights, nine drug deals, and seven heated arguments between what he supposed were lovers.
As soon as the car came to a stop, Joe and Jack were at the doors, pulling them open and piling in. "Mom, mom, look!" He shoved a scrap of paper between the two front seats. "We drew our families today!"
Loki's gaze flickered briefly over the image, counting the eight figures with idle interest, before swinging back.
"You're holding Loki's hand," Mary said, leaning over and smiling at her son.
"Yes, because Loki is family until he finds his again, right?" Joe asked.
Pulling back, Loki settled firmly in his seat and closed his eyes. No more than twenty-four hours and the children, at least one of them, had already decided he was family. It was revolting. To think that he, an Asgardian prince, could be considered part of a mortal family, even in passing, was an insult.
And yet his heart throbbed in his chest, pounding painfully against his ribs.
"Where's Anna?" Jack asked.
"Making kissy faces with her boyfriend," Joe said, puckering his lips at Jack. Jack pushed him away.
Mary just sighed. "Loki, could I ask you to find her? I need to make a turn around the parking lot before Mr. Larsen comes over here and starts yelling. We're not supposed to idle."
He hadn't the slightest what half of that sentence meant, but he nodded. "Of course, Mary," he replied, opening the car door. He stepped into sweltering heat but remained relatively unbothered; heat had never been a nuisance to him. He strode through the crowd of milling children with purpose as Mary's car pulled away to make a circuit of the drive, and he caught sight of her annoyed Mr. Larsen from the corner of his eye.
And there was Anna, standing obscenely close to an older boy. His hand rested easily on her hip, and he looked at her like Volstagg looked at his next meal while she gazed at him with rapt adoration. Curious. Very curious indeed.
"Anna." She turned her head, her expression faltering. "Your mother sent me to collect you." His gaze flitted over the boyfriend, dismissed him, and returned to Anna.
"Eugh, like I'm a kid who needs to be taken care of," she snapped, rolling her eyes. She lifted onto her toes and pressed a quick kiss to her boyfriend's cheek. "Text me," she told him, but Loki noticed the question in her voice, as though she were uncertain of her welcome. Even more curious.
Grabbing her satchel, she breezed by Loki, and a brilliant spark of magic trailed after her.
Years of restraint kept him from grabbing at her; instead, he followed behind her as she stomped her way toward Mary's car, and he studied the magic wafting in the air behind her. It was not from her, but rather tangled around her in a strong concentration, like she had dipped her hair into a well of power. Strands of it tangled in her hair and wove through her clothes, and the more he watched her and familiarized himself with the strange cast of the magic – for it was simply different than any he had yet used – the more he realized it suffused her school and all the students.
And to his surprise, as soon as she entered the car, it sloughed off her body, leaving her a dull and boring mortal once more.
Loki lifted a finger to his lips as he, too, settled into Mary's car, deep in thought. Midgard was as nothing; it could not house a place of such power. It was abnormal; anomalous. Thus very, very interesting.
The Fredericksons had a schedule. It was haphazard and influenced by variables that couldn't be accounted for, but it was there nonetheless, and Loki adapted himself to it. He woke no later than seven each morning, usually to find Lyn curled against his side. She had abandoned her stuffed rabbit for him, constantly wrapped around either his legs or his arms or his waist. Though it annoyed him immensely at first, he quickly grew used to the steady sounds of her breathing in the afternoons when she was home from preschool and sat on the couch with him, watching television as he pretended to read.
Breakfast he took with Jack, since none of the others seemed interested and rarely had time. He didn't eat as much as he picked at his food – at least until Jack offered him fruit. Though he still ate little, he actually enjoyed fruit. When the children left for school, leaving the house empty save for Bob, he descended into the cool of the basement to escape the oppressive heat in the rest of the house, found a new book, and read. Occasionally, Bob would ask a question, somewhat directed at him, but mostly meant for the air, and Loki would answer. One Tuesday, they discussed the plausibility of string theory. On another, they debated nature verse nurture. On a Thursday, Bob mentioned Einstein-Rosen Bridges, and they covered the basement in papers.
Bob, thankfully, didn't seem particularly bothered that Loki seemed to have a vast array of knowledge about impersonal things.
Mid afternoon, when the children piled off their buses and swarmed the house, was characterized by sheer madness. None of the children were home for more than an hour a piece, coming and going with friends, and dinner was a clumsy, rushed affair that left Loki reeling. He had never experienced an evening meal the way the Fredericksons did it, eating here and there, the children getting food whenever they had a moment of free time.
Mike, who had football practice in the evenings, didn't return home until well after seven, and Anna, involved in something called cheerleading, would return around the same time. They would fight over the hot water, shovel food into their mouths like barbarians, and then disappear into their rooms. Lyn was usually asleep within an hour of their return, at which point Anna would tromp into the basement where she would fight, loudly, with Mike and Jack about how loud the television was and couldn't they play Call of Duty elsewhere and why were they such stupid boys.
When ten o'clock came, Bob and Mary would invariably fall into bed after putting Joe, if he was still awake, and Jack to sleep. Anna emerged from the basement to finish her homework at the kitchen counter, muttering to herself and slamming her pencil down constantly.
A rainy Thursday evening saw Loki slipping into the basement to escape Anna's pique – she always seemed to be annoyed with something, and her constant state of irritability was itself irritating – with every intention of reading until well past midnight.
Instead, he found Mike still awake, slouched in one of the two couches, his attention locked on the television in front of him. "Jack, dude, go to bed, man. Mom'll kill you if she finds out you snuck down here again," Mike said without looking away from the screen.
"You need not fear your mother's wrath on your brother's behalf," Loki returned, selecting a book at random from Bob's collection of fiction. He settled on the empty couch, crossing his bare feet at the ankles.
With a scoff, Mike pushed himself up on the couch, almost emulating Loki's posture. Interesting. "Who talks like that, man?"
Loki assumed the question was meant to be rhetorical or ironic. As it was neither, he responded, "I do."
The smothered and indignant sputter that clawed its way past Mike's lips made Loki smile. Just the smallest bit. "Well you're the only one!"
They lapsed into silence. Loki felt no real need to respond further; Mike was not Thor. Besting a mortal child lacked meaning. The silence was filled, however, by the noise of whatever Mike was playing. A video game, Loki recalled.
The constant motion distracted him too much from his book, so he set it aside to watch the television and, infrequently, Mike's fingers as they moved over the controller in his hand. There was, he had to concede, a certain skill to what Mike was doing, though nothing like actually fighting in a war.
"Damn it," Mike hissed. He dragged a hand over his face as he fell against the back of the couch, scowling.
"Problem?" Loki asked, tone mild.
Mike turned his scowl on Loki. "No." The steady and unwavering stare Loki gave the boy had its desired effect, and a moment later, Mike was spilling his woes. "—just can't get past this part."
Loki held out his hand. "Might I give it a try?"
Mike's expression stuck somewhere between horrified and hysterical, but he handed the controller over and began to explain the purpose of each button. Loki, for the most part, ignored him. He shuffled through weapons until he found a knife – those never ran out of bullets – and selected it, walked the character across the screen to get a feel for the camera and handling, and then set the character into motion.
While it was immediately apparent the game wasn't a study in realism, it was close enough, and Loki was familiar enough with war to find most of the obstacles predictable. He cut down his enemies, dodged their fire, and made his way swiftly toward the mission objective.
Beside him, the entire time, the boy muttered expletives of shock and surprise, and when Loki reached the goal, successful, he breathed "Fuck" and turned to stare. "You did that whole thing," he said.
"With a knife."
"Guns run out of bullets," Loki said by way of explanation, returning the controller to Mike.
"But you…" Mike stared at the screen and then Loki. "That was awesome."
Receiving flattery from a mortal meant precious little to a god. Oh, offerings for favor and out of obedience were always welcome, but flattery? Flattery was as nothing. Yet this was flattery that came from a mortal boy who was so like Thor in almost every way that it hurt something deep inside Loki's chest. It made him twist and ache inside.
"You're welcome," was all Loki said in return as he reached for his book.
"No, dude, that was— I mean— You wanna do some online runs with me?"
Loki's heart clenched as his emotions threatened to choke him. Anger, regret, hope. Mortals lived their entire lives conflicted like this, but to him, it was foreign. He felt, but his mind and heart were rarely divided. And this little boy, this child, this mortal with his sky-blue eyes and awkward, well-intentioned smile, was not Thor.
"Perhaps for a bit."
He was surprised how addictive the game was, and "a bit" turned into two hours during which they became the scourge of what Mike called a game server. When Mike finally set his controller aside, turning the game off, he was bleary eyed but laughing, and he slapped Loki's shoulder as hung over the arm of the sofa.
"Man, that was the shit ," he said, his arms swinging idly. "You're awesome at that."
"Thank you," Loki replied, the smallest of genuine smiles turning up the corners of his lips. "It was a pleasant way to pass time."
Mike snorted. "No, dude, you say it was cool, okay?" Loki stared at him, which clearly meant Mike needed to continue speaking. "Seriously, man, say it. Say—" He held up his hands and with the fore- and index fingers made a strange gesture. "— it was cool."
Since he knew Thor, knew how pig-headed and impossible his brother could be, Loki didn't even try to argue with Mike. "It was… cool," he managed, and the phrase sounded awkward coming from him.
Mike noticed and pulled a face. "Okay, no, let's not do that again. You saying that is like my grandpa going on about how hip things are on Facespace."
"It's Facebook, or MySpace, but grandpa doesn't get it. He's, you know, eighty years old and still thinks pocket watches are the hottest new technology."
"Ah." While the references to specific bits of technology meant nothing to him, Loki was very familiar with old men who refused to embrace new ideals. His father – adopted father – came to mind.
With a yawn, Mike rose from the sofa and stretched. "Well, I've gotta get up at the ass-crack of dawn," he said. "Night." With a wave of his hand, he crossed the basement into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Loki remained on the couch for several hours longer, in quiet contemplation, considering the family that had adopted him, considering his magic – or lack thereof – and considering their damnable school. In the weeks since picking the children up from that one day of school, he had taken every opportunity to go with Mary to collect her offspring, but he had learned nothing.
To be fair, it was incredibly difficult to learn about a place to which he was not allowed entry.
A smirk pulled at his lips. What Loki was not allowed to do rarely aligned with what Loki would do. He needed to get into that school and discover why it brimmed with magic. The children on its grounds spewed the stuff from every pore; it suffused them and burned brightly within their bodies, at least until they stepped off its grounds. Their teachers, too, seemed affected by the power, but never the adults who were there to pick their children up.
It was an anomaly. It was a mystery. And Loki, without his own magic to amuse himself, was terribly bored. Oh, he could devise mischief against the Fredericksons, and he had debated doing just that one more than one occasion, but even he had standards. Offending the people on whom he depended was hardly an intelligent choice.
There was also the fact that Mary, like Frigga, simply seemed to know things. Whenever he began to feel restless, she gave him a task. The menial labor had annoyed him until he realized exactly what it accomplished. Idle hands could not plot mischief. And as there was always something to be done in her household, she always had a job for him. He folded clothes, helped with dinners, polished tables. He supervised Lyn and Joe, watching them as they raked leaves with Jack in the backyard and then jumped in the piles they created.
Truly, he didn't have a horrible life on Midgard. It was restrictive, yes, but it wasn't terrible. He did wish, however, that he didn't need to rely so terribly on Mary's good graces.
The universe was, as ever, eager to oblige him.
"The breaks, Mike, the breaks!"
The car inched ever closer to the side of the building. It lurched forward while Mike shouted, "I'm hitting the goddamn breaks!" and his father shouted back "That's the goddamn accelerator!"
They weren't about to die. But the human predisposition toward over-exaggerating everything was endlessly amusing.
Loki, in the back seat of the car, fingers laced casually in his lap, observed the father and son with increasing pleasure. Schadenfreude, the mortals called it. Neither Mike nor Bob seemed well-equipped to deal with the pressures of learning how to drive. Or, in Bob's case, teaching a young man how to drive. The man, usually so quiet and soft-spoken, was quickly losing his patience with Mike, and it wasn't even the child's fault. Bob, Loki had realized quickly, was quite a poor hand at teaching, leaving out vital details not out of spite but simply because he thought his son should already know them.
The end result was Mike "careening" toward the wall of a building, in the middle of an empty parking lot, and the break-neck speed of ten miles per hour.
They came to a comfortable stop at least ten feet from the wall, with Mike and Bob both breathing heavily. Mike's fingers, curled around the steering wheel, were white knuckled, and Bob looked as though he might be sick.
"Why don't we let Loki give it a go," Bob finally said after several moments of silence wherein he focused on breathing.
"Awesome, great, I like that idea," Mike replied, practically throwing himself from the front seat. The seatbelt caught him, snapping him against the backrest, before he struggled free of it and lurched out the door.
Loki suppressed a cringe. "I am uncertain this is the best course of action," he said, leaning forward so that his face hovered between the two front seats.
Bob looked at him over a pair of wire frame glasses that made him look old and hollowed out, and far too stodgy. "Mary looked into it. You've got what you need to apply for a license as a non-citizen."
Loki remained uncertain on that count, but Mary claimed that a friend of a friend at the DMV – whatever that was – said he would be able to get a driver's license with a few scraps of paper that, apparently, he had. Though he suspected it a farce, several documents had turned up in his armor while it was being dry-cleaned. One was a visa, which revealed precious little about him but suggested he came from Norway. Another was birth certificate that said he had, indeed, been born in Norway.
Mary had been flummoxed. Loki recognized magic at work, and took the whole discovery with the air of one who had something to learn. He couldn't use his magic, not in the least, but it seemed more than capable of using him, especially when it was a convenience to his newfound family.
He had, to his surprise, been able to scry the location of Joe the other day when the child had gone missing. When he tried again, later, the magic sat in that corner of his mind and, for all intents and purposes, laughed at his attempt.
"Very well," Loki said, tone somewhat sour. While this would benefit not only the family but also him, he was reticent. He didn't want to settle in a mortal life. He didn't want to become like them.
But the benefits outweighed the costs.
He settled into the front seat while Mike took his place in the back, and closed his fingers around the steering wheel.
"Hands at three and nine," Bob instructed, and it took Loki a moment to realize Bob meant his hands should be on opposite sides of the wheel, where three and nine o'clock would be on a clock face.
Loki shifted his hands and reviewed what his driver's education classes had taught him. Accelerator on the right, breaks on the left. Not a manual transmission, so no need for a clutch. Turn signal on the right hand side of the wheel; windshield wiper controls on the left.
"Foot on the break. Put the car in reverse, ease off, and we'll turn around," Bob instructed.
Feeling tense and surprisingly nervous, Loki did as instructed. He tried to equate driving the car to directing a horse, but it was nothing alike. At all.
Horses, at least well trained ones, responded to the slightest touch, and none of Loki's horses had been anything but well trained. A car could not be directed by a subtle shift of weight. It relied on the motions of his hands.
It was also, from what Loki had learned, several tons of steel and metal, a death trap that hurtled along roads at nearly unimaginable speeds. It occurred to him that he could wreck a great deal of havoc with an automobile of his own, but as soon as the thought was conceived, it was discarded. Costs pitted against benefits. Destroying a car by driving it into a building, no matter how satisfying should he brother be inside the building, was foolish. Cars simply cost too much.
He had, in recent days, learned to measure the worth of mortal things. With five children, Bob was incredibly conscious of the money the family spent. That they were taking care of him had begun to astound Loki. Though Bob's job paid well enough, and Mary made a fair amount on the side doing some sort of consulting, though they were wise with their money and frugal, they couldn't afford luxuries that, to Loki, seemed necessary for survival.
Swallowing hard as he shifted the car into drive, he came to the sudden realization that he was going native. He was beginning to empathize with and understand the Fredericksons. And he did not want to. At all.
He wanted to despise them for their pity, but they did not pity him. When he floundered, on account of his missing memories, they didn't give him sad looks and condescending pats to the shoulder. They forced him to press onward, required him to learn as he went. And when he made mistakes (apparently, the detergent for the dishes and the detergent for the clothing was not the same), they didn't mock him with their laughter. They laughed at the situation, not the person, and they accepted it as collateral damage.
He wanted to loathe them for their kindness, but it was such a brisk and honest kindness that he couldn't do even that. It was impossible to hate Lyn when she climbed into his bed in the early hours of the morning, when she called him "new rabbit," her replacement for her previously loved stuffed animal. It was impossible to dislike Joe when he took permanent markers to one of Loki's suits because the patterns were wrong. It should have been easy, the clothing had been costly, but Joe's honest lack of understanding about the whole thing made it impossible.
Hating Jack was unthinkable; they were too similar, and the boy too kind. Though he wanted to throttle Anna more days than not, even she was quite difficult to well and truly despise. He watched her consistently go out of her way to help her friends on a regular basis, to the point that it drove her to tears and her mother's arms. She had a generous and open heart and let anyone into it. To her detriment, he was beginning to suspect, for her potential lover rubbed him in all the wrong ways. Ben was a mortal for whom Loki felt nothing, and that was, in some ways, worse than his animosity.
And then there was Mike.
He eased the accelerator down and turned a corner in the parking lot, with his signal simply for the practice, and glanced at the boy in the rearview mirror.
Mike, who was so much like Thor, yet entirely different, should have been easy to hate. Wanting nothing to do with Mike should have been easy. Both he and Thor were thickheaded and slow, prone to shows of physicality instead of mental acuity. Mike wanted to hit things before he thought about them, wanted to take them apart without reading the instructions, and then muddle through putting them back together. But he was fiercely protective of his sister, and watched her like a hawk. His intense disgust for Ben stunned Loki the first time it came up. Mike would have liked nothing better than to slam Ben's face into a wall and paint it red with the other boy's blood.
That desire for physical retribution was so wholly like Thor that loathing for Mike should have been like an old shirt: easy to slip into and so comfortable Loki wouldn't want to remove it. But when taken with the rest of the family, it was impossible to hate him.
He didn't hit the break. He knew he didn't. Yet the car screeched to a halt, scant centimeters away from a lamppost.
A golden strand of magic curled over the hood of the car, flickered like it was waving, and then dissipated into the air.
Mike leaned between the front seats and grinned at him. "At least you suck, too, man."
Unthinking, Loki reached up and flicked Mike's forehead with his forefinger. With a laugh, Mike dropped into the backseat while Bob slowly, ever so slowly, relaxed. "Let's try that again," he gasped. "Except with less near death experiences. And maybe staying under forty. How's that?"
A smirk curled Loki's lips. "How many years did I take off your life?"
"Too many," Bob said in a strangled tone of voice.
Very carefully, Loki began a second turn around the parking lot, and this time, managed to remain focused on the task at hand.
Mike ended up driving them home, crawling along back roads where his father was less likely to die of a stroke or nerves, and when they pulled into the driveway, Ben's car was there, waiting. Bob vanished into the house, but Loki lingered in the garage with Mike, who was attempting to be subtle by slamming through a crate of basketballs.
"I effing hate that douchebag," he grumbled, letting the grate on the top of the container slam against the wall.
"Your hatred is noted by all," Loki replied, catching the ball Mike threw at him.
"Yeah, except by Anna. I don't know what she sees in that asshat."
Loki lifted a brow but didn't question the expletive. Mike's creative swearing was almost endearing.
"He's a senior for godsake. Why the hell mom and dad are even letting her date him is beyond me. It's gross. Douche is just using her," Mike snapped, hitting a few things so they clattered to the garage floor.
Though the mortal school system seemed unnecessarily complicated, Loki thought he grasped enough of it to realize that Ben's being a senior made him several years older than Anna. And he remembered the journal entry, remembered that Ben seemed much more interested in a physical relationship than Anna.
"Using her?" Loki leaned against a free space of wall, turning the large ball over it in his hands, studying the pattern on it.
"She's on varsity cheerleading and she's fourteen. She spends more time with the juniors and seniors than friends her own age," Mike said, and Loki caught the serious, concerned look on his face before it melted into contempt. "Douche just wants to get laid, and he's using my sister to get it."
Idly, as though it didn't matter to him at all, he asked, "And if she did?"
"I'd ruin his goddamn life," Mike said without hesitation.
It didn't surprise Loki to find that he felt much the same. The Fredericksons had their problems, they fought often enough, but they were idyllic in many ways. They were what his family never could be. And while he had no great love for Anna, if Ben hurt her, it would ruin her. She was too wide-eyed and innocent to survive any great trauma, and far too trusting. If she broke, the quiet wonder that was her family would likely break around her.
Loki would not stand for that.
"I would help you," he murmured, and he felt a thread of magic growing between his fingertips.
Mike's gaze swung to him. "You would?"
"Oh, yes." Loki reached for the magic, felt it thrill to his touch. He pictured Anna's hair in his mind, not just that it was a drab yellow, but that it frizzed in even the mildest heat, that she spent thirty minutes every morning straightening it. He pictured the way it fell, lengthening her face and slimming it, recalled the coarse texture of it those few times he'd touched it.
The magic coiled about his fingers responded to the vivid imagery his mind conjured, and it slid away from his skin, twining through the air. He pulled free yet more strands of fabric, braiding them together to form a fine thread that grew with each inch it traveled. When it finally wrapped into her hair, meshing with the frizzy, coarse strands, it was thick, like rope, and it sank into her, became a part of her.
A simple spell, it would go unnoticed by most sorcerers unless they were incredibly observant. Of course, there were no sorcerers in Midgard, so he felt no concern. The spell would alert him to any radical changes in Anna's temperament, and while he didn't particularly look forward to knowing every time she cried, he was glad for the spell as soon as it settled.
Her boyfriend was wrong.
He could not place how or why, not so soon, not without more study, but Loki was nothing if not studious. He would discover the reason for that strange, sickly feeling that coursed through him when Ben touched the magic soaking in Anna's hair. He would learn what it was about Ben that made the magic burn and crackle. And if what Ben was turned into a threat to the Fredericksons, he would remove that threat.
A final, slender piece of magic curled about his left forefinger. It settled there, wavered indecisively for a moment, and so he helped it along. A fine silver ring. A tiny thing. An inconsequential thing, he commanded, and it obeyed.
"Oh, hey, cool ring, man. When'd you get that?" Mike asked suddenly, and Loki smiled. It was a self-satisfied smile, a Cheshire smile, and Mike had the good sense to turn his body slightly away from Loki's, as though doing so might protect him. The right response for prey in the presence of a predator. For mortal in the presence of a god.
"A while ago." His tone was light and dismissive, and he left the garage, making his way into the house.
Lyn attached herself to his hand within moments, walking with him up to his room. He shed his light jacket, forcing Lyn to release him, and the second it was down, she grabbed for him once again. Standing at the window, he watched Anna and Ben in the driveway, studying the boy.
His magic was gone from him once more, there but untouchable; existing, but unusable.
"Icky Ben," Lyn said quietly, and this startled Loki. He couldn't think of a person on the planet that Lyn, filled with brilliant and bubbling laughter, didn't like. Everyone she met was a friend, including perfect strangers in a shopping mall.
"And why is that?" Loki inquired, bending down to look her in the eyes.
She shrugged. "He hurts like fire in my dreams." Her arms twined around Loki's neck, and when he rose, it was with the child in his arms. Ben's car was gone, and Anna breezed by his room, shooting him a nasty look that he met with an implacable one of his own.
Lyn made a rude noise against his shoulder. "Kissy faces," she said, with all the aggravation of a child who knew nothing of the world.
"Kissy faces," he agreed, leaving his room to see if Mary needed help with dinner.
That was what he did, now. He helped his family with dinner.
October saw his fall from godhood.
Or, at least, that was how he thought of it in the privacy of his own thoughts.
He and Mike both acquired their driver's licenses, though how Mike managed remained beyond even Loki's ability to comprehend. Jack celebrated his twelfth birthday, which saw everyone to a place called Chuck E Cheese, and Loki and Mary spent the entire time chasing fifth graders around, making sure no one got lost. He began to help Joe and Jack with their scant amounts of homework in the evenings, and read stories to Lyn at night. He even considered getting a job.
Mary and Bob, who had once spent at least one hour a week on the phone with the local police, seemed to have given up finding his family, which was for the best, really. It wasn't as if Thor would look for him.
Thor, it seemed, had settled himself in with a group of individuals styling themselves the Avengers. When they weren't running around in spandex, proclaiming the most idiotic statements and slaying evil, they lived with Tony Stark in California. Jack assured him, when he asked, that California was half a continent away from Chicago, but they could go there. Maybe. One day.
Jack's major impetus for visiting California was not the Avengers, but rather a pair of theme parks. Magic Mountain, which he assured Loki really was magic, and Disney Land, which was apparently the fount of all things good in the world.
Contrarily, Joe, who began taking as opposite a stance to Jack whenever possible, wanted to see the Avengers desperately. The child's space ship bed sheets were exchanged in the first week of October for Captain America branded sheets, and Joe would talk, at length, about how amazing the Captain was. It amused Loki to no end that Joe thought Thor a dumb butt (which scandalized Mary and was promptly followed with threats of mouth washing) and Iron Man an idiot (which seemed to bother Mary less, as, in her muttered opinion, Tony Stark was a womanizing bastard).
But it was the final week of October that truly saw Loki shed what little remained of his Asgardian pride.
"You can't be serious."
He stared at Mary and Bob, hoping they really weren't serious, and that he was somehow experiencing a very vivid hallucination.
Of course they were very serious. Bob was incapable of being anything but serious. "Very serious," was Bob's reply. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, and one I actually can't say no to."
Bob could say no. In the span of a second, Loki had thought of at least one million ways Bob could say no. One of them involved setting half the eastern seaboard of the United States on fire and watching it burn. Another involved pickles. He wasn't sure of all the details on that one, but pickles were definitely a large part of it.
"Meeting Reed Richards…" Bob exhaled, and a look of bliss briefly settled on his features. Mary, beside him, beamed. She was so proud of her husband, and all Loki wanted to do was throttle him. "It's unbelievable. I never thought I'd get recognition for half of what I do, but Richards saw my name in an annotation and wanted to meet the guy who solved Milton's Theorem."
Milton's Theorem, from what Loki understood, was some disgustingly convoluted way of understanding how light and energy worked. It was a relatively new theorem, as theorems went, and was clearly written up by some greasy haired scientist in his mother's basement and designed to lure Bob away from his family for a week and a half.
He hated Alastair Milton. Passionately. With the fervor of one thousand suns. Perhaps more. He'd figure the exact amount of hate to be given to Milton later. At the moment, he was too stunned to do complicated calculations in his head.
"And it would be a great chance for Mary and me to have a little vacation." He squeezed his wife's hand.
"It's been what. Ten years since we had a vacation, just the two of us?" she asked, leaning against her husband's shoulders.
"But a week and a half," Loki gasped out. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been stunned like this. He imagined this was how people felt when broadsided by a semi-truck.
Mary laughed. "You'll be fine, sweetie," she said, leaning toward him. There was, thankfully, too much space between where he sat, poised on the edge of the loveseat, and where she sat on the couch for her to actually touch him. He had never wanted to physically harm someone as much as he wanted to harm her.
With the exception of Thor. But Thor was ever the exception.
"And Mike can help you."
Loki wouldn't trust Mike to help him run a lemonade stand, let alone a family. A sixteen year old boy, wrapped up in himself and his hormones, couldn't be responsible for a family. Everything would fall on him, on Loki.
"But your children—"
"Adore you," Mary cut in, affecting that no nonsense tone Frigga had been so fond of when he and Thor had been children. There was no arguing with that tone.
Hel. He was in Hel. There was simply no other explanation. Hela had tricked him, had made him think he'd found a family and a home, but really, he was in Hel and he was being tortured for his many misdeeds.
She laughed, and Loki wanted to throttle her. Inexpressible frustration washed through him, and though he could easily tear the entire house down, he wouldn't let himself. He cared for Mary. He cared for Bob. For both of them, and their Hel-spawned children, and he simply couldn't move his silver tongue to tell them no.
"If you're sure you trust me with your children," he finally managed, and it was a warning to them, a final attempt to beg them not to do this without actually begging.
Mary beamed, Bob did something that might have equated to an expression of joy, and she said, "Oh, good. This is better than having mom come to watch the kids."
He froze. Her mother could have come if he had held out a little longer?
Bob nodded as he rose. "She wouldn't have been able to contain them." Loki wondered how old Mary's mother was and how sharp her tongue was. A sharp enough tongue could cow even the rowdiest of children. They were, clearly, selling Mary's mother far, far too short. "And it's getting cold. She hates the cold."
Cold. They thought the forty-five degree temperature was too cold.
"Thank you so much, Loki," Mary said, bending down to give him an affectionate hug. He reached one arm up to pat her shoulder and wondered when his life had well and truly exploded in his face.
Likely that day he let the Jotun into Asgard. Or maybe before that, the day he discovered magic.
Jack peered at Loki from where he sat at the island in the kitchen, a grin on his face. "It'll be awesome," he assured Loki.
Of course it would be awesome. It was, in fact, so awesome that two hours after Mary and Bob boarded their airplane Monday morning, Lyn's preschool called him to tell him she was sick.
"How sick?" Loki asked, rubbing his forehead.
"She vomited twice already," the nurse replied, "and has a fever. She can't stay."
"No, she can't, I understand. I'll be there to pick her up shortly."
The sick child didn't want to be left alone, either. Loki tried to put Lyn to bed, but the moment he left, she clambered out and followed him down the stairs. He put her on the couch, turned a movie on, and left her there to make himself a sandwich, only to lose his appetite entirely when she trailed after him into the kitchen and threw up all over the floor.
In the end, he settled them in the first floor powder room. Sitting next to the toilet, with Lyn in his lap, and a laptop on the floor in front of them, he was able to keep her entertained while she threw up.
As the afternoon wore on, she vomited with less frequency, but her fever continued to rage, and she curled in his lap and whimpered. "Where's mommy?" she asked him, her little fingers curling into his shirt. "When's mommy coming home?"
Loki flinched, stroking her hair. He knew that feeling, that desperate wanting for a mother. His mother had been the one who truly loved him. While Odin doted on Thor, Frigga doted on Loki. But it had never been enough for him. He had craved his father's love; Frigga's affection had been, in his estimation, a pale shadow.
How wrong he was. And how much it galled him now.
"In a week," he told her. She sniffled and shook, quaking like a leaf in the midst of a hurricane. She held to him desperately, as though letting go would see her blown away.
"I want mommy." Her tone wavered, and he realized she was close to tears.
Grabbing a tissue from the back of the toilet, he dabbed at her eyes and wiped her nose. Since the movie obviously wasn't enthralling her any longer, he needed to find something else to serve as an adequate distraction. "Would you like me to tell you a story?" he asked her.
Lyn tilted her head back and considered this. "Yes."
So he told her about Yggdrasil and the Nine Realms, building a world of magic and wonder for her. She watched him with wide eyes, slowly nibbling her way through a cracker. He painted Asgard for her with his words, drawing it in the air and filling it with color and people. He spoke of Odin and Frigga, the king and queen of Asgard, and told her about their deep and abiding love. He told her of their two sons, though he did not name them, and of the eldest son's friends.
He segued from the royal family to paint for her a picture of Nornheim's rolling, emerald fields, the lakes and rivers that sparkled like sapphires. The trees, he told her, reached to the sky with leaves the color of fire, and the fruit that grew on those trees were the most succulent in all the Realms. Biting into one was like crossed the threshold of the heavens.
Lyn asked if they were anything like oranges. "I like oranges."
"They are exactly like oranges," he told her.
"I'll try them one day, then." She looked at him expectantly.
In Nornheim, he told her, there were fields of flowers so thick you could lay down on them and not touch the ground. They smelled sweet, like roses and lilies, and their perfume was much sought after by all the Asgardian ladies. She stopped him there, demanding he tell her all about what the ladies wore, so he struggled through a description of one of his mother's gowns. He had never cared much for fashion.
When she was satisfied, he turned back to Nornheim, and he began describing the unicorns. Her eyes widened and brightened, and she clung to his words, making her way through her second cracker without even realizing she was eating. "Their coats," Loki said to her, pitching his voice low as though this were a secret for only the two of them, "shimmer with the colors of the sunset. They're not white."
To be fair, they were white once dead. But she didn't need to know that.
"And their horns look like pearl. Do you know what pearls are?" She nodded. "If a unicorn touches its horn to a wound, it will heal instantly, and a unicorn's tears can cure any disease. They don't run, they glide. Gravity is nothing to them, and they leap and soar through the air like birds, only touching down to bound off again. They—"
She lurched forward, spilling her guts into the toilet beside him, and Loki sighed.
"God damn it, Jack, you stupid little brat!" Anna exploded out of the bathroom in her bra and panties, brandishing a brush like a weapon. "You took my straightener!" She whirled on Loki, shoving the brush into his face. "Go get my damn straightener back from him!"
"Language," he told her.
"You're not my goddamn dad!" she hollered back, slamming the bathroom door in his face.
It was their third day without Mary and Bob, and everything had fallen apart. He wasn't sure precisely when the children had started to ignore him, but he suspected it was a conspiracy, and they had somehow convened in the middle of the night and decided to do whatever they pleased.
Jack was in the master bedroom, under the bed, with Anna's straightener. Anna herself had, on at least five separate occasions, yelled at him until her face turned red. She didn't want to go to school – neither did Joe – and he couldn't make her because he wasn't her father. Joe began parroting her almost immediately, and was currently locked in his bedroom, shouting "No school" and "You can't make me go!"
Lyn, naked, was running about the downstairs, chasing the dog and screaming. Her fever had, thankfully, broken late the previous night. So she, too, would be going to school. If he could convince her to get dressed. Mike was conspicuously absent, but he, at least, seemed more than willing to leave home for school.
Loki pressed his thumbs against his closed eyes until light exploded against his eyelids. His patience was not limitless. It was quickly reaching its end, but what of it? He hadn't the slightest idea how to control five rowdy, rambunctious children who were dead set on making his life impossible.
He felt a whole new respect for Mary, who handled them without difficulties.
The bathroom door swung open. Anna snarled at him with all the ferocity of a Valkyrie. "Well?" she demanded.
Fury choked him; a good thing, since he was tempted to gut her with a few well-chosen words. His body reverberating with tension, he grabbed her arm. She shrieked and lifted her hand to strike him. Dodging her was simple; she telegraphed every move she wanted to make. Tossing her over his shoulder, he stormed toward the master bedroom, ignoring her pathetic attempts to hit him.
"Jack," he said, his voice frosty like the cold reaches of Jotunheim. Anna stopped pummeling him. She went incredibly still against his back, her entire body stiffening with tension. "Get out from under the bed immediately." The sentence was primed for an or else. He felt no need to say the words. The threat was obvious.
Tentatively, Jack shimmed from under the bed and peered up at him. "Hi," he said, slowly offering the straightener to Loki.
In an easy move, Loki dipped his shoulder and set Anna on the ground. He took the straightener from Jack and dropped it into her hand before spinning her toward the door. "Finish getting dressed," he commanded, and his tone brooked no argument. "Be downstairs in thirty minutes."
She stared at him for a heartbeat, stunned into silence, and then hurried toward the bathroom. The door closed quietly behind her.
Loki swung his gaze to Jack. "Breakfast. Now."
"Yessir," Jack said quickly, scrambling from under the bed. He vanished down the stairs.
When Loki turned, he saw Joe standing on the bridge between the master bedroom and the others, and he didn't bother to lunge at the child. He crossed his arms and gave him a long, level look. "Can you manage to get dressed on your own, or do you need help?" Loki asked, pitching his voice in such a way that his meaning was perfectly clear: Joe was old enough to dress himself.
Joe responded just as he should. "I can get dressed myself. I don't need anyone's help."
Joe sputtered and stomped into his room.
Mike crested the stairs a moment later, holding a wriggling Lyn. "She was trying to ride the dog," he said, sounding baffled.
"Of course she was," Loki drawled, taking the girl from Mike's hands. "Are you ready to go?"
"Ethan'll be here in five."
"And you'll be home when?"
Mike's eyes widened just a bit, and then he grinned. "Seven o'clock sharp. Can I make a suggestion?" Loki inclined his head. "Make pizza or something simple." With a jaunty wave, he took the stairs to the first floor two at a time.
Loki turned his attention to Lyn. She gave him a huge smile. "Hi."
"Hello. Are you ready to get dressed?"
"Fine," she said, heaving a heavy sigh. "If I have to."
He loaded Joe and Jack onto their buses fifteen minutes later, saw Anna off with Ben another ten minutes after that, and then settled Lyn in the car. He had a goal for the day, one he would not be kept from, and he was relieved to be done with the children as soon as he dropped Lyn at her preschool.
He left Mary's minivan five minutes up the road from the high school and began a leisurely stroll down the sidewalk, his hands tucked into his pockets. His eyes turned toward the school, and though he could not see it for the other buildings in the way, he could see its glow. Glittering gold, it pulsed and seethed through the air, a boiling cauldron of power that reached into the sky.
Now that he knew what to look for, it was impossible to miss. And it was so very strange.
There was no security at the base of the drive leading up to the school, but it wouldn't have mattered. He was invisible to human sight, and immortal sight, his magic choosing to respond to his need for stealth.
That disturbed him, for his magic tended only to work as long as it benefitted his mortal family. It was a strange binding, but he had grown used to it. That it now responded suggested there was something dangerous to them in that school.
He stopped at the bottom corner of the sprawling building. It looked unnecessarily large for a school, but Mary had told him there were easily five thousand students who attended it. He stepped from the sidewalk to the grass, from clear air into air thick with magic, and strode up to the wall. He removed one of his gloves with his teeth, pressing the tips of his fingers to the frigid bricks.
The day was not particularly frigid, not to him, and the bricks were far colder than they should have been given the temperature.
With a frown, he withdrew his hand and turned to make his way up the sidewalk. He stopped at a strange seam, where the bricks changed approximate size and color. An addition, then. No wonder the building was so oddly shaped.
He touched the seam for but a second, and was shocked by the fire and pain that lurched up his arm. It hit his chest hard, making his heart stutter and break rhythm, and he choked on a gasp of air. His knees hit the ground, but the pain was nothing compared to what charged through his heart. Brilliant, brightly burning fire consumed him, ate up the entirety of his perception. There was nothing but the pain, nothing but the burning, and he closed his eyes against it.
It clawed through him, tore through him, and in the haze of agony he realized it had a purpose. Drawing in a shaking breathe, he reached for that part of him that was other, that was Jotun. He needed the ice and the cold and the chill of winter to smother the fire.
When he opened his eyes – when had he closed them? – there was a blanket of snow on the ground around him. Ice coated the walls of the building. He rose, brushing dirt from the knees of his pants, and caught sight of his blue skin.
Bile rose in his throat, and he jerked his gaze away. A second later, he glanced back, and his skin was pink once more.
Despite wanting to leave, he still had not accomplished his goal. There was more information to be collected, and Loki refused to be anything other than thorough. He sought to touch no more seams, though there were many places where two different kinds of brick met, investigating only smooth expanses of sameness.
Each part of the building felt different. One, the oldest, was cold and frozen, another pleasantly warm, and yet another burning hot, though with less angry intensity than that seam. Another wall whispered with water, the sounds of ocean waves breaking gently on a shore washing over him, and yet another promised the comfort of woodlands and a temperate climate.
The magic pulsed and throbbed around him, but it, unlike the building, was constant. It was unchanging. It was impossibly strong.
He could not touch it or manipulate it, and in some ways, the shimmering bubbles and threads of it reminded him of his own power.
Idly drifting away from the newest addition to the school, he made his way to a field. The field was populated by students, dressed in either blue or white shirts, chasing a white and black ball.
Their teacher stood to the side, supposedly watching, but Loki suspected he was paying on the barest of attention. The suspicion was confirmed when one of the children lunged for the ball, slid across the ground, and toppled into a nearby gully.
"Idiots," he muttered to himself, wondering why the mortals hadn't built a fence of some sort.
And then he froze.
The magic around him coalesced into something remarkable. It hummed and thrummed, and then it sang. The sheer volume of power threatened to smother him, but he found he didn't need to breathe. Magic surrounded and suffused him, slipping under his skin until everything he was sang, too, and it seemed so bizarre to him that the humans couldn't feel it, couldn't hear it.
Silvery strands of light peeled away from the golden cauldron, cutting through the air with ease, twisting and turning about each other. They dipped into the gully, the pure, high sound of their music reaching back to Loki despite the distance. The mortal child pulled himself over the edge of the gully a moment later, laughing, and took another child's hand. He came up whole and sound, even though the fall should have slit his leg from ankle to thigh and mangled it beyond repair.
Loki tilted back his head, peering upward. "What are you?" he asked the power buzzing around him.
It paid him as much mind as Thor paid books: none at all.
Friday couldn't come soon enough, and when it finally did, Loki felt so much relief he thought he would burst with it. This meant, of course, that his relief lasted mere seconds, replaced moments later by utter horror.
Football was Asgardian machismo at its finest, distilled into something in which mortals could partake without facing death. It was violent and loud, both in game and out, and the throws the cheerleading squad performed couldn't be good for his health. Loki was torn between keeping an eye on Anna to make sure her neck didn't snap should someone drop her and watching Mike. Mike was in more immediate danger. Every time he caught the ball, someone hit him and took him to the ground.
Joe and Jack screamed with unabashed glee, shouting their brother's name as they jumped up and down on rickety stands that couldn't be safe. Lyn sat beside them coloring, wrapped in a blanket and bored by the game.
"Don't remember football?" Jack asked, leaning on Loki's shoulder.
Loki glanced up at the boy. "Should you be standing on this thing?"
He laughed. "Why not?" he asked as his gaze swept the field. "That's the quarterback," he said, pointing to one of the players who looked just like every other player. "He's kind of in charge. He determines what plays they make and passes the ball or runs with it. Mike's a wide receiver. He catches the ball when it gets thrown to him and runs for the end zone. Then he gets six points."
"Six?" An odd, arbitrary number.
"Yeah, and then they get a chance to kick an extra point."
"Why?" Loki asked, baffled.
Jack shrugged. "Cause it's hard to get to the end zone, so they figure they should make it worth your time, I guess. Every time we score, the cheerleaders do pushups."
Loki drew his hand over his face and wondered at the mental state of mortals the world over. Clearly, there was something wrong with them. They delighted in the game, which was slow moving at best, shouting and cheering. Loki thought he would lose his mind.
"And Mike does this every Friday?" He was sure Frigga wouldn't approve of such an event on her day. Odin or Thor, on the other hand, would revel in it. They would likely suggest the addition of spears to make things more interesting.
"Only for a few months," Joe said, leaning on Loki's other shoulder. He slung an arm around Loki's neck and rolled back on forth on his feet, making the bench beneath them rock, and Loki thought he might be sick. "Just for football season. Then he does training to stay in shape."
"They do a lot of training," Jack added. "Oh, look! Look!" He jumped until Loki grabbed his jacket and, with a severe look, shook his head. "You're no fun," the child moaned, but his countenance brightened immediately. "Look! See, they're at the five yard line!"
"They better pass to Mike." Joe watched the field with an intense, fierce expression. "Stephenson is a dummy."
Mary would chastise Joe for that language. "Don't be mean," Loki said, but the reprimand was half-hearted at best, and it went unacknowledged.
He did, however, make an attempt to follow the game now that Mike was likely to earn points for his team. And he would, if asked, admit to some sadistic amusement at the thought of Anna doing pushups.
