"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.
Notes: In Chapter Five of Brother's Keeper, there's a reference to a song by John Prine , and it comes up again in this chapter. In the interests of anyone who is unfamiliar with it, the song is "Fish and Whistle". The linked performance is from 2004.
Warnings: In case we need some. But we do not.
Loki arrived at the train station considerably later than the appointed hour. His workday had ended with rather an emergency in the girls' lavatory-- really, if he ever found out what demonic child had thought it a good idea to flush a library book, he might give the punishments of Norse mythology a run for their money. Having pledged to Mrs. Kingston, the headmistress, that he would work no sorcery within the school (what she did not know about the extensive magical wards he had already placed on the building and grounds would hurt no one, except of course ill-disposed supernatural beings)--
At any rate, by the time he and Carol got the toilet unstopped and the flood mopped up, Loki had missed his intended bus and had to wait for the next.
He fairly ran across the platform to the cafe, pulling up outside the door to catch his breath, hoping to look at least slightly less ruffled and ridiculous when he walked in.
There was a sort of stir in the atmosphere, and Annie blinked into sight at Loki's left elbow. Well, she blinked at least into the sight of supernatural creatures.
"Hi," she said cheerfully. "I thought I'd come meet Thor with you."
Loki smiled. "I am sure he will be delighted to see you." He led the way to the cafe door and pushed it open.
The cafe was small and brightly lit, and there was definitely nowhere to hide anything as large as Thor. And yet, as Loki cast his gaze about, there could be no doubt Thor was not there.
"Maybe he missed his train?" Annie suggested to Loki, in an undertone despite the fact none of the humans present could possibly hear her. Loki put his left hand to his ear as mortals did with hands-free mobile phones and argued quietly,
"He would have called me, if he knew he was to be late." He cast an apologetic smile at the waitress who had started forward as though to seat him, then backed away through the cafe door.
Once on the platform again, Loki decided there was no benefit in jumping to conclusions, so he and Annie made a careful circuit of the station, checking waiting rooms and the bookshop in case Thor had mistaken the time or become distracted. Loki also investigated the lavatories, although by that point what Thor would have been doing for all this time really did not bear thinking about.
Thor was not in the waiting room, the bookshop, or the lavatory. Annie passed into a few storage rooms to make sure Thor had not somehow become locked in like a confused pet-- both of them knew the idea was ridiculous, but when the sensible options have all been exhausted, it is time to test the ridiculous ones.
At length, the conclusion had to be faced: Thor was nowhere in the station. Loki had elected not to attempt to call Thor until he ascertained that his brother was not in the vicinity, but now there seemed no alternative.
"He would have called, if he missed his train," Loki muttered unhappily.
"Well, perhaps he forgot his phone," Annie pointed out encouragingly. "He probably isn't used to carrying it yet." Thor had not precisely resisted pressure to begin carrying a communication device, so much as refused to acknowledge the existence of the pressure. Recently he had given in and allowed Tony Stark to equip him with a device probably capable of redirecting communication satellites, all his important contact numbers programmed into it, and Thor had made a sincere effort to learn use it. He was capable of sending and receiving calls, and the texting function was known to him-- his spelling was unreliable owing to the size of his fingertips, and Tony had turned off the autocorrect function when it became apparent that it only made matters worse, but he could indeed send and reply to messages. Still, Loki conceded, it was very possible Thor had forgotten the device somewhere.
"Very well," Loki decided. "We will call him, and if there is no reply we will call Tony Stark and ask whether there has been a problem."
"Right," Annie nodded. "It's probably nothing to worry about."
Loki reached into a pocket and extracted his own mobile phone, keyed in the shortcut that automatically called Thor's number for him. After a moment, he heard a ring on the other end of the line.
And, from somewhere across the platform, down on the outermost line where trains would pass, there was the sound of music playing:
Father, forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us and we'll forgive you
We'll forgive each other 'til we both turn blue
Then we'll whistle and go fishing in heaven…
Loki and Annie exchanged a look.
"Isn't that-- ?" she asked.
"The song Thor told us he intended to use as my ringtone? Yes," Loki replied, already moving toward the sound. Thor's reason for choosing the song was rather a blur to Loki, something to do with an incident early in their last adventure when Loki had still been recovering from the effects of abduction and torture, but when he found and listened to the song he had a sudden powerful feeling of safety and warmth. Apparently, wherever these positive emotions had come from, they were shared by Thor.
Which made it doubly a shame, really, that he now felt such a terrible, cold knot in the pit of his stomach as he walked toward the sound.
He is not down there, he is not down there, someone would have noticed a body on the tracks… Loki could not remember when the next train was due, nor did he know whether it would arrive on that particular line. The raised platform would hide from sight anyone down by the rails, especially if they were lying there hurt or dead because someone had failed to arrive on time to meet them and they had instead fallen victim to muggers or brigands or…
Loki did not notice when he started to run, and he did not break stride when he reached the lip of the platform, but vaulted down to the cinders and rock and iron tracks.
There was no one there. It was by now quite dark, but there still would have been no concealing a body the size of Thor. Loki had not been aware he was holding his breath, but he let it out now in a little sob of relief and lingering panic. Then, once again, he pressed the button that called Thor.
As the song played again, Loki turned his right hand palm-up and called on magical green flames. The green glow cast illumination in the direction from which the music came. Loki took a step forward and finally saw the small heap that turned out to be a duffle bag. The music was coming from inside it.
Well, there was no way Thor could fit into a bag of this size, not even if he was in small pieces. Loki firmly banished the idea, then picked up the bag, threw it onto the platform at Annie's feet, and pulled himself up after it. The two of them carried it around the corner of the nearest building, where Loki set the bag down, knelt beside it, and unzipped the top.
Thor was an experienced traveler, and was therefore skilled at packing to travel light. Loki was familiar with his brother's habits and knew, among other things, Thor was inclined to roll up his garments, so as to avoid unnecessary wrinkling, save space, and render everything easier to find. Loki did the same thing, though for many years he would not have thanked anyone who pointed out who he must have been emulating.
Knowing this, and already anxious, Loki was immediately visited with a jolt of near-panic when he opened the bag and saw crumpled clothing apparently stuffed into the top. He had no memory of Thor ever doing such a thing, even when in a hurry. And considering that he must have packed in New Mexico and then spent an entire day on various conveyances with the bag at his side, there was no reason to think Thor would not at some point have corrected his own untidiness.
The sick anxiety worsened when he realized the crumpled clothing consisted of trousers, shirt, jacket, and underclothing-- in other words, a complete outfit, such as Thor might have been wearing during his travels. It was, as Loki knew from television programs about police detectives, inadvisable to rush to conclusions, but it looked to Loki rather dreadfully like something had happened to Thor-- had been done to him, perhaps-- and then whoever did it had stuffed his clothing into his bag and tossed it down on the line.
The burning question was, Did what?
And also, of course, Where was Thor?
Thor crouched under a bush and peered out, warily checking for any sign of pursuit. After scratching the strange woman, he had run away as fast as he could, narrowly evading death under the wheels of several automobiles. He ran until he was sure he was not being pursued, and then he ran some more, until his lungs ached and his heart was beating so fast that sparks danced in front of his eyes. He had finally stopped, confused and frightened, the fear making him angry, ready to evade any more strangers who might try to take hold of him, and scratch or bite if they succeeded.
And now, hiding under this bush, Thor was aware of a sensation in the pit of his stomach: Lost. It felt like sadness and loneliness, and a little as though he was hungry. He huddled into himself, front paws folded under his chest, and tried to decide what to do.
Deciding what to do was difficult, particularly since his brain now seemed to work mostly in pictures, sounds, smells. It took some time before an image began to form in Thor's mind, showing him what he wanted.
Not what. Who. Thin, with a smiling face high up in the air and a voice like purring. As the picture became clear to him, Thor realized he was purring himself. The lost feeling came back when he realized he had no idea where to find this who, but now that he knew what he needed to do, a little of his courage came back.
He would find his who, and somehow that would make everything all right.
Thor slipped out from under his bush and trotted purposefully along the pavement. Surely if he began looking now, he would find his who soon.
"It doesn't necessarily mean anything's happened to him, though," Mitchell argued, with infuriating-- and unconvincing-- optimism.
Loki turned a savage pale glare on his beloved friend. "Of course it doesn't," he replied, in a tone of vicious sarcasm he had never before unleashed on anyone in the household. "Thor simply decided he felt warm, and was tired of the clothing he had brought with him on this trip, and so he disrobed and discarded his luggage, and is at this moment walking happily around Bristol, viewing the tourist sites, in the dark and in the nude. Now that is an inconspicuous sight to imagine. No wonder it has not yet been reported on the local news."
Mitchell sighed, clearly unoffended by Loki's very real, if badly out-of-practice, effort to wound him. Loki, for his part, was quite aware he would feel shame about that very soon. He was not sure what he was feeling at the moment aside from angry panic. He had of late rather lost the habit of venting his fear and helplessness in malicious words, but it seemed to him that it used to make him feel rather better than this.
"You don't have any proof those are the clothes he was wearing, though," Mitchell insisted.
"On the television, they refer to a thing called the 'preponderance of evidence'," Loki replied sulkily, looking at the floor as, right on schedule, the shame began to make itself felt. "Particularly considering I also found his boots-- very well, a pair of familiar-looking boots in an appropriate size-- on the tracks near where the bag had fallen."
Mitchell opened his mouth, glanced at Annie as she shook her head, and closed it.
"All right," Annie spoke up instead, "maybe we should look in the bag again and see if there are any… any clues, to what happened to him." At disbelieving looks from Mitchell and George she argued, "What? Do you have any better ideas?"
Loki had not. He had made an attempt to scry for his brother, using as his focus point the reflection of a candle in a bowl of water. Owing to his own agitation, however, he had found it impossible to concentrate enough to enter a suitable trance state, and all he was able to receive were confused and unclear images that might have been the lower parts of rubbish bins or fences-- or might have been recumbent Frost Giants, for all he could tell. He finally conceded temporary defeat, not least because the fact he could not seem to feel any sense of Thor anywhere in the vicinity frightened him.
"I have no better ideas," he conceded quietly.
"I know you don't want to snoop in your brother's things," Annie said gently. Loki gestured tiredly.
"It is not as though it would be an unprecedented occurrence," he muttered. Feeling the eyes of all three housemates on him, he shrugged. "Unlike me, Thor knew no spells to protect his privacy when we were children, after he left me behind in the nursery."
"You used to get into his room?" Annie asked mildly.
Loki shrugged again. "Get into his room, play with his toys, sleep on his bed if he was at the sparring grounds and I had slept badly the night before. He was always at the sparring grounds, and I had always slept badly. I always woke in time to get out of his room before he came back, so he never caught me, and no one else ever missed me. I really was the most dreadful little sneak." He sighed. "And then I was old enough to join Thor for training in combat, he and his friends, and after a while it was no longer comforting to slip into his room and sit among his things."
Annie patted his knee and began without comment to remove things from the bag. Rolled up clothing. The copy of Treasure Island that Loki had sent him. The copy of A History of the British Parliament that Loki had sent him, the same copy Loki had initially bought for himself, still bristling with the sticky notes Loki had used to organize his ideas for how parliamentary government could be introduced to Asgard, to the benefit of all. Never let it be said that Loki Odinson was enslaved to such things as common sense and probability.
Loki's pad of sticky notes had been yellow. As he flipped through the book, Loki found that a rather large number of pink sticky notes had been added, some of them attached to his own notes, all of them bearing Thor's blocky handwriting: questions he meant to ask or points he wished to have clarified. Ask Loki… ask Loki…
"He's definitely been reading that," George said as he looked over Loki's shoulder. "But I don't think it's a clue, necessarily."
Loki closed the book and abruptly set it down on the coffee table. Not, perhaps, a clue to where Thor was now, at least in a physical sense, or at all helpful in finding him, but…
"What's this?" Mitchell asked, poking at a t-shirt that was not rolled as neatly as its fellows. There seemed to be something concealed within it. Mitchell carefully unrolled the shirt--
And a tiny, horned plastic figure in green and bronze armour fell onto the coffee table. Loki and his friends stared down at the little figure, which stared up at them, its solemn little face reflecting the same grim worry Loki's did. This was hardly surprising, since it was in fact Loki's own face, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.
"That's-- " Annie began.
"-- you," George said, reaching out gently to stand the little figure up. "He brought you an action figure of you."
"It's really cute," Mitchell commented, momentarily distracted.
"And sweet of him, too," Annie added, and then added, "Loki? Are you all right?"
"This is my fault," Loki blurted, unable to look away from the accusing little face of the action figure.
"Don't be silly," Annie argued uneasily.
Loki did not even look up. "It is," he insisted. "He was coming to see me. If he had not been doing that, if he had stayed in America-- "
"Loki, stop," Annie said calmly.
"It is too late to tell me to do that," Loki snapped, although this time it was evident the ugliness of his tone was not directed at Annie. "The time to tell me to stop was before I invited him to come here, and land in whatever disastrous mess he is in now." George and Mitchell exchanged a look, and then George got up without comment and walked into the kitchen.
"Whatever happened to Thor, it's not your fault," Mitchell spoke up. Loki dragged a hand back through his hair, pulling at it in what might have been an effort to focus or simply to punish himself.
"Then whose fault is it?" he demanded.
George came out of the kitchen again, carrying a small pink spray bottle. "Loki."
"Yes?" Loki began, turning toward George. The stream of cool water caught him in the throat and splashed both ways: up his jawline and down the front of his shirt. Loki's head jerked sideways and he let out an indignant huffing sound as he turned on George.
George, completely unintimidated by his friend's expression, said calmly,
"Sorry about that, but it had to be done. It was your brain. You know how your brain gets." He extended the hand not holding the pink spray bottle, and held out a tea towel.
Loki blinked, took in a deep breath, exhaled, then accepted the towel and wiped his face and neck. "Thank you," he said quietly. "I am quite sure I needed that."
"You did," Mitchell assured him.
"It's true," Annie agreed, ruffling his hair affectionately. Loki turned a wobbly smile on his friends and tried again.
"I may have allowed myself to become too agitated-- I am not blaming myself for doing so, and do not require another shower," he added hastily, glancing at the water bottle George still held.
"Oh, excuse me," George murmured, and put the bottle on the coffee table next to the little action figure.
Loki smiled faintly. "Very well. I will calm myself, and then try again to scry for my brother, and we shall see what happens. In the interests of clearing my mind, I think I should go for my run." He hesitated, registering the looks on his friends' faces. "I promise not to do anything rash."
"Maybe you should just promise not to do anything at all until you get home and can talk any ideas you get over with us," Annie suggested.
"You do sometimes have… an unusual idea of what constitutes 'rash'," George said. Mitchell smiled ruefully and nodded.
Loki considered, then nodded. "Agreed," he said, and went upstairs to change into his running clothes.
The run-- evening and morning-- was a ritual Loki had begun some months into his new life here in Bristol. Given that neither he nor his friends could ever be sure where a supernatural threat might come from, he realized it would be wise for him to retain some sort of physical conditioning in addition to keeping his magic sharp. He had briefly considered one of the gyms that offered lessons in arts like "kickboxing," but on second thoughts had realized that if he forgot himself he was likely to draw unwanted attention-- and also possibly kill someone. That being the case, it seemed wiser to do something unthreatening, something with no violence involved.
Shortly after his arrival in Bristol, possibly in those hazy first days when he had been so confused and tired that all he could do was sleep on the couch and then follow Annie around like a pet, Loki had noticed a pattern of human activity on their street. Certain humans, always the same humans, walked or ran-- often accompanied by dogs, which puzzled Loki since, in Asgard, dogs existed to hunt or guard, not to frisk happily beside a particular person and look at them with adoration-- through the neighbourhood at predictable times of day.
He fairly soon figured out that such activity was normal on this realm, its practitioners inconspicuous within the community. Running was good for the body, and if one planned his route carefully, it was also a good way to discreetly patrol the boundaries of the little part of the realm he claimed as his own. Within limits, since it was impossible to actually circumnavigate the United Kingdom every morning before he went to work, but by varying his route slightly in a pattern throughout the week, Loki was able to maintain a fairly constant sense of the normal level of supernatural activity within his part of the city.
Now, having stretched as any watching humans would expect, Loki set off down the pavement with most of his attention attuned to the presence of magic around him. Something had happened to Thor, something that prevented Loki, and also Annie, from being able to use their powers to find him. Unless he was dead-- and the abandoned belongings somehow seemed to argue for abduction rather than death-- the only explanation Loki could think of was that he was somehow cloaked by powerful sorcery.
If he could not actually find Thor, Loki felt his best chance was to seek out spikes in magical activity, and see where they might lead. Accordingly, as he ran Loki allowed his mind and his magic to wander, not thinking or filtering or expecting, in the hope that something would call itself to his attention.
Thor kept one eye on the dog and maintained a continuous growl as he ate the contents of the animal's dish. The dog, a large black creature with floppy ears, carefully avoided eye contact and remained at a respectful distance as its dinner was consumed.
A very small part of Thor felt rather badly about the situation, but he was hungry-- this little form seemed to burn nourishment at an accelerated rate-- in addition to being tired and lonely and, if he would admit it, frightened. And being frightened still made him angry. He had resisted the impulse to slay any of the tiny scurrying creatures that lived in the spaces under the houses, or to rob the dishes of any small dogs or cats he encountered, but the hunger demanded sustenance and the anger needed an outlet.
The big dog had seemed a fairer target, but had retreated with a startled whine when Thor, fur fluffed and spine arched, had come sidling toward him uttering the siren-like moan that was all he could now manage by way of a war cry. The dog's reaction made a very small part of Thor feel ashamed of himself, but necessity still pushed him to eat the dry morsels in the food dish-- more appetizing than they looked-- before climbing the fence and proceeding down the alley.
His search was not going terribly well. He had no idea where to start, or even where he was. Something suggested that if he went back to the train station he might be able to find a clue, a track of some sort, but he did not know how to find the train station, and after a further close call he was reluctant to approach the streets where cars roamed. He was beginning to fear his search would prove entirely fruitless, the anxiety declaring itself in images of sleep snatched under bushes, an empty belly, and no one whose gentle fingers knew exactly the best places to rub behind his ears.
(A very small part of Thor tried to remind himself that the who he sought was not normally a bestower of ear-rubs, but the rest of him rejected the argument. The object of his search was a focus of safety and comfort and warmth. Obviously, there would also be ear-rubs.)
Disheartened, Thor crept out of the alley, for once remembering to be wary of cars.
And then he… smelled… something.
Even in his current form, Thor knew what he was doing was not precisely smelling, and a very small part of him was surprised at himself for being able to sense anything in the first place. He stopped, sniffing at first and then opening his mouth, curling his lips and tongue to draw even more of the phantom scent into his olfactory glands as he inhaled. In his usual form, Thor had been exposed to this "scent" for most of his life, though he had never been aware of it. His current form, however, was extremely sensitive to magic. And his current form recognized the magical signature at once, as though realizing now that it had always been familiar, a combination of fresh wood smoke, cinnamon, and mint.
He had not yet found the who he sought, but he was very close. The roots of Thor's ears fairly tingled in hopeful anticipation.
If he turned one way, the scent of magic was stronger, the mint drawing him forward. The other direction was fainter, still easy to follow, but older. Thor was a hunter, his current form also, and he realized the temptation to follow the fresher track would be a mistake: he was too small to catch up, and so the wisest course was to follow the track backwards to its starting point-- comfort, rest, kind voices, food in dishes-- and wait for the source of the magic to return.
Resolutely, and feeling a little braver, Thor began his task of following the track backward.
And then he heard the sound of feet on the pavement behind him.
Loki had found nothing concrete on his run, no definitive signs of unusual magical activity. There were ebbs and flows, but nothing that told him of danger or threat. Even his most careful probing for cloaked magic came to naught. There was nothing to take hold of, nothing to investigate, and as he turned toward home, on the part of his route that backtracked away from the river before looping through his neighbourhood from the other direction, he was both discouraged and frightened.
He was distracted enough, aside from the dark, that he did not even see the furry shape that launched itself at him until he had nearly tripped over it. Loki stumbled, managed not to step on the orange cat-- kitten, really, it was large for a cat but still surely no more than half-grown-- and came to a panting stop as the creature assaulted his shins, squeaking and trilling and purring so hard it practically grunted on each inhalation, winding between his feet and rubbing its head against the cuffs of Loki's trousers and the tops of his running shoes.
Loki was not terribly familiar with the habits of cats, although he found them appealing creatures. He did, however, have the impression such an outbreak of affection toward a total stranger was unusual for the species. He looked down at the cat, which looked up at him, eyes squinted in adoration, and once more rubbed its head against him.
Loki bent, reached out a cautious hand, brushed his fingertips against the small, insistent, furry head.
A picture flashed into his mind, a smiling figure in cape and armour. Loki's eyes widened. He withdrew the hand, to a disappointed yowl from the importunate cat. Then he reached down and ran his hand firmly along the creature's head and back. The picture came back, and this time its expression was relieved.
Loki knelt, and the cat immediately tried to scramble into his lap. Scarcely daring to believe it, Loki spoke:
Note: In case you would like to see what Thor looks like at the moment:
Notes: In which a cat behaves much like a cat.
Warnings: In which a cat behaves much like a cat. And Skype probably does not behave much like Skype, but we're handwaving that.
Despite the kitten's-- Thor's-- obvious willingness to accompany Loki, returning safely to the house was not a trouble-free experience. In the first place, while initially his brother seemed happy to be picked up and carried, he quickly became impatient and squirmy, clearly wishing to mountaineer onto Loki's shoulder. Half-grown kitten or not, Thor was still far too large to comfortably ride on a shoulder the size of Loki's. He was forced to cling, and his claws-- as Loki had already noticed during the original scramble up his chest-- were very sharp.
Loki was quite adept at certain healing spells, but that still did not mean he wished to have his flesh shredded from his bones. With that in mind, he attempted to persuade Thor to return to his arms, or failing that to walk alongside him. And that was how Loki discovered the difficulties inherent in attempting to dislodge a cat from its chosen perch. This was true when the aforesaid perch was one's own shoulder, but even moreso when it became the back of one's neck. Loki's arms were long, and he was quite limber, but even so the experience of pursuing a resistant cat around a Maypole-- himself serving as the Maypole-- was not one he thought he would ever care to repeat.
The fact Thor apparently misunderstood his intentions and clung, crying pitifully, as though he believed Loki was intent upon casting him into a void, made the whole experience painful in more ways than one.
The situation was still not resolved when one of the neighbourhood dog-walkers appeared. The pleasant-faced motherly woman and her sweet-tempered black Labrador were known to Loki from his evening runs. Some dogs-- particularly the small fluffy ones-- were inclined to bark at passing runners, but Nelson the Labrador (Loki did not know the name of his owner) merely wagged his broad tail and smiled.
He did not smile now: at the sight of Loki, or more accurately his passenger, Nelson's floppy ears flattened, his tail drooped, and he uttered a bark that was more alarmed than menacing.
However-- of course-- Loki's already-agitated cat-brother did not see it that way. Thor scrambled out of Loki's tenuous over-the-shoulder grasp, braced himself upon Loki's already-tattered trapezius muscle, launched himself spectacularly to the pavement as Loki whirled in a forlorn and useless effort to catch him before he hit the ground, and disappeared around the corner of the house at the end of the terrace.
Loki Silvertongue discovered the only words that came to his lips were the sort one does not utter in the presence of pleasant-faced motherly women. Fortunately, the dog-walker suffered no such verbal paralysis.
"Oh dear, are you all right? I'm so sorry, Nelson didn't mean to frighten your little cat-- is he yours?" Without pausing long enough for Loki to make any reply, she went on, "I thought he was a stray earlier when he stole Nelson's dinner, I was going to call the RSPCA, the poor little thing looked so hungry I didn't have the heart to shoo him and Nelson can afford to have his dinner late for once but by the time I found the number he had gone-- "
Loki found his voice and, mercifully, the words that came out were both decent and appropriate to the situation. He sometimes worried that he was losing his talent for deceit-- a small gift, but his own-- and it was reassuring to hear himself saying soothingly,
"No harm has been done to my cat, and I hope none to Nelson. There must have been a window left open, or a screen loose. I am grateful for your concern but there is really no need to be troubled. I will just-- " Loki gestured toward the corner of the house and the woman made further sympathetic noises as he hastened in pursuit of his no-longer-big brother. Fortunately, it being fairly dark, Loki did not think she could see the state he was in.
The garden behind the end house was not fenced, though the next was. A cat might easily scale a wooden fence, but Loki was hopeful Thor had found a hiding place in this first yard. Surely he was not really intent upon escaping from Loki? He had merely been startled by the dog while already agitated. And possibly also beset by a guilty conscience regarding the creature.
The house behind him was dark, except for one faint light in what Loki guessed might be the kitchen. In his own household, the custom was to leave the light on over the stove when the housemates went out at night, so they need not re-enter a completely darkened house. This practice was not exactly necessary, given Mitchell's night vision and Loki's ability to conjure light-producing flames, but it was a habit retained by George and Annie from their days as humans, and Loki found it pleasant to imagine the house patiently awaiting their return.
Loki now hoped the light he could see was indeed a sign this house was currently unoccupied, because he had no wish to cause the householders to believe there was an intruder in their back garden. He had no desire to alarm anyone, for one thing. And for another, he particularly did not want to have to explain his battered condition to the occupants or the police.
"Brother?" he called softly, walking carefully in case of unseen obstacles in his path. "Thor?"
There was no response to his call. At the back corner of the little space, next to the fence, was a small storage shed. Such a structure, Loki realized, would probably rest upon supports of some kind-- bricks or blocks of wood-- and therefore might possess a space underneath that could provide a bolt-hole for even a fairly large cat.
"Thor?" he tried again, still quietly, as he approached the shed. "Tho-or," he went on, in a croon that somehow felt appropriate for calling a small creature who might need to be reassured that one meant it no harm. Loki found it quite strange to imagine his brother feeling this way-- not that Loki had never harmed Thor, which he chose not to think about at the moment, it was simply that he could not imagine Thor worrying about such a thing until it was actually happening. Under normal circumstances Thor could be intrepid to the point of foolishness, but his new form was, apparently, more prudent.
No cat emerged. Behind him, the house remained dark and quiet, so Loki risked the cold green flames. "Thor?" The yard thus illuminated was small and bare of anything except grass and a flowerbed whose occupants were, this deep into fall, sleeping their winter sleep. Either Thor was not here, or he was under the shed.
Loki sighed, then got down on his hands and knees and lowered himself until he was prone, trying to illuminate the space underneath the shed with his magical flames. Perhaps he should take to carrying a small electric torch on his keys.
As he had thought, the area under the shed formed a sort of wide low burrow. In the back corner, where the fence was, something flashed green, reflecting the light of the flames. Loki realized with relief that it was eyes. Cats' eyes.
"Thor? Brother?" he tried again, working very hard to keep any frustration out of his voice. There would be no benefit in his becoming angry at Thor for behaving like a cat: as a shapeshifter himself, Loki had a great deal of first-hand experience with the tendency of a new shape to influence the mind occupying it. Loki had to guard against it sternly, and that when he was changing by choice.
However Thor had ended up in this small striped body, it had not been his own doing. It was even possible there were extra wards on the form, making it even harder for Thor to retain the memory of himself as a man, an Aesir warrior, rather than a small fluffy robber of Labradors.
"Not that anyone blames you for being hungry," Loki said aloud, in the best soothing tone he could manage. "I do not believe even Nelson is angry at you, and I feel sure he would be sorry for startling you. Please come out. Brother? Puss-puss-puss?" This last was delivered in the cadence he had heard used by humans calling to cats. Loki could not recall whether it ever actually worked, but he was becoming desperate enough to try nearly anything. He dragged himself forward with his elbows, trying to ignore the sting as the scratches-- lacerations-- on his chest were scraped against the ground. "Puss-puss-puss…"
Thor retreated a little farther under the shed, and Loki was forced to conclude the spell that sealed his brother in this feline form was powerful indeed. He did not really want to do it, but having no desire to still be here when the sun rose, face-down on the lawn by the shed, he decided to use a little magic of his own to drag his brother out.
"I am very sorry about this," he whispered, extended his right hand under the shed, and cast the gentlest bolt of transporting magic he could manage.
There was a brilliant flash and a boom! that seemed localized to the inside of his head, and the next thing Loki knew he was recovering consciousness on the other side of the yard, propped up against the brick outer wall of the house. His head hurt.
Fortunately, however, it hurt partly because it was being determinedly rattled and bumped into the wall by another head, and that was a small furry one belonging to Thor, who was purring and snuffling and apparently now declaring everlasting feline devotion.
Loki was beginning to understand why so many Midgardians swore by-- and also at-- the perversity of cats.
"Good to see you, brother," he said, rather than any of the other greetings that currently came to mind. Then he wobbled to his feet, nearly fell as he bent over, and lifted Thor in his arms.
Thor snuggled into his chest and purred angelically all the way home.
"You've got to be kidding," Mitchell said, eyes wide and mouth beginning to curve into a delighted smile that made Loki's fingers itch for the pink spray bottle. "That's Thor?"
"Are you sure?" George asked doubtfully, eying the fluffy creature, who sat bolt upright in Loki's lap at the kitchen table, occasionally reaching up with a paw to pat at the steaming cup of tea before them.
Now that it was possible to see the kitten properly, Loki could not imagine anyone who knew his brother failing to recognize him on sight. He had already noted the cat's fluffy orange-striped coat and unusual size for what appeared to be a leggy half-grown kitten. Under the lights of the kitchen, the lush fur was revealed as a sort of deep marmaladey golden, with swirling stripes of much deeper golden-red. Thor's tail was a long, sinuous brush, and his large pointed ears were topped with charming tufts, rather like a wild cat's. It was also evident that, should he remain in this form long enough to achieve full growth, he would develop a most attractive ruff around his face, also like a lynx or other wild cat. He was large already, but his paws-- tufted between the toes with yet more golden fur-- were still disproportionately large, indicating that full growth in this form would be impressive indeed.
Not, Loki added a hasty mental amendment, that there was any chance Thor would stay a cat long enough for this to happen.
"He certainly looks like Thor," Annie remarked sensibly, extending a finger toward the kitten's nose. Thor immediately stood halfway up on his hind legs and caught at the finger, very gently, with both front paws. "And he can see me, too."
"All cats can see ghosts," George argued. "Although I admit, I don't think they're generally quite this calm around werewolves or vampires."
