Chapter 1: We'll Never Be This Way Again
22nd January 1852
Stark-Laufeyson Estate, Jotunheim
I cannot write much now, but you have to be told the news. Tony was kidnapped while on a covert mission to inspect defence systems at our border outposts. His escort were found dead yesterday afternoon, and given that Tony was neither among them nor anywhere nearby, we can only assume that he has been taken by those who ordered the attack. We have high hopes for his survival, since his standing and wealth make him of great value.
We are of course doing our utmost to get him back, and I will not leave Muspelheim until I can bring him home with me. He may be your husband, but he is also my best friend.
13th February 1854
Banner Estate, Jotunheim
I do not have much time but I have to write to you. Just know that whatever they say about me, I am innocent, I swear it. Romanoff has been after Father's influence and the information he can give him all these months, and I believe it is the only reason we ever became engaged. I had thought not to tell you to keep you safe, but now that Alexi has discovered that I have not been as in the dark as he had thought, I must disappear and you must know the truth. I will tell you more when I can, but I must leave before Alexi follows me. Ivan will deliver this note to you; I am trusting him with my life, as I am you. I shall not tell you where I am going, as much for your protection as for mine.
Be safe, my brother, and do not let the lies of Alexi Romanoff fool you.
5th May 1855
Hydra Banks, Asgard Branch
Gylfi House, Gangleri St.
Mjölnir Cotton Mill, Industrial District
My dear Mr. Odinson,
I am writing to you on behalf of Hydra Banks, through whom for many years your family has run its more financial business matters and ventures. Today, the sad duty falls to me to inform you that, following over a year of delayed payments and falling profit margins, the bank has been forced to issue a final deadline for the repayment of funds owed. If our books are not balanced by the end of this same year of 1855 – in approximately seven months from now – then legal proceedings will be begun, and it may fall upon us to have to relieve you of your mill in order to pay off said debts.
The sum total owed to us by the Odinson family, according to our accounts, is £12,337-16s-3d. By 31st December this very year, we expect to have received, in one or more payments, this full amount as well as any more interest that is accrued over the intervening time period.
We assure you, Mr. Odinson, that the sending of this statement of intention to your good self is as decidedly distasteful a matter for us as it must be for you to receive it. Did these times not put such power on material wealth and solvency, we would not dream of holding you to such account, and would be delighted to go on doing business with you. For many years have we worked with your family, and your father, the late Mr. Odin Grimm, may he rest in peace, was one of our most valued investors. It is the utmost wish of Hydra Banks to retain this good and long-standing relationship, and we will do everything in our power to be most accommodating in this, your hour of need.
Should you need any assistance or have any further questions, do not hesitate to contact me directly.
Ever your servant,
Chief Executive of Hydra Banks
29th May 1855
Mjölnir House, Industrial District
SHIELD Legal Services,
Yggdrasil Square, Valhalla District
Since my elder brother is unwilling to contact you himself, I have taken that upon my own shoulders. Ever since my father raised our family out of poverty and established the Mjölnir textile business of which we are still proprietors today, it has been your SHIELD services to which we have turned when in need to legal advice or assistance. Your help with numerous contracts and issues of property has been highly praised and appreciated by my family, but it is now that we truly find ourselves in need.
Being frank, as I feel can only be best in this dire situation, since our father's passing three years ago, it has fallen on my brother Thor to run this mill as best he knows – and it is not going well. It is true that we have the happiest and healthiest workers in all the nine realms, and our cotton is of the highest quality and in great demand. However, financially, my brother is in trouble. He is unwilling to compromise his principles for profit; a fact that makes me proud to call him my brother, but does not help us pay back the loans owed to investors. Fortunes have not been good this past year, and even months before that. The bank has finally issued a notice of foreclosure in the case that they do not receive the full amount plus any required interest by the end of the year. I do not see how the family will be able to pay such an amount, and my brother is stubborn.
I am writing to you out of desperation, Mr. Coulson. I can only hope that in your professional capacity you will be able to turn back the tides of bad fortune that are lapping at our family's toes, or that you might reason with my brother, whose hard head is too much for even me to break through.