The stands quieted as the players lined up. Loki was sure there was a reason to how they organized themselves, but he couldn't fathom it. Faintly, he heard the quarterback's shouts, calls of numbers and colors and then some word he couldn't make out. Bodies collided, helmet met helmet with resounding cracks. Joe's arm around his neck tightened. Beside him, Jack shifted onto his toes, clasping his hands together as he whispered, "Please, please, please, get it, get it, get it."
And then everything exploded into a cacophony of noise. Even Lyn, who wasn't paying a whit of attention to the game, rocketed to her feet screaming and waving her hands above her head. "Rah rah rah!" she shouted while the boys belted out soundless shouts of delight.
They slapped hands over Loki's head, and Joe, still clinging to him, jostled him back and forth. "Mike got a touchdown!" he shouted in Loki's ear.
Loki closed his eyes and resolved to forgive the child for his exuberance.
"And they got the extra point!" Jack cackled, gleeful, and giggled. He dropped to his bottom in a smooth gesture that looked incredibly painful, scooped up his hot chocolate, and took a long sip. "Did you see?"
"I saw," Loki said.
"And look, see, now the cheerleaders have to do thirteen pushups, because it's thirteen to seven," Joe explained, and, indeed, the girls had dropped to the ground and were doing exactly as the boy described.
Loki glanced at the clock, glad to see there were only five minutes left on it. Time in football was a lie; he had learned that quickly when the first twenty minutes passed in closer to forty. But the game was finally drawing to a close. "Lyn, pack up, it's almost time to go," he said.
He lifted his face to Joe. "It's almost time to go."
"No, it's not, it's just the end of the first half," Jack said.
Loki stilled. "The first half."
"Yes. Football has two halves and four quarters," Joe explained, holding up first two fingers and then four.
Loki tilted his head back, staring at the starless sky. It was a cloudy night, but even without the clouds, the stars would be impossible to see. The bright stadium lights blotted them out. Still, they were there, and it made him feel somewhat better to stare upward as he muttered, "This is more a curse than anything you could have done to me." Whether that was directed at Odin or Thor or both he couldn't be sure.
"You don't like football?" Jack looked thunderstruck and distraught.
"Ah, no, it's not that," Loki replied, quickly trying to come up with an explanation. But he didn't need one. Jack beamed at him and, dropping his hand to Loki's head, forcibly turned his attention back to the game.
Those five minutes passed with the same agonizing slowness as the rest of the game, and when they finally concluded, Loki couldn't bring himself to be grateful. He had another hour and a half of this interminable horror.
"Don't worry," Joe said brightly. "There's a halftime show."
Well, didn't that just make everything better. The field emptied of the opposing team's players, but Mike's team swarmed onto it, and Loki frowned. "Shouldn't they be getting off?"
Jack grinned. "Nope. It's part of the halftime show. Listen," he said, while Joe shushed them both.
A loudspeaker crackled, and Lyn set down her crayons. She clambered onto the bench beside Joe, clinging to his hand and grinning. A wolf's howl rose, fake, Loki was sure, from the speakers, and it was followed by a young girl's voice. "The foulest stench is in the air: the funk of forty thousand years. And grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom. And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver, for no mortal can resist the evil of the thriller."
His brows lifted, and as he watched, the school's band filed onto the field, beating a beat on their drums. They were followed by girls with flags, and the cheerleaders. The four groups, the football players, the cheerleaders, the flag girls, and the band, arranged themselves on the field in what even Loki had to consider an impressive pattern.
And then they all began to dance. In relatively perfect sync.
With surprise coloring his features, but only barely, he watched the students dance. Even the ones playing the song were dancing, albeit less wildly. They weren't gyrating and swinging their arms about. The gestures were ludicrous, but so much so that they were actually enjoyable. The song had to be popular, too; a handful of seconds into the dance, everyone in the stands started singing and clapping along.
When it ended, as the football players and cheerleaders filed off the field, jumping and clapping, while the spectators shouted and the band continued to play, Loki had to admit the spectacle had been enjoyable. In a strange, over the top, sensory overload sort of way.
"They do it every year," Jack explained, his mouth against Loki's ear so he could be heard. "The band plays Thriller , and everyone else dances."
"Uh-huh. For Halloween." Jack leaned against his side and offered Loki his hot chocolate. "Want some?"
The drink was too sweet, but he was cold and thirsty, and the last thing he wanted to do was explain to the children why he was turning blue. He accepted the cup with a nod and gulped down a mouthful quickly in an attempt to taste as little of the drink as possible.
Joe settled beside him, curling under Loki's arm, while Lyn dropped between his legs and returned to her coloring book. By the end of the game, when it was pushing ten, both Lyn and Joe were dozing, but the announcement that the Bears won had all three children on their feet, shouting. And then they were stampeding down the stands, rushing toward the fence between the stands and the field.
With a muttered curse in Old Norse, Loki quickly swept their things into his arms and hurried after them.
Mike was at the fence, along with five other players, and he helped his siblings over it by picking them up. He set Jack and Joe on his teammates' shoulders, and put Lyn on his own. Then, with a mighty shout, he went running across the field. Loki reached the fence moments later, unable to hide his aggrieved expression.
"No worries," one of the players still at the fence said. "We do this with them after every game."
"Delightful," Loki muttered, watching them and refusing to admit to himself that the anxious feeling in the pit of his stomach was real.
Anna appeared at the fence, a grin on her face. "Hey," she said, her cheeks flushed as though the victory were hers, too. He supposed, judging from the shouts behind him, that the team's victory was the school's. "As soon as Mike finishes his victory lap, we'll be ready to go. Cool?"
Loki nodded, but Anna had already turned away, rushing away and shouting, "Ben, Ben!" Loki's lips twisted into a thin line as he watched her jump the fence for a hug from her boyfriend.
The spell in her hair sparkled and snapped, crackling along Loki's senses. Ben touched her hair, giving her forehead a kiss, and fire and flame drifted through Loki's blood. "What are you, Ben?" Loki murmured to himself, his brows drawing together.
"Loki!" Lyn's shriek snapped his attention back to the field. She waved at him, giggling and smiling. "Loki, Loki, we won!"
Mike plucked her from his shoulders and passed her over the fence. Loki quickly set everything down and took her while the boys, sliding from the shoulders of the other two players, scrambled over the fence themselves. "We did indeed."
"Ice cream for breakfast!" Lyn shouted, her squeal of delight piercing his ear.
"It's tradition," Mike said sheepishly, laughing. "Lemme go change. I'll meet you guys at the field entrance, alright?" Then he was gone, leaving Loki with the children.
They danced about his feet while Lyn flailed in his arms, singing half of the school song, butchering it terribly, but uncaring. A breath of air escaped him, somewhere between an aborted chuckle and a sigh of defeat, and he picked up one of the two backpacks. "Jack, get the other. Joe, take the blanket. Let's get to the car."
Turning, he searched out Anna. "Anna!" he shouted, and she threw a look fit to kill a mortal over her shoulder. After a quick kiss for Ben, she swept her duffle bag onto her shoulder and hurried over. "Ready to go?"
"We usually go out after winning games," she said, her tone petulant.
"Tonight, we're going home."
She rolled her eyes and huffed. "Whatever, fine, let's go."
It was with much horror that Loki learned, not twelve hours later, that football games and halftime shows were not the worst of Halloween's terrors.
"And if I called your father, he would tell me he approves of that outfit," Loki drawled, giving Anna a lazy once over that would have indicated interest from any other man.
She shuffled, ducking her head and turning away from him. "Yeah."
"Liar," he said before she had even finished speaking, his tone silky. He knew lies better than anyone, and it was insulting that she even tried. "You look like you're trying to ensnare a lover and not like you're going to a party." Half the men at the party, more than half, would imagine her naked as soon as they saw her if she went in that.
And it bothered him.
She scowled. "Fine, okay, Dad has no idea." She flounced to Lyn's bed and dropped onto it, crossing her arms. That served only to emphasize what passed for breasts on her body. It was remarkable to him, a small miracle really, that any clothing could give Anna what might pass for cleavage. "But, c'mon, Loki, I don't have another costume."
Whining and begging wouldn't work on him.
He crossed his arms as well, leaning against the frame of her door. "Then you can't go to the party, can you?"
She stared at him. "Are you kidding? Oh, my God, you're so unfair! You're worse than Mom! She said I could go, and you can't tell me no!" she shouted, lurching off the bed. She lunged for him, fists swinging, and with a sigh, he caught both her hands in one of his, his other hand dropping to her shoulder.
His magic swirled inside him, and the swirl turned into an idea.
"I may have a solution for you," he said.
She deflated almost instantly. "What?" she asked, eying him with no small amount of curiosity.
Releasing her, he took a step back. Magic bubbled under his skin, bright and cheerful, ready to do anything he asked of it. What a perverse creature his magic was. "A moment." He took the three steps necessary to move from her room to his and went to the closet.
In the far corner of it, tucked away behind his suits, were a few of her old costumes, likely saved for Lyn to conserve money. He didn't know what half of them were supposed to be, but there was one that would serve his purpose.
He closed his fingers around the white fabric, curled his hand around the feathered wings on the back, and willed his magic to change it. He pictured fierce Brünnhilde with her fiery red hair and blazing blue eyes. With a wry smile, he remembered the bite of her blade, her face fierce as she bore down on him in combat and nicked his wrist. He recalled her grace, a warrior's grace, and the leather of her armor. Brünnhilde, ever fond of sapphire and aquamarine, the spear maiden, the gatherer of the dead, with no fear and no doubt. He remembered her laugh, low and husky, and her shouts, ferocious and determined.
Turning the armor over in his hands, a satisfied smirk turned up his lips. "Anna," he called, stepping into the hallway. She called him into her room, where she had, thankfully, pulled on a hooded sweatshirt. It was a sad day that the sweatshirt covered more of her than her costume, coming several inches further down her thighs than the skirt.
"Try this," he suggested, holding the armor up for her to see.
She frowned. "Where'd this come from?" she asked, moving toward him and fingering the supple leather. Her fingers slid over the steel plating, lingered on the sapphires, followed the length of a delicate chain. With wide eyes, she looked up at him. "We don't own something like this."
"It was in the back of my closet," he said dismissively, and magic curled around her. Accept it , he thought. The magic jolted away from her, its power recoiling into him so quickly that it stung.
Very well, there would be no using the power of suggestion on her again.
"Really?" She frowned, taking the armor from him and turning it over in her hands. "Does it come with shoes?"
He flipped the shirt back, revealing a pair of sturdy boots that would reach up to her knees.
With a brilliant smile, she took everything from his arms. "Let me try it on."
Loki followed her out of her room, drifting into Joe and Jack's as he waited for her to clean. Joe was glued to a large picture book all about the Avengers, studying the page on Captain America like one might study sacred scripture. Jack sat on his bed, playing a game on his DS.
"Down with Lyn," Jack answered. "Basement. Figuring out what Lyn wants to go as for Halloween from one of the costume buckets. She'll probably be Batman."
The bathroom door opened, and Loki turned his head.
Anna stepped out, looking a bit uncertain, adjusting the way a piece of armor sat on her hips. "This," she said, sounding oddly breathless, "is the best costume ever. We seriously had this in the closet?"
"You did," he replied, reaching out to settle a strap flat on her shoulder.
"But, uh, okay, what am I, though? Xena?"
He had no idea who Xena was. "Brünnhilde the Shield Maiden," he said, turning her to check the clasps along her left side. He tightened them so the armor fit better, and she squeaked something about it being too tight. Since she wasn't actually going into battle, he released some of the tension. "She was a Valkyrie in Norse mythology."
"Badass," Anna breathed, smoothing her hands over the armor on her abdomen. She spun about and gave him a tight hug. The metal on her body bit into his, pressing through the fabric of his suit with ease, and he set her away from him as quickly as possible. "Sorry," she said. "But this is awesome. Is there a shield or anything, too?"
No, but there could be. "Another moment."
Ducking back into his room, he pulled open the closet, preparing himself to fight with his magic, to plead with it if he had to, only to find a shield and a sheathed sword tucked away in the corner. "Ever thorough," he muttered to himself, taking both in hand.
When Anna's eyes fell on the shield and sword, she did a bizarre little dance, clapping her hands together. The noise summoned Jack and Joe, and they watched with curious expressions as Anna took the shield.
"This is so cool," she breathed, strapping it to her left arm. "What about the sword?"
Loki drew it in a single, smooth gesture, and inspected the blade in the dim hall lightning. It wasn't anything spectacular, but it was just an illusion. He ran his thumb over the edge of the blade to test it, just to make sure it wasn't sharp enough to cut, and then he sheathed it again. "Blunt and harmless," he said as he handed it over.
"Right, because I'd stab someone with it," Anna said, rolling her eyes. She put one hand on the sheath and tugged on the hilt of the sword. Loki flinched. It took practice to draw a sword smoothly, but what she was doing was just painful to see.
"No, here." Loki stepped behind her and adjusted her hold on the sheath and hilt both. "Like this," he instructed, drawing her arm back. The sword came free easily, and Joe and Jack made quiet sounds of awe. "Now like this to sheath it." He directed her arm in a fluid motion that set the sword into the sheath to the hilt.
Stepping back, he gave her an imperious stare. "If you're going to practice, don't pull it out all the way."
"Sure, whatever," she said, turning away from him as she pulled the sword halfway out of the sheath and slid it back in, making her way toward her room with slow steps.
Loki's gaze turned to Jack and Joe. "You two have costumes?"
"Captain America!" Joe exclaimed, punching the air.
Jack nodded. "Harry Potter."
"Good. When can you go out?"
"Trick or Treating starts at four," Jack said while Joe ran back into their room and returned to his books. "But we can go out around six. With the big kids."
That, Loki supposed, was fair. "Pizza at five," he instructed before leaving them to their fun. Anna's voice floated from her room, loud because of her excitement, as she told a friend all about her new costume.
Shaking his head, Loki padded down the stairs, turning the corner to the basement door and leaned through the open doorway. "Mike," he called.
Mike appeared at the foot of the stairs a moment later, a princess tiara on his head. "Not a word," he said before Loki could even choke on laughter. "Lyn and I are working out her costume."
"And she has decided you'll be a fairy princess?" Loki inquired, sweetening his tone.
Mike glared. "And she's going to be Batman, like Joe was last year. When're you taking them out?"
It never ceased to surprise Loki how fiercely protective Mike was of his siblings. A parental figure he was not, but a staunch defender? There was no question. If Mike didn't like Loki's plan for Trick or Treating, he would demand a new one. "Around six," Loki returned. "We'll be home by eight thirty. Are you going to the same party as Anna?"
Mike shook his head. "Naw, me and a bunch of the guys are going to go Trick or Treating in Luke's neighborhood. They give out king-size candy bars at a lot of places there," he explained. "I'll probably stay there for the night, if that's cool."
"I don't see why not. Have fun with Lyn. Dinner at five."
"Cool." Mike stepped out of sight, and Lyn's laughter filtered up the stairwell.
Loki shut the door to the basement behind him and, for the first time since Monday, found himself with nothing to do. He stood by the basement door, waiting for a scream of indignation to rise from one of the children. It didn't come.
Moving with caution, sure something was going to go horribly wrong at any moment, Loki crossed the family room to the love seat. He sat slowly, carefully, every sense alert. When he reached for his book and set his feet on the coffee table, he fully expected the impossible to happen. Thor would come barreling through a wall, for example.
Nothing went wrong.
Nothing broke, no one shrieked. Faintly, he heard Anna gushing, and then Joe shouted "Hulk smash!" Jack's snicker came a moment after. And then—
He closed his eyes, unable to shake the premonition of danger.
"Thank you!" came the chorus of voices from the three children.
Loki waited for them at the end of the street, dressed in his armor for the first time in two months. When Lyn and Joe barreled up to him, as Batman and Captain America respectively, he took their hands.
"Loki, Loki," Lyn sang, leaning her masked face against his arm.
Jack bounded up to him a moment later, making a pop noise. "I Apparated," he explained for the eighth time that evening.
"And quite well," Loki agreed, playing along. He had never cared much for celebrations, but this Halloween was something he could easily support. A night of mischief, of games and tricks, a night for the spirits and masks. It fit him perfectly.
Four older children pushed by them, and one of them, when he looked at Loki, grinned. "Awesome costume," he said, and then he was gone, consumed by the darkness.
"I can't believe Anna had all that blue face paint," Jack said dubiously, eying Loki as they set off toward the next house.
Loki shrugged. "Your sister has a rather impressive collection of strange things," he replied, offering no further explanation. The blue skin and Jotun markings were a compromise for the children who had, upon seeing him in his armor, declared his costume wasn't cool enough. Joe had suggested the change in color, except Joe had thought green would be better. Then Loki could be the Hulk, but a smart Hulk.
Since none of the children would leave well enough alone, he had conceded his blue skin and markings to them. They had been, much to his surprise, utterly delighted. Instead of shying away from the sight of a monster, they had made quiet sounds of excitement.
Lyn had pinched his cheeks, pulling them painfully, before declaring he "would do" for the evening. Joe had expressed disappointment that he was blue, not green, but eventually said blue was better. Jack thought Loki should be his own superhero, like Nightcrawler of the X-Men, a band of mutants on the East Coast.
When Loki explained he was a Norse frost giant, the children immediately decided he had the best costume ever.
And they were not afraid.
From that point on, he'd had no chance to regret the decision, no chance to wonder if he should have found real face paint to make himself green. Lyn and Joe had all but dragged him from the house, Jack pushing him along from behind, and they began making their rounds. Systematically. Jack had a map.
He stopped at the end of a driveway and released Lyn and Joe. "Remember to thank them," he said as they took off, Jack following behind, and raced toward the front door.
"You're the one babysitting for the Fredericksons?"
Loki turned toward the woman, who was dressed as a green dinosaur. Her daughter, a purple dinosaur, hurried after Lyn, Joe, and Jack. "Yes," he replied, trying to place her. He had met a handful of the neighbors, mostly parents of Lyn and Joe's friends.
"That's nice of you. I don't know if I could handle the five of them," she said, and Loki tried for a smile.
He loathed small talk.
"Nice costume, by the way. Where did you get it?"
"Custom made," he replied sharply as Lyn launched herself at his legs.
"We got Kit Kats ," she exclaimed. When he stared back at her, blank faced, her head snapped to the woman at his side. "Mrs. Russo, Loki doesn't know what Kit Kats are."
Mrs. Russo, who Loki still couldn't place, laughed. "Then you'll have to share with him later," she said. "Have a good night." She patted Lyn's head and, collecting her own child, headed in the opposite direction.
They made their way to the next house on Jack's map, and Loki watched the children depart again, slowly finding his way into his thoughts. His musings didn't turn to his loathsome appearance – with so many monsters roaming the night, he felt quite at home, and the children didn't seem to mind at all – but instead went to his magic. It was behaving curiously, spinning itself out in thin strands, like it wanted to do something but lacked the direction. Any time he attempted to give it direction, a little bit of harmless mischief like animating the fake hand in one house's yard, it resisted.
He glanced at his hands, where invisible green flames licked his fingertips. It needed release, needed channeling, but refused all his efforts. That made him uneasy; pent up magic was just as dangerous as undirected magic, except that it tended to destroy the carrier instead of everything around it.
Joe's shout of delight elicited a visceral reaction from Loki, ripping him from his thoughts with brutal intensity. He felt as though his spirit had been slammed into his body from a great distance as his gaze swept over the darkened street.
Was this the source of his feeling of premonition? Had his brother finally, after these two long months, discovered him and come for him? Strange, though, was how averse to the idea he was. That Thor might think to take him from what he had found, a place that was full of warmth and companionship, was reprehensible. He would not allow it.
But, no. It was just another child. He ran with a pack of Avengers, far too thin and wiry to be Loki's brother, holding a pillowcase heavy with candy. A shudder of relief washed through him, and Joe peered up at him.
"You don't like Thor."
Joe had the singular ability to observe the truth of things and speak them with absolutely no sense of propriety. It never seemed to matter to him if a truth was impolite; he spoke it anyway, oblivious to social acceptability.
"I don't dislike him," Loki replied, and that seemed to satisfy Joe, who was equally skilled at discerning untruths.
Nodding, Joe pressed closer to Loki's side as they continued down the sidewalk, Jack ahead of them, absorbed by his map. "I understand. Sometimes, I hate Mike and Jack, but I don't dislike them, either."
Loki tried not to think too hard about that, but when they finally returned home at quarter after nine, later than he intended only because Lyn was the master of puppy eyes and wheedling, his skin felt too small and his body too hot. Whether the discomfort was a product of his thoughts or that lingering feeling of danger, he was unsure. Seeking a rational explanation, one firmly rooted in his immediate realm of influence, he checked the thermostat. It was set, as it always was, at sixty-seven.
While the children poured their candy into piles in the family room and counted the pieces, he paced the foyer, pausing only when he caught sight of his face in a mirror that hung on one of the walls. For a moment, he thought, I fit here tonight before he was consumed again by the gnawing need to do something with his magic.
An hour later, all three children were in bed, and he had yet to shed his armor or his Jotun face, possessed by the strange desire to fit just a while longer. And to pace.
He strode around the island in the kitchen, a glass of ice water in one hand, a pair of ice cubes in the other. He pressed the ice cubes to his neck, but their frigid slide did nothing to alleviate the tension in his muscles.
Making another turn around the island, he scowled, reaching instinctively for the magic he knew would not respond. He grasped at nothing, and the frustration and tension reverberating through his body mounted. With it came a rush of adrenaline and the ring of the phone, two things that could not possibly be related, but when his magic rushed through his veins, living and pulsing, he knew with certainty they were.
In an uncharacteristic moment of clumsy haste, he nearly knocked the phone to the ground before he managed to answer it. "Hello?"
"Loki!" Anna's voice bordered on hysterical, pitched high with panic and fear.
More power crashed through him, swirling angrily about him with flickers of golden light, and his tension melted into acute, battle ready awareness of every sound, every motion. Her breath hitched and something cracked beneath her feet. She was running.
"Where are you?" he asked, his voice cool and calm.
A distant roar reached his ear over the phone line, and he catalogued it in a detached, clinical way. He knew that sound.
"I don't—Loki, it's—"
Magic coiled around him, growing in response to her terror, and he stopped listening. It wasn't necessary for her to tell him where she was, not anymore, not with the volume of magic at his command. He drew on a thin filament of it and opened his eyes to the paths between the Realms. Heimdall, Odin, all the Aesir were fools to think the Bifrost was the only way to travel. Yggdrasil was the world tree. It touched all things. Some of its branches were narrower than others, some incredibly brittle and dangerous to tread upon. But he was Loki Skywalker. What dared the universe deny him when his power filled him?
He discarded the phone, hearing Anna's screams only distantly.
Light steps carried him over the thin, dying twig that touched the Fredricksons' home. Glittering motes of light trailed after him as magic seeped out his pores, painting a lighted spectrum through the dark space between Yggdrasil's branches.
Like called to like; his spell, woven through Anna's hair, was a beacon. He made his way swiftly to the branch closest to her and left the world tree behind him, stepping onto Midgard's ground. Rot and death slammed into him.
With a hiss of fury, Loki let the creature's momentum bear him to the ground as his magic formed an iron knife in his hand. He drove the blade into the monster's side, and it screamed with pain as it fell away from him.
Rolling to his knees, he crafted another blade, and he flung it hard into the creature's eye. The creature dropped, but it was not dead. It writhed on the ground, its patchwork skin sallow yellow and bruise blue with death, and rage. "How did you come to be here?" he asked the draugr as it shrieked with pain and indignation, the cold iron burning its flesh.
A human voice shouted in pain, and Loki moved, running through the thick forest with ease. As he went, he braided threads of magic into a spear made of iron, strong and durable, and when another draugr launched itself at him from the darkness, it met its death on that spear. He braced himself against the creature with a foot, tearing the spear from its body before hackings its head off. Bits of muscle and pulpy skin flew through the air, hitting the terrified face of the mortal half laying beside it.
Loki had no time for the boy; the boy was not his concern. The draugr was as dead as he could render it.
He followed the pull of magic, the quiet hum in the back of his mind directing him to Anna, and found her in a clearing with another girl, surrounded by a pack of draugr. The girl was unconscious on the ground, and Anna stood over her, clutching her sword in both hands as she faced down a pack of draugr.
"Loki!" she exclaimed as soon as she saw him, relief washing over her face.
Several of the draugr turned at her shout, and Loki wasted no time. He surged forward, and his spear dug into one of the draugr's neck. A deft twist combined with an upward thrust lifted its head from its shoulders, and the corpse dropped. He flexed his wrist, commanding his magic to fill his palm with fire, and he set the draugr's body burning.
Green light cast eerie shadows over the clearing as Loki cut through another draugr, curiously detached from the fight. He had never been physical, preferring to trick his enemies to their deaths, but the draugr left little choice. They had the unfortunate tendency of reviving if they weren't decapitated and burned.
Another draugr fell to two strokes of his blade, forward and back, cutting through the neck. It too burned, and the clearing brightened.
He twisted under the reach of a third draugr, holding his breath against the awful stench of their decaying flesh. As he came behind the monster, he jammed the spear into its back, severing its spine. When green flames rolled over its body, it shrieked and screamed, but it did not burn.
He had no time to consider the draugr on the ground; he was preoccupied by the ones closing in on Anna. She lifted her sword in both hands, assuming a stance so weak it was laughable. If a draugr struck her, she wouldn't be able to defend herself.
Though if she needed both hands to lift that sword, he doubted she could defend herself regardless. Modern mortals were pitiable with swords. He would have to rectify that.
Another head hit the ground; another draugr body was consumed by fire, and he was at Anna's side. Her brow, a pale and sickly chartreuse in the light of his fire, dripped with sweat, but her eyes were fierce. She should have been afraid. He would have expected and understood her fear. Instead, she brandished her sword and stood her ground.
Five draugr remained, all lumbering toward them, and Loki reached out, touching his fingers against the blade of her sword. Fire consumed the blade, snapping and cracking along the metal, and she had the good sense not to be surprised by it.
"Don't do anything stupid," he warned her.
She glared at him. "They're trying to kill me."
"And I'm going to kill them."
Which he did. With great efficiency and satisfaction. The last draugr hit the ground with a dull thud and Anna, who had stayed out of his way, suddenly stepped forward. She lifted the flaming sword and brought it down on the draugr with a scream, cutting through the thin bit of rotting skin still connecting its head to its body.
"That's for ruining my night!" she shouted, her voice strained. Loki studied her face impassively as she brought the blade down a second time, embedding it in the draugr's back. "And for threatening my friends!" She jerked at the sword, tearing it free from the creature's putrefied flesh with a sick, wet noise. "And for— for—"
Loki's fingers closed gently around her wrist, staying her hand. He took the sword from her, extinguishing the flames as he pressed the point into the hard ground beside them. With a brutal sob, Anna flung herself against him, her fingers clutching at his clothing. Tears tracked down her face, and her bare skin was clammy under his hands.
He thought he should offer her words of comfort, but none came.
"I thought I was going to die ," Anna gasped against his chest. "They were going to kill us."
Eventually, yes, the draugr would have killed Anna and her unconscious friend. But they would have taken their time doing so.
Anna tilted back her head, looking at him in the dying light of his fires, and to his immense surprise, she started laughing. "Oh my God," she breathed. "I'm alive. We're alive." Her laughter bordered on hysterical, and that eased his surprise. She was in shock. "You just—out of nowhere—and there was fire." Her laughter turned into a sob in her chest, and she seemed caught between crying and laughing. "Your costume is amazing."
Leave it to a mortal to make the most inane observations in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
"Can you manage walking?" he asked her.
"I think so." She drew away from him, and he noticed the way her arms were shaking. Exhaustion, fading adrenaline. She wouldn't be walking much longer. "Yeah." Her eyes met his. "Can we go home?"
"We should return your friend."
Anna looked at the unconscious girl on the ground and nodded. "Right. Yes. Stacey is—yes."
Loki plucked the sword from the ground and returned it to Anna, who sheathed it, despite her painful clumsiness, on the fourth try. The spear he let dissolve into motes of magic, freeing both his hands so that he could carry the mortal girl.
"And don't think you aren't going to explain this to me." The words were sudden, almost explosive, and Loki glanced at Anna with a lifted brow. She stood with her arms crossed, a furious expression on her face. In her armor, bathed by cool moonlight, she truly looked like a vengeful Valkyrie. And her mother. She looked almost exactly like her mother.
"I wouldn't dream of being evasive," Loki lied. Her eyes narrowed for the barest of seconds, but she accepted this.
At the edge of the woods, Stacey had the good grace to come to, and Loki let Anna stumble up to the house with her friend on her shoulder. Sirens wailed in the distance; at least one of the children had possessed enough sense to call the police. Loki had no desire to remain until the police showed up, and Anna was smart enough to slip away after she assured her friends she was safe. In the ensuing chaos, no one would notice her gone.
Using the last of the magic given him by Anna's need, he took her hand and transported them back to their home.
Sorry I didn't get these up on Friday, guys! I was in a rush to get packed and out of town. Thanks for your patience.
"So let me get this straight." Mike's brows drew together as he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and studied Loki with uncharacteristic intensity. "You're the Loki from Norse mythology. You come from Asgard. You really are blue." He turned to his sister. "Why did no one go 'Oh, hey, the not-dead-dude from our backyard is named for the Norse god of mischief, maybe we should wonder about that'?"
"It's amazing what you mortals will rationalize away," Loki drawled, steepling his fingers.
Mike stared at him. "But you're blue."
Instead of incensing him, the fact that Mike's largest stumbling block was Loki's Jotun visage simply amused him. "And elves have pointed ears."
"Elves are real?" There was a calculating glint in Anna's eyes that disturbed him.
"Don't even get her started," Mike warned. "Her obsession with Orlando Bloom only just ended."
She scowled and threw a pillow at Mike's head. Mike caught it and set it aside. "Okay, so you're a… Jotun. And your brother is Thor. Like. Thor-Thor? The Avenger's Thor?"
Loki inclined his head. "To my everlasting annoyance."
Mike sank into the couch, dragging his hands over his face. "Shit." He breathed the curse as he closed his eyes. Anna, on the love seat, smirked.
Both children were taking his explanation well, but he supposed he couldn't be too surprised by that fact. In a world overrun by heroes and villains with mutant powers, where groups like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were household names, a Norse god was perfectly acceptable. For her part, Anna was holding it over Mike's head that she had found out first. She had relayed the tale of her rescue with no small amount of glee.
Some things never changed. Sibling rivalry was universal.
"So. Okay. Question." Mike's hands dropped from his face and he leaned forward once more. "If you're Thor's brother, why isn't he looking for you?"
"Likely because he thinks I'm dead. I fell through the space between Yggdrasil's branches."
"And that's bad," Anna cut in. Her smug expression amused Loki as much as it annoyed Mike.
"Very." Loki lifted his gaze to the sliding glass door that looked over the backyard. Lyn, Jack, Joe, and two of their friends were in the backyard, kicking a ball between them while the dog kept watch from the patio.
Mike scratched his chin, thinking. "So you never had no memory. You always knew who you were." Loki admitted this was true. "And you probably don't want us telling our parents." Loki would prefer they didn't. "What about the Avengers? I mean, don't you want your brother to know you're alive?"
"No. My brother harbors no great love for me." Though outwardly calm, for Loki could be nothing else, he felt a clawing urgency inside himself. The children had no reason to hold their silence and every reason to tell their parents exactly who he was. He wasn't part of their family; they owed him no allegiance. His presence was a disruption to their lives, a drain on their resources, and unnecessary to their continued well-being.
Anna gave him a brilliant smile. "Then you'll just have to stay with us," she told him.
"We'll need to tell Mom and Dad eventually," Mike said, a frown on his face.
"But not now." Anna sounded exasperated, as though Mike were an idiot and this was obvious. "And anyway, Loki needs to figure out why zombies attacked us."
"Draugr," he corrected, for what had to be the tenth time. Both Anna and Mike, however, refused to call them by their proper name.
Anna gave him a dismissive gesture that should have galled him much more than it did. "Whatever. If we tell Mom and Dad he's an alien from Asgard, they'll freak out and make him leave. Or they'll tell someone, who will tell someone else, and then the Avengers will show up and take Loki away." He was immeasurably pleased that she didn't want him to be taken away at the same time he was taken aback by a rare glimpse at her intelligence.
"Fine." Mike rubbed his hands over his knees before jabbing a finger at Loki. "But I want to help you figure out this draugr business. They tried to kill my sister."
A slow smile curled Loki's lips. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Half a continent away, Mary and Robert Frederickson shook hands with Reed Richards and Tony Stark while Thor watched the sunset from the roof of the Avengers' Tower. He sat on the very edge, feet dangling off the side, his hair catching in wind that stung his eyes. Wind that made an excellent excuse for watering eyes.
He pressed his thumb and forefingers to his closed eyes until color exploded against his eyelids, and he stifled a groan of protest. Thor was never one for introspection. A warrior born, he preferred action to thinking. But his thoughts would not quiet; his mind would not be still. Such things were the domain of his brother, and his brother was dead.
Thor dropped his hands to his knees and lifted his face to the dying light of Midgard's strange, yellow sun. The heat washed over his face, but it did not relax him, and it did not ease his upset.
He had lost his brother a little more than two years ago to the cold reaches of space. Loki had released his hold on Gungir, had fallen through the emptiness between Yggdrasil's branches, and died. Some six months later, Jane had discovered a new means to open the way between Midgard and Asgard, and he began his adventures with the Avengers. They were his penance, the battles, though his newly found friends didn't know it. When he threw himself into battle until his muscles burned and his body bled, it was not to protect Midgard. It was to punish himself for his failures, his shortcomings, for his inability to save one of the few people in the universe who mattered.
Loki was dead. His brother was dead.
And even now, two years later, his heart still aching, there was nothing Thor could do for it. Not even a god could fight death.
Tipping back his head, he ended his introspection with an anguished roar aimed at the heavens, the wordless shout of pain a declaration to the sky.
Tony Stark, who should have been at the gala S.H.I.E.L.D. hosted, dropped beside Thor. He was wearing what passed for formal attire on Midgard, and Thor wondered if he had just come from the benefit. Perhaps it was as boring as Stark feared it would be.
"It is unwise to be in my company right now, my friend." The words echoed in his head and dredged up the memory of Loki settling beside him after his botched coronation.
"Nah, I think I can risk it." Stark leaned forward, peering over the edge of the tower and gazing at the street far below. "Party's boring. Lots of big-brained scientists talking about the quantum deceleration of non-ionized particles and the refraction pattern of light."
Thor, having no idea what any of that meant, said nothing.
"So what's on your mind?"
"Many things. I grieve for my brother." Stark has heard only half the story, if even that much. Upon his return to Midgard, Thor had been circumspect in what he revealed to the Son of Coul. Family business was family business; the mortals had no need to know the details of Odin's family. All they truly knew was that Loki died for his transgressions. What they thought of that, whether it was execution or something else, Thor did not care.
Stark's lips pulled into a frown. "The brother that tried to kill you and destroy the world… what. Two years ago?"
"He is still my brother. And I still miss him."
It wasn't something he expected Stark to understand, the love he felt for the brother who had betrayed him. Who had lied to him.
But Stark was not a fool. He kept his silence and placed a hand on Thor's shoulder. "Losing family is hard." He spoke with the voice of a man who knew what those words meant, and Thor knew better than to press.
They sat in easy silence until Stark's phone vibrated. He pulled it out while Thor watched, marveling, as he always did, at the ingenuity of humans. "Looks like we've got our guy," Stark said with a grin. He rose and jerked his thumb at the door to the building. "I've got to head back down and pat this Frederickson guy on the ass a few times. You coming?"
Thor shook his head. "No. I will remain here." He turned when Stark departed, lifting his eyes to the dying light of Midgard's alien sun, and he allowed himself to feel just the littlest bit of hope.
Bob and Mary returned home late the first Wednesday of November to find themselves pleasantly surprised. When they pushed the door open and stepped from the mess room into the foyer, they found six sleepy eyes turning to them. Joe, Jack, and Lyn were piled on the love seat with Loki, all dressed for bed.
As she greeted her babies, who didn't seem as enthusiastic to see her as she was to see them, Mary took stock of the house. The family room was clean, no toys strewn across it. The kitchen, what she could see of it, was as clean as it ever was, with pots and pans put away and only a few glasses sitting on the counters and table. Anna appeared a moment later, hanging dangerously over the catwalk railing, and she waved.
"Did you get me anything?" The question, always first from Anna, was met with Bob's laughter.
Mike came out of the basement some ten minutes later, gave his father a one-armed hug, and asked how everything went.
Bob hedged. Giving vague answers, he promised to let everyone know more as soon as possible – which meant that no one would know anything until Sunday, when Mary managed to wrangle all her children for dinner. Using the gifts he purchased for the children as distractions, he gave Anna a pretty necklace. Mike received a shirt from Avengers University, designed to look like it came from an actual school. To Jack, a book about New York's history was given, and to Lyn, yet another stuffed animal. Joe got a poster of Captain America that had been signed not only by the Captain, but by Tony Stark and Hawkeye as well. The little boy looked like he might die of joy.
When Mary finally herded Lyn into her room, she plucked a picture book from the bookshelf and settled to read.
Lyn pulled face. "No, that's not what we do, mommy," the little girl said, pushing the book closed.
Mary humored her, because she knew they were both tired. "And what do we do, then?" she asked, fussing with the blankets around Lyn's face.
"You tell me a story." Lyn made a grand gesture, mussing the blankets Mary had just smoothed. "About the shield girls and their adventures and their flying ponies."
It took Mary a moment to process and assimilate Lyn's request, and then she smiled. "Has Loki been telling you stories at night?"
Lyn nodded. "He's bad at reading." Mary sincerely doubted that. "So he tells me stories. Last time about golden apples. Do you know that story?"
Mary wondered whether or not she should fake it. "No," she replied after a breath of hesitation. "Do you want to tell the story to me?"
This enthused her daughter, who sat up immediately. With great care, Lyn smoothed her blankets over her lap until they lay flat, and Mary wondered if that wasn't some part of a ritual Loki started with her. When she spoke, it was with all the gravity a child of four could muster, her voice low and her expression serious.
The story was simple, a child's rendition of something Mary suspected was infinitely more complicated. Lyn told her about Idunn, a pretty goddess who, it happened, looked just like Lyn. In an aside, the little girl confided she thought Loki made that up, but she liked it, so she said she wanted to keep it in. So Idunn, who looked just like Lyn except bigger, had big, juicy beautiful apples. And everyone wanted to eat these apples because they were very tasty and happened to keep anyone who ate them young and strong.
As the story progressed, Lyn's eyes fluttered shut and her head drooped. On several occasions, she lapsed into silence and Mary had to prompt her to continue. She slipped lower and lower in her bed until, at last, she curled around one of her stuffed animals and her breathing evened.
Moving with careful and deliberate gestures, Mary tucked the covers around Lyn's shoulders and rose, drifting away from the bed. Quietly, she shut the door to Lyn's room, and when she turned, she was unsurprised to see Loki standing in the door of his own room. "Thank you," she said, "for watching them."
He gave her an enigmatic smile, one that left her wondering if he was happy for the praise or simply humoring her. "We're glad to have you back," he replied, and he slipped into the room, shutting the door behind him.
When she lay in bed with Bob two hours later, staring at the dark expanse of the ceiling, Mary let out a sharp gasp. "Bob? Are you awake?"
He grunted. "Am now."
Rolling toward him, she touched his shoulder, only just able to make out the faint line of his body. "Bob, are you still looking into Loki's family?" The question was urgent. Why it came to her at quarter past midnight she didn't know, but knowledge of the fact that she hadn't called the police in nearly two weeks rushed over her like a tidal wave. It dragged her into a breathless sea of desperation, and it baffled her that she could have forgotten Loki.
A gusty sigh came from Bob's side of the bed. "I called the Norwegian embassy." His voice was thick with sleep and dreams, distant and heavy. "They said they'd get back to us."
"When?" Mary asked.
The sheets rustled and the bed dipped, and Mary watched her husband turn away from her. "While back," came the muttered reply, and she knew she wouldn't get any more conversation from her husband.
She rolled onto her back and turned her gaze to the darkened ceiling once again. It was strange, she thought, how she only rarely thought of Loki's family, and when she did, it happened at all once. In the dark of the night, when she let her mind wander, she would suddenly remember that someone somewhere had to be missing him. So often, Loki seemed like he had always been a part of the family, a permanent resident, someone who had been there for years instead of months.
But no one seemed to be looking for him. Her last conversation with the police, a faded and blurry memory, had been disastrous. They had told her they had no missing persons reports for anyone named Loki. They had no missing persons reports at all. "You live in the Northwest Suburbs," the officer said callously. "No one goes missing here."
A furious pounding started at the base of her skull, and she groaned. Her hand massaged the stiff muscles of her neck, and she dragged herself out of bed to get a glass of water and two ibuprofen. She didn't need to wake up with a stress headache.
When she slid into bed a few minutes later, the headache already easing, she attempted to turn back to her malcontent thoughts. But try as she might, she couldn't remember what she had been thinking about to bring on her headache. She resigned herself to the fact that it wasn't important, and when she woke the next morning, all thoughts about Loki and who might be searching him were as far from her mind as one end of the galaxy was from the other.
Sunday came slowly, kept at bay by parent teacher conferences with Joe and Jack's teachers, a football game, and her children's many extracurricular activities. But it came at last, as time pressed on relentlessly, and she gathered her children in the family room for the announcement that Bob would be starting a new job the following Monday.
"But we just moved here!" Mike surged to the edge of the couch with his shout, perched precariously on the cushions, body strung with nervous tension. He looked as though he'd just swallowed something unpleasant and was fighting to keep down his gorge. Anna looked just as disturbed, perhaps more so, but did a much better job at hiding it.
The youngest ones didn't seem to care at all, unbothered by the idea of having to make new friends. Mary thought it strange that Loki didn't seem to react at all.
"We're not moving," Bob assured them. "I'm just going to be working downtown now, so I won't be home as often." Jack lifted his hand. "Yes, Jack?"
"Are you working for S.H.I.E.L.D. now?"
The peculiar look that crossed Loki's face did not go unnoticed. Mary watched the slight curl of his lip, the way his body stiffened just a bit before relaxing. He returned to lounging, half sprawled across his end of the couch, Lyn curled in his lap as she chewed on the ear of one of her rabbits.
But Mary kept watching him, as subtly as she could, and she realized he was displeased with the news. While Joe exploded with unmitigated glee – would they get to meet the Avengers? Would Dad take them into work? Could they have Captain America over for dinner? – Loki withdrew. The change was barely discernable, but each second added another brick between him and everyone around him. Seeing Lyn in his lap while he managed such distance made her oddly nauseous, and the faint pound of a headache began at the back of her skull.
Bob dismissed the group to help her with dinner soon after, and as Lyn wriggled off Loki's lap and Loki rose, Mary reached out and gently touched his arm. "Loki?"
There was something about his name. She should know something about his name, but trying to reach for the knowledge was like coming against an invisible wall. She could press against it, but she couldn't feel it, and she couldn't see it. There was only a vague sort of pressure that resisted her and, in the periphery of her vision, a flicker of gold.
"Are you alright?"
He wore an expression so blank it frightened her. "Quite."
She had learned not to believe him when he said that. "Are you sure?" she pressed, her tone gentle. She didn't want to appear like she was pushing him. Not really. "You know we're not going to ask you to go anywhere."
"No, of course not," he said, and his voice took on a distant quality, his expression now distracted.
"You're family, Loki." Mary pressed her palm to his face, and the gesture so startled him that he turned the full intensity of his shock and surprise on her.
