"Is it working?" Loki asked eagerly, as he leaned over George's shoulder to look at the computer screen.
"As soon as I connect with him, yes," George said patiently. Loki resisted the impulse to bounce up and down. It was ridiculous, considering the kind of magic he had himself both experienced and controlled, but he could not help being excited about the human sorcery called "Skype," with which he could apparently see and communicate with his brother from any other part of Midgard.
George very kindly did not utter a patient sigh, but only just. A moment later, the screen of the computer came to life and Jane Foster's smiling face appeared. Thor was looming over her shoulder in much the same way Loki was over George's.
As if noticing this at the same time, both brothers sat hastily down in their chairs.
"Hi, George!" Jane said cheerfully, her voice slightly crackly in the computer speakers.
"Hullo, Jane," George replied. "Nice speaking to you." He glanced at Loki, who was sitting with his hands clasped and just barely not vibrating with impatience. "I'll just say goodnight, shall I?"
Jane grinned. "Good idea. I think I will, too." She rolled her chair out of the way and, from off-screen, could just be heard speaking, probably repeating user instructions judging by the earnest way Thor was nodding.
George grinned at Loki and also gave way so the brothers, who hadn't seen each other since they all saved the world together last August, could talk to each other.
"It is good to see you, brother!" Loki exclaimed. "This is far preferable to the telephone, although that too is a convenient device. How are you enjoying your visit to New Mexico?"
"Very much," Thor replied. "Yesterday we rose long before sunrise and attended a festival of hot-air balloons, near the village of Albuquerque."
"It's a city!" Jane's voice could barely be heard protesting.
Thor made a face that indicated the mortal must be placated, then stage-whispered, "It is a village." He ducked exaggeratedly as what appeared to be a rolled-up sock bounced off his head. Grinning, and resuming his normal cheerful boom, he added, "The balloons were splendid. They were enormous, of many beautiful colours and varied shapes, each bearing a basket that carried passengers. Jane and I ascended in one, but the tether was not released, so we were unable to go very far."
"You can't steer a hot-air balloon!" Jane's voice sounded again. "We could have ended up anywhere."
It was evident from Thor's regretful expression that, to him, this would have been a large part of the attraction. Loki decided this was an opportune moment to speak up:
"There is a similar festival here in Bristol, each August. Annie and Mitchell and George and I attended it together, last year." This most recent August had been otherwise occupied, what with the aforementioned saving of the world, and then in the last days of the month Loki had been recovering from the injuries-- well, death-- he had sustained during those adventures.
Thor's expression indicated he would perhaps prefer not to be reminded of those circumstances, and Loki was quite willing to change the subject as well. He went on,
"Although I cannot promise you hot-air balloons, I believe we will have no difficulty finding entertainment during your visit. You still plan to-- ?" he added, trying and failing to stifle a small waver of anxiety that seeped into his voice.
"Oh, yes," Thor said quickly. "Tony Stark still intends to pay a visit to his offices in London, and has assured me that he does not mind making a special trip to fetch me on his way from California. I believe he also wishes to speak to Jane about her research, so the plan will be of benefit to all of us. At any rate, I shall accompany him to London in his aircraft, and then acquire a train ticket to Bristol. We shall see each other next Friday evening."
Loki reminded himself that his brother had for centuries navigated the Nine Realms, unsupervised, without becoming unduly lost or bewildered even without Loki's guidance. He therefore suppressed the urge to tell Thor to be cautious. Thor was, after all, hardly a likely candidate for abduction-- for one thing, only a very large kidnapper indeed would be able to stuff him into a sack and make off with him.
This was not a possibility one could wisely suggest to Thor, no matter how responsible Loki felt for his brother's welfare in the part of Midgard to which he laid a sort of claim. Loki was just congratulating himself on holding his tongue when Jane called out,
"Just make sure you look both ways before you cross the street in England. You know how you are."
"It is very unlikely that I will be run over by any cars, my dearest Jane, since you will remain here in America," Thor replied over his shoulder. A second rolled-up sock bounced off his head. Thor grinned offscreen and lobbed the sock back.
At this point, from the same direction as Jane's voice, Loki and his friends could hear a second woman, also with an American accent, although not the same as Jane's, saying loudly,
"We've found her a perfect dress, we've got her jacked up to Jesus, I don't know what else to do!"
Loki actually turned around to make certain his friends had heard the same thing he had. Thor, noticing the expression on his brother's face, spoke up quickly.
"Pay no mind, my friends, it is merely the television. This being Friday night, there is a marathon of a program called Say Yes To the Dress, which Jane and her friend Darcy customarily watch. I have been invited to join them."