Yours, in hope and thanks,
Clinton Barton Odinson
17th June 1855
Stark-Laufeyson Estate, Jotunheim
Tony, once-beloved husband of mine, I am sending you this letter for two reasons. Firstly, I feel that, despite the circumstances, you do still deserve an explanation; and secondly, leaving you such a useless 'clue' amuses me a great deal and will make the game that much more enjoyable.
You should know that I do not hate you. I am leaving because we were no longer happy together, and have taken Síf with me because she is precious to me and you are clearly in no state to care for a child yourself. I do not particularly intend to stay away forever, but I will not come back unless you bring me back. Then we shall sort out this mess our marriage has become.
I am issuing you a challenge, you drunken sot. Set aside the bottle, leave your machines, and find me. Hunt us down.
Don't expect any more clues, my dear. You will need all your wits about you, for I shall be using all of mine to escape.
Delightfully and devilishly yours, my former darling,
Stepping out of the carriage for the first time into the streets of Midgard somehow feels more dramatic than he ever thought it might be. He can't stop his eyes darting from side to side, trying to take in as much of his surroundings as possible, and were it not for the feel of a tiny hand clutching at the back of his greatcoat, he might have let himself get lost in the feelings of apprehension and a daring excitement.
As it is, Loki Laufeyson, lord of one of the biggest estates in the Nine Kingdoms and a ruthlessly successful businessman, spins round to face his daughter. Every time he sees her, he can't help that his mouth quirks up into a smile – a smile that anyone who knows him well can immediately identify as one of real happiness, as opposed to his usual trademark smirk – but love just bubbles up inside him and squeezes at his heart and the only way to release some of the pressure is to grin, beam, delight in her presence.
“Síf, my darling, my apologies. I've got you.” And he grips her around the waist, pecks her on the cheek, and sets her gently on the ground.
Síf looks up at him, dark eyes big and round like one of the little muntjac deer that graze back at the Stark-Laufeyson estate. (Loki hesitates to call it home, even in his head, because that would defeat the whole purpose of this exercise. Home is in Midgard now, right here). Her hair, dark like both her fathers' but sleek in a way that only Loki's has ever been, is pulled back into a plait which bobs as she moves; as always, not a single hair is out of place.
“Papa, is Auntie Natasha meeting us here?” she asks, with all the gravitas a six-year-old can muster. “This place is very grey, I think we should ask her to find us another house. Somewhere with more yellow.”
Loki is stumped for a moment. His daughter is perfectly right, the house in front of them is fairly sizeable and still mostly in good repair, but its most overwhelming feature is definitely its lack of colour.
“Yellow, hmm? Why would you want to live somewhere yellow, my sweet?”
He's not looking at her, but he just knows that her little nose is wrinkling in displeasure at the endearment. She takes after her father – her other father – that way. The corner of Loki's mouth twitches as all of a sudden he finds himself struggling to hold on to his good cheer.
“Because yellow is like sunshine,” she says, like it's the most obvious thing in the world. “I don't want to go on an adventure in the rain, and grey is like rain.”
Loki pats her on the head, careful not to disrupt her hair that he brushed and arranged so carefully this morning, and laughs lightly.
“Well, once we've moved in, we can paint the house yellow, how about that?”
The triumphant look on Síf's cherubic face is all the answer he needs, and he's still chuckling as he leads their driver and his valet to the front door – the servants laden with boxes and cases full of Loki and Síf's belongings – following in the footsteps of the small girl skipping ahead of them.
Already, it's getting easier to breathe, easier than it has been in a long time.
Meanwhile, in a manor on the other side of town, Thor Odinson growls and throws a ledger across the study, ignoring an exasperated sigh from his younger brother. As Clinton goes to pick it up, dusting imaginary dirt off the red leather cover and rolling his eyes, Thor slams his hands down on his desk and hangs his head, breathing hard.
This really is too much.