His gaze, when she was the subject of his concentrated scrutiny, alarmed her. Something lurked in the depths of his green eyes – impossibly, inhumanly green, like emeralds or the leaves of an oak after a summer rain – something dark and terrifying. Receiving all of his attention was as uncomfortable as being in a department store during one of Lyn's tantrums.
There was something about him she needed to remember, something she had forgotten. Her brows drew together, and her fingers twitched against the soft skin of his face. He looked so young, but his eyes were old. They would better belong in the face of a man who had lived through several wars.
A halo of sunlight threaded bits of gold in his hair as the setting sun spilled over the trees in the backyard and into the house. The golden light caught her eyes, and her discomfort eased. Her face softened into a smile, and she lifted onto her toes to press a kiss to his cheek. "Of course you are, don't be ridiculous," she said, a scolding edge in her voice. "Now, I was thinking stroganoff for dinner. Come help me cut the meat."
Starting a new job always made Bob nervous. He had never been one for the social niceties of meeting people. Small talk was difficult for him; he simply couldn't talk about things that didn't interest him, and the weather and people's personal lives were boring. He liked facts, hard and solid facts, but few people wanted to talk about the kind of facts he found interesting.
Palms sweating, he stepped into the Sears Tower lobby and tried to remember that it was the Willis Tower now. Men and women in sleek business attire breezed by him, all them with Bluetooth headsets and briefcases in hand. At least five separate groups of people, moving as one autonomous unit centered around an iPad, swirled by him.
The voice speaking his name caught his attention, and he lifted his gaze to see S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson striding toward him with purpose. Coulson was a small man with a powerful presence. The determined set of his face made him seem larger than he was, imposing even, and his deliberate gestures spoke of an efficient personality. He wasn't the kind to waste words or actions needlessly, and Bob respected him for that.
"Agent Coulson." He extended his hand, and Coulson took it, giving him a firm handshake before gesturing him forward.
"It's good to see you again, Bob. You don't mind if I call you—? Good." Coulson gestured Bob forward and fell into step beside him. "How was the drive?"
Bob suppressed a wince. Small talk. "I took the train, actually."
Coulson nodded, a single, sharp gesture as they passed through security. "It's amazing that people even try to drive in this city," he said, leading Bob to one of several banks of elevators. "Is the train any better?"
With a rueful laugh, Bob shook his head. "Not really. It was late and crowded."
They stepped into the elevator, which only serviced a third of the floors. At its end, they were greeted by another security checkpoint. Once that was cleared, they moved to another bank of elevators. "S.H.I.E.L.D. has floors sixty through sixty-five, sixty-eight, and sixty-nine," Coulson explained as they waited.
"What happened to sixty-six and seven?"
"Sky lobbies." Coulson said it impassively, but the left corner of his lip quirked like there was a secret joke there. They boarded the elevator for a much shorter trip to the sixty-first floor.
There, they were greeted by a very large, very imposing man sitting behind a desk made of solid marble, emblazoned with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s logo. Coulson greeted the man with familiarity and stepped through the metal detector beside the desk. Bob followed quickly, and they approached a door requiring a keycard and a thumbprint to open.
The door opened to another world.
While Coulson explained that this level was for new employee registration, among other things, Bob took in the sight of the place. It was surreal for the simple reason that it coupled the mundane with the extraordinary. A woman zoomed by him, actually flying , and as he stared after her, jaw hanging open, she winked.
"Don't crash into anything," Coulson called after the woman. In his world, Bob supposed, a woman flying around an office had to be perfectly normal.
With a gesture, Coulson ushered Bob into a world where nothing was impossible. Coulson's world was full of Norse gods and women who could fly, of men who could soar through the air on a spider's web and secret missions to foreign nations. It was a world where aliens really did exist, and science was nearly synonymous with magic.
He adored it.
Splitting his time equally between S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Chicago office and the research building in Elgin, Bob settled into his job quickly. There was a great deal to learn (mostly that uttering "That's impossible" was ludicrous), but he took to his tasks quickly. Most of his time was spent checking people's numbers, which would have bored most people to tears, but there was nothing that delighted Bob more than receiving a folder labeled "TOP SECRET" that contained annotations from Tony Stark or Reed Richards on a new piece of tech.
Sometimes, he was called in as a consultant. He had a phenomenal ability to crunch numbers in his head, and whenever someone was throwing around ballpark estimates, he was called in to do quick calculations.
It was because of his ability to turn numbers over so quickly that one of his coworkers, Linda Walters, in telemetry, called him into her lab one day.
"I just don't get these results," she said, sounding harried, as she opened the door for him. "Really, I think the computer's returning gibberish just to spite me." She dropped gracelessly onto a rolling stool, and it nearly shot out from under her. In a desperate attempt to stay on the stool, she fell across one of the counters and sent papers flying everywhere.
Linda Walters was like that, a whirlwind of accidents waiting to happen. Her heraldry of disaster was so much a part of life that she had a special lab coat, a hazard warning printed on the back of it.
Righting herself, she smiled at him, her brown eyes bright behind glasses so thick they magnified her eyes. She had a permanently sour look on her face, making her look like she sucked lemons every time she turned away, but her eyes were always smiling.
"Well, let me see." Bob settled carefully onto a second stool and scooted closer so that he could read the monitor.
What he saw would have shocked anyone who hadn't worked at S.H.I.E.L.D. for the whole of a week. Well into his second month, he was far too jaded to the impossible. "Bizarre," he muttered, reaching for the mouse. He hesitated. "May I?"
"Oh, sure, go for it," Linda said, urging him on as she leaned back and crossed her arms.
With her regarding the screen over his shoulder, Bob began tabbing through the information. It was insane, really, but par for the course. According to the computer, Chicago's northwest suburbs were expelling enough energy to fuel the entire planet for the next ten million years, and multiple satellite images showed the formation of something that looked suspiciously like an Einstein-Rosen Bridge over the entire area.
"Well, this is—" He broke off.
"I'm glad you're having that reaction." Linda scratched the side of her head, just behind her ear, and gave a helpless shrug. "It's been telling me that all morning. I went back through ten year's worth of information and there's nothing else like it. We see some pretty crazy stuff, but energy readings like that don't just pop up over night."
"No, you're right. Exactly," Bob agreed. He took another breath, but no words came to him.
Even by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s standards, what the computer showed was nothing short of impossible.
There was a faint explosion from somewhere behind them, and they both exchanged aggrieved expressions as the lights flickered and the power fluctuated.
"It'd be nice if R&D would stop overloading the circuit breakers," Linda complained.
Bob laughed. R&D caused regular power surges. It wasn't a normal day if something didn't explode and the power didn't go out. "Could be worse," he said as the lights returned to normal, the sure sign the generators, which were always on and running, had kicked in.
He turned back to the computer, clicking back to the program's main tab. "What did you want me to look at again?" he asked.
Linda was quiet for a moment. "You know," she said slowly, dragging out each word, "I can't quite remember." There was a strange, nervous edge to her laugh, and Bob couldn't help but feel they had missed something. What it was he couldn't be sure, and the feeling persisted.
He stood. "It's about time for lunch anyway. Want to grab a coffee?"
She nodded. "Sounds perfect."
When they left her lab, Bob dismissed the strange shimmer of gold across the computer screens as a trick of the light.
Shortly after the mortal festival called Thanksgiving, things began to go wrong. That they had been wrong for a while, Loki had no doubt, but they began going spectacularly wrong.
Loki stood over the corpse of a goblin. His breathing was even, but beside him, Mike's was ragged from exertion.
"You were slow to guard," Loki said as he pushed the goblin's body onto its back, unbothered by the gaping hole in its abdomen. Its insides smeared across the light dusting of snow, painting the ground red.
Mike made a strangled noise and took several quick steps away before emptying the contents of his stomach. The boy was brutal as a football player. Loki had watched him practice, saw him plow through the others on the field, but he was not a killer.
While Mike dealt with his stomach, Loki crouched beside the goblin's body, looking for anything that might give him information. Anything at all, from an insignia to heraldic colors. But he found nothing, and without the use of his magic, he would find nothing further.
Withdrawing from the body, he turned to Mike, who was scooping up what snow he could find and using it to clean out his mouth. Spitting the last of it to the ground, the boy's gaze drifted from Loki to the goblin's body and then jerked back to Loki.
"D'you know why we've got goblins?" he asked.
"Not in the slightest." The fact that he didn't know bothered him on a fundamental level. Knowledge was power. That there was something happening outside his realm of understanding was infuriating. That it threatened his family angered him even more.
Mike scratched his chin, looking uncertain. "You know where it came from?"
"Svartalfheim. It is where all goblins come from."
"Well, did the person in charge of—" Mike stumbled over the word. "—Vart-el-hime or whatever send it?"
Loki shook his head. "I am uncertain." It wouldn't be far-fetched to think that Malekith might send his minions to Midgard, but Loki could discern no purpose in it. A single goblin, to Midgard, would accomplish precious little. Perhaps it was one of many, and they were being sent on reconnaissance missions. That begged the question: reconnaissance for what? Invading Midgard would gain the king of the dark elves little.
"Fine. Is this going to be a thing?" Loki's gaze snapped to Mike, who glowered back at him. "I mean, I'm okay with running around and saving people. But if this turns into a thing, I'm gonna be pissed. I'm taking the ACTs and worrying about college. I don't need to fight crime." He paused for breath and his face screwed up in a look of confusion. "Actually, speaking of fighting crime, why the hell haven't the Avengers or something shown up here to deal with this?"
That was, in fact, an extraordinarily brilliant question. The rare flashes of genius he saw in the Frederickson children never ceased to amaze him, most likely because he never expected them.
"Isn't that just the question," Loki murmured thoughtfully, his fingers brushing his lower lip as he thought.
Aside from Mike's nervous shuffling, silence fell over the clearing. In the distance, Loki could hear the hum of a well-traveled street, but where they stood was nothing but woods, well away from prying eyes. A frigid gust of wind rolled over the air, bringing with it the smell of fire and smoke.
"Something's burning." The human ability to state the obvious never failed. It seemed, at times, like a coping mechanism for the unexpected, as though speaking aloud a true but surprising statement made it more palatable.
Having judged the direction of the wind and how it would carry the scent of burning wood, Loki moved forward, his steps measured and careful, and Mike followed closely. Their journey wasn't long, only a handful of minutes before the crested a hill that overlooked another clearing. Loki's fist closed around Mike's jacket, and he dragged them both to the ground.
Smoke filled the clearing, rolling over the ground like a roiling gray blanket as flames licked the trees, crawling in red ropes up the trunks and down the braches. A pack of brandyr cut through the smoke as they breathed yet more of it, sparks shooting from their nostrils in great bursts while they circled a group of women.
"Brandyr," Loki murmured to Mike, his voice barely audible over the crackling of flames. "Fire beasts from Muspelheim." He gave the mortal boy a warning glance. "Stay silent. They are keen of ear."
The wild look Mike returned suggested the boy was now concerned that his heartbeat would give them away. Loki turned from him, knowing they would be fine as long as Mike did not speak, and focused his attention on the women and the beasts. One or two brandyr were easy to dispatch; though they were the size of large dogs and each weighed as much as four mortal men, their fiery insides were housed by weak and stringy flesh. But a pack of them was dangerous. Brandyr despised company and preferred to hunt in pairs. If they gathered in a large group, it was because they were controlled.
And there was only one thing that could control the brandyr.
A humanoid figure stepped from the burning trees, its body wreathed by flames. It moved with efficiency, wasting no movements as it strode toward the brandyr and their prey, the naked, grey women with their willowy bodies. Though flames obscured its features, Loki could see clearly its broad frame, tightly packed with muscles. A warrior. A jotun warrior wearing a human face.
"What are the Askafroa doing in Midgard?" it asked the woman, its voice like the popping of dry wood as it was consumed by fire.
The woman replied together, in one voice, "We come to grow, and to feat on the decaying flesh of the mortals' dead."
Beside him, Mike shuddered.
Letting out a dry chuckle, the jotun gave the brandyr a dismissive gesture, and Loki had to suppress his irritation. The brandyr reacted immediately, breaking away from the women and rushing toward the nearest ash trees. The jotun was going to kill the Askafroa by burning down their trees instead of demanding answers.
And the Askafroa, held where they were by a ring of fire and the jotun, began to scream.
Loki clapped his hand over Mike's mouth at the mortal's quiet gasp of terror, and they shared a long, silent look. "Be silent," Loki's eyes warned.
"They're dying," came Mike's silent cry.
Loki arranged his expression very carefully to convey a single message: the Askafroa could not be saved. One runty frost giant and one mortal against a fire giant and a pack of seven brandyr was suicide, and Loki had no desire to die for creatures like the Askafroa. And Mike would not either, he was sure, if the mortal boy knew anything of the ash tree spirits. The Askafroa's diet consisted of marrow from the bones of the dead and the mush of their decaying entrails. They maintained this diet by strangling people who passed under their branches and leaving the corpses to hang.
When at last the screams died, and the ash trees were blackened husks, the fire giant collected his brandyr and left the clearing. Mike and Loki remained where they were; Loki's hard grasp kept Mike pressed to the snowy ground until he judged it safe to rise.
"The hell did we just see?" Mike demanded when Loki finally let him rise. His face sickly pale in the dying light, he looked as though he might be ill yet again.
"Something greatly disturbing," Loki returned, though he suspected he found it disturbing for reasons different than Mike. The Askafroa's violent deaths bothered Loki far less than their presence, and he left Mike's side to pick his way down the slight hill to the women's charred remains.
He approached the ash women with care; even with their trees burned and their lives failing, he was wary. They were elemental spirits, born of the earth, and possessed great power even as they lay dying.
Kneeling beside one, Loki tilted her head to the side, and her thick skin, like bark, cracked and dissolved into powder under his touch. "Well met, son of Odin," she said, sneering, the voices of her sisters echoing her own by a matter of seconds. That they weren't in perfect harmony belayed how close to death they were. "Do you come to make a mockery of our deaths?"
"Not I," Loki murmured, nonplussed by her recognition of him. "Tell me, wives of the ash trees, why you are here."
Her laugh was the sound of dry, aged leaves crumbling, and it dissolved into a gasp and a wheeze. "Why else would we come," she asked, "but for the power here for us to consume?"
Mike's shadow fell over them. "Power?" His voice rife with uncertainty, he moved to kneel. A sharp look from Loki froze him mid-crouch, and he rose.
"You cannot see it, mortal," the Askafroa said, her milky eyes turning toward Mike. Mike recoiled. Loki did not move. "You cannot taste its potency like lightning on the air. It quickens and grows, and all the Nine Realms seek it." With a groan, she died, and her sisters died, too.
Their bodies crumbled to dust, and the wind carried it away.
Mike grabbed Loki by his jacket and yanked. Loki wondered what the child thought to accomplish with the gesture. Loki was so much heavier than anything Mike could lift.
But Mike's inability to move Loki didn't seem to bother him. "What the hell is going on here?" he demanded, and Loki realized, in a distant, detached sort of way, that this reaction likely stemmed from the stress of the day. Mike was not a killer but had seen a goblin slain and a group of women murdered for what must have appeared to him as little purpose. "And don't think you can just… just walk away and pretend that this is normal!"
"That would depend entirely on my understanding of normal."
He expected a punch. It was what Thor would do. Instead, Mike released him and took two large steps back, and stood in a fading patch of sunlight, trembling.
Loki, realizing they stood on the edge of a dangerous cliff, stood with care. It was with immense surprise that he discovered he cared for what might happen if one – or both – of them fell from this particular precipice.
"Is this normal for you? Is this what you do? Just bring monsters to a place until everyone dies?" Pain and anger, raw and fierce, twisted Mike's face into something ugly. Loki would have despised this from Thor, but Thor was thousands of years old. Mike was a child, a baby, and from him, this was to be expected.
But Loki also understood how Mike functioned. He had a baseline along which he operated, and the gods themselves could not separate Mike from the loyalty that defined him. So Loki waited, knowing more was coming.
"What about my sisters?" Mike demanded, lifting his sword arm. He pointed the blade, shaking and uneven in his hand, at Loki's throat, and the clinical, dispassionate part of Loki's mind disarmed him one hundred different ways. "What about Lyn? Will the zombies and the tree women and the people who are on fire come after her? She's four, Loki, and she doesn't understand any of this, so just tell me what the hell is going on!"
Thor would have blamed Loki for the monsters, were Thor Mike. Thor would have railed against Loki. Mike did not.
"There is a strange magic here." Loki spoke softly and without gestures, still and unmoving like a statue. "And while mortals cannot see it, the creatures that populate the Nine Realms can. They come for the magic. They want it."
"And, what, we're the only idiots who know?" Mike snapped, but his anger had left him, leaving him deflated. He exhaled heavily, his shoulders slumping forward, and his sword hit the ground with a dull clunk. It dissolved into golden motes of magic, and those, too dissipated. "I'm just a kid."
Thousands of words flittered through Loki's mind, little birds framed by delicate wings, and hundreds arranged themselves on his tongue. He could do so much with those words. With a handful, he could tear Mike to shreds, and leave the boy so like his brother broken and defeated. Or he could take hold of another set of words and build him up.
"All great warriors begin as children."
Mike's eyes met Loki's, and Loki read surprise there. He was never free with gentle words.
"So." Mike ran a hand over his hair. "We should, you know, get home before it gets too dark. Mom'll kill us. You know."
Loki stretched out his hand. Mike took it, and they stepped across the branches of Yggdrasil.
The Frederickson children weren't given to conspiracy, a fact that continued to baffle Loki. He had expected, in his time with them, that he would slowly see more treachery from the mortal siblings. But aside from minor squabbles, all ended by Mary's swift and unquestionable justice, they were amicable with each other. Joe and Jack didn't plot to overthrow Mike as firstborn son, nor did they undermine each other. And for all Anna's whining and predisposition toward melodrama, she hated conflict and would sacrifice personal pride for peace.
So when Anna and Mike left one afternoon for sibling bonding , Loki was suspicious.
"They're just getting ice cream and a few things from Walmart for me," Mary said, thrusting a basket of freshly laundered clothes into his hands. "Fold them?" It was posed as a question but remained a command. Mary had a skill for treading the line between request and demand, and she walked it most admirably. Even Frigga, Loki thought, would benefit from watching Mary.
Anna and Mike were gone far too long to have gone simply for ice cream and groceries, and when they did return, they avoided him as best they could. It was Loki's intent to corner them and discover the reason for their delay, something that shouldn't have been difficult but was.
As soon as they returned, Jack set upon Mike with demands to play video games. Anna's phone rang, and for the three hours that followed, she sat in her room and talked to her friends without ceasing.
Loki had every intention of lurking since his first and preferred plan could no longer be executed. Unfortunately, Joe accosted him.
Tugging Loki up the stairs to his room, Joe announced they would play Avengers. Silently, Loki wished Joe's obsession would shift to something else.
"You have to be Iron Man," he said to Loki, who reminded himself that Joe wouldn't know how singularly insulting that idea was. "And I'm going to be Captain America." As far as Joe was concerned, the Avengers had a strict rank of "awesomeness." Captain America came first, then Iron Man, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and, lastly, Thor. That ranking system made Loki far more amenable to the game, since he couldn't help but approve of anything that placed Thor last.
"And our mission?" Loki asked. Though he would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, he humored Joe, who was a wall of resistance once he determined to do something.
"Duh, to save mom. Doctor Doom kidnapped her."
"Your mother is cleaning the kitchen." It was a moment, Loki would later reflect, of profound idiocy, where he fell prey to the egregious mortal habit for stating the obvious.
"No," Joe said in a tone only an eight year old afflicted by supreme stupidity could muster. "That's Doom's kitchen. Keep up."
So they set about rescuing Mary. This involved a plan with at least thirty steps, all carefully outlined in red crayon over the course of several pages in one of Joe's notebooks for school. In truth, the game was only a ruse to get Mary to play with them, as it turned out she was secretly Scarlet Witch in disguise. The game concluded with Mary rescued, and they celebrated with drinks – hot cocoa for Joe and tea for Mary and Loki – and all three of them eating gingerbread cookies.
Finally, Loki was able to speak with Mike and Anna, except not even that could be on his terms. Mike, claiming he wanted Loki's help with a video game, invited him to the basement. Loki saw through the charade the moment Anna said she wanted to find an old board game in the basement's crawl space.
Sure they thought themselves quite clever, Loki allowed the two to herd him into Mike's room.
"Should we not even pretend at this ruse?" Loki asked, the question purely rhetorical, as he sat in the only chair in Mike's room.
"We made a decision," Mike said, ignoring Loki's question, and his face hardened into an unreadable mask. "Since Halloween, everything's been getting weird."
Ah, the mortal talent for understatement. Events in the immediate area had passed the mortal concept of weird to take a right turn at bizarre and now headed unerringly toward the territory of insane. Even Loki had to admit the activity was unnerving. Though he had seen no more of the fire jotun from the prior week, he had seen the brandyr – and far too many other creatures that should never have even the faintest interest in Midgard.
"And since, Mike continued, "the three of us seem to be the only people who know, we've got to be the ones to deal with it."
"Even if we don't want to." Anna crossed her arms in an attempt to appear defiant, but her face, flickering between a pout and a smile, gave her away. "I'm giving up a night of cheerleading every week to learn this sword business. And my weekends."
For the first time in many months, Loki was speechless, taken aback by their decision. After Mike's reaction to the Askafroa, he had expected both children to refuse to help him in the search for information.
"We know we're no good," Mike said, mistaking Loki's pensive silence for hesitation. "But this is our town."
"And at the very least, we can provide distractions." Anna smiled, obviously thinking she had hit on a winning argument.
Loki considered telling her there were precious few creatures she would be able to outrun. But, no, he would spare her that harsh reality for the time being.
"Then I suppose I will continue to teach you," he said, and the joy that lit their faces made his heart lurch strangely in his chest.
They were, to his surprise, quick studies, and he attributed it to the years they had spent learning sports. Anna, flexible and quick on her feet, was much more suited to his preferred style of combat, something that resembled the mortal art of capoeira. She moved like a dancer, fluidly and gracefully, but lacked the ability to make the quick and decisive strikes the style required. Mike, large and solid, Loki taught the art of the sword. Mike's skill suffered only because Loki so lacked detailed knowledge of swordplay, having always preferred other modes of combat.
It was when their skill became disproportionate to the time they spent with him that Loki realized they were taking their training seriously. Curious to see how they were managing to find time between school and their extracurricular activities, Loki offered to pick Anna up from cheerleading practice one night in mid-December.
Standing a carefully calculated distance from the mothers present – far enough away that they wouldn't bother him but close enough that he didn't seem disagreeable – he watched the team's cool down. And though he supposed he shouldn't be surprised by it, when they began the easy routine he and Anna had worked out, he was. Even after the other girls stopped, Anna continued, moving with the music piped through the gymnasium's sound system.
While the majority of the girls and their mothers filed out, a few remained, watching Anna with curious eyes.
Loki shed his jacket, placing it on the ground, and removed his shoes and socks. Having stripped down to his slacks, he strode across the gymnasium and inserted himself into the middle of Anna's practice. "Strike without hesitation," he commanded, catching a kick behind his back with the intent to take her to the ground.
She twisted in his grasp, using the force of the takedown against him, and he was forced to release her. Shifting into a crouch, he spun toward her, and Anna flipped away from him. She caught his kick on her arm, wrapped her hand about his ankle, and attempted to overturn him.
Every move he made was aggressive, intended to force her to respond in kind. Continually, he moved into her space, and she turned him aside. Her strikes began to come with greater certainty and more strength, and so he struck harder, faster. They danced about each other; she fought to keep him at bay and he assessed every move she made against him.
They broke apart to a smattering of applause and one of the girls saying, "See, mom, that's what I want to learn!"
Face flushed and lit with a broad smile, Anna hurried to her things to get a drink of water. Loki followed her, accepting the towel she offered. "Better," he told her.
She made a disagreeable sound. "Psht, please, I could have owned you."
"And yet you didn't."
With a laugh, she tossed the water bottle at him. "Would it kill you to give a girl a compliment?"
Three months ago, the thought of taking a drink from Anna's water bottle would have nauseated him. Now, he tilted back his head and squirted out a mouthful of cool water without hesitation. "You'll get a compliment when you do it right." He handed the bottle back to her. "You didn't tell me you were practicing."
She shrugged. "I'm an athlete. We find time."
"Cheerleading isn't a sport." They both glanced at Mike, Anna with a measure of annoyance, and Mike laughed, dropping his duffle bag to the floor. He rooted through it and tossed Loki one of his shirts, rumpled but clean, and Loki pulled it on if only to spare the shirt he came wearing.
"I take it you're finding extra time to practice as well," Loki said to Mike as Anna finished collecting her things.
He nodded. "Yeah, I take a half hour before and after football practice to do some of the sword moves you've taught me." He winced, glancing to the side, embarrassed. "I have to use a stick. And hold a dumbbell to get the right weight."
Loki's lips quirked. If nothing else, mortals were quite inventive.
"Oh, God, did you just smile?"
His gaze shifted to Anna and his expression clouded over. "No."
"No, you did. You totally just smiled. Oh, God, I might die. Mike, make a note of it," Anna commanded with an imperious wave of her hand as Loki slipped his feet into his discarded shoes. "December twelfth: Loki smiles in front of all and sundry."
"Do you even know what sundry means?" Loki muttered, pulling his coat on.
"No. Do you?"
Anna turned up her nose. "Priss."
Loki reached out and tweaked her nose between two fingers. "Brat." Then he did smile, and he suffered her teasing well into the night and for the following week.
To Loki's immense delight, mortal schools closed for a period of two and a half weeks for a break and a holiday. With both Mike and Anna now free and available at all hours, he rose early on the first morning of their break, intending to spend the majority of the day training them or searching for goblins and creatures he could question.
Instead, Mary whisked him out of the house, leaving a note taped to the basement door for Mike telling him that he was in charge, and took him Christmas shopping. The children, she assured him, wouldn't be up until well past eleven, and he shouldn't expect to see them at all during the break. That sat poorly with him, and he resolved to do something about it as soon as he could escape Mary.
Shopping was hellish.
She took him to a mall a little more than a half hour away, and it could easily have been the size of Odin's apartments in Asgard. "Woodfield," Mary said cheerfully, "is one of the biggest malls in America." She said this as though it was something of which she was proud, as though the size of a shopping center was to be lauded as a sign of human accomplishment.
Malls, Loki decided as she dragged him from one store to the next, were a sign of human insanity.
And it came as no shock to him, though Mary seemed quite surprised, that the mall was set upon by monsters only when they were preparing to leave and laden with bags.
Wrapping his hands around her wrist, Loki hauled Mary into the nearest store, a place that smelled more of sickly sweet flowers and fruit than the women's baths in Asgard. Dragging her behind a display, he pulled the bags off his arms and shed his jacket and scarf.
"What are those?" Mary asked, hardly paying him any mind as she peered around the edge of the display at the stone behemoths.
"Irritations," Loki snapped as he lay his jacket beside her.
Mary stared at him. "What are you doing?"
He released a heavy sigh. "Being noble."
"Why would you do that?"
Leaning forward, he dropped a swift kiss on her forehead. "Because I care for you and your family." He stood and strode from the shop before either of them had a chance to think too hard about those words, and he made his way toward a table that had been thrown against a wall.
With ease, he snapped the flat top of the table off the main support. It took a little more effort to remove the base from the support, but when he had it done, he had in hand an iron pole that would serve him well enough as a weapon. Malls, he had learned were full of security cameras. Impressive feats of strength could be attributed to adrenaline. Magically created weapons could not be so easily ignored.
"YOU WILL TELL US WHERE IT IS."
It came to him suddenly, the recollection that stone golems had one volume and one volume only: obscenely loud. The humans, scattered through the stores around the little plaza, clapped their hands to their ears. A few screamed, which only added to the awful rumbling of the golems' voices.
Nothing was helped by the fact that the golems weren't speaking a word of English, but rather an indecipherable language that sounded much like rocks grinding against each other.
"They can't understand you," Loki called, picking his way through the remains of what had once been a catwalk overhead. Two of the golems turned toward him as a third, in an expression of childish rage, smashed part of the second story walkway. "And even if they could, demanding they tell you where it is doesn't make for an easy answer."
Golems were stupid beasts. Like the brandyr, they answered to a master and were capable of little other than following orders. And then, they could only follow simple orders. Find this object of power or perhaps kill this person. Anything more detailed than that was simply beyond them.
It took them a moment, but they recognized him.
"HE IS THE LITTLE PRINCE OF ASGARD."
"BUT THE LITTLE PRINCE OF ASGARD IS DEAD."
The two peered at him while the third continued to destroy things and the mortals continued to scream.
"THE SILVER TONGUED PRINCE WILL TELL US WHERE IT IS." One of the two reached for him, and Loki didn't dare test his Asgardian strength against a stone golem's.
He stepped to the side, for stone golems were some of the slowest beasts in the Nine Realms, and he smashed the iron rod against its fingers. There was a spark of golden light (his brain catalogued that as odd, consider it later), and the golem howled, its shrieks shaking the very foundation of the mall. There was something, he thought, that he should remember about stone golems and their screams.
The second and third golems took up the scream of the first, and they reached for him. Slow though they were, three golems reaching for him all at once did present something of a problem.
Leaping over the fingers of one golem, he landed on the back of another's hand and began running up its arm. The golem shouted with rage, lifting its free hand to smack at him as a mortal might a fly. It was, of course, too slow, but when Loki reached the creature's shoulder and rocks smashed through the mall's floor, he remembered what it was about stone golems that made them so painfully annoying: their screams summoned rock.
The first golem smashed its fist against the shoulder of the one he stood on, throwing more golden motes into the air, threatening Loki's precarious balance as the other flung rocks at him. The golem absorbed the rocks with no harm done to its body and Loki, growing greatly annoyed, reached for his magic.
It responded readily, and when one of the rocks the golems threw smashed into the wall beside the store where Mary hid, it burst in his veins like liquid fire.
He used his magic to reinforce his own strength, creating a protective layer of power a hair's breadth above his skin; he didn't notice the sheen of gold that flickered over his skin. He crossed the golem's collar bone and, relatively safe from the spying eyes of the cameras, changed the very end of his iron pole into an absurdly sharp blade. He let himself slip from the golem's body, and he dug the iron sword into the rock as he did so.
It caught and slowed his descent, and the golem screamed above him.
"NASTY SILVER TONGUED PRINCE," the golem raged. "THE SON OF ODIN IS CRUEL!"
Loki's skill was great, and he came to a stop hanging just above the golem's heart. "The son of Odin is efficient," he murmured to himself as he caught hold of the rock forming the golem's chest. He wrenched his sword free and then drove it into the golem's chest, and he called upon his frost giant heritage, filling the stone golem's insides with ice and snow.
One of the other golem's seized him, dragging him away from its dead fellow, and he lost his grip on his weapon.
Loki was nonplussed. "Pragmatist," he returned as the golem lifted Loki before his face and squeezed the breath from his body.
"THE SON OF ODIN WILL TELL US WHERE IT IS." The golem's grip tightened, and Loki smiled at it.
"Fool," he said, and his simulacrum vanished as the real Loki, confident the security cameras would not see this, slammed a magically crafted iron blade into its chest. Ice wreathed the blade and disappeared into the golem's body and it, too, died.
His magic cushioned him when he hit the ground, and he turned to the final golem.
"WE WILL HAVE IT," the creature shouted as it took a step back. Loki saw the moment when its master commanded it to stay, to kill, to remove whatever obstacle stood in its way, and he wondered how much that master could see and hear. "YOU WILL GIVE IT TO US OR DIE."
That was when he finally noticed it, the golden light that spun itself like vines around everything in the mall. There were lines of light coming from the walls, from the plants, from the people and the remaining golem, and he stood between the lighted lines, engulfed in but apart from them. No. No, that wasn't entirely true. There were seven thin threads of light touching him.
The golem's fist hit the ground beside him, and Loki twisted to the side in an attempt to avoid the shrapnel.
Magic coursed through him, and he realized with a start that not only did he have the full command of his own magic, no small share of it, but the golden power swirling around him was his to use, too. He drew on it, feeling its sweet burn as he pulled it into his body. He twisted it around the icy center of his existence, and he poured it into the golem's body.
Frost shot up the golem's arm, wrapped around its throat and chest, and consumed its head. Ice threaded its way down the golem's abdomen, curled about its legs, and when the golem hit the floor, it shattered.
There was no noise in the whole of the mall. The people had ceased their screaming. The golems were dead. And in that vacuum was Loki's breathing, and it sounded like the beat of a war drum, hard and sharp and fast.
Very slowly, the mortals came out of their hiding places, clutching their possessions and their children if they had any. The golden light swirled about them, the threads of power curling around mortal bodies and dissolving into their skin.
An old woman with gray hair wandered by him, her eyes impossibly wide behind her pink spectacles. "Terrorists," she said in a warbling voice as she passed, "in Schaumberg. Hmph!"
Mary ran up to him, bags abandoned, and threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, Loki!"
Slowly, Loki set his hands against Mary's back, embracing her in the loosest definition of the word as he took in the sight of the mortals. They were taking the whole thing in stride, as though golems attacking happened to them every day.
"I thought they would kill you!"
"I am harder to kill than that," Loki said, gently dislodging Mary's arms.
"But their guns!"
Loki froze. "Their what?"
"The terrorists!" It was slight, but there was confusion in her expression and just the smallest bit of irritation. "They grabbed you and had these guns and I thought they would kill you!"
Realization swept over him, but he accepted the knowledge with a great deal of reticence. "Mary." She looked at him with wide, relieved eyes. "Mary, why did the terrorists leave?"
"Oh, well—" She broke off, a vague and uncertain look coming over her face. She stared at him without expression for a solid minute, Loki counting the seconds as they passed. A halo of golden light collected around her face. Quite suddenly, she became animated once again, throwing her arms around his neck. "Oh, Loki! I thought they would kill you!"
He embraced her that second time.
Because he finally began to understand.
Loki spent several interminable hours waiting for Mike or Anna to come home by listening to Jack explain the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise. He only gave the boy the barest of his attentions, focusing instead of the strange buzzing in his head and the events of the day. Mary took the whole thing in stride, clucking about how strange it was for "those violent people" to be in Chicago and going on at length about how glad she was no one got hurt. The story was already all over the news, and Loki had shut the television off to escape it.
Nonsense. The humans were reporting nonsense, but he supposed that was all they could report. None of the stories made any sense when you pieced the facts together, but he doubted most humans would do that. The magic wouldn't let them.
He was beginning to understand.
The magic, the same golden color as what infused the school, kept them from noticing. Kept them from seeing clearly. It touched all of them by way of those lines of light, and he wondered how far that influence would spread. If the Avengers, in New York, saw a news report, if S.H.I.E.L.D. began an investigation, would they, too, be unable to parse together information?
There had to be a threshold. Mike and Anna were aware of everything. Nothing had been taken from them since Halloween. Was it because he had revealed himself to them? Was it because they had seen too much? No, it couldn't be the latter, because at that point, Mike had seen nothing. Knew nothing. So perhaps it was him, laying bare the facts of the world.
But what was that magic? From whence did it come? That he didn't know, and it bothered him.
"Are you listening?" Jack asked.
Loki turned his attention to the boy and nodded. "Harry's worst subject is potions, a class vaguely reminiscent of chemistry, where he mixes such things as Antimony and fluxweed, which is ludicrous." Loki watched Jack's face fall and realized he'd made a tactical error. It didn't matter to Jack that the magic of Harry Potter was crude, backwards, and impossible. "Antimony and fluxweed create a terrible smell when mixed together," he said, an attempt to salvage Jack's mood.
It worked, and the boy immediately rushed into his room, presumably to write this down and try it.
That left Loki to his own devices for approximately forty-five minutes, a time he spent on the family's computer, milking the internet for any information on the attack at the mall. He and Mary had, to his relief, escaped the building before the police arrived, and already her memory of the event itself was fading. When she passed by him as he watched a YouTube video, she paused and said "Oh, weren't we there just before that happened?" And then she passed on, shaking her head, and a glimmering, golden mote of light fell from her hair.
Mike came home shortly thereafter, and Loki wasted no time in taking the boy by the arm and dragging him into Mike's room. "Where is your sister?" he asked, and the buzzing in the back of his head became a dull roar. "No, never mind. She's with Ben." The spell monitoring her safety always hummed and buzzed when she was with him, likely because childish infatuation made her pulse rush.
"Why?" Mike asked as he pulled off his shirt and went hunting through a pile of clothes to find a new one. He picked it up, sniffed it, and tossed it aside.
Loki shuddered. "Have you heard, yet, about the attack in the mall?"
"What?" Mike pulled on the third shirt he picked up, finally finding it to his tastes. "No, what happened?"
"Stone golems," Loki replied, relaying the whole of the event to him. "And now your mother barely recalls being there."
Mike dropped onto a chair, frowning. "Wow, man, that's crazy. This, uh, magic stuff. It mess with me and Anna, too?"
"I suspect it did initially, if only to make your family question my presence less," Loki replied. The thought that the magic made them feel any affection for him was discarded before it was truly had; magic could confuse and haze and hide, but it could not create feeling. If there was any love between him and the Fredericksons, it was there because it was genuine. "Now, your mother hardly thinks on my origins at all."
Scratching his chin, Mike nodded. "So. Game plan?"
Loki had to admit he liked this part of Mike personality: once a plan was made, Mike stuck to it, deviating only along predetermined paths. The arrangement was simple, one that had the three of them out on patrols each night. Loki would go every night, as he needed far less sleep than they did, and Mike and Anna would alternate.
And when Bob came home that night, full of concern for his wife and Loki, he confirmed what Loki already suspected: S.H.I.E.L.D. was getting involved.
The following day, Bob stood in the corner of a crowded conference room, clipboard and pen in hand, furiously taking notes as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson debriefed the entire Chicago outfit on the situation from Woodfield Mall.
Their information was sparse and contradictory. With no security tapes (the mall's tapes had, quite mysteriously, malfunctioned at the time of the attack only to start functioning perfectly a half hour later), mall security and local police had relied heavily on witness interviews. But the interviews were useless.
While everyone at the mall agreed there had been some sort of terrorist attack, and that was the story the media ran with, no one could agree who the terrorists were. Some claimed the terrorists had been Middle Eastern and some claimed they had spoken with Slavic accents, but just as many suggested Italian mobsters. A handful said they always knew the Japanese yakuza had sources in Chicago.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had been called in only because of strange readings from telemetry, which revealed a massive surge of energy and the existence of something that looked like an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Bob was sure the information from Linda's lab should be familiar, but he couldn't remember where he'd seen it before.
There was, of course, a secondary reason S.H.I.E.L.D. intervened in the "terrorism" investigation, and that was something that had been left at the scene. There was a chunk of rock that pulsed, as if with a heartbeat, and the rock was impaled by an iron rod coated in ice that simply would not melt. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had run tests through the night, and nothing, not even chemical fires at thousands of degrees, could melt the ice on the iron.
Coulson clicked to another slide and pointed at the looped video of the iron bar and pulsing rock. Watching the rock made Bob just a little queasy, like he was watching open heart surgery and staring at someone's still-bearing heart. "We know very little about this incident, but it is S.H.I.E.L.D.'s belief this is not going to be an isolated event." He clicked the button in his hand and the video, to Bob's relief, was replaced with profile pictures of several prominent super villains.
"These are all likely candidates for continued attacks in the greater Chicagoland area."
Bob didn't recognize any of the faces except Victor von Doom's, and he cringed.
An intern lifted his hand and, once he had Coulson's permission, asked, "So we're ruling out any form of technological assault?"
"We flew the main Avengers team in from New York last night, and Thor believes the rock—" Coulson flipped back to the video of the pulsing heart, and Bob averted his eyes, breathing shallowly through his mouth. "—is the heart of a stone golem."
Coulson placed his hands on the table and leaned forward, his eyes intense. "Ladies and gentlemen, until now, Chicago has escaped the brunt of super villain activity. As of 1530 yesterday, that changed. It is our job to protect the non-powered populous of this city."
"I feel like I'm going to be sick."
Thor ignored Tony Stark as he paced around the stone golem heart. It pulsed with languor, a beat every thirty seconds or so, and a faint red light emanated from between the cracks every throb.
"I'm not going to be able to eat lunch."
Setting Mjölnir on the floor, Thor approached the pulsing heart. He was not a man of great knowledge, but he was familiar with some stories of the stone golems. A surge of energy was all the heart would need to grow a new body, and he did not want Mjölnir to be the source of that body.
With careful hands, he touched the ice coating the iron rod embedded in the heart. Even more than twelve hours after the ice had formed, it had not melted away. He knew only one kind of ice like that.
"Can someone at least cover that thing?"
Crouching beside the heart, Thor examined the place where the ice terminated. He touched the rock, and his fingers came away wet. The ice served to slow the heart's beat, and should it melt, Thor suspected not even the iron through the heart's center would keep it from regenerating.
"Agent Coulson," Thor said, turning away from the heart.
Coulson stepped away from the wall, peeling away from the shadows. "What do you have for me?"
"The ice is melting around the edges. You should not seek to further this process, but should instead chill the heart. If the ice melts, it is possible the stone golem will regenerate."
Coulson gestured to two mortals in white coats. "You heard the man. Put it on ice." Shifting his attention back to Thor, he asked, "How dangerous are stone golems?"
Truthfully, Thor didn't know. They were creatures of legend, long ago banished to the darkness of Svartalfheim. But a frost giant had felled at least one of them. If there had been others at the mortal market, their bodies had disintegrated upon their deaths. "We should avoid bringing one back to life," Thor finally said, and he rose from his place beside the throbbing heart.
"But if we do." Tony's disposition had shifted. It sometimes confused Thor how quickly Tony Stark could go from joking to serious. "If it happens, we just need iron and ice to kill them?"
Rubbing his chin, Thor thought. He dredged from his memories vague recollections of Frigga weaving wild tales for him and Loki when they were children and tried to recall something concrete about stone golems. "Cold iron will kill most fae creatures," Thor said slowly.
"But that's still alive. You just said if the ice melts, it could regenerate." Tony looked unimpressed.
"And you remember all the fairytales your mother told you as a child?" Thor demanded, frayed temper snapping. He was tired and weary and greatly disturbed by just the thought of a frost giant on Midgard, and he immediately realized taking those feelings of discomfort out on Tony would do him no good. "I am sorry, my friend." He placed his hand on Tony's shoulder. "The thought that creatures from my world are in yours is worrisome."
Coulson moving toward them drew Thor's attention, and he found Coulson regarding him with a concerned expression. "Is there something you're not telling us, Thor?"
The ice is the work of a frost giant, and I am both hopeful and terrified at the thought it may be my brother. The hope was insanity. Heimdall had told him there was no possible way to survive the cold reaches of the space between Yggdrasil's branches. No one could survive such a fall. Terror was the appropriate feeling. If Loki had survived, what horrors had been visited upon him in the void?
"No, I have said all I know. Perhaps were I to return to Asgard, I could find more information."
For a moment, he thought Coulson would agree to this suggestion. But he shook his head. "We need you more here. If there's another attack, we need your power behind us."
A moment of silence passed, and then Tony grinned. "So does this mean it's lunch time?"
Thor frowned. "I thought the sight of the stone heart caused you to lose your appetite?"
"Just for a bit," Tony replied with a shrug. "C'mon, there's this great place, Tavern on Rush, that's got the most amazing steaks. Bet I could get us in."