"Say Yes… what question does the dress ask, brother?" Loki asked in complete bewilderment. It was not that he was himself unaccustomed to television--he was especially fond of police shows and the Parliamentary channel-- but this was not a program with which he was familiar.
Thor laughed, and explained, "It concerns merchants who sell bridal finery, and a series of young maidens selecting the gowns in which they will be wed. I confess I do not exactly know why Jane thought I might enjoy it, or why she keeps asking me which of the gowns I personally favour."
Behind him, Jane appeared, pressed a cautionary finger to her lips, and then held up a book Loki knew to contain Viking myths. Dreadful stories, many of them, especially the ones involving the Loki character. One could have nightmares. Loki had had nightmares.
There were, however, a few so delightfully silly that Loki almost felt them worth the distress of the others. The one in which story Loki transformed into a mare in order to distract an enemy's stallion, for instance. In the story, Loki-the-mare was impregnated by the stallion, and eventually gave birth to Sleipnir, Father's eight-legged war horse.
When he read them this story, Loki's housemates had made sounds of horrified sympathy. Loki truly did not see what they were upset about: the character in the story had freely decided on the ruse, anyone accustomed to horses would know it could only be assured of working if the form assumed was that of a mare experiencing estrous, and that being the case the outcome (although perhaps not the eight legs) was predictable.
Really, given the constant trouble the mythical Loki seemed to get himself into, spending a year or two as a mare, waiting for her foal to be born and then raising it until it was weaned, was probably the most peace he experienced throughout the whole of mythology. Besides, the real Loki was very fond of the real Sleipnir. Anyone would be proud to call him "son"-- assuming, of course, they were a mare at the time.
That was Loki's favourite of the myths involving himself. (He did not trouble to wonder why there were myths about him when his only visit to Midgard during Viking times had been brief and spent clinging tightly to the only-slightly-larger hand of his brother. Stories never had any trouble passing through dimensions or reality, and somewhere else they were true. He preferred not to think too hard about that.)
His and his friends' favourite tale involving his brother made no sense whatsoever, and therefore had to be true, somewhere, because it definitely involved the sort of trick one brother would play upon another, just to see if he could get away with it.
Well, the sort of trick Loki might play upon his brother…
There was, of course, a rationale within the story that did not fool Loki in the slightest: he was perfectly confident the Loki in the tale was only interested in making his brother look silly. In short, the story had Thor beautifully garbed in female wedding attire, and the fact Jane had duped him into watching this program and offering innocent opinions on the gowns was enough to make Loki wish she was not mortal, and therefore only likely to live a span of eighty or ninety years.
George, who had rolled his chair out of sight of the camera in the computer, had both hands over his mouth while Mitchell and Annie, secure in the knowledge they could not be captured by the camera, clung to each other on the couch and frankly giggled. Loki actually had to employ a little judicious magic in order to keep a straight face.
"It sounds a most entertaining program, brother," he managed.
"It was when it was a drinking game," Thor replied matter-of-factly, at which point George could not restrain his shriek of laughter. "I was unfamiliar with the custom, but according to Darcy, one obtains alcohol and then consumes a set amount at intervals during the course of the program-- every time someone utters the words 'princess' or 'fairy tale,' for example."
"Were you playing it tonight?" George asked, removing his spectacles and wiping his eyes. "Because Jane seems to be in pretty good shape."
"I cheated!" Jane could be heard to call. "I was drinking water, not vodka. I have data to analyze in the morning, I can't afford a hangover!" Loki could only offer his respect to her for the ruse.
"The game ended when Darcy fell asleep, and I carried her to the spare bedroom," Thor reported, perfectly calmly. "I fear she may be very ill in the morning. I am sure you can sympathize, brother. As for Jane and I, we next intend to watch the movie about the fellowship and the ring-quest again."
"Best movie ever!" Jane could be heard to remark.
"I cannot disagree," Loki agreed. "I will not keep you, brother. And besides, I have acquired a new bed which requires assembly-- " Thor naturally did not hear the loud groan emitted by Mitchell, but Loki glanced over his shoulder with an apologetic smile.
"You know how I feel about Ikea," Mitchell grumbled.
"I do," Loki admitted. "And your assistance is much appreciated, as I am not very adept with the sort of tools required for this task."
Loki had not been dissatisfied with his original bed, despite the fact it was practically child-sized. It fit into the available space in his room, and he had long since become accustomed to sleeping in postures more appropriate to kittens than an adult… whatever he was... the size of a rather tall, if thin, human. The bed had been cheaply purchased for him by his housemates, at an Oxfam store, shortly after his arrival on Midgard. Lacking then any source of income, he had been grateful to his friends for the acquisition.