"That's Thor," Mitchell repeated. If he was trying to conceal his rising glee, he was doing an extremely poor job of it.
"Loki, it's not that I doubt you, but-- " George began, clearly doing just that. Loki began to rub the purring kitten behind the ears, which caused the purrs to redouble in intensity.
"George, you have seen me transform into a raven and an otter," Loki pointed out. "Surely you do not think I am the only creature in the Nine Realms capable of so doing?"
"Yes, but Thor doesn't shapeshift," George argued. Loki reached for his tea, desisted when the kitten grabbed at his wrist as though intent on dumping the hot liquid all over both of them, and explained patiently,
"I am also capable of casting a shapeshifting enchantment on another. It is not, frankly, a specialty of mine, but that does not mean another sorcerer might not be more adept at the spell than I am." Thor twisted around in Loki's lap to gaze up at him out of adoringly squinted green eyes. Loki rubbed his ears and added, "Try to control your astonishment at my willingness to admit to inadequacy, brother."
Thor purred harder, and reached up to rub his face against Loki's chin. Loki scruffed a hand from the top of Thor's head all the way down his back, tugging gently at his tail as he reached it. Thor flipped over in Loki's lap and waved all four paws in the air, in apparent invitation to have his belly rubbed. Loki, who had fallen for this ruse once already and had the gashes on his wrist and hand to prove it, declined. Turning back to George, he went on:
"To cast such a spell as this requires considerable power, particularly to maintain it in the absence of the sorcerer. It is apparent that Thor is securely bound in this form, and the enchantment may be getting stronger with time, since I no longer receive a vision of my brother in his usual form when I touch him with my bare hand."
"And you're sure it wasn't your imagination?" George asked, but plaintively, not as though he believed his own suggestion any longer.
"George, please," Loki replied simply. He and George looked at each other, and George sighed.
"I bet you're not looking forward to explaining this one to your folks," the werewolf said sympathetically.
Loki had not even thought of that eventuality. He could feel his eyes get huge-- at least as big as Annie's suddenly were-- and his hands tightened on Thor until the kitten squeaked and mimed a bite at him. Loki stroked Thor apologetically until his brother settled down, and then glanced up at the ceiling, trying not to look as anxious as he felt. Ordinarily he would prefer to go outside and speak directly to the sky at such a time, but he knew it was not really necessary.
"Heimdall," he said, trying to sound calm and reasonable and not at all pleading, while simultaneously aware there was little point in pretending: he had never been able to bluff the Guardian. "I would very much appreciate, Heimdall, if you would not mention this to Father and Mother."
"Unless you think they'd find it funny," Mitchell amended, also speaking to the ceiling, giggling helplessly. Loki shot a desperate look at the vampire. Mitchell, seeing Loki's expression, bit his lip and tried to make his face solemn.
And then he burst into spluttering, hysterical laughter. Put his head down on his folded arms and howled. Thor looked at him in puzzlement, hopped out of Loki's lap onto the table, walked across to Mitchell, and leaned down to shove his whiskery little face into Mitchell's whiskery larger one. Mitchell looked up, got poked in the eye by a cat nose, and laughed harder.
Annie got up without comment, walked over to the sink, picked up the pink spray bottle and made a smooth circuit of the table, scooping up Thor with one hand while giving Loki the spray bottle with the other.
"Your turn," she said sweetly as she carried the slightly confused-looking Thor safely out of range. Loki looked at her, looked at the bottle, and then looked at Mitchell, who was now trying to smother his giggles behind his hands.
Loki, perhaps with a little malice aforethought, shot him anyway. It felt surprisingly good, so he did it again. The purpose of the spray bottle was to startle Loki out of some of his less productive mental patterns, and most of the time it worked. It now became obvious the effect under these circumstances was quite different: Mitchell swiped at the water rolling down his face and just laughed harder. By this time it was becoming infectious, but Loki was too stubborn to just give in.
"What is the matter with you?" he demanded, turned the nozzle from "stream" to "spray" to reduce the chances of accidentally drowning Mitchell, and fired again.
"Nothing," Mitchell giggled. "Nothing's the matter. Nobody's dead or stabbed or disappeared or had his throat ripped open. Thor's perfectly safe, except he's an adorable kitten, and I think we should get him a collar with a bell on it and take lots of pictures before you turn him back, because you're going to tease him about this forever. Compared to what could have happened, compared to what we were afraid of a couple of hours ago? This is nothing. This is hilarious."
Loki fired one more half-hearted warning shot over Mitchell's head, and then gave in. Mitchell was, of course, correct. And if it had been Tony Stark sitting at the kitchen table, clutching a kittenized Captain America, Loki knew he would himself be alternating helpful suggestions with bouts of hysterical giggling. Loki put down the spray bottle, Annie handed him back his brother, and Thor looked around with a bemused expression as Loki hugged him and all four housemates laughed themselves tearful.
"I do apologize, brother," Loki finally choked out, wiping his eyes. "I do not mean to minimize the inconvenience to you. I shall make every effort to reverse this spell as quickly as possible."
"Of course you will," Annie said encouragingly, patting Loki on the shoulder. She jerked her hand away when Loki flinched and yelped. "What?" she demanded, and then for the first time seemed to really take stock of Loki's more-than-disheveled appearance. "What on earth happened to you?"
"Thor objected at first to being carried," Loki explained. Annie's eyebrows rose.
"And you didn't think to apply that handy healing spell of yours?" she inquired.
"I was rather busy and distracted," Loki muttered. And then, because being a talented liar did not mean he was incapable of telling the truth, he added, "And also I may perhaps have been hoping for a sympathetic reception."
"Aww," Annie said, leaning toward him. For most of his life, Loki would have found it difficult to believe he would enjoy the experience of being kissed by someone who was simultaneously laughing at him, but he had been wrong before and probably would be again.
"Okay, you two, focus," George said finally, backing up his words with a short spray from the pink bottle to retrieve their attention. Thor, deeply offended by the few droplets that landed on his fur, jumped to the floor-- first digging all his claws into Loki's thighs-- and began a huffy-looking toilette. Loki reached down to rub his ears again and received, fortunately, a friendly reception. Thor then began to explore the kitchen while Annie sat down in the fourth chair and Loki, after taking a moment to heal the worst of his gouges, belatedly took the opportunity to drink his lukewarm and now watered-down tea.
"How hard do you think it'll be to reverse the spell?" Mitchell asked, ready to be helpful now that he had the giggles out of his system.
Loki felt himself sobering as he watched Thor sniff the corners of the room.
"That is difficult to say," he admitted. "The same concerns apply now as did in the case involving Steve Rogers some time ago: without knowing who cast the spell, and how that sorcerer's magic works, I cannot simply cast a second spell to reverse the first. I might make things a great deal worse."
"So we need to find out who cast this spell," Annie said, and in spite of the genuine seriousness of the situation, as well as the length of time he had been living here with his housemates, Loki was still conscious of a feeling of warmth at that magical word, "we," and the assumption he was included in it.
"Yes," Loki agreed. "Let us assume Thor did not deliberately run afoul of some sorcerer who felt a legitimate need to defend himself. I really cannot imagine, under the known circumstances, how anything like that could have happened."
"No," George agreed, also looking thoughtfully at the kitten. "Thor certainly wouldn't have been looking for any trouble. And besides, he's not as good at picking up on magic as you are, so there's every chance he wouldn't have realized he was even dealing with a sorcerer. Whatever faults he might have had in the past, I don't think he would ever have been the type to bully humans on a train."
"Definitely not," Loki replied, a little offended on his brother's behalf at even the hypothetical suggestion. "Thor would never be intentionally unkind to anyone." His friends nodded, all three faces carefully neutral. Loki opened his mouth to argue that his own former difficulties with his brother were his own fault as much as Thor's-- then considered his willingness to receive another faceful of water, and decided to let the past rest.
Returning instead to the matter at hand, Loki swirled his cool tea and gazed into the cup as though intent upon scrying from it.
"If we agree that Thor probably did nothing to actively provoke this-- " he could not think of a word other than "attack," and despite the facts of the situation, that seemed a little melodramatic when one considered the victim of the "attack" was now lying on his side on the floor, apparently trying to dig something out from underneath the stove with a forepaw.
Loki marshaled his thoughts and tried again. "If we agree Thor did not provoke his own... transformation... it seems probable the author of this situation is someone who felt resentment against Thor for some other reason."
"So maybe someone who has a grudge against the Avengers?" Mitchell suggested.
"That is really all I can think of," Loki agreed. Thor glanced at him and Loki wiggled his fingers invitingly. Thor rolled gracefully to his feet and trotted over to levitate into Loki's lap again. Rubbing his brother's ears, Loki began to pick his own theory into pieces: "At first blush that seems the most likely explanation, but I am not even sure how many of the Avengers' enemies actually command magic."
"Dr. Doom?" Annie suggested doubtfully.
"He is certainly the first person I thought of," Loki agreed. "But-- "
"What would he be doing, hanging around a train station in Bristol?" Mitchell voiced the first of the obvious objections.
"And this is nowhere near spectacular enough for Doom," George came up with the second, even more pertinent, one.
"Exactly," Loki mused, scratching Thor's chin and throat gently. "In fact, the same objection could be made about any of the supervillains opposed to the Avengers: they are, to be blunt about it, incurable showoffs. I, myself, when I went mad and fell into villainy-- " George casually rested a hand on the pink spray bottle and Loki hastily amended his comments: "Anyway, it is in the nature of such villains to want to make themselves as conspicuous as possible. They seek acclaim. If Dr. Doom, or some other magical supervillain, had laid such a curse upon Thor, he would have done so in broad daylight in the middle of a major centre such as London or, even better, New York, where the Avengers have their headquarters.
"This was done surreptitiously, in much the way Mordred cast his spell of fear upon Captain America. Like that spell, this was also practical, if you see what I mean: intended to stop Thor without really harming him, and thus allow the sorcerer to escape without calling attention to himself." Loki frowned. "And as far as we can tell, the spell was cast at the train station. Does that not suggest the sorcerer might be, for lack of a better word, local? Someone who encountered Thor, felt threatened in some way by him-- in spite of the fact Thor was certainly behaving inoffensively-- someone powerful enough to cast such an enchantment-- and considering what happened when I tried to use magic of my own to draw Thor out from under that shed and encountered the wards on the spell, I am inclined to be impressed by the power involved-- but who hesitated to cause obvious permanent harm, whether to an Avenger or to anyone." Thor stood on his hind legs and rubbed his face against Loki's. Loki nuzzled against Thor's ruff and scratched his shoulders.
"So we need to investigate local wizards and witches?" George said.
"Are there any?" Mitchell asked.
"I had not really asked myself that question before," Loki admitted, "but now that I think about it, when one considers the size of the supernatural community in this city, it seems unlikely the answer is no."
Thor hopped off Loki's lap and walked out of the kitchen into the lounge, tail in the air. Loki abandoned his cold tea and got up to follow, and the rest of the housemates joined them. Thor hopped up onto the couch, turned around a time or two, and curled up in the middle of the seat, paws folded neatly under his chest.
Loki sat down next to his brother, and George on Thor's other side. Mitchell opened his mouth to say something.
And then the computer, which was sitting open on the coffee table, already switched on and automatically logged into Skype, let out the tone indicating that someone was attempting to contact them. Without thinking, George reached down and accepted the communication, before any of the others had time to utter cries of warning.
As the Web camera came to life, Loki was visited with the hideous realization that only one person would be calling them now: Jane, intent upon speaking to Thor, to ask how his voyage had gone and to wish him goodnight.
Accordingly, Loki grabbed his brother from the cushion by his side and, holding him carefully, threw himself to the floor a split-second before Jane would have had a clear view of Loki, a cat, and no Thor.
George's face turned minty-green as he realized what he had done. It was too late to cancel the call, Jane was already smiling in recognition. Neither Annie nor Mitchell could be seen by a camera, and Loki was stretched on the floor at his feet. George was on his own.
"Hi, George," Jane said cheerfully, and perhaps she would have noticed his spluttering reply if Thor, hearing her voice, had not squirmed out of Loki's grasp and jumped onto the coffee table. His trills and squeaks of pleased excitement were at least as energetic as those that had originally heralded his rescue by Loki. Loki, lying on the floor, tried very hard not to feel jealous.
"What a beautiful cat!" Jane was exclaiming, as George grabbed at the computer to keep it from being knocked over under Thor's onslaught. "I didn't know you had a cat."
"He's... we just... Loki found him," George managed.
"Oh, the poor sweetie. He must belong to someone, though-- he looks like a Maine Coon, he has to be someone's cat. Hi, sweetheart," Jane crooned through the computer, and Thor chirped and trilled at her without shame. Loki recovered from his jealousy for long enough to reflect that after he lifted this spell, he would never, ever let his brother live this down.
Mitchell and Annie had succumbed utterly to another fit of the giggles. George made a discreet obscene gesture that could not be seen by the camera as he explained,
"We're going to call the RSPCA and put up flyers tomorrow. You're right, he must be someone's cat."
"Well, he's lucky Loki found him," Jane said warmly. "Are you calling him anything while you have him with you?"
"Th-- " George, who had apparently learned nothing from all this time living with the not-quite God of Mischief. Loki doubled up a fist and pounded on George's foot. "-- under," George corrected himself hastily. "Thunder."
"That sounds like Thor's idea," Jane remarked, amused.
"Um, yes," George agreed frantically. "Yes, it was."
"Speaking of Thor, is he around?" Jane asked.
"Um," George said. Loki tugged desperately at the cuff of his trousers and, from his position on the floor, mimed drinking something. George tried not to look down, or look confused. Loki repeated the gesture, more emphatically this time.
"The pub, George," Mitchell spoke up, suddenly understanding. "Thor and Loki went to the pub." Loki nodded in relief.
"Oh, um, they've gone to the pub," George said, his voice about an octave higher than usual. Really, for someone who had been concealing his werewolf nature for years, George was a remarkably inept liar.
"Karaoke," Annie said suddenly. "Thor and Mitchell and Loki went to the pub for karaoke hour."
"Karaoke," George said feebly.
"Really?" Jane replied, looking startled.
"Mitchell likes to sing ABBA songs," George extemporized, and Mitchell had to sit down on the floor. "The other two are just going along to make fun of him. I don't know when they'll be back, you know what Loki's like when you get him in a pub."
"Thor's mentioned it," Jane agreed with a grin. Loki by now had both hands over his mouth.
George, with the air of one who has the bit between his teeth, went on, "I've got an early shift tomorrow so Annie and I are just going to watch some TV with the cat and then turn in early. I'll leave a message for Thor that you called, though, okay?"
"Sure thing," Jane replied amiably. "Goodnight, George." In a completely different, talking-to-cats voice, she added, "Goodnight, Thunder." Thor rubbed his head against the computer screen and cried as Jane's face disappeared. George shut down the computer and then poked Loki with his foot.
"All right, it's safe to come out now," he reported. Loki crawled clear of the coffee table and then got stiffly to his feet.
"You got off to a most unpromising start, but then made up for it," Loki announced. "I was very proud of you." George made a terrible face at him. Loki grinned, then scooped up Thor. "Are you hungry again, my brother? I promise that in the morning I will make a trip to the grocery store to get you some proper food, but in the meantime..."
"I'm pretty sure there's a tin of sardines in the pantry," Mitchell suggested.
Thor seemed pleased with the prospect of sardines, judging by the way he brushed against Loki's ankles and then jumped up on the counter while Loki was removing their spines and cutting them up into a saucer. Thor made short work of the fish, drank some water from a second saucer, and made a supervised visit to the one flower bed in the back garden. He showed no signs of wishing to run away, but Loki still hovered nervously until business was complete, and then carried Thor back inside the house.
And by this time it was late, and everyone was tired, and so Loki finally showed his brother to the bedroom he had intended to offer him the use of. Someone had brought the Loki action figure upstairs and stood it on the beside table, next to the lamp.
"Thank you for the gift, brother," Loki said softly as he changed into nightclothes. Thor sprang onto the bed, walked around in circles for a moment, and then sprawled in the exact centre of the covers. He looked so comfortable that Loki was loath to move him and instead managed to slide himself under the covers without dislodging the cat.
Loki had intended to lie awake and plan what to do next, but it was late, and anxiety and activity had made him tired. And a moment after he switched off the bedside lamp, someone small and soft and purring came creeping up to crawl under the covers and curl onto Loki's chest and in the curve between his neck and shoulder, one paw draped over Loki's throat, sardine-scented breath warm on the lower side of his jaw.
For one who should have been so worried, Loki found himself remarkably warm and relaxed, and he dropped almost immediately into peaceful sleep.
Notes: In which a cat continues to behave like a cat, and Loki adjusts to pet ownership. Custodianship. Whatever.
Warnings: Tony Stark once remarked (Brother's Keeper, Chapter 32) that Loki should have had pets when he was a kid. That… turns out to be a pretty accurate assessment, really. Also, I am having wayyy too much fun with Thorkitty, but I promise we'll get back to the plot (such as it is) very soon.
Loki's nose tickled. He twitched, muttered, then brought his left hand out from under the covers to scrub his knuckles against his upper lip. The tickle did not go away. Indeed, as he felt himself slide into wakefulness, the tickle became pressure, and the pressure developed sharp points. Loki opened his eyes to find a small furry cat face gazing solemnly at him as an experimental paw was pressed to his nose. Presumably, Thor was not attempting to smother him in his sleep. Loki decided he was simply testing the flexibility of the facial feature before him.
"Good morning, brother," Loki yawned, and from the doorway he heard the soft popping noise that indicated someone-- Annie-- had activated a camera. Without looking around, Loki remarked, "It is not that I mind having a photographic record of this little escapade, but it is probably a good idea if nobody sends the evidence to Tony Stark or the other Avengers until after the spell is reversed." Thor nuzzled Loki's face. Loki nuzzled back, and added, "Also, I believe my mobile is in my jacket pocket downstairs, and would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to use its camera to take a picture or two for me."
"Way ahead of you," Annie replied cheerfully, and Loki finally looked up, to see her holding his mobile phone. "The ones of the two of you asleep are particularly adorable. No one would ever guess how much trouble you can both get into. I've already set the cutest one as your screen background. Feeling better this morning?"
Loki gently displaced his brother and sat up. Thor pounced vigorously on his feet as they moved under the covers, and Loki made a mental note to retain the heavy quilt at all times while sleeping with his brother the cat.
"A great deal better," he answered Annie's question. "I feel sure we shall figure out how to restore my brother, but first I should probably get him some appropriate food. It would not do for him to become ill due to being fed too many sardines or other makeshift meals while he is in this form."
Annie smiled with more amusement than the situation probably warranted. "That's very responsible of you, Loki." Loki was morally certain he was now being teased. Annie blew him a kiss and tossed him his phone. "I'm going to make some tea."
Loki got up, glancing at his phone as he did so and confirming the screen picture, of himself asleep with a cat wrapped around his throat like a scarf, really was cute-- not that he had doubted Annie's judgment, although the one of Thor acting as a furry nightcap also had much to recommend it-- then went quietly down the hall to confirm that George and Mitchell were both still asleep. It being very early, they were, and Loki decided he should take advantage of that to have his bath before anyone else needed to use the bathroom.
In retrospect, Loki thought later, he should have realized it was a bad idea to encourage Thor to join him in the bathroom. He had the idea, when he closed the door upon them, that he would be preventing Thor from pestering his sleeping friends while Loki was otherwise occupied.
Speaking of pestering...
To begin with, Thor curled up on the bathmat and gazed complacently at Loki out of squinted green eyes. It was only after the tub was filled and Loki actually in it that he-- Thor-- sprang up onto the washstand and began to investigate things. Toothpaste and George's razor fell to the floor, swiftly followed by deodorant, dental floss, and a bottle of some sort of hair-managing product Loki had purchased very early in his tenure in Bristol, before he realized the second prince of Asgard, and his pretenses of control over his surroundings, no longer existed. Whatever had replaced that prince was considerably more in command of his existence and his person, but-- possibly as a result-- no longer bothered very much about his hair.
"Thor! Stop that!" Loki commanded, in an urgent whisper. Thor turned a gaze of complete innocence upon Loki, and then knocked the plastic tumbler containing the toothbrushes into the sink. Loki half-rose out of the bathwater as Thor leaned down to sniff at the fallen utensils, then raised his head, thoughtfully clutching one by the bristles. It was, fortunately, Loki's rather than George or Mitchell's. "Psst!" Loki quoted one of the cat-repelling incantations he had heard from neighbours attempting to drive felines from their flower beds. Thor gave him an uncomprehending look-- one that Loki did not believe for a second-- and went back to chewing on the toothbrush.
Well, at least his little fangs would be clean.
Loki cast a hasty enchantment to pick up the fallen items and place them-- and everything else breakable or pushable-- safely on top of the cabinet where the towels lived. Thor turned his head, toothbrush still clutched in his jaws, and watched the flight of the toiletries. He made an effort to jump up on the cabinet after them, but the leap was too high even for him.
Thor fell back to the counter, yowled in annoyance-- which at least caused him to drop Loki's toothbrush into the sink-- then glanced around and seemed to register Loki's presence for the first time. He leaped down from the counter with one of his happy trills, and came cantering toward the bath.
The house was an old one, and so was the bath: it stood on clawed feet and was long and deep, perfect for soaking a tall and slender being such as Loki.
Its sides were rolled-over, narrow, and slippery, especially when wet.
This occurred to Loki only as Thor left the floor in a bound.
It occurred to Thor only when his paws hit the top edge of the bath and he kept right on going.
Later, when he had time to think about it, Loki was grateful Thor had chosen the end of the tub where Loki's feet were: he had no time to use magic to save the situation, but that at least gave him a chance to scramble backward, splashing as he went. And indeed, Thor barely hit the water before executing some sort of acrobatic-- possibly aerobatic-- maneuver that threw him clear of the water with only (relatively) minor damage to the first surface with which he came into contact.
That surface was, of course, Loki's shins. The previous night's damage had been confined to Loki's upper body, so really this was only just and provided balance. He thought of that later, after the bleeding stopped and the sting of soapy water in cat scratches had gone away.
Thor gave no sign of caring about justice, or balance, or the fact Loki had just expelled enough blood into the bathwater to greatly interest a shark, had there been sharks lurking beyond the plughole. He merely scrambled back up on the counter by the sink, where he sat dripping and gazing reproachfully at Loki. It was more than evident he considered the situation to be all Loki's fault.
Apparently, the splashing had been accompanied by a yell of pain-- looking ruefully at his legs, Loki would have been surprised if it had not-- because there came a knock on the bathroom door.
"Loki?" The voice belonged to Mitchell. So much for not disturbing his housemates. "Are you okay in there?"
"Fine," Loki replied shortly, climbing out of the tub and wrapping a towel around his dripping and still-soapy self.
"Is Thor with you?" Mitchell persisted. Loki picked up a second towel and approached his brother.
"He is indeed," Loki called back, trying not to glare at his brother.
Pause. Then George's voice asked,
"Did he happen to fall in the tub with you?"
Startled, Loki blurted, "How could you possibly know that?"
"It's a thing cats do," George explained. "All of them do it at least once, as far as I know." Pause. "If we'd been up when you went for your bath, I'd have warned you."
Loki sighed. "Well, thank you for the thought. I will be out as soon as I can manage."
Apparently taking the hint, the others muttered and withdrew.
It took Loki a little longer than he had anticipated to finish up in the bathroom: first he had to catch Thor and dry him, which his brother did not appreciate until Loki had him enveloped in a nice fluffy towel, and then it became necessary to sit for some time on the wet floor and snuggle him. Loki would not have objected to this part if he had not himself been as wet and cold as the floor.
Once Thor was dry enough to begin coping with his fur for himself, Loki dealt with the gouges in his shins, then returned to the bath to clean off what felt like a layer of soap scum and finally wash his hair. The water heater was unable to cope at the moment with a further demand for hot water-- the household always found it necessary to space out baths to cope with the boiler's quirks, which was one of the reasons Loki had wanted to have his bath so early in the first place-- and by the time his ablutions were finally completed, and also the tub rinsed and the floor dry, Loki was cold enough that the scrubbed pink of his skin was a matter of mild surprise to him: he would not have been startled to see Jotun blue and tribal markings instead.
The clothes he had brought into the bathroom with him had, of course, gotten wet in the Cat Bath Holocaust. Remembering what had happened the night before, Loki was wary of casting a drying spell in close quarters with Thor. He therefore had to wear his towel back to his bedroom, Thor trotting happily in his wake as though he had completely forgotten how his fur had gotten so damp.
Loki eyed his no-longer-big brother narrowly. Thor, as Loki more than anyone had reason to know, was possessed of an exceptionally forgiving temperament. Even so, his current behaviour smacked more of forgetfulness than forgiveness, which was worrying. Loki was under the impression that cats were quite bright creatures, but it could not be gotten around: Thor's brain was currently only a little larger than a walnut, and the longer he stayed in this form, the more he appeared to think like a cat.
This did not seem to be worrying Thor unduly, it was true, but Loki was not at all delighted with the prospect of returning to Asgard to explain to his parents that the heir to the throne was now a popular Midgardian pet.
Charming though he no doubt was.
"I will set to work immediately, to decipher the spell," Loki promised, scratching Thor's head. Thor purred, then jumped onto the bed and settled damply in the middle of the striped bedspread to continue his grooming. Well, the spread could be laundered, and if any wetness seeped into the for-reasons-of-washing-impractical but so warm down-filled quilt underneath, Loki could always cast a drying spell-- so long as he first ensured Thor was in some other part of the house.
He hastily finished dressing, ran his fingers through his still-damp hair, and went downstairs to join his housemates. Thor, having apparently claimed this comfortable sleeping surface as his very own, remained where he was on the bed.
By this time, of course, the bath disaster had begun to seem funny even to Loki, particularly since all three of his housemates had amusing stories to tell of the same thing happening to them with the cats of their childhoods. A cup of tea chased away the last of the chill. As he consumed a bowl of breakfast cereal, Loki began to contemplate his best next move.
"As I mentioned last night, I really should purchase some suitable food for my brother," he decided.
"You mean cans of smelly glop?" George asked, nose wrinkling in preemptive disgust.
"Or perhaps the dry food marketed as appropriate for kittens," Loki replied thoughtfully. At his friends' dubious expressions, Loki explained, "When I found him last night-- or rather, when he found me-- he was already robbing dogs of their food. He is behaving in a manner that even I can recognize as specifically catlike, rather than like himself in a furry disguise. He must, it therefore follows, also have the physical needs of a cat, and if he stays in this form for more than a few days he could suffer ill-effects from consuming a diet not formulated with the nutritional requirements of a cat in mind."
"How long are you expecting him to stay a cat?" asked Mitchell, looking far more concerned this morning than he had the night before. Apparently things looked more serious to him in the sober light of day.
Loki, on the other hand, felt for some reason more hopeful than he had when he arrived home last night clutching his brother to his heart.
"I expect to locate the sorcerer responsible for this situation, and force him to reverse the spell, very soon. But the form in which my brother is currently trapped is young and growing, and so it is my responsibility-- " here he glanced at Annie, who raised her undrunk mug of tea to him in salute-- "to ensure he comes to no harm of any kind." Consulting the wall clock, Loki finished his final mouthful of cereal. "The store will be open now-- I will ask you to look after Thor in my absence, please. I left him on my bed and he may sleep while I am gone, although he did have a lengthy rest last night-- "
"That won't matter to a cat," George replied. "Sleep like it's their job, usually."
"Excellent," Loki said, as he transported his dishes to the sink and hastily washed them. "I will just brush my teeth and then-- Oh. Never mind. I have just recalled that I require a new toothbrush."
He put his bowl, spoon, and mug on the draining board and left the kitchen before anyone could question him about that.
When he returned home two hours later, Thor greeted his brother at the door as though they were on a South Pole expedition and Loki, like the ill-fated British explorer of legend, had departed with the caution that he was "just going outside and may be some time." Loki, more pragmatic than cynical, was momentarily convinced his brother's main interest was in the contents of his nylon carrier bags, but when he placed them on the floor Thor continued to squeak and purr and rub against Loki's legs.
"Has he been like this since I left?" Loki asked his friends, consumed by guilt at the thought of his poor enchanted brother, pacing the house and bewailing his abandonment.
"No, he came down just after you left and seemed to be looking for you, but then he fell asleep on the couch, on that pullover you left there," Annie replied. "He woke up a few seconds ago and charged the door. I assume he heard you coming."
"Oh," Loki said, for some reason not at all displeased by this news. It soon came to him why: Thor's behaviour reminded him, frankly, of the youngest children at the school, who occupied themselves perfectly happily all day but greeted their parents in the afternoon with such delirious joy that one might be forgiven the assumption they had been pining since their arrival in the morning. Smiling down at his brother, Loki crooned, "You must be hungry. Let us see what I can find for you."
At this point the contents of the carrier bags began to be of interest to everyone. Loki carried them into the kitchen and set them on the table to unpack. Thor hopped up to sit next to them, watching the process with what appeared to be enormous interest.
The first thing to emerge was the promised kitten food, a bag of the type referred to as being of "premium" quality. Thor rubbed his cheek against the bag and then looked on as Loki unpacked a pair of ceramic dishes, brightly decorated with images of smiling cats. The effect was as though they had been painted by imaginative children.
"We could have loaned him cereal bowls," George remarked neutrally. "Although I admit, they wouldn't be nearly as cute."
Loki, blushing, set the dishes aside to be rinsed before use. The next item to emerge was a plastic packet containing a knitted red toy mouse. Thor began to chirp excitedly as soon as Loki opened the wrapping, and when Loki tossed the mouse across the kitchen floor, he leaped after it with all the eagerness he would, in his natural form, display in attacking a dragon. Batting the mouse neatly from paw to paw before him, Thor charged into the lounge making nearly as much noise as he would in his normal size.
Loki looked up from his contemplation of his brother's exit, to find all three of his friends staring at him. "What?" he demanded.
"Nothing," Mitchell said soothingly. "What else is in the bag?"
"It seemed only fair that he should have some amusement, as long as he is in this form," Loki pointed out defensively. "The woman at the pet-supply store said-- "
Mitchell's were not the only eyebrows that were raised. "I thought you were going to Tesco?"
Loki blushed harder. "I was not pleased with the range of options, for the care and entertainment of cats, offered there. So I went to a more specialized merchant to ask advice. The woman I consulted told me that cats are fond of these toy mice, scented with something called 'catnip.'"
Annie was chewing rather hard on her lower lip, and her eyes were very bright. "What else is in the bag, Loki?" she prompted.