As it happened, Tony could get them in, but as soon as they sat down, screams of panic swept into the building from the street. They rushed from the restaurant to find the streets filled with goblins, and Thor's hand closed hard around Mjölnir's handle.
He rushed forward without thought, leaving Tony shouting after him, and he swung Mjölnir into the nearest goblin with a roar. The beasts converged on him, swarming him without avail. He struck them, turning their bodies to pulp, and released a bellow of rage. "You attack a prince of Asgard!" he shouted at them, striking one hard on the side of its head. It flew through the air and though he did not see where it landed, a woman's scream of horror was suggestion enough.
Distantly, he heard Tony call his name, but he ignored the mortal, driving deeper into the pack of goblins. They ebbed and flowed like the ocean's tides around him, attempting to overpower him and counter his attacks, but they were pathetic, tiny things made for darkness and caves. He was light and power and so full of anger and fury.
When finally there was only one goblin left alive, he grabbed it by its throat and slammed it into a nearby car. The metal crumpled against the force of his blow, but the goblin yet lived. "Do you know of the stone golems?" Thor demanded, lifting Mjölnir over his head. Thunder rumbled and lightning streaked through the cloudless sky.
The goblin let out a shrill, desperate sound and clawed at Thor's hand. "We know nothing!"
"Then why do you come to Midgard?" Thor drew the goblin away from the car and slammed it against the glass of a window. The glass shattered.
"We seek it!" the goblin cried, its eyes bulging with fear.
Thor snarled. "And what is it?"
"The power! The power no mortal can see, but it tastes so good on our tongues, and it will make us strong, stronger than Asgard!"
Another man might have heard those words and taken pause. But Thor was a man easily provoked, and already full to bursting with emotions he did not want to contemplate, he crushed the goblin's throat and left it dead for its audacity.
Thor turned, and his surroundings came as a shock to him. The tall buildings of New York didn't puncture this sky. The jaded and cynical faces of New Yorkers didn't stare at him from building windows. He dragged his hand down his face and secured Mjölnir at his side.
"The creatures of the Nine Realms are looking for something," he said as he approached Tony, feeling hollow and worn. The wail of sirens rose in the distance, and Thor released a long sigh. "I am sorry I have ruined our meal."
Tony shrugged. "It's okay. You know how much I love S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria burgers."
Anna's shout from the basement, tinged with a strange edge, had him setting his book aside and hurrying down the flight of stairs. He stepped from the stairwell and turned, his gaze immediately arrested by the sight of his brother on the television.
With a strange, detached calm that was counterpoint to the wild emotions brewing inside him – uncertainty, irritation, fear, desperate love – he approached Lyn, Mike, and Anna where they sat on the twin sofas.
"We were flipping channels. This is on the news." She paused. "Live."
Loki regarded the screen, watching Thor decimate what had to be five score of goblins, and dispassionately marveled at the mortal ability to have cameras everywhere. It had been magic protecting him at the mall the other day, and he thought it curious that same magical protection didn't extend to his brother. Clearly, it was not contingent on Asgardian biology.
He shook himself. This was not the time for reverie and deep thought. "The Avengers are in Chicago then."
Anna just looked at him. "That's—"
"The mighty Thor." It surprised him how easy it was to say that with no inflection, betraying none of his emotions. "The hero of our story arrives."
Mike threw a pillow at Loki's head, and with a feral snarl, Loki turned on the child who looked so like the man on the screen. It was Lyn's face, with her huge blue eyes staring at him without blinking, that stopped him from doing something very, very stupid.
"Stop that," Mike said, and it was obvious to Loki that he knew what danger he stood in. But this, the Fredericksons had taught him, was what family did. Family stepped into the line of fire to save each other from their own stupidity. "Whatever's got your panties in a twist, stop it. Who cares if the Avengers are here? They aren't here. And it's not like we can save all of Chicago."
Yes, they could. Or, rather, they could if they knew everything. Which they didn't.
"We need to discover why those goblins are here," Anna said, curling around a pillow and chewing on her thumbnail. "Why any of them are here."
Lyn looked back and forth between her brother, sister, and Loki, and frowned at them. "Is this pretend?" she asked.
Loki ran his hand over her silky blonde curls, and she tilted her head back to look at him. She would, he thought, be stunningly beautiful one day, as much as any mortal could be beautiful. "It's pretend," he told her. "A story we imagine."
"To pass the time."
She thought about this for a moment. "You'll tell me the story?"
Loki placed a kiss on the top of her head. "Next Monday," he told her, trusting that she would forget about all this by the time Monday came, if she had any concept of time at all.
Loki found Christmas an utterly alien affair, even more so than Thanksgiving or Halloween. Mary had, at the start of December, decorated the entire house in such strange ornaments he had foregone asking at all. He supposed, in his amnesia, he should remember a holiday like Christmas. It seemed to overtake all of mortal life.
The family room sported a collection of more than one hundred figurines, varying in height from only a few inches, to four feet, and Mary had arranged them throughout the room in what Loki thought was an appealing manner. Aside from the fact that he found their faces disconcerting. Everything about the dolls' expressions made him oddly anxious, from their rosy cheeks to their wide and fake smiles.
"Santa Claus," Lyn told him one afternoon as he sat in quiet contemplation of the disturbing things. "Momma likes different kinds." She pointed to a Santa Claus in a white and gold robe, bearing on his shoulders a large pack. "That one is my favorite." Loki decided Lyn's favorite was the least offensive of the creations.
In the kitchen, on the top of the glassed in bookcase that served as a display for old pieces of china, was an old world, wintery scene. It reminded Loki of Midgard in the early 1800s, the houses and people all made from glass. Mary had wrapped the handrail along the staircase to the second floor with fake garlands, and from those garlands hung gold and red glass balls. In the living room, a place Loki and the children rarely spent any time in, they had erected a great pine tree. This they decorated with lights and ribbons and more ornaments. It was topped with an androgynous figurine Lyn called an angel but that Loki thought looked much more like a Valkyrie.
On Christmas Eve, the family spent the entire day in the kitchens, cooking a dinner that rivaled the one they'd had at Thanksgiving. If American mortals had anything in common with Asgard it was that they liked to eat. By the time mid-afternoon came, Loki had assisted Mary in the cooking of a glazed ham, a large salad, stuffing, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and a very wonderful smelling apple pie. The children, under Anna's direction, had made a large gingerbread house.
At four, Mary and Bob hurried the children and Loki upstairs to dress for "service," which Loki quickly discovered meant a church service. He felt no irritation at this, and said as much to Bob when he laughingly explained they were "Cheasters," people who attended church only for Christmas and Easter. He found the service only mildly interesting from an anthropological perspective, but enjoyed very much the carols they sang.
They returned home shortly after six thirty and, still dressed in their nice clothing, sat down for their dinner. This, Loki was distressed to see, was consumed quickly for all the time it had taken to make it, and when they were done, the dishes were left until later.
"Carols, carols!" Lyn crowed, bounding into the mess room.
"Every year," Bob explained to Loki as the family tugged on boots and coats and gloves, "we go caroling after dinner. It's a bit of a dated tradition, but it helps wear out Lyn and Joe. They'll be up at five if we don't do something like this."
They went from house to house in the neighborhood, knocking on doors and offering to carol for anyone who answered. Loki shared music with Mike, whose rich baritone voice was a pleasant surprise. Loki found the melodies easy enough to manage, and pitched his tenor just above Mike's voice, much to the pleasure of everyone in the group. Several times, they were made to perform a duet, just the two of them, and when they finally returned home, everyone was in good cheer.
"Where are the cookies?" Lyn asked as she tore off her coat and boots. These, she abandoned on the mess room floor, hurrying toward the kitchen.
Joe and Jack hurried after, and Loki, curious, followed the three children. He found them in the kitchen with a plate decorated with Santa Claus' face, piling cookies and carrots on it. "It's for Santa," Lyn explained as she took the milk from the refrigerator. She attempted to pour it into a glass and succeeded only in spilling it all over the counter.
Loki plucked it from her hands and poured the glass for her while Mary, with a heavy sigh, began to clean it up. "How many times do I have to tell you to let other people pour your drinks?" she asked.
"But it's for Santa!" Lyn protested. Joe took the plate, Jack picked up the glass, and Lyn pulled Loki into the family room. The boys set the plate and glass beside the fireplace, where eight stockings hung on the mantle.
"Santa comes down the chimney," Joe explained. "And you're supposed to leave cookies and milk for him, and the carrots are for his reindeer. They fly."
When Loki finally went to bed, shortly after midnight, he didn't sleep. Santa, the youngest three had explained, came only once everyone was in bed and asleep, so he had to test the theory. He lay awake long into the morning, and he heard Mary and Bob leave their room shortly after four. He didn't rise to see what they were about, suspecting they were placing presents under the tree for the children. Instead, he remained in bed, staring up at the ceiling.
He hadn't thought much of it before, but with Thor's appearance in Chicago earlier in the week, Loki began to wonder how much longer he would remain with the Fredericksons. He wasn't expecting the pain that accompanied the thought of leaving them, but he knew with certainty that he would. He was playacting, nothing more, pretending at humanity and mortality. Eventually, he would have to stop.
Though he had lost his ability to control his magic freely, he had not lost his powers nor his immortality. Mary and Bob would realize, sooner rather than later, that he was not human, and then he would simply have to leave. He didn't think Mike and Anna had yet realized the full implications behind him being an Asgardian. They had yet to understand he was ageless and immortal, and that they would grow old and die while he remained young.
That didn't hurt as much as he thought it would. He would readily admit a great affection for the family, and surely the idea of living long past the deaths of those for whom one cared should hurt. Instead, he viewed it as an inevitability. He would live. They would die. Such was their natures.
He woke, unable to remember falling asleep, to Lyn screaming with utter abandon.
Pulling himself from his bed, wearing only a loose shirt and plaid pajama pants a size too big, Loki made his way downstairs. Mary greeted him with a cup of coffee, which he gladly accepted. Though it was eight, and he usually rose at six, he found himself bleary eyed and tired from a night spent thinking dark and heavy thoughts.
Lyn, suffering from no such thoughts, scrambled out of the living room and wrapped herself around his leg. "Loki, Loki! Look, look!" She pointed wildly at the tree to his right.
Presents spilled across the floor, brightly wrapped in sparkling paper and glittering bows. Joe and Jack were sitting in front of the tree with expectant faces while Anna and Mike lounged on the antique couch pushed against one wall. Bob appeared a moment later, slowly shuffling the stockings from the family room to the living room.
"Presents!" Lyn exclaimed, releasing Loki's leg. He and Mary followed the little girl into the living room, and Bob passed out the stockings.
"Stockings first," Bob said, and the children, even Mike and Anna, tore into the stockings with fantastic fervor. "Go ahead, Loki."
Loki set his coffee down and tentatively took the stocking Bob offered to him. It was light but laden with presents and, when he upended it in front of him as the children were doing, filled with candies. Those he willingly gave to Lyn, Jack, and Joe, who wasted no time in dividing the chocolates somewhat unevenly between them. Lyn somehow ended up with the most, and Mary's expression said she wouldn't eat half of it.
He unwrapped the presents in his stocking to find an assortment of little gifts. Socks: three pairs of sleek, black socks to be worn under trousers; five individually wrapped packages of tea (which made him chuckle just the slightest bit); and two twenty-five dollar gift cards to Barnes and Noble. None of the presents were particularly personal, and that saddened him if only for a moment. He reminded himself that it had only been four months; surely it was unfair to expect them to know him at all.
They took turns with the presents from under the tree, giving Lyn, Joe, and Jack a head start, since they had more presents than anyone else. Loki found it a joy to watch Lyn and Joe tear into their wrapped gifts with abandon, and the delight that answered each present wormed its way under his skin until he smiled when Lyn thrust a new doll at him and proclaimed it Idunn. He laughed when Joe opened a pack of Avengers action figures and lined them up in the order he preferred them, Thor last, only to shift Iron Man to the end because Mary, as they all knew, despised Stark.
There was a strange, selfless kind of pleasure in watching the children open the gifts he had procured for them. All of the gifts had been crafted by magic coaxed forth by the suggestion of protection. It didn't always work, whispering to himself that he needed the power for the benefit of his family, but it had for this occasion.
For Lyn, he made a golden apple. It was an outrageous gift for a child, made of interwoven strands of glass dyed gold, and she stared at it with rapt fascination, holding it with a reverence reserved for holy artifacts. The glass was filled with spells for healing and health. Lyn would face few sick days in her short life, and whatever sicknesses she did have would pass quickly and easily.
To Joe he gave a shield. It was designed like Captain America's, but sized for a child, and perfectly functional as it was enchanted to be light enough to lift. Joe strapped it to his arm and pulled on his new Captain America mask and strode about the living room saying "Avengers assemble!" The shield would grow with Joe, its diameter expanding to be the perfect size whenever Joe picked it up.
Jack received a thick tome full of stories. He opened the cover, bound with leather, and read the table of contents out loud. "Why the Sea is Salt. The Princess of the Glass Hill. The Giant with No Heart." His head tilted to the side. "The Prince who Fell from the Sky. The Prince who Found a Family." Loki met Jack's curious gaze with an impassive one of his own. The book, actually made of simple magic, would tell him tales from the world over, but would also give to the boy the exact story he needed whenever he most needed it.
Anna's gift wasn't the delicate necklace she pulled from the box. Made of silver, the charm on the end spelled her name in Nordic runes, and carefully engraved into those runes and each link of the necklace were charms of strength and protection. So long as she wore it, she would not walk into battle without protection. But that was not her gift.
Nor was Mike's present the necklace of similar design to Anna's. Where Anna's necklace was delicate and feminine, Mike's had much more bulk. It too was engraved with spells that would increase his strength and protect him against physical wounds and magical attacks.
When they looked at him with odd expressions, he canted his head to the side as if to say "Do you think these are anything but placeholders to placate your parents?"
From the Fredericksons, Loki received what he considered paltry gifts. They were generic – a coffee mug, several books (classical fiction, since he cared nothing for mortal philosophers; they were ever concerned with the temporal, which meant nothing to an immortal god), and a few three dimensional puzzles that might occupy his mind for an hour at most.
"No, not that!" Mary exclaimed when he reached for the last box. "Wait."
He frowned, but leaned back, watching Mary and Bob open their last gift. It was a gift card to the Capital Grill, what Mike and Anna assured him was a fantastic restaurant, and meant to be from each of the children and Loki.
That gift opened, Loki was the only one with a present still wrapped, and Mary said, "Now you can open it."
He did so with great care, finding himself unnerved to be under scrutiny from the entire family. Sliding his finger under the paper, he pulled it free of the tape, and unwrapped a journal of superb quality. The leather bound cover was ram's hide, supple but sturdy, and the paper, when he untied the leather strips holding the journal shut, had been bound by hand. A fountain pen, one that would have to be dipped in a well of ink, accompanied the journal.
"We thought you might benefit from writing things down," Bob explained, looking just a bit flustered. "To help your memory."
Holding the journal, he understood the reason for the other, less personal gifts. It seemed that quantity was almost as important as quality. They had wanted to give him gifts so that it didn't look like he received less than the others, and those had suffered in favor of the journal. Loki judged its value at several hundred dollars, the craftsmanship was so fine.
"Truly," Loki said, meeting Bob's eyes, "this is the most perfect and thoughtful gift I have ever received."
Mary looked like she might cry. "Stop that," she said, lightly smacking his shoulder as she rose. "Now, who wants pancakes for breakfast?"
Pancakes, Loki quickly discovered, were a Christmas morning tradition, and it wasn't until the dishes were put away and Mary and Bob attempted to convince Lyn, Joe, and Jack to organize their gifts that he was able to grab Mike and Anna. He brought them to his room and went to the closet as they closed the door halfway and watched him curiously.
Already, Anna wore her necklace. "So did you make this stuff with your magic?" she asked as Loki knelt down to find the boxes containing their real gifts.
"I did. Your necklaces are imbued with protective spells and charms." He took both boxes in hand and moved fluidly to his feet, turning back to them. "I would recommend you not take them off."
Anna's hand closed around the charm on her necklace and she nodded. "What's in those?"
Loki indicated she should take the top box, and he handed the second to Mike. Neither box was wrapped, and neither was of any particular quality. They were simple wooden things, light and serviceable.
Mike pulled the lid off his and sucked in a breath. "This is a sword."
"Stunning powers of observation."
Setting the box down, Mike took the sword, sheathed in a simple scabbard, from the box. He drew it slowly, studying the plain hilt and shining iron blade. Beside him, Anna opened her box and withdrew four elegantly crafted daggers.
"This is awesome," Mike breathed, drawing the sword and checking its weight in his hand. He made a few small swings, careful of both Loki and Anna, and gave Loki a wide grin. "Yeah, good thing you didn't give us these in front of Mom and Dad."
"They won't disappear on us?" Anna asked, twirling one of her blades about her finger. The daggers weren't simply a hilt and a blade; that was too crass for Loki's tastes, and he didn't think the typical design suited her. Instead, each dagger had two blades and a circular grip between. They sat easily in her hands, as though she had been born to hold them. "Like the practice blades you make?"
He shook his head. "These are quite permanent."
"This is so cool," she said. "When do we get to try them out?"
"When next we all have time."
They didn't have time for four days. During those four days, both Mike and Anna were busy with friends and, in Anna's case, Ben.
It wasn't Loki's place to say a word, but every time he saw Ben, he had the irrational urge to destroy him. It wasn't something born of jealousy, for the very idea of being jealous of the attention Anna gave Ben was ludicrous, nor was it some protective or brotherly disposition, for his relationship with Thor proved in his mind that he possessed neither.
But there was some instinct in him, something in his gut, that screamed at him whenever Ben was near. Loki wasn't given to trusting instinct. Instinct was Thor's realm. Loki relied on facts. He made informed decisions. He didn't throw all caution to the wind on a twisting feeling in his stomach.
"Do you ever see Ben and just want to rip his head off?" Mike asked one night while they practiced defensive hand-to-hand combat in the basement. It was late, going on midnight, but Mike had insisted they do at least a half hour before bed. His dedication, Loki had to admit, was impressive.
"Every time he appears," Loki replied as Mike caught his fist. "The difference between you and me is that I could do it. With one hand."
Mike laughed, but the laughter was tinged with understanding. He knew Loki's strength, and he knew Loki wasn't joking. "Yeah, but would you?"
"If I had even the slightest reason."
"Shit. I'm glad you like me."
It was Loki's turn to laugh, though it was a dry and humorless laugh. "Who said I liked you?" he asked, sweeping Mike's legs out from under him. Mike hit the carpet correctly and sprang to his feet in a quick motion. "Good. Once again."
During the day, when the children were with their friends and Loki had little to do but read, he took to writing in his journal. The first page was the hardest, the white expanse, broken only by faint black lines, seemed to mock him. What have you to say to me? it asked, laughing in his mind. I am every possible word and sentence all at once, the Schrodinger's cat of notebooks, but the minute you touch ink to my pages, you limit what I can be.
Damning his overactive imagination, Loki broke the white stretch of page with a flourishing signature of his name. Beneath the Latin letters, he wrote his name in Asgardian runes. When he turned to the second page, the blankness was less daunting, and he set pen to page and wrote with ease.
For no discernable reason, he wrote his life into the pages of the journal as if they were fiction. He detailed his discovery of his true nature and the crushing betrayal that accompanied that finding. But is it so awful? he penned, considering the moment anew. Midgard has shown me that even monsters can be well loved. We of Asgard think ourselves so high above the mortals, but our longevity has bred in us an inability to adapt to change. Though I remain resistant to the notion, and I am self aware enough to realize at least that much, I begin to see how a short and finite life could be preferred.
At the very least, knowing one had only a handful of decades to live would force a body to accept certain truths with far less reticence.
He considered also the time that had passed between his fall from the Bifrost and his awakening on Midgard.
I am of the belief that at least two years have passed, he wrote on the fifteenth page of his journal, under a scribbled series of equations that would baffle even Midgard's most learned minds. Time is a strange thing, and in a place where it lacks meaning and import, it seems to follow that I would not comprehend its passing.
Nonetheless, it disturbed him to think he had spent two years floating through the emptiness of space, and he wondered how he survived. Or, perhaps more realistically, he had spent very little time there but had simply been flung through time.
By the end of the week, Loki had filled the first one hundred pages of his journal, front and back, and would have written more had Anna not informed him that she and Mike had a free day for him. Expressing his undying gratitude, his words dripping with sarcasm at which she had the gall to laugh, he took them to an empty block of offices in a nearby industrial park.
"At least the heat works," Mike said, his breath fogging in the air as he turned on the thermostat in the gutted building. With reticence, he and Anna shed their jackets and outer layers for fitted shirts and loose pants.
The cold didn't bother Loki in the least, and by the time an hour had passed, the building was warm and neither of the children complained. They were, Loki observed as he circled first Mike and then Anna, becoming moderately proficient. Oh, they would never survive a drawn out battle, but he doubted any creature of the Nine Realms would expect either of them to possess any skill at all. They had the element of surprise and, as long as they executed their attacks swiftly and purposefully, they might survive.
Surviving was, of course, the sticking point. Anna still hesitated and Mike still took the wrong openings. He did his best to correct these things, but it became apparent very quickly that he was unsuited to the position of teacher. He could model movements for them, could stand opposite them and spar, but teaching was not a skill in his repertoire.
Both children, of course, told him this.
"You just don't give very good instructions," Mike said as he lifted a water bottle and squirted a stream of water into his mouth.
"Nope," Anna agreed, a cheerful smile on her face.
"I would expect you to be more put out by that."
They scoffed. "When you're in school, you get used to bad teachers," Mike said casually, and Loki resisted the urge to bristle. That he was even close in comparison to mortal teachers galled. "It's okay; we'll figure it out."
"On the topic of figuring things out." Anna, sprawled on her back on the cool cement floor, her daggers tucked into the loose fitting yoga pants she wore, rolled onto her belly and looked at Loki. "Do we have any new ideas for why weird monsters are invading? I mean, those things from the mall were screaming about it. Thoughts on what it is?"
The abrupt shift in topic was designed, Loki thought, to derail him. Since there was no point in pursuing the former topic, he turned to the latter. "No, I don't," he admitted.
For a moment, the three of them were quiet. And then Mike startled, leaning forward with an excited look. "Wait, wait. Didn't those tree ladies say something about power?" he asked.
Anna frowned and then her eyes brightened with comprehension. "And those YouTube videos of your brother, the ones with the sound. The goblin thing said something about power that would make it stronger than Asgard, right?"
Loki was tempted to scoff at the very idea, but he knew better than that. Though Asgard's power was great, dismissing a competing power out of hand, for nothing other than self-assured arrogance, was foolhardy.
"And the Askafroa said something about that too. Didn't they?"
They had. "A lightning power that would help them grow," Loki said, pressing the tips of his fingers together and resting them against his chin.
"Like, actual lightning?" Anna asked. She flicked a small stone across the cement floor, watching it bounce.
"I believe they were using lightning as a descriptor of the kind of power." Loki's eyes swept over the dull floor, ghosting over Mike and Anna's lounging forms.
Mike dropped his chin into his hands. "So, what creates power with a zing?"
The fact that two mortal children were attempting to help him puzzle through exactly what all the Nine Realms seemed to be after baffled him. "While your help in this is appreciate, you cannot possibly know—"
Mike cut him off. "Hell if I know anything about Norse mythology or your Nine Realms. But." He grinned, and it was the same stupid grin Thor wore right before he said something he knew would have Loki climbing the walls with frustration. "Because me and Anna don't know any of the rules, we're not confined to them, either."
"Meaning we can ask stupid questions that you'd ignore right off," Anna said brightly. "And one of our stupid questions might not actually be a stupid question."
Their logic was flawed, but their point stood. He was constrained by his knowledge. They, lacking what he knew, would trample the laws and rules of his world without thought, and in doing so very well could lead him to an answer. "Nothing on Midgard produces a power worth procuring."
"So what from somewhere other than Earth does?" Anna pressed. "Doesn't your brother have a lightning hammer?"
Loki gave her a tight-lipped stare. "All the Nine Realms would not be congregating in the greater Chicagoland area if they simply sought Mjölnir. And seeking my brother's weapon would do them little good."
"Why?" Anna asked, rolling onto her back once more and lifting her hips from the ground. Palms flat to the cement, she held her legs above her head, stretching.
"Because only the worthy may wield Mjölnir."
"Ooh, I remember Joe telling me that," Anna said, dropping her legs and holding them inches from the ground.
Mike casually leaned over, as though he were going to reach across her legs for Loki, and dropped his weight on her. With a squeal of indignation, she flailed, drawing her legs to her chest before kicking out, hitting Mike hard in the shoulder. Laughing, Mike caught her legs on the third kick, pushing her sideways, and Loki swung back to avoid taking a foot to the chin.
Around his laughter, Mike said, "So it's not Mjölnir. Maybe it's you?"
Loki bit back a derisive snort. "Unlikely. While your opinion of me is flattering, I am hardly enough to tip the balance of power out of Asgard's favor." He folded his hands and straightened. "No, it must be something else."
"Something that gives people power?" Anna asked.
The look Loki gave her would have withered anyone else's good humor. "Obviously."
"Yeah, but what?" she pressed. "Another weapon? Some kind of, I don't know, family heirloom or treasure? Isn't there always a cursed piece of treasure? Or a hair comb from the long lost princess's mother that can explode the world?"
"I should hope not." Loki took a deep breath through his nose and rose to his feet in a fluid motion. He strode by Anna and Mike, and their heads turned as they watched him move. He refused to call it pacing. No, this was kinetic thinking.
Something was missing, something that should have been readily apparent. He was forgetting an important piece of information or a fact, and he was sure as soon as he had that, everything would fall into place. But his mindless, back and forth journey across the cement floors didn't help him.
Anna rose, her arms bent at an easy angle, her hands cupped together several inches from her face as if to shield it, and Loki reacted without thinking. Pulling back at the waist, he swept his hands under hers as he shifted his weight to throw a kick at her head. She dodged by dropping to the floor, her body fluidly shifting. Bracing herself on her wrists, she thrust her feet at his legs.
They danced around each other, Loki paying Anna half as much attention as she needed to pay him. He moved instinctively, shifting to accommodate every sweeping kick she threw at him, and the rhythmic motions of their fight helped him think.
His hands hit the ground as he flipped over her leg.
The magic. Where was the magic's origin? Where was it at its densest?
His body rolled under hers as she cart-wheeled over his torso. She wore a focused expression, her brows drawn together in concentration. That expression pulled at a memory of Asgard, of Sif, of a time they had sparred and she, having pulled him to the ground and won, mocked him.
Loki lashed out, catching Anna's waist with his foot. She hit the ground hard, her head cracking against the cement, and Mike shouted Loki's name, but Loki didn't hear him. He was on her in a second later, one hand curled around her neck. The other held one of her daggers, poised and ready to strike. All he could see was Sif's face. Sif mocking him, laughing at him, even as he prepared to cut her throat and make her bleed for her audacity.
Hands, hot like flame against his frigid skin, closed over his wrist. "Loki!"
Fear. There was fear in Sif's face. But Sif was fearless. Maybe it was the blood, the trickle of red down the side of her face, that scared her so much. When was the last time someone had made Sif bleed?
A single, solitary mote of golden light touched the wound on her face, and he remembered it was Anna under him, not Sif.
Shaken – how could Loki not know himself well enough to have prevented that? – Loki jerked his hand free from Mike and leapt off Anna's body.
"Anna! Are you okay?" Mike turned her face toward him, lifting her chin and checking her eyes.
"She's not concussed," Loki said, his voice hollow.
Mike glared at him. "Thanks, doc." He turned back to Anna and brushed his thumb lightly over the trail of blood on the side of her face. "Huh. It doesn't look like he actually hurt you. How do you feel?"
"Fine," Anna said, brushing Mike's hands away. She twisted, studying her side where a bruise the size and shape of Loki's foot should have been forming on her skin. There was nothing there, not even an angry red mark. "Really." She smiled. "I'm fine. I feel fine."
Mike didn't look like he believed her, but he said nothing when she glanced at Loki.
"Are you okay?"
Ever generous Anna, always more concerned about other people when everything boiled down to its simplest. But Loki didn't respond. He was far too focused on the swirl of golden light around her abdomen, on the threads that slid in and out of her skin to stitch the small wound on her forehead.
And then he laughed, softly. It wasn't a hysterical laugh, though he would admit to feeling just the slightest bit overwrought, but it was strained with disbelief and incredulity. "It's the school," he said. "There's something in your school."
Mike snorted. "Go figure. I always knew that place was a death trap."
Loki crouched beside them, resting his forearms on his knees as he spoke. "No, it's not the school itself, but something inside it. Something… placed there. Hidden, perhaps." Which begged a multitude of questions, not the least of which was who thought Midgard a good hiding place for anything? "Is there any way I can get inside the school?"
Both Mike and Anna nearly choked on their laughter. "What, are you kidding?" Mike asked.
"God, no," Anna said. "Trying to get into a high school if you don't work there is like trying to get into Fort Knox."
"Your analogy is lost on someone from another world," Loki said.
"She means there's really no chance in hell." Mike crossed his arms. "But maybe… if you volunteered to help with something. Like a fundraiser. A bake sale or something."
"A bake sale." The name of the event was enough to suggest exactly what it was, and the idea of selling baked goods to hordes of adolescent mortals appealed to him about as much as sewing his own mouth shut.
"Or you could break in." Anna grinned.
Mike pushed her lightly, and though she swayed, she didn't fall over. "Right, because that's legal."
"I doubt I could." Loki laced his fingers, remembering his one trip to the school and the aching, burning fire that coursed through his body. "There is something in your school, and the power flooding your school, protecting whatever that something is, is… impressive. No, if I am to discover what is there, I suspect I can't be seen as a threat."
The children frowned and shrugged. "Well, you could always try substitute teaching," Mike said.
"Except that he sucks as a teacher," Anna replied, rolling her eyes. Loki wished he could take offense to that, but after cracking her head against the cement floor and knowing that she spoke the truth, he couldn't.
"It's not like subs actually do anything. They just put in a movie and yell at us if we make too much noise."
"Okay, fine, but don't you need a college degree for substitute teaching or something?" Anna crossed her arms and turned up her nose, looking superior and proud.
Mike snorted. "And that's going to stop a guy who can make swords and knives out of nothing?"
"Your faith in my skills is inspiring, but misplaced," Loki said, cutting in before Anna could reply and dissolve their discussion into an argument. "Perhaps the two of you could investigate." He didn't like delegating. Loki was a thorough person, a meticulous one, and few people were up to his standards. But they had something he didn't: ready access to their school. He could use that.
"Done," Anna said immediately as Mike groaned. She pushed his shoulder. "Where's your sense of adventure?" She gave Loki a grin that would have terrified her mother. It caused him an irrational sort of pleasure.
With a whimper, Mike dragged his hands over his face.
They managed to find little more time to practice as a group, but Loki occasionally saw Anna working in her room, having cleared as much space as possible, and Mike, too, would make attempts to practice in the basement. He passed the time making lists in his journal, furiously scribbled in Old Norse. They were vain attempts at discerning the nature of whatever was hidden in the school. An ancient artifact, perhaps. But what? The legendary sword of Surtur? Highly improbable. One of the wells? Completely impossible.
In his frustration, frustration aimed entirely at himself and his inability to make a reasonable guess at what could be in the school producing that much magic, he lurched away from his small desk. The desk rocked, and he was a second too slow.
The well of ink he used teetered over the edge and spilled across the carpet.
He stared at the offensive black stain, watching it spread with each passing second, and allowed himself a moment of bitter, hateful disgust. He allowed himself to loathe Midgard for its simple, backwards ways; to despise the mortals for their need to soften and carpet everything; and to revile whatever it was that bound his magic, allowing him its use only when it benefited the Fredericksons.
"Would not removing this ink be a benefit to Mary?" he asked the air, his voice soft, barely a whisper. "Surely it would inconvenience her if I asked for her assistance in cleaning this up. Surely magic could do a better job of it."
Sluggishly, his magic turned over in his body, twisting about itself as though with indecision, and Loki, feeling foolish, crouched beside the stain and murmured words of encouragement.
Lyn found him like that some five minutes later, and just as she opened the door to his room, the black stain vanished.
"That's an ugly word," Lyn said when he swore, rather viciously, in Old Norse. "Is it mean?"
Loki dragged his hand down his face. He didn't need to entertain a child. He didn't want to entertain a child. "It's just a word," he told her, rising and turning. "Words are neither kind nor cruel until placed into a very specific context."
She looked at him, her nose wrinkled. "Oh." She grabbed his hand tightly in his own and tugged. "Mommy says Ben's coming soon. We need to help."
Loki allowed her to lead him from his room with the suspicion he was walking onto a battlefield.
His suspicions were confirmed almost immediately. Mike, in an effort to express the depths of his displeasure, slammed cabinet doors and glared at everyone, including Lyn, who promptly burst into tears. Mary, attempting to cook enough ravioli to feed a small army, turned on her son almost immediately, and Anna, wearing far too much makeup and a skirt too short for her father's sanity, injected herself into the middle of the argument. Bob looked like he might simply sit down and give up on life entirely.
The evening's only saving grace was that Joe and Jack were both spending the night out.
It fell to Loki, with Lyn's arms wrapped impossibly tight about his neck, to open the door when the doorbell rang. Ben stood on the doorstep with his hands in his pockets, a pleasantly blank look on his face. He wasn't, in Loki's estimation, a handsome or beautiful man, but he possessed a certain magnetism about his features that made him hard to ignore.
"Loki." Ben's smile spread across his face too quickly and with a disturbing enthusiasm that revealed too many teeth. It was the kind of feral smile Loki might give a monster he was pleased to kill, and it made his skin prickle with uncomfortable awareness. Magic rippled under Loki's skin, a quiet, dangerous presence.
He let Ben stand in the cold just a moment longer than was polite, the only sign of his dislike. He had lived in Asgard far too long to be anything less than proficient at hiding his feelings. "Please," he drawled, holding the door open as he stepped aside. "Come in."
Lyn, her cheek on Loki's shoulder, made a rude noise.
Ben laughed, the sound too loud to be genuine. "It's good to see you, too, Lyn." He reached for her, and she snapped at him with her teeth.
Loki's estimation of the child, which had never been poorly, instantly grew.
The look of fury that crossed Ben's face was gone in a heartbeat, and a person unused to the games and intrigues of a royal court would never have noticed it. But Loki was accustomed to both, and the flicker of emotion was easily noted and catalogued.
Anna's cry, a sound of simple delight, drew Ben's attention, and the smile that stretched his face was predatory. It was like watching a ham-handed villain, Loki realized. Ben was trying too hard, and while the Fredericksons might not notice it (though surely Mike had), Loki did.
While Anna helped her lover out of his coat and he removed his shoes, Loki made his way to the family room, where Mike stood.
"You're being far too obvious," Loki warned him as he breezed by, and the words shook him enough that Mike's glower fell away in favor of surprise.
The dinner itself was a tedious affair, littered with strange emotional landmines. Mike spent the entire time tense and uncomfortable, sitting next to Anna and looking like he might reach across the table and strangle Ben at any moment. Bob, at one end of the table, and Mary, at the other, traded curious glances. Loki read concern for Mike and Lyn's attitudes in their expressions and a great deal of affection for Ben. For whatever reason, they seemed to adore him.
"Now, Loki." Ben's voice cut through his thoughts, removing him from the comfortable position of distant observer.
Loki placed a single ravioli in his mouth, using the motions of eating as an excuse not to face the mortal beside him.
"That's a strange name, isn't it?"
He swallowed the ravioli before he'd chewed it, and it took a great deal of control not to choke on it. The subtle twist of magic in his gut didn't help his attempt at composure. "It's Norwegian," he replied, keeping his tone light and easy. The message, though, was clear: choose a different topic.
Ben persisted. "You're from Norway? That's interesting. You don't have an accent, and you speak English very well."
Loki turned toward Ben, and for the first time in his very long life, he found the intense consideration of another person unnerving. There was something about Benjamin Mathis that was completely and utterly wrong, something that made the magic in him, the magic that would only respond to danger to his family, lift its head and pay attention.
With an aggrieved sigh, as if this topic was something he dealt with on a frequent basis, Loki set his fork down. "Hasn't Anna explained my situation?"
"Something about your memory." Ben seemed ready to dismiss this out of hand, which struck Loki as odd. No one had ever reacted quite like that. "Nothing has come back to you in all these months?"
"You say that as though I've been here for a considerable length of time. Four months is hardly that."
"That depends entirely on your perspective, wouldn't you agree, Loki?"
Interesting. Their conversation was quickly becoming verbal quicksand, and of the people at the table, only Mike seemed to notice. Anna was engrossed in her ravioli while Bob, Mary, and Lyn all wore curiously blank expressions, their faces strangely lit by flickering motes of gold.
"There is only one perspective," Loki returned, his voice smooth and calm, his expression unperturbed. If Ben, for whatever reason, sought a reaction from him, he would not get it. "We are first born, then we age, and finally, we die. This is the unavoidable truth of the human condition. In light of a life no longer than a single century, I should think four months is hardly long at all. Quite a bit can change in four months."
"What a diplomatic response." Ben was less than pleased by it, that much was obvious. He sought a battle and Loki, uninterested in warfare, refused to give it to him. "I don't think I've ever met someone named for the god of mischief."
Loki's smile was cold. "You know many Norwegians?"
"Dessert sounds lovely!"
Mary's exclamation, so utterly unexpected, caught everyone by surprise if expressions were anything to go by, and it saved Loki from having to kick Mike under the table. He shot to his feet.
"I'll get the apple pie," he said, clearly grateful for the distraction.
Loki extricated himself from the remainder of dinner by claiming a headache, unable to stand the lengthy looks of consideration Ben kept giving him. He shut and locked the door to his room, leaning against the wall for a moment, the tip of a finger on his lip.
No one had ever questioned his name. No one had ever questioned his presence with the Fredericksons. Even Mary, her quest to find his family long since abandoned, had stopped looking at him with any sort of curiosity. He was inextricably enmeshed with their lives, and no one asked after the fact.
Except Benjamin Mathis.
"An anomaly," Loki murmured, turning to his desk. He picked up the ink well and set it on his desk, turning his journal to an empty page. The opposite page was covered in hastily scribbled lists of things. "Or perhaps not."
Plucking a ballpoint pen, an ugly thing Loki loathed using to write, from a drawer, he wrote Ben's name on the empty page in Nordic runes.
He wondered why he had never made the connection before. Whenever the mortals pressed too hard, whenever they dug into his life, they were touched by the same glowing, golden light that poured from the school. It made them curiously complacent. It made them forget their thoughts.
It made them even more oblivious than they usually were.
The magic shielded him, protected him from scrutiny.
"No," he said, tapping the pen against his open journal. The magic wasn't guarding him alone. He knew that with a visceral certainty he couldn't explain. "No, it shields the humans. It protects them from reality."
And yet Ben hadn't been affected by the magic. He had been able to notice something abnormal – Loki's name – and comment on it. He had questioned Loki's presence with the Fredericksons. That could mean anything, but Loki latched on to one idea in particular.
Ben could not be human.
When Ben finally left, two hours later, Loki grabbed Mike by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, "Get your sword."
They left the house shortly thereafter, Mike bundled and wrapped to suffer the cold weather, and Loki wearing only a light coat.
"You're blue," Mike observed as they stood in the moonlight. "You… really only do that when you're pissed."
"He knows something," Loki said, curling his fingers tightly around Mike's arm.
"Wha—Loki, what are you on?"
The snarl that passed through Loki's lips surprised even him. Mike jerked free, because Loki allowed him to jerk free, and took a step back, his eyes wide and his face pale. He didn't understand. He should, but he didn't.
Like Thor. Just like Thor, who saw everything and understood nothing because he refused to look.
"Hey, man, I want to help, but I need to know, you know?"
Mike's hand fell on Loki's shoulder, and Loki wondered why the boy hadn't left.
"Your sister's boyfriend."
"Is a douche, we know. That's not a real good reason to hunt him down and poke him with sharp things."
That a human child was the voice of reason in this situation galled, and Loki took a long, deep breath through his nose in an attempt to calm himself. He felt his temper ebb and subside, and he exhaled heavily, all at once, his breath fogging in the air.
"Benjamin Mathis is not human," Loki said quietly, seriously, his body canted toward Mike. He did not want his words to carry in the cold silence of the night. He was unsure what lurked in the darkness, waiting to overhear a conversation. "Humans don't question my presence with your family."
Mike's brows drew together. "Anna and I did. Sort of."
"Only after Anna received irrevocable evidence of my inhumanity," Loki replied. "When confronted with something otherworldly, some bit of magic twists around you and you forget."
"What about downtown?"
Loki touched a finger to his lip, reflecting on that. "Perhaps it is because the Avengers are there," he finally suggested, at a loss for an explanation. "They offer a reason for strange things to be happening, though they are clearly not the cause. What humans make of that is no concern. The magic does not need to bother with the humans in the city because the humans have already made excuses for the extraordinary circumstances."
Mike's frown deepened. "You make magic sound like something living."
"It is, after a fashion." Loki gave him a dismissive gesture. "You wouldn't understand."
At that, Mike bristled. "Why? Because I'm a stupid jock football player or something?"
Interesting. That was a nerve Loki hadn't discovered, but given mortal television and stereotypes, Mike's reaction made sense. "No, because you are a human and a mortal, and I don't have time to explain the intricacies of the universe to you right now."
"Oh. Well. I guess that's cool, then."
"Fantastic. Now that we're done…" Loki held out his hand.
Mike looked like he might be sick. "Are we going to do the walking-between-worlds thing, because that always makes me—"
He choked on his words as Loki yanked their bodies into the liminal spaces of the worlds. Magic coursed through him, stretched his skin to the point of breaking. Benjamin Mathis is a danger to my family. I need to protect them.
He had access to all of it and then some, little motes of gold dotting his skin. Beside him, Mike's body was lit by lines power, wrapped around him and shooting through him, and the boy groaned.
I need to find Benjamin Mathis.
There, in the corner of his eye, was a sudden flash of light. Loki jerked Mike after him, rushing down a thick branch toward the flame.
They hit the snow running, Mike gasping and sputtering and swearing like a drunken soldier as Loki formed a spear in his hand. "Draw your sword," Loki snapped, releasing Mike's wrist.
Power thrummed through the empty parking lot, and a flash of heat was the only warning they received before the brandyr attacked.
Loki dodged one of the three that lunged at him, their fangs snapping at his limbs. He danced back on quick feet, spinning his spear once before slashing at one of them.
Mike did not fare as well. The brandyr attacking him, another two, bore him to the ground. He struggled under their massive bodies, squirming until his hand closed on his sword. His first strike was luck; as he drew the sword free, twisting his wrist painfully because of the odd angle, his blade slid through one brandyr's belly.
The beast screamed with pain and fell away, flame and guts pouring from the gaping wound.
"Michael!" Loki shouted, hitting a brandyr in the face with the butt of his spear as he spun and dropped to the ground to avoid another. The call distracted the boy from the dying creature, and he scrambled to his feet, clutching his sword in both hands, his stance all wrong.
Mortals. The thought was more than a little bitter. "Legs apart, idiot! And stop making yourself a target. Do you want to die tonight? Don't be a stupid fool."
The verbal knife had its desired effect, and Mike adjusted his stance in time to catch a brandyr's claws on his sword. He pushed against it, forcing it back, and it snarled at him, snorting flames from its nostrils.