Now that he had been gainfully employed for more than a year, Loki had accumulated a small number of possessions, as well as sufficient savings to enable him to purchase newer and more efficient furnishings. Despite Mitchell's deep dislike of the vendor called Ikea, particularly the necessity of assembling the furniture oneself, he as much as George and Annie were very helpful later that evening.
They had carefully measured the former box room that served as Loki's bedchamber, determining there was in fact enough room for the narrower size of "double" bed sold by Ikea, as well as the maximum possible height for a headboard. Introducing the new bed to the room necessitated the replacement of his current chest of drawers and his bookshelf. The bookshelf was now in the kitchen, and both the chest and the bed had been given away to the small granddaughter of Carol, who was both his supervisor at work and his friend. Loki was inclined to form powerful attachments not only to people, but also things, that were kind to him, and he had been foolishly comforted by the idea his old possessions would have a happy new home.
And when, after some hours of labour and swearing, the bed and other furnishings were in their places, Loki found himself experiencing an unexpected feeling of contentment. He had grown up in the palace at Asgard, and therefore had always been an afterthought to any chamber he occupied: the furnishings were always things that had been in the room for generations, never anything chosen by him or with him in mind, nor subject to his wishes.
Even the replaced bed and chest, fond as he had become of them, had been acquired quickly and cheaply, as befit a refugee with no resources to call upon. The chest of drawers had actually been scavenged from rubbish outside a block of flats. Loki had greatly appreciated the trouble his friends had been willing to go to in aid of his comfort, and that had certainly coloured his attitude toward the furnishings, but you could not really say any selection process had been involved.
And now, for the first time in his life, Loki had been free to choose and acquire things he himself wanted, things that had never belonged to any other, with no one to tell him no. This tiny, den-like room was truly his own, in a way no other place had ever been.
"Whew," Mitchell said finally, finishing the final hinge on a wheeled storage box that would dwell under the bed, "that's done. All you've got to do now is put your things away."
"Thank you all for the assistance," Loki said, hugging his knees as he sat on the floor looking around, feeling slightly overwhelmed. Mitchell smiled at him, indicating he was perhaps not as frustrated now the tasks were completed.
"No trouble, really. It looks very nice in here now."
"I really like the new bedspread, too," Annie contributed. Loki had not actually needed new bedcovers, but had succumbed to the attractions of both a really heavy down-filled quilt and, to go on top of everything, a stout lined spread decorated with stripes of bright colour on a white background.
With all that, he had certainly not needed the second quilt, equally brightly decorated with fanciful images of flowers, now folded accordion-fashion at the foot of the bed, in case he should feel cold at night and wish for an extra cover. Loki now rarely experienced the nightmares of being cold and alone that had plagued him all his life in Asgard, but he still liked to know he had the means to dispel one should it occur. He no longer felt horror at the knowledge he had been born Jotun, but the circumstances under which he had become an Odinson had left him with a lingering fear of being cold.
George and Mitchell went back downstairs to put the tools away, and Annie stayed to help Loki organize his belongings. Annie, who actually took the trouble to fold things, was dealing with the clothing while Loki arranged his bookshelves.
"Action figures," Annie said suddenly. Loki glanced up, startled and a little embarrassed. Annie smiled at his expression. "Do you want your action figures in your sock drawer again, or the storage box, or are you going to finally admit you own them and put them on the bookshelf?"
Loki cast a sheepish look at the collection of small plastic figures Annie indicated. Loki had become aware of the existence of these toys, mostly portraits of superheroes, in the course of his employment as a primary school custodian. When figures of the Avengers had become available, he had been unable to resist the temptation to, secretly as he thought at the time, acquire one of his brother.
Loki had not intended to become personally embroiled with the Avengers, but he and his friends had, on more than one occasion. His growing fondness for the Midgardian heroes was reflected in the growing size of his collection. Its existence was no secret in the house, although he had said nothing about it to Thor.
"The storage box, for now," Loki decided. "It would be embarrassing if I forgot to conceal them before Thor takes up residence here."
Annie looked at him narrowly. "Sweetie, you aren't implying that you went to all this trouble and expense just because your brother's visiting? Isn't he sleeping on the couch?" She was obviously suppressing a smile as she added, "It is the custom on this realm, after all, for the person crashing at your place to sleep on the couch."
Loki wriggled his shoulders. "Perhaps, but given Thor's size, such an experience would hardly be comfortable for him. I was quite happy to sleep there when first I arrived, before my bed was acquired, so-- "
Annie raised her eyebrows. "Yes, but you were so exhausted you probably wouldn't have minded if we'd given you a blanket and put you in the washing machine."