"I also purchased a tray and some specialized dirt called 'litter,' in addition to a utensil for scooping it," Loki replied stiffly. "It seemed a safer option than allowing him outside, to risk annoying the neighbours and-- well, you know how my brother is about cars at the best of times."
"Completely understandable," Mitchell agreed. Something in his tone suggested he was beginning to find the situation funny again. "What else is in the bag?"
Reluctantly, Loki pulled out a sort of plastic wand, with a string attached to one end. The string was tied round a bundle of bright-coloured feathers.
"The woman at the store also indicated that this was a toy irresistible to kittens," Loki muttered.
"You know, Loki," Mitchell said kindly, "if you really want a kitten, we can totally get you one, later, but you can't keep Thor like this."
"I do not wish to!" Loki protested, stung at the very suggestion of such base treachery, and instinctively clutching the feathery-wand-toy to his heart. "I merely… I just… As long as he is a cat, I would like for him to be a happy cat."
There was a moment of silence within the group and then Annie, chewing even harder on her lower lip, raised her eyebrows again in inquiry. Loki obediently reached back into the bag and drew out a small foil packet labeled "Cat Treats."
As he took this item from the carrier bag, there was a quick rustle of something small falling inside, and a jingle. All three of Loki's friends immediately came to attention.
"What was that?" George asked.
"Was that a bell?" Annie added.
Mitchell said nothing: he simply reached into the bag and brought out the final item. It was--
"A collar," Mitchell spluttered. "You did it. You bought him an adorable collar with a bell on it. You actually bought him a collar with a bell on it."
"Well," Loki said desperately, twisting his hands together, "I have also purchased a little metal cylinder, into which may be inserted a slip of paper with our address written upon it. In case he was to get out of the house and become lost."
"Very practical," Annie congratulated him. "What about the bell?"
"It was already on the collar," Loki muttered.
"Couldn't find one without?" Mitchell teased.
"I... I thought... Mice," Loki mumbled.
"What about mice?" George asked.
"And birds, if he was to get out. He would... he would not like it, when he returns to his own form, to think he had done harm to small creatures," Loki continued to mumble, by now almost inaudible. "And eating them might also make him sick-- " George, who could not always avoid rabbits and such in his werewolf form, grimaced in agreement. Loki looked to him as if for support as he explained, "So I thought perhaps the bell would serve as a warning to them."
There was a pause as everyone thought about that, and then George said, "It's a nice shade of red, too. Just his colour."
Mitchell scruffed a hand backward through his hair and said nothing. Annie picked up the new ceramic dishes and carried them to the sink for a quick wash.
"The bathroom is probably the best place for the litter tray," she matter-of-factly remarked over her shoulder. "Why don't you set it up and show it to Thor. He can have his food dishes here beside the stove."
"Thank you, Annie," Loki replied in real gratitude, fished his new toothbrush out of one carrier bag, picked up the second, and left the room.
Annie, George and Mitchell left Loki alone to try and figure out his next move. He appreciated their tact, but found himself alarmingly short of ideas.
"It is not that I am not trying," Loki assured Thor, as he sat crosslegged on his bed and used the plastic wand to dangle the bunch of bright feathers before his brother's predatory little face. Thor crouched, tail flicking, uttering a chattering little cry as though in encouragement to himself as the feathers bounced gently, just above his head. "It is just that I am not quite sure where to begin." Thor's hindquarters twitched. As he launched himself upward, new collar tinkling merrily, Loki gave the wand a "flick and swish" motion. Thor seemed to correct his leap in midair, sailing after the feathers with forepaws outstretched and tail arched as though to guide his flight through the air. He slid a little upon landing and lifted himself onto his hind legs, to pirouette gracefully, tail outstretched for balance, and hop upward after the feathers.
Loki, while watching Thor's activities with a combination of amusement, affection, and anxiety, was also allowing his mind to wander, in hopes that something useful would occur to him. Really, he scolded himself, he should be able to cope with this situation, since it seemed to be a completely random occurrence that made no sense whatsoever. Loki was not actually the God of Mischief, but he was certainly at the very least a minor agent of chaos, at least on the level of a red-haired orphan girl.
"Really, brother, having a loved one turn into someone small and fluffy should be a small matter for us," he commented, flicking the wand once more and sending Thor flying through the air. "Considering everything else we have faced together."
Thor chirped in apparent agreement, or perhaps he was simply trying to persuade the feathers to come closer so he could trap them. Loki held the feathers still, and after a moment Thor appeared to call upon the prerogative of cats, and lost interest in them. He fell over on the braided mat next to the bed, which was meant to protect Loki's feet from the chilly floorboards when first he emerged from his bed, and scratched energetically at his handsome new collar.
Thor had been good about that, really, had sat on Loki's lap and only tried to push his hands away with courteous paws when Loki fastened the collar around his neck. He had not liked the bell at all to begin with, freezing in place the moment it jingled the first time, and then, apparently, trying to creep away without attracting its notice.
However, cat or not he was still Thor, and it did not take him long to adjust to the sound of the bell, apparently no longer concerned about its noise as he scampered and scurried. It crossed Loki's mind that if Thor did not continue to sleep through the night-- if, for instance, he took to batting his toy mouse around all night long-- the bell might not make Thor or his brother terribly popular with the other residents of the house.
Which was, Loki reminded himself, the least of their worries at the moment.
He gestured at the top drawer in the chest where he kept his clothing. The drawer slid out, the wand-feather-toy flew into it, and the drawer closed itself as Thor watched, a back paw still poised at his ear. Then he turned to look up at Loki and, for a fleeting second, there was an expression on his face that looked like understanding of some sort.
"Thor?" Loki said gently--
-- and then, from under the bed, came the sudden sound of raucous guitars, and a nasal voice intoning:
"All you women, who want a man of the street-- "
Thor jumped backward and Loki lay down on the bed, reached under it to pull out the duffle bag he had placed there for safekeeping. The sound was surely emanating from Thor's mobile phone, and music so loud and obnoxious could only mean one person was calling...
Yes. The device was the sort that displayed an image associated with the number from which the call had come, and on the screen now was a picture of Tony Stark, in his Iron Man suit, making an exceptionally silly face.
Loki stared, frozen, at the mobile phone for a moment, then succumbed to panic and stuffed it into the bag, under all Thor's clothing, until the song was nearly muffled. Let Tony leave a message. He had probably already left several, unheard by the housemates downstairs or Loki out shopping. He was probably good-naturedly cursing Thor for losing his phone, but not quite yet out of patience.
When he lost patience, he would call the house, or Loki directly, and then Loki would have to lie to him. And to Jane, who would surely be wondering why Thor had not yet contacted her in response to her original overture. And then he would have to lie to Tony again, when Tony finally came looking for Thor.
Loki was a talented liar, everyone said so. And it was a most useful skill, under the right circumstances. But... it was one thing to be known for your ability to lie and trick in order to extract yourself and your friends from trouble. It was quite another to have no friends at all because your skill at deceit and trickery resulted in no one trusting or liking you. Loki did not want Tony or Jane or Thor's other Midgardian friends-- who were also Loki's friends, at least they did not seem to object to him behaving as though they were--
He did not want these people to distrust him. And yet he also did not want to tell them what had happened to Thor, at least not until Thor was in a position to share in the telling, and laugh about it.
"It is not that I think they will be angry at me," Loki told Thor, who leaped up, jingling, to sit in Loki's lap. Loki rubbed his ears. "Really, this is not my fault any more than it is yours, and I am sure they will not blame me. But..."
But. If the Avengers heard of their comrade's fate, they would think it their duty-- their responsibility-- to come to his rescue, to hunt down the sorcerer who had cursed him. The Avengers were powerful superheroes, but, except for Natasha and possibly Clint, they were not what anyone might call subtle.
If the Avengers arrived in Bristol, it would be impossible to keep the news quiet, and then the supernatural community would feel threatened-- with some justification, really. The vampires might be, as Mitchell always said, mostly arseholes, but of late they had been fairly quiet, and Loki had no desire to provoke them. And the werewolves were mostly shy-- inoffensive really, at least for a very specialized value of "inoffensive"-- and mostly did not deserve to have attention called to them.
If the Avengers turned up in Bristol, questions would be asked, and beings who depended on secrecy for their safety would no longer have that protection, because the Avengers fought supervillains and the city would demand to know what villain they had come to defeat. Oh, of course the heroes would offer some reasonable explanation, but the supernatural creatures would feel threatened anyway, and even if no real harm came to them, it was not fair that it should happen at all, here in their home.
And, while the werewolves were being alarmed and the vampires provoked, the real culprit, the witch or wizard who cast the spell, would escape.
"They would do their best," Loki assured Thor, as he scrubbed a hand down his brother's back. "But unless they brought Dr. Strange with them, the Avengers would be hopelessly out of their depth in dealing with magic. Far better for me to do it myself."
Thor purred and snuggled into Loki in what Loki chose to view as a vote of confidence. Rubbing his brother's ears, Loki mused,
"Perhaps I should make another effort at scrying, brother. I may not be as skilled at the craft as Dr. Strange, but I can do better than I managed last night." Thor flipped onto his back and Loki carefully withdrew his hands, lest Thor wish to play the "you rub my belly and I rip off your hands" game again. "Admittedly, a bowl of water and a candle are no substitute for a ball of crystal, but... "
Loki fell silent so suddenly that Thor opened his eyes and looked at him in surprise. Loki gently pushed his brother off his lap and stood.
"Come, brother," he said, "we will consult a telephone directory."
Notes: I have never seen a Bristol telephone directory. Also, for plot-related purposes there's quite a lot of an original character in this chapter. Hope it's not too intrusive.
I also apologize for the state of plotting in this chapter and in the story in general: real life has interfered with my writing life over the past couple of weeks, and since this is a goofy little story I'm just plugging along with it rather than waiting until I can concentrate better. (Honestly, it probably wouldn't make the plot any more sensible!)
Warnings: We revisit the myths and Loki (who after all grew up around horses) still doesn’t take the Sleipnir story very seriously. I mention it in case that's a squick for anyone. You may also blame my mare, who was in standing heat this week and looking at the big police horse in the stall opposite her as if he was Tom Hiddleston!
"The establishment we seek is somewhere on this next block," Loki told Annie in an undertone, trying not to move his lips, as they walked along the pavement.
"I think we should stop for a break after this one," Annie said, with some discontent. Loki forgot about the possibility of curious human eyes upon him, and glanced at her in concern.
"Are you growing tired?" he asked, feeling a jolt of guilt. Annie being a ghost, it had not occurred to him that she might become weary on this quest.
"Not tired, so much as bored," she admitted. "And I'm getting hungry." Loki clamped his lips together, and Annie cast him a sideways glance before saying with asperity, "Yes, I know, I'm a ghost, I don't get tired or hungry."
"I said nothing," Loki murmured. In the first place, physical habit was a strong thing. In the second place… Loki was many things, but he was not (normally) stupid. And debating with Annie concerning whether she felt as if she was tired and hungry in a situation in which, in life, she would have been tired and hungry, would be stupid. Loki had learned this lesson well, very early in his tenure at the house, the first time he witnessed George and Mitchell argue with Annie about whether she could actually experience something called "pre-menstrual tension." The incident had been… illuminating, and Loki had determined such arguments were in no way worth the trouble.
Annie pursed her mouth a little and looked sheepish. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't complain when you're worried like this."
Loki smiled at her, without caring whether passing humans would think he was mentally unbalanced. "I think that, were we to conduct mathematical calculations, we would still find the balance of patience to complaint is still greatly tilted in your favour. So, we shall converse with one more 'fortune teller' and then perhaps stop somewhere for… " Loki hesitated. Since Annie could not eat or drink, it seemed rude for him to suggested a cup of tea, even though she always seemed content to watch her friends eat.
Annie patted his arm. "A cup of tea and a bun, or something," she suggested.
"Very well," Loki agreed. "A bun would be splendid. And here we are."
Loki had, in the past, been known to succumb to complicated schemes simply because they were interesting, but his current plan was, really, quite simple: some time ago, in a bus shelter, he had noticed a flyer for a local "fortune teller," who claimed to be a "white witch" and who promised to impart knowledge of the future for reasonable fees. Loki personally preferred to deal with his life as it unfolded-- in the first place, it was more fun that way, and besides, lack of prior knowledge gave him less time to worry about what he should do in a given situation-- but he had been interested enough to mention the flyer to his housemates.
His friends assured him this was a fairly common activity on Midgard, though George and Mitchell both claimed not to believe in the existence of such powers. Annie had laughed at them, on the grounds they were a werewolf and a vampire-- which, Loki thought, given the general state of belief in magic on this realm, was really a good all-purpose rebuttal for their lack of belief in anything.
George had amended his arguments to include only the general run of fortune tellers who were, in his mind, fooling their clients and possibly also themselves. George's contention was that, even if such powers did indeed exist, most of the so-called practitioners of these arts were more or less playing a game, with clients who more or less agreed to the activity for purposes of entertainment.
This seemed reasonable to Loki: after all, this was a realm addicted to fiction in all its forms. Aside from making a mental note that if he ever lost his job at the school, this might be an appropriate second career, he had thought no more about the matter.
However, as he played with Thor that morning, Loki had suddenly recollected the flyer, and the matter of the "white witch." And then he remembered that the telephone directory had an extensive section allowing one to identify tradespeople and merchants and a variety of useful services and businesses.
The bus shelter flyer suggested that fortune telling fell under one of those categories, and so Loki had consulted the one in the lounge, hoping there might be a helpful list of practitioners to be consulted. One whose profession involved a version of sorcery should know of the existence of other witches in the community, and even if most of them were charlatans, surely he could find one with genuine powers and real knowledge of true magic users within the city.
There was no directory category for witches, white or otherwise, nor was there for fortune tellers, but there was a sort of mapping reference indicating that fortune tellers were classed under "Psychics and Mediums," and when Loki turned to the correct page he found a considerable list.
Mitchell had to work from afternoon to evening, but George was willing to remain at home and keep Thor company while Annie and Loki visited the mediums on the list Loki had created. No one argued with Loki's desire for Annie's company, but besides, George's much warmer body would surely make a more desirable lap for Thor to sit upon. And also, incidentally, George had to work later that night, and so would require a nap beforehand. Considering Thor's capacity for sleep and snuggling in this form, it seemed that napping would constitute an extremely suitable entertainment for him.
Meanwhile, Loki and Annie paid their visits to mediums, which turned out to be fraught with unexpected difficulty. Ordinarily, Loki could detect magic quite easily: he experienced what amounted to a distinctive, if phantom, smell, which varied depending on the type of magic and the individual carrier. Under certain circumstances there was even a sensation of a taste in his mouth.
This being the case, when they entered the first establishment on their list-- a rather tatty occult bookshop which advertised "readings" of tea leaves and tarot cards-- Loki had momentarily believed they need go no farther: his nostrils were assailed by a spicy, oily scent that collected thickly in the back of his throat. It made him cough, but it felt like magic.
Annie, however, made a face, and she was not ordinarily able to sense magic as Loki did. She then quietly explained to Loki that what he smelled was not sorcery, but patchouli. According to Annie, this was the scent native to all hippies, whatever their magical status. Loki, recalling that his original cover story at the school involved being raised by such mortals, could only be grateful that it was a lie, and also that such a scent had never been smelled in Asgard.
This first fortune teller turned out to have no powers aside from an apparently very pleasant disposition, which resulted in Loki purchasing a book he did not really want about the power of crystals, but produced no useful information.
By the time they left the fourth establishment, Loki was beginning to get a headache, and never wished to smell patchouli ever again. Even if Annie had not wished to rest after this next visit, he might have suggested it himself, merely to give his head a chance to clear.
But before they did so, they would converse with this next candidate, a Catherine Bennett, who told fortunes at a corner table in what turned out to be a charming tea room, pleasantly scented with cinnamon and baking. Loki was prejudiced in favour of the place on the spot, and the matter-of-fact middle-aged woman who looked up at his approach also impressed him favourably. Loki did not seriously object to the so-called mediums playing their parts to the hilt, since surely that added to the pleasure for their general run of customers, but part of him felt that, if he could dispense with robes and a pointy hat for his own sorcery, it was hardly necessary that these humans carry on quite so obviously when they had no powers at all.
He was still too sickened with the leftover patchouli that clung to his clothing to be able to trust his ability to scent magic, and was frankly much more interested in the cinnamon. However, identifying magic by its phantom scent turned out to be unnecessary: the woman, Catherine Bennett, looked at him with a smile that also took in Annie at his side, and asked,
"Do you both want a reading, dears?"
Loki blinked, and Annie stepped forward with a smile. "Yes, please," she replied.
"Cards or palm?" asked Catherine, and Annie held out her hand as she sat down in the chair opposite. Loki pulled up another chair, glanced casually toward the door and the young woman who seemed to be the server, then cast a harmless glamour to prevent her from paying attention to them, and to keep anyone else from coming in before they were finished.
Catherine Bennett leaned over Annie's outstretched palm. "The story of your life is written in your hand," she explained, in much the tone one would expect of someone explaining a practical matter, perhaps the details of a really good muffin recipe, or how to remove stubborn water scaling from the bathtub. "The shape of the hand, the lines in the palm, all combine to tell the tale."
"Which one is the life line?" Annie asked demurely. Catherine Bennett smiled, then reached out to trace a mark on Annie's palm.
And stopped, utterly frozen. Her eyes flicked from Annie's hand to Annie's face. "What is this?" she whispered, releasing her grip and sitting up straight. She looked swiftly at Loki and reached out with an air of command. Loki meekly extended his own right hand for her to look at. She stared at his palm for what seemed like a very long time before looking up.
"Who are you?" she asked, quiet but stern. For a moment she reminded Loki of Eir. And also of Agent Maria Hill.
Annie glanced at Loki, who leaned forward. "May we speak privately?" he asked. He could, of course, maintain the glamour on the shop, but it would be easier to concentrate on his explanations if he did not have to.
The medium looked from Loki to Annie, then rose. "Follow me."
She led the way to a back room, apparently an office, gestured the two in before her, and then closed the door and leaned on it. The look she now gave them definitely reminded Loki of Eir. Judging by the expression on Annie's face, she, too was being reminded of some female authority figure.
Looking from one to the other, Catherine said quietly,
"According to your hands, one of you is about a thousand years old, and one of you is-- "
"-- dead," Annie completed the sentence, when it appeared the medium would not.
"Dead," Catherine agreed, and Loki was impressed by the steadiness of her voice. "You are not the first spirit who has contacted me from the next world," she remarked, which perhaps explained the steadiness. "But you're definitely the first one to ever walk in with her boyfriend and ask for a reading. What do you want from me?"
"Loki?" Annie prompted, when he did not reply right away. He might, possibly, have been a little distracted by the medium's automatic assumption regarding his relationship to Annie. Annie poked him. "Loki!"
"Hmm? -- Oh. I beg your pardon." He turned his full attention to the older woman. "We seek information about users of magic in this city, and hoped you might be able to assist us." Based on her expression, Loki had no expectations that his best smile would do any good, but he essayed it just in case.
Catherine folded her arms. No, not working. "And what kind of 'assistance' did you expect from me?"
"Not 'expected,'" Loki clarified carefully. "The word I used was 'hoped.' We mean harm to no one," he added, since it was abundantly clear she mistrusted him. "We only need help. My… someone very dear to me has fallen victim to an enchantment. In order to reverse it-- "
"-- you need to find the one who cast it," the medium finished the sentence for him. She evidenced no surprise at the request. Loki inclined his head, and he and Annie remained quiet while she thought it over.
There was a lengthy pause, and it took all Loki's considerable self-control to wait. As much as he hated to admit it, there was little else he could do: he was no longer much inclined toward threats in general, let alone toward someone of whom he was asking a favour-- let alone a resident of the realm that had accepted and sheltered him, and seemed on the whole to wish him well. For related reasons, he did not like the idea of attempting to trick or manipulate this Midgardian sorceress into helping him. Loki was not much given to pleading, or to expecting pleas to work, but if it became necessary he would resort to it. If that did not work… well, he would have to consult his list and see if he could find another sorcerer.
After an uneasily long time, Catherine Bennett's eyes focused on Loki again. "You say you mean this person no harm?"
"I swear," Loki replied instantly, thinking perhaps he should get that on the record before the woman got around to asking his name. It was always possible she would be familiar with Norse mythology, and might therefore have a warped sense of exactly how far his word could be trusted.
"The enchantment of which I speak… " he said slowly. "It… has done no real injury."
"If you call being stuck in the form of a kitten 'no real injury,'" Annie objected.
Catherine Bennett let out a startled, hastily-suppressed shriek of laughter. Despite his embarrassment on behalf of his once-powerful brother, Loki found himself experiencing genuine fellow-feeling toward the sorceress for the first time. After all, were this to happen to someone else's brother, laughter would certainly be Loki's first reaction. And then, surely, he would agree to help.
Annie turned to Loki with a sheepish expression. "You probably didn't want me to blurt that out, did you?" she asked.
"I had hoped to avoid it," Loki agreed, "but that was silly of me, since it may prove to be an important clue to the identity of the one who cast the spell."
Catherine rubbed her forehead, still smothering giggles. "I don't know about you, but I think I need a cup of tea. Let's go back to my table, and then you can tell me all about who you are and exactly what you want from me."
The tea rivaled Annie's, and the cinnamon bun was delicious. Loki licked his fingers like Volstagg, then belatedly wiped them on a paper napkin. Annie made a gesture indicating he had a crumb clinging to the corner of his mouth, and he scrubbed it hastily away.
"All right," Catherine Bennett said, once her own cinnamon bun and half her cup of tea had been dealt with, "I think we should begin with exactly who you are."
This, Loki reflected, was potentially the sticky part. Depending, of course, on whether she was familiar with mythology, and also what version. Curiosity was Loki's besetting sin-- well, one of them-- and also he never knew when to stop, and so he had gone to the public library, as well as the computer, and consulted a variety of sources regarding Norse mythology. He had therefore noticed that the portrayals of the Loki-figure varied: in some versions he was purely malignant, in others more a playful troublemaker. They all ended badly, of course, in entrails and venom, but the degree to which the punishment seemed just seemed to vary depending on the source.
And also, modern humans-- at least modern British humans-- seemed to Loki inclined to sympathize with the recipient of any horrible punishment, whether warranted or not. So there was some chance Catherine Bennett would not banish him from the shop as soon as he revealed his identity, perhaps giving him time to explain the difference between myth and reality.
Loki drank the last of his tea, just in case, and began,
"My name is Loki Odinson, and I am-- "
"Stop right there," Catherine ordered, exactly as he had expected her to. Her expression was difficult to read, and Loki exchanged a nervous glance with Annie as he waited for the medium to go on. "Normally, I'd assume you had taken that name for some sort of mystical purpose-- " her expression indicated amused tolerance toward the sort of human who played with crystals and pretended to powers they did not have-- "but added to the fact you're about a thousand years old-- "
"-- not quite a thousand," Loki demurred, but very quietly, and was ignored.
"-- I find myself wondering whether you actually are the Loki from the legends." Her gaze upon him was not exactly friendly, but neither was it exactly hostile. Loki clasped his hands in his lap to stop them fidgeting with his empty teacup.
"The legends are… stories only," Loki replied carefully. "I do not say they are untrue in all realities, but none of them has ever happened to me."
Catherine Bennett looked at him thoughtfully.
And then she asked the same question as every other human with whom he had ever discussed the stories:
"So does Odin really have an eight-legged war horse?"
Why did they always ask about the damned horse?
"He does," Loki replied, pretending not to notice Annie stifling a giggle. "A very fine horse, whose name is indeed Sleipnir. But he was the gift of a king with whom my father once formed an alliance. I am not, if this is what you are asking, his mother."
"That's a relief," Catherine remarked, into the depths of her teacup. Loki knew he should not sidetrack the conversation, but when had he ever known when to hold his tongue?
"I do not understand why you Midgardians seem so bothered by this story," he complained.
Catherine Bennett raised her eyebrows and asked, "You're not?"
"Of course not," Loki replied, exasperated. "Aside from the eight legs, which I concede must have come as a surprise, I fail to see anything shocking about the story. Well, except for the versions in which the Loki character is threatened with horrible death unless he manages to foil the builder. That seemed indeed to be uncalled-for.
"Still, as a solution to the problem, the mare idea has much to recommend it. And he must have known what would happen. Anyone with a working knowledge of horses would be aware that a trained stallion could only reliably be lured from his task by a mare in a breeding condition. And any experienced shapeshifter would also be aware that transforming into a mare in such a state would also involve taking on the impulses and personality of the mare."
Loki was suddenly aware that both Catherine Bennett and also Annie were looking at him with identical expressions that indicated he had said something for which he needed to apologize. Loki had seen such expressions before, and normally he at least knew what the apology was supposed to be for. This time, he found himself at a loss.
"What?" he finally asked.
Annie said nothing, but the look on her face was alarming in the extreme. Loki no longer believed that someone's annoyance at him now meant they never wanted to be friends with him again, ever-- really, he did not-- but he still did not ever want Annie to be angry at him.
Catherine Bennett was the one who spoke:
"Are you trying to say he-- or she, in the mare form-- deserved what happened?"
Loki sat very still as he thought about the question, refusing to let himself panic. And then, to his relief, he found the well-intentioned fallacy in the woman's argument.
"I am saying that when one is a horse, one behaves as a horse, and that may well result in the birth of other horses," he said carefully.
Catherine Bennett looked at Annie and asked, "I don't know about you, but I don't think I'd enjoy giving birth to a horse."
"Not in your current form, obviously," Loki pointed out patiently. "But if you were a horse, it would be perfectly natural. And while the pregnancy would have been long and tiresome, the actual birth would be another matter. I have myself been present at the arrival of a few foals, and it tends to happen rather quickly, once they are in position, with their little hooves up beside their noses-- " he made his hands into fists and mimed the position, partly to illustrate and partly because he knew it would look funny. The corner of Annie's mouth twitched, which was encouraging.
"And then what? Whoosh?" asked the medium.
"More or less," Loki replied seriously. "My brother once had to catch a foal whose mother chose not to lie down to give birth to her. Given all the other horrible stories in that mythology-- really, what was wrong with those people?-- the business with the horse was fairly mild. At least, as I say, the part that actually involved horses."
"So you're saying you'd be happy to just stroll into the palace with an eight-legged foal, and announce him as your son?" Annie finally asked. The corner of her mouth was now definitely turned up, Loki noted with relief.
"As myself? Of course not," he replied promptly. "I get far too annoyed when I am teased. What Fandral, for one, would have to say about such a matter would not bear hearing. If, however, I was a sort of free agent of chaos, the way the Loki in the stories seems to be, I would probably lead him all over Asgard and make sure everyone knew about him. The character in the myths probably told that story every time he had a few drinks. I can only imagine the other gods, whenever there was a feast: 'put away the mead, for the Norns' sake, before Loki tells us about the horse again.'"
Catherine Bennett, Loki was relieved to see, was by now shaking with silent laughter. She poured out more tea for herself and Loki, set down the pot, and turned to him.
"All right. The horse story isn't so bad. I stand corrected. And you are Loki, but not the Loki I've read about in the myths. I take it, though, you are the Loki who is connected with the Avengers?"
"Yes, I am that Loki," Loki admitted. At Catherine's inquisitive look, he explained, "I have always been inclined to tag along after my older brother."
"Stop that," Annie murmured, poking him in the ribs.
"And this isn't a problem the Avengers can help you with?" Catherine asked.
"I believe not," Loki replied. "Not without calling a great deal of attention to members of the community who would probably prefer to retain their privacy." It was apparent from the woman's face that she took his point. Heartened, Loki provided her with a concise account of the problem. He condensed it considerably, and left out the wand-feather-toy and the collar with the bell altogether, but he still had to stop several times for his audience to compose herself.
"I have," he wound up his story, "contact with certain elements of the supernatural community in Bristol, but I have no knowledge of sorcerers living in the city."
"That seems like a strange oversight," Catherine remarked.
"I had no reason until now to seek out other users of magic," Loki pointed out. "Or even to ask whether there were any in this realm. It was safest for me if I drew no attention to myself, and safest for others if none knew what I am." He shrugged helplessly. "Now, of course-- well, after what happened last summer, that is rather a lost cause."
"Lost cause" was putting it mildly: despite Tony Stark's best efforts to indulge and then sidetrack inquisitive journalists, Loki had been obliged to ward the school where he worked, the hospital where George and Mitchell worked, and the entire neighbourhood they lived in, against the press. (Mrs. Kingston, the head of his school, had laid down an edict that none would "pester" Loki about his magical status, but it would take more than rules to prevent children asking questions. Loki had no objection to answering them, his nature having been an open secret, especially among the little ones, almost since his arrival.)
"It is no longer a question of concealing my own identity," Loki went on, "but the matter of calling attention to the rest of the supernatural community is still a concern. I therefore thought it simplest to find someone of whom to ask advice."
"So you went to the telephone directory and started at the beginning of the alphabet?" Catherine asked.
"Well, after we had the names, we arranged our list in a geographically-logical order," Loki admitted. "You are the first person we have encountered with genuine powers, and who might therefore know who to approach, and how to go about it."
"And how do you know I'm not the witch who cast the spell in the first place?"
"I do not," Loki admitted. "It seemed a risk that needed to be taken."
Catherine sighed. "Do you promise that, when you find the sorcerer, you won't harm them?"
"On the life, and on the memory, of my mothers, I swear it," Loki replied. If Catherine did not understand the specifics of the vow he had just taken, she at least grasped its seriousness.
"Fine," she sighed. "You've been implying that most of the so-called witches and wizards in the city are really only pretending." Loki inclined his head, and she went on, in a slightly rebuking tone, "There is real belief there, if not power. The intent isn't frivolous. But you're correct that most of the people who practice what they call witchcraft are really conducting rituals, mostly sincerely, but not actually controlling any supernatural forces. Much the same as any other religious practice, if you think about it." She glanced at Loki and Annie, who offered no argument. "You think this sorcerer is quite powerful?"
Loki nodded. "My brother was probably taken by surprise, but it would still require a fairly high degree of sorcery to cast such a spell upon him. And when I attempted to draw him toward me using a spell of my own, I was thrown across a yard." Belatedly, something occurred to him. "That had caused me to think it would be hazardous to use sorcery near him, but I have actually used simple flying spells without thinking about it, to pick up and move small objects, and nothing unfortunate happened. Between that and the obvious fact that he is a kitten, rather than dead, it seems apparent the sorcerer is powerful, but not necessarily evilly disposed."