They circled each other warily while Loki dealt a death blow to one of his beasts, severing its head from its body with a thrust and a turn of his wrist. The other two jumped at him at the same time, and Loki realized there was no safe way to avoid both of them. He spun on the heel of one foot, taking a painful hit to his shoulder, and dug the spear into the belly of the other brandyr.
It hit the ground hard, whimpering as it died, but Loki spared it no mind. A quick assessment of his injury suggested it wasn't deep, just shallow and painful, and he narrowed his eyes at the brandyr stalking him. It pulled its lips away from its teeth and snarled, the sound rolling across the pavement between them.
"Son of a bitch!"
Loki made the mistake of glancing toward Mike. Mike was holding strong against his brandyr well enough; his dodges were sloppy, but he wasn't dead. A solid body struck Loki in the side, and all the air in his lungs exploded from his body. He fell to his knees, gasping, and his vision clouded as he made a desperate attempt at breathing.
Teeth closed on his arm, breaking through the fabric of his jacket and shirt, and the brandyr jerked him forward, dragging him across the ground. It snarled, its breath hot against his arm, and Loki realized its intention half a second too late.
Searing pain decimated his ability to think. His world consisted of fire and agony, the flames the brandyr breathed against his arm brilliant red against the dark of the night.
The pain twisted something inside him, and his agony became a cold and terrible rage. All the magic churning inside his body, bright and gold and foreign, surged from him and into the brandyr's body. It was ripped apart by the uncontrolled blast of power, bits and pieces of it flying across the parking lot.
"Shit, Loki, are you okay?"
Mike knelt at his side, and all Loki could manage in reply was an inarticulate gasp of pain.
"The hell did it do to you?" Mike pulled at what remained of the arm of Loki's jacket, and Loki wrenched his arm away, holding it close to his body.
"Do not." Shuddering as he distanced himself from the pain, fortifying his mind by taking refuge in facts – the temperature was 12 degrees Fahrenheit; the wind blew at 1.4 miles per hour, north-north-west; the humidity was 13 per cent – and he reached for the reserves of magic he had rather impressively depleted. Drawing on that, he threaded it down his arm, watching with remote interest as the silvery-green light of his power sank into his skin and repaired the damage. The clothes were a loss, but he wasn't particularly bothered.
Clothing suffered in battles. Life went on.
"Woah. I didn't know you could do that."
Loki let out a dry chuckle. "I can do many things," he said, slowly rising. He surveyed the brandyr littering the parking lot and lifted his gaze to the side street some distance away. There were no cars on it, and he could only hope no cars had passed by during their battle. "At least we know what Ben is." Passing Mike, he touched the first brandyr, lighting it with green fire.
"More or less." Loki glanced at Mike as he set the next brandyr on fire. "For brandyr to be in a pack, they must be controlled. Otherwise they will simply kill each other. And the only creature that can control a brandyr is a fire giant."
Mike pursed his lips. "So… so Ben is… is a fire giant…"
"But he looks normal."
The urge to bash Mike's head against the pavement was overwhelming. "And so do I. For the most part." Loki rose from the burning body, the last of his magic gone, and brushed his hands on his pants.
Mike rubbed his hand over his jaw line. "Okay. But that still doesn't answer a way more important question." Loki lifted his brow. "The hell is a fire giant dating my sister for?"
"For that answer, I suspect we'll need to get into your school."
"Well mark that priority one on our list," Mike muttered. "Anna's gonna be pissed when she finds out."
Loki shrugged. "Likely." He reached for Mike, and was annoyed when Mike jumped back to steps.
"Woah, woah, can we just walk home?"
Loki rolled his eyes. "It's barely above zero and well past eleven. No, we cannot just walk home."
"Dude, it's not like we're going to get mugged."
"Let me rephrase that: It's barely above zero, well past eleven, and I would like to shower and be in bed before midnight. No, we cannot just walk home."
Mike scowled but grabbed hold of Loki's wrist. Loki was showered and in bed one minute before midnight, and he slept better that night than he had in many. He had answers, and that was a comfort for him.
They told Anna the next day.
It went about as well as Loki expected it would, which meant not well at all.
"Ben is not some kind of—of monster," Anna shouted at them, stomping her foot against the cement floor, her face blotchy and red.
They stood in the empty building they had taken over for practice. Mike and Anna were sweating and still breathing hard; Loki, as ever, was unaffected by the kind of sparring he did with the two of them. He would push himself later.
His disaffection might have, he thought, made the whole situation just a little worse.
"God, do you even care?" Anna demanded, pulling back and throwing a punch at his face.
Loki had just enough time to give Mike an aggrieved look. This is all your fault, the look said. It wasn't Mike's fault at all. Mike had wanted to wait. He hadn't wanted to tell Anna so soon. He wanted a chance to process and to plan out how they would tell her. Loki, having no patience for sparing feelings, had simply let her know exactly what they discovered when she asked: Ben was not human, and he was likely the fire giant controlling the brandyr.
Sliding under her arms, Loki turned and connected his elbow with her back, just to the right of a kidney.
She hit the ground and flowed easily into a roll. Coming out of it with a grace she usually lacked, she snatched one of her daggers from the floor and launched herself at him. Loki casually blocked each of her hits, deflecting her easily, but noticed, to his pleasure, that she wasn't pulling her punches. She was actually trying to hurt him.
Words formed on the tip of his tongue, horrible, cutting words. You love an inhuman beast. Did you think he actually cared for you? He's using you. All of them true, they were weapons honed to a killing edge. Any of them could enrage her further, inducing her to release all her hatred and loathing against him. But they would also crush her.
And he cared. Her feelings mattered to him. The emotional stability of a mortal girl actually mattered.
Her knife nicked his arm, and Loki felt satisfaction instead of irritation. He hadn't been concentrating and she had, clearly, taken advantage of that. Good.
Now, though, he was concentrating, and he was tired of her tantrum. And he didn't want to kill her.
She spun toward him, rolling her hip with the clear intent to kick him to the ground. Loki caught her ankle in his hands, and with a strong twist of his wrists, sent her sprawling across the cement. She caught herself just as he had taught her, sparing herself any real pain, and turned to rise. Annoyance rising, Loki put his bare foot to the small of her back and forced her down once more.
"Are you done?" he asked as she sucked in gasps of air.
Mike, standing to the side, simply stared at them, his eyes wide.
"I don't know," Anna snapped around her heavy breaths. "Are you still going to tell me my boyfriend is a freak?"
That hurt far more than it should, and Loki jerked back as though slapped. "Deal with it as you will," he said, and when he strode from the building, he let the door slam behind him.
It shouldn't have mattered, he thought as he leaned against the frigid wall. Even barefoot and bare-chested, standing in the freezing cold didn't bother him. It never had. And that made it worse. Swallowing hard, Loki closed his eyes. This was the start, he realized. Surely, this was the beginning of the end. If Ben was a freak, then Loki was, too, and before long, Mike would think like Anna. Once Mike thought like Anna, they would poison the whole family against him.
He would be alone again, but wasn't that as it should be? Loki was Loki, outcast and strange, never fitting no matter where he was. That he should fit on Midgard with a mortal family—
Had he ever thought it could work? What had possessed him to be so foolish?
Pathetic. He was pathetic to ever think he find a home and be happy and loved there. Lurching away from the wall, he began to walk. If the children looked for him, they wouldn't find him. He needed to get away from them, from everyone.
Anna was miserable. She sat on her bed, curled up with a heating pad and bags full of ice because Loki hit hard when he was ticked off. Not that she didn't deserve it.
Since returning home almost three hours ago, she'd done a lot of thinking. She usually avoided deep, soul-searching and introspective thinking, but she had done it because she had needed to. And she'd come away with the realization she screwed up. Bad.
Whatever, maybe Ben was a fire giant. So that sucked a little. So she couldn't get a normal guy as a boyfriend, she had to get a fire giant. Sure. But she could deal with that. Loki was a frost giant. What was the difference, really, except that Loki was ice where Ben was probably fire? Loki wasn't that bad. Oh, sure, sometimes she pushed him a bit too far, and sometimes he responded to her nettling with a nasty retort or a punch.
Or, you know, he dragged her to the ground and clunked her head against the cement and almost cut her throat out.
But that was just Loki. That was part of who he was, all two thousand odd years of it, and from what he had told her and Mike of his life, it was more surprising he hadn't cut her open from throat to navel yet.
So Ben was a fire giant. So what? That didn't make him a monster. What made him a monster was the fact that he was probably the one behind the burning dogs from hell that roamed around the town. And possibly the zombies.
Anna scrubbed at her face with the heels of her hands as tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. She would not cry. She would not. She felt like crap, though. She knew, now that she'd had a chance to stop reacting and actually think, that she'd been a brat. If she called a fire giant a freak and a monster, what did that say about her opinion of frost giants as far as Loki was concerned? Probably not a lot.
And she hadn't meant it. Not really. Well, okay, Ben might be a freak, but not Loki. Loki was a little weird, but that was because he was an Asgardian prince or something. That was a carte blanche, in her mind, to be a little weird.
Someone knocked on her door and, hoping it was Loki, she jumped, wiping the tears from her eyes. But, no, it was just her mom. "Are you okay?" she asked, poking her head into the room but not actually entering. Good. Anna didn't want to deal with her mom's guilt trips.
"Yeah, fine," Anna said, turning away to find her cell phone. If she played Bejeweled long enough, her mom would think she was texting someone and go away.
"Mike said he and Loki dropped you while practicing a trick. No broken bones?"
"Duh, I'm still here, not at the hospital." She winced, realizing that she was back to being a brat. It was a bad defense mechanism, really, snapping at people when she was in a bad mood. And knowing that was what she was doing made it all worse. Eugh, she hated conflict. Giving her mom a wary smile, she asked, "Is Loki back yet?"
Her mom shook her head. "No. Mike went looking." She hesitated. "Let me know if you need anything." She stepped from Anna's room, half closing the door behind her.
Anna chewed on the inside of her lip for a minute, staring at her cell phone, and then she jumped off her bed. Moving hurt, but she didn't care. She had a mission. A very important mission.
Hurrying down the stairs, she grabbed her coat from the closet and shouted, "I'm going for a walk," before pulling on her boots and rushing out the garage door before her mother could stop her.
The walk to the park took about five minutes, but by the time she got there, she felt like an ice cube. Tromping through the snow, she made her way to the largest oak tree, tipped back her head, and looked up at Loki. He was very blue.
"Hey," she said, lifting her hand and waving.
The look he gave her was so empty of anything that it was really kind of scary.
She sighed. "Look, I'm sorry," she said. "About earlier. I—I had a lot of feelings. You know." She slid her gloved hands into the arms of her jacket, curling her fingers into fists to keep them warm. He turned away from her, and she could have screamed. Apologizing sucked – always – and it wasn't like he was making it easy.
To be fair (who wanted to be fair?), she supposed he shouldn't make it easy.
"I called you a freak," she said, going for the blunt and honest route, to hell with whatever pride she might have left. "And that was really inappropriate. You're not a freak." Freaky, yes; a freak, no.
He jumped from the tree, from at least ten feet up, and landed lightly on the ground. Blue crept across his skin, making him look like the sky at twilight. There were marks on his bare arms and chest, alien and strange patches of upraised skin, and Anna found them fascinating in the same way she found tattoos fascinating.
She lifted her eyes to his face and refused to flinch at his eyes. So red, like blood. Or rubies. She liked rubies.
Finally, she punched him lightly in the shoulder, which earned her nothing more than a raised eyebrow. "I was mean and stupid. I freaked out when you told me about Ben. But I think you're pretty cool."
The other brow lifted.
"You're not making this easy, you know."
"I know." There was something about his face, in his expression. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she thought it was almost like vulnerability.
She pulled her arms free of her sleeves and, moving to his side, wrapped them around his arm. "Come on, let's go home," she said. "I'm getting cold just looking at you."
"As a frost giant, I feel the cold less acutely than you."
"Well, aren't you a special cupcake," she said, and then she burst out laughing. "Oh, God, you're like. You're a frost giant. Like, you're frosted." Her laughter doubled her over, and she knew it shouldn't because, really, it was stupid. It was a stupid joke. It wasn't funny at all, and he probably didn't get it, and he hated sweet things. But she couldn't help it.
When they were halfway back to the house, Anna dumping all her feelings about life, the universe, and everything on him and feeling no remorse for it, he pulled his arm free of her grip. For a minute, she thought he'd pull away and just fall out of their lives, never to be seen again. She lifted her face to him, not bothering to hide her emotions, and she was bad at that anyway, but he gave her an indulgent look in reply and draped his arm about her shoulder as he pulled her to his side.
"My delivery left much to be desired," he said. "Your reaction to it is understandable."
A tiny smile spread across her face and she pressed closer to his side, surprised by how warm he was. Some part of her expected his blue skin to be cooler to the touch, but it wasn't. It was still warm when she touched her cheek to his shoulder. "Hey, Loki?" she said as they walked up the driveway and his blue skin became pink and peachy once again.
"Thanks for being a good brother." She gave the hand on her shoulder a squeeze and pulled free of him. They stepped into the mess room, and her mom was there, her face caught somewhere between rampant concern and raging anger. She hauled Loki into the family room, wrapped him in blankets and made him piping hot tea.
Chicago had morphed into the set of a Michael Bay film in that it turned out everything in the city could, in fact, explode when the right magical creatures appeared. Things blew up and fell apart, but people continued about their business because the Avengers were there. Goblins robbed banks, running away with money and valuables, and they were apprehended by the Avengers. Great stone behemoths smashed their way through Union Station, but the trains didn't stop running; the Avengers took care of the golems. Wraiths chased people down the streets, screaming and cackling, but no one stopped walking to work; the Avengers dispensed with them as well.
By the third week of January, the media reported a definite northward trend in the attacks – attacks they tracked studiously on every local news station.
Teachers, the smart ones, began building lesson plans around the superhero presence in the city, and that was how Anna ended up writing a paper on mutant rights in her world history class. It was obnoxious, mostly because she hated writing papers and because her dad wouldn't let her interview anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., but it gave her a great excuse to pretend to go to the library.
Anna was in a very fortunate position. Unlike Mike, she had a study hall period right before lunch, and with each period being around forty-four minutes, that gave her a little over an hour and a half to search her school on Loki's behalf. Not all of it, though. She and Mike had come to the conclusion that if anything was in the school, it was in the old basement.
So on Tuesday, because Tuesdays were boring and nothing ever happened on Tuesday, she got a hall pass to the library from her study hall teacher as soon as she arrived at the classroom. She was out the door before the bell rang, and after dumping her things in her locked, she made her way to the elevator on the second floor where she was much less likely to be noticed. Where the elevator was on the first floor put it in view of the cafeteria hall monitors, and the sadist French teacher patrolled fourth period lunch.
She had no desire to deal with Keefer.
As soon as the doors to the elevator slid open, she bounded inside, hit the basement button, and jammed her thumb against the "door close" button until, to her relief, the doors slid shut. Technically, students weren't allowed to use the elevators unless they had a medical reason, and she didn't want to get caught. She could get thrown off the squad if she got caught.
But, really, the fate of the world, or at least the greater Chicagoland area, was way more important than a stupid cheerleading squad anyway.
When the doors slid open on the basement level, she peered out of the elevator nervously and slipped her hand into the top of her jeans. She had tucked two of her knives into the waist band of her panties that morning and had spent the first three periods of the day worrying a teacher would notice them. But they were made from magic and, if Loki was to be believed, no one in the school was going to notice anything that had to do with magic. And it wasn't like her school had metal detectors anyway.
She pulled out the two knives, the familiar weight of them in her hands a comfort.
Sliding cautiously out of the elevator and into the dim basement, Anna pressed herself against the nearest wall.
The whole place was full of garbage. Well, not really garbage. More like crap. Junk. Broken desks littered the immediate area, some of them nothing more than twisted, broken heaps of metal. There were more than a few cafeteria tables with holes in them, large holes the size of basketballs, and she wondered how those holes had gotten there.
Slowly coming away from the wall, Anna made her way across the basement, peering at discarded sets from old plays, moldy costumes, and mildew-covered books. There were dead bugs piled in corners, a few cleaning supplies here and there, and a lot of spiders, but nothing weird. It was all normal school stuff.
With a sigh, she crossed her arms. "Stupid," she whispered. Wondering why she'd whispered – it wasn't like anyone was in the basement with her, right? – she said again, louder, "Stupid. Really stupid." She kicked a tin can across the cold cement, and it clunked against the ground three times before rolling to a stop in front of a door.
"Oh," she said, looking at the door, because there was something about it that was just… just… "Weird."
Mike probably would have walked away from that door. Mike probably would have made lots of notes about it and then walked away from that door. He would have told Loki about it when he got home, would have suggested they find a way to get Loki into the school to examine it, and would have been, in general, a total tool. Anna was not a tool.
Anna opened the door.
The other side of the door was not as promising as the door itself. The door, made of wood and covered in strange carvings, looking altogether like it should have been a picture in her world history text book, had been cool. The door had promised epic intrigue and mystery.
The room on the other side was boring. There wasn't anything in it. It was just cement floors and cement walls.
Shrugging, she stepped into the room, figuring she might as well pretend to look around and be thorough. Even if the room was empty. And lame.
She walked along the perimeter of the room, idly tossing one of her knives and catching it, over and over. She would later admit she didn't pay the room much attention, it was empty after all, but she did notice one thing.
At the base of one of the walls, there was a crack. In this crack was a small plant, a healthy verdant color, with a tiny, tiny white flower on the very end of it. She crouched in front of it, head tilted to one side.
"Weird," she said to the plant.
As she looked at it, studying it with a strange kind of fascination (strange because she didn't really care all that much for plants), she felt a strong compulsion to touch it. Just for a second. It couldn't be anything bad, she thought. It was growing in the basement, without light, totally untended. That was so normal it was painful. Why not touch it?
She set the knife in her right hand down, reached out, and placed the tip of one finger against the plant.
Everything went to hell.
Monitors started flashing red warning screens, televisions began broadcasting nothing but static, and programs set to monitor "strange activity" spit out data so bizarre that everyone looking at it thought the world had to be ending.
Working at S.H.I.E.L.D. required one knowing the plural of apocalypse.
The conference room door opened, and Bob looked up from the impossible readings, surprised to see Coulson looking completely composed as the PA system turned on and started playing classic hits from the sixties.
"What's going on?" Coulson asked, tugging lightly on his shirt cuffs and looking for all the world like everything exploding in his face was just another day at the office.
Bob supposed it was. "Not sure yet," he said, shuffling a few pieces of paper as one of his coworkers flung another pile at him and shouted "None of this makes any goddamn sense!"
Wincing, Bob continued, "Readings are off the charts, and we're not even sure what we're reading. We're getting results that—like this. This is supposed to monitor air content, but it's just giving us nonsense." He handed the printout to Coulson. "And this, don't even get me started on—"
The PA system screamed, and everyone in the room clapped their hands over their ears. Bob shuddered, the piercing sound zinging through his body and rattling his bones. It was almost like a shrieked, but it reverberated and resonated, like there were hundreds of voices layered over each other. The sound was nauseating; it made his stomach turn and his head throb, and he squeezed his eyes shut as though that would help block out the sound.
The shriek cut off abruptly, and Bob slowly pulled his hands away from his ears. "Oh, and our PA system is on the fritz."
"Do you think—"
"NO NO NO!" The voice came from the PA system, but, as Bob pressed his hands to his ears again, it sounded like it was inside his head at the same time. "NO YOU'RE WRONG!" It thundered through his head, was a violent hurricane in his mind, and a tornado, ripping through him like he was nothing.
His knees hit the floor hard and he gasped. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Coulson laid out beside him, hands over his head like that might somehow help them.
"WRONG WRONG WRONG YOU'RE ALL WRONG YOU'LL BREAK YOU'RE—"
The silence was a cold vacuum, and the emptiness in Bob's head, while relieving, felt somehow wrong. Lowering his hands, he swung his gaze, wide-eyed and shell-shocked, around the room and wondered if he looked as devastated and confused as everyone else. He felt like someone had reached into his brain and scraped it clean in a search for information.
Coulson standing caught his attention, and he looked at the agent. Coulson, unlike everyone else, seemed perfectly composed. "Find out what that was, Frederickson, you and your team. I want to know everything."
Anna took her finger off the plant and looked at it, half expecting something weird to have happened. If the skin had all melted off it, she wouldn't have been surprised. "Huh," she said, grabbing her knife and rocking to her feet. "Whatever."
She tucked the knife into her pants once again and made her way back to the elevator. She took it to the second floor with less nervous tension than she'd had on the way down and, checking one of the hall clocks, made her way to the cafeteria to grab something to eat. There were only ten minutes left in her lunch period, and she was hungry.
Like. Really hungry.
And her necklace, the gift from Loki, burned against her skin.
She bought three slices of pizza, a basket of curly fries, and a Coke, taking them to her usual table. The girls on the squad who shared her lunch hour greeted her, demanding to know where she had been, and she laughed and said the library. With a roll of her eyes, she started into the pizzas, making short work of them.
Just as she finished the last of the Coke, Ben hopped onto the table next to her, a stupid grin on his face. "Hey there, gorgeous," he said, leaning over and giving her a light kiss.
The first week back at school, being around Ben had been hard. She kept wondering what he looked like under whatever magic hid his appearance, and she half resented Mike for having seen him. And she wondered, on more than one occasion, if Ben somehow knew that she knew and would just snap her neck one day for giggles. Or convenience. You know, whatever it was bad guys did.
Unless he wasn't really a bad guy. She got the fact that him being on Earth – Midgard, whatever – that was bad. And she got that Loki's adopted Asgardian people didn't like the giants, the jotun, on a whole. But just because she didn't like Justin Bieber and he showed up in Chicago on tour didn't make him the devil.
Yeah, she really hoped that reasoning was sound. It probably wasn't.
Laughing, Anna pushed him away. "What do you want, trouble?" she asked, grinning and twisting a ridiculous curl around her finger.
"Just wanted to see my favorite girl." His grin grew. "You're looking particularly incredible today. New eye shadow?"
That was what made Ben the best, even if he was a some kind of alien: he noticed things like her makeup. "No," she said, drawing out the word. "Nothing new. But you're sweet for saying it."
The bell rang then, and he gave her a quick goodbye kiss. With a silly smile, she turned to wave to him and froze. For a moment, he looked like he was burning. He was seriously on fire, the flames dancing around his skin, casting a red glow over the walls and floor and ceiling. Black horns curled about his head, thick and pointed, and Anna had to jerk her gaze away before someone noticed her staring.
Everywhere her eyes fell, there was a strange golden haze. It wrapped around everyone, was a part of everything.
And then it was gone, and Anna was Anna, plain and boring again, and she shook herself. Weird. Really weird.
With a shrug of her shoulders, she went to class.
So sorry for failing to update on Monday! Those of you who follow me on tumblr (skiesovergideon there, too) know that I was relatively incapacitated with a migraine. Thanks for sticking around, and here are the next two chapters!
"So you found a sprout." Mike looked like he didn't believe her.
"Yes!" Anna was exasperated.
"And when you touched it?" Pensive, Loki took a sip of his tea.
She made a frustrated gesture, clenching her hands into fists. "I told you. Nothing happened."
"Except that, later, you saw Ben's true form and the swirl of magic throughout the school." Loki touched the tips of fingers together around the body of his mug. "Which suggests something did, indeed, happen."
She scowled. "Yeah, but nothing I remember."
"Wait, wasn't there something on the news?" Mike, lounging on the couch and tossing a baseball back and forth between his hands, looked a bit hopeful. "Something about a huge power surge and none of the TVs working downtown?"
Anna rolled her eyes. "Because stuff happening downtown has anything to do with stuff happening here."
"Uh, duh," Mike returned, tossing the baseball at her head. She caught it and threw it back. "Monsters here, monsters there. Asgardian god here, Asgardian god there. So maybe it does matter."
Pulling a face, Anna leaned against the arm of the couch and dropped her legs on Loki's lap. Loki straightened and looked at her as though she had lost her mind. She returned his stare with an even one of her own, and he saw her mother in her face. He hoped she never reproduced. If she did, her children would have his unmitigated pity.
"Is that all you know about what happened downtown?" Loki asked Mike.
Mike nodded. "I YouTubed some stuff earlier, because it looked weird, and, you know, research, right?"
Anna rolled her eyes.
"But, yeah, there wasn't much. Just people posting vlogs all like—" He made one of the most ridiculous faces Loki had ever seen, and he had seen quite a few. Thor had cornered the market on idiotic expressions. "—'oh, no, the sky is falling, what are we going to do, there was no power.' And then there were people who were all 'at least the Avengers are here to fix things like this, the hell with New York.'" He shrugged. "That's about it."
Loki considered this, turning the words over in his mind. "When was that?"
Mike shook his head. "Dunno, sometime this morning."
"Anna, when did you find the sapling?"
She shrugged. "Maybe around ten thirty?"
Loki leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and trapping Anna's legs across his lap. "I find it remarkable," he said, directing his words toward Anna, "that the issue with the city's electronics occurred this morning, likely around the time you touched the plant." He tilted his head to the side, eyes sliding along the edges of a wooden bookshelf. "I find it especially remarkable that nothing in the immediate area was disturbed. And I wonder why."
With a laugh, Mike said, "Maybe it's because we're boring." His tone was dismissive, and it was that nonchalance that caught Loki's attention.
The look of sharp interest on his face made Mike jump. "You're what?"
"Boring?" Now it was a question, offered hesitantly instead of with a studious lack of care.
"No. Not, it's not that." Loki frowned, touching his lips to the edge of the mug of tea and inhaling the scent of bergamot. His eyes closed, and he let the smell take him back to his workshop in Asgard, to the familiar space filled with books and magic. The weight of Anna's legs on his lap became the weight of a grimoire, and in his imaginings, he paged through it.
Magic, the grimoire explained, was a strange thing. In sufficient amounts, it could become almost sentient, but not quite. It was like a Venus flytrap, having no brain but the ability to respond to stimuli when given a specific set of circumstances. The magic that suffused the school wasn't a tiny droplet of ephemeral power. It was potent enough to attract the attention of creatures from across the Nine Realms. That suggested there was more than enough of it to react.
So it protected itself.
"It's not that you're boring," Loki said slowly, opening his eyes as a chilly smile spread across his face. "It's that you're not a threat."
Loki's enemies ran from the smile he wore; they turned tail and, screaming, fled from battle. It was the only warning they received before he attacked. Mike and Anna were, apparently, immune. Her toes curled around the fabric of his pants, and she shifted, digging her heels into his thighs. "What are you talking about?" she asked.
The smile melted into a long-suffering look of martyrdom. "What is in Chicago that isn't here?" he asked. Her face remained blank. "An organization, Anna, that would have a vested interest in magic and strange things."
Mike's eyes grew wide. "Oh. Shit."
At least Mike was thinking. The mixture of uneasy fear on his face made it clear he knew exactly which organization Loki meant.
"Wait, wait." Anna pushed her toe into Loki's side. "You mean S.H.I.E.L.D.?" At Loki's nod, she swore too, her head dropping back against the arm of the couch. "Great. So dad's probably mixed up in this, too."
"Likely in only the most cursory of ways." Loki's attention shifted from Anna to Mike. "Could you convince your father to take you into his office for a day? Perhaps learn something that could help us?"
Mike hesitated before shaking his head. "I don't know. Security at places like that is probably super tight." At Loki's look of irritation, he held up both hands in a placating gesture. "Dude, I'll check, man, I'll check. The worst he can do is say no, and that doesn't put us back at all."
Loki's gaze swung back to Anna, and a muscle in his neck protested with a sharp twinge. "And it would be beneficial if I could see this plant for myself."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but how are you going to get into the building? This problem hasn't gone away," she reminded him.
"Ah, no." He smiled and waited, enjoying the play of expressions across Anna's face.
"…wait. Wait, what did you figure out?" she asked. She had settled on a petulant look, annoyed he hadn't shared something with them.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. is a danger to whatever is here," he said, speaking slowly and clearly. As he spoke, he felt his magic twist inside him, shifting like a dog lifting its head upon hearing its master's voice. "There has been a northward trend to the attacks by the creatures from the Nine Realms. S.H.I.E.L.D. has surely noticed. Combined with today's events, I am certain this place is now one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s points of interest."
Electric power thrummed in his veins, almost, but not quite, within his reach.
"My magic responds when I need to protect you. We've established that, yes?" The children nodded. "You attend a school where this power, whatever it is—" He had a sneaking suspicion he knew exactly what it was, and he hoped, with all his being, he was wrong. "—is centralized. By protecting you, I protect that power."
And, oh, there was the familiar, rushing burn of his own magic.
Anna jumped away from him, her eyes wide. She let out a small, strangled sound of terror. Mike, too, had jerked back. Mortals, stupid as they were, still had a strong sense of danger, Loki had to give them that. They knew something had changed, they could probably see it in his face, and they were smart enough to be afraid.
"Stop that, both of you," Loki snapped, less hurt than he was annoyed. "If I considered, even for a moment, hurting you, the power that was just returned to me would be taken away."
Mike gave him a suspicious glare. "The school's whatever power can do that?"
"It is stronger than my own, so yes. It can." Loki set his mug on the leather ottoman before him and sat straight, smoothing his hands over his abdomen. His clothes melted into an outfit he preferred from Asgard, a simple tunic with a leather belt and fitted, black trousers. He didn't bother creating the boots, and so the argyle socks he wore looked ludicrous compared to the rest of his clothing.
It felt good to have that power at his command once again, and already he had thought of one thousand things he needed to do with it. Starting with a protective spell around the whole house, and then another around the school.
He realized, then, that both children were staring at him, slack jawed.
"Magic is semi-sentient when it is present in a certain density," he explained. "The power here, unsure whether or not I was a threat to you, suppressed my innate abilities. Now that it believes I'm not, I have full command of my power."
"Unless you threaten us," Anna said.
Loki pressed his lips into a thin line. "We have established that."
The look of consideration on her face didn't bode well for anyone. He imagined she was thinking of ways to annoy him into using his power against her just to see what might happen. So he redirected her. "I can use my magic to hide myself from curious eyes and get into your school now."
Her face lit up. "Does this mean you can sit next to me in class and help me with my math tests?"
Her face dropped. "Damn."
"I can, however, see this plant. Do you take issue with me accompanying you to see it tomorrow?"
Anna shook her head. "Nope. I'll probably be able to get another pass to the library, so we're good."
Mike sighed. "And I'll work Dad over." He didn't sound too thrilled and, in retrospect, when Loki penned the events of his day in his journal, he couldn't blame Mike for his lack of excitement. Bob had reacted poorly to the question, dodging it with a fretting nervousness that Loki hadn't before seen in him.
That only made Loki certain they needed to know what S.H.I.E.L.D. was doing. But how to get at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s knowledge. That was their central problem. It was the school that provided the solution two days later.
It wasn't so much that Loki was invisible as he was unnoticeable. Invisibility spells were difficult, involving complex calculations regarding the date and the time and the azimuth of the sun and exactly how light would need to be bent to trick the eye. Instead of wasting his time with that, Loki made himself unnoticeable. Don't look at me, the spell woven around him said. I'm not at all interesting. Wouldn't you rather have another cup of your designer coffee?
He arrived at the school shortly before the fourth hour of classes began, slipping through the crowd of children pouring out one of the doors. There was a moment where he thought he might stick, where the magic that turned the inside halls of the school into a dazzling gold river might stop him and toss him out, but it accepted him. It let him in with only a murmur of complaint, and he watched a thread of golden light curl around his wrist like some kind of marker.
He waited for Anna in a hall that was mostly windows, and when she passed by him, he fell into step behind her. She couldn't see him, but they had decided on their course of action the previous night: she would make her way through the halls, and he would follow.
As soon as they were inside the elevator, he released the spell. Her hand, which she had sealed over her mouth, muffled her cry of surprise at his sudden appearance. Pulling her hand away, she gave him a sheepish smile. "I figured you'd surprise me, no matter how much I told myself you were there. It was creepy," she said.
"Knowing you were following me. It was like some terrible horror movie."
Loki chuckled, loosely catching his wrist in one hand behind his back. "Except that I have no intention of killing you."
She slipped up to his side and leaned her shoulder against his arm. "No, just torture me," she replied, her tone light. When he looked down at her with a raised brow, she gave him an annoyed glower. "Brothers. You torture your little sisters. Mike tortures me."
The doors to the elevator slid open, and the two of them stepped out. Loki noticed, almost immediately, the subtle change in Anna's gait. She ceased to simply walk and began to glide across the floor, a little lioness learning to hunt. Her knives appeared in her hands, pulled quickly and subtly from where she kept them in the hem of her pants. Clever girl.
Loki created a spear in his hand and followed her across the basement.
"Here," she said, touching the frame of a door.
The knot and rune work on it was impressive. And telling. Loki traced the runes one of the panel, and his fingers tingled at the caress of magic. Power thrummed through the wood, ancient and old. Whatever was behind the door – and he hoped, desperately now, that he was wrong – had been on Midgard for more than a paltry two years.
Loki pushed the door open.
"I thought it was just empty at first," she said, and Loki, silent, stared into the room. Magic pulsed through the air, throbbed in it, a scintillating rainbow of shimmering threads of light. It twisted and twined about itself, braided into thick ropes, and it centered around a small crack in the floor on the opposite wall. "But the sprout's there." Anna pointed at the bit of plant.
Loki stepped around her, walking carefully across the room. The magic brushed against him, rubbed over his skin and combed through his hair. It was like a small child seeing a parent for the first time in months, both checking to make sure he was who it expected and pressing close out of love.
"What is it?" Anna asked from behind him.
Kneeling before the plant, Loki set his spear down. He reached out to touch it but jerked his hand back at the last minute. Anna, hovering, made a noise of inquiry. "This is not possible," he said softly.
"You know what it is?"
Swallowing hard, Loki nodded. Yes, he knew, and it was a wonder the people of the Nine Realms hadn't torn Midgard to pieces for this sapling sprout years ago. "Yes," he murmured.
"It is a sapling grown from one of Yggdrasil's seeds."
Beautiful. It was beautiful, pouring magic from its body in a torrent. It was a parched man's water, a starving man's feast. The power that could be had, that could be harnessed, from the sapling was unimaginable. It was an impossible thing, something that should never have existed, but somehow did.
And, oh, the flames that would consume the whole of the town, the whole of Midgard, once it was found.
The whispered word made the swirl of magic in the room still, its interest whetted.
"I will not allow that," he said, and it was a promise, not at statement. It was an oath, and the magic would bind him to it.
Anna's fingers touched his shoulder. "You won't allow what?" she asked.
"I will not allow the war that will come to your home because of this," he said, rising. Turning to her, Loki cupped her face in both his hands. She was so small, so breakable, her pulse pounding under her pale, fragile skin. She stared at him with large brown eyes, innocent eyes, eyes that knew nothing of the horrors of war. She fought at his side, yes, against little things. Insects. But she didn't know war. "I will not."
There was no comprehension on her face, no understanding. She was confused and unsure, hearing his words but incapable of making sense of them. She couldn't fathom the weight of this, and Loki wasn't sure he could properly tell her. Another world tree, a sapling, something that could be cultured and grown and shaped. Midgard would be destroyed if anyone in the Nine Realms ever knew for certain exactly what grew in the school.
"Okay," she whispered, her voice solemn. She was smart enough to realize how important his words were, even if she could not comprehend the depth of them.
Mike hated his government class. Loathed it. Despised it with every fiber of his soul. It was a required course and he couldn't avoid it, and so he spent each class period, every day, all forty-four minutes of it, in interminable agony. While his classmates snipped and snapped at each other, debating mutant rights, he doodled circles in his notebook and dreamed up battle scenarios where he and Loki, and occasionally Anna, were awesome.
His life had pretty much cemented itself in orbit around Loki, which was weird. He was used to being the center of things. As a football player and a pretty popular guy, the social aspect of school tended to revolve around his group of friends. But they were petty and inconsequential now. He couldn't tell them that, couldn't even let them know that was how he saw them, but it was what they were.
"—field trip to Willis Tower."
Mike's head jerked up, and he stared at Mrs. Eisner as she handed out a thick packet. "I know we've all been looking forward to this for a while now," she continued, a freakishly blank look on her face. "Remember that we will be eating lunch in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s cafeteria, so you don't need to bring a sack lunch if you don't want to." Her voice was strange. Distant. Hollow.
Mike shuddered as he took one of the packets and passed the rest back. And since when were they going to S.H.I.E.L.D.? He'd asked his dad about visiting just the other day and had received a firm "no" after several hours of hedging. No one had mentioned that he'd be going on a field trip.
And why the hell did his head feel like it was stuffed with cotton? Mike scratched at his ear, unable to ease the itch, and scowled at the packet in his hands. Just a lot of stupid, fill-in-the-blank garbage about how many personnel S.H.I.E.L.D. employed in Chicago and whether this Avenger or that one preferred cream cheese more than butter.
His fingers dug into his muscles at the base of his skull, a sudden ache blooming there. Just what he needed. A headache. He needed to be able to think clearly, because this was definitely abnormal. He was sure no one had discussed a possible trip to S.H.I.E.L.D. He was sure.
A sharp pain lanced through his skull, and Mike suppressed a groan. Eisner was going on about how they should dress – something about not wearing jeans or tee shirts or something – and he tuned her out, pressing his fingers against his forehead to ease the pressure building behind his skull.
It was weird. The more she talked, the more Mike thought about how wrong everything she said really was. The more he thought about how wrong things were, the more his head hurt. Some traitor part of his mind produced a disturbing thought: Maybe you should just accept it. If you just accept it, maybe it'll stop hurting.
He dropped his hand from his head to his chest, dragging his necklace from under his shirt. His fingers curled around the runes, and though they weren't sharp, their hard corners bit into his skin when he clenched his fist around them. Immediately, the headache retreated. The pressure subsided. The relief was accompanied by a strange feeling of apology, one that definitely wasn't internal, and Mike frowned.
"Hey, man, you okay?"
Mike lifted his head, giving Ethan a reassuring grin. "Oh, yeah," he lied. "You know, though." He glanced quickly at Eisner's desk; she wasn't paying them any mind as everyone rose and began to shuffle out the classroom. He wondered when the bell had rung. "Eisner kind of puts me to sleep."
Ethan laughed and slapped his shoulder. "Her voice is so dry. See you in math, yeah?" Ethan took a step away and headed out the door.
Mike, quickly collecting his books, made his way out, too.
He wasn't paying much attention to where he was walking, thinking instead on how weird that bit in class had been. Like something had wanted him to accept that the trip to S.H.I.E.L.D. was completely legit, even though he knew it wasn't. He was so absorbed in his thoughts, carefully picking his way through them, that he didn't notice Anna until she had grabbed him and hauled him to the side of the hall, pushing him into the space between two sets of lockers.
"You!" she snapped, wearing a scowl.
She jabbed her finger in his chest, her scowl deepening. "Loki saw it." Her tone of voice was so at odds with her words that it took him a minute to get what was going on. "He knows what it is."
"Oh, really?" Mike fell into the game easily enough. He knew what she was doing, though it had taken a minute to get it. They didn't exactly talk at school, by mutual understanding. She giggled with her cheerleader friends, and he hung out with his jock buddies. When they did talk, it was usually to fight. "Well, what is it, then?"
So they made it look like they were fighting, glaring and snapping at each other, their arms crossed. Their words wouldn't carry through the noisy hall, and if someone got too close, all they'd hear is a quick snatch of angry conversation.
"Some kind of magical tree or something," Anna hissed, narrowing her eyes. She pushed his shoulder and stomped her foot, looking like she was having a small tantrum.
Mike rolled his eyes and smacked her hand away when she tried to shove him again. "Yeah, wow, that's crazy." He caught sight of a friend approaching and knew they had to wrap up their conversation. "We'll finish this later, okay?"
"Fine, whatever." She flounced off with a huff, but for a moment, she flashed him a conspiratorial smile.
He wondered how he'd ever go back to having a normal life after this, and he half hoped that he wouldn't. Plastering a stupid smile on his face, he caught his friend by the shoulder and they headed to English.
"A sapling from… from Yggdrasil." Mike's tongue stumbled over the name, Loki corrected him, and he stumbled a second time.
As Mike muttered the world tree's name under his breath, Loki nodded. "Yes."
"And this is a huge danger because…"
Anna rolled her eyes. "Gee, I dunno, there's already one world tree. Having a second could be kind of dangerous." She smiled hopefully at Loki, waiting for his affirmation. "Right?"
"Quite." Lacing his fingers loosely, he leaned his elbows on his knees. "Yggdrasil's seeds usually fall into the gap from which it grows, and it is said that the people of Nornheim find the ones that enter the Nine Realms and destroy them."
Mike frowned. "Cool, well, they missed one."
"Likely for thousands of years," Loki agreed. "It is a great and coincidental fortune I came to be here." Or, perhaps, not a coincidence at all. It would not surprise him at all to learn he had been drawn to this particular town. Like called to like. His magic would have been a beacon to the sapling.
And with that thought, he considered the two children before him. Were they somehow uniquely qualified to help him with the issue of the sapling? It was true their athletic backgrounds worked to their benefit, and thus his. Like called to like. Was it the parallel between Mike and Thor that had brought him to the Fredericksons? Was the universe trying to make him understand his brother through Mike, a mortal who was a reflection of Thor?
"You really think this thing will cause some sort of war?" Mike asked, interrupting Loki's musings.
Loki nodded. "If others discover what is in your school, oh, yes. Odin's power comes, in part, from Yggdrasil. To control this sapling would be to control a power analogous to his."
Both Mike and Anna winced, exchanging nervous glances. "So a war for that sapling," Anna said, "would eventually become a war against… against Asgard. And your father."
"It would bring unimaginable destruction," Loki said by way of agreement.
"So what do we do?" Mike asked. "Destroy it?"
Loki's skin prickled, his body suddenly tense. His senses screamed danger , and he saw a cloud of gold coalesce about Mike's head. "No," he said softly, firmly. The cloud's roiling mass stilled. "No, we can't do that. The magic it produces would end us long before we were close enough to do anything." The power slowly dispersed, drifting in glimmers into the air, and Loki exhaled and relaxed. "We will continue to protect it."
"Can I ask something?" Anna leaned forward, her gaze swinging from Mike to Loki and back again. "Just. Why did no one ever figure this magic stuff out? Like. S.H.I.E.L.D. or something."
"Because humans cannot see magic, and the sapling's power has been hiding it." Loki gave them a wan smile. "It uses you, the students and teachers. It fills you with magic over the course of the day, and as soon as you step off the campus grounds, either by climbing into an automobile or literally setting foot outside its boundaries, you release that power. It disperses through the air, and it makes unusual things seem… less unusual."
"Like the so-called terrorists in Woodfield," Mike said, eyes brightening with understanding. "It makes our brains make excuses, and we just kind of accept it."
"Precisely." Loki nodded. "Thus no one has noticed it. It is possible, though, that the people of the Nine Realms have been watching this place for years. And, now, we are seeing the end of this thing, the climax of the story, if you will."
This was a sobering statement, and the children responded to it rightly with a period of protracted silence. And then Mike ruined it.
"Shit's gonna get real."
With a small smile, Loki allowed that. "Pity, but accurate. And on your field trip this Friday—"
"Damn tree is helping us," Mike muttered. "It's creepy."
"—make sure to ask questions, would you?"