Loki had to concede the truth of that statement, although Annie perhaps underestimated the role gratitude had played in his outlook: he had been in desperate need of someone to help him, and though the housemates were then complete strangers to him, they had not cast him out. It had felt to Loki like an entirely novel experience.
"I just... I do not want my brother to feel as if his welcome is grudging," Loki explained.
Annie smiled again, reached over and patted his knee. "I doubt that'll be a problem, but I see what you mean."
Tony Stark insisted on having his driver transport Thor to Paddington Station, but Thor was able to persuade the man not to wait with him for his train. He probably should be offended, that everyone from Tony Stark to his own younger brother-- Thor had not missed the momentary unease in Loki's expression-- seemed to think him incapable of completing the simplest journey on this realm unaccompanied. It was not, after all, as though he had never traveled anywhere except by Bifrost. However, offense would have spoiled his sense of pleasurable anticipation, and so he chose instead to be amused.
Thor was greatly looking forward to visiting his brother and friends at their home-- he had paid a couple of short visits since Loki took up residence, but not to really see the city or learn about Loki's new haunts. It still gave him a pang to realize his brother had chosen to leave Asgard and their shared past behind, but one could not deny Loki was happier now than he had been at any other time in his entire life. Thor was unpleasantly conscious of his own previous failures in the areas of brotherhood and understanding, and so he felt the very least he could do was to be unreservedly happy for Loki now.
So: Thor was eager to pay this visit, and also to see his brother's reaction to the gift he had brought him. A purveyor of "action figures"-- Loki being well-acquainted with Midgardian children, surely he knew of these toys-- had provided Thor with what he called a "prototype" of the newest Avengers-related figure, not yet available for general sale. The temptation to keep it had been enormous, but Thor comforted himself with the knowledge he would soon be able to obtain another for himself, and the tiny horned figure-- he had checked, and the horned helmet could be removed if Loki wished-- now reposed in his duffle bag, carefully wrapped in a t-shirt.
Besides his eagerness to see his brother, Thor had also looked forward to the journey itself with anticipation. The mortals of his acquaintance assumed he found all Midgardian conveyances to be primitive, and of course compared to the Bifrost, most of them were. But Thor was also accustomed to travel on horseback and on foot, which meant he was used to making relatively slow progress, and to being able to see the countryside and hamlets he passed. The aircraft used by the Avengers were convenient, but Thor missed the sense of connection to the realm as he traveled.
And then, some months ago, he had been at what Tony called the East Coast Avengers' Mansion when Miss Pepper Potts had remarked that she had need to visit the city of New York for meetings, and expressed annoyance at the number of heavy files of which she had need. Thor, thinking a visit to the city might be enjoyable, had offered to accompany her, to carry things. Pepper had been thankful, but had warned him that she planned to travel by a slow conveyance called a "train."
And that was how Thor discovered he loved trains. One could sit and watch the countryside unfurl outside the window, or get up and walk about, and other passengers were frequently amenable to conversation. As he boarded the train for his two-hour journey to Bristol, Thor felt himself well-prepared: he had acquired sandwiches at a cafe in the station, and had two books with him in case the view out the window palled.
It was not entirely unjust to say Thor had not in the past been much of a reader, but he certainly could read. And perhaps it was part of his general effort to maintain his newly improved relationship with his brother, that he now made an effort to seek out books his brother mentioned enjoying. He had been bemused by the story of the pig who befriended the spider, until (despite Loki's warnings) he had been taken entirely by surprise when he burst into tears at a critical moment. When he admitted as much to the Black Widow, she had replied cryptically, "Well, you're not dead," and Thor had left it at that.
The current books had been specifically sent by Loki: one a rousing tale of pirates and an island of treasure, which Loki thought they both might have enjoyed as children, had the library of Asgard extended to works of fiction. Loki was correct, and even now Thor enjoyed the book a great deal, but he was equally interested in the second and much heavier tome sent in the same package. A History of the British Parliament was its title, and it was supplemented by a great many sticky notes containing commentary in Loki's tiny, precise handwriting.
Thor was not certain whether he was more bemused, amused, or simply touched by what the gift meant. Perhaps at some point Asgard would be open to the idea of a more representative form of government, but he suspected Loki's true motivation, whether he realized it or not, was the belief that if Asgard could only become more like Britain, it would be a great improvement for everyone and also Thor would be much happier when he eventually took the throne.