The medium nodded. "I've heard rumours, recently that... someone's appeared here. Someone powerful and old. Bristol's an old city, and an old site of human occupation, so it's not a bad place to hide out."
Loki nodded. According to Mitchell, the vampires thought the same thing. There was a history of magic in Bristol that appeared to welcome and protect supernatural beings of all sorts. Loki certainly felt it, himself.
Catherine went on, "So far it's only rumours, because whoever it is, they're not making contact with anyone who actually has powers. They-- I've heard 'she,' so let's assume we're speaking of a witch-- she seems to be staying close to the humans who practice, but don't really have magic."
"I see." That could be a bad sign-- perhaps of one intent upon gathering minions-- or a good one. Perhaps the witch was merely lonely, and sought the uncomplicated companionship of those who would be unable to recognize her true nature, but would yet permit her to speak freely of sorcery. "And have you any idea where I might begin to look for this witch?" Loki could identify a magic user in person, and he could sense large fluctuations in magical energy in his immediate vicinity, but he certainly did not feel every shift across the city. That being the case, Bristol was large enough that to search its every corner would be troublesome. If necessary, of course, he would do it, but any hint would be appreciated.
"If I'm right, and she's disguised herself as a human," Catherine replied, "there's a sort of coven who gather in one of the parks down by the river on the night of the full moon. They're harmless, whatever her intentions are."
"I see," said Loki. With George in residence, the household was fully attuned to the phases of the moon, and so Loki knew offhand that the full moon was due on Tuesday. This was Saturday. Of course, in the meantime Loki would make what efforts he could to lift the spell, but if that failed he would at least have another avenue open to him.
"This witch is said to be old?" he asked. Catherine nodded. "But not necessarily foreign?"
The medium looked surprised. "Not that I know. Goddess knows, there's a long history of witchcraft-- and the persecution of witches-- in this country. She might not be from Bristol originally, but I have no reason to think she's not British."
"Thank you," Loki said sincerely. This gave him another avenue to pursue, while he waited for the full moon and the chance to possibly confront the mysterious witch. There was an excellent system of public libraries in Bristol, and humans enjoyed reading about the supernatural even when they did not believe it to be true. Surely there would be books Loki could consult, about the history of witchcraft in Britain. There might even be stories of specific witches, one of whom could be the one he sought.
With a plan-- at least a sort of plan-- beginning to come together, Loki and Annie shook hands with Catherine and thanked her again. Loki paid for the medium's tea and bun in addition to his own, and they left the tea room.
"You look better," Annie observed, as they emerged onto the pavement. Before Loki could reply, there came from his pocket the sound of a gentle voice singing,
"I'm being followed by a moonshadow,
"Does George know that's what you've set as his ringtone?" Annie asked.
"I believe not," Loki admitted, as he pulled out his mobile. "And I do not intend to tell him unless the water bottle is well out of his reach." In spite of his jokes, Loki was worried: it was highly unlikely that George missed them so much he felt the compulsion to ring merely to chat. Loki pressed the button that connected the call. "Yes?"
"Loki, I'm sorry," George's voice came from the other end of the line,
In terms of the last thing Loki currently wanted to hear from the housemate catsitting his brother, this could hardly be improved upon.
Thor was bored. He had stalked and killed his enchantingly-scented catnip mouse, repeatedly, for many hours. Or perhaps a few minutes, it was hard to remember. And then he had lost it underneath the stove. Crying to the only nearby two-legs about the situation did him no good, the creature did not understand and only offered him more of the nice dry food that crunched between his teeth. He accepted the food and then had a wash, but when his bath was finished his toy was still underneath the stove, and he still had nothing to play with.
The other two-legs had been better, the one with the purry voice and gentle fingers. Thor roamed the house, looking for him, and finally went into the room that contained the bed Thor had claimed. It smelled comfortingly of Thor's own particular two-legs, especially the pillow, and Thor curled up on it.
When he woke, the house was completely quiet. Investigating, Thor found the boring two-legs asleep in his own room. Well, if he could not find anything else to do, he could always join him. Snuggling with a boring two-legs was still snuggling. Before he did that, however, Thor went back downstairs to see whether by chance his toy mouse might have crept out from under the stove.
It had not, but from the open window over the kitchen sink, Thor could smell a breeze and hear the chirping of birds. That was far more interesting than waiting by the stove for his mouse to emerge. Thor sprang up on the counter, and from a bush just outside the window, a bird fluttered up. Instinctively, Thor pounced.
He was stopped by the screen in the window, but only for a moment: the screen was old, and gave way under Thor's weight.
A moment later, he was outside, with all the bright and fascinating world before him.
Thor looked around with wide eyes.
Notes: In which Thor is shameless, and has the homing instinct of a creature whose home is on another planet. Or a typical boy-cat, who a cat-rescuing friend tells me are likelier than girl-cats to get hopelessly lost. (She told me that as she was handing over YET ANOTHER stray boy-cat to join my household.) (He and his brothers are now indoor-only cats.) Also, I don't know what vampires smell like when they're on the wagon, but this is my best guess.
Warnings: I have no experience with the Bristol system of public libraries, and would appreciate readers just going with it. Possible spoilers for a fantasy novel most of you have read by now anyway.
"I'm so sorry," George repeated, almost tearfully, for at least the third time. "I don't even know how long he's been gone-- I woke up and couldn't find him, and then I came out in the kitchen and spotted that screen-- "
With a great effort of will, Loki resisted the urge to vent his terror and anxiety on George-- his friend felt bad enough already. And besides, Loki had himself seen the kitchen window, and should have realized it was open far enough to present a temptation.
A temptation to a cat, at any rate. A shapeshifter who retained a true sense of himself might have gone through an open window, but he would certainly have come back the same way. A genuine cat, however, finding a window open and a screen loose, would surely pass through it, but once outside he was likely to become lost, and there was no telling where he might go.
Loki dragged his hands backward through his hair, pulling hard enough to hurt. It was not much, but it steadied him a little. As his brain began to work, Loki realized the case was not as hopeless as he had feared.
"All right," he said slowly, and then focused on his friend. "It's all right, George. This can be... we can fix this. We will find him." Assuming Thor was not by now already dead under the wheels of a car. As Jane Foster could attest, Thor was not nearly cautious enough about cars...
Loki vehemently banished the idea, and repeated, as convincingly as possible: "It will be all right. Really. Last night-- " was it really only last night, that he had last frantically searched for his brother? -- "the reason I was unable to find Thor was because I was searching for him in his usual form. We did not realize he was a cat, and so I must have passed over that unfamiliar magic more than once as I scanned the city. We will find him." George gave Loki a look of such remorse and self-recrimination that, almost involuntarily, Loki found himself stepping forward to wrap his arms around his friend, saying firmly against his temple: "This was not your fault, George. It was an oversight by all of us. We will find him."
George hugged back gratefully, hands fisting in the back of Loki's shirt. After all the times George had reassured and comforted Loki, it felt rather strange-- though not at all in a bad way-- to be on the other side of the gesture.
After a moment, Loki ruffled George's hair affectionately and then let him go. Annie and George watched, a little less anxiously, as Loki began a slow cast through the house, gathering the most complete impression he could of Thor's current magical "signature." The kitchen held the freshest traces, especially from the already-mauled catnip mouse Loki located under the stove. He drew it out and placed it in his pocket, in case he needed something with which to lure Thor.
The sense of his brother was even stronger in his own bedroom. Loki sat on his bed for a few minutes, concentrating on the magical shape until he could almost feel Thor settling into his lap, purring contentedly.
Then, fear almost entirely replaced by resolve, Loki rose and left the house to begin the search.
The little garden behind the house did not hold Thor's attention for very long: the dustbins were interesting, but far too heavy to push over, and their lids were firmly attached. The birds had flown away when Thor burst through the window, but in the back gardens he could hear scrabbling and scuttling, the sounds of very small animals. The jingling of his collar made stalking very difficult, but if he concentrated hard he could creep forward with his shoulders down and his head still. If he was very careful, the noisy bell would stay silent.
Thor held his breath and, heart hammering, crept forward toward the scurrying noises. The scuffling noise stopped and Thor froze, only the very tip of his tail twitching. There was a long moment when both Thor and the tiny creature held their breaths, frozen in place--
And then Thor's patience frayed and snapped. He wiggled his rear end, crouched, and charged. There was a frantic scampering sound and Thor's paws closed on nothing.
Frustrated, he scrabbled furiously at the minute opening under the next-door house, through which the creature had fled. Thor cast along the base of the house, ears alert and nose twitching, sniffing out the scent of the little creatures. He crept through a patch of dirt filled with dry and leafless plants, scuffling at their bases as he sought out his prey.
Behind him, a door opened.
"Get away from there, you little wretch!" an angry voice cried, and Thor glanced up just in time to see a strange woman flinging a pan of water at him. He bolted, ears back, but was still splashed by cold water, which made him run faster, startled and angry and insulted.
When he felt himself to be at a safe distance from the woman, Thor stopped and put his fur in order. After that, he continued down the pavement until it crossed another street where the noisy metal creatures roamed.
It was only at this point that Thor realized he was lost again.
Actually, it was incorrect to say "again," since Thor had no memory of ever having been lost before. He paused, looking around. It did not occur to him to follow his own tracks back to the little house on the terrace. Instead, he continued on his current path. No longer a strong tactical thinker, he was hopeful that he would somehow happen upon something or someone familiar.
And then, against all reasonable expectation-- he did. A dusty, dry sort of smell, like a clean attic. Thor's nose and tail both twitched. It was not the best two-legs, not the one he really wanted, but it was familiar, and it would do. Thor sniffed again, and then broke into a confident trot that carried him toward a large, confusing building, with metal beasts crouching outside it, and many two-legs walking in and out. The clean-attic smell had become rather confused with other scents, but Thor was still able to follow it.
A large clear sliding thing moved out of the way as a two-legs walked up to it. The scent Thor was following went that way, and so Thor went that way, too.
There was a tall white counter in front of him. Thor trotted confidently forward, levitated neatly, and landed on top of it, in front of a startled female two-legs.
Thor chirped happily at her.
To Loki's considerable relief, his plan of finding and following the trail of Thor's new form was relatively easy. Whether magical or not, every being carried its own signature as well as that of its kind, and after a false start involving a startled tortoiseshell, Loki was able to distinguish between the cat he sought and the other cats in the neighbourhood.
The news, though, was not all good. As he had feared, the difference in signature between Thor and the other cats was by now the difference between individuals, not between a real cat and a shapeshifted one. It actually crossed Loki's mind that, if it took him much longer to find a way to reverse the spell, there might be a confusing interim period during which the sort-of God of Thunder adjusted to a two-legged form. He would perhaps have to be discouraged from eating his food without the aid of hands, and from sitting on laps far too small to accommodate him.
Worried as he was, he would not have been Loki if he had not found the notion at least a little bit funny. And then the mental picture of his brother, in his real shape, taking a running leap into a bathtub forced him to stop and clamp both hands over his mouth to stifle his giggles.
What is it?" Annie asked, the concern in her voice making it clear she mistook his mirth for grief. Loki kept one hand over his mouth and waved helplessly with the other, which made her narrow her eyes. "Really, Loki, it's not that funny."
"I know," Loki choked out, eyes watering only partly with hilarity.
"Hysterics," George diagnosed. "We should have brought the water bottle."
"We can probably find a shop somewhere we can buy one," Annie suggested, furrowing her brow at Loki.
"No, no, that will not be necessary," Loki snorted, wiping his eyes as he pulled himself together. "I believe he went this way."
Thor, in his usual form, was generally charming to females, whether Aesir or human. It transpired that his current fluffy, purring shape was not exactly repulsive to them, either. Indeed, the female two-legs he encountered first turned out to be quite susceptible, to say nothing of being greatly skilled in the important matters of rubbing ears and uttering what were surely highly flattering remarks in a most alluring croon.
Thor was sitting happily on the tall counter, receiving these attentions, when another two-legs came pushing a sort of wheeled chair-thing with someone sitting in it. This seated two-legs was also female, hunched and fragile. Thor stood and looked down at her, and she looked up with her wrinkled face breaking into a smile. Thor nearly leaped down into her lap, but something made him pause, and then, instead, he hopped to the floor and walked up to the wheeled chair-thing. The pushing one stopped, and Thor stood on his hind legs, forepaws balanced on the seated two-legs's… well, legs.
"Hello, kitty," said a creaky old voice, and a hand reached toward him, not quite far enough to make contact. Thor interpreted this as an invitation to come aboard. The seated figure was small and frail, and did not take up the entire available surface.
Some instinct told Thor it would be wrong to place his full weight on her lap. He therefore insinuated himself next to her, ensuring his paws were like velvet, without trace of a claw. The games he played with his own two-legs, the ones in which he used his claws to clutch and hold, did not seem suitable for this fragile creature with her delicately thin, wrinkled skin.
"Lovely kitty," crooned the elderly two-legs, and then there was a great deal more about how handsome and sweet he was, and how much like her very own kitty was, so long ago. Thor squinted his eyes, leaned into her bony caressing fingers, and purred and purred and purred.
Thor was having such a wonderful time with this nice understanding new two-legs that he was quite taken by surprise when the clean-attic smell-- he had completely forgotten about his original quest-- suddenly became evident nearby.
Mitchell had just finished mopping the hall outside Trauma when one of the nurses came looking for him.
"Have you got a minute to deal with something?" she asked. The nurse-- Nina was her name-- was tiny and pretty and rather commanding, and Mitchell was ever-so-slightly afraid of her. He smiled and assured her he did indeed have a minute as he twisted out the mop. "Oh, good. There's a lost cat in the main lobby, and nobody quite likes to shoo him outside in case he gets run over by an ambulance. Jodie from Records has cats, and she lives near here, so I'm trying to find her to see if she has a carrier or something. Can you take the cat to the staff locker room and hang onto him? And see if there's any identification on his collar before we call the RSPCA."
Mitchell, who had straightened up and was no longer smiling, asked with a feeling of foreboding,
"What does the cat look like?"
Bristol was a large city. It was full of cats. There was no reason for this wandering creature to be Thor.
"Fluffy marmalade-- a kitten, really, but a very big one-- with a red collar. Do you like cats? This one's just beautiful, and right now he's sitting in a patient's lap making himself completely charming."
No reason for him to be Thor, but Thor all the same.
"I'll go take charge of him," Mitchell replied with a smile, then abandoned his mop and bucket and fled before the nurse could notice his smile was frantic around the edges.
Mitchell decelerated to a walk as he reached the main lobby, and walked in to find, of course, a hovering female circle, with Thor in the middle of it. Loki would be pleased to know that some things never changed.
"Tho--under!" Mitchell spluttered. Heads turned in his direction. "Thunder," he repeated, "how did you get in here?"
"Friend of yours?" asked the porter who was in charge of the wheelchair. The patient, an elderly woman Mitchell thought had probably been hospitalized since shortly before Mitchell himself became a vampire, paid no attention. She was too happily occupied with rubbing Thor's head as she crooned to him. Thor, for his part, was purring so hard Mitchell could hear him all the way across the lobby.
"He belongs to one of my housemates," Mitchell explained briefly. "Must have got out somehow and followed me."
"Thank goodness he got here safely," one of the nursing aides remarked, wiggling her fingers in Thor's face, and receiving a velvet-pawed pat in return.
Honestly, he was shameless.
"Nina sent me to bring him to the locker room while she found a carrier," Mitchell explained, and was not at all surprised to be shouted down.
"We can take him to Long-Term Care with us," the nursing aide argued. "Until your friend shows up to collect him. We didn't get the therapy dog visit this week, so-- "
Mitchell looked at Thor, who looked back at him with squinted eyes and an expression of perfect innocence.
"Right," Mitchell agreed with a smile. "Of course. Let me just call my friend."
"In a neat little town they call Belfast-- "
Loki was not literally capable of leaping into his own pocket to retrieve his mobile, but for a moment it looked like he might actually do it. George and Annie watched him with expressions of mingled anxiety and amusement.
"'The Black Velvet Band'?" George asked. "Is that your new ringtone for Mitchell?"
"Indeed," replied Loki, rather sheepishly. There was no need for him to explain why: thanks to Mitchell's musical contributions to a couple of never-to-be-forgotten (although admittedly the details were more than a little blurry) nights in the tavern of Asgard, that air was now one of the most-hummed-without-fully-knowing-why tunes in the Realm Eternal. At least by the soldiers and servants, although it was beguiling enough to swiftly spread to any officers or courtiers exposed to it.
It was probably driving the entire court mad by now, and despite considerable improvement in his character, Loki could not but find this a most amusing thought. Setting the song as his new Mitchell-is-calling notification was really the least Loki could do by way of thanks.
Before George could think to ask what notification Loki had set for him, Loki pressed the little talk-to-me button.
"Yes?" Loki tried to keep the ridiculous flood of hope out of his voice. Surely Mitchell was not calling because he had found Thor, Mitchell did not yet even know Thor was lost, and anyway he was at work, was at the hospital, and how could he possibly--
"I don't know how he's managed it, but Tho-under-- " Loki was momentarily confused, and then realized Mitchell was apparently not alone-- "is here at the hospital. Must have followed me. You better come and collect him. The little rascal."
"The rascal, indeed," Loki replied, breathing normally for the first time in what felt like-- and in fact was-- hours.
Thor protested all the way home, scrabbling with his paws against the door of the borrowed carrier and wailing piteously. Loki steeled his heart against his brother's cries.
"Yes, yes, I know, it is all very tragic-- you had only just found yourself a new kingdom, complete with subjects to adore you, and I heartlessly took it away," he muttered. "Really, brother, I had thought better of you-- I would not have expected you to so quickly become addicted to mindless idolatry. And when you are ruler of Asgard, I certainly hope you do not insist upon having your tummy rubbed except on high feast days." He paused, considering. "Although perhaps Volstagg would be willing to indulge you occasionally, in between-times." Or, of course, half the maidens of the court, although with Jane Foster in the picture Thor would be wise to resist...
"You're only jealous because he didn't tear the hands off any of the oldies the way he does you," Annie teased.
"Actually," Loki admitted, "I am not so much jealous as extremely impressed, and also rather relieved. It would have been very upsetting to both of us, had he accidentally injured any of these elders. And surely this is a sign Thor's consciousness still abides somewhere under all those stripes."
Either that, Loki mentally conceded, or Thor was simply one of those unusually patient beasts who permitted themselves to be mauled with impunity by those who appeared in any way infirm or innocent. Loki had, since he had come to Midgard, seen many photographs of the pets of schoolchildren, dogs and cats, submitting with most endearing patience to the embraces of the little ones.
Surely, however, Thor's behaviour was special.
By the time they reached the house, Thor's cries had nearly ceased, replaced by heartrending little mews. It seemed he had gone through stages of adjustment that proceeded from being angry at Loki for putting him into the carrier, to being angry because he was in the carrier, to being heartbroken because he was in the carrier, to finally, when they entered the house and Loki opened the little door, being filled with gratitude to Loki for rescuing him from the carrier.
And then Loki remembered the catnip mouse residing in his pocket, and Thor's happiness was complete.
Loki did not so much sit upon the couch as allow himself to drop bonelessly into its embrace. George and Annie sat beside him, one on each side, and for a while none of them spoke as they watched Thor stalk and kill his mouse, again and again.
"He seems no worse for the experience," Loki said finally.
"I, on the other hand, have aged about a thousand years, and I still have to go to work tonight," George replied. Loki reached blindly over and managed to pat George quite accurately upon the head.
"Your assistance was much appreciated," he said. "Thank you. And you, Annie."
"I didn’t do anything," George objected, folding his arms across his chest. "Except of course to lose him in the first place."
"You know, the use of the water bottle need not be confined to me. And the fact I am not even yet running amok all over Bristol, in a state of utter panic, indicates you both did something," Loki replied. "As it is, Thor is restored to us, and we can now begin again to consider what to do about this spell. It seems to me I had a thought, before this little adventure, about how we might proceed."
"And what thought was that?" Annie asked.
"I do not remember," Loki replied, letting his head lean back on the couch. "Perhaps a cup of tea would restore my memory."
Annie, likewise leaning back, turned her head to look at him. "That sounded like a hint to me. Did that sound like a hint to you, George?"
"I think it did," George agreed.
"I could certainly make the tea myself," Loki said, in his most exhausted and pitiful voice, "although I really should apply my entire attention to the problem of-- ouch!"
Annie punched him in the leg once more for good measure--although, really, the blows were not hard and his reaction mostly theatrics-- got up, and went into the kitchen. Thor watched her walk away, then picked up his mouse and ran after her. Loki did not blame him.
"What's your plan, Loki?" George asked, rolling his head on the back of the couch to turn toward Loki.
"Shall we join Annie, and I will tell both of you at the same time?" Loki countered, mirroring George's posture.
"If you think you have the strength to make it into the kitchen," George replied.
"Perhaps if we lean upon each other," Loki suggested. "Ouch! I really do object to this new custom of hitting me," he grumbled.
"It's only because the water bottle is out in the kitchen," George replied, lurching to his feet.
"I also feel quite sure that would be an inappropriate use of the water bottle," Loki protested, extending a hand to George, who pulled him to his feet, and the two went into the kitchen to offer Annie their assistance.
When they were all sitting back in the lounge with cups of tea and Thor snuggled into Loki's lap, Loki and Annie finally told George all about their encounter with the medium, and her belief that an old and powerful witch had taken up residence in Bristol.
"We are no closer knowing how Thor might have run afoul of such a sorceress, but the police shows on the television inform us that motive is the least important element of a crime. Means and opportunity count for far more." His friends nodded in agreement, which made sense: they all watched the same programs. "My thought is this," Loki continued, scrubbing his fingers down Thor's back. "It is likely this witch is in fact British. There being some history of witchcraft in this realm, I propose to pay a visit to the public library and see whether any information can be found about the sort of magic we might expect her to wield."
"What, you mean something like the Big Book Of British Magic?" George asked.
Loki looked up hopefully. "Such a book exists?" His face fell as George shook his head. "Do not tease me, George."
"Sorry," George said, patting him on the leg. "But I'm sure there's one that can help us. When does the library close?"
Loki consulted his mobile to learn the time. "I believe we have two and a half hours."
"Okay," George said. "Two heads are better than one-- not literally," he added quickly, when Loki's expression made it clear he did not comprehend the idiom. George removed his spectacles and wiped them with his shirt tail, a sure sign he was thinking. "It might be handy for you to have someone along to help, and I don't have to be at work until seven, so how about I come with you, and Annie can stay here with Thor?" He spoke casually, as though his division of labour was of no significance, but there was no point in his even attempting to lie to Loki.
"George, you are aware that no one blames you for Thor's little adventure, are you not?" Loki said gently. "I specifically remember discussing your plan for a nap, and assuring you Thor would join you." He looked down at his loudly-purring brother. "That, of course, would have been too easy for any of us."
Annie reached over to scratch Thor's head. "Well, anyway, if you're doing research at the library, George is the best person to help you. Just leave me the wand with the feathers on it and I'll make sure Thor doesn't leave my sight, okay?"
"I really am the most troublesome of the housemates," Loki apologized. "Thank you."
"Worth it, luckily," Annie replied, with a peck on his cheek.
The main, and largest, branch of the public library was open until five o'clock on Saturdays. By the time George and Loki had taken the appropriate buses to get there, their research time had been reduced to a little under two hours. That being the case, Loki decided to invoke a variation on a summoning spell.
"You're not going to make books fly across the reading room, are you?" George asked nervously, when Loki explained his plan. "Because that would definitely attract the wrong sort of attention."
"No, no," Loki assured him. "If I am correct about how this spell will work, I will not summon the books. The books will summon me."
The two established themselves at a quiet table in the reading room, pretending to look at back issues of Total Film and Horse & Rider. In fact, George was keeping an eye on Loki, and Loki was allowing his mind to wander.
Literally wander, in fact: the spell he had invoked involved Loki cutting ties between his consciousness and his body. As his eyes stared unseeingly at an illustrated article describing how one might efficiently prepare one's horse to approach a line of jumps, Loki's mind and his magic reached out toward the books in the library's collection, brushing up against the accumulated knowledge and information and all the varied stories, holding out his question and asking for a book to answer it.
It took some time, but eventually one did: far away in the top floor of the library, Loki could hear something respond to him. He left his magazine and rose to his feet, George getting up and following as Loki, like a sleepwalker, left the reading room and made for the lift.
As they disembarked, Loki was vaguely aware of George's voice asking, "Are you sure about-- ?" Paying no heed, Loki allowed himself to be guided by the phantom voice, through the stacks, bound for a destination he did not yet know.
And then he stood before a shelf, and then his right hand reached out, and then he was taking up a book and opening it--
-- And then he was looking down in complete bewilderment at the page before him.
"What is this?" he asked George in a whisper, not so much in accordance with outdated concepts of silence in libraries as because he did not want anyone to hear his confusion.
George took hold of the book, a finger carefully marking the page to which Loki had turned, and exposed the cover.
"Wyrd Sisters," Loki read. "That certainly sounds like a book of witchcraft, but George, I am quite sure this is not a reference work."
"It's not," George agreed, looking around. He had been focused on Loki, and Loki had been focused on the magical pull, and neither of them had really paid much attention to where they were actually going. "We're in the fiction section, and this is a fantasy novel-- same basic genre as The Princess Bride-- " Loki nodded in understanding, he was at least very familiar with the film version of that story-- "but I don't understand why it called to you, either."
Loki suppressed a sigh of impatience, lest George believe it directed at him instead of the situation. "Well, there must be something here, it is just that we will apparently be required to work out an interpretation." Glancing up, Loki added scrupulously to whatever might be listening, "I am of course grateful for whatever assistance this book can provide."
George handed back the battered hardcover, its dust jacket encased in crinkling protective plastic. Loki carefully ensured that he kept the place to which he had originally opened the book. With growing puzzlement, he studied the page.
"'See here, Esme,'" he read aloud, "'Black Aliss was one of the best.'" With a frown of concentration, he fell silent and read a few more paragraphs. George leaned over his shoulder to read to the end of the page:
"She had a sweet tooth. Lived in a real gingerbread cottage. Couple of kids shoved her in her own oven at the end. Shocking."
Loki looked up, frustrated. "George, I am quite sure this story is borrowing from fairy tales."
"Not surprising," George replied. "This author, Terry Pratchett-- he's famous for that kind of thing: borrowing bits of legends and plays and real life, and using them in his own stories. He's got one where the whole book is a satire on the First World War-- the one Mitchell fought in, you know?"
Loki froze. "Wait, so there are elements of truth as well as imagination in his stories?"
"Sure. For a variable value of truth, you know?"
Loki certainly did, and his mind was suddenly ticking over rapidly. "That being the case... perhaps it is not the fairy tales we should be concentrating on. Unless... in the story of the children and the gingerbread house, does the witch have a name?"
George shook his head. "Not that I've ever heard."
"But this witch does," Loki pointed out. "Is there any chance-- "
"That he borrowed the name of a real witch and used it in his story?" George asked. Loki nodded. "I never thought of that. Come on, then, if that's the only book here that called to you, there's not much point trying this spell again."
Despite his discouraging words, George looked eager. Taking heart, Loki asked,
"What shall we try next?"
"The Internet," George replied. "Pratchett is a very popular author, so there are probably plenty of Web sites devoted to picking apart his books-- themes, characters, and references. Come on, let's sign that out and go home."
"This is it, it's got to be," George said triumphantly. He and Loki and Annie-- Thor curled up asleep in a corner of the couch-- were huddled together looking at the computer screen. "Black Annis, or Black Annie-- "
"I think we will not use that version of the name," Loki said quietly, and Annie nudged him with her elbow. He nudged back, and went on, "I am also rather distressed at this description of her witchly activities. How accurate may we consider this Wikipedia?"
"It's not what you'd call rigorous scholarship," George admitted. "But so far, we've been a little short of that all around."
Loki made a sound of assent and re-read the page before him. As George had hoped, an Internet search for the name "Black Aliss" had produced a number of pages devoted to the works of Terry Pratchett. More than one of them surmised that his "Black Aliss," who seemed to illustrate how great powers might be gained, abused, and thus lost, was inspired by a witch from folklore, this "Black Annis," who despite her name was described as having a blue face.
Given that the book had called to him so emphatically, Loki found it very difficult to believe Black Annis was not the witch he sought. However, as he had just noted, he very much wished that was not the case: her main activities, according to the Wikipedia entry, involved catching and eating small children, and then making clothing of their skins. Loki found it difficult to reconcile this description with the fact that his extremely large and clearly adult brother (surely too tough to be palatable?) had not only drawn her attention, but once its focus had been merely turned into a cat instead of meeting some more permanent and ugly fate. It did not make sense.
Unless, of course, she needed a cat for some ritual, and chose in the manner of supervillains to obtain one by the stupidest and most complicated means imaginable. Even so, this was a Dr. Doom-like level of complication, and spoke of either specific malice (and how would Thor have earned that?) or sheer lunacy (in which case, how was she maintaining her cover in Bristol?)
One thing, however, was certain:
"Well, whatever else happens," Loki said, "if this Black Annis has indeed come to Bristol, all my spells of protection around the school will need to be renewed and strengthened." He looked back at the screen, and muttered, "And perhaps I should also turn my attention to the other schools within the city, too."
Beside him, Thor stretched lazily and yawned.
Notes: In which Loki's definition of "much simpler" may not match anyone else's. He is, perhaps, a little preoccupied with detail sometimes. References to Tony Stark's childhood are made up for this AU. Also, thank you to the reader who proposed the ringtone used in this chapter!
Warnings: Passing reference to a form of cutting, although it is not really done as self-harm. Spoilers for a picture book you have probably read anyway.
He started slightly-- lost in thought while dusting books, Loki had not heard the librarian's approach. "Yes?"
"The children are taking it in pairs to read to one another," the librarian explained. She tilted her head toward a pair sitting on the floor near the windows. "I wondered whether you had a few minutes to sit with Trevor and Patrick."
Many teachers and librarians would have chosen to separate this duo, but Loki could see the logic at work: separated, Patrick and Trevor would each spend all their time trying to draw their new partners into some mischief, as well as each keeping a close eye on what the other was up to. It really was more practical, in Loki's view as well as the librarian's, to keep the two of them together, and thus localize the potential trouble in one place.
And it was extremely difficult for him to keep a straight face as he realized he was being asked to monitor the mischief. However, keep a straight face Loki did. Then he set down his duster and walked over to join the boys.