“How could you, brother? I have said before, the house of Odin will not fall so easily. The bank, the investors, they are but specks of rust in our armour, and--”
“Thor,” Clint begins, gripping his brother's shoulder and taking in the dark circles growing underneath his eyes, “I am sorry. I am sorry that I went behind your back, that I didn't inform you before contacting SHIELD. But I am not sorry for contacting them. Yes, the 'house of Odin' will survive, I have no doubt about that – and I'm sure that you will be the one to restore our family's fortunes.”
Thor ruthlessly crushes the little voice in the back of his head, the one that adds 'especially since you were the one to lose our fortunes in the first place, the one to throw it all away.'
“But Thor, this time we need help.”
Clint gently – but forcefully – starts to steer Thor towards the door of the study. “Come now, let us go find something else for you to do. Destroying this office will not help things, and you need a distraction.”
Thor sighs, still angry, but letting himself be pushed in whatever direction his brother might please. He is furious, wants to break things and shout until he has no voice left, but he knows it is not his brother's fault. He doesn't want to upset Clint, has not even once since he came to join the Odinson family, and he will concede this particular fight. And, deep down and silently, he is willing to admit that his brother is right. That he cannot fix this alone.
Spending the day riding through the open fields to the north of town, racing Clint and laughing when his brother's horse tips him into a hedge, is extremely effective at clearing Thor's mind.
The grin does not leave his face all through dinner, and the maids and his valet look surprised but delighted at his good mood. Thor feels slightly guilty, knowing that he has been taking out his temper on those who don't deserve it, lashing out verbally at all those around him, but he cannot help it. It has always been the way he has dealt with emotional stress, even though it put him at odds with both his parents more than once.
Clint though, Clint understands how he works, and lets him rage for a while before pulling him out of it, forcing him to laugh at life again. They have a good partnership, have done for years. Clint is technically Thor's cousin, but the death of his parents when he was still a boy meant that he and Thor were raised in the Odinson household as brothers, and Thor cannot think of him as anything else.
Thor makes sure to thank everyone politely and enthusiastically for the excellent meal, and enquires about Clint's studies; he wants to travel, once the mill was safe again and they have the money to spare, and had been looking into learning various languages and reading about the other parts of the Nine Realms and their practices.
Everything is wonderful, normal, for hours, for most of the day. After dinner, he and Clint retire to the room they have always shared as a family, the room that still has their father's armchair set aside close to the fire, despite the fact that Odin had passed away three years before, and their mother's couch where she had liked to spend the evenings sewing until her own death a few months after her husband's, peaceful and accepting.
Clint curls up on the rug with a book, lazily chewing an old quill pen as he reads, and Thor watches him happily for a while, nursing a glass of red wine and smiling contentedly. Eventually he rouses himself enough to move to the small table where they keep a set of writing supplies, realising that he should swallow his pride for once and write to Coulson and SHIELD himself, if only to confirm his brother's words.
But as he sets pen to paper, wording the plea for aid in his head, the cloud descends over his head once more, and his pen strokes become more and more vicious as he glowers down at the page.
Clint looks up once or twice, but wisely decides to keep out of it this time.
Chapter 2: Gateways and Obstacles
Normally when Thor takes a walk through town, he'll be stopped every few steps by one of the many residents of Midgard, regardless of their class. He might be responding to an 'urgent' message from Nicholas Fury, his father's oldest friend and his mill's primary investor, or visiting Mrs Rushman, the young property-owning widow who only settled in town last year. But regardless of how important his errand might be, Thor always finds the time to stop and make nice with the other locals; he likes to know that his friends are happy, that their families are doing well, to argue good-naturedly over the merits of various business ventures and the news from Asgard that eventually trickles into this realm.
Today, there is a distinct circle of empty space around him. Everyone can read the stormy expression on his face, and knows better than to intercept him when he's in one of his rare – but devastating – black moods.
Everyone, that is, apart from the slender young man who strolls by close enough to shove Thor sideways with his shoulder.
Patience stretched to breaking point, wanting nothing more than to throw Schmidt and every other banker he knows into the machinery of his mill, Thor whirls on the spot and glares at this man he doesn't recognise.