"Wait." Anna's sharp command drew both Mike and Loki's gazes, and Loki studied her face. She wore a look of fierce concentration, and she held herself stiffly. An errant wind, he thought, could shatter her she was so taut with tension. "What about… what about Ben? I mean. He goes to school with us. D'you think he knows what's in the basement?"
That, too, was sobering. It was disturbing. "No," Loki said quietly. "He may suspect, but I don't think he knows. If he knew, he'd be using the sapling's power. He isn't."
"So maybe he isn't a bad guy," Anna said, her tone full of hope.
Loki's lip curled in a slight snarl, one that the children weren't observant enough to notice, and Mike scoffed. "Whatever, Anna."
She glared at him. "So keep hating him," she snapped, lurching to her feet. "I bet he's totally a good guy, and you're going to be so embarrassed when we find out for her." She stomped off, arms crossed, and Loki and Mike traded glances, Mike annoyed and Loki amused.
"She got over the whole fire giant thing quickly," Mike said.
Loki quirked a brow. "Perhaps she actually likes her boyfriend and genuinely wants to believe the best of him. Imagine that."
Mike threw a pillow at his head. "Well, it's still a problem. Especially if he's not on our side."
The smile Loki gave Mike was predatory. "If he is our enemy, I will deal with him."
Mike stepped off the bus in front of the Sears – Willis, whatever – Tower, tilted his head back, and stared up the building's face. Ethan nudged him from behind, and Mike walked forward, trying to feel at ease but unable to manage. He was nervous. Worried. He touched the necklace under his shirt, feeling the familiar shape of the runes under the fabric, and the magic in it rushed through his body. It fortified him, steadying his shaking limbs.
It was stupid, he knew, to be nervous, but for heaven's sake, a damn tree had arranged this field trip. It had, somehow, used magic to not only convince everyone in his school that the Junior government classes had a field trip to S.H.I.E.L.D., but it had clearly worked S.H.I.E.L.D. over, too. That was creepy. Terrifying.
Loki thought it was incredibly beneficial, but then Loki was pragmatic like that. If something was good and useful, he just took it and ran with it. Mike and Anna, though, they saw the creepy factor. Or, maybe, it was more that Loki was used to this level of creep. Yeah. Yeah, that sounded like it'd be more accurate.
The group made its way into the building, passing through security without too much trouble, and they were greeted by several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who split them into smaller, more manageable groups. Mike didn't recognize any of the names, but he supposed that was reasonable. It wasn't like his dad told him everything about everyone he worked with. It wasn't like he could.
And that eased his nervousness even more. They need to get information from S.H.I.E.L.D.; the sapling had made that possible. The sapling's magic would keep him safe. It liked him. For now. And if he didn't recognize any of these people, it was possible his dad didn't even know them, didn't work with them, and they wouldn't look twice at him.
His group of twenty started their tour in the legal department, and though Mike tried to pay attention, it was just plain boring. And he doubted legal could give him any information on magical beasts from the Nine Realms attacking Chicago. From legal, they went to consulting (even more boring), and from there to human resources (super boring). Only then did they go somewhere interesting, and it wasn't even a determined course. It was happenstance.
"This is the gym through here," their agent, Johnson, said. "But if you—"
"Agent Johnson!" The booming greeting came from a blond man the approximate size of a freight train as he stepped, sweating, from the doors to the gymnasium. A petite redheaded woman peered out the gym after him.
Thor. It was Thor. Mike stood a grand total of maybe ten feet from Loki's brother.
"My friend." Thor clapped his hand on Johnson's shoulder, and Mike didn't think he noticed the agent's flinch. "Who are these children with you?" His other hand passed over his face, pushing hair from his forehead.
"Students," Johnson said. "From one of the suburbs. We're doing a tour."
"Welcome!" Thor gave them all a wide, beaming grin, and Mike could understand why Loki didn't exactly get on with Thor. He was open and gregarious, making bold and encompassing gestures. He seemed more than a little overwhelming. "Do they have time for a demonstration?"
Johnson, who had answered some crazy questions from the students already, looked shocked for the first time all day. "Demonstra—what?"
Thor gestured the group toward the gym. "Come, children, and you will see how an Avenger and a god fights!"
They surged forward, everyone eager for the demonstration, and Mike was carried with them. He wasn't too okay with the situation, irrationally nervous again, possessed by some fear that Thor would somehow recognize him. Maybe Thor could see magic. Maybe Thor would see the power in the necklace he wore and recognize it as Loki's.
So he sidled into the gym, standing at the back of the group, as Thor picked up a sheathed sword and drew it in a smooth gesture. He turned to the redhead and grinned at her. "Let us show them how to dance with swords, Natasha."
Wait, Natasha? Oh, man, that was Black Widow. Thor was fighting with Black Widow for giggles in front of his whole class, and Mike found himself transfixed. Black Widow met him stroke for stroke, and though Thor was holding back, Mike could tell the point of their fight was more about form than anything else. It was for show. They weren't actually working for anything.
He watched how easily Thor responded to each of Black Widow's attacks, trying to commit the sight to memory. He liked that Thor wasn't particularly clever in his defense. Instead, he was strong. He didn't do anything complicated or unusual, but stood his ground, his body a wall against Black Widow's attacks.
They broke apart after about five minutes. Black Widow's breathing was heavy, but Thor looked as though the fight had been no more than a pleasant diversion.
With a grin, wide and unassuming, Thor turned to the students. "Would one of Midgard's children like to try his – or her – hand against a prince of Asgard?"
Mike usually didn't notice the finer points of someone's diction, but he noticed that. Thor said a prince, not the prince, and Mike wondered if that meant Thor hoped Loki still lived. And, if Loki lived, maybe Thor still counted him as a brother.
Then he registered Ethan shouting his name. "Mike thinks he's a knight! Fight him!" Ethan grabbed his shoulder and pulled him forward.
"Douche," Mike muttered, not really meaning it. Feeling more than a little awkward, with paranoia making his pulse pound and his palms sweat, he stood before Thor, who gave him the practice sword Black Widow had been using. It was weighted all wrong, but Mike though he'd be able to adapt.
"How are you are called?" Thor asked.
"Uh. Mike Frederickson. Sir." He hadn't the slightest how he should address Thor, and he hoped to God that Thor had no idea who Robert Frederickson was.
Thor's smile grew. "I know another son of Frederick."
Crap. Mike hated how small the world could be.
"Hold your sword like—well, yes." Thor's brows lifted, and the expression was somewhat familiar. Loki looked like that sometimes. Mike just grinned as Thor asked, "Have you had some training, then?"
"Some," Mike said, shifting his stance to a strong, offensive position.
Thor moved slowly at first, using simple maneuvers to test Mike's level of skill, and Mike followed Thor's lead. Their blades met in predetermined motions, and their goal, or at least Mike's, was precision in execution.
Their mock fight transitioned slowly and imperceptibly into a real one, and Mike had to get a bit creative with it. He knew he wasn't going to win, but he didn't want to get laid out in seconds. Even holding back, Thor was good. So Mike deliberately chose to use moves to watch how Thor countered them, and he did his best to remember each. If Thor realized this, he did not show it.
"Thinking about something?'
Thor tilted his head back and looked at Steve Rogers. "There was a boy here today," he said, brows drawn together, his expression heavy.
"There were several." Steve pulled out the chair across from Thor's and settled in it. "Why? What happened?"
"I offered the children the chance to have a mock battle with me."
"With blunted practice weapons, I hope."
The look Thor gave Steve was belligerent, as if to ask what do you take me for? Out loud, he said, "But the boy who stepped forward knew how to wield a sword. He used the battle to learn from me."
He watched the expression on Steve's face change from casual interest to true concern, and he nodded. "Few children of Midgard know swordplay," Thor continued. "And there was… something familiar in the way he moved." He hesitated, because he was afraid to give voice to his thoughts. They would, he was sure, seem foolish to his friend. And if he spoke them, perhaps he would see they truly were foolish. Then he would have to give them up. He would have to relinquish the hope to which he still held fast.
"What was it?" Steve asked.
Steve was earnest, lacking in duplicity, and Thor appreciated that quality. That Steve asked meant he wanted to know.
"My brother," Thor said slowly. "My brother used a fighting style very similar."
The judgment he expected did not come. Steve sat across from him, a thoughtful look on his ageless face, and he nodded absently. "Describe it," he said, his words more a suggestion than a command.
So Thor did, explaining how the boy had solid and sure footing, but was quick to dodge and make use of an agility that Thor hadn't expected. The boy moved fluidly, was clearly used to a heavier blade, and was willing to relinquish a two handed hold on the hilt of the sword to use grapples and throws. "It is an amalgam," Thor said, "a way to be crafty and not entirely forthright, and it gives a smaller opponent an advantage if well used. My brother needed those things, as he was always much smaller than other Asgardians."
"You think Loki taught the young man how to fight?" Steve asked, and Thor was grateful that Steve humored him in this.
"I recognize that it is impossible," Thor said, his words falling from his lips on a half-hearted sigh.
"You said Loki was dead."
Thor hesitated. "No," he said slowly. "No, I told you we thought him dead."
For a moment, Steve looked hurt, and Thor could understand. He had been vague, had redirected the inquiries S.H.I.E.L.D. made of him regarding Loki. "But he's not?"
Thor reached across the table and gripped Steve's forearm. "What I tell you now, I must tell you in confidence. You may share it only with my permission." Steve hesitated. "Please. You must promise me this." He nodded, and Thor released Steve's arm, leaning back in his chair. "When we lost Loki, it was to the space between worlds. He fell from the rainbow bridge. Heimdall, the Bifrost's all-seeing guardian, could not find him after his fall. We had no reason, with Heimdall's words, to think he had survived. But I had hoped."
"He's your brother," Steve said, and Thor was surprised by Steve's acceptance. "And you're gods. How long have you lived again?"
"More than two thousand years," Thor replied.
Steve gave him a tiny smile. "So a week-long fight for you is like a quick spat for us mortals, right?"
Yes, that was the way of it, and Thor nodded.
"It's not bad to hope, Thor. I would want my brother to be alive, too, no matter what he had done. Family is family."
Thor nodded. "Yes, that is… that is exactly how—"
The wail of alarms tore through the cafeteria, accompanied by an announcement over the PA. After the malfunction at the beginning of the week, S.H.I.E.L.D. no longer relied on an automated alert. Whenever strange activity was detected, it was accompanied by an announcement. "This is a class five alert. This is not a drill. All Avengers, please proceed to the roof for immediate deployment."
Steve pulled a face. "You know, it would be nice if they told us, one day, exactly what constituted a class five alert."
As it turned out, a class five alert included, at the very least, a small army of stone golems ripping apart the Palatine train station.
"Thor, how do we hit these things?" Iron Man asked as the ground-bound members of the team executed an aerial jump from the Quinjet.
"Iron through the heart," Thor shouted into the microphone taped to the side of his face.
"Any particular kind?" Hawkeye asked, notching an arrow to his bow as he glided through the air, his parachute already deployed.
Thor shook his head, and then remembered none of them would be able to see the gesture. "No," he said. "The fence along the tracks will be good enough. But be wary: their shouts will summon rocks, and they cannot be felled by stone."
The golems were immediately interested in Thor as soon as he touched down, the six of them immediately converging upon him. "THE ELDEST PRINCE OF ASGARD," one bellowed, its voice grating and painful in his ears. "THE LITTLE PRINCE KILLED OUR BROTHERS."
That pronouncement nearly felled him. Stark saved his life with a well-aimed repulsor blast that shattered the stone golem's arm. It regenerated almost instantly, but bought Thor enough time to tear an iron spike from the ground and drive it into the golem's heart.
"The hell did it say to you?" Stark demanded as he jumped into the air, providing cover for the other Avengers.
"It is unimportant," Thor said, because it was. At least for the present.
The little prince. The little prince of Asgard had killed their allies.
A furious, burning hope made strength surge through him, and Thor flung himself into the battle with abandon. He paid no mind to the collateral damage, barely heard the shouts of the golems. He pulled back and slammed Mjölnir into the nearest golem's knees, splintering the rock. The golem crashed to the ground, and Thor leapt onto its chest.
"Where?" The word was an imperious command, the request for information from the crown prince of Asgard. "Where was the little prince?"
The golem roared, and Thor only just dodged the barrage of rocks that slammed into the golem's body.
"THE LITTLE PRINCE WOULD NOT TELL US WHERE IT IS," the golem said as it rose to its newly grown feet. Captain America's shield embedded itself in the golem's chest, striking deep enough to hit its heart, and a second later it crumbled to dust.
"What is it?" Thor demanded, smashing his way through the next golem, heedless of Captain America's shouts.
"POWER," one of the golems returned as it tore the train tracks from the ground and used the metal like a whip against Iron Man. "THE POWER TO REMAKE THE WORLD. THE LITTLE PRINCE WOULD NOT TELL US WHERE TO FIND IT."
"Someone want to tell us what those things are going on about?" Hawkeye demanded as he spun behind Thor, ducking to avoid one of the stone golem's hands.
Thor's eyes narrowed in a scowl. "When we are not fighting for our lives," he snapped back.
The fight was not much longer; together, the Avengers made quick work of the four remaining golems, and they stood, breathing heavily, in the remains of the train station. They had been unable to avoid the destruction of a nearby restaurant, and Thor winced when he looked at the ruined building. A glorious battle, but one that would bring only trouble. S.H.I.E.L.D. would be able to reimburse the restaurant owners, but that, he feared, would be the least of Midgard's troubles.
Coulson approached them at a measured gait, zipping the front of his coat to his chin. "More stone golems. Impressive work, guys, but let's try to minimize collateral in civilian zones in the future." He pulled a small contraption from his pocket, one of Stark's tablet computers. "Hit me."
Thor had learned, through experience, that Coulson did not actually want to be hit, but rather was requesting they debrief him.
"Can we not do this here?" Iron Man asked. "I haven't gotten the heat worked out in this suit quite yet, and it's cold."
"Thermal underwear," Coulson returned, nonplussed. "How many golems?"
"Six," Thor said. "They are, as the others have been, seeking a power source. They claimed it would allow them to remake the world." He watched Coulson record his information without reaction. Coulson was quick and efficient; he would ask questions, if he had them, later. It was strange, Thor sometimes thought, how few questions Coulson did ask. "And they implied…" He hesitated and turned his gaze to Steve Rogers.
Rogers met his gaze evenly. "They implied what?" the Captain asked, and Thor knew from the tone of his voice that Rogers knew the answer.
"They implied that Loki is alive."
The fieldtrip to S.H.I.E.L.D. yielded no useful, usable results. Mike told Loki and Anna everything he could, which was mostly that the vending machines were stocked with Coke products and not Pepsi, and that people in the accounting department had nerf wars every third Friday of the month.
The one thing he didn't say, that he knew he should say, was that he had a mock fight with Thor. He had the opening for it and everything: Loki asked if he had run into any of the Avengers. But Mike smiled, shook his head, and said, no, the whole thing had been very boring, and very useless, and maybe since monsters were blowing buildings up twenty minutes away they should increase their patrols or something.
Loki, of course, suspected Mike was lying. "Was it Thor?" he asked when they were alone in the basement, Jack having just left to go to bed.
Mike's eyes widened. "What?"
"Thor. Was it Thor you met when you went to S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Loki picked up the leather bound book he had given Jack at Christmas and, on a whim, opened it to the table of contests. It was a masterpiece of magic, truly, and even for him it could be useful.
His eyes scanned the table of contents, passing over the titles that never changed in favor of the ones at the bottom, the ones that constantly shifted. The God and the Mortal was listed six times, and under that, listed more than ten times, was a story titled What the Thunder God did not Know.
Closing the book, Loki lifted his eyes to Mike, waiting. He had all of eternity to wait.
Mike cringed. "He was in a gym. My group passed by, and he wanted to demonstrate some fighting to us."
With a derisive snort, Loki tucked Jack's book under his arm. Mary and Bob never seemed to pay the book much attention, likely because the sapling's magic told them not to, but he preferred to be careful. He would take it to his room for the night. "And you fought him, I imagine. That's why you said nothing."
Releasing a heavy sigh, Mike stared at the carpeting next to his foot. "Yeah."
"Did you learn anything?"
The boy's eyes, still wide, swung to Loki's. "What?"
"Did you learn anything?" He repeated the question without an ounce of malice, just a little amused by how nervous Mike was.
Mike hesitated. "Uh. A little. I guess." He frowned. "You're not mad at me for not telling you?"
Loki chuckled. "Next time, remember that I have at least a thousand years on you and don't try to lie to me."
They went out the next night, patrolling the streets as a group. It was a mutual decision: they would go out together or not at all. After the attack in Palatine, even Loki was wary, expressing concern for his success were he to face more than four or five golems on his own.
"At least the Avengers are around," Mike said as they stood in the center of the Costco parking lot, a green flame flickering in the palm of Loki's hand. "Picking up the slack."
Anna, at their backs, snorted. "Yeah, well, the attacks are getting closer to us. What happens when the Avengers show up here?"
"Thor will yell," Loki replied blandly, "because I did not let him know I was alive. Across the street."
The flame consumed itself and vanished, and Loki took their hands. While Mike muttered a quick protest against their means of travel, Loki pulled them along one of Yggdrasil's branches. They emerged on Midgard across the busy street, in another parking lot.
The side of the movie theater in front of them crawled with scaly, lizard-like beasts.
Loki hissed. "Do not let them touch your bare skin," he warned, crafting a globe of fire in his hand once more. He flung it at the beasts. They scattered, and the children launched into motion.
Anna's blades flashed, wicked and deadly, as she cut one of the beasts in half. They were no longer than her forearm, their bodies frail and fragile, and their great, leathery wings burned as easily as paper. Mike moved at her back, hacking through the ones that clawed across the ground. The beasts shrieked and screamed as they died, but they left no corpses, turning to ash that drifted away on a frigid north wind.
In five minutes, all but one was dead, and Loki held it by the throat. It cut through his light clothing, its claws biting into flesh.
"The icy magics of Jotunheim cause me no harm," Loki said evenly, squeezing the creature's neck until it removed its claws from his wrist. "Who sends you?"
"Býleistr," the little lizard gasped out, "king of the frost giants."
"Is he," was Loki's only response before he crushed the life from the lizard. He let its body hit the ground, and Mike lopped off its head.
"Who's Býleistr?" Anna asked, shaking some entrails from the blade of the knife in her right hand.
Loki's brows drew together. "One of Laufey's sons."
The mortal children exchanged nervous looks. "Wasn't Laufey your… That means one of your brothers, right?" Mike asked.
Loki scoffed. "They may be my blood, but they are not my brothers. I can accept that I am a frost giant, but I will not accept them as my kin." He opened his hand and created another flame meant to search out any creatures that did not belong on Midgard. "There are more. Brandyr, three miles southeast."
"Yeah, that's great, but you can't just blow off the fact that one of your brothers is—"
"He is not and never will be any relation of mine," Loki snapped. "And this only confirms that every political power in the Nine Realms has a hand in this."
Anna pulled a notebook from her pocket after sheathing her knives in holsters on her hips. She flipped it open and, pulling the cap of her pen off with her teeth, wrote Býleistr's name, butchering it with Latin characters, beside the bullet for Jotunheim. "That rounds out your list, yeah." She looked at him, pressing her lips together. "You still think that most of these guys have been here for a while?"
Loki nodded. "Yes. And particularly worrisome is that Karnilla's people have lived in this area for at least five centuries. There is no denying the Nine Realms have been aware of something here for quite some time. Now, come, we must deal with these brandyr."
"You're avoiding the topic of your brother," Mike said as Loki took their wrists in his hands.
"You'll have to deal with it eventually," Anna added.
Loki was, perhaps, a bit less exacting in his magic that took them along Yggdrasil's branches than usual, and when they stepped into yet another parking lot, Mike jerked away and vomited off the side of the sidewalk.
"Ass," Mike grumbled, stuffing snow into his mouth to rinse it.
"Let me be clear," Loki said coldly. "I have two brothers, and their names are Balder and Thor. Býleistr and Helblindi mean nothing to me."
"Who's Helblindi?" Anna asked.
Loki closed his eyes and counted to ten, having realized how stupid it was to mention the other son of Laufey. "No one."
"But then why—"
"There are brandyr in front of the Barnes and Noble," Loki said sharply. "Should we not be fighting them instead of sitting here debating my family?"
Anna pursed her lips. "Oh, well, I suppose we could do that. You know. If you think it's really necessary."
He reached out and tweaked her nose. "Brat," he told her.
"Priss," she replied.
"Losers," Mike said, hefting his sword. "Come on."
They came around the corner of the building and drew up short, eyes widening. The brandyr were already engaged, clawing uselessly at a pack of draugr. Every time one of the draugr fell to a brandyr's fire, it rose again, badly burned but not killed.
Mike exhaled sharply. "Son of a—"
Anna's eyes gleamed. "So who are we helping? The brandyr or the draugr?"
"Ourselves," Loki replied, crafting a spear of iron in his hands. "Cut them all down."
They moved fluidly, like a single organism, a whirlwind of blades and death. They kept their backs to each other, protected and safe, and lashed out with frightening precision. Anna's blades slashed through the draugr as she ducked and wove under them and around them. Loki followed her with flames, burning the draugr's bodies, while Mike efficiently cut down the brandyr.
Both Anna and Mike were breathing hard when the last body fell, but Loki was not winded at all, and he lifted his gaze to the top of the Barnes and Noble building. "Fire giant," he said quietly.
Despite their exhaustion, both children immediately assumed battle positions, lifting their weapons.
The fire giant, Ben, jumped from the roof of the building and landed easily before them. He clapped as he approached, his laughter like the popping of wood in a fireplace. "Well done, my lord," he said to Loki, paying Mike and Anna far too little attention.
Loki liked that, truthfully. He liked that Ben dismissed the mortals out of hand.
"You have me at a disadvantage," Loki said, playing the game with ease, "for I do not know you, fire giant."
"I am called Eldgrímr," he replied. "And you are trespassing, Prince of Asgard."
Loki lifted a brow. "Am I?"
It was a shame that Eldgrímr was like Loki and not prone to divulging details.
Loki offered him a charming smile. "I was unaware that the fire giants of Muspelheim had any interest in Midgard."
Ah, now that was curious. Eldgrímr's face, made of flame and heat, flickered ever so slightly with indecision. So perhaps Eldgrímr did not function under Surtur's orders at all. And in the moment he displayed his uncertainty, he finally decided to pay the armed mortals at Loki's side any amount of attention. Loki saw the exact second he recognized Anna, and he had to fight to suppress a smile of satisfaction.
It would not do to tip his hand and reveal that he knew Eldgrímr was Ben.
"And why does the Prince of Asgard enter battle with the children of Midgard?"
Loki gave Eldgrímr a cold smile. "An exchange, then," he said. "Information for information. You tell me how long you've been here and why, and I will tell you why I am in their company."
Eldgrímr scoffed at this. "Any deal brokered with the God of Mischief would end poorly for me. I refuse your request and grant you your lives. I will not fight you this night."
With an expression incongruously cheerful, Loki lifted his hand in farewell. "And I shall offer you a kindness: My brother and his allies make their way here."
Eldgrímr's expression was disturbed as he jumped onto the roof of the store and vanished, running off somewhere. Or, perhaps and more likely, hiding on the roof so that he might overhear any conversation between Loki and the children.
"Why did—" Anna began.
"Not here," Loki said, giving both children severe looks of warning.
They nodded and offered him their hands, and he whisked them back to their home. They appeared in the driveway, the power of the protection spells Loki had drawn around the entire house washing over them. The magic closed lightly about their bodies, and they stood still, waiting for its recognition. When it identified them, it released its hold and the pressure dissipated.
"Inside," Loki commanded, opening the garage door and ushering them in.
The inside of the house was dark; it was well after midnight, and everyone else was asleep. They quietly shed their jackets and boots and gloves, and while Mike and Anna made their way into the basement, where Mike tucked his sword and Anna's knives in a box under his bed, Loki made tea and hot cocoa. He joined them a few minutes later, carefully distributing the drinks so they would not spill.
"Okay." Anna jabbed her finger at Loki. "You. You have to tell us what just happened."
"We met your boyfriend while out and about."
Mike shuddered. "It creeps me out, man." Anna shot him a wicked glare, and he held up both hands. "Look, I'm sorry, but he's on fire. That's not normal."
"Oh, and running around with a frost giant who is also a Prince of Asgard is normal?" Anna demanded.
Loki closed his eyes and let the two squabble while he processed everything that had happened and organized it in his mind. When he was satisfied, he set his tea down, held up his hands, and said, "Enough, both of you." They fell silent, but they turned their glares on him. "We've learned something valuable tonight."
"You mean aside from the fact that the frost giants are in on this, too?" Mike asked, and Loki wondered if the question was honest or truly that stupid.
"Yes. We've learned that Eldgrímr, that Ben, is likely not allied with Surtur and the other fire giants in this endeavor," Loki replied. "His reaction when I said Surtur's name is indication enough of that, and his brandyr were fighting the draugr."
Anna straightened. "And the draugr are Malekith's things, right? And they're supposed to be allied with Surtur!" She beamed, her smile brilliant and bright. "So that means Ben isn't a bad guy!"
"Is there a reason you're pulling for this?" Mike snapped. "He might not be on Surtur's side, but he could still be out for himself."
"An excellent observation," Loki said before Anna could speak. She looked like she was about to rise from the couch beside him, stomp across the short distance between her and her brother, and strangle him. Loki reached out and placed his hand on Anna's shoulder, gently but firmly keeping her sitting. "We don't know Ben's motivations."
She frowned. "That name he called himself."
"Eldgrímr," Loki supplied.
"It is likely his true name." Loki released a weary sigh, slumping against the couch. He draped one arm over its back and the other along the armrest, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. It was wearying, dealing with all this trouble, and it would only grow worse, he knew. More creatures would come, the Avengers would come, and there would be a fight for the control of that sapling. But what to do with it?
Destroying it was out of the question. Doing so would destroy them. But perhaps there was a way to distill its power. Or to spread its power throughout the Nine Realms, rendering it useless to any one person. A large part of him balked at the very idea. To have control of a secondary world tree, to coax it to maturity and determine how it would grow, what it would become… that kind of power was intoxicating. He wanted it. Craved it.
And yet, strangely enough, he could see that it was not his, and he realized he could not have it. The knowledge didn't make him angry as it might have a handful of centuries ago. Instead, it was simply a fact of life: the sapling and its powers were for him.
But because they could not be his, Loki would make absolutely sure they could be no one else's. There was not a soul in the Nine Realms he trusted to manage that power. Not one.
Loki opened his eyes and Mike groaned and said, "Lyn, go back to bed."
Lyn ignored him, padding quietly across the carpeted basement floor. She clambered into Loki's lap, curling her arms around his neck. "Bad dreams," she told him softly, pressing her face against his shoulder.
Settling his hands around her waist firmly, Loki rose. "I'll take her to bed. We're done here?"
Anna gave him a magnanimous, dismissive gesture. "For now." She, too, rose, and she bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Loki followed Anna up the stairs at a more leisurely pace, and instead of tucking Lyn into her bed, he took her to his room. She murmured happily as he placed her in his bed, and by the time he had returned from the bathroom, face washed, teeth brushed, and pajamas on, she was asleep.
Sliding into the bed beside her, he took her into his arms. He didn't need the kind of sleep the mortals did, and so he remained awake at her side.
He watched her dream. It was a strange thing, studying her in her sleep, because it worried him. He had known for months she was plagued by night terrors, and for all his magic, he could not help her. Instead, Loki lay beside her small form, her head pillowed on his arm, and watched her body twist and turn. He listened to her quiet murmurs of fear and pain, torn because there was precious little he could do for her.
Magic hovered around her, little golden motes of light glistening above her skin. Flickering shadows danced over her face, cast by the light of the magic. His fingers tingled with raw power that wanted, desperately, to be used. But it could do nothing. Not even Loki could manage the delicate touch necessary to ease a young, mortal mind troubled by grotesque and twisted dreams, and he knew it.
So he watched her.
She curled into a little ball, her fingers clenching into fists, and pressed against his body, and Loki draped an arm around her, holding her close.
"Is it that you can't protect her?" he murmured to the magic that swirled around them, an amorphous shimmer of power. "Or are human dreams simply beneath your notice?"
The magic, for all its density, was not alive, and though he felt a flicker of something in the back of his mind, like a stray thought lost before it was fully formed, it did not answer him.
Being with Ben was awkward.
Like, really awkward.
They sat on the couch in the basement, Anna's basement because they never went to his house and now she totally understood why, watching a movie. She wasn't even sure what movie. Maybe it was Up. Or Avatar. Whatever it was, she'd seen it before, and she was way too preoccupied with worrying to watch it.
Because, clearly, at any minute, Ben was going to light himself on fire and try to kill her.
And there was also the fact that he'd just taunted Loki the previous night.
So everything was awkward. It was the kind of awkward she liked to watch on TV and laugh at, the kind of awkward that made awesome plots. But being stuck in the middle of it sucked. Oh, and there was also the small fact that Loki's obvious hostility was making being in the basement damn near intolerable.
He was off in the corner in one of her dad's huge leather reading chairs, presumably reading, though she was pretty sure he was trying to be a chaperone or something else old school and lame. Granted, it wasn't so old school since Ben was a fire giant and Ben-as-Eldgrímr knew she was running around with Loki.
But she couldn't let Ben know that she knew that he was Eldgrímr. Or something.
It seemed needlessly complicated. She just wanted to tell him, because she was really terrible at keeping secrets like this, but Loki had expressly forbidden it earlier. They'd had a really stellar conversation about it.
"I want to tell Ben what we know when he comes over this afternoon," she had told him.
Loki had looked at her like she had two heads. Who knew. Maybe she did. Maybe the stupid magic tree stuck in the basement of her school slowly ruining her life had messed with her in her sleep. "Absolutely not," he had replied.
And because when Loki made a decision, arguing with him was like arguing with a brick wall, she hadn't pushed it. But she'd seen enough movies to know that poor communication ruined everything. Obviously, all they needed to do was sit down with Ben and explain what was going on. And then he'd explain why he was running around town, too, and they'd find out they were on the same side, and everything would be okay.
Except that she knew it wouldn't go like that. Or, at least, she was pretty sure it wouldn't. She wanted to believe the best of Ben, she really did, because he was a great guy, really, but in the end, she had to admit Loki had a point.
Loki also had way more experience with fire giants and duplicitous politics.
She sighed and snuggled closer to Ben. Loki's ire had made the temperature in the basement drop by at least five degrees, taking it from somewhere around sixty-eight to colder, and Ben threw off the heat of a small forge.
Anna smothered a bit of hysterical laughter. At least, now, she knew why he was always warm.
He turned his head and grinned at her. She saw his eyes flicker toward Loki for the briefest of moments – and she wondered how awkward it was for him, too, knowing that she was running around with an Asgardian prince fighting monsters – before he whispered in her ear, "Is he going to sit there all afternoon?"
"He nests," she replied, pitching her voice just loud enough that Loki would be able to hear.
Ben laughed. "He what?"
"Nests." Anna sniffed imperiously. "He builds himself little nests of books and pillows and pretty much sets down roots."
Whatever book he was reading, Loki snapped it shut hard enough that she could hear it, and a satisfied smirk curled across her face. Ben grinned back at her, and she had to fight to keep her smile from wavering, and she felt like a terrible person for it.
Ben had never hurt her. He sometimes got a bit more physical than she wanted, but he always backed off when she told him to, and he never hit her or anything. He was a good guy. A really sweet, good guy.
Who could be an enemy.
Loki glided past them, a frigid look on his face.
"Problem, Loki?" Ben asked, and Anna pressed her hands to her mouth to muffle her laughter. That, right there, was why she couldn't think of him as an enemy. He was in her house, within reaching distance of Loki, and instead of attacking him, he teased him.
Loki's face was expressionless when he turned to them. "Oh, no, not at all. Enjoy your film."
As he made his way up the stairs, Ben turned back to her. "Archaic bastard, isn't he?"
"I'll kill him," Loki hissed as he shut the door to the basement with slow, steady hands. It settled into its frame without a sound, and Jack stood there, holding his book, his lips quirked in an amused grin.
"Anna might not like that."
"I don't frankly care what Anna does or does not like." Anna was a child and didn't have the slightest clue what was good for her. Being with Ben was not good for her. Or for him and Mike since it put Ben – Eldgrímr – in striking distance.
Had Midgard considered her an adult, Loki would have asked her to exploit her relationship with Ben for their gain. But she barely qualified as an adolescent. She was only just a decade old, and for someone as old as he, she would always be a child.
One didn't ask a child to seduce information out of an enemy, and he doubted she had any particular skill with seduction regardless.
"You look like you just found gum on the bottom of your shoe."
"That isn't quite analogous to my current feelings," Loki replied. His gaze drifted to Jack's book. It was a masterpiece of magic for all that it had been made when his powers were severely curtailed. "Might I borrow your book?" he asked.
The wary look in Jack's eyes surprised him. "I dunno," he said, shifting his body away from Loki. Loki recognized the gesture as a protective one and marveled at it.
"Why not?" he asked, using his most gentle, cajoling tone.
Jack pulled a face. "Are you using magic on me?"
There were few times in Loki's life when anyone managed to surprise him. He lived like most people played chess: at any given time, Loki kept track of hundreds of possible moves any one person near him could make. He had plans and contingency plans and contingency plans for the contingency plans. What surprised most people was only tangentially interesting to him, and then only because the action was usually an outlying, improbable choice.
"I beg your pardon?" Loki managed.
Jack looked about sharply and then craned his head back to look at the catwalk. "Come with me," he said, grabbing Loki by the wrist and hauling him up the stairs to the second floor. He shut the door to his room behind him, locked it, and then turned to Loki.
Immediately, Loki saw how nervous the mortal child was. Jack shook, his pupils dilated, his breath coming in short bursts. Very slowly, trying not to alarm him, Loki sat on the edge of Jack's bed and placed his wrists on his knees. It was an attempt to be nonthreatening, but Jack's question and behavior suggested it wouldn't work.
Jack knew, at the very least, that he had magic.
It was, of course, the book's fault, he was sure. Magic, once released, had a tendency to change over time, as all things do. Except where iron rusted and wood rotted, the nature of a spell might fundamentally alter. An item that was once for protection might become something capable of great binding. Changes like that were gradual. Slow. They happened over the course of hundreds of years. But given the environment in which the book existed, Loki supposed it wasn't surprising that it had become different.
It should never have been able to reveal to Jack anything about Loki. Clearly, it had.
"Your Thor's brother," Jack whispered.
"I am," Loki said, his voice even and calm in spite of his internal conflicts.
Jack took two very hesitant steps forward. "I read a story." He swallowed. "The Prince of Asgard who Fell to Earth. It was about you. Us." He chewed on his lower lip. "And… And I read about…"
He finally understood the mortal expression likening the quickening of fear to an icy rush. Though he was a creature of ice and snow, rarely bothered by the cold, Loki found himself chilled from the inside. Mike and Anna had accepted him in part, he thought, because they had no choice. He saved Anna from the draugr, and that had predisposed her to liking him. Then they had, as mortals said, grown on each other. Jack had, Loki was sure, read about his exploits regarding Thor's banishment.
"How I conspired to see my brother exiled," Loki said. "And how I tried to destroy an entire world."
Jack's knuckles were white where they wrapped around the book, and he nodded. "On Halloween. When you were blue. That was…"
"My true face, yes."
Had he felt this same terrible foreboding when speaking to Mike and Anna? He could hardly remember; October seemed so far away. Mike and Anna had a reason to keep silent. He had protected them. But Jack had nothing to still his tongue.
Except, perhaps, genuine affection.
Very slowly, moving with great deliberation, Jack walked up to Loki. He chewed on his lower lip before he settled on the bed beside Loki's leg and opened his book to the table of contents. "Did you want to read these stories?" he asked, pointing to a title near the bottom of the list.
"The Princes of Asgard Reunited." Loki read the title and thought his heart might simply give up beating for all the stress it was under. Jack's presence at his side was tacit acceptance, and for that, he felt relief. But the titles his eyes skimmed over sent that relief spiraling out of his grasp, replacing it with anxiety and uncertainty and the vilest kind of hope.
"You probably shouldn't read them, though," Jack said, his voice soft and thoughtful. "They could be spoilers."
Loki chuckled at the statement, the words strangely soothing. "They would be," he agreed. "No, I was hoping for something about—ah, I don't know if I should say."
"Eldgrímr?" Jack asked, turning to the second page of the table of contents. Loki was, once again, surprised, though he thought he ought not to be. "I saw that coming a mile away. You hated him all this time for no reason. And so did Mike. It was a little obvious he was someone important."
"Oh, only a little," he drawled. "But, yes. Eldgrímr. Is there nothing about him?"
Jack shook his head. "Um, no, not really. Here, let's try the index." He flipped to the back of the book, the weight of it falling across Loki's thigh.
"It has an index, now?"
"You didn't make it with one?"
"Oh. Well. It does." Jack pressed his finger to the page and ran it down the list of words under E. "Oh." He tapped the page, and Loki pressed his lips into a thin line.
Under Eldgrímr's entry were the words "SPOILERS" repeated over and over, taking up the remainder of that page and all of the next.
"I am so glad this book has a sense of humor," Loki said, and Jack laughed.
"Well, I could always tell you what I've read."
Loki wondered at that, but he supposed that the magic in the pages would not have revealed to Jack anything he did not already know. "No. No, thank you. I'll simply have to find out more as time progresses." He paused as Jack closed the book, a considering look on his face. "Jack?"
"Did you read these stories to Joe?" The guilty look on Jack's face was answer enough, and Loki sighed. He supposed, though, that they had managed to keep the secret well enough so far. "And it doesn't bother you that I am a frost giant?"
The look Jack gave him was priceless. Jack squinted at him as though he were out of his mind, slack-jawed. "But you're Asgardian," Jack protested, and it took Loki a moment to realize that Jack wasn't denying Loki's heritage, but merely affirming what Loki had always felt.
Biologically, yes, he was a frost giant, just like he was biologically Býleistr's brother.
But in truth, he was and always would be Asgardian.
And his brother would always be Thor.
The Avengers were welcomed to the moderately sized town with no fanfare. When they arrived, there was no parade. Businesses did not close. People did not gather on the streets to greet them. They were, by and large, ignored.
When Iron Man, with a device to track magical energy output in hand, landed just outside a bank on the main street, the people entering and leaving spared him barely a glance. One man said something about his suit, and then the man was gone, in his car, off to somewhere else, and Stark was left rather baffled.
"It makes no sense," he told Thor as they alighted on the roof of a grocery store. Stark held his device in hand, scrutinizing it closely.
At least, Thor assumed that was what Stark was doing. It was hard to tell when the Iron Man mask hid his face. "What is that?"
"Everything," Stark said, shaking the device. Thor doubted that would help, but he knew little of Midgard's technology. It was bulky and inefficient when compared to Asgard's. "People in Chicago actually looked at us, but here, it's like we hardly exist. Look at them." He gestured to the parking lot below them where the mortals meandered, going about their business. "None of them are even looking twice at us."
"Well, it's not every day the Avengers show up in your town. And this thing has to be broken."
Thor crossed his arms, taking a deep breath of the chilly February air. He was bored. Though S.H.I.E.L.D. had tracked the attacks from the mystical creatures every northward, and though this town was supposedly next in line to be hit, there was nothing going on. "Why do you say that?" He asked the question because it was expected, not because he actually cared.
"Because it's telling us there's magical power everywhere around us, which isn't possible." Stark turned toward him. "Is it?"
"Magic is not my area of specialty," Thor reminded Stark. His gaze swept over the parking lot and the busy street on the far side of it.
He had a strange feeling about his place. It was a bustling suburban town, and it didn't have the same feel as a town like that about to be struck by calamity. It had the feeling of a place already struck, and struck hard. It had the feeling of a place that had accepted its fate and trudged every onward, putting up with an inconvenience with steady forward progress.
It was, aside from apparently being a hub of magical activity, the kind of place Loki would never willingly go to.
Therefore, in Thor's mind, it made perfect sense that Loki was in the town, somewhere, waiting to be found.
Or, more likely, plotting Thor's demise.
The device in Stark's hands abruptly shrieked a warning. "We've got an incoming," Stark said, hitting a button on the side of the device. It folded in on itself until it was the size of a thumbnail, and Stark tucked it somewhere on his suit. "Thirty degrees north-northwest."
Thor heard the svarog's piercing cry before it plunged through the clouds, its feathered wings spread wide, and he grinned. Lifting Mjölnir, he bellowed, "For Asgard!" and launched himself into the air.
Stark followed somewhere behind him. Exactly where, he was not sure. He was far too busy destroying the svarog.
And when the beast was finished, its corpse crumbling to ash and drifting away on the wind, he didn't notice the rush of gold over the ground. He didn't notice it swirl about his legs, or Stark's, and he didn't notice it recoil violently before abruptly dissipating.
"They're bold," Mike muttered as he pushed a naked branch out of his way. He crouched behind a copse of bushes, his sword in hand, watching the wights. They drifted across the parking lot in front of the middle school, annexed by a small corridor to the elementary school, their flickering white shapes misty in the moonlight.
"They've decided the power they seek is in these buildings," Loki replied. It was a problem. The Avengers were following the pattern of magical attacks ever closer to the schools, and the creatures of the Nine Realms had begun to fixate.
Anna shifted beside them. "Are we going to dispel them?"
"Wights are creatures of spirit and magic," Loki murmured. "Cold steel, useful as it is against most supernatural creatures, cannot cause them harm."
"What can?" Mike asked.
Loki shifted his pack from his shoulder to the ground and opened it. From inside, he pulled out three cylindrical cardboard containers. "Jack was kind enough to inform your mother he needed salt for a school project." He passed one container to Mike and the other to Anna.
"Salt," Mike said, peering at it in the darkness. "I feel like we're in some stupid supernatural drama or something."
"Supernatural Survivor?" Anna offered.
"No, that's reality TV. We need an Impala or somethi—"
"Be silent, both of you," Loki said, his eyes on the wights instead of on either child. "Look." He lifted his hand, and they followed the line of his finger, going still and quiet.
Brandyr melted from the darkness, snarling as they stalked toward the wights, low to the ground and dangerous. They moved slowly, sinuously, ringing the wights against the walls of the school. Walls that shimmered with a golden light that attracted the wights to its face but kept them from entering.
Loki's hand closed over Anna's mouth, and Mike swung around to stare at her with a horrified expression. "The hell are you doing?" he mouthed.
Digging his fingers into her thick jacket, Loki kept her crouched beside him. "Don't move," he whispered, his voice only just audible. The wind snatched his words away with a sharp gust, and a tendril of Anna's hair that had fallen free of her hair brushed against his cheek.
As a single unit, the brandyr attacked. Creatures of magic like the wights, they could breathe their fire on the wights' bodies and destroy them. Their teeth and claws were useless, but they didn't need them. Wights were relatively harmless as supernatural beings went, preferring to lead humans to their deaths down the wrong path in a forest or in a bog. While the humans might find that disagreeable, wights didn't otherwise cause any sort of physical harm.
They had no defense against the brandyr slaughtering them.
Anna's elbow dug into Loki's side, and the venomous look mixed with smug satisfaction she gave him threatened his temper. Pressing his lips against her ear so he could speak softly enough no one else would hear, he said, "This does not make him an ally." She bit down on his fingers, still over her mouth, but her teeth were dull and useless. He was bothered less by the bite than the feelings behind it.