They looked more pleased to see him than his role warranted, and Loki was, not for the first time, compelled to draw certain contrasts between the brand of trouble caused by these two, and that for which he had himself been responsible as a child. Loki as a little boy-- older than these two, but not by much-- had been lonely and angry (it was hard, now, to remember just how angry he had been, or for how long) and his so-called mischief had all had an edge of spite, as well as a deliberate need to make others notice him, even if it was only to scold.
Patrick and Trevor, as far as Loki could tell, had absolutely no ulterior motives: one of them would simply think of a "cool" idea, voice it to the other, and in the absence of any sober second thought, they would immediately be doing it. If one imagined Harry and Ron in the absence of Hermione, Loki thought it would be fairly close to the truth.
Or, one could imagine Tony Stark as a little boy. Loki could easily imagine small Tony being nearly as lonely and angry as Loki himself, although perhaps he had found friends at the boarding schools to which he had described being sent from earliest childhood. Loki hoped so: he liked to imagine the small Tony at a sort of Hogwarts for young scientists, surrounded by appropriate companions who would all help and support one another.
Regardless, Loki thought it was not too far-fetched to imagine Tony's agile mind thinking of experiments and inventions, rather than the sort of hopeless, bitter daydreams with which Loki used to poison himself. Lonely or not, Tony would have had little thought of causing trouble for others-- he would have wished merely to see what he could do, and what would happen if he did. Explosions, in some cases, but they would, in Tony's case as well as Trevor and Patrick's, have been the result of a genuine spirit of investigation, not a wish to upset or anger anyone.
Really, these two were probably budding inventors or engineers. It was, Loki thought warmly, wise of the librarian to avoid discouraging their collaborations. And equally wise of her to act to protect the structural integrity of the school until such time as they could adequately control their powers.
"I have been asked to read with you," Loki announced, and the boys made heartwarmingly eager noises as they shuffled aside to make room for him between them. Loki glanced up to catch the librarian's glance of thanks and approval, and he realized that she believed having Loki sitting between Patrick and Trevor was an improvement. He was forced to conclude that either the librarian did not read, or...
... or something.
Loki dismissed the thought and turned to Patrick, who was holding a slender volume with a bright, flexible cover. "What book are we to read?"
Patrick held up the book for Loki's inspection, and then, at a significant look from Trevor, read out the title: "The Monster At the End of This Book, Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover."
"That's Grover," Trevor explained unnecessarily, pointing to a furry blue creature who was waving to the reader from the cover.
"I see," Loki said.
"What happened to your hand?" Patrick asked suddenly, looking at the bandage wrapped around Loki's right hand, from his wrist to the base of his fingers.
"I cut myself," Loki replied, without elaboration. Patrick looked inclined to ask for further details, but Loki nodded toward the book. "Shall we begin?"
Loki generally did not lie to children, and indeed in this case he had been technically truthful: he had cut himself. He had spent Saturday night studying the spell books and grimoires he had brought back from Asgard, finding at last an extremely powerful spell of protection he wished to use on the schools and playgrounds of Bristol. Under cover of a glamour, he and Annie had spent all day Sunday, with the help of a city map, seeking out every location where children gathered, and casting the charm over each of them.
The spell had taken some modifications in order to be usable, but Loki was now quite sure it would hold under any circumstances. His original protective rhinoceros charm had depended on Loki's presence in the city, and after the events of the previous summer Loki realized that was simply not good enough: he needed a way to ensure the spell would hold, whether he was alive and present or not.
The spell he found in the grimoire was indeed powerful, but as it called for a live sacrifice-- human, or the local equivalent-- it was hardly appropriate in its original form. There might, Loki conceded, be conditions under which such a spell might legitimately be used. The only ones that occurred to Loki were in the event of war, and even then only under the express command-- or at least with the explicit blessing-- of the rulers of the land. And even then, only in a jurisdiction in which such sacrifices, or at least capital punishment, were permissible under law and by custom in the first place. In its original form, the spell would not be appropriate for use in Asgard, let alone the United Kingdom. Even if Loki had been determined to cast it anyway, the conflict with local mores would ensure disastrous results.
Loki had read the spell over several times, and then had consulted one of his favourite texts, which had an extremely useful section devoted to the modification of enchantments. The first variation that occurred to him was rejected in the same breath: Loki had never sacrificed an animal in his life, and he did not intend to start now. Besides, again, United Kingdom: the notion of animal sacrifice would be nearly as repugnant to its people as that of human, and that meant the spell would, regardless of the sorcerer's original intent, automatically turn into dark magic.
This would, of course, go double for Loki, with his history of doing appalling things with what he had stubbornly told himself were good intentions. He was perhaps a little better now at identifying his own motivations, but his real improvement in the area of personal growth was that he was no longer arrogant enough to believe the laws of magic-- or of cause and effect-- did not apply to him.
The spell was too close to what he needed for Loki to willingly abandon it. When he at last hit upon the variant that would work, Loki felt quite stupid for taking so long to think of it: the necessary ingredient was, of course, blood, and there was no specific requirement that the blood be anyone else's. The sorcerer who crafted the original spell had used the blood of another, obtained through sacrifice, because that was the custom in his or her place and time.
It was clear from the wording that this was the case: when Loki reread it with an open mind, he could see that the references to sacrifice were made in passing, as though they were assumed to have happened for some other purpose. It was, in spirit, rather like Midgardian cookery books, which occasionally included recipes calling for the use of some ingredient which might have been left over from a previous meal.
Annie had not thanked him for the comparison, but she immediately saw Loki's point when he articulated it: with minor modifications, it seemed perfectly permissible to use the sorcerer's own blood in the ritual instead.
Loki had therefore armed himself with a sharp paring knife in addition to his other paraphernalia. He had repeatedly scored the heel of his dominant hand as deeply as he dared, and had been relieved to feel the spells take hold as strongly and independently as he could wish.
Afterward, he had decided not to call upon the healing spell that served him so well in emergencies: under normal circumstances he healed quickly anyway, and he hoped that, in the event he had misunderstood the spell, that submitting without complaint to a few days of pain and the itching that accompanied the healing of wounds, might qualify his action as a sacrifice of sorts. Just in case. In his mind it could do no harm to try.
When this Monday morning had dawned, Loki's hand was still painful but he had the use of his fingers, indicating he had not cut himself too deeply for ordinary healing. And he felt quite hopeful about his spells, which among other improvements included a sort of graded progression of rhinoceroses.
George had told him of a time in the recent past, when governments in fear of "terrorism" had declared varying "threat levels" described by a bewildering array of colours. Upon researching the system, Loki found himself quite unable to follow the scheme, although it struck him as illogical for red to represent the highest level of threat and green the lowest-- he felt quite sure Asgard would be surprised to hear of that.
Regardless, Loki had concluded the basic idea had merit, and had created a far simpler and more logical graded response to varying levels of threat: the least dangerous incursions would be greeted by the small Sumatran rhinoceros, and as the perceived danger increased, so would the size and aggressive potential of the assigned animal.
He had wavered over the best response to a really high level of threat, finally choosing the black rhinoceros as his final line of defense. The species was smaller than both the Indian and his favourite white rhinoceros, but his research indicated the black rhinoceros was the most openly aggressive species, and therefore suitable to be unleashed on anything really dangerous.
None of which was appropriate to tell these children, if only to prevent them getting up to unimaginable capers (well, unimaginable to someone other than Loki, Loki found himself quite able to picture the possibilities) in the schoolyard, in the hopes of calling up a rhinoceros to stop them. Fortunately, the boys accepted Loki's terse explanation. Patrick opened the book and began to read to Trevor and Loki.
The book featured large pictures and relatively few words, but many of the words were complex enough to provide a challenge to a young reader. In the story, furry blue Grover was made aware of the titular monster at the end of the book, and made numerous fruitless efforts to prevent the reader from actually arriving at the final page. Patrick gave a spirited reading, and Loki could not help feeling sorry for Grover, as well as-- despite knowing it was silly-- becoming somewhat infected by his anxiety.
"Do you know, I find myself apprehensive about how this story is to end," he remarked, mostly in jest, when Patrick paused for his audience to admire the wreckage of a brick wall constructed by Grover in an unsuccessful attempts to prevent the reader from turning the page.
Patrick and Trevor looked at each other across Loki.
"Should we tell him?" Patrick asked. Trevor, the more softhearted of the two, glanced up at Loki and nodded. Patrick accordingly leaned forward and whispered, "Loki, Grover is a monster."
"Really? But he is furry and lovable," Loki objected. The book said so, quite apart from the evidence of Loki's own eyes.
"Yes, but he's a furry, lovable monster," Patrick insisted patiently.
"He's a nice monster," Trevor elaborated, so that there should be no misunderstanding.
Loki frowned, and then the joke became apparent.
"So you are telling me-- " he began slowly.
Patrick patted his knee kindly, and resumed reading. And sure enough, when they reached the end of the story, there was only one monster to be found: a very embarrassed Grover.
After appropriately congratulating Patrick for what really had been a most expressive reading, they listened to Trevor's book. This was a much longer work called Stellaluna, which Loki had previously looked at on the picture-book shelves. He found the illustrations extremely appealing. (The story was about a baby bat, separated by accident from her mother, who was taken in by three kind little birds in their nest. Of course he found the illustrations appealing.)
This interlude actually put Loki rather behind in his other work, but Carol was understanding, having been worried about the injured hand in the first place. It certainly hurt less after the reading interlude, and Loki managed to catch up with his tasks and leave work more or less on time.
Thor greeted him at the door, once again managing to suggest that his entire day had been spent waiting faithfully at the window for Loki's return. Despite knowing full well this was not the case, it was still surprisingly gratifying. Loki picked up his brother, who draped his paws over Loki's shoulder and purred noisily in his ear, and greeted Annie.
"Have you made any progress with a plan?" she asked.
Reluctantly, Loki shook his head. "Only the one in which we go to the park tomorrow and hope for the best."
Annie grimaced sympathetically, scratched Thor's head, and added, "His phone's been ringing all day." They had finally gathered the nerve to take the device out of the duffle bag, although none of them had the courage to answer it. Both of them stared at the device, where it sat on the coffee table next to the computer. Annie went on, "I looked at the call log a little while ago. Tony, Jane, Jane, Tony, Steve-- "
"Steve?" Loki asked in alarm. Steve, the man out of time, was even more annoyed by modern Midgardian devices, including telephones lacking something called a "dial," than Thor. Steve was a great deal more confused by them than Thor, and so he tended to leave communications to Tony or Pepper if he could. The fact he too was calling had to indicate the Avengers were becoming seriously concerned by Thor's continued lack of contact.
Loki had no sooner had the thought than music began to emanate from his own pocket:
"Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest
Laughing back and forth at what the other'n had to say.
Reminiscing this 'n' that 'n' having such a good time,
Oo-de-lally oo-de-lally, golly what a day."
Loki and Annie traded horrified glances. Hawkeye-- Clint Barton-- was one of Loki's "contacts" only in case of extreme emergency. The two were certainly not in the habit of calling one another to chat. Indeed, Loki had only set a personal ringtone for the archer on Annie's insistence, and because, once he had seen the film from which it came, her suggestion was too funny to resist.
(Loki had not even minded the faceful of water he got when he admitted to pangs of guilt during the song about the phony king of England-- which fact notwithstanding, he had for the following week hummed the song as persistently as anyone in Asgard was humming "The Black Velvet Band" right now.)
Thor squirmed, and Loki realized he had inadvertently tightened his clasp on his brother. The whole situation was taking on the quality of a nightmare, a sense of fate closing in on them.
Which was completely ridiculous, Loki told himself. These were Thor's friends. They were worried about him. Loki's intentions had been honourable, truly, but he now realized that total silence from their end was merely serving to frighten everyone.
True, Thor had only been out of communication for a few days, but the anxiety of his friends was understandable. It was not, after all, as though there was no history of unfortunate things happening to any of them. Loki himself had, within recent memory, vanished without a trace after being abducted. It was likely that, by now, Jane and the Avengers were beginning to fear the entire Bristol household, including Thor, had met some awful fate.
The full moon was tomorrow night. Loki thought longingly of his original plan to find the witch, force her to reverse the enchantment, and then tell Tony and Jane and the others what had happened. It would have worked, he was sure of it.
It was clearly too late for that. If Clint was calling Loki, the Avengers were worried enough that they were, at this moment probably gearing up to come to everyone's rescue, in spectacular fashion. The helicarrier might even now be over the Atlantic. The only question was, with Tony in the UK already, why had he not himself come to investigate?
And just as Loki thought it, right on cue, there came a loud knocking on the front door. A very loud knocking, such as might be produced by an iron fist on wood. Loki permitted himself a moment to press a hand to his forehead.
And then he handed Thor to Annie, walked to the door, and opened it, just as George appeared in the kitchen doorway and Mitchell at the head of the stairs.
Tony Stark was not, in fact, wearing his Iron Man suit. It scarcely mattered, since he was carrying a metal briefcase Loki knew to contain his armour, and he was accompanied by Agent Coulson. If Tony had called in Coulson, the Avengers were even more worried than Loki had imagined.
Tony did not wait to be invited-- it was not necessary, Tony being a friend, and anyway not a vampire-- and Agent Coulson followed him in. Both men looked momentarily startled at the sight of Thor, to their eyes, floating in midair.
"When did you get a cat?" Tony demanded.
"Hello, Annie," Agent Coulson said politely, with a smile a few degrees warmer than his normal one.
"Hi, Agent Coulson," Annie replied automatically, although of course he could not hear her.
"Where's your brother?" Tony asked, without further preamble.
"My brother?" Loki faltered, as though he had never heard of such a relationship before.
"Yes, Loki, your brother," Tony repeated, expression hardening, as Coulson fixed Loki with a look of reproach. Loki twisted his hands together, the picture of guilt.
And then started violently as Annie poked him sharply in the back.
"I think it's time for us to come clean," she announced. "George, Mitchell, come on and join us." George and Mitchell skulked into the lounge, and though they did not speak the fact they stayed close to Loki was a relief. With Thor draped around her neck, Annie walked over to the couch, flipped open the computer, and began tapping keys. "We need to get Jane involved in this conversation, too."
Jane's response to the Skype call was so immediate that it was obvious she had been hanging around waiting for someone to call and tell her what was going on.
"Hello?" she said, voice high and sharp with worry. Thor, who had been sitting beside Annie, immediately leaped to the coffee table and began trying to rub his head against the screen. Loki had to pick him up to prevent him from walking all over the keys. Jane smiled tensely. "Hi, Thunder. What a nice kitty." Thor uttered a piercing mew, and despite the fact Thor had been behaving in a very cat-like fashion recently, Loki was unable to convince himself Thor was not trying to deliberately communicate with her.
"Hi, Jane," Tony said loudly, taking charge of the interaction. "Nice to see you."
"Tony! Is Thor there?" Jane asked him, as though Loki was not even present. He realized that she and Tony had been in communication, had arranged together to corner Loki and force the truth from him, as though he was a villain.
And it was not that he had not earned this, but Loki still felt rather sick at the evidence that he had inadvertently squandered all the goodwill he had previously been given by Thor's friends.
"We were just going to ask Loki about that," Coulson said peaceably, and for some reason Loki suddenly felt a few degrees less panicky. Coulson should have sounded like he was about to begin an interrogation, but instead he simply sounded like he intended to ask Loki where his brother was.
Jane and Tony finally turned back to Loki. Tony glanced at him, looked harder at his still-anxious expression, and then said in a gentler voice,
"Calm down. Nobody's mad at you."
"Are you kidding?" Jane demanded. "We're all mad at you, Loki. We're also scared to death. But we'll get over it. Just tell us what's going on."
Tony took over again. "Thor was supposed to call Jane when he got here, and he didn't. And when I called to make sure he had arrived safely, he never got back to me. And then he kept not getting back to anyone. We've all been trying not to overreact, but we also know how you Odinson boys attract trouble. If something has happened to Thor, you don't have to handle it all by yourself."
"Actually, we'd rather you didn't," Coulson contributed. Loki swallowed. Coulson smiled, and elaborated, "It's always easier when you have help."
"So what's going on, Loki?" Tony persisted.
Thor squirmed out of Loki's grasp and hopped back onto the coffee table. Loki's eyes followed his brother, and then met Jane's on the computer screen. He saw the exact moment when the truth hit her.
"Loki," she said, in a tone of command that made her suddenly sound almost like Thor's friend Sif, "is Thunder really Thor?"
Tony gaped. "Do what?" he asked inelegantly.
Coulson raised an eyebrow.
One puzzling element of Midgardian belief, which Loki frequently saw depicted on the television, was the notion that scientists were incapable of imaginative thought. Based on what was admittedly a rather small sample, Loki could not understand how this idea could ever have gained credence: as far as he could tell, a scientist was capable of believing anything, no matter how bizarre, so long as the evidence pointed toward it.
Thor was missing. Loki and his friends had simultaneously acquired a large golden cat, one who reacted with excitement at the sound of Jane's voice. Loki was a sorcerer with a history of, shall we say, magical incidents. Further evidence appeared to be unnecessary.
"What did you do to him?" Tony blurted. Loki felt as though he had been punched in the stomach. Coulson jabbed Tony sharply in the ribs.
"Tony!" Jane protested.
"I didn't mean on purpose!" Tony yelped, looking at Loki in something like horror, as though he had only just realized what he had said. "I meant... an accident. Or a bet. Or, you know, a joke. Or something. "
"A joke?" George repeated in disbelief, so Loki did not have to.
Tony, looking nearly as upset as Loki felt, opened his mouth again, and Coulson said calmly, "Tony, I think you've said enough. Loki, why don't you just tell us what happened?"
Loki took a deep breath and began. It was astonishing how much better he felt, once he began to unburden himself. He told them of finding the duffle bag, of searching the neighbourhood, of the vision of Thor he received when first he touched the cat. Tony wanted to know about the collar with the bell on it, of course, but Coulson and Jane steered the explanation back on track. Loki told them of the library, and of finding the book that led them to what he felt sure was the identity of the mysterious witch, as well as his hope of a productive confrontation in the park, under the full moon.
He nearly left Catherine Bennett out of the story altogether-- he had no wish to cause her trouble with the Avengers-- but suddenly, wincingly realized he could hardly ask the others to trust him if he refused to trust them in their turn. As a compromise, he explained her role but not her name.
"Okay," Coulson said at last. "That all makes sense." Tony stared at him. Coulson shrugged. "Well, it makes sense if you're us, is what I mean. What I don't understand, Loki, is why you didn't call on us right away."
Loki swallowed, unsure how he could explain without really hurting Tony's feelings. "I was afraid... I thought perhaps you would feel this was a case that should be dealt with as you would a supervillain, and I did not feel that would be good for the existing supernatural community. I am so sorry. I just thought... Thor is my brother, and dealing with magic is my role. It is what magical consultants are for."
Tony, who was leaning on the wall, straightened up suddenly. "Okay, Loki, don't ever say that again." Loki blinked at him. "The last time you gave that little speech, you ended up dead."
"There is no reason to believe-- " Loki began, finally feeling stirrings of impatience at being so persistently put in the wrong.
"You're planning to take this witch on all by yourself, right?" Tony snapped.
"Not 'all by myself,'" Loki snapped back. "Annie and Mitchell will be there, and you must admit, their knowledge of the supernatural is superior to yours."
"And what if it comes to a fight?" Tony demanded.
"It's a lot less likely to come to a fight if it's us instead of you," George spoke up, though of course George would be otherwise occupied during the full moon.
"And if it does," Mitchell said quietly, "Loki's got over nine hundred years' experience of dealing with supernatural situations, and I have nearly a hundred. We're better at this than you are, and we speak the same language as the witch. We can handle it."
"And what if you can't?" Tony persisted.
"If we cannot persuade or compel the witch to reverse the spell," Loki said reluctantly, "then I will return us to Asgard and ask assistance there."
"Which is what you should have done in the first place," Tony pointed out. "Your dad being kind of a big deal sorcerer as well as the king."
"Yes," Loki snarled, goaded, "even as I am sure you used to run to your own father, whenever you faced a problem you should have been able to solve for yourself."
He regretted the words the moment he uttered them. He regretted the words while he was uttering them. He regretted them with particular intensity as Tony flinched. And then a shutter came down over Tony's face, making it as unreadable as his Iron Man mask, and he started to turn away.
Loki stood up so fast he had no memory of actually doing so. Nine hundred years he had wasted already, allowing sharp words and misunderstandings to fester until they were nearly irreparable. He had been given one chance already to repair things, to make amends and apologies to those he had injured, to start over with those who had injured him.
Any further chances would be up to him, and he had not nine hundred years to spare in misunderstandings with his mortal friends.
"Tony, please," he heard himself blurt. "I apologize. That was... I was angry, and... and frightened, and I spoke cruelly. I should not have said what I did. I am sorry."
Tony turned back, but his expression was still stiff and hurt. For a moment he looked as though he would do the thing Loki suspected Tony usually did: nod and mutter pretended acceptance, while the words continued to lie between them.
Loki did not know what he would do if that was Tony's response: his experience in offering apologies was a new thing, and so far, he realized, he had been most fortunate in having them accepted in the spirit in which he had offered them. Before they learned to truly apologize, the practice of his family and circle was to pretend the injury had not happened, even after the resulting infection was apparent to everyone around them. Loki did not want to do that any more. He did not think he could stand it.
He had no idea what the next step should be, if his apology was ignored or thrown back in his face. Loki would not blame Tony if he did exactly that: Loki was hardly the only one on the room who had enjoyed difficult relations with his parents, and at least his parents were--
"See, Loki, here's the thing," Tony said flatly. "The reason that was a shitty remark is, the difference between you, now, and me, then, is that you know your dad likes you."
"I know," Loki admitted. "I did not intentionally say it for that reason, but I know... I know that much. I am sorry." He felt his hands twisting together, gathered all his nerve, and blurted, "Please forgive me."
It should not have been so difficult, to ask forgiveness, considering the generosity with which it had been offered him in the recent past. Considering the difference in magnitude between this trespass and those others for which he had been forgiven. It was silly for his throat to feel so dry. It was just that Loki found it hard to get over the idea forgiveness was a thing offered or withheld, but not asked for. It felt like an imposition upon Tony to do so, though Loki had to admit he had not felt so when it was asked of him.
Thor and their mother had expressed a different perspective on the matter, not so long ago. They had suggested that to ask forgiveness was to tell the injured party they were important, that more was desired than to simply sweep the incident aside and try to pretend it had not happened. Loki had had forgiveness asked of him by people whose injuries at his hands were far worse than any they had dealt to him. It shamed him to think of, but at the same time he could not deny the sense of... of a burden lightened, after he had done so.
Tony hesitated, and then-- to Loki's immeasurable relief-- he reached awkwardly out and patted Loki on the shoulder.
"Yeah, sure," Tony muttered. Then he took a deep breath, let it out, and said with his old generosity, "Yes. I forgive you, okay? I was being a little shitty myself, and you've got to be pretty frayed by now."
"There was still no excuse for-- "
"Actually, there was, but I appreciate the thought," Tony said firmly. "Really, thanks." Loki was quite desperately tempted to ask for further reassurance, but managed to restrain himself.
Instead, he said only, "I do not believe this encounter is anything we cannot handle, nor do I think it a situation that would... play to the strengths... of Iron Man." Those of Agent Coulson were another matter, of course, but it still seemed safer not to involve any of the humans in a situation so fraught with potential misunderstanding. Hoping to placate, Loki added, "I promise all of you that we will contact you early on Wednesday at the latest, to let you know what transpires in the meeting. And if our efforts are unsuccessful, I will waste no further time in calling on the assistance of our father."
"Are you sure Heimdall will-- ?" Jane asked. Loki wished his brother had a less open, truthful nature: he must have admitted to Jane, at some point, that the Guardian did not always answer when called upon.
"If he does not," Loki replied firmly, "I know certain paths between worlds. Admittedly, I have been accustomed to travel them alone, but in his current form it would take little extra effort to transport my brother with me."
The mental image of himself appearing in the palace, with his brother in the carrier, was nearly enough to distract Loki from the terrifying idea of trying to explain to his father what had become of the heir to the throne. The prospect was not quite enough to make a second plunge from the Bifrost seem appealing, but it at least served to stiffen Loki's resolve concerning the anticipated confrontation with Black Annis. If he could persuade her, he would not have to face his father.
"Okay," Jane said bravely. "We trust you."
Which, all things considered, was a great deal more than he deserved. Loki sat back down on the couch and smiled gratefully at Jane as Thor crawled into his lap.
"Yeah," Coulson seconded Jane. Tony nodded, and reached down to ruffle Thor's head.
Thor growled and nipped him sharply on the end of his finger.
It was perhaps not terribly surprising Loki did not sleep very well that night.
He retired at the usual time, wishing his housemates goodnight, and left his door ajar so that his brother might come and go as he wished. And then he lay awake, staring up at the overhang of the eaves above his head. Perhaps it was the bell on Thor's collar, jingling merrily as he rummaged in the corners of the room, in pursuit of shadows.
Or perhaps it was only the noise within his own mind that kept him waking. His new bed was comfortable, but Loki tossed and turned, now on his back, now on his side. He lay for a long time gazing, by the light of the waxing gibbous moon that shone through his windows, at the little horned action figure propped against his bedside lamp. It was far too dark to see the toy's expression, but Loki knew it to be reproachful, rebuking him for his failure to rescue his brother, for upsetting his friends, for being cruel to Tony--
Twisting away from the sight, Loki managed to rap his injured hand-- Tony had looked very hard at the bandage, when he and Loki stopped slanging at each other-- against the new headboard. The resulting jolt of pain made tears start up in his eyes, and he barely muffled an oath. Thor came bounding and jingling onto the bed to investigate, rubbing himself against Loki in what Loki chose to interpret as concern and sympathy.
Sleep was clearly impossible, with his hand throbbing and his mind turning in circles. The longer he lay awake in his bed, the worse it was. Loki wriggled out from under the covers, picked up his brother, who dangled from his arm as though boneless, and padded downstairs.
Perhaps he would read Wyrd Sisters for a little while, and see if that might aid him in settling down enough for sleep. He had begun the book on Sunday evening, and found the witches in the story amusing. He had also been intrigued by the description of the magic of the land waking up. Given his own experiences, Loki found himself wondering how the author had learned of such things.
And then he thought of the character who had committed murder, and who was unable to wash the blood from his hands even with the use of wire brushes and steel wool...
... And he decided he did not really want to read, after all.
Instead, he dropped to the couch, regretting it when another bolt of pain lanced through his hand and wrist as he landed. He bit his lip, permitting himself to hope that he had not managed to overdo the sacrificial aspect of his wards-- along with, apparently, everything else he had ever done.
"It is not that I meant to do myself an injury," Loki explained to Thor, who crept into his lap and then stretched up to lie upon his chest, paws kneading Loki's collarbone. "At least, not a serious injury. I am no longer quite so self-dramatizing as all that. I think." Thor stretched out a paw and rested it against Loki's jaw, in a feline parody of one of Thor's more recent gestures of affection. Loki swallowed.
"Do not worry, brother. I will-- Annie and Mitchell and I will-- return you to your real form." Thor gazed at him out of squinted eyes. He did not, in truth, look very concerned. Loki held his right arm wrapped loosely around Thor and scruffed the fingers of his left hand down Thor's back.
"Do you know, brother, it occurs to me-- as worried as I have been about you these last few days, in this small and helpless form-- " Thor uttered a sound best rendered as "meep," which might have been protest at such a description of his large, fearsome, Iron Man-nipping self. Or it might simply have been encouragement in the matter of back-scratching. Loki grinned, and then sobered as he went on, "I suddenly wonder whether my feelings are in any way similar to yours, when we were very small and I made you entirely responsible for my welfare. Granted, you were not concerned about returning me to my real form, since as far as we knew I was in it, but between the nightmares and the way I followed you everywhere-- well, you were very good to me. Better than was at all fair or reasonable to ask of you, and for much longer than you should have been asked to endure it. Thank you, brother."
Thor purred and nuzzled into Loki's neck, which was probably just a coincidence, but Loki chose to imagine it as reassurance. The completeness of Thor's early responsibility, of course, had to have been a contributing factor in his later rejection. And also in the continued troubled relationship between the two in the centuries that followed, full of angry unspoken hurt on one side and angry unspoken guilt on the other.
Neither of the brothers had been able to see Thor's taking up with his new friends as what it was: the actions of a drowning child pulling himself onto a life raft. A little boy could hardly be blamed for pulling loose from the clutching hands that would have drawn him under, no matter what happened to the other drowner.
But even at that, he had not actually pried his brother's fingers loose from the edge of the raft.
"Really, you continued to be remarkably patient with me-- and your friends with both of us, all things considered," Loki realized, continuing to scratch Thor's neck as he thought out loud. "They must have wondered why you never put your foot down and forced me to leave you alone. Especially after what happened with Sif's hair. Really, any sane child-- "
-- would have taken the beating dealt out to him as a fairly strong hint he was not wanted.
When, not being entirely sane, Loki had not, he now realized that Thor and his friends must have decided they were unwilling to do anything worse to him. Thereafter, they had more or less put up with him. They had not wanted him, and they had not made him welcome, but they had not positively driven him away, either. It had been far less than Loki wanted or needed, but now he thought about it, he realized it was still a considerable amount for Thor to offer.
"I really never have been fair to you, have I, brother?" Loki asked, screwing his face up as Thor stretched to lick his chin and nose. "Or your friends. Well, I truly am sorry. And glad things are better. And... and I will fix this current mess. I promise."
"Can't sleep?" asked a voice from the top of the stairs. Loki glanced up to see Annie coming down.
"Not terribly well," Loki admitted. He did not bother with pro forma apologies for waking her: Annie did not sleep at all. If anyone in the household knew what things looked like in the despairing small hours, it was Annie.
"Is your hand bothering you, or is it something else?" she asked now, settling onto the couch on Loki's left side.
"Both, I suppose," Loki admitted, shifting to wrap his arm around her. "Or, rather, all of it. It is true, my hand is painful. And I seem to have set out to feel guilty about my thoughtlessness to Tony, moved on to regretting all those centuries of anger and misunderstanding with Thor, and have finally settled on feeling grateful for what he was able to offer in spite of everything." He sighed. "He and his friends. I was so busy hating them all those years, I did not stop to realize what allowances they actually made for me."