“Sir, have you nothing to say for yourself?” he demands, irate and struggling to control his temper. On any other day, he would let this pass, possibly laugh and clap the offender on the back before carrying on his way. But Thor was already finding it difficult to see past the haze of rage wavering before his eyes, and this stranger who has unwittingly stretched his frayed nerves to breaking point.
--Or perhaps not so unwittingly, for Thor could swear that as the man turned back to face him a strange expression of vindictive triumph flickered across his face. But a moment later, it has smoothed out into cool indifference, a polite smile, so quickly that it is as if it was never there.
“Sir?” The stranger is tall, almost as tall as Thor, though built on a much lighter scale – where Thor is all broad shoulders and massive bulk, a figure more suited to manual labour encased in the smart linen and soft wool of the upper middle classes, this man is slim and long-limbed, and seems thoroughly comfortable in silk brocade that probably cost most of a year's income for Thor.
Thor pulls his shoulders back and steps forward.
“I believe I am owed an apology for your rudeness,” he grits out, clenching his teeth in a last-ditch effort to contain his frustration.
“Excuse me?” Now there is an amused condescension to the man's tone, distinct and cutting as the smirk that curls its way onto his face.
Thor growls. “I care not who you are, nor how important you might be. I see no reason why the manner of your birth should allow you to abandon common courtesy, even with those you do not know!”
His hands are curling into fists, stiff at his side, and it is all Thor can do to think of his late father and how disappointed he would be were Thor to cause a scene in the middle of town with a man he did not know.
The stranger turns fully to face him, swinging his silver-topped cane idly in his right hand, and doffing his tall top hat with the other. It is as sleek and black as his jacket, the height of fashion, and not a hair on his head is out of place, smoothed back into a slight curl behind his ears.
“My apologies, friend,” he begins, and Thor wants to hit him for the sarcasm not even hidden in his voice, “I had not thought to introduce myself to every person I passed in the street. Loki Laufeyson, at your service. And who might I have the honour of addressing?”
A challenge sparkles in his blue eyes, and Thor has never been able to back down from such.
He does not return the polite bow as he replies.
“Thor Odinson is my name, and I am the owner of the Mjölnir cotton mill up on the hill. The lack of introduction was not the rudeness I spoke of, and you know it well. I will have my apology.”
“Merely tell me what offence I have caused and I would be happy to make amends, Mr Odinson. Is my dress not to your liking?” He motions to the emerald waistcoat and cream cravat. “Did my presence somehow interrupt the brooding that you were so intent on practising?”
Thor barely contains a snarl, noticing in his peripheral vision that people are starting to linger nearby, trying to politely mask their interest in their face-off. Laufeyson's voice doesn't waver once into annoyance or anger. But his last remark does cut a little close to the truth for Thor's pride. He snarls wordlessly and steps forward, right into his opponent's personal space.
“Apologise, sir. You know precisely for what.”
Laufeyson's bright eyes dance mischievously, and he opens his mouth, presumably to make another provocative comment to rile Thor further – but he is interrupted by a sudden shout from further down the road.
Laufeyson spins on his heel, all patronising calm gone from his expression in an instant, replaced by a soft tenderness that surprises Thor. He too looks in the direction of the new voice, over the other man's shoulder, gaze drawn to the most expensive tailor's in all of Midgard.
A little girl is running towards them – well, towards Laufeyson, since Thor has never seen this child before – her dark hair bobbing in its braid behind her. She has hiked up her skirts in a most unladylike fashion, but the bright smile on her round face is doubtless enough to distract all but the most hard-hearted of onlookers from her faux-pas.
Despite himself, Thor feels the corners of his mouth twitch up in what is trying to become a grin.
Laufeyson is clearly more affected by her appearance than any other, however. He kneels, not caring one whit as his clean-cut trousers make contact with the dust and dirt of a working town's street.
“Síf, my darling! I was just coming to meet you. How was your shopping? You found plenty of new clothes, I trust?”