For the most part, except as it related to Loki, Thor actually liked Asgard the way it was. Still, he felt a certain sympathy toward Loki's position, if only because his brother had spent so long in the reverse situation, with Asgard trying to persuade (a better word might be "force") Loki to change, instead of the other way around.
Regardless, Thor decided the political book was heavy going for a train voyage of short duration. He was really only bringing it to ensure Loki knew he was making an effort, and besides, there were elements of the system he wished to ask Loki and his friends about.
Thor made his way down the train, carefully ensuring he did not knock against anyone with his duffle bag. The cars were crowded, and he had to pass through a second car before he found a place to sit. Most of the seats were in pairs, facing forward, but a few were set up so that a group of four might sit facing one another as they traveled. Halfway down the second car, Thor encountered one such grouping, occupied by a single young woman who had spread her belongings over the remaining three seats.
Had there been another seat available, Thor would have moved on, but there was not, and occurred to him that the young woman had probably not purchased separate tickets for each of her bags. Thor stopped at the group of seats, lifted his bag to the overhead rack, and turned his most charming smile on his proposed seatmate.
"May I assist you in putting some of your luggage on this rack?" he offered. The young woman scowled, Thor continued to smile at her, and after a moment she gave in with bad grace and allowed Thor to clear himself a place to sit. He then retrieved his sandwiches and, conversation being unlikely, the book about the pirates, and sat down. The young woman was sitting on the aisle side, apparently to discourage anyone else from joining them. Thor had no objections to taking the window seat on the facing side.
Despite the apparent ill-temper of his unwilling companion, Thor enjoyed watching Paddington Station recede and the city slide past the window. He was about to turn his attention to his book and his lunch when he realized the young woman was staring at him.
It was, of course, possible she was simply thinking deeply and did not notice the apparent object of her gaze. It was also possible, though less likely, that she had recognized him as an Avenger. Thor customarily appeared in public in his armour, which meant that when he wore ordinary Midgardian garb-- in this case, blue jeans and under his jacket a t-shirt emblazoned with something called a Minnesota Viking (a gift from Jane, and even though he knew there was a joke here he did not understand, Thor was already fond of the shirt)--
When he wore Midgardian garb, Thor was almost never recognized except by small children-- Loki had once explained to him that small children see what is actually there, rather than what they expect to see. Thor bowed to his brother's much greater knowledge in this area.
The young woman was clearly long past the age when she would see things with the eyes of a child. When she realized Thor had noticed her frankly not very friendly regard, she blushed and averted her eyes. Feeling a little sorry, though he was not sure why, Thor opened his book and bent his gaze upon it.
"Are you going far?" the young woman spoke for the first time. Recognizing the comment as a peace offering, Thor glanced up and smiled.
"Only to Bristol, to visit my brother," he replied. Something strange passed across the woman's face, but it was gone so quickly Thor could not identify it.
"I hope you have a pleasant stay," the woman murmured. "And… accomplish everything you need to."
There seemed to be no sensible response to that remark, and so Thor simply smiled again and turned his attention to his book and his sandwich. The rest of the journey passed in silence.
When the train pulled in to Temple Meads Station, some two hours later, it transpired that Thor's seatmate was also disembarking. Thor handed down her bags, offered to assist her in carrying them, and took her refusal in good part.
Consulting a clock on the platform, Thor realized that Loki's workday would not end for a further half hour. His brother was uneasy about the amount of time he had missed in the course of various adventures with the Avengers (which, to be completely fair to Loki, always seemed to involve him being abducted by one side or the other, so the missed time was hardly his fault) and Thor had assured him that he did not mind waiting. Loki had described the location of the café at the station and Thor had assured him that he did not mind drinking a coffee and reading his book while he waited.
Accordingly, Thor paused and looked around, orienting himself to the location of both the café and the nearest men's lavatory. The platform was rapidly clearing of people, and Thor found it simplest to wait for the crowd to move on, rather than try to make his way through them-- he had no desire to knock over some human commuter.
By the time he emerged from the lavatory, the platform was almost entirely deserted, and it was getting rather dark. Thor was about to make his way in the direction of the café when a voice at his elbow said,
"I thought you were meeting your brother?"
Recognizing the voice as that of his erstwhile traveling companion, Thor began to turn. There was a strange, muted flash, and he had a sensation of falling.
A moment later, Thor found himself apparently on his hands and knees, looking up and up and up at the face of the young woman as it bent toward him. The world was now in muted shades of black and grey and dark purple. The woman extended a hand, murmuring something unintelligible. Acting on instinct, Thor struck out.
The woman jumped back with a cry as a set of small sharp claws scored the back of her hand.
By the time she recovered from her surprise, Thor was gone.