Annie raised her eyebrows. "Okay, Loki, granted I wasn't there, but that seems to be going a little far. You're not running a fever, are you?" Her words were teasing, but Loki did not protest when she pressed the back of her cold hand to his forehead.
"It is true," he insisted. "Admittedly, things were bad-- particularly in the early days, before the habit of putting up with me became deeply ingrained, before I began to make myself useful-- but they could have been a great deal worse. They probably should have been."
"Why, because you would have deserved it?" Annie asked sternly. Loki found himself mildly surprised she had not yet gone to fetch the water bottle.
"No, because Thor deserved it," Loki explained. "He deserved better than to have me always at his elbow, reminding him of forced responsibility and failure. Naturally, his friends wanted to protect him. He needed protection. The fallacy was in believing he needed to be protected from me, rather than from the situation that affected both of us. He should not have had to continue to put up with me, but he was given no alternative, and he and his friends did what they were able." He shrugged. "I may not be making very much sense right now, but I have a strong feeling that I should ask forgiveness of Sif and the Warriors, when next I find myself in Asgard." He looked down at Thor. "With you in your real form, I hope."
"I have a very strong feeling you might be getting carried away," Annie said, but there was no heat in the remark.
"And this would be unusual in what way-- ?" Loki retorted, with a crooked smile. Annie laughed, and held out her hand toward his injured one.
"Let me see that," she commanded. Loki turned a little on the couch, released her, and allowed her to take his right hand in both of hers. The cool press of her fingers over the veins in his wrist helped calm the hot throb of his pulse through the wounds.
"That is better," Loki murmured.
"I think we should change that bandage," Annie remarked. "Come on, let's go in the kitchen. Make sure it's not getting infected. Sacrifice or not, I don't think even you need to take it quite that far."
Loki meekly followed her, sat at the kitchen table with Thor curled sleepily in his lap while Annie occupied herself with scissors and cotton wrapping and antibiotic cream and tape. The gashes in his hand were ugly but clean, and there was no sign of the red streaking that would herald infection. Annie grimaced automatically at the sight, but Loki had a certain experience with wounds like this, and it was evident to him that there was nothing to worry about.
"This will be fully healed by the end of the week," Loki assured her. "I doubt there will even be noticeable scars."
"What happens if you have to cast a bunch of magic tomorrow-- tonight?" Annie corrected herself, glancing at the clock.
"A small physical injury like this one would have no impact," Loki assured her. "It will be, as they say, the least of our worries."
"Okay, what about the biggest of our worries? We haven't talked about how you plan to tackle the witch tomorrow-- tonight-- if it's really her," Annie said as she smeared ointment on Loki's gashes. As she had pointed out while assisting him with the original dressing, one good thing about getting nursing care from a ghost was the fact Annie could not introduce infection into a wound.
Loki could think of a number of other benefits to receiving such care from Annie, most of them having little to do with the actual injuries. Indeed, as he sat there with his hand held in hers, it was difficult to remember what he had been so upset about when he came downstairs. He smiled at her quite genuinely, and announced,
"I intend to begin by asking her nicely." Annie uttered an unladylike snuffle of laughter, then glanced up at him through her eyelashes. This was... effective. Loki felt his smile widen. "What? It could work. I can be very persuasive."
"Oh, I can believe that," Annie replied demurely, as she wrapped his hand again and taped the end of the bandage in place.
"Indeed," Loki agreed, equally demurely. "No, really, I am being serious, I swear to you-- "
"-- have you ever heard of protesting too much?" Annie asked mildly. Loki made a face at her and continued with his explanation.
"If persuasion does not work, I am willing to resort to threats, but I hope not to have to go any further. As we indicated to Tony and Agent Coulson, we must make every effort to avoid turning this into a real fight. There is every reason to believe we are going to have to coexist in this city, this sorceress and ourselves, and I prefer not to make a frank enemy of her if I can." Even if he had not made promises to the medium, Loki had no intention of trying to harm a sorcerer who, as far as he knew, had not yet done any harm in the city. Nor had he any wish to drive her from whatever sanctuary she had found, here in Bristol, unless it was absolutely necessary.
Annie frowned. "Not that I'm exactly spoiling for a fight, but the stories we found on the Internet didn't make her sound like the 'coexisting' type."
Loki chewed his lower lip. "They did not. And it is true that I do not necessarily feel every act of magic that occurs in this city, even fairly large ones. But if harm had already been done to any children, I would know about it. No disappearance of or crime against a child goes unnoticed. The school would be on the alert, the teachers would be worried... Whatever she may have done in the distant past, she has not begun to do it again. And there is, again, the undeniable fact she did not kill Thor, despite almost certainly having sufficient power to do so."
"You think maybe she's reformed?" Annie asked hopefully.
"I know better than most that the possibility always exists." He shrugged, and then smiled ruefully. "At the same time, I also think it was worth our while to cast those protective enchantments as broadly as possible."
"Even so. You're going to try to talk her into changing Thor back."
"First, I am going to ask what she has against him." At Annie's raised eyebrows, he admitted, "It may do no good to permit her the chance to air her grievances, but it is probably worth making the effort. Even that may be of comfort enough to improve the situation. Then, assuming it is even possible, I propose to offer, on my brother's behalf, what amends I can. If we can satisfy her in that, perhaps she will simply agree to release Thor."
"And if she turns out to be a bloody-minded old hag who won't lift the curse and still wants to devour children?"
Loki shrugged again. "Rhinoceroses."
"You promised that medium you wouldn't hurt her."
It was on the tip of Loki's tongue to flippantly reply that it would not be himself, but the rhinoceros, doing the harm. Instead, he said,
"I know. But Catherine Bennett has read mythology, and therefore probably does not expect me to keep my word at all costs anyway. And the safety of children is not a cost I am prepared to pay. I do not believe it is a cost upon which she would insist, either." This was, perhaps, wishful thinking. It was in fact quite possible that a sorceress would have more concern for her fellow than for a few human brats.
And that, if so, was not Loki's problem.
Annie looked quite worried. "Loki, I know this isn't what you're saying, but it sounds like you're going into this already planning how you're going to defend the double-cross. That... that might be bad luck."
Loki started to pull his hand free, but when Annie refused to let go he did not fight her. Then he took a deep breath and composed himself. It was surprisingly easy to meet her eyes as he replied,
"If it would comfort you, I will seek out the medium and explain matters to her in advance. Yes, I pledged not to harm the sorceress. I continue to have no desire to do so, and I will not do her any injury to force her to lift the curse, or in revenge for my brother. That, if you recall, was Catherine Bennett's concern when I made my vow to her. At that point, no one had said a word about danger to children. Indeed, there is no reason to think the medium herself suspected such a possibility.
"I have made pledges-- tacit, perhaps, but still binding-- to the city of Bristol, for sanctuary here. I am responsible to protect its children from supernatural dangers, and no promise made in ignorance can possibly supersede that. If there are consequences for breaking one vow in order to keep another, I am quite prepared to pay them." He smiled, and could tell by Annie's expression it was not a reassuring one. "If it turns out to be a matter of having my lying lips sewn together, I can stand it."
Annie's expression made it very clear that, even if Loki could endure such a punishment, she probably could not. Loki turned his hand in hers so that he was now holding her hand instead of the other way around.
"It will not come to that, Annie. I am... well, nearly certain of it. Catherine Bennett must have been fairly sure of Black Annis's intentions before extracting that promise from me in the first place."
"Unless Catherine cares more about other witches than she does about little kids," Annie pointed out, echoing his earlier thought.
Loki grimaced. "I was rather hoping you would not think of that." He glanced at the clock. "We seem to have talked ourselves in a circle, right back to a state of anxiety, so it is probably just as well it is almost time to rise, anyway. I don't suppose you would care to accompany me on my run?"
Annie glanced down at her strange soft footwear, a sort of combination of slippers and boots, and declined.
The day before the full moon was always an anxious one: George was by now skilled at arranging his night to minimize any chance of tragedy, but it could never be truly eliminated. Also, aside from his fear of harming anyone, the process of shapeshifting into the werewolf form was a brutally painful one, completely unlike Loki's experiences of taking on an alien form, or even his Jotun one. George therefore spent the day anticipating agony, which rendered him tense and far less communicative than was normal.
By the time Loki had returned from his run-- encountering nothing unusual, apart from Nelson and his owner on an early-morning walk instead of their customary evening one-- George and Mitchell were up, dressed, and eating breakfast in advance of their early shifts at the hospital. Loki did not envy them their variable work hours, but at least this month George would not have to invent an excuse to leave work before moonrise.
"All set for tonight?' George asked, as Loki let himself into the kitchen. It was unlikely they would see each other again before morning, and Loki appreciated the show of concern.
"I believe so," Loki replied. "And you?"
"As ever," George shrugged, popped a final crust of toast and jam into his mouth, and rose from the table, arms outstretched. Loki would have objected to the embrace on the grounds he was sweaty and scruffy, but his policy was to take such gestures when they were offered, and if George did not mind, neither did he. He hugged George tightly, then withdrew upstairs in hopes there would be sufficient hot water for his bath.
When he came back downstairs, dressed for work and ready for breakfast, George and Mitchell were gone. Thor was in the lounge with Annie, playing with the wand-feather-toy, when Loki came through. His brother glanced at him with a chirp that might have been an invitation to join in, and suffered a quick back-rub from Loki before he returned to his game.
Loki poured himself a bowl of cereal and milk, and returned to the lounge to eat it. Annie, jiggling the cluster of feathers above Thor's head, glanced at him.
"All right?" she asked.
"Certainly," he replied, and smiled. It was a better effort than he had managed earlier, and Annie seemed at least somewhat reassured. Loki finished his cereal and permitted Thor to drink the last of the milk out of his bowl.
Then he washed his dishes, made a final trip upstairs to brush his teeth, and left for work.
Catherine Bennett did not seem surprised when Loki walked out of the twilight and into the tea room. As he approached her table, she drew out a pack of worn cards with pictures on them.
"Come for a reading?" she asked mildly.
"I have not, thank you," Loki replied politely. "I do not know whether you recall my earlier visit-- ?"
Catherine smiled. "The not-God of Mischief, who is not the mother of Odin's eight-legged war horse, and whose brother is not usually a cat? Yes, I think I might have some recollection."
Loki smiled back and sat down at the table with her. "You may also recall that we spoke about the possibility that the witch who cursed my brother may be part of the group-- " after Wyrd Sisters, he was unable to utter the word "coven" with a straight face-- "who will meet by the river tonight."
"I do," the medium said evenly.
"Does the name 'Black Annis' mean anything to you?" Loki asked.
Loki was not really the God of Lies, no matter what the Vikings (drunken primitives, anyway) claimed. He was, however, quite a talented liar, and as such he was also rather good at spotting deceit in others. Humans were generally easy: they did not live long enough to become truly skilled at deception. Since, however, Catherine Bennett was a genuine witch, Loki was not actually sure how old she was, or how practiced a liar she might be.
But as she frowned in thought, Loki really did think she was honestly turning the name over in her mind.
"No, I don't think so. I mean, not unless you mean the Terry Pratchett character, but I think her name was 'Aliss,'" she said finally.
Loki's mouth quirked. "It is amusing that you should mention that author..."
Catherine Bennett listened without comment as Loki related the story of his visit to the library, and his suspicions and fears concerning the identity of the mysterious witch.
"So," he drew his story to a conclusion, "you may perhaps see my concern about the promise I made to you. I do not seek revenge for what happened to my brother-- really, as long as he is restored unharmed to his normal condition, I will be perfectly happy to tease him about this incident for at least the next thousand years-- but if she has any evil designs whatsoever on children-- "
Catherine Bennett thoughtfully spread her cards face-down upon the table, looking down at the bright patterns on their backs.
"You're asking me to release you from your promise?" she asked.
"I am afraid that I am telling you, I will disregard it utterly if I believe that to be necessary," Loki replied. Gently, he explained, "You must understand that I am a being entirely without honour. It is one of the reasons I never really belonged in Asgard. I should be ashamed of this failing, but I find that I am quite able to live with it."
Catherine gathered her cards together into a neat pack, and placed them in a small wooden chest. "Honour, in the sense you seem to mean it, has never meant very much to me, either. I understand your reservations, although I'm not sure I share them." Steepling her fingers, she pressed them against her mouth for a moment, apparently deep in thought. After a moment she nodded, and said, "All right. I can't blame you for your priorities, but I'll be honest: I don't know you well enough to be confident in your judgement."
Loki permitted himself the thought that if she did know him well, she would probably have even less confidence.
Catherine went on, "So I think I'll come along tonight, just to ensure fair play. All right?"
Loki blinked. This idea had not occurred to him, but he could not deny it was an excellent solution to his problem. Yes, the implication was that if he behaved unreasonably, Catherine Bennett would turn on him, but he did not intend to be unreasonable. The only other cause for concern was the possibility that she intended to align herself with this other witch, and attack him no matter what he did.
Loki was not particularly disturbed by that idea: he was quite able to defend himself, he would not be alone-- and besides, he could not see any logical reason for her to want to do such a thing. Of course, he knew at first hand that logic did not always rule the decisions anyone made. Still, he thought the potential value of her presence outweighed the risks. And besides, she was not really asking him, so there was little point in his attempting to overrule her.
"All right," he agreed. He reached into his pocket and retrieved his mobile phone, which was one of the sort that had a variety of functions, including an "app" he had downloaded that permitted him to see the phase of the moon, and determine when it would rise and set. "How exact is this group, with regard to the actual rising of the moon? Do they gather exactly at moonrise, or is there any... leeway in that matter?"
Catherine looked both amused and a little surprised. "Loki, these people practically invented leeway."
Loki was momentarily tempted to argue that it was far more likely the expression was invented by naval personnel, but stopped himself. If at all possible, he wanted to remain on the dealing-out rather than the receiving end of whatever teasing might be in the offing. Catherine went on,
"Whatever kind of rituals they get up to, there won't be anything organized enough to require them to get together at a particular time."
"That is good to know," Loki replied politely. It occurred to him that it was probably fortunate Catherine jumped to the conclusion she did about his interest in the gathering time. The fact was, Loki’s entire household was far more inclined to be exact in the matter of moonrise than the average being of any sort, including most sorcerers. He certainly did not want to inadvertently let out George's secret. "So I will see you later tonight?"
"Certainly," Catherine replied. She smiled, and the expression looked perfectly genuine. “It should be an interesting evening.”
That did not sound entirely reassuring to Loki, but he smiled back as he took his leave.
“What’s in the bag this time, Loki?” Mitchell singsonged, as Loki let himself into the house. Although he, Annie, and Thor were sprawled on the couch, apparently at their ease, Loki could tell by his tone that the vampire was attempting to distract himself from his own worry with teasing.
Loki was perfectly able to understand this urge, and so he did not even attempt to conceal his latest purchase. Instead, he stuck his hand into the bag—the rustling drawing Thor’s riveted attention-- and drew out--
“Is that… is that a harness?” Mitchell asked, eyes wide.
“And a leash,” Loki replied evenly, as though daring further commentary. Mitchell, never one to refuse a dare, replied exactly as Loki expected:
“In a lovely shade of red, to match his adorable collar with the bell on it.”
“So it is indeed,” Loki agreed. “I considered purchasing a green set, but thought that, combined with the collar, we would put any who saw us in mind of the Midgardian festival of Christmas. It is far too early in the fall to begin to decorate for that holiday. And besides, Thor is fond of red and looks handsome in that colour.”
“I admire your self-restraint,” Mitchell murmured, chewing his lower lip in an obviously hard-fought effort to keep a straight face. “What do you need the harness and leash for?”
Loki permitted one eyebrow to arch in a supercilious manner that nearly reduced both Mitchell and Annie to a fit of giggles. In his opinion, they might as well get it out of their systems now, and besides, the release of tension could only do them good.
“Obviously, Thor is to accompany us tonight. He is not fond of the carrier, and I confess it distresses me to hear his understandable complaints. And besides, it would be distracting if he were bewailing his imprisonment during our anticipated negotiations with the sorceress. I therefore propose to employ the harness and leash to prevent him from getting lost.”
Annie began to look doubtful. “Are you sure it’s the safest idea, for him to come with us?” she asked.
“No,” Loki admitted, “but it is probably necessary for him to do so. Very few spells can be removed by remote control, if you see what I mean. And besides, I find myself uneasy at the prospect of leaving him at home alone until he is in a fit condition to defend himself from harm.”
“You could call Tony and ask him to come back and cat-sit,” Mitchell suggested, with an expression perfect innocence. “I’m sure he’d be glad to come for another round.”
“Annie, would you be so kind as to hand me the water bottle?” Loki requested, as he shook out the harness—the dangling bits proving irresistible to Thor, who left the couch in a pounce and was promptly picked up and cuddled by his much larger little brother.
Mitchell threw up his hands in mock surrender. “No, sorry, not necessary. Anything I can do to help?”
Loki, juggling cat, harness, and leash, glanced up with a smile. “You might assist me in getting my brother dressed.”
Thor, by now hanging upside-down from Loki’s arms, waved his forepaws as though in agreement.
Notes: This chapter turned out short, so that it would not need to be desperately long. We hope to get down to confrontations in the next bit!
Warnings: Turns out I completely underestimated the main branch of the Bristol public library system a couple of chapters back. It is old and gorgeous and may not have a lift. Sorry!
Thor looked very handsome indeed in his new red harness, although the collar in addition seemed too much of a good thing and was therefore removed. Aside from aesthetics, the jingling bell would have made stealth next to impossible, and there was no telling whether that would become necessary.
At first their progress was slow, Loki being reluctant to pull on the leash, and Thor being even more reluctant to walk anywhere except in directions he himself had chosen. Finally, Loki realized that unless he exerted his (temporarily) superior strength, they were unlikely to ever get to the park that night. Loki therefore turned in the preferred (by him) direction, and began determinedly to walk.
Thor was deeply offended. He braced his paws and tugged vainly at the leash, before realizing his erstwhile little brother had become an irresistible force, heartlessly insisting that Thor accompany him on an unwanted walk in an undesirable direction. Unable to do anything else, he finally registered his objection by collapsing in a grief-stricken little heap on the pavement.
Loki, by now understanding why dogs instead of cats accompanied walkers and runners, looked down upon him and sighed. “Perhaps, brother, you would prefer if I carried you?” Apparently cheered by the offer, Thor rolled onto his back, exposing his irresistibly fluffy striped belly, and waved his paws winsomely in the air. Loki was no longer disarmed by winsomeness, and already had sufficient wounds on his hands for one week. He was very cautious when he reached down and scooped Thor into his arms.
Thor immediately scrambled up Loki’s chest to his shoulder, which was less painful this time because Loki had taken the precaution of assuming his black leather jacket. Thor was able to dig in his claws and balance, head proudly erect and tail floating out behind him like a banner. Really, he looked rather like a figurehead on one of the three-masted wooden warships of an earlier time. This made them, perhaps, not as inconspicuous as might have been wished for, but at least they did not jingle. Judging by the purring next to his left ear, Loki concluded that Thor found this perch a suitable compromise.
Loki conjured a water pistol, fired a warning shot over the heads of his giggling housemates, and set off down the pavement with his brother on his shoulder.
It took some time to walk to the park by the river, compounded by Thor’s habit of making flying leaps from Loki’s shoulder in pursuit of anything that rustled in the bushes they passed. Loki kept a tight hold on the end of the leash, but finally got over worrying about Thor injuring himself in his landings: his brother seemed to bounce like a rubber ball in this form, and soon seemed to consider it a game to leap down and be lifted back up.
As a result, by the time they arrived at the park, the… coven… had already gathered. Since they had intended to let this happen anyway, there was no cause for concern. Loki and his friends halted under a tree just inside the limits of the park. A little distance away, they could see shadowy figures moving about in the moonlight, by the light of… well, since open fires were not permitted in the park, it appeared they were conducting their meeting by the light of a camping lantern set upon an overturned bucket. Such evidence that the self-styled supernatural ritualists respected city ordinances nearly reduced Loki to hysterics.
“I wonder if they will have a snack of tea, and scones with a bat pattern stamped upon them, with little currants for their eyes,” he snickered to Annie and Mitchell. Neither had read Wyrd Sisters, and so the joke escaped them entirely. Loki missed George. “Never mind,” he said, wiping his eyes and sobering. “Give me a moment to see whether I can identify any real magic in the group.”
Just as he spoke, the light of the lantern cast a huge dark shadow across the grass, that of a vast spectral dog. Annie clutched at Loki’s right arm, and Mitchell whispered,
“I don’t know a lot about ritual magic, but I’m pretty sure conjuring a Black Dog is a bad sign.”
“Not necessarily,” Loki argued, then closed his eyes, and cast forth a sort of questing spell of his own. It met no sorcery coming from the group, which meant the real witches had not yet appeared, which meant the Black Dog was--
Loki’s eyes flew open as he recognized the creature, and he made a quick, fumbling cast around the animal to confirm the presence of someone else.
“Ritual magic or no,” he announced quietly to his friends, “I am quite sure that when your coven’s Black Dog is actually a Labrador retriever, none of the normal rules concerning that conjuration apply.”
Mitchell looked at him as though he was insane. “A Labrador?” he repeated feebly.
Loki nodded. “A real, flesh and blood Labrador. In fact, I even know the dog. His name is Nelson, he is a kindhearted creature who permitted Thor to rob him of his food, and I had no idea his owner is apparently a half-baked, but certainly well-intentioned, would-be witch.”
“How could you not know she’s a witch?” Mitchell demanded in a hiss.
“Because, obviously, she is not a witch,” Loki replied patiently. “Which is what I just said. She merely believes herself to be a witch.” The two of them looked at each other, and then Loki made a peace offering: “If one was to attempt to build a bridge out of her, the effort must surely end in failure.”
Annie’s hands tightened on Loki’s arm and she let out a splutter of laughter that caused Thor to come scrambling around the back of Loki’s neck to peer curiously down at her. Mitchell, fighting a tremor at the corner of his mouth, raised an eyebrow.
“So you’re saying that if you had a big scale, and you put a duck on one side-- "
“I do not know which would weigh more,” Loki replied solemnly, “but I am absolutely certain the scales would not balance.” He cast a hasty spell of silence over Mitchell, and then he, Annie, and Thor watched with interest until Mitchell’s mime of mirth petered out into silent, hiccupping snuffles.
Finally, he wiped his eyes, and Loki removed the enchantment.
“Sorry,” Mitchell said hoarsely. “You know how I get when I’m nervous.”
“Silly, is how you get,” Loki answered his question. “There is no point in our going down there until the real sorceress arrives. Shall we sit?”
The four friends spent an entertaining twenty minutes or so, watching the capering figures by the river. Loki missed George more than ever, because the activity before him reminded him of something that Magrat Garlick would have gotten up to in his book, and he found himself very much in sympathy with Granny Weatherwax’s opinions about the whole thing.
The humans’ activities were, of course, harmless: playing at magic, and probably with only the best of intentions anyway. Had they been pretending to some sort of dark sorcery, Loki was quite sure they would have found themselves a suitably theatrically gloomy and secret place in which to do it, rather than displaying themselves to passing motorists and courting couples. And, of course, the police.
No, his objection was in the dressing-up, the playacting at ritual, which was completely unnecessary, and really rather annoying to one who held actual power. Loki’s best spells involved tremendous concentration, and no rituals at all. Well, of course there were the wards he had recently set all around the city, which had involved far more ceremony than was his custom, but that was a borrowed spell, not one he had created himself. And besides, he had had the decency to cloak himself with magic, anyway. These humans, apparently doing their best to draw attention to themselves, might as well have been parading about with no clothes on. He felt conspicuous and rather embarrassed on their behalf.
He reminded himself of Catherine Bennett’s words the first day they met, about these witchcraft rituals being like any other human spiritual observance. Loki was unfamiliar with Midgardian religious practices (except to feel relief that, apparently, worship of fictional Norse deities had quite died out, at least in Britain-- he had troubles enough, without anyone praying to him, or to his brother the cat) but the great stone cathedral located a short distance from the public library told him that whatever gods the humans used to-- or still did-- worship liked to be noticed. This was also the case in Asgard, and presumably Jotunheim, if one used as evidence the size of the temple from which Loki had been rescued as an abandoned baby. Gods in general were self-important creatures, and the humans could not be blamed for assuming whatever deities these magical rituals were meant to invoke were just as bad.
Loki’s magical powers were almost entirely practical, like Thor’s strength or Clint Barton’s archery, and so he viewed them in a practical manner. As he sat cross-legged on the cool grass with Thor in his lap, it occurred to him to wonder what the real sorceress made of all this.
Sorceresses. He had no sooner had the thought, than he felt the presence of familiar magic, and he turned his head to find Catherine Bennett sinking to the ground at his side.
“Good evening,” he greeted her, and was momentarily distracted by Mitchell’s hiccup of laughter. It took him a moment to realize that he had enunciated the two words in rather the same manner as Count Dracula, in an extremely entertaining black-and-white film Mitchell had once coerced him into watching. (Had their positions been reversed, no power could have compelled Loki to show his friends a film depicting the sorcerer as so irredeemably evil. Even Saruman gave him a hot and cold feeling through his innards. The fact Mitchell giggled, ate popcorn, and uttered mocking remarks all through the film about Count Dracula had to indicate his friend was more at peace with himself than Loki was yet.)
“Well met by moonlight,” Catherine replied, calmly but with a hint of satire in her voice. As well she might, since that sounded like something Magrat Garlick would say. “May I assume your presence over here means Black Annis has not yet put in an appearance?”
“Neither she, nor any other with recognizable power,” Loki said. “I had considered wandering over and making them all my minions while we waited,” he added, waving a hand toward the capering group, “but I really have nowhere to put them.” He knew perfectly well that it was unwise to antagonize one who was only tentatively on his side, but he suspected that was why he was unable to resist doing so.
Catherine eyed him, her head inclined as though in thought, and then said gently, “For your sake, I hope that was a joke.”
Loki smiled enigmatically at her, Annie poked him rather hard, just above the waistband of his jeans, and he gave in:
“Of course it was a joke.”
Catherine Bennett smiled enigmatically back, and Mitchell leaned past Annie to introduce himself. His manner was more restrained than his usual friendly one, which suited the tone of the whole encounter. Loki had no ill-feeling toward Catherine Bennett, but her feelings toward him seemed to be… complicated… and it was abundantly clear that she was, as the humans put it, keeping her options open. If Loki did something she felt the need to respond to, he would at least not feel betrayed, since she was making no secret of her doubts regarding himself and his friends.
“Are you also a member of what your friend here refers to as ‘the supernatural community’?” Catherine asked. Mitchell looked hesitant for a moment, and then nodded. “But you’re not a sorcerer?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she added, “I can tell you’re not a ghost like Annie, you feel like something completely different. But now that I’m concentrating, I don’t think you’re alive, either.”
There was an uncomfortable little silence that made Thor sit up tall in Loki’s lap and lay back his ears.
“No,” Mitchell replied at length. “I died in 1915.” Catherine waited, and eventually, expression deadpan, Mitchell added a final sentence: “And now I’m here, helping out a friend.”
Catherine regarded him appraisingly, before apparently concluding that Mitchell’s motivation, as well as his reticence, were both understandable. Then she smiled briefly.
“I died in 1612, in Lancashire. My name then was Hewitt; I was one of the Pendle Hill witches-- ten women and men convicted of witchcraft, although I was the only real sorcerer among them. The others were mostly just poor fools trying to scrape together a living by begging and threats.” She sighed, looking across the park at the people and dog as they capered in the lamplight. “Things were very different in those days, but I still will not have these well-meaning creatures tormented, nor will I let anything evil befall the real witch in their midst.”
“Then we are in accord,” Loki said placidly, scruffing his brother’s ruff. “I have, as I told you, no urge to commit harm against a fellow sorcerer. Will you come with us to speak to the witch?”
Catherine looked thoughtful, then-- surely in jest-- offered, “I could stay here and protect your brother.”
Loki smiled, or at any rate made a mostly-unthreatening display of teeth. “Yes, you could. Were I dead and decomposing. Otherwise, stay here alone and watch, or come with us.”
Catherine smiled back at him. “In that case, perhaps, I will stay back and watch. I can act as a sort of… conscience.”
“I do not deny my need for external assistance in that arena,” Loki replied coolly, “but I think you will find I am already well-served.” Catherine inclined her head in apparent acquiescence.
And at that moment, Loki felt another kind of magic enter the park.
The most amusing thing, really, was the lack of ceremony with which the make-believe witches and warlocks greeted the real one. Loki could feel her power from across the park, it emanated from her with a scent of heather and wild rose and earth. Nelson the dog left his owner at once, and came wagging and bowing to meet her. Even Thor strained forward on his leash, apparently drawn, but most notably not at all alarmed. Loki knew better than to judge magic entirely by the phantom scents that accompanied it, but it was a fact that he generally experienced hostile magic as having an unpleasant smell, and this one, combined with the reactions of the animals, was enough to make him hopeful.
Whatever else was here, there was power, and the humans missed it entirely. Instead of dread or reverence or any of a dozen appropriate emotions, they waved and uttered cries of greeting and generally behaved as if the newcomer was just another bus driver or shop assistant or… or school custodian with an interest in the occult.
Not for the first time, Loki reflected on the lack of perceptiveness of the general run of humans, or at any rate the adults. Most of them were unable to see what was right before their faces, which Loki could only feel left them dreadfully vulnerable to… well, everything. It was a good thing there were superheroes to protect them from threats they could not even comprehend until they were inescapable.
The flip side of that lack of perceptiveness looked like… innocence, Loki supposed. Take these humans, who believed in occult power, and yet who had so little awareness of the real thing that they treated a witch like this Black Annis as though she was simply one of them, cheerfully and with unceremonious sociability.
There was a time, Loki knew, when he would have been offended by this lack of deference, whether directed toward himself or another of similar power. Now, of course, he had the sense to focus on the friendliness.
And to be just as concerned as Catherine Bennett, in his own way, that someone might choose to manipulate or control them. Catherine felt protective of the sorceress, and he of his brother, but both of them also wished to ensure the humans came to no harm and were able to conduct their activities as they pleased. Loki squared his shoulders under Thor’s paws, and hoped whatever he did next would do nothing to put a stop to that.
He, Annie, and Mitchell left the shelter of the tree and started across the park toward the group, who had finished whatever it was they were doing and seemed to be engaged now in greetings and conversations.
Nelson spotted them first, and came wagging up to greet them. He paused a slight distance from Mitchell, apparently able to sense that Mitchell was not human. Then he wagged his tail again and walked right up to him. Ordinarily, dogs were not particularly friendly toward Mitchell. Loki was unable to decide whether Nelson was inured to supernatural beings through exposure to Black Annis, or enchanted--
Or simply a Labrador.