The girl – Síf – is whisked up into his arms as he straightens again. He is clearly utterly absorbed in her, and she raises small, chubby hands to his shoulders, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
“Yes, I suppose. I don't understand why I have to wear dresses though. Auntie would only let me get one pair of trousers, and she said I can only wear them around the house.” Her pout is simply adorable, and Thor is hard put to refrain from cooing out loud.
Laufeyson tips his head back and laughs, bouncing his daughter slightly in his arms.
“My love, you are going to grow up into a wonderful woman. Perhaps we shall look into finding you some sort of bloomers like your aunt wears.”
“I already told her that I would, Loki. Your daughter is giving a very unfair report of our shopping trip, you know.”
Thor looks up in surprise, dragging his eyes away from Síf tugging at her father's cravat and blinking sleepily. Indeed, his hearing had not failed him – the 'Auntie' in question was none other than the widowed Mrs Rushman.
Mrs Natalie Rushman was a woman who could not have reached her thirtieth birthday, but had already lost her husband – in a hunting accident, she had said. She had arrived in Midgard just over a year ago, and had settled in comfortably, making many friends, despite her rather forward-thinking ideas on women's rights and dress. Thor himself rather enjoyed her company, and often found himself laughing at her sharp wit and sharper tongue.
Right now, Mrs Rushman looks nothing if not indulgently amused, however. She moves right in, tucking a stray lock of Síf's black hair behind her ear, before patting Loki – her brother? Brother-in-law? They did not look to be at all related – on the shoulder.
“I had the shop-boys take the boxes back to the manor. I'm afraid this little terror has put you out rather a lot, but I suspected you wouldn't mind.” She rolls her eyes affectionately.
Laufeyson nods in agreement and hugs Síf close once more before setting her back down on the ground and taking her small hand in his.
“I told you not to spare any expense, my dear. I have, after all, put the both of you out rather a lot – dragging Síf away from her old home, and imposing on your generosity while I see to business. What do you say to some lunch?”
Síf cheers, and Mrs Rushman is in the process of accepting the invitation when she registers Thor just behind Loki. She smiles warmly in greeting.
“Ah, Mr Odinson, my apologies, I hadn't noticed you there. I see you've met Loki. He was looking for a place to stay, and I offered him the old manor on the hill. No one else will want to buy it from me – it's a horrible, ugly place, not to mention the drafts.”
Thor nods back, grinning at his friend. “Mrs Rushman. Uh, yes, I have met Mr Laufeyson. We were just--”
He pauses, unsure what to say. Laufeyson himself jumps in, looking slightly guilty, of all things.
“--talking, Natalie. I remembered you had mentioned Mr Odinson, and thought it would be good to make his acquaintance. Now, lunch?”
He appears to be trying to hurry them off, which seems strange to Thor. He looks from Laufeyson to Mrs Rushman, a slight frown creasing his forehead.
Mrs Rushman, too, is looking between them, grey eyes sharp, not missing a thing. She sighs.
“Loki, I thought I told you to play nice. You cannot go around antagonising--”
“Yes, yes, Natalie, I know, so you keep telling me. It isn't my fault your friend decided to start snapping at me.”
Thor opens his mouth in outrage, forgetting for a moment the social niceties he had accused Laufeyson of ignoring.
A wry raise of the eyebrows from Mrs Rushman stops him before he can insult anyone. “Going by the expression on Mr Odinson's face, I highly doubt that. Now, apologise for whatever it is you did and we can go and eat.”
Síf giggles from around their knees, apparently amused at her father being told off in the middle of the street.
Laufeyson rolls his eyes, juggling his cane so that he can put his spare hand to the small of Mrs Rushman's back, shepherding her away while still holding tight to his daughter. Rolling his eyes and sounding bored, he tosses his apology back over his shoulder, barely looking at Thor at all.
“Terribly sorry for the inconvenience, Mr Odinson. Next time I shall be sure to keep out of the way of your enormous pride so that you may continue to sulk in peace.”
Síf is laughing again, bright and tuneful, and although Mrs Rushman lightly slaps her companion's arm, she too looks amused. Clearly this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal for Mr Loki Laufeyson.