The brandyr slunk about the school entrance, wending their way around the pillars in front of the door, and Eldgrímr stepped from the darkness, his flaming body a bright slash of color in the night. "Good," he told them, patting one on the head.
Loki's eyes narrowed.
Eldgrímr lifted his hand and touched it against the glass doors. The magic shimmering over the face of the building did not reject him. Instead, it swirled around him much like the protection charms Loki placed on the Fredericksons' home. A small thread of it curled against Eldgrímr's cheek, and then he passed through the door, the brandyr following him with quiet yips, and vanished from sight.
Anna rocketed to her feet. "See, look, he got in! The wights didn't, but he did, that clearly means—"
"That clearly means nothing," Loki interrupted.
Mike rose behind them, brushing snow off his pants. "Maybe it means we should talk to him."
Loki's lips pulled back in a sneer. "Absolutely not."
"Look, just because you don't trust the giants, the—the jotnar, right? Just because you don't trust them doesn't mean they aren't trustworthy. Dude, get over it. You said yourself the school totally repelled you the first time you tried to get in. He just waltzed on in there like he does it every day." Mike paused. "He does that every day. You don't know how long he's been here, man. At the very least, we should try. And it's not like he doesn't know about me and Anna. He hasn't tried to kill us or anything, and he totally could." Mike crossed his arms, and Loki, frustrated because the child was right, said nothing.
"It's not like we're walking away from you," Anna said softly, "just because we think it'd be good to approach Ben." She shifted closer to him, and Loki fought not to recoil.
Vulnerable. He felt small and weak and vulnerable. How had so much of his self-worth come to be tied up in the opinions of two children? Anna had brought to light the exact reason he was so against speaking to Ben: he feared them abandoning him for the fire giant. His entire life was a story of abandonment, and every time he thought he was accepted, every time he thought things were changing for the better, something happened and the status quo returned.
Thor and his Avengers were in the town, combing the streets during the day for the reason for all the supernatural creatures in the area. Ben was fighting, if not on their side, on behalf of the sapling. Both men had the potential to usurp the love the Fredericksons gave him, and he would sooner destroy the both of them before that happened.
"Hey." Anna's arms slid around his waist, and she pressed her cheek to his chest. Mike's hand fell on his shoulder, and he wore a look that said stop being a dick in no uncertain terms. "Ben could totally know more than we do," she said.
Closing his eyes, Loki slid his arms over her shoulders, holding her loosely against his body and reveling in the affection. In the affirmation.
He was right where he should be. Where he was supposed to be. They wouldn't shunt him aside for someone else.
"At the very least, we could milk him for information," Mike added, and Loki's lips curved upward in a smile.
"This is true," he admitted, opening his eyes to glance at Mike. He was embarrassed, just the slightest, because he was usually much more pragmatic. He was usually the first to suggest pulling every last bit of information out of someone. And yet Mike and Anna were the ones being level-headed and thoughtful.
"Then let's go," Mike said.
Extricating himself from Anna's grasp, Loki shook his head. "No. We want to meet him on our terms, in a place we choose. Not here, not now." They needed a strong plan of action, and barreling into the school on impulse was certainly not that. "We'll discuss it at home. For now, the job we set out to accomplish has been taken care of for us."
Mike looked at the salt in his hand and laughed. "But we should probably start carrying this around with us, shouldn't we?"
"Probably," Loki agreed.
Thor couldn't sleep. He stalked around the perimeter of his room in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Chicago headquarters feeling too large for it. It felt oppressively small, even though it wasn't, and his skin prickled with uncomfortable anticipation. He was waiting for something, he thought, but he didn't know what he was waiting for. Was it Loki? Someone else? An event of some kind?
He strode to the floor to ceiling windows on the east-facing side of the building, and he pressed his hands to the frame containing the glass. Staring over the city, just as noisy and bright as New York, blocking out just as much of the night sky, he frowned.
"What are we missing?" he asked the glass, the buildings all around him, the hundreds of thousands of people who could not hear him. "What is it that we have not seen?"
He let his forehead rest on the window, and he closed his eyes. Tomorrow, he would go to Asgard. Perhaps his mother or father would have some wisdom for him.
It took them a week to prepare, and all the children except Lyn had a hand in Loki's plan. The plan itself was simple, required Anna to bring Ben to a specific clearing in a forest preserve nearby. Once there, his powers would be bound, and he and Loki would chat.
In the interest of keeping things fair, the magic on the clearing was indiscriminate. Anyone within reach of the spell would have no magical power at all. Nor would they be able to use their weapons. That was the best protection he could offer both himself and Ben, and Anna, who still wasn't thrilled that he and Loki could just as easily beat each other to death, accepted it with reservation.
Jack's book had provided the spells Loki needed. Advanced and complicated things, he had balked at the idea of recreating them from scratch. And then Jack had appeared in the basement, his book open to a page near the end that presented a handful of spells that would accomplish exactly what Loki needed. The magic was tied to Joe's shield and required the shield's presence at the clearing itself. While Joe would not be allowed there, and the tantrum he'd pitched at that had been truly impressive, Anna and Mike would make use of the shield in case Ben decided to be an idiot.
Loki rather hoped he would. He wanted an excuse to rip the fire giant's head from his shoulders even more now that there was a possibility they would have to work together. His dislike for Ben, he thought, started with an instinctive feeling that Ben wasn't human. It grew simply because he despised Ben's entire personality. He laughed too quickly and too loudly, fawned over Anna inappropriately – and more so, given that frost giants, like Asgardians, could lived a damn long time without being immortal.
With everything prepared and ready, it fell to Anna to get Ben to the clearing.
This, she said, wouldn't be too difficult. The spring dance was coming up, and it was a dance where the women were expected to invite the men. "I'll just tell him to meet me at the forest preserve," she said. "He'll think it's some elaborate way to ask him."
Clear on her face, though left unspoken, was her anger. She didn't want to do what he asked her. That she would do it anyway was touching, but he found he didn't like that he was ruining something for her. Regardless of how the meeting went, Loki suspected Ben would see Anna's – Loki's, really – methods as a breach of trust.
"Everything is ready?" Loki asked as they piled out of the car at the forest preserve.
The day was warm, a balmy thirty-three with the sun blazing overhead. Loki, to keep up appearances, wore a heavy jacket and gloves and felt absolutely miserable. The children, bundled tightly in similar clothes, shivered.
"How do you stand it?" Mike asked as he passed Loki and opened the trunk, pulling out the shield. It adjusted itself according to Mike's size as he tucked it under his arm. "Would've preferred it if you stayed small," he muttered to the shield. It obliged him by shrinking so quickly he almost dropped it.
"Be careful with that!" Anna scolded while Loki, Jack's book in hand, rolled his eyes.
"Because I am not—" He broke off as an older man with his dog passed by, and he gave the man a small smile and nod. The man nodded back. It was a strange thing mortals did, this acknowledgement of another's presence with an expression of pleasure and agreement. It would never have happened in Asgard. He lowered his voice and turned toward the children. "Because I am not human. Stop asking foolish questions. Anna?"
"Yes?" she asked, tugging her hat lower on her ears. She lounged against the side of the car and caught the keys when he threw them to her.
"Stay in the car and out of the cold," he said. "And what's your story for when Ben comes?"
"How you got here."
Her mouth formed an o. "Mike drove me because he's an awesome brother and now he's off for a run or something." She shrugged with a put upon expression. "Because he's got to train for football so hard."
Mike kicked some snow at her, but she didn't laugh.
"Car," Loki reminded her, and he and Mike made their way toward the path leading to their clearing.
"She's so pissed at you," Mike said when they were out of earshot.
Loki pressed his lips into a thin line. "Be that as it may, this is the safest way for us to meet with him. She should be glad we are not simply hunting him down," Loki replied. He shifted his hold on the book, turning it open to the spells at the back and ignoring one of the titles that jumped out at him. The Frost Giant and the Fire Giant was not a story he had any interest in reading.
As they walked, Loki cast spells to turn aside any mortal who wasn't Anna. He specified her as an exception and then layered the ground between the parking lot and the clearing with spells to distract and confuse, with spells that whispered didn't you forget something important in your car? and don't you think your sister might like a phone call?. By the time they made it to the clearing, he was winded.
"You okay?" Mike asked, making his way to a dense growth of bushes on the right. There, he set down the shield. He would hide there, with Loki, out of sight until Ben was inside the clearing. He would stand there with Anna while Loki and Ben had their discussion.
He and Anna would be safe there.
"Well enough," Loki replied, murmuring a few more spells to finish their preparations. The air in the clearing shimmered with magic, silvery green and not golden. "It's been quite some time since I've done this much magic."
"And it's like exercising? You fall off the bike for a few weeks and get massive cramps when you get back on and start where you left off?"
"Something like that." With another whispered spell, Jack's book disappeared out of Loki's hands, returning to the Fredericksons' home, where Jack would find it on his bed. Loki had no more need for it. Looking toward Mike, who was crouched behind the bushes, he asked, "Are you ready?"
Mike's head appeared over the top of the leafless branches, and he nodded. "Nervous as hell, but ready. Let's do it."
She thought she might throw up, but she threw her arms around his neck as soon as he was out of his car. He laughed and slung an arm around her waist, pulling her close and giving her an affectionate hug.
Traitor, her mind whispered.
Pulling back, Anna gave him a huge grin, and he smiled back like he always did, free and easy and sweet. "Hey, gorgeous." He pocketed his keys and slid his hand, hot and dry even without his gloves and in spite of the heavy humidity in the air, around hers. "What're we here for?"
Anna laughed, hoping the laughter didn't sound too nervous.
She was terrified. Her stomach twisted and turned with anxiety and her palms, in her gloves, were sweating profusely. Her heart beat so hard in her chest she thought it might just explode out of her body and flop around on the ground a few times before she died. She half wished she could just drop dead. Or maybe something would go wrong. The Askafroa would show up and attack, delaying the confrontation. Or the Avengers. That would be wonderful, if the Avengers showed up.
"You'll see," she said, hoping for a playful tone of voice. She wasn't an actress. She was bad at lying to people and hated deceiving them. The only reason she hadn't told all her friends about Loki and Mike and her and what they did in their spare time was because she knew how fundamentally important it was to keep her mouth shut for once. And she had her journal, its poor, abused pages filled with details about everything that had changed since August. Now that Joe and Jack were in on the secret, she could talk to them, process everything with them, and Jack, for all that he was eight and her stupid younger brother, had a unique perspective on everything. It helped, she supposed, that he could read everything that happened to them in his book.
Anna tugged Ben down the path to the clearing Loki had picked out, and she felt the faint, familiar slide of his power over the bare skin of her face. He said it was normal, that she and Mike were slowly becoming sensitive to his magic. They were around it so often, he said, that he'd be worried if they didn't learn to be aware of it.
"Come on," she said in a sing-song voice, laughing as she skipped backwards.
It wasn't so hard, really, falling into the role. Actually, it was fearfully easy. Being around Ben always made her happy. He wasn't exactly pretty or handsome, not in the Hollywood way, but he had a rugged and quick charm. She liked how easily he smiled and how quick he was to laugh at even the stupidest things she said. He wasn't judgmental or cruel, and his eyes, sharp and brilliant, always seemed to see everything.
Oh, she wasn't in love, she knew that. She wasn't a hopeless romantic, not by any stretch. She hadn't even bothered with boys until Trish had introduced her to Ben in July. Boys were annoying and weird, and she hadn't wanted to cut practice time to take care of one. But she had quickly come to enjoy her time with Ben. He was a good person, for all he wasn't a person at all.
Or maybe it was more that he was still a good person for a given value of person. Something like that.
"Where are we going?" he asked, laughing.
"Just a little further," she promised, wrapping his arm in both of hers. She squeezed his hand, clinging to him a little harder than necessary, and hoped that, later, he would remember it and understand. I'm so sorry.
And then they were in the clearing, and she released him, stepping back.
Ben burst into flame with a startled cry, the spells in the area stripping him of his glamour. He spun about, facing Anna, and she stood just outside the border of the clearing, tears in her eyes. Don't cry, she told herself. Don't cry, don't cry.
"What have you done?" he asked in a breathless whisper. Then he tipped back his head and shouted Loki's name.
Anna scrambled away, ducking behind the bushes and the shield. Mike slung his arm around her and kissed the side of her head. "It's okay," he told her.
"No, it's not," she said.
"There's no need to shout," Loki said, stepping out from behind a tree. He gave Ben a cold smile. "Hello, Eldgrímr."
Eldgrímr, in his magic cage, paced back and forth, his eyes narrowed and full of rage. "What do you want? To kill me?"
"To speak with you," Loki replied, shrugging free of his jacket. He dropped it on the ground and made quick work of his shirt, toeing off his shoes as he undid each button in turn. In only a pair of slacks, he stepped into the spelled clearing, and color, the blue of the sky at midnight, exploded across the pink tones of his skin. With a pleasant smile, he settled on a tree stump, leaning his elbows on his knees, and he waited for Eldgrímr to process exactly what he was seeing.
He was as predictably stupid as most mortals. "What kind of magic is this?" he demanded, holding himself stiff and wary.
"The only magic at work here is binding. It restricts the use of power and weapons," Loki returned, his voice even and sure. "I cannot maintain my glamour in this clearing any more than you can."
Eldgrímr's eyes narrowed. "No son of Asgard is a jotun." At least he wasn't arguing about the magic. That would have been intolerably boring.
Loki watched the fire giant's fingers twitch. Ah. He had tried to craft a weapon from his flames, much like the frost giants could create spears of ice, and had failed.
"Reevaluate your premise." Loki laced his fingers and set his chin on them, brows raised. "I am, as I ever was, Loki Odinson."
"And yet you are a frost giant."
"There is the small matter of that, yes." Loki smiled. "The youngest son of Odin was adopted."
Eldgrímr snorted. "Unless there is something about Lady Frigga about which the rest of the Nine Realms remains ignorant."
Fury swept through him, hot and violent, but Loki kept his serene smile. He belayed nothing of his rage. "Kindly refrain from insulting my mother," he said, his words a politely phrased warning. "I brought you here for a chat, Eldgrímr. The magic that binds you also binds me. I thought it would be a nice show of my good intensions."
Slowly, Eldgrímr lowered himself to the ground. Where he sat, the snow melted away in tiny rivers, and the earth beneath him caught with flame. "So speak," he commanded.
Supercilious bastard. Eldgrímr was a fool for his posturing.
"My companions and I are curious about your ability to come and go at their school with impunity. It is protected from all manner of creatures, and yet it allows you." The startled look on Eldgrímr's face did much to smooth over some of Loki's annoyance. "Until recently, I was unable to enter the school. And yet, you attend it every day. How is that possible?"
"How is it you fell in with Anna's family?" Eldgrímr demanded in return.
Loki didn't move. He remained perfectly still, his chest barely rising with each breath, and perhaps it was that display of profound control that finally convinced Eldgrímr not to taunt Loki. "You lost your chance to bargain, Eldgrímr. I am being polite, and I am doing my best to ensure your continued well being on Anna's behalf. If you continue to be disagreeable, I will kill you, information and kindness be damned."
No, he was not in the mood to play diplomatic games of information exchange. His brother was in the town, was searching for the sapling without knowing what it was with his companions at his side. He did not have time to dance around the issue. He would get what he wanted from Eldgrímr and if Eldgrímr did not cooperate, Loki would simply kill him.
One less obstacle.
Anna's scream of surprise had both Eldgrímr and Loki on their feet. "Anna!" Eldgrímr exclaimed, betraying his feelings.
Loki did not call out. Silent, he took in the swirl of gold kept at bay by his own spells. "Curious," he said, turning to Eldgrímr. "I threaten you, and the sapling's magic reacts. Why is that?"
"Because I am its protector!" Eldgrímr shouted, his hands clenched into fists.
Ah, well then. Loki sat, lacing his fingers once more, and the golden magic hanging above Anna and Mike swirled away. Eldgrímr sat slowly a moment later, his gaze drifting back toward Anna several times before he settled. He looked disappointed with himself, his face downturned and shifted away from the full scrutiny of Loki's gaze. Loki was unbothered. Let him feel shame for the revelation, it did not matter.
"I believe you should tell us how that came to pass," Loki said.
"I would appreciate, as a gesture of good faith, an explanation for how you came to be with Anna's family."
It was a gesture of good faith that Loki hadn't killed Eldgrímr outright, though he supposed, now, that such a feat would be impossible. The sapling's magic would bind his own, or outright kill him, if he tried. So Loki acquiesced and relayed to Eldgrímr the entire story, beginning when he woke in the Fredericksons' guest bedroom.
By the time he finished, Eldgrímr's face was twisted in a strange expression, a mixture of frustration and resignation. He released a weary sigh. "I am the last of a long line of fire giants that found the sapling when it first sprouted," he said without preamble. "We have been on Midgard for two thousand years, protecting the sapling and nurturing it."
"Were you out of your minds?" Loki asked the question casually. It wasn't voiced to be cruel or vindictive. He genuinely wanted to know if Eldgrímr's ancestors had been completely mad.
Eldgrímr bit out a laugh. "The story goes that when they found the seed, it already had enough power to bind their lives to it. They couldn't destroy it if they wanted to. Maybe it was just justification for wanting it for themselves." He shrugged. "But I'm the last of them. The others are all dead, and my mother only had one child."
"How old are you?"
"Seventy-six." A baby by the fire giants' standards and by Loki's own. To the mortals, an old man. Loki's glance toward Anna and Mike was much more subtle than Eldgrímr's own. Curious that Eldgrímr still seemed to care what Anna thought of him after her betrayal.
"And you have been attending human school for how long?"
"On and off my whole life." Eldgrímr sighed. "Look, it's my job to protect the sapling from people like you." At Loki's raised brow, he added, "People who want to use its power."
Loki snorted. "I'm interested far less in its power than I am in keeping it away from the rest of the Nine Realms. It seems we are unlikely allies." It galled to say that aloud, and he knew Anna would rail on him for it later.
Eldgrímr recoiled. "No," he said firmly. "Whatever we are, we aren't allies. We may both fight to keep that sapling out of the hands of anyone else, but you're not my ally, son of Odin, and I will not trust you."
Ah, excellent. That was good to know. "Very well," Loki said, rising. "Thank you for your time. We are most obliged to have learned so much from you."
He turned, making his way toward the edge of the clearing.
"Wait." Eldgrímr stood, too, a frown on his face. "There is— I should—" He glanced at Anna and Mike again, and Loki read his expression easily. He had something to say he didn't want them to hear.
Loki strode up to him, laying his hand on Eldgrímr's shoulder. "Let them think I am whispering a quiet threat to you," he said.
"We are not friends."
"That is surely not what you wanted to tell me." Which meant stop wasting my time.
Eldgrímr turned his mouth against Loki's ear, and Loki saw Anna and Mike, frowning, rise as though standing would help them hear better. "There has been a Frederickson in attendance at this high school for as long as I've been there," he murmured. "Their family settled here in the 1820s. They're as wrapped up in this as we are."
"Is that why you pursued Anna?" The question was callous.
The answer more so.
Whatever genuine affection Eldgrímr felt for Anna as Ben had started from a convenient relationship.
With a pleasant smile, Loki took Eldgrímr by the throat and threw him into a tree. The tree, old and thick, splintered at the point of impact with a crack as loud as thunder. He could have said one thousand things. He could have used his lips as a knife and turned his tongue into an anvil for shaping brutal words. Instead, he regarded Eldgrímr with a frozen, steady gaze. He let their eyes meet just long enough to communicate a simple fact: regardless of the magical protection surrounding Eldgrímr, if Anna ever heard those words, Loki would end him.
He would not kill the fire giant.
He would not torture him.
He would simply remove him from the Nine Realms.
"We're leaving," Loki said as he stepped from the clearing. He pulled his coat on, zipping it to hide his naked flesh, and he slipped his feet into the shoes.
Mike shushed his sister. The words he whispered in her ear would have been beyond a mortal's ability to hear, but Loki heard them. "Don't," Mike said. "Let's just go."
Anna lingered, giving Ben a worried look, before she followed after Mike and Loki, her brow drawn with concern.
"Mike, he threw Ben into a tree," Anna whispered, her cheeks red and blotchy.
Mike closed his eyes because he couldn't handle his sister crying. If it had been any other guy, Mike would've hunted him down and beat the snot out of him. Unfortunately, he trusted Loki. A lot. He respected him way too much. And he kind of enjoyed seeing Loki lay Ben flat. Or, well, vertical. "Yeah, I know, but I'm sure he had a reason for it."
She hadn't seen Loki's face. She had been too focused on Ben. But Mike had watched Loki. Mike saw the change, saw Loki's face turn to ice and rage. He saw the exact moment Loki decided to throw Ben into a tree instead of something much, much worse. There had been a second where the fury on Loki's face had turned Mike's insides to liquid.
He didn't need to know what Ben said. He didn't care. Ben might have said something cheeky. He might have said something funny. He might have insulted Loki's mother again. But whatever he said was unimportant. Because Loki's reaction, Mike had no doubt, was justified.
"There's never a reason for something like that," Anna wailed.
She shifted on his bed, making the mattress dip, and Mike had to open his eyes to make sure he didn't fall of the edge. "Well. Maybe he said something about Loki's mom."
"Ben would never."
Yeah, well, Mike wasn't too sure about that since the guy had. Loki seemed pretty okay with actually being a frost giant, but he'd made it damn clear there was a world of difference between them and him. Comparing Loki's mom to one had been a huge tactical error on Ben's part. It had probably pissed Loki off right then.
Mike thought it was kind of miraculous that Ben was still breathing.
"Well, hey, at least we know you were right, right?"
Anna made a choked noise. "Are you kidding? You think being right is supposed to make this feel better?" She slid off his bed with a cutting look. "Go to hell, Mike."
She slammed the door to the basement behind her, and Mike dragged his hands down his face, muttering a very long, drawn out curse. Totally not the way he wanted his Sunday evening to go down.
With a heavy sigh, he moved to his desk and dropped into his chair, opening his math textbook to the practice problems he had yet to complete. Doing them was hard, harder than usual, because he saw how useless they were. Math wasn't going to help him protect his family from monsters from other worlds. Math wasn't going to fix Anna's bruised heart. Math certainly wasn't going to get rid of the magical tree making his life so… Interesting sounded like too positive a word.
Was this how superheroes felt? Did Captain America sit in his room at night and wonder why he did it all? Did he wonder why he pushed through the hardships and emotional pain? Or did he just keep on keeping on because it was what he did?
"I'm not like that," Mike said as the type on his textbook page blurred. Hot tears pricked at his eyes.
Scrubbing furiously at his face as though he was tired and trying to stay awake, Mike said, "Oh, you know, good at math."
Loki leaned over his shoulder, sliding a finger down the page. It was pre-calc stuff, graphing rational functions or something like that. All Mike knew was that it was hard and he couldn't draw a graph worth a damn. He had failed his last test because his graphs had been indecipherable.
Plucking Mike's pencil from his hand, Loki began annotating what little of Mike's homework he had already managed to complete. "Your handwriting is atrocious," he said.
"Yeah, well." Mike crossed his arms and pursed his lips. "There a reason you're here?"
"I live here."
"Anna's pissed at you."
"Yes, I know. It's hard not to notice her ire. She's terrible at disguising it." Loki's brow creased. "How did you come by these coordinates?"
Mike leaned over the notebook page and shrugged. "Bad math skills, probably. You wanna tell me what Ben said to you that made you think breaking his spine was a good idea?"
"Not particularly. Have you considered using graph paper for these assignments?" Loki turned back two pages in Mike's textbook, scowling at an explanation of arcsines and other trigonometric functions. "Ludicrous," he muttered, making another annotation on Mike's homework. "I did, however, come here with a purpose."
"Not doing my math homework for me?"
Loki set the pencil down and leaned against Mike's desk, head canted slightly to the side. "You're annoyed with me."
"You made my sister cry, dude. If you were anyone else, I'd punch you until you bleed." Mike pushed his chair away from the desk and stood. "Except if I tired, you'd probably dismantle me."
"While I could, I would manage to refrain."
"Yeah, you're a saint."
They were tense and silent for a long time, Mike unwilling to let go of his irritation and Loki being, well, Loki. Dick. Mike caved first, releasing a hard sigh. "Look, what did you come down here for?"
Loki watched him with a measured gaze. It was a stare that always seemed to unnerve his parents, but one that he and his siblings didn't mind at all. Being under Loki's scrutiny wasn't as bad as being at the front of a classroom and delivering a speech or anything, though it did make Mike almost as uncomfortable. "I wanted to know what the magic did to you and your sister when I threatened Ben this afternoon."
Oh. Mike hadn't expected that question. He shrugged. "I dunno, magicy things?"
The displeased look that crossed Loki's face would have been funny under almost any other circumstance.
"No, seriously, it didn't do anything. Just sort of… pressed down on us, I guess. I mean, that's what it did to me. I think Anna screamed because she was surprised more than scared." He scratched the side of his nose not because it itched but because it gave him something to do. "Why?"
"I was curious to know how it responded to a perceived threat against one of its protectors."
Mike scowled at him. "Please don't turn me and my sister into a science experiment, dude. Especially if it's going to get us killed."
Loki surged forward in a fluid motion that had him standing in front of Mike before Mike could even think about moving. With his brows drawn together, Loki placed both his hands on Mike's shoulders, his expression serious. "It has never been my intention to place either of you in danger, and while I am sorry I have caused your sister distress, it is better this way."
"Your way isn't always right," Mike said without thinking, turning away from Loki. "You might be a two thousand year old god or whatever, but that doesn't mean you're always right.
Loki lifted his hands from Mike's shoulders and his presence in Mike's space receded. "Then I apologize for being an overbearing inconvenience as well," he said, and then he was gone, leaving Mike to swear at the empty air.
"Not," he muttered, pressing his forehead into the palm of his hand, "what I was saying at all, dude. Not at all." And because he needed a reminder that other people's lives sucked just as much as his, he spent the remainder of his night on FML instead of doing his homework.
School on Monday was hellish.
Anna didn't feel like interacting with anyone, but everyone seemed interested in talking to her. Her friends mobbed her as soon as she got to the cafeteria, all of them asking questions about what happened with her and Ben and why Ben looked sullen and upset.
"We broke up," she said simply. "We had a fight."
Because that was the only thing she could tell them that they would understand and believe, and the lie hurt. It hurt more when her friends pushed and prodded, wanting to know who had started the fight, what it was over. She wanted to burst into tears when Stacey asked why Mike hadn't beaten Ben within an inch of his life.
"Because I broke up with Ben, not the other way around," Anna replied tonelessly.
"So does this mean he's available?" Trisha asked.
Stacey looked scandalized and smacked her lightly on the shoulder. "Trish!"
"What? Valid question. He's hot and the Charity Ball is—Anna, are you okay?"
"Fine," Anna said, rising from the table. "I'm just… I forgot something. In my locker. I'll—I've got to get it."
Except she didn't go to her locker. She didn't go to class, either. Instead, she went to the basement, to hell with getting caught, and went into the empty room with the little green plant. She dropped her things onto the cement in the middle of the room and settled down in front of it, her legs stretched out behind her, her hands propping up her chin.
"Loki and Eldgrímr had a chat yesterday," she told it, not at all bothered by the fact that she was pouring out her woes to a plant. At least the plant wouldn't judge her. "And Eldgrímr, who's been pretending to be Ben Mathis, my boyfriend, we're over. I'm pretty sure."
A hot tear rolled down her cheek, and she wiped it away quickly. If she cried, her makeup would smear, and that would be a tragedy.
"Oh God." She laughed, the sound self-deprecating. "I'm worried about my makeup smudging and I'm talking to a plant about how I spent the last seven months dating a fire giant." A wry smile turning up the corners of her lips, she folded her hands on the cement and rested her chin on the backs of her fingers.
Level with the plant, she studied it. It was so small and green, surrounded by a faint halo of golden light. Magic. Loki said if they ever saw golden light, it was the plant's magic.
The thought of Loki turned her stomach. "Douchebag," she told the plant. "He's a douchebag. He made me betray my boyfriend, and then everything he did after that made Ben hate me. I mean, it's not like it's the end of the world, don't get me wrong. It's not like my entire life was defined by Ben." Because it wasn't. She had oodles of friends. And cheerleading. And saving the world. "But… I just. I had no control, I guess. No one likes not having control."
You could , a dark voice whispered in the back of her mind.
"Yeah," she agreed, her voice thick and slow.
All that power, inches from your fingers. You could have all the control in the world.
"But what would I do with it?" she asked, confusion making her tongue heavy. Why was she even thinking about taking the plant's power? "I guess… I mean, I could use it to help people."
Let me help you help people.
"Yeah." Anna pulled herself to her knees, folding her calves under her thighs and sitting on her knees. She leaned toward the little sprout, lips parted in anticipation. "You want to be used, don't you?" she asked it.
You're here, it told her. She took that as permission, her fingers stretching toward the plant.
A terrible itch spread across her scalp, impossible to ignore. With a half smothered cry of upset, she dug her hands into her hair and scratched until the itch dissipated. When she took her hands away, faint bits of silver and green sparkled at the tips of her fingers. "Huh," she said, glancing at the plant. A moment later, her eyes narrowed. "Don't mess with me," she warned it. "I have an Asgardian god on my side." Even if he was a total dick.
She rocked to her feet and stomped out of the basement, leaving the little green plant to itself.
Mary was many things. She was a wife and a mother. A hard worker. A self-professed neat freak. She was an avid reader of nonfiction. On the other hand, there were many things she wasn't. She was not, for example, a particularly detail-oriented person. Bob was capable of taking in a room in an instant, noting how many people wore glasses or how many were bald or how many happened to be wearing striped instead of solid shirts. She didn't do that. She wasn't capable of it.
Instead, she was the kind of person whose brain catalogued everything on a subconscious level. She noticed, without actually noticing, how closely one person leaned toward another, how two conversational partners might turn their bodies to include or exclude a third party. In that way, she could easily gauge the dynamic in a room or the state of a relationship.
It wasn't a conscious thing. If you asked her why or how she made the observations she did, she wouldn't be able to explain. It was as though her brain filed and catalogued all the little things that Bob consciously observed and allowed her to form a single, large picture.
Mary was many things.
Stupid was not one of them.
She took Anna by the arm on Thursday night and dragged her into the kitchen. The younger children were all asleep, and Loki and Mike were in the basement playing the new Avengers video game. They both seemed to derive a strange, twisted pleasure in sending Thor to his death. She didn't understand that yet, but she would. Soon. She would make sure of it.
"What's going on, sweetie?" she asked as she gently, but firmly, set Anna in the stool at the island counter.
The wide-eyed, innocent look Anna gave her would have worked on a woman who didn't have five children. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You've been moping for four days now, and you haven't talked about the Charity Ball once." Mary gave her daughter a level look as she leaned her hip against the counter. "I thought you were asking Ben on Sunday."
Tears welled in Anna's eyes, and Mary realized in a second what had happened. With a murmur of "Oh, my baby," she wrapped her arms around Anna's shoulders and pulled her into a tight hug. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"B-because it's complicated," Anna said, her voice muffled by Mary's shirt. Her hands wrapped around Mary's back, and she pressed closer, tears soaking the fabric.
There was something going on, Mary knew, between Mike, Anna, and Loki. They were quite devious about the whole thing, but she was a mother, and it wasn't hard for her to figure out when something sneaky was happening right under her nose. She didn't know what they were doing, and up until now it hadn't hurt anyone – in fact, it served, to her knowledge, only to bring Anna and Mike closer. But she was sure Anna's upset had something to do with whatever they were doing. "Would you like me to talk to Loki and Mike?"
"No!" Anna jerked back with a surprising force, the sadness eaten away by surprise and shock. And fear.
Mary's brows drew together, and she smoothed a hand over Anna's hair. "Sweetie, what's going on?"
"Nothing," Anna said, looking away and lying.
Mary weighed her options. She could push and upset her daughter more, or she could back away and remain in the dark. "Anna." Mary tipped Anna's face toward her, meeting her daughter's eyes. Anna's expression wavered, her eyes darting away and back again. "Whatever you're doing, you don't have to tell me. But I'm here for you, sweetie."
"I know, mom." Anna relaxed, giving Mary a tiny smile. "There's just. It's a lot." She sighed. "School. The dance. Ben and me had an argument, and then we broke up, and it's just… it's a lot."
"Growing up is hard," Mary agreed.
"Nothing worth doing is ever easy," Anna said quietly.
Mary laughed at the unexpected wisdom. Anna, athletic, personable Anna, wasn't exactly wise. Mary harbored no illusions on that count. "Where did you hear that?"
Loki slipped into the kitchen, and the way Anna looked at him, betrayal and respect in her expression, was answer enough. No, Mary didn't know what was going on between the three, but she had never seen Anna look at anyone like she looked at Loki. Under all the hurt and anger was such a foundation of trust and adoration it took Mary's breath away.
"Loki." The sense that she should know something about that name seized her violently, so much so that she almost shook with its intensity. Then there was a glimmer of gold – the light from the open refrigerator flickering, likely – and the thought passed. "You'll help me bring the cream pies to the school for Charity Week, won't you?"
"Of course he will," Anna said quickly, a devious smile on her face.
Loki closed the refrigerator door with controlled gentleness. "Will I?" he asked, looking at Anna instead of Mary.
Anna's smile became wicked. "Oh, yes."
Mary watched them watch each other for a moment, watched her daughter's smile grow wider by the second. She had Loki by the balls. Mary didn't know how or why, but her daughter had Loki by the balls.
And that, she had little doubt, should have disturbed her.
"I suppose I can manage that," Loki said magnanimously.
Mary lifted a brow as he walked out, two water bottles in hand. "What do you have on him?" she asked.
Anna buffed her nails on her pajama top. "Oh, nothing much."
"Mom, I want to help!" Lyn wailed, holding up her arms and making grabbing motions with her fingers. "Please!"
"Lyn, the boxes are too heavy, I— No, Mrs. Patterson, thank you, we're fine. Loki, would you please—Lyn, you need to let Mommy unload the trunk, okay?"
Loki stood beside the open trunk of the minivan, trying to suppress his amusement. Lyn danced around Mary's feet, bundled in an atrocious pink jacket that made her look like a marshmallow, demanding to be allowed to help. Mrs. Patterson, the principal's secretary, her fingers tucked under her arms for warmth, shuddered opposite him. Shaped like a pear, she had the air of a shrewish grandmother, the kind that would whack an errant child across the knuckles with a ruler if he was out of line in any way. Loki disliked her immediately.
"Mary, perhaps you could give Lyn one of the boxes," he suggested, stepping away from the hand truck at his side. He plucked one of the boxes from the trunk of the minivan, which was far too heavy for Lyn to carry, and whispered a quick spell over it.
Lyn took it with a smile that threatened to split her face. "Thank you, Loki!"
Mary frowned. "Those boxes are heavy," she said.
"Mom." Lyn pouted over the top of her box. "I'm strong, too." With that, she turned on her heel and tottered toward the school's entrance.
Loki, busy unloading the rest of the cream pies to the hand truck, glanced at Mary. "Where are we taking these?"
"To the cafeteria," Mrs. Patterson replied, her voice warbling. Loki watched the skin under her chin tremble with each spoken word with a sick fascination. He supposed it was the same interest that kept mortals watching burning trains.
"Of course, thank you," he said, pulling the hand truck after him.
Mary, with a hand truck of her own, followed him and Lyn, and Mrs. Patterson scurried after them, like a rat.
The school let him in with no fuss, but the loop of magic appeared around his wrist again, and he noticed, too, that there was one on Lyn the moment she passed the building's threshold. When he glanced at Mary and Mrs. Patterson's wrists, they had their own bracelets of magic as well. In fact, as the bell rang and students flooded the halls, he realized every student was tagged.
"We'll wait for the passing period to end," Mrs. Patterson said, herding them against the nearest wall.
Loki watched the students pass, studying their faces. They were oblivious, he realized, to the power suffusing the air around them. They moved through the halls quickly, engaged in frivolous conversations about their romantic relationships, their tests, what food they would purchase for their lunchtime meal. None of them knew what grew under their feet.
The wait, passed by keeping his eye on the students while Mary and Mrs. Patterson engaged in meaningless chatter, went quickly enough. As soon as Mrs. Patterson deemed it safe enough to proceed, they made their way down a narrow hallway. Mrs. Patterson waved at a pair of security guards in a booth as they passed. "They're with me," she said, and the guards accepted that.
"Is there a reason you have security?" Loki asked idly, glancing at the portraits on the wall as they walked. They named previous principals and vice principals as well as teachers who had received various commendations.
"For the safety of the students, of course," Mrs. Patterson replied, her tone short. "It is our policy to do everything in our power to ensure nothing happens to the students while they are in our care."
"Do you really think a pair of humans armed with handguns will stop some of the creatures prowling the area?"
Mrs. Patterson gave him an annoyed glare. "The Avengers have followed the attacks. I'm sure they would help if we needed them. And here's the cafeteria. You'll be setting up here, at these tables." Mrs. Patterson gestured to a series of four poorly constructed tables. Had they been in Asgard, they would have been destroyed in minutes. "I'll let the janitors know to bring down some tarps. The student council will direct you in the mean time."
Mrs. Patterson's direction was replaced by a gaggle of teenagers. Their faces and personalities blurred together, and Loki found it impossible to keep track of them. In the end, it didn't matter who they were as individuals. They directed him to set the cream pie boxes on a table with a glittering sign that read "PIE YOUR FAVORITE TEACHER." He did so while listening to the students chatter about which teachers were on the list to get pied.
"Who would submit themselves to this?" Loki asked Mary as they stacked the pie boxes.
"People with a sense of humor." She blew a curl from her eyes and gave him a wry grin. "Or teachers who desperately want their students to think they're cool."
"It's an indignity."
"It's for charity." Mary leaned back, surveying the table. The pies, laid out in a grid six pies long and three deep, were stacked on top of each other five high. "And everyone likes when people think they care about charity."
Loki said nothing, turning his attention instead to the other tables. "And these?"
Mary peered around him. "That looks like it'll be for a bake sale. That's a raffle. And the last one is a singing telegram. The choir does those." She turned her attention back to the table, fussing with the sign taped to the front. "The pie station will be here all week, but they'll change up the other tables. Last year, they made five hundred dollars on puppy chow alone."
He started, swinging about to stare. "Puppy chow?"
She laughed at the horrified expression on his face. "Chex mix, melted chocolate, and powdered sugar. It's delicious." She folded her arms and stepped away from the table. "Have you seen Lyn?"
Loki glanced over his shoulder, but Lyn was nowhere to be seen. "She's likely hiding under one of the tables." But the tables, many though they were, weren't arranged in such a way to make hiding easy. "Or perhaps she's run off." That sat poorly with him.
"Stacey?" Mary touched one of the girls on the shoulder. "Did you see Lyn?"
And while Mary started questioning the students, mounting hysteria ringing in her voice, Loki tilted his head to one side. He wrapped his right hand around the bracelet ringing his left wrist, and he felt a spark of magic brush against him. Where is she?
The giggle in the back of his mind was a child's, and he went utterly still. I will destroy you, he told the sapling.
The PA system crackled, and the students around him paused, turning their heads to listen. "THIS BODY WILL DO."
There was a five second span of interminable silence following that pronouncement, and then magic exploded through the school in a shower of golden light. It was thick and heavy and so impossible to ignore that the students around him saw it. They threw their hands over their faces and screamed, and Loki could only wonder why it was human predisposition to scream at anything and everything.
A creaking noise came from above, accompanied by falling dust, and Loki stood a bit straighter, waiting. A svarog ripped the ceiling off the cafeteria. The students around him screamed and ran toward the hallways around the cafeteria, while Loki tipped his head back, regarding the beast from Nornheim with a passive, almost pleasant expression. Mary grabbed his arm and tugged at him, trying to move him.
"Loki! Loki, we have to— And Lyn is—"
"Let go of me, Mary," he said, gently removing her hand from his arm. He lifted her knuckles to his lips and gave them a kiss. She stared at him. "I know where Lyn is, and I will get her back."
The svarog screamed and reached for them. Loki shoved Mary, perhaps a bit harder than he should have, and sent her stumbling back. She crashed into the table, upending it, and sent the pies spilling across the linoleum floors.
Shoddy craftsmanship, Loki thought before turning on the svarog. His spear formed in his hand, made of cold iron and magic, and he smiled.
The Avengers were drinking coffee. Thor, addicted to it, was on his fifth cup. Bruce, reading the newspaper and scowling fiercely at it, nursed his second. Tony held his third in his hands, staring at the ceramic mug as if it might reveal to him all the secrets of the universe. Steve wasn't actually drinking coffee as he preferred hot chocolate.
They were strangely silent, wrapped in their own thoughts, when the PA system kicked on with a long tone. "THIS BODY WILL DO."
It took them a moment to process the words, wholly unexpected and nonsensical, and then everyone but Tony was on his feet.
"Avengers!" Steve exclaimed, jumping to his feet so quickly he knocked his chair over. "Assemble!"
"We're all right here," Tony said, standing at a more leisurely pace. "No need to shout. And do we really need to assemble because the PA system is on the fritz again?"
At the table next to them, a perplexed and dazed look on his face, Robert Frederickson said, "That sounds like Lyn's voice." He frowned at Thor. "Why is Lyn making announcements on our PA system?"
Movement on the balcony that ringed the cafeteria drew Thor's attention. Coulson stood there. "There's major activity at the high school in Lake Zurich. Suit up, boys."
The Avengers lurched into motion. Except for Thor. Thor went to Robert Frederickson's side. Frederickson shook in his seat, his face pale. "That's—my kids go to that school," he said to Thor, his voice hollow.
"I will protect them as if they were my own," Thor vowed.
"That was Lyn's voice on the PA."
"Then I will find her and make sure she is safe."
"She has Loki for that," Frederickson replied absently, looking away from Thor. He missed the horrified expression that passed over Thor's face, and if he turned back, Thor didn't know.
Thor ran through S.H.I.E.L.D.'s hallways, unconcerned with protocol or his duty to Midgard. He had another duty, one that preempted his responsibilities to the mortals. Loki , he thought.
It did not occur to him that Frederickson had lied. It did not occur to him the Loki Frederickson mentioned was not Thor's Loki. He was overcome with hope, a burning and desperate hope that made his heart pound in his chest, that made his stomach twist into knots.
"Thor, what are you—"
He rushed by Maria Hill, took Mjölnir in hand, and flung it through a window. The glass shattered, and he spared a moment to pity the mortals that might be walking on the sidewalk. Behind him, he heard shouting, but he ignored it. It wasn't important.
Mjölnir returned to his hand just in time. He leapt from the window and wove between the skyscrapers scattered through the city. Let the Avengers join him later; he knew where he needed to go. He could feel the pulse of magic, so strong that it throbbed against his senses like a second heartbeat, and he knew where he needed to go.
The svarog lay dead at Loki's feet, but it was the least of his quickly growing list of problems. First on the list were the stone golems smashing through the door at the end of the nearest hallway. Second were the frost giants somewhere behind him. Draugr poured from another hallway, and they were listed third. The screaming students were on his list somewhere, but he wasn't sure how much he wanted to bother with them. They were more trouble than they were worth, and saving them on an individual basis was a waste of his time.
Mary, wrapped in protective magic, huddled with a group of them behind several overturned tables. "Loki, what's going on?" she shouted over a stone golem's roar.
"Something very inconvenient," he returned as he twisted to avoid a draugr's claws. He sliced its head clean from its shoulders and poured green fire over its body. When he spun about to dismember another of the draugr, he saw Mary's face, and he saw the exact moment she understood exactly who he was. The sapling's golden magic couldn't possibly explain this away.