Mitchell patted the dog, and so did Annie-- Loki could not recall ever seeing Annie encounter a dog before, at least a dog that was not him in shapeshifted form, so this gave him no information as to Nelson’s own magical status. Then Nelson approached him, glanced up at Thor peering down from his shoulder like something looming over a crenellation on a castle, and beat a hasty retreat back to the group of humans.
Who paused, apparently wondering whether they should offer greetings or tell the newcomers it was a private function. Loki had considerable experience, in his past, in pushing his way into groups that did not want him, but still it was rather nice when the voice of Nelson’s owner called out,
“Well met, friend-- Oh, it’s you-- this is a young man who runs in my neighbourhood,” she added, aside, to her fellows, and then to Loki with the greatest of friendliness, “I had no idea you were interested in Wicca. In the Moon Goddess and the Horned God.”
Behind him, Annie quite frankly burst out laughing, so it was as well the humans in the group could not see or hear her. Loki, and doubtless Mitchell as well, had some difficulty maintaining straight faces of their own. They meant no disrespect-- well, they meant no serious disrespect, at least-- but Loki for one could not help imagining the ridiculous horned supervillainous helmet pressed upon him by Tony Stark, near the end of their last adventure. Since Loki apparently could not keep track of horned helmets, he was unsure what had happened to this one following his own (temporary) death, but it certainly would make a fine prop for anyone wishing to disguise himself as this Horned God of which the woman spoke.
And then there was movement within the group, and a tall young woman came forward out of the group, power coming off her in waves. She paused, directed a smile at Loki that did not come near her eyes, and said calmly,
“I believe his business is with me.”
Loki inclined his head, and then, almost unconsciously, reached up to lay a protective hand upon his brother.
Notes: In which you can’t believe everything you read. Which is probably not something I should admit to, is it? Also, there is a reference back to the second story in this series, and a little violence is done to legend.
Warnings: No disrespect is intended toward Wicca or its practitioners. Loki's internal commentary is the character's only. All groups have at least one twit.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Once again, the thing Loki found most interesting was the reaction of the make-believe sorcerers and sorceresses (mostly sorceresses) to their fellow's statement: the moment the tall young woman declared that Loki's business was with her, the rest of the group closed ranks around her. Nelson's motherly-looking owner actually took the witch's hand, in what appeared to be a protective gesture.
Loki would have expected the others to tactfully withdraw, leaving her to deal with Loki as she saw fit. That was manifestly not going to happen, and it frankly puzzled him.
It took him a moment, but then several thoughts occurred to him almost at the same time:
First, he naturally viewed this apparently-young woman as a sorceress of considerable power, because, well, she was. But, as he had just been telling himself, the humans were unable to perceive her in that way. Lacking awareness of her power, all they were able to see was the apparently-young woman.
Second, and this seemed to be the crucial bit: when they looked at Loki, what they saw was an apparently-young man. And it became obvious to him that, judging by the expressions on the humans' faces, they had jumped to the conclusion that he was her ex-boyfriend.
Loki made rather a practice of following the news programs of his new realm, and he was not unaware that a great many of the awful and really tragic occurrences that happened to humans had nothing whatsoever to do with supervillains or threats from beyond space. The ones that befell young women did not always involve an ex-boyfriend, but they did so often enough that Loki felt the whole sub-species might legitimately be viewed with some suspicion. Loki himself would certainly be inclined to be vigilant if, for instance, such a creature formerly belonging to Annie showed up at the house.
(The fact Annie was, of course, already dead would make no difference to Loki's reaction under such circumstances. There were many kinds of harm that had nothing to do with one's vital status.)
At any rate, of course, the humans, and especially the older humans, obviously felt Loki represented a potential threat to the physical or emotional wellbeing of their friend, and they had no intention of leaving her at his mercy. Mitchell's presence, he thought, probably made things worse: perhaps they believed Loki was intent upon kidnapping or something similar, and had therefore brought Mitchell along as "muscle."
The fact he had a large marmalade-coloured cat on his shoulder did not seem in any way to mitigate the impression he was creating.
The thoughts that flicked through Loki's mind took a great deal longer to describe than they did to experience. Hard on their heels came the conclusion that any attempt to ingratiate himself with the coven would be useless, and probably cause them to view him with even great suspicion. Accordingly, he spread his hands in a version of the see-I-am-unarmed gesture humans all seemed to understand, and held his peace while they thought about the situation.
Nelson's owner, as the senior woman present, appeared to be elected to speak.
"I don't know what you want, young man," she said in a measured tone, earlier friendliness gone, "but if you don't mind, we'll stay with our friend while you talk to her."
Loki's first reaction was to reject the idea. He had opened his mouth to do so, when he realized that he was not the one with anything to hide.
Since the events of last summer, Loki had been living quite openly in the United Kingdom as an alien sorcerer, much as his brother lived (part-time) in the United States, quite openly, as the sort-of God of Thunder. (The American news media persisted in referring to Thor as a "demigod," which was incorrect any way you looked at it since there was not one speck of godliness to be found on either side of his family tree. Loki suspected the terminology reflected a belief that he really was a Norse god, and was intended to minimize that fact in an effort not to cause trouble with those members of the public who worshiped the rather jealous god in whose name all those cathedrals and temples had been raised.)
Nobody in Britain seemed to think Loki was a god: both the immigration authorities and the public seemed to accept him as an alien, and the general feeling appeared to be satisfaction that at least one super-powered being had settled in the UK instead of the US. Now, it was apparent the witches did not recognize Loki in "street clothes," and he supposed that even if they did, they might assume an alien sorcerer was as likely to be an ex-boyfriend as anyone else. But the point was, if Loki explained the situation, he would not be letting any cats (heh) out of any bags as far as his own "cover" was concerned-- although he would certainly be letting his brother in for some future embarrassment.
Black Annis, on the other hand, if it really was she-- Black Annis was going to a certain amount of trouble to hide in plain sight among these occultists, and she would probably prefer for the situation to remain as it was.
And so, admitting to a certain degree of malice, Loki smiled at Nelson's owner, and then at Black Annis, and said mildly,
"I do not mind conducting our business in front of everyone, if it is all the same to you."
Nelson's owner made a determined noise and nodded. Loki decided that she reminded him of an older Magrat Garlick, still silly perhaps, but with a better-developed core of common sense. This could, of course, be put down to the passage of years and the attendant development of personality. He wondered what his supervisor, Carol, or the school head, Mrs. Kingston, would do in this situation. Loki quite often found himself turning to Carol for advice, and she might have wisdom to offer him now.
He also wondered whether the humans would have anything useful to say to Black Annis herself. He had no idea how old the witch really was: Wikipedia had been vague on her apparent dates, and her outward appearance of youth might be assumed, or reflect the actual age at which enchantment or something else had ended her mortal existence.
There was more in that than first met the eye: Loki had gradually come to realize there was more significance to one's age compared to one's lifespan than he had assumed when he first came to Midgard. Loki was well over nine hundred years old, but his appearance of youth was not deceptive: the Aesir as well as the Jotun (since Loki was, as far as he could tell, at once both and neither of those species) were extraordinarily long-lived beings. Loki experienced the passage of time in the same way as humans did, but it affected him differently. It was rather like the difference in lifespan between a tortoise and a mayfly: a day-old mayfly would be as old and wise as a mayfly could ever be, while a tortoise of fifty years might yet be a callow youth.
Or something like that. The point was, Loki had seen and experienced a great deal in his nine hundred-odd years, but Carol and Mrs Kingston-- to say nothing of Tony Stark and Agent Coulson-- were in some ways older than he was, and so their minds appeared to work differently, in ways he found he often valued.
For that reason, Loki found himself quite willing to allow a brief mortal like Nelson's motherly owner to offer advice, in case it might be useful to either himself or the witch.
Black Annis, however, seemed to have no desire for company, or witnesses to this conversation.
"It is quite all right, Margaret," she said to Nelson's owner, without looking at her. Loki bit the inside of his lip to fight down the giggle that tried to escape at the revelation of the woman's name. Of course she was Margaret. "I can handle this by myself."
And this, of course, was the bit where the difference in age became inconveniently apparent:
"I know you think so, dear," Margaret said implacably, "but I'll feel better if we're all right here, where we can look out for you."
Black Annis flushed in annoyance, and Loki had to restrain himself from pointing out that she was fortunate, alone in this realm, to have someone trying to take care of her. More than one someone, actually, considering the coven and Catherine Bennett.
"I should probably let you know, the matter I need to discuss with-- " it occurred to him that he did not know what name Black Annis had given the humans. When she did not help him, Loki simply nodded toward her and went on-- "concerns sorcery, rather than anything personal."
One of the younger human women spoke up now, the age difference apparent again in the militant tone of her voice:
"Obviously, you don't realize that everything about sorcery is personal, to those of us who practice it."
Loki felt his eyebrows raise of their own accord and, behind him, both Mitchell and Annie let out choked little splutters of laughter. The human only heard Mitchell, of course, but it would have been much more helpful if his friends had been able to restrain themselves.
"Of course it is," Loki agreed, and sounded condescending even to his own ears. He tried again. "I referred to my relationship with your friend. I have none." Up on his shoulder, Thor squirmed and rubbed his cheek against the back of Loki's head. Loki reached up and scratched his brother's back. "There is merely a... transaction... we need to discuss."
"All sorcery performed by members of the coven is a matter for discussion within the coven," the young human insisted, her tone either dogmatic or pedantic, Loki could not remember which. Black Annis, unseen by her human companions, discreetly rolled her eyes. Loki, who was feeling more like Granny Weatherwax with every moment that passed, found himself grinning at her in momentary, genuine fellow-feeling. The humans were well-meaning and, in theory, rather sweet. In person, no matter how lonely one was or how grateful for companionship, associating with a human like this young one would have to get on one's nerves occasionally. The expression on Margaret's face made him suspect the current speaker might be in the habit of delivering such lectures to her fellows, perhaps not always to their delight.
"I respect that," Loki replied smoothly, not sure whether he wanted to settle matters down, which would be helpful, or stir them up, which would be funny. Part of him desperately wanted to ask whether the group was an anarcho-syndicalist commune, and see what happened. Instead, he said, "However, I believe your friend would prefer-- "
"What she prefers is a matter for the group to decide," the young woman announced. Both Black Annis and Margaret flinched and looked incredulous, which made Loki feel better about the coven, if not the speaker.
Even so-- anarcho-syndicalist commune or autonomous collective or whatever this assembly was, Loki found himself suddenly filled with rage at the suggestion of the group dictating anything to the individual, far less what she was permitted to think.
Loki appreciated that he might, perhaps, have what the humans called a "hot button" related to this matter. Knowing this did not help: it took a few seconds and considerable self-control for him to reply moderately,
"I realize I know very little about the practices of your community, but I believe the custom in the United Kingdom is to allow a person to make up, and state, her own mind."
The young human, with the air of one who has the bit well between her teeth, snorted inelegantly. "Clearly you don't understand how things work in a neo-pagan-- "
Which was as far as she got before Loki, quite suddenly and comprehensively, lost his temper.
He had nothing against these humans. Indeed, under other circumstances he was sure he would like them. Most of them. He bore a fairly deep sympathy for Black Annis, in spite of what she had done to Thor. And he found himself feeling quite kindly indeed toward Margaret, who was fulfilling the natural human function of the mature protecting the young.
However, the hour was late, he was getting cold, and he was in no mood at all to be lectured by a human about sorcery. Or politics. Especially when the human concerned gave every sign of being a self-important little brat, one whose elders probably wanted to sit upon her regularly, but were allowing her to find her own way by testing her boundaries.
This was, of course, laudable. In fact, Loki was perfectly conscious of having been a similar sort of brat himself, once-- one who probably would actually have benefited from being sat upon a little less often than he had been. However, when one tested boundaries, it was to be expected that one would bump one's nose a time or two. And Loki really had no more time for this.
Taking a sudden step forward, Loki snarled theatrically, "Neo-pagan? I am the God of Mischief, you ridiculous little mortal. There isn't any neo about it." And, before the startled humans could do more than take a quick step backward, Loki raised his right hand.
It was all glamour, of course, and perfectly harmless, but impressive nonetheless: all at once Loki appeared before them garbed in the costume designed for him by Tony Stark-- the one that in reality had not survived his recent death and resurrection by Jotun magic-- complete with the ridiculous, impractical horned helmet he had vowed never to wear again because it made him look exactly like a supervillain.
The whole group had the chance to utter a collective gasp of surprise and dawning alarm before Loki cast a second spell, one that rendered them all silent and sleeping on their feet, so that the rest of this interaction could proceed without further interruption. They would have no recollection at all of Loki's appearance in their midst, which was a sad waste of the glamour but seemed like the prudent thing to do. Most of them would have a memory of conducting a lamplit rite under the direction of Black Annis, one whose details and significance would be conveniently but not suspiciously hazy to them afterward.
One of them, just for spite, would recall dreaming that she was blue and furry, and desperate to stop someone from turning any more pages.
As magic crackled and swirled in the background, Black Annis looked at Loki with surprise, a certain respect, and what might have been amusement. He released the glamour on himself, and reappeared in his actual garb of jeans, a dark blue pullover, and the black leather jacket, complete with shoulder-riding ginger cat.
Turning to Black Annis, he offered, "It seems only fair that, if I have friends with me at this meeting, you should also have a, a second. There is a witch on the far side of the park who is willing to come stand with you. Would you care for one of my friends to fetch her, or should I wake one of yours?"
Black Annis gave him an odd look and replied, "If you mean the witch standing under the tree over by the park entrance, I have no objection to her joining me."
"Annie, would you-- ?" Loki requested, without looking around, and felt her wink out of sight.
Black Innis waited patiently for Catherine Bennett to walk over, nodded casually to her as though they were well-acquainted, although Catherine had made it rather clear they were not. Then both witches turned to Loki.
"My name is Loki Odinson," he explained rapidly.
"Yes, I know," Black Annis said impatiently. At Loki's puzzled look, she said hastily, "I got that from 'God of Mischief'."
"Ah. May I ask, are you the sorceress known to history as Black Annis?" Loki persisted.
"I am. This matter of sorcery-- ?" Black Annis prompted. Loki reminded himself that he must seem calm and firm, not overly demanding or, Norns forbid, deranged.
Reaching up once again to let Thor rub his head against his fingers, Loki said,
"My brother. You are the sorceress who enchanted him?"
Black Annis inclined her head. "And if I am?"
"I would have you remove the spell," Loki replied evenly, calculating his tone down to the last nuance. It was not a plea, but neither was it an aggressive demand. It was a statement of what would be, or at least he hoped that was the tone he had struck.
Black Annis raised her eyebrows, looking genuinely surprised. "You wish me to restore him to his former strength and arrogance?"
Loki clamped down on the impulse to argue with her about his brother's personality. Thor had, in truth, been exactly as arrogant as the witch believed, once upon a time. Loki, of course, had been little better, and had not leisure right now to be sidetracked by unhelpful arguments, or protests that his brother had changed for the better. He probably still seemed arrogant, in his golden splendour, to any who did not know him. Loki did not care about the impression Thor might make on strangers who did not know him, who had never called upon him for help, and been answered. He just wanted his brother back.
"Yes," Loki replied. And then he remembered his words to Annie, as she re-wrapped his wounded hand. "I do not know what he did to offend you, but... I feel sure it was unintentional. If you would only speak to him, explain to him, I know he would be eager to make amends. He would not wish for anyone to be hurt or distressed by an action of his." Black Annis was looking at him very strangely. Loki tried again. "If you, if you feel discomfort at the idea of speaking to my brother directly, I would be willing to act as an intermediary. Only tell me, and when Thor is restored I will make your case to him. I know that he will be glad to-- "
Black Annis interrupted, sounding bewildered and perhaps a little bit alarmed.
"I had hoped the stories were wrong, that you were less… self-destructive than the myths depicted. It seems that I was-- "
Her words faded, and Loki felt his face screw up in confusion. He knew it was a stupid-looking expression, but he had not the wit to alter it. Thor mewed in his ear and began carefully to edge his way down the front of Loki's shoulder to his chest, at which point Loki collected his brother to his heart, fingers automatically rubbing the spots behind his ears that he had discovered Thor liked best.
Loki glanced at Annie and Mitchell and decided he had not missed anything: they looked just as much at sea as he felt. Cautiously, not at all sure he would be happy with the answer his question received, Loki asked,
"And what do you mean by that?"
Suddenly furious, the witch snapped, "I mean those cursed stories. I mean the way you let them use you, hurt and humiliate you like that. Are you telling me your so-called brother wasn't part of every one of those stories? Threatening you, or helping whoever harmed you, or just laughing--
"And there he was on the train, I recognized him from the television, all golden self-confidence, going to pay a visit to his brother, and the Goddess knows what that means."
"As I am not the Goddess," Loki said, through stiff lips, "perhaps you would kindly enlighten me."
Black Annis laughed harshly. "Odin's dog, come to find you, to take you back, so they could make more unreasonable demands of you, or punish you for failing at some impossible task-- "
"That is nonsense," Loki protested. He did not sound anything like sure enough, but that was shock, not the half-heartedness Black Annis seemed to assume. He cleared his throat to try again. "Really, that is-- "
The witch did not give him a chance. "I was not going to stand by and let that happen to you again. I know what it is, to be persecuted for using magic. Things are different here now, although maybe that is only because so many people refuse to believe. I know there are places where it is still dangerous to be known as a sorcerer. I will not let anything happen to a fellow magic-user. I didn't really hurt him, I meant to keep him safe, but I was not going to allow him to-- "
Loki finally untangled his not-so-silvery tongue.
"Are you trying to tell me that you meant to protect me from my brother?"
That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard, said an indignant voice in his head, drowning out the smaller one, the one that was treacherously touched, despite the utter wrong-headedness of the witch's actions.
"Of course I did," Black Annis said angrily.
"I do not need to be protected-- they are only stories!" Loki protested. "Made up by humans, to pass the time through the winter! There is no truth to any of them!"
"Oh, isn't there?" Black Annis mocked him, with a furious laugh. Before Loki could back away, she stepped forward and pressed the fingertips of her right hand against his mouth. He felt a rush of warmth as a surge of magic flowed into his lips, and then a peculiar stinging coldness that isolated itself into points. Catherine Bennett inhaled sharply, while Annie and Mitchell winced.
Without needing to see himself, Loki knew the old wounds on his lips, where they had once been sewn shut, were suddenly visible to the others. Of course they were: made by magic and healed by magic, of course they could be brought back into view by magic.
Black Annis glared into his eyes and demanded in a hiss,
"Did he tell you it was for your own good, for your salvation, when he wielded the needle? Or did he merely hold you in place while someone else did the job?"
Loki had a sudden, vivid flash of his nightmare from months before, one visited upon him by malign sorcery, in which he had dreamed of Thor's hands on his head, in an unforgiving grip, while Agent Coulson sewed his lips shut.
But that was a dream only. The actual harm had been visited some days later, by a half-mad sorcerer, one Loki and his friends had helped the Avengers... well, not defeat, exactly. Defeat had not really been necessary. But in the course of events they, and especially Loki, had managed to evoke quite a lot of resentment in the sorcerer, and it had all come to a head with needle and thread. So to speak.
Thor had indeed been involved, at the end. Loki could, if he wished it, still feel the consoling warmth of his brother's hands steadying his head, could feel the back of his skull pressed into Thor's belly as his brother stood behind him. He could see the look of concern and concentration on the face of Agent Coulson, as he leaned in close and carefully snipped the threads with the tiny, sharp scissors built into his little red folding knife, and then pulled out the bloody pieces with tweezers from the same useful source.
It had not been a pleasant experience, and Loki would be the first to admit it. But one thing had actually not been unpleasant at all: to be the focus of such concern. Of such desire to help him, and to avoid causing him further pain. He would not say that he was exactly eager-- or even willing-- to repeat the event, but it had had its compensations even at the time.
Loki reached up to press his own right hand against his mouth, and the phantom wounds vanished. Annie and Mitchell, who knew of the incident but had been spared the sight of the actual injuries, both looked relieved.
"Thor had nothing to do with this injury. Nor had anyone else from Asgard, let alone any of my family," Loki said firmly. "I will not deny that my brother and I have had our troubles-- and there was fault on both sides-- but they are in the past, and long since made up between us. I am not in need of protection from my brother. And if I was, there are others I could ask to intervene for me. I do not need to ask aid of strangers."
Black Annis, and even Catherine Bennett, looked frankly disbelieving. Loki was suddenly reminded of a recent workshop required of all staff members at the school, one aimed at helping them identify students suffering from abuse in their homes. One of the most distressing, though sadly believable, pieces of information he had acquired was the knowledge that abused children often cover up for those who do them harm. It was quite evident the witches believed Loki to be up to something similar.
"My friends will tell you," Loki insisted, looking at Annie and Mitchell for help.
"It's true," Mitchell said firmly. "Thor would do almost anything rather than hurt Loki, or let anything else do so."
Annie had, in the past, had her disagreements with both Thor and his friends, but she really was fond of him, and now she flared up furiously at the accusations. Quite losing her temper, and completely forgetting herself, she burst out,
"And if he did need help from someone else, he wouldn't ask it from a witch who eats little children."
There was an appalled silence. Even Annie looked horrified at her own words, putting a hand over her mouth and glancing guiltily at Loki and Mitchell before all of them turned to look at the witch.
The effect on Black Annis really was remarkable: her eyes widened and her face went pale, then was suffused with anger. Loki was just about to turn away, to put his own body between Thor and the angry witch, in case she did something really drastic--
And then he looked more closely, and saw the tears that had started up in her eyes.
"We speak of stories," she said bitterly. "Let me tell you what I know of stories. My name was Agnes Scott. I was an anchoress, a religious, devoted to contemplation. I lived in the fourteenth century, in a cave, where I meditated on the mysteries of God and of heaven, and I did no harm to anyone. Yes, I was also a witch. Yes, I had powers. But I rarely used them, except for my own survival or to help someone in need: an injured peasant, or their sick child. I did no harm to anyone," she repeated, her insistence less a matter of protesting too much than bewildered repetition of an argument made to herself for centuries.
"And the people would offer me food and old clothing, as they did in those days to the religious, as well as in payment for the services I rendered with my magic. Only… after a while they began to say they had to make these offerings, as if they were not free to choose for themselves. They said I would curse them otherwise. And then they would tell their children, would warn them to be wary, to hurry home before dark, for fear the witch, old Black Agnes, would catch them and gobble them up. As if I was an enemy!" She dashed at her eyes with the heel of her hand, and continued,
"I went away, but the stories kept on."
"Stories do," Loki agreed, scrubbing his fingers gently down Thor's back, while his brother leaned into his chest and watched the distraught witch with something like concern on his little striped face. "Did they follow you where you went?"
"No," Black Annis admitted. "They stayed local to the Dane Hills, where I had spent all those years living harmlessly in my cave. But they got… they got worse. Within a hundred years, I was supposed to be a blue-faced crone-- perhaps the people remembered what I looked like in winter, blue with cold, when I would come to help them," she added bitterly. "Blue-faced, and with great iron claws, they said."
"You never really looked like that," Annie prompted, looking guilty for provoking the outburst. Loki actually thought perhaps the flare-up was a good thing, really. She had been stewing over this for centuries, and there was no telling when it would have come out on its own. Or what form that outburst might have taken, if it built long enough. Loki did not have to be told how bad an outburst could be, after centuries of brooding.
It did not occur to him to think the witch was lying, was trying to trick him. Loki was gifted at lies, and at recognizing them in others, but he also had reason to recognize genuine grief and anger when they exploded in front of him. There was nothing about this outbreak that did not feel sincere.
"Of course I didn't," Black Annis replied angrily. "Do you suppose they would have let me stay in the first place, if I had been meditating in my cave looking like this?"
There was a deep yellow glow, and suddenly the young woman was gone, replaced by a bent-back crone. Her light-brown hair had gone darker, and was wild around her face. Her pleasant-featured human face was hook-nosed, with a long chin and high sharp cheekbones, and her skin was now a deep, cyanotic blue, almost like someone who had died of suffocation, but darker, richer.
She looked at the group out of eyes that had gone crimson, reached toward Loki with a clawed hand, and snarled,
"What would you say, little sorcerer, if you saw me like this?"
Loki tilted his head on one side, considered, and then said calmly,
"Were you ten feet taller, and if I did not know better, I might say, 'Mother?'"
The witch looked taken aback, and then looked around, finally taking stock of the reaction from the others. Catherine Bennett was determinedly unaffected by the transformation, but Annie and Mitchell were genuinely interested.
"She really does look-- " Annie began, and then remembered her manners and addressed Black Annis directly. "You look very much like beings we know called Jotun. If you saw any of the accounts of the battle in New York last summer, you would have seen them helping the Avengers. Loki… Loki's mother was Jotun," Annie amended, simplifying to avoid sidetracking the conversation with long explanations. "I wonder why they imagined you looking like that?"
"Do you suppose they remembered the war?" Mitchell suggested. "Not directly, but maybe some kind of handed-down memory, that dug out scary blue creatures when they wanted to frighten the children?" He glanced at Loki's suddenly grim expression and added, "I don't say they were right."
Loki pushed away the thought of children being told of scary blue creatures, and reminded himself that on this realm, in this time, blue "monsters" had a completely different significance to the very young. At worst, one expected to have to share one's cookies.
Black Annis, whose pleasing magical scent had not changed for a second, transformed back into her young-looking human form. She looked both puzzled and relieved at the reactions of her onlookers. Loki was reminded of the occasion when he had transformed into Jotun form in front of Annie and his brother, and found himself smiling quite genuinely as he said,
"I suppose you were lonely when you finally arrived here, is it not so? And you sought out other workers of magic, found that most of them were only human, with no power, and realized it was simpler for you to remain among them, accepted as part of their group, and not judged or harmed?"
"How do you-- ?" Black Annis began.
Loki shrugged. "Something rather similar happened to me, when first I came here."
Most of the tension, and all of the anger, had leaked out of the witch's posture as she said,
"They are kind, these humans. Especially the older women, to the younger ones. I made myself look… I wanted… "
"I know," Loki agreed. He, too, had… wanted. After a pause, Loki added, "You are not alone, you know. Actually, if you chose Bristol on purpose, I do not need to tell you this, but perhaps it is good to be reminded. This is a city-- not necessarily the humans, but the city-- that welcomes the supernatural, including refuge-seeking alien sorcerers. You still need to be careful, but not as careful. And you do not have to be alone. Or anything like as angry."
"You know this," Black Annis said, and there was no challenge in her voice. She sounded like one who wished to be reassured. Loki knew about that, too.
"I do," he replied gently.
"And you do not believe that I-- " she persisted, breaking off when Loki shook his head.
"There is power in stories, but sometimes the story is The Monster at the End of This Book," he said, and had to clamp down quite firmly on the desire to laugh.
And then, just to ensure the air was cleared, he changed his grip on his brother and held up his right hand, with its bandages. "I, too, have been prey to misunderstandings, to believing a story instead of finding out the truth. For that I apologize." He concentrated a moment, and felt magic flowing into his hand, healing the purposeless sacrificial wounds he had inflicted on himself. The protective enchantments might still be needed at some time, but the specific threat he had envisioned was not real.
Instead, at the end of this story, there was only a harmless little blue monster, alone and safe and rather embarrassed.
Judging by the expression on the face of Black Annis, Loki was not the only one who felt that way. Indicating the purring kitten in his arms, she said diffidently,
"He really means you no harm?"
"None," Loki said firmly. "When he said he would pay me a visit, what he meant was, my friends and I had invited him to stay with us. I had my bedchamber all ready to receive him, and he brought me a present. We had planned to dine out, and visit museums, and tease each other about our old adventures. Please, change him back."
Black Annis sighed, and then stepped forward to lay a gentle hand on Thor's head. She murmured something in a language Loki did not recognize, there was a soft yellow glow, and when she withdrew, Thor stretched his neck toward her. She rubbed him once more under the chin, and turned to Loki.
"When the sun rises, he will be restored. I am sorry for the misunderstanding."
"No permanent harm has been done," Loki said. "And… thank you for the intention, Agnes Scott."
Black Annis-- Agnes Scott-- smiled suddenly. "It sounds old-fashioned, but I tell the humans I was named for my grandmother." She held out her hand, and Loki clasped it. Looking at Catherine Bennett, who had kept her word and not interfered, she added, "Perhaps we can all meet again."
"Three is a good number, for tea and sorcery," Catherine agreed. "And now, we shall-- " As she was speaking, the world blurred around them, and Loki and his friends found themselves standing on the pavement at the end of their terrace. They caught their balance, and Catherine smiled at them. "I confess, that went rather better than I had feared."
"Thank you for staying your hand," Loki told her. "For… having enough belief, that I would not attack her."
Catherine's smile widened. "Oh, did I not say? I would also have stepped in if she had tried to do any injury to you. When I offered to act as a conscience, I did not mean solely for you."
Loki blinked. "Oh. That did not occur to me."
"I rather thought it wouldn't," Catherine replied kindly. "And I'm glad, too, that things turned out well for all of us." She looked thoughtful. "I would suggest that we three meet again, but it would be bad luck to word it quite that way. So instead, I'll just say, until next time." She held out her hand, Loki clasped it, and then she was gone.
Loki, Annie, and Mitchell looked at each other.
"Okay," Annie said finally. "So we're all… all right?" She sounded as though she was not quite sure.
"So it seems," Loki agreed. "Although I suppose the adventure will not really end until sunrise."
"You're not worried-- ?" Annie asked, breaking off in relief as Loki shook his head.
"Not at all. I was simply thinking that, as much as I would like to stay awake and welcome Thor back, I am much too tired to do so."
"It'll be good to see him again," Mitchell said.
Loki nodded. "It will indeed. You have been a delightful cat, brother," he addressed Thor, "but I will be glad past saying to see you back in your real form."
"There's really only one thing I'm disappointed about," Mitchell admitted, as they walked toward the house.
"And what is that?" Loki asked.
"Well, George and I found a laser pointer in the lost and found box at work. I'm a little sorry we didn't get a chance to see Thor play with it."
Loki yawned. "I am sure you will live with the disappointment. And now, I think, it is time we all went to bed."
Thor woke in the grey dawn, aware both that he was cold, and that the soft surface upon which he was curled was… heaving underneath him.
Heaving, and making muffled noises.