"Loki." She formed the words with his lips, without making a sound, and her eyes filled with recognition. "Thor." Her fingers pressed to her face, and Loki turned away from her, carried by the force of his spin.
Two more draugr fell, and then a third, but it was not by his blade.
Anna stood behind the fallen draugr, her frizzy hair pulled haphazardly from her face, and her cheeks were flushed. "Mike's in English right now," she said, jerking her chin to her right. "Second floor of the wing over there."
"We need to find your sister," Loki said. He lurched forward, reaching around her with his spear to cut down another draugr.
"Why Lyn?" Anna asked, shifting to stand at Loki's back. He heard her blades cut through the air, followed by the distinctive sound of dead, rotted flesh plopping against the ground.
Loki stabbed at an approaching draugr, forcing it back a step, and decapitated another with a strong swing. "You heard the announcement, I assume."
"I suspect the sapling is using her body."
Anna's shriek of rage and indignation sliced like one of her knives through his ear, and he spun about to grab her arm before she could rush off and doing something foolish and deadly. "Yes," he said, "we need to find her, but if you rush off and get yourself killed, I will bring you back to life just to kill you again for your idiocy."
She blinked. Then she pulled back her free hand and slammed her fist into the side of his face. "That's for ruining things with Ben," she snapped.
"I deserved that," he admitted, rubbing his jaw.
"You think?" In a quick motion, she pulled a knife from her belt and flung it at something behind his head.
Releasing her, Loki glanced behind him. The draugr she hit stumbled to the ground, and he threw a small globe of fire at it. It burst into flame and died.
Anna's eyes grew impossibly wide. "Mom?" She turned around and took a step away from her mother, into Loki. He steadied her with a hand on her shoulder and then pulled away. There were monsters to deal with.
"WE FOUND WHAT YOU HID, LITTLE PRINCE," one of the stone golems said.
Loki rolled his eyes. "I hid nothing," he murmured to himself, leaping onto the destroyed roof. A flash of flame distracted him for just a moment, and he saw Eldgrímr and his brandyr rushing across the roof to meet the frost giants. Good. At least the boy was useful.
"WE WILL TAKE IT FROM YOU," the golem declared, closing its hand in a fist and bringing it down on the roof beside Loki. He swore, surprised to find himself concerned for the children inside the school, but a shimmer of golden light turned the broken roof into grains of sand.
The children in the classroom screamed and pressed into the far corner of the room, but they and their instructor were unharmed. And now Loki knew they were protected, he felt no need to be actively concerned for their safety.
He closed his hand in a fist and murmured a quick spell as he avoided another of the golem's attacks, and he hurled the cold iron blade in his hand into the golem's chest. It buried itself deeply inside the stone and then exploded with ice. The golem turned to dust, and the cold wind carried it away.
Using similar tactics, he dispatched the second golem, and then he returned to the cafeteria, where Mary was holding Anna tightly and saying, "Just don't die."
Loki approached them, silent, his mortal clothing melting into his armor with each step he took. He stood before Mary in all his Asgardian regalia, a prince dressed for war, and waited for her to notice him. When she did, he spoke quickly, before she could. "I have deceived you for six months. I have never been without my memory."
She gave him a shocked look. "You're going to attempt to explain yourself now?"
His heart shook under the weight of her disbelief. "Mary, it was never my intent—"
"You have a school full of children to save!" she exclaimed, and he froze. "You'll explain everything once you and Mike and Anna have done away with all these monsters and saved Lyn. You understand me?"
He nodded. "Of course."
"Then stop standing here and staring at me like a slack-jawed idiot and go be useful," she commanded, her tone fit for a queen, and she pointed imperiously toward a group of draugr shambling closer to them.
He glanced at the draugr, saw a flash of steel and heard Mike shout something unintelligible and vaguely heroic, and turned back to her. "Take this," he said, forming a small glass ball in one hand. He pressed it to his lips and breathed magic into it. "It will keep you safe."
Mary took the glass ball and held it tightly, nodding. There was more steel than fear in her eyes, and she took a step back, toward the students cowering behind a table. "Go." She gave Anna a tight smile. "Be safe."
Anna returned the smile. "I want ice cream for dinner," she said, and then she and Loki took off at a sprint. "The only way into the basement is the elevator. There aren't any stairs. But if one of these things smashes the floor in—"
"Smashing the floor in sounds like a fantastic idea," Loki said, cutting her off. He spun his spear in one hand and slammed it through the neck of the nearest draugr. "Mike."
"Sup." Mike stomped on the hand of draugr that attempted to use his body to stand and then cut its head off. "These things just don't stay dead, do they?"
Loki set them on fire. "They tend not to. Be grateful we don't have—"
Both the children shouted "No!" at the same time he said "—any fexts to deal with." They groaned. "Is there a problem?"
"You never say 'at least so-and-so isn't here'," Mike lamented.
"Two thousand years old and you don't know this?" Anna asked, dragging her hand down her face. "The minute you say that, they're guaranteed to show up." She pointed up the hall. "Oh, look, is that a fext?"
Loki turned his gaze to the shambling wolf men, less than amused by their superb timing. "Unfortunately."
"Right." Mike lifted his sword. "How do we kill these?"
"Oh. Well, f—"
A hammer exploded through the wall and turned the fext into something like purée. Mjölnir was, as ever, very effective.
All the breath in Loki's lungs rushed out at once, and he staggered back, overwhelmed by the amount of feelings coursing through him. Foremost among them was terror. He had dreaded this moment for months. Now it was upon him, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Mike shoved his shoulder. "The hallway circles around," he said. "And the basement's under this whole wing. You go that way. Anna and I will, um, deal with Thor, I guess."
Loki nodded. "Thank you," he said, relieved to be able to put off the inevitable meeting just a few minutes longer.
Hurrying down the corridor, he kept alert, ready for anything to leap out at him. The Askafroa that jumped him from inside a classroom painted red with blood didn't surprise him. The rage that rushed through him did.
She was dead in a matter of seconds, her body burned from the inside out. The only sure way to destroy an Askafroa was to kill her tree, but this would be good enough. They healed as slowly as a tree; she wouldn't be moving in the foreseeable future. He wrenched open the next closed door he came to and found a pack of brandyr snarling at him. They paced around the twenty-odd students and their teacher, bearing their fangs at him.
His eyes flicked toward the mortals. Aside from a few scratches, they were unharmed. "Climb out the windows," he told them, "and get away from here." He pointed at the brandyr. "Your master and I fight for the same cause. Go from room to room and encourage the mortals to leave by whatever means necessary."
He left the room as the mortals rushed the windows and the brandyr passed through the walls, aided by a shimmer of golden magic, and began to do as asked.
Around a second corner, he stopped and lowered to one knee. Releasing a pulse of magic as something exploded somewhere behind him, Loki determined there was, in fact, basement beneath him. Then he punched his way through the floor, the hit backed by a furious burst of magic.
A rush of gold shot from the hole, and he reeled back to dodge it. It spun around him, ripping at his armor, and he summoned his own magic to combat it, pushing it away as best he could as he slipped into the hole. The golden magic hung thick and heavy in the basement air, and all the junk that had occupied the space previously was gone.
Where the ornate door and room containing the sapling once stood was only empty space. The magic was concentrated there, a brilliant, blinding glow. In the very center was a dark smudge, vaguely human shaped, and Loki caught his breath.
He took a halting step forward, and the magic in the air thickened, preventing his progress. "Lyn!" he shouted again, lifting his hand to force his magic through the sapling's to disperse it. It didn't work, which was, though not particularly surprising, horribly frustrating.
The ceiling to his right exploded, and Thor's body hit the cement floor of the basement. Loki recoiled, and the sapling's magic allowed his backward progress. He froze as soon as he realized what he had done and attempted to press forward, to regain the ground he so foolishly lost.
The magic would not let him.
Thor picked himself off the ground with a groan, and Loki went still, hoping his brother would be his usual oblivious self and not notice him.
Of course, the universe couldn't throw him even one bone, and Thor turned with a heavily exhaled breath. That breath changed to a sharp inhalation. "Loki!"
"Hello, Thor," Loki said, at a loss for anything more eloquent. The magic surging through the air around them pressed against him, and it took a formidable amount of control not to release a strangled gasp. "Enjoying the battle?"
"You're alive!" Thor exclaimed, rising to his feet.
Loki's eyes narrowed. "Obviously," he drawled, watching as Thor took two steps closer to Lyn in his short trek to Loki's side.
"Brother, when you fell, I—"
"Tearful reunions later, Thor," Loki snapped, using a cutting tone as a shield for his own heart. "There are frost giants above us."
"Among other things," Thor said cheerfully. "A large part of Karnilla's army is here as well. Do you know what it is they seek?"
Loki turned his head toward the bright center of the magic. "Yes."
Thor took a step closer, asking, "What is this?" before the magic caught him and refused to let him any further. "Loki, what sorcery is this?"
"A sapling from Yggdrasil seeking to protect itself from the interests of the Nine Realms." He tilted his head toward the dark smudge of Lyn's body. "And failing quite admirably, I might add. Will you simply freeze in time all who come at you? That's not exactly a phenomenal long-term solution."
"But it is a solution." The voice was Lyn's but not. Multi-layered, it sounded like one million Lyns speaking all at once, both old and young, as though the sapling had brought every moment of her existence into a single place. It was both beautiful and horrible, seductive and repulsive, and Loki shuddered.
Thor looked like he might be sick.
"You will end all life to continue your own existence?" Loki asked.
"Brother, you are arguing with a tree," Thor said.
"I am reasoning with a very intelligent life form, and if you say a word to upset it, I will continue where we left off and not only destroy Jotunheim but all of Asgard as well." The threat was empty; Loki had no intention of doing either of those things, but it shocked Thor into appalled silence.
When the sapling laughed, it was with Lyn's voice, young and girlish. The magic swirled away from the center of the basement, and Lyn stepped forward, her eyes vacant. In her hands, she held the golden apple Loki gave to her at Christmas, and it shimmered with magic and light. All around her, the motes of magic shifted and twisted, creating a strange, amorphous figure. It took Loki a moment to realize the sapling's magic was twisting itself into an older Lyn, a shadow of how she would look in perhaps fifteen years.
She was, he thought, devastatingly beautiful, but that was as much a product of her facial structure as the magic that formed the image.
"Hello, Loki," she said. Her lips moved, but that multi-layered voice came from the magic all around them, not from her body at all.
"Behind you!" Mike shouted as Loki rushed down the hallway to the history wing.
Anna ducked and spun, slashing at an Askafroa's legs. "Do they end?" she demanded as the woman fell.
They had no fire, Mike realized, so he settled for the second best thing. "Cut her limbs off," he said, wincing as he spoke. "Oh, God, I can't believe I just told you to do that."
"Better that than having her come after us," Anna said, hacking through the Askafroa's limbs with the absurdly sharp blade of her knife. Like Mike's own sword, Anna's knives never dulled, and he thought they could probably cut through brick.
No need to find that out.
He ducked as the wall next to him exploded a second time. Thor burst into the hallway, all muscled and panting, looking like he'd just run a marathon. His gaze swept the carnage in the cafeteria, and then he turned to Mike. "You!"
"Hey," Mike said, lifting his sword. "Fancy seeing you here. Are the Avengers on their way?"
Thor looked as though he had been blindsided. "Yes."
An explosion rocked the building, quickly followed by a scream of rage from somewhere else. There was another explosion, and a bright, golden beam of light shot from the cafeteria floor toward the sky. It pulsed, blinding to look at, steady like a heartbeat.
Anna swore. "What is that?" she asked.
The sky above them turned into something strange and beautiful, a lens of stars and planets, and then strange creatures in strange machines filled it. A striking woman was at their head, her long black hair wiping about her face. "Well met, Thor!" she greeted.
"Karnilla?" Thor sounded genuinely surprised.
"Norn Queen, right?" Mike asked Anna.
Anna nodded. "We're so dead, aren't we?"
Another beam of light punctured the sky, and then another, but Karnilla and Thor were much more interested in each other than the creatures pouring from these beams. They went after each other while Anna and Mike backed away, shifting uneasily.
"We can't fight all these things," Anna breathed.
"We're going to die."
Mike looked across the cafeteria, toward the table his mother had been hiding behind. She was gone, now, and he didn't know where to, but he was glad. "Probably."
The roar of an engine passed overhead, and both Anna and Mike swung their gazes to the sky.
A second later, Iron Man collided with one of Karnilla's soldiers in midair. Captain America hit the cafeteria floor – most of the ceilings in the building were gone, by this point, Mike thought – and hurled his shield at the back of Karnilla's head. Instead of killing Thor, she sent him through the floor.
A distant roar rolled through the school, sounding like it came from the area around the performing arts center, and Mike grinned. "Hulk."
"Avengers," Anna said with a smile.
"Let's rock this." Mike lunged forward, rushing by Captain America to meet another group of draugr. He swung his sword through the neck of the one closest to him and caught another one under the jaw with his elbow. "You have to take off their heads," he called to the Captain as he ducked under another draugr and cut it in half. Putrefied insides spilled over the floor, and the stench alone made him realize how stupid that cut had been.
Captain America's shield took the head off another, and it dropped to the ground. "Kid, you need to get out of here."
Mike let out a breathless laugh. "I know," he said, cutting down another draugr. "Crazy how things happen, right?" He planted his foot firmly in one draugr's chest and sent it sliding across the floor.
"Cut left," Anna muttered as she ducked under the blade of one of Karnilla's soldiers. She dropped to her hands, flipping away from one, and then another, and came to her feet at Iron Man's back. Her mother's loathing for Stark kept her from being too excited, and she slammed the butt of her knife into the side of a soldier's head.
"You think you've got this in hand?" she asked him.
Iron Man's head turned toward her as she danced around him, sliding up to cut the underside of a monster's belly. The monster, whatever it was, not something she'd seen before, dropped to the floor with a howl.
"Who the hell are you?" Iron Man asked.
She tossed her hair from her face. "Anna Frederickson," she said. She gave him a wave and thought she heard him ask "Bob's kid?" before she broke into a run, dashing up the long hallway to the gymnasium. Something big and green smashed apart the wall of the girls' locker room, dragging a moderately sized svarog with it. "Go, Hulk, go," she muttered as she pushed the door to the gymnasium open.
The gym was empty, so she ran across the floor, pushing open that door, too, and hurrying down the next hall to the field house. She drew up short just inside the door, staring at the carnage. The three outside walls were completely gone, ground into rubble, and the indoor track and wooden floors had been ripped to pieces.
Ben was in the middle of the carnage, on fire, and standing quite a bit taller than he usually did. She stared at him, her eyes wide, and she took in the full extent of his true form, with all his height. His fist slammed into a frost giant's face, and she realized there was no possible way she could be of help to him.
If anything, she'd be a hindrance.
And she realized, too, how impossible it would be to pursue any kind of romantic relationship with him. He was already seventy years old; he'd live quite a bit longer. A large part of her had hoped, after her betrayal, they'd be able to try again. She had hoped that knowing exactly who he was might make them stronger.
Ben's body hit the floor beside her, and she screamed as she jumped back, pressing her back to the wall beside the doors. "Ben!"
He turned his head, his fiery hair snapping and crackling above his brow. "Anna?" He grunted as a frost giant reached for him, jerking him to his feet. "Anna, run!" he shouted.
Maybe, she thought, Ben would have tried again.
"Get away from here!" The frost giant's fist slammed into his face, spinning his head to the side. "If they kill me and you're not gone—"
Maybe Ben would have tried being human. Maybe she would have tried an interspecies relationship.
A spear made of ice, the kind Loki sometimes used for a distance strike, burst through Ben's chest. The ice spread across his chest and down his abdomen, smothering the flames of his body, and Anna pressed her hands to her mouth to choke back a sob.
Maybe she would have done a lot of things.
The last of Ben's flames went out, consumed by ice, and his body slipped from the frost giant's hand to the floor.
But a frost giant took away all her maybes, and instead of leaving her broken hearted and despondent, it ticked her off. Anna lifted her gaze to the frost giant, which had just noticed her, and she drew her lip back in a snarl. "I'm going to kill you!" she shouted at it.
Behind her, golden light tore what little remained of the school building to pieces. Some of it – a lot of it – passed through her, and she felt it all around her body, brushing against her face and her bare arms. She twisted her wrists, wrapping the magic all around her knives, and she started running. Up, she thought, and she ran through the air like she ran up a flight of stairs.
With a shout of pain, of anger and loss, not just for Ben but for all that Ben could have been, she threw her knife at the giant's eye. Burn, she thought as it traveled through the air.
Fire wreathed the blade as it passed through the giant's eye, and the giant had a second to be surprised before it died.
Anna stood there, panting, gasping for breath. She made the unfortunate choice to look down.
A fundamental tenant of the practice of magic requires a person to believe they can do what at first seems impossible. Anna, having never learned that, stared at the emptiness under her feet and whispered the worst possible words.
"This isn't possible."
The swirl of magic that made the shadow-Lyn shifted around him. She curled behind his shoulders, her hand resting on his cheek as she peered at him from an angle only possible because she had no physical form. There was a trail of magic, thick like a rope, from her to Lyn, and she smiled. "I won't let you destroy me," she said, her terrible voice a hammer against the side of Loki's head.
He bit his tongue until it bled, eyes closed against the pain of her voice.
"I've only just found a body to live," she continued, pushing away from him. Her touch burned his flesh.
He glanced at her, watched her wind herself around Thor. Her fingers threaded through his brother's hair, and Thor had the good sense to look horrified. "You think I'm an abomination," she purred.
"I think you've become something you weren't meant to be," Loki replied softly. "There was never meant to be more than one world tree."
She made a sound he thought was a scoff, but he couldn't be sure. The child-like elements of her voice giggled, and the older elements wheezed. "I don't want to be a world tree. Let Yggdrasil be confined to its current purpose." She sneered as she moved away from Thor and returned to Lyn. She set her hands on Lyn's shoulders, and Lyn didn't burn. Her clothes did, but her skin didn't.
The apple in her hands protected her from damage.
"Do you know how long I've been waiting?" she asked. "How long I've been planning?"
Loki shuddered. "You've orchestrated this?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "I needed a body, but I would burn a mortal mind so quickly. I would burn a god's mind, too. But a child, whose brain is constantly forming and reforming neural synapses? A child whose body is protected by a magic that I can fuel forever?" She stroked her fingers over Lyn's face. The deep gouges left by her touch healed as quickly as they formed. "I had to arrange this. How fortuitous your fall from Asgard was, Loki, that I could use it to ingratiate these children to you."
Loki studied her, his face impassive. She laughed. "You can't hide your horror from me," she told him. "I can feel it."
Oh, yes, he was horrified, but not for the reasons she thought. That the Fredericksons genuinely cared for him he had no doubt. What the sapling's magic began as artificial had blossomed into something real. There was a bond between them that could not be faked. Not even magic could duplicate the affection the entire family felt for him.
"Lyn," he said gently. "Lyn, you must not let this happen."
"You ask a child to fight this power?" Thor demanded, incensed. "Not even you could be so cruel, Loki."
"Shut up, Thor." Loki kept his gaze firmly on Lyn, ignoring the woman swirling about her. "Lyn, fight—"
"Fight me?" The magic shadow laughed, and the sound disturbed him. The bright, bubbling innocence of a child's laughter twined about the throaty, husky sound of a woman's pleasure, and the sound left Loki's skin crawling.
Thor, too, looked ill.
"I will use her body to do as I please. I will not be bound as Yggdrasil, and I will not be used by any of the creatures in the Nine Realms." Lyn's head tilted back in tandem with her shadow's, and they both smiled. "The last chain is about to die. Once Eldgrímr is gone, nothing will keep me to this place."
"But you protected him," Loki said.
She laughed again. "Only until I had a body." Her fingers combed through Lyn's hair, and Lyn's head leaned into her hand. "Now, I have no use for him. I don't need him alive." A slow, terrible smile curled her lips, her face like a jackal's.
Her head tipped back. She sighed with pleasure, and the room burst with golden magic. It hit Loki in the face, forced its way into his mouth until he coughed and choked on it. Beside him, Thor retched, and they both shuddered.
"And now he is dead. Thank you, Loki, for being so useful to me." He lifted his face, watching her as she spoke, and Lyn moved, walking until she stood between him and his brother. Her shadow stroked Loki's face, scalding his flesh, and she leaned forward. "Let me do you one more favor." She brushed her lips against him, and he could feel each mote of magic like an individual needle puncturing his lips.
Little droplets of blood spattered on the ground when she drew back. For a moment, her lips were stained red, but the constant swirl of magic soon traded those motes of light for clean ones. She consumed a sliver of silvery green magic, assimilating it until it was as gold as the rest of her, and she smiled. "Thank you," she said.
Loki wheezed. He felt emptied and hollowed, like he had when he had first arrived on Midgard.
"Loki?" Thor asked.
He managed a feeble snarl. "She took my magic."
Thor, for all he did not understand his brother, looked appalled. Magic was Loki's weapon, and Thor, Loki knew, knew him well enough to recognize that. Lyn's shadow had taken his weapon from him, left him without his sword on the field of battle.
With a mighty roar, Thor surged against his bonds. "Release me!" he shouted, his muscles straining. "Fight me!"
"You would fight a child?" the shadow asked. "You would—"
"Anna!" The agonized scream poured from Lyn's mouth, shouted in her true voice, and tears tracked down her cheeks. "Anna! Anna!"
The shadow Lyn went completely and utterly still. For the first time in six months, the golden magic that suffused the town stopped moving. And then it was pulled, suddenly, violently, into Lyn's little body. She blinked twice, and when she exhaled, she breathed out little puffs of magic.
"Anna," she whispered, and the tears rolling down her cheeks changed from clear water to golden orbs. They hit the ground with tiny clinks.
Loki collapsed to his knees, released from the magic's hold, and Thor dropped down beside him. "Brother," he said, placing a shaking hand on Loki's shoulder. "I believe we have much to discuss."
Shaking himself, Loki collected himself with a breath. "I don't have time," he said, brushing Thor's hands off as he stood. He steeled himself against the naked pain on Thor's face. "I have to save my family."
He lacked magic, yes, but he was still Asgardian, and the leap from the basement floor to the first floor, by way of Thor's hole, was simple enough. He hit the ground hard, his face a mask of icy rage, and he rose.
At the end of the hall, he saw the Avengers and Mike battling Karnilla, Býleistr, and Malekith's armies. Across the distance, he met Mike's eyes, and Mike nodded. Breaking away from his battle, he rushed toward one of the hallways leading away from the cafeteria, and Loki quickly followed. "Where's Anna?" he asked as they pressed against the wall.
"She took off," he said. "I don't—maybe the gym? Or the field house?"
"We need to go there."
"Why?" Mike said, his face ashen.
"Just lead me," Loki commanded.
Mike nodded, and the two of them broke into a run. They were passing the school office when Thor caught up to them. "Loki, what are—how do you know this boy?"
"Hey," Mike said with a jaunty wave. "Mike Frederickson. Loki's been living with us."
"This is not the time for talking, Thor!" Loki snapped, his patience waning.
Thor ceased speaking, but the silence left behind was worse than all of Thor's words. Questions crowded into Loki's mind, spilled into every crevice of his brain and ate at him.
Mike pushed open the door to the field house, holding it open for Loki and Thor, and Loki skidded to a halt in the decimated remains of the building. Here, the frost giants met the stone golems and the fire giants, Surtur's no doubt. Great bodies lay across the ground, but only two mattered.
Beside the door was what remained of Eldgrímr, frozen, and when Mike saw them, he swore. Loki's attention was on the two small bodies in the middle of the carnage, one exuding golden light that held the battling jotnar at bay.
He sprinted the few feet from the door to Lyn and Anna, and he dropped beside them. Lyn lay across her sister's broken body, sobbing little globes of golden power.
Mike and Thor's shadows fell across them, and Mike hit the ground hard. He wore no expression on his face, and Loki understood. He understood exactly what it was to be so hurt, so devastated, that any feeling at all was impossible. They were, in that moment, the same.
"What happened?" Thor asked the question. He was the only one who could.
"She fell," Lyn wailed, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands.
Someone had to do something. There were pillars of golden light arching from the school to the sky, and they were beacons through the Nine Realms, allowing anyone with a modicum of magical skill to send their armies to Midgard. To the school. The battle, from what Loki could see, was expanding as more troops arrived. It was not Ragnarok, but the Avengers were not enough to stop it. The people of the Nine Realms would rip Midgard apart until they found Lyn.
"Lyn," Loki said, his voice lacking any emotion. "Lyn." He took her hands in his, ignoring the burn of her power. Like needles, it punctured his skin, lancing his nerves with pain greater than any he had known. Even the void paled in comparison.
Briefly, his eyes flickered to the glass apple at her side. Spider web fractures covered its entire surface.
"Lyn, you can fix her," he said. "You can stop this."
She stared at him and shook her head.
"Yes." Loki's fingers tightened around her wrists. "Lyn, you're made of magic right now. Just make a wish. That's all you need to do. Can you do that for me?" He released her wrists to pull her across Anna's body and into his arms. He held her against him, feeling the cut of her power against his body. "Just wish for our sister to come back," he whispered against her ear. "Wish for her to come back and for all the fighting to go away."
Lyn hiccupped against his neck and nodded, and the brush of her hair against his cheek made his flesh smoke. He closed his eyes against the pain. "I wish," he prompted her.
"I wish," she whispered. "I wish Anna was—was o-okay." She snuggled closer to him, and he refused to let her know how much it hurt. "I wish Anna w-wasn't g-gone. I wish the fighting was gone."
Tendrils of golden magic exploded outward from her body, arching across the decimated school grounds. Every creature they touched exploded into golden light, and whether they were dead or simply returned to their homes, Loki did not know. He did not care. He kept his gaze riveted on Anna's body, waiting.
Threads of magic wrapped around her, slipped into her body until she sparkled with light. Loki bit his lip against the clawing anticipation, against the nausea and pain. And then, finally, she drew a rasping breath.
Mike grabbed her in his arms and clutched her to his chest. "You stupid idiot," he said against her neck as he started crying.
Slowly, with halting motions, Anna set her arms around Mike's shoulder. She turned her head so she could stare at Loki. "Wha… What happened?"
"You died," he said.
"Oh. Are you going to kill me again?" And with a smile, she laughed. It was a relieved sound, filled with knowledge that she was alive and she was going to live.
But there was still the matter of Lyn and the magic.
Loki drew back so he could look at Lyn's face. Her eyes were sparkling gold, filled with light. "Lyn," he whispered. "You need to—"
"I know," she said, pressing her hands to either side of his face. Instead of burning pain, he felt the rush of magic through his body. His magic. "I can see a lot of things," she said. "All the things. I know." With a serene smile, she closed her eyes and scrunched up her nose.
There was a Midgardian writer who once said this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.
He was, unsurprisingly, wrong.
Lyn spoke. "I wish the monsters were gone," she said, and with every word, with every exhaled sound, there came from her mouth a tendril of sparkling, golden light. "I wish the school was okay." Her hands curled around the metal of his armor, and her eyes were fixed on his.
The whole of the universe existed in her golden irises; in them, stars burst into brilliant existence and exploded into fabulous plumes of gas and dust. In her eyes, he saw Yggdrasil, its leaves trembling and shaking, and the flow of time and the nature of all things. He saw the fire, too, saw it course along the thin veins in the whites of her eyes, saw the burn of a power her tiny body was never meant to house. This was the power that Odin commanded: fierce and violent, terrible and full of pain. And he hated it.
He let all his glamours fall away, and he touched cool hands to her cheeks. The shaking of his hands was beyond his control. While he knew the little girl in his lap was Lyn, that she would never hurt him, she scared him. The power she commanded made his breath catch in his chest and made him feel tiny, like an ant.
She patted his cheek. "I wish this power would go away somewhere safe."
The world did not end with a bang. The world did not end with a whimper.
The world ended with song, with music. It came in the rush of wind through the branches of the nearby pine trees. It came in the quiet, gasped breaths from Anna and Mike and Thor. It came in the pounding of their hearts.
But it was a real and literal music, too, as though the stars themselves suddenly had lips and tongues and were pouring out all their brilliance into melody and harmony instead of light. There was light, too, but sight seemed so much less when even the rocks and trees sang.
All around them, the world melted away. Thor lurched to the side, his hands closing roughly first on Loki's arm and then on Mike's, but there was no need. They were safe. Lyn had the power of the universe burning beneath her skin; the people she wanted safe would be safe.
A rolling drum beat pounded through their bodies, reverberated through their bones, and all the creatures of the Nine Realms froze. The deep strain of a string bass and cellos held them firmly in place before bright trumpet blasts carried them away. They vanished, leaving behind sparkling motes of golden light. Every shimmer brought with it the peal of a hand bell, filling the air with chiming melodies.
A concerto of magic undid the world, and a symphony rebuilt it to glory.
There came the trill of violins, backed by baritone brass instruments, and the rubble that surrounded them picked itself up. The walls were rebuilt by cheerful clarinets and oboes, and sweet piccolos set windows and lights in their right places. Xylophones paved the floors, and saxophones made firm the foundations.
A symphony filled the air, and with it came brilliant explosions of color, every note of every instrument a different shade of bright light.
Lyn tipped back her head and released a quiet breath. With that breath, all the power of the sapling flowed from her body. It poured from her mouth and her skin, a thick cloud of gold in the sky, and for a moment, he thought it would vanish beyond their reach. But it didn't. It twisted and writhed in the air, as though something grasped at it and held it firm and it was desperate to escape.
Yggdrasil's branches are long and wide. There is nothing that can flee from it.
Midgardian lawyers are known for exacting speech, for writing laws so detailed that all manner of loopholes can be avoided and exceptions forbidden. The universe, on a whole, is much simpler than that. Less words are better. And so Yggdrasil took in the power Lyn gave over to it, making the sapling's golden magic a part of itself.
The apple, on the ground at Lyn's side, shattered into a fine mist, and the wind that swept it away was the universe's silent applause.
Lyn's head dropped against his shoulder, and Loki's arms wrapped around her, cradling her against his body. "I'm a good wisher," she mumbled against his armor, apparently unconcerned with all the hard edges that pressed against her. She yawned and a moment later, she was asleep.
Thor moved first. Of all of them, he was most accustomed to the aftermath of battle. He went to Mike and Anna first. Anna laughed, the sound breathless but very heavy and real, full of the weight of life and the knowledge it was still hers. Mike, pale and shaking, looked like he was about to throw up. He managed not to, and with Thor's help, both he and Anna rose.
They stood in the rebuilt field house, in the center of a wooden floor that shone in the harsh artificial light, and then Loki laughed, too. He saw a flash of blue from the corner of his eyes as he extended one arm to his siblings, beckoning them close, but he did not care. On the color of his skin, he had one thought: the blue hue clashed rather horribly with the green of his armor.
But that was the extent of it, and he was far more interested in Mike's arm around his shoulders and Anna's arms around his waist, both of them carefully arranged about him so they wouldn't jostle Lyn.
That Thor hung back made his heart ache, but he said nothing. There was too much between them, a lack of knowledge and understanding and two years of separation that, for Loki, had been mere months. There was a better time for the conversation they needed to have.
So they left the field house, Anna leaning heavily on Mike, if not for physical support than for the emotional kind, and Thor, at Loki's side, was oddly silent.
"Loki." Ah, but that couldn't last, could it? Loki sighed and turned his face to his brother.
"I am relieved that you are alive."
That was all he said until they met the Avengers. They were in a sorry state, their uniforms as torn and dirty as Mike and Anna's clothes, but they were otherwise unharmed. If they had sustained injury, Lyn's wishes had healed them.
Captain America stepped toward them, hesitant and wary, his gaze sliding from the mortal children, who leaned heavily on each other, to Loki. He must have decided that Lyn in Loki's arms rendered Loki harmless because he moved closer. It was a foolish assumption, but Loki was willing to forgive it. "Are we done?" he asked, directing the question to Thor, but asking Loki.
"We're done," Loki said.
Thor's hand settled on Loki's shoulder. "Brother, this is Captain America."
"Yes, I know—"
"Steve Rogers, this is my brother, Loki."
Loki gave Thor an irritated glare before shifting his attention to Rogers. "You'll forgive me if I don't shake your hand."
"Absolutely." Rogers gave him an indulgent smile as Thor quickly introduced the rest of the Avengers, which seemed like the silliest thing to do. But it was also the most normal, and perhaps they all needed a bit of normal.
"Observation," Stark said, pointing at Loki but looking at Thor. "He's blue."
Before Thor could even begin to think of a reply, Mike lifted his chin and said, "So? Hulk's green?" Everyone's eyes turned toward Banner immediately, and Banner ducked his head, clearly discomfited. "You have something against the color blue?"
Stark shook his head, the tiniest smile tugging at the corner of his lips. "Nope. I like blue. Dig blue. Might make a suit that's blue. Also, the students and teachers who managed to escape before everything went to hell are across the street," Stark said, his mask retracted so his face could be seen.
"Oh, good," Mike said cheerfully, earning a wary look from Stark. "Our mom's probably there."
"We should find her," Anna agreed. "So she knows we're not dead." She laughed at that statement, presumably at the absurdity of it, and sagged against Mike's shoulder.
"We'll take you," Rogers said, stepping forward immediately. He likely thought he was being subtle, but Rogers had all the subtly of a charging bull. He wanted to leave.
That was quite fine with Loki, who wanted a moment alone with Thor.
He gave the sleeping Lyn to Banner, who looked like he was holding a ticking bomb instead of a child, and the six departed, leaving Loki and Thor in the cafeteria. It was cleaner than it had been before its destruction, pristine and new like everything else the magic rebuilt.
They stood opposite each other, several paces between them. Thor faced him, his expression and body language open, but Loki stood at an angle, guarded and unsure.
"We thought you were dead," Thor said softly.
"So you said," Loki replied, incapable of making this easy. There was so much between them. One conversation would do nothing to alleviate all of it.
Thor swallowed hard. "I had hoped… I had hoped you survived. I am glad to see you well."
"Thank you for your well wishes."
"Damn it, Loki, must you be so intractable?" Thor demanded.
Loki burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. Part of it was that Thor knew a word like intractable. Part of it was everything else: the stress of the day, of nearly losing his new family, of his brother.
He didn't know which of them moved first, but a moment later, they were holding each other tightly, clinging desperately.
"I missed you, too," Loki said, surprised to hear himself saying the words but knowing they were true. "I didn't think you cared to find me."
"You are my brother. How could I not?" Thor drew back, but he held Loki's shoulders, refusing to release him. "After your—After you fell, Father told me everything. At first, I hated you. But I think I hated myself more. I hoped you had not died. I thought perhaps you had survived, that you landed on some other world. And I am glad to see you here."
Loki gave Thor a wan smile. "I won't apologize for my actions."
"I would not expect you to."
That took Loki entirely by surprise, and he looked at Thor once more, critically this time. He held himself differently. He held himself with the air of a man weighted by a great and heavy burden. His eyes were old and weary, and there were lines on his face that age hadn't placed there. Thor had changed. What Loki had sought in haste the world had affected in its own course.
Thor was a king, now.
And what of Loki? Loki was Loki, and for the first time in his long life, he was content with that. He was content that he would not be king, because the throne had never mattered to him. What had mattered was a good king. Two years ago, Thor would not have been a good king. But now Loki could see the change in his brother's eyes.
He reached out, placing the tips of his fingers on Mjölnir's head. Mjölnir's lightning, which usually bit at him, remained dormant. "You will make a good king for Asgard," he said.
Thor scoffed, turning his face away. "You flatter me brother."
"I am not over fond of platitudes."
Thor laughed softly. "This is true. Come, I would meet this family that has cared for you these two years."
It was Loki's turn to laugh. His was touched with nervousness. "Ah, yes. About that."
They did not return to the Fredericksons' home. Instead, the six Fredericksons on site, the five children (the high school campus was adjacent to Jack's middle school, which was attached to Joe's elementary school) and Mary, were invited aboard the Avenger's Quinjet. In this, they traveled to Chicago and to the building closest to Willis Tower with a helicopter landing.
Their escort brought them in a back way so the Avengers wouldn't be mobbed by people in the atrium, and as soon as they stepped off the elevator, Bob was there. They threw their arms around each other, and when Loki attempted to shift away, Mary grabbed him by his cape and hauled him into the tangle of arms and affection.
Jack was the one who invited Thor into the hug, with the claim that if Loki was their brother, then so was Thor. Thor, in his usual way, made everything both worse and better by somehow managing to get his arms around the whole group and squeezing them together.
They were debriefed by an Agent Coulson who, although having believed Loki to be dead until he walked in the door, took everything in stride. A small-scale invasion was just another day at the office for him.
For the most part, the debriefing was conducted by way of Jack's book, which could also, Loki was surprised (and a bit annoyed) to discover, shrink until it fit quite neatly in a pocket. Jack had pulled it out as soon as he sat, opened it to the halfway point, and told Coulson that the entire story was written there and they could read it if he liked. At various points, Mike or Anna or Loki would interrupt Jack's steady reading to add a detail, but they were, for the most part, silent. The book was frighteningly thorough.
The Fredericksons spent that night in the city, at the Ritz Carlton, in a very nice suite provided by S.H.I.E.L.D. Thor asked Mary, quite politely, if he could stay with them as well once Loki made clear he had no intention of staying with Thor at S.H.I.E.L.D.
Mary made a show of coming to a decision, but she finally agreed, and the kids, Loki, and Thor spent the vast majority of the night in the suite's family room. Thor regaled them with stories of battle, and Loki told them anecdotes featuring Thor making a fool of himself. Like the time they had both dressed as women to get Mjölnir back from the jotun Thrym. While the children were all asleep by two, Loki and Thor were up long after, standing on a balcony and looking over Lake Michigan.
"I was authorized to offer you a position with S.H.I.E.L.D.," Thor said abruptly, taking a sip of a new bottle of beer and grimacing. "I don't know why I keep drinking this."
Loki used Thor's second statement to avoid discussing the first. "Because there is nothing better in Midgard. I have looked."
Thor snorted, setting the bottle down. "I meant that, Loki. Coulson asked me to relay the offer."
Loki pressed his lips together. "I am not a hero," he said at last.
"You are not a villain either."
Loki's gaze swung to his brother's face, but Thor remained still. Leaning on the rail, he studied the frozen surface of the lake that stretched before them. "Then what am I?" Loki asked softly.
Turning slightly, Thor offered Loki a small smile. "You are Loki."
Loki took the job.
Loki closed the book and set it at Lyn's bedside. She reached for him, and he took her dry and wrinkled hand in his own, brushing his lips over her knuckles.
She smiled at him from her hospital bed, and he hated the oxygen tubes that slashed across her face. He hated the gray hair on her head, so thin, and he hated the age spots that dotted her cheeks. Her bony fingers tightened around his hand, but the grip was so light he could hardly call it a squeeze. "Thank you," she rasped, her eyes fluttering shut. He could count the blue veins in her eyelids.
She was so thin now. The years had ticked steadily on, and time had consumed her youth and her energy. But of her beauty, time touched nothing. When she opened her eyes again, they were as bright and blue as they had been the day he met her. "I always loved listening to that story."
"I love reading it to you." He leaned forward and gently touched his lips to her forehead. Her skin under his was warm, but he could feel the faint flutter of her pulse.
"Don't be sad," she scolded him, affecting the same tone her mother had used eighty nine years before. "I've lived a very long time."
He couldn't help the bitter laugh. "Hardly long enough at all."
"Oh, for an immortal, maybe."
He hesitated for just a moment before drawing a golden apple from the air with magic. Her face remained impassive.
She was not surprised by his offering.
"Loki," she said softly as he held the apple to her.
"Just one bite," he said. "Just one."
He glanced toward the hospital door and saw Thor hovering in the doorway. Sif and the Warriors Three hung behind him, and behind them stood Steve Rogers, all of them untouched by time in every way.
Lyn's children, Thora and Ben, stood just inside the door. The grandchildren were elsewhere.
Lyn gave him a weary smile. "All things die, Loki," she reminded him.
"You don't have to."
She pressed his fingers around the apple and pushed it toward his chest. "All things, Loki. Even gods fade over time." She smiled, relaxing into her pillow.
"Watch after Thora and Ben," she told him.
"They're grown with children of their own," he reminded her, leaving the chair at her side to sit on her bed. He drew her frail hand to his cheek and pressed a kiss to her palm.
"Yes," she said slowly. "I forgot. Where's Alex?"
His heart threatened to break. "He's been dead five years now."
Lyn smiled, and it was a serene, peaceful smile. "Oh, good. I shouldn't keep him waiting." Her fingers brushed against his cheek, and with a quiet exhalation, she died.
The machine at the side of her bed started screaming and Loki, without consideration for its cost, melted it with a flick of his fingers. Leaning over Lyn's body, he kissed her forehead, both her eyelids, and then, gently, her lips.
Rising from the bed, he strode to the door as the nurses bustled in.
Loki ignored his brother, shaking off Thor's hand. Behind him, he heard Steve Rogers murmur a word of warning to Thor. And then Loki was in Asgard, using one of Yggdrasil's many branches. One of the new ones, one that grew bright and gold.
With purpose, he strode through the halls of Asgard, and no one approached him as he made his way toward the Hall of the Slain, where the heroes feasted for all of eternity, and there he stood in the doorway, unable to enter.
Lyn, beautiful, laughing Lyn, threw her arms around Mike and Anna, was greeted warmly by Joe and Jack. Her husband was there a moment later. Alex Weaving, one of the Avengers from the West Coast, a mutant with the ability to control ice. She laughed as she embraced her family and was welcomed into a warrior's eternity.
He didn't know how long he stood there watching her, but it was dark when Frigga's presence at his side roused his attentions.
"They were wonderful mortals," she said softly. "Brave. Valiant. Tell me about them."
"Mike joined S.H.I.E.L.D. after graduating with a degree in criminal law. He became a good agent and managed the West Coast Avengers," Loki told her. "Anna became a lawyer. She was responsible for winning the landmark case that granted mutants the same rights as non-mutant American citizens. Jack became a writer." He smiled. "He sold more books than Stephen King."
Frigga made a quiet sound of pleasure. "We have many of his novels in Asgard's libraries."
"Joe joined S.H.I.E.L.D., too. As an agent," Loki continued, leaning heavily on the doorframe. "He and Steve Rogers were friends until Joe was killed by one of HYDRA's agents."
The magic absorbed from the world tree's sapling had changed her. Not drastically, but just enough. "She became a sorcerer, like me," he said. He had taught her. "And an Avenger. They called her the Golden Lady. She met her husband among the Avengers."
Thor's warm hand fell on his shoulder as Frigga wrapped her arms around one of Loki's. From whence Thor had come, Loki had no care. "You loved them," Thor said quietly. "But you loved her best."
"Yes," Loki said as he watched Lyn take her first sip of mead, as he watched her smile with delight and laugh at something Alex said. "I loved them all. But I loved her best."
And that's the end. I'm still noodling with the idea of a sequel, which I probably wouldn't start posting for a few months if I do write it - I have this obsessive need for backlog - but I hope you guys will check back for it.
Thank you so much for reading this story. It started out as something very small and ended up going in a direction I didn't expect. I had such a fun time writing it, and it's my hope that you had a fun time reading it. I can't tell you guys how much I appreciate all your reviews, favorites, alerts, and everything. You guys have been a great audience. Thank you for giving this story a chance!