Confused, Thor looked around. He was in a small-- no, tiny-- chamber, the ceiling sloped sharply above his head. The walls around him were hung with book shelves and decorated with large and colourful images. One was of four young men, walking in purposeful single file across a road. Thor wondered vaguely who they were, and where they were going. Another was of a large, grey beast with horns curling out of its nose-- he would remember, in a moment, what the name of the animal was.
Scattered about the walls were hand-drawn images, some of them quite crude, depicting the same sort of beast, or a thin figure in green wearing a horned helmet, or in some cases both. The one Thor found himself most drawn to depicted the green figure standing before two of the beasts. The creatures looked friendly, and perhaps a little puzzled. The green-garbed figure was waving his hands, and green-and-yellow streamers were shown to emerge from them, apparently indicating magic. Behind the green-garbed figure were other, smaller ones, looking up at him as though in confidence. Thor found himself liking this picture very much.
Beneath him, something moved again, and a strangled voice pleaded,
"Brother, get off me."
Startled, Thor looked around. Emerging from the striped bedcover was the face of his brother, and Thor realized he was curled up right on top of him. At the same moment, he also realized the reason he was cold was because he was apparently not wearing any clothes.
"What is going on?" he said in bewilderment, blinking down at Loki's congested face. His brother uttered a muffled oath and gave another heave. Thor found himself tumbling off the bed, and though it seemed he should have been able to, he found he was unable to turn over in time to land on his feet. Well, hands and knees. Instead, he thumped embarrassingly on his back onto the mat by the bed.
Loki sat up, gasping as though he had been smothered. "Sorry about that, brother. Good to see you again."
Thor looked up at him. "Is this your chamber? How did I get here? I remember being on the train-- "
Loki held up his hands. "I will explain it all, I promise, but I really would like to sleep a little longer first. Come back to bed." He paused. "Actually, perhaps you could first put on your pajamas, which I have placed here on the floor beside you, and then come back to bed."
"Oh. Of course," Thor agreed. Putting on his pajama pants was awkward, for some reason, almost as though he had forgotten how to use his hands. Loki finally had to sit up and help him, but eventually the task was accomplished, and Thor crawled under the covers beside Loki. These were so heavy it was remarkable they had not crushed Loki all by themselves. Thor rather thought they might crush him, too. "Are you not too warm, brother?"
"No," Loki replied shortly. "I am the worst Frost Giant ever, remember?" After a moment, though, he admitted, "Although I confess that with the two of us-- " Loki sat up again, there was scuffling, and eventually they were covered again with only the top sheet and a lightweight, brightly-flowered quilt that had been folded at the foot of the bed. "Better?" he asked.
"Much," Thor replied, snuggling up to him. It had been centuries since the brothers had routinely shared a chamber, much less a bed, although there had been an occasion last summer when Thor had felt the need to spend the night with Loki, who had looked plagued by nightmares even awake. Thor remembered waking up with his arms around his brother, but he did not remember this urge to cuddle as close to him as possible. It was vaguely puzzling.
Although really, given the size of the bed--
"I thought you said you were going to acquire a larger bed, brother," Thor said sleepily.
Loki snorted. "I did. The only way we could share the old one is if I transformed us both into cats."
Thor chuckled. And then the words registered. "Both of us? Have you been being a cat, brother?"
Loki wrapped his arms around him, which was nice, exactly what Thor wanted. "I will tell you about it later, I promise."
"I'm sure you were a lovely cat," Thor said drowsily. He might have said more, but Loki was gently scrubbing his fingers through Thor's hair and down the back of his neck, which was most soothing. Thor burrowed his face into the curve of his brother's neck, and went back to sleep.
Note: About one more chapter to go. I suppose we don't really need it, but I'm in the mood for a whole bunch of brotherly fluff. Thanks to everyone who's been reading!
Notes: In which the brothers actually have a chance to visit together, and the adventure comes to an end. Also, reference is made to a real train journey.
Warnings: None, except for maybe an awkward final few sentences. It was just time to bring this to an end. Thanks to everyone who's been reading this piece of nonsense, you are all much appreciated!
It was, perhaps, only to be expected that Thor refused at first to believe what had happened to him.
"You say I was a cat, brother?" he asked incredulously.
"Technically, a kitten," Loki replied, wishing he had a cup of tea. The extra hour of sleep he had managed, after waking with his brother on his chest, had not done him nearly as much good as he had hoped. When Thor had begun to wriggle and stretch a few minutes ago, Loki conceded defeat and the brothers came downstairs. George was not back from his monthly trip to the woods, Mitchell was still asleep, and Annie was apparently allowing Loki time for the reunion, or possibly the explanations. He could not condemn her for cowardice, considering he would have been glad to turn that task over to almost anyone else, himself.
Whatever the reasons, Loki and Thor were sitting on the couch together, and Loki did not feel up to facing the electric kettle unassisted. Particularly not when Thor seemed determined to stay as close to him as possible. He had no desire to spill boiling water all over both of them.
"But I am sure I would remember, if I had been a kitten," Thor argued. "I do not feel as though I have been a kitten."
Loki squirmed closer to the arm of the couch, which was already digging into his side. "Do you not? I feel the need, brother, to point out that you are even now practically sitting in my lap."
Thor blinked in surprise, looked down at the two of them, and realized it was true. "I am very sorry, Loki," he exclaimed, moving hastily a few inches away-- far enough at least to avoid breaking Loki's legs.
Loki might have taken that as evidence his brother was fully restored, had Thor not emphasized the apology by affectionately rubbing his cheek against Loki's. He sighed. And then, aware he was probably not helping matters but unable to stop himself, he reached up and scratched the back of his brother's head, right where it met the neck. The sound Thor uttered in response was not quite a purr, but it was perhaps close enough to have fooled any but another cat.
A moment later, Thor sat bolt upright and looked alert as they heard the kitchen door open. Loki wrapped an arm around his brother to remind him to stay where he was, and so George was able to enter the house without having Thor greet him by rubbing against his shins or anything similar. Under ordinary circumstances that would be funny enough Loki would be unable to resist, but George was tired and dirty and really not in the mood to deal with kittenish overtures from a being practically twice his size.
He blinked sleepily at the brothers, and smiled. "Hullo, Thor. Good to see you back."
"I am very glad to be here," Thor replied politely. "Thank you for inviting me."
"Does everyone else know-- ?" George asked, attempting to be subtle but making significant faces that would have been apparent to Thor even had he still been a cat. Thor looked from George to Loki with a concerned expression, and Loki found himself rubbing his brother's head reassuringly.
"Jane and the Avengers?" Loki replied. "I have not spoken to them. I believe it is still the middle of the night in most of the United States, and frankly, though Tony Stark is in England right now, it is too early for me to deal with him. I sent text messages to him and to Jane when we got home from our meeting with the witch, and that will have to do for now."
George had just nodded in agreement when sounds began to emanate from the pocket of Loki's leather jacket as it hung on its hook by the door:
"There's a man who lives a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes, another chance he takes,
Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow.
Secret agent man, secret-- "
"Coulson," George said unnecessarily, halfway through the verse, and because he was on his feet already he went across to retrieve Loki's mobile and toss it to its owner.
There was no point rebuking him for thoughtlessness, because Loki did not think of it either: one does not throw things in the direction of a kitten, unless one intends for them to be pounced upon. As the phone made its short flight, Thor instinctively sprang from his seat on the couch and batted at it with an open hand.
The phone hit the wall, the back flew off and the battery skidded under the couch. George let out a guilty yelp, Thor looked startled, and Loki very quietly rested his forehead in his hand, wondering whether he could justify calling in sick to work today. (He took fewer actual sick days than nearly anyone else at the school, but far more abducted-by-super-powered-beings days, which surely had to be counted as the same thing.)
Loki cast a quick gathering spell to find and return to him all the components of his mobile. Perhaps he could also think of some sort of engineering spell that would be able to repair the damage. Probably Tony Stark knew one already. He glanced at Thor with a tired smile.
"Still feel quite sure that you have not been a kitten, brother?"
Thor sat quietly down on the couch and folded his hands in his lap.
Loki eventually made it to work, and got through the day despite repeatedly having to interrupt himself to answer calls from various Avengers, Jane, and the friends of Jane who had apparently gotten his number from her phone. After fielding the fourth call from a persistent and inquisitive being named Darcy, Loki found himself distracted by the question of whether he should set a ringtone for her, and what song it should be. Something catchy and very silly, he thought. Perhaps ABBA might have something appropriate.
Just before lunch, the strains of (naturally) Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" interrupted his efforts to clean the storage cupboards in one of the science classrooms. Ordinarily, Loki left his phone set to vibrate when he was at work, but today was a special occasion. And besides, he was alone at the moment.
"Hello, Tony," he said, setting down his duster to rub his head in a pre-emptive sort of way. Surprisingly, he had not yet developed a headache, but it seemed likely this deficiency was about to be remedied.
"Hi, Loki," Tony greeted him cheerfully. "I hear Thor is your big brother again. How's he doing? Does the adorable collar with the bell on it still fit him? Did you have to give him hard crunchies for breakfast? Has anyone explained that the box of dirt in the bathroom isn't for him?"
"No, no, and I did not think to mention it," Loki admitted. "I suppose I shall have to hope for the best. Have you yet spoken to him?"
"Nope, he didn't answer when I called him," Tony said. A cold knot of anxiety was just forming in Loki's stomach when the other man went on breezily, "But Annie used his phone to send me a text a few minutes later. She says he's still figuring out thumbs, but he's fine. Where are you right now?"
"I am at work. It seemed difficult to justify asking for the day off," Loki explained.
Tony laughed. "Yeah, because God forbid the God of Mischief shouldn't be responsible. Okay, look, I have a proposition for you."
"Have you indeed?"
"Yes, and don't sound like that. Have I ever led you astray?"
"Well, I seem to recall an incident last summer," Loki replied ruthlessly, "when you and I were planning to interview someone we suspected of being a minor player in a nefarious scheme. I believe you told me it would be a fairly simple transaction. As I remember it, I ended up spending several hours in the villain's lair, disguised as a woman and wearing extremely uncomfortable shoes."
"Yeah, I remember that. You looked really pretty, though. No, seriously, Loki. Listen up."
"Very well," Loki grumbled, "I am listening."
"Okay, I've been thinking." Loki forbore to make any sarcastic comments. Not that any of them would have been appropriate anyway: Tony after all really was a genius. Tony went happily on, "For one thing, I feel bad about Thor. He was so excited about coming to visit you."
"I had meant to suggest he remain with us for a few more days," Loki interrupted. "Just until he is comfortable in his own form once again." And has ceased trying to sit in the laps of those of whom he is fond. Although… Loki permitted himself a momentary mental image of Tony's arms and legs flailing, cartoon-like, under Thor's bulk. That would be amusing, but what might happen if instead he picked Bruce Banner-- or worse, Natasha Romanov-- did not bear imagining.
"Yeah, that's a good idea. Pepper's actually got meetings in Rome next week, so the plane can make a little detour and pick him up in London, if you can get him there in one piece. One normal piece, I mean. Not a pet-shaped piece."
"Bristol has an airport, you know," Loki said.
"Really? That's awesome, that's what we'll do, then. I'll send you the details later. But here's the thing. Like I said, I really do feel bad about your visit getting all messed up."
"It was hardly your fault, Tony."
"That's pretty rich, coming from you. And I also feel bad for being kind of a jerk to you on Monday, when Coulson and I were at your place. I mean, I know I was worried, but I should have stopped to remember he's your brother, and if there was anything to be worried about, it'd be a lot worse for you."
Loki opened his mouth to argue, and then closed it again. He should have remembered he had nothing whatsoever to teach Tony about feelings of guilt.
"If you are asking my forgiveness, Tony, consider it granted."
"Oh, well, that's really nice of you," Tony said, in a flippant tone which Loki did not believe for a moment, "but what I really wanted to do was offer a… sort of a replacement for the visit."
"You do not need to do anything of the sort," Loki said patiently. "Really, Tony."
"Just listen to me for a minute. And remember, Thor will love this."
Loki sighed. Tony Stark bent upon making amends was something of an irresistible force. He leaned his hip against the nearest desk.
"I am listening."
By the time Loki got home, Thor had remembered how to drink from a mug, although for safety he confined himself to plastic ones. He and Annie were sitting on the couch, drinking tea and watching Pride and Prejudice while they waited for the others. George and Mitchell had early shifts again, and arrived home shortly before Loki did, George looking inclined to go to bed and sleep for a week.
"I have been speaking to Tony," Loki said without preamble, as he brought his own mug of tea into the lounge to join the others. "He made quite an interesting suggestion."
"And what is that?" Thor asked, his manner really very much as normal. It was a great relief.
"Well, he has been looking into-- " Loki began, and then broke off as a tiny red dot appeared on the coffee table. Thor dropped his mug and slammed both hands down on top of it, nearly cracking the surface of the table. The dot appeared on the back of one hand, and Thor clamped the other hand on top of it. The dot vanished, and Thor cautiously opened both hands to see if he had trapped it.
"Mitchell," Loki said warningly. Mitchell, unable to suppress his giggles, aimed the laser pointer at him. The red dot appeared in the centre of Loki's belly, Thor turned, and Loki cast a summoning spell that delivered the pink spray bottle into his hands. Thor blinked rather wildly at him, clearly about to pounce. Loki, in sheer self-preservation, fired a short burst at him before directing a long and purposeful blast at Mitchell. "Stop that. You are the one who detests shopping at Ikea, why would you encourage my brother to destroy all our furniture? It is also your responsibility to wipe up this tea. Brother, I apologize. Have I gotten you very wet?"
Thor, who had retreated to the other end of the couch (which happened at the time to be occupied by George, who was now making inarticulate noises, as well as fruitless efforts to dislodge Thor from his lap) gave one hand a distasteful shake. "No, I am only damp." With a return to his normal expression, he removed himself from George's lap and added, remorsefully, "I am very sorry about that, Loki. And George. I do not know what got into me."
"It was not your fault," Loki assured him, casting a look at Mitchell that promised venom and entrails if there was a recurrence. (The threat was of course empty, since the entrails in the myth belonged to one beloved of myth-Loki, which meant the only candidates available to use upon Mitchell were George and Loki himself.) Annie firmly took the laser pointer away, and Loki put the water bottle down. "Now, everyone be sensible for a moment." Raising his voice to be heard over Mitchell's renewed snickers, Loki explained, "Tony informs me of a journey which runs for three days through a very scenic part of Scotland, and is taken on a very comfortable train. He has offered to send the two of us on it, this weekend. He thought it might help us to forget the events of these last few days."
"Have you told him I have forgotten them already?" Thor asked wryly. "Except, apparently, for the part where I have the urge to arch my back and hiss if something annoys me." Since he apparently did not remember biting Tony, Loki chose not to remind him. Thor looked wistful. "I did very much like the part of Scotland we saw last summer, and a train would be an ideal way to travel. Such a trip would be very pleasant."
"Tony thought you would like the idea," Loki agreed. "And I think I would like to see Scotland again, myself." He remembered almost nothing of the previous visit, having scarcely been in his right mind for most of it. Everyone knew this, and so he did not remind them. "Very well, we shall contact Tony and accept his very kind offer. Would you like to do so, brother, or shall I?"
Thor looked dubiously at his large hands and admitted, "I think I would prefer if you did, brother. I am still not confident in my ability to manipulate any communications device."
"Very well," Loki agreed. "Although, speaking of communications devices, perhaps George would be kind enough to set up Skype for you, so that you might speak to Jane. The rest of us can occupy ourselves elsewhere."
Thor cast a look of hopeful appeal at George, who smiled at him.
"Sure. Won't take a minute. I'm sure she's waiting to hear from you."
"We spoke earlier today, but I unfortunately kept dropping the phone," Thor said. He then admitted shamefacedly, "And then I seem to have pounced upon it, which broke the connection, and also the phone-- "
"Well, knocked the back off it," Annie chipped in.
"-- and may have caused Jane to believe we were under some sort of attack. Annie was compelled to send her an email to explain matters."
"Jane understood," Annie waved it off.
"And Skype won't be any trouble," George promised. "You don't have to touch anything at all. Just get one of us to close it down for you once you're finished, okay?"
Thor nodded earnestly. Loki decided that "occupying himself elsewhere" might most conveniently take the form of having a nap, which he did.
That was Wednesday. On Wednesday night, Loki left Thor in sole possession of the bedroom, and betook himself downstairs to sleep on the couch. He left his brother, who was always warm, with the striped bedspread and the brightly-flowered light quilt, and dragged the ridiculously heavy, down-filled one downstairs with him. The lounge was colder at night than his bedroom, and between that and the fact the couch was too short for him, Loki fell asleep curled into a ball with the quilt pulled over his head.
He woke some hours later, under the impression that he was sleeping with an extremely affectionate rhinoceros. One apparently bent upon squashing him into a paste on the cushions of the couch. Apparently, when sleepy and lonesome, Thor still forgot he should not use his nearest and dearest as a mattress. It really was just as well Jane was not here.
Loki would have preferred not to push Thor onto the floor again, and indeed he momentarily considered shapeshifting into something small enough to crawl out from under his brother. Fortunately, he caught his sleepy brain before the thought could be translated into action: probably turning into a mouse was not the best of ideas, when sleeping with a being who believed himself to be a giant cat.
Thor landed in a heap on the floor, sat up in confusion, and then docilely followed Loki when he took his pillow and quilt back up the stairs to the bedroom. Loki spent the rest of the night crushed into the wall, for once in his life genuinely missing the extremely large bed he had slept in, alone, back in the days when he had lived in Asgard. Even at that, however, he now found himself calculating exactly how many cats might have shared it with him before they all began to feel crowded.
On Thursday morning, Thor accompanied Loki into the kitchen. In a very hopeful sign, he sought out bread, butter, cheese and a skillet, and with considerable skill made for his hosts a delicacy called grilled cheese sandwiches. There was now nothing wrong with his command of his thumbs.
Loki spent Thursday night alone on the couch. On the one hand, he was grateful to be able to sleep untroubled by squashing or suffocation, or even by tickling fur in his nose.
On the other hand... it really was rather lonely.
On Friday morning, Thor voluntarily filled the bathtub with water and deliberately bathed. Loki found himself hanging around outside the door in case his brother called for help, but nothing untoward happened: Thor emerged looking shivery and a little alarmed, but clearly unharmed.
Since Annie had already done more than her share of the work of entertaining the guest, and since Thor no longer displayed any tendencies that caused Loki to worry he might attempt to prey upon the children, Loki came home at the lunch break that day and took his brother back to the school with him.
It being Friday afternoon, Loki did not feel too guilty for the disruption this caused to the business of the school. The disturbance was considerable, of course, but Thor was nearly as charming in his own form as he was as a cat, and most of the teachers were women-- although, really, Thor's heroic aspect was nearly as appealing to men, who mostly wished to be like him, as it was to women.
It was only when Thor was on the playground being swarmed by children that it occurred to Loki that even quite recently, before the events of the previous summer, this visit would never have happened. As much as he loved his brother, and as much as the children's actions figures amused and touched him, Loki would not have brought Thor to the school, to invite comparisons that could never favour himself. He was not sure what it meant, that he was now standing just outside the door, on a short break from his duties, watching with amused affection as Thor held a ring of ten-year-olds entranced with some story or another.
Well, he did know, really. Everyone, including the humans he knew and loved, adored Thor. He had always seen that as natural, to be expected, much as he now assumed the same of all who met Annie. Indeed, as the incident with Black Annis demonstrated, Loki was surprised and offended if he met any who felt differently.
What was new was the fact he was also now aware that liking Thor did not mean the affection these humans felt for Loki was all transferred to Thor, or that they wished to trade brothers on a day-to-day basis.
Indeed, judging by the look of humourous exhaustion on the face of the teacher now supervising the playground, some of Loki's particular humans might even prefer Thor in rather smaller doses, as an occasional treat. At a glance of frank appeal from the teacher, Loki stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled out to retrieve his brother.
Thor was coming to the payoff of his story, which as he came within earshot Loki suddenly realized was about a hunting expedition to Niflheim. He was aware of a moment of anxiety, wishing he had explained to his brother about the "anti-blood sports lobby" that existed in Britain. It was, as the humans would say, a good bet that at least some of these children, particularly the girls, were in sympathy with that point of view.
Fortunately, Thor had by now spent enough time on Midgard to either be aware of the soft-heartedness of a great many humans, or to know there were some stories considered by adults to be inappropriate for children.
"My companions and I were backed against a cliff, escape hopeless, weapons lost or broken, the great beast roaring as it advanced," Thor declaimed. Loki was unable to remember whether this event had actually even happened, but he could not deny it was a good story. "And then, as I looked to left and right, I realized my brother-- hello, brother-- was missing. I knew in my heart that he had fallen to the creature, and been eaten."
"I had not," Loki assured everyone, with a smile.
Thor smiled back. "And then, from the west, came an even larger monster, slavering and rolling its reddened eyes. The beast menacing us paused-- " Thor struck a pose that rather reminded Loki of a carnivorous dinosaur, deep in thought. Several of the children ceased looking alarmed and began to giggle. "The second monster roared and pawed the frozen earth, at which the first turned tail and fled.
"Naturally, of course, this left us in straits even more dire than before, as the second beast approached us, its aspect ravenous. And then-- " Thor paused, the suspense terrible.
"-- He turned into Loki!" shouted a couple of the children, who were apparently familiar with the narrative conventions of stories involving magical shapeshifters.
"Indeed he did," Thor agreed cheerfully. "And as fond of my brother as I am, I confess I have never been quite so happy to see him as I was at that moment."
Loki did, in fact, remember the incident now. Thor and his friends had been grateful indeed to be rescued. It was, he recalled, quite two days before they began to mock him for low cunning and cowardice in resorting to such trickery. (The children, of course, having been raised on Midgardian tales in which the hero uses cleverness to defeat the mindless might of the villain, seemed satisfied with the outcome of the story, especially since the hero of this particular tale was a friend of theirs.)
For his own part, Loki had never admitted to Thor exactly how frightened he had been, when the monster turned toward him and he thought it might stand and fight. He liked to hope he would not have made a second shift into the form of a bird and left the others to their fate, but honesty, at least inside his own head, compelled him to admit he was not at all sure.
And such was the change in his relationship to Thor that he admitted as much, as they walked into the school together.
"I could not blame you for so doing," Thor admitted. "Not, at least, now that I have gotten over the assumption that of course you should have been happy to sacrifice yourself for the rest of us, despite the fact there was no particular love between us at the time. Mind you, brother, that would have been the first time you ever abandoned us, so I really cannot imagine you doing so." Thor grinned. "Fortunately, your assumed shape was alarming enough to do the trick. Truly, when you came snarling and salivating toward us, I was myself hard-pressed not to faint in terror."
"You would be best-advised to leave the lies to me, brother," Loki replied tolerantly, and cut off Thor's protests with the remark, "I have received permission to leave work early today, so that we might pack and depart for our trip. Only I really must first ensure the upstairs lavatories are cleaned. I don't suppose you would care to assist me?"
"I would be glad to," Thor replied, without hesitation. Loki permitted himself a moment to reflect that Heimdall must by now be horrified indeed with the adventures of the crown prince: to first spend several days in the small and cuddlesome form of a household pet, and to then take up duties better suited to a servant. It was hard to decide which part would seem most ignominious.
Of course, since Loki had absolutely no idea what passed through Heimdall's mind at any time, he conceded it was quite possible the Guardian was amused rather than horrified. Whichever it was, Loki would never know.
Mitchell drove the brothers to Bristol Airport for their flight to Scotland. George and Annie accompanied them, Annie sitting in Loki's lap in the back seat owing (mostly) to a lack of space.
"Have a wonderful time," she said, kissing him goodbye before he got out of the car, while Thor positioned himself in front of the door so as to conceal them-- or rather, Loki, who would look most peculiar indeed-- from the eyes of any passing humans.
"Thank you. We will see you in three days," Loki replied, and then scrambled out of the car to join his brother.
The brothers did, in fact, have a wonderful time, although Loki was uncomfortable to begin with: the train was quite ridiculously luxurious, so much so that Loki, who was frankly out of the habit, felt rather a fraud when they embarked. He felt even worse when he overheard another guest remark that a similar trip could be made on something called the Caledonian Sleeper for a fraction of the cost.
And, strangely enough, he found himself wishing he and his brother could share a sleeping compartment, rather than each in one alone.
However, Thor was so delighted with the train, with their friendly fellow-travelers and railway employees, and especially with the scenery, that Loki soon cheered up, resolving simply to think of something nice he could do to make it up to Tony later. Scotland really was very beautiful, and though he remembered little about his previous visit, Loki enjoyed seeing vistas he recognized from various television programs.
At one point, they even passed over a dizzyingly high bridge Loki recognized as having been featured in the Harry Potter movies, the one on which Harry, Ron, and the flying Ford Anglia were nearly run down by the Hogwarts Express. Loki would have felt much sillier about his excitement over this detail, except that the same guests who had discussed the cheaper train were equally thrilled by it.
By the time the journey ended, Thor had made a number of new friends and extended to them invitations to visit him in the United States. Loki, too, was sorry when the trip was over, but he was beginning to feel just how tired he was, and he looked forward, rather guiltily, to returning home. He would miss his brother very much when he left on Tuesday, but otherwise it would be nice for life to return to normal.
As their flight descended back toward Bristol on Monday evening, Thor peered out the window at the airport below. "I believe I see Tony's aircraft waiting for us."
Loki's heart gave a painful thump. "I thought… were you not to leave tomorrow?"
"I received a message last night. Pepper had a change of plans, and besides, brother, I think I have monopolized you and your friends for quite long enough."
Loki bit his lip, hoping he did not look quite as stricken as he suddenly felt. "I hope I did not make you feel unwelcome-- "
Thor leaned over and pulled Loki into a tight embrace. "Do not be ridiculous. No one could have been a better host. Have I not a delightful catnip mouse, and an adorable red collar with a bell on it, as souvenirs to prove it? I am only sorry to have proved such a troublesome guest."
"You were not," Loki insisted. "It was a wonderful visit, especially now that all has ended well and we have had some time together as ourselves. You will come back soon?"
"As soon as possible," Thor promised. "Perhaps you could ensure the local witches and wizards know my intentions are harmless?"
"I will indeed," Loki promised, and then the plane was landing. The brothers disembarked, to be met by the housemates and immediately hand Thor over to Pepper Potts. Loki hugged his brother once more, and then Pepper shepherded Thor away to Tony's private plane as though she feared he might have another sorcerous misadventure right there in the airport.
Loki nearly fell asleep in the car on the way home, which delayed his realization the housemates were behaving rather strangely.
"What?" he finally demanded, looking around at the bright-eyed regard of his friends. "Either I have something amusing on my face, or you are all up to something. Which is it?"
"I am shocked that you could be so suspicious," Mitchell said primly, glancing at him in the rearview mirror before returning his eyes to the road. Annie reached over and dabbed at his chin with the cuff of her sweater, but somehow Loki did not really believe this was the real issue. George merely looked at him with a smile that was simultaneously bewildering and reassuring.
He was still confused as they parked the car and approached the house, at which time the sense of suppressed glee and excitement from his housemates was such that, in another life and with other people, Loki would have been seriously worried about what sort of trick they might be planning to play on him.
At the very least, he would have objected to entering the house first. But since his housemates would obviously not boobytrap a door so that anything fell upon his head, Loki unlocked it and stepped inside.
There was the immediate sound of a tiny stampede, and two little shapes came flying out of the kitchen, through the lounge and the entry hall, and went galloping up the stairs with their ears laid back and their tails streaming behind them. At the landing, where the stairs turned, they stopped and stood looking: two diminutive black-and-white shapes, one with white toes and a white chin and locket, the other with a white shirtfront and a sort of black cape. They turned their ears forward and stared as if fascinated down the stairs.
Loki stared back, feeling slightly light-headed. "Are those-- ?" he asked, although the answer to his question was obvious to any but an idiot. Loki, however, felt rather idiotic at the moment. He took his eyes off the two little creatures for a moment to look back at his friends, whose smiles were by now engulfing their faces.
"We thought-- " Mitchell began. "Well, aside from the whole business about him being your brother, you seemed to really like having a kitten, so we thought-- "
"There's always someone in the paper, looking for good homes for kittens," George added. "And we figured-- "
"We-- or anyway, you-- are about as good a home as a kitten could want," Annie spoke up.
"Or two," Mitchell agreed.
"Have they names?" Loki asked, too overcome to process the compliment.
"Not yet," Annie said. "We thought you might like to do the honours."
Loki looked back up the stairs, then extended his hand and wiggled his fingers. The caped kitten immediately came scampering down the stairs, followed more cautiously by the mostly-black one. Loki knelt, and the caped kitten jumped onto his leg, then climbed up his shirt. Loki caught the tiny animal before it could scramble down the neck hole.
"That one's the boy," George announced. "The queen is a little more reserved."
Loki stopped juggling the kitten and stared. "The what?"
"Queen," George repeated. "That's the name for a female cat."
"I thought that was 'tabby,'" Annie objected.
"No, tabby's the striped pattern, like Thor was," George insisted. "A female cat is properly known as a 'queen.'"
"You do know the strangest pieces of information," Loki congratulated him, as he picked up the second kitten.
"Says the alien sorcerer," George snickered. Annie poked him.
"Let's think of names for them," she suggested.
"Elizabeth," Loki replied instantly, screwing up his face as the girl kitten reached out to nibble on his chin.
"Elizabeth?" George repeated weakly.
"Well, she is a queen. And we are hardly going to call her Frigga," Loki replied reasonably.
"And what do you want to call the boy?" Mitchell asked, the note of suppressed glee back in his voice.
"Philip?" Loki suggested.
"Isn't that Agent Coulson's first name?" Annie asked.
"I can't imagine that would matter, since we never use it," Mitchell pointed out. "It might be confusing if we called the little fellow 'Agent.'"
The kittens began to squirm, and Loki set them carefully down on the floor. The caped kitten-- Philip-- immediately pounced upon his sister-- Elizabeth-- and the two wrestled ferociously before charging back up the stairs.
Mitchell looked suddenly guilty. "They've already sort of claimed your bed. You… might not get a lot of sleep tonight."
Loki, still gazing up the stairs, felt his smile widen.
"Marvelous," he said. "Annie, is the wand-feather-toy still in my sock drawer?"
"That's where I put it," she replied. Loki whirled, hugged each of his friends in turn, and dashed up the stairs after the kittens.