Thor watches them go, bemused and still vaguely irritated at this newcomer and his bad manners and lack of respect, before continuing on his way.
It is not until he is standing at the counter in the post office, digging a letter out from inside his jacket, that he freezes for a moment.
The black mood of the morning, the black mood that had been hovering over his head for days, had completely disappeared.
Back in Jotunheim, it is with trembling hands that Anthony Edward Stark sets down a letter in front of his two best friends in the world.
James Rhodes, colonel in the influential Asgardian army, folded his arms and continued to frown up at his friend. “Come on, Tony, what's this about? You haven't been yourself for days--”
“--years--” mumbles the woman sat tidily next to him, ignoring the nudge she gets from Rhodes.
“--and I just want you to tell us why. I don't want you to tell me to read some stupid letter.”
Meanwhile, the third and final individual on the long and opulent couch pulls the paper towards himself and peers down at it through the small reading spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose. He hums to himself, shaking his head.
Lady Virginia Potts, eldest daughter of the obscenely wealthy Lord Potts and still unwed despite the many offers she had received, places her hands daintily on her knees and leans forward. The power in the glare she levels at Tony would make a lesser man quail. Even Tony has to remind himself that he knew her as a child, all frizzy ginger hair and freckles and ridiculously gangly limbs that had a tendency to help her fall out of trees, and certainly does not find anything she does as a grown woman frightening.
“Tony,” she begins warningly.
He twists a tired but wry grin back at her, matching her tone for tone as he interrupts her with “Pepper.” She detests her first name, and although she has learned to tolerate it from most of her peers – until she was a teenager, she would soundly beat anyone who called her by it, unless they were older than her, in which case she would plan some elaborate and dreadful revenge upon them – among friends and family she would answer only to the nickname she had picked up some time around her third birthday.
Pepper rolls her eyes.
“Tony,” she repeats, ignoring him, “we're your friends, your best friends, and we just want to help you. You have to tell us where Loki and Síf are. Neither you nor Loki have any family for them to visit, and Loki isn't exactly one for close friends.”
Tony sighs, and is about to reply, when Bruce Banner – the last member of their party – does it for him.
“He doesn't know where they are.” He has now turned the paper over, and appears to be inspecting it for clues, or any other information that he may have missed from his reading over the very sparse and unhelpful note on the front.
Rhodes and Pepper look surprised.
“How do you--”
Bruce looks up at Tony, sympathetic, before turning to the other two, tucking his spectacles back into the pocket of his navy blue waistcoat.
“Tony doesn't know where his husband or his daughter have gone, because Loki hasn't told him. Loki doesn't want him to know – it seems he wants Tony to find him. He apparently finally grew tired of the, ahem, 'mess this marriage has become',” he darts an apologetic glance to Tony, who shrugs, “and wanted to get Tony's attention. He took Síf with him because he didn't believe Tony could look after her properly when left to his own devices.”
Pepper has propped her chin on her hand, and is frowning thoughtfully, motioning for Bruce to pass her the letter.
Rhodes, on the other hand, has leapt to his feet and is now pacing in front of the couch, looking furious.
“He just up and left? With your daughter?! He can't just-- what does he think he's-- we've got to-- I'll show him--” Apparently too angry for words, he finds himself reduced to crushing his regimental hat and gesturing wildly.
Tony laughs despite himself.
“Really, Rhodes? Are you really that surprised? This marriage has been a farce for years. I don't even remember the last time Loki and I--”
“--we don't need to know that, Tony--” interrupts Pepper, crinkling the letter as her expression turns disgusted.
Tony laughs but, agreeable for once – or perhaps too depressed to argue – leaves it be. “Anyway, the point is that I've been avoiding the situation for, well, years. Hoping it would go away, I suppose. I wouldn't trust myself to care for Síf had he left her here, however much I might adore her.”
Rhodes stops, grips Tony's shoulder hard, and shakes his head defiantly. “No, Tony, that's not true. You'd do whatever you could for that little girl, I know it. And you were kidnapped, no one's going to come out of an experience like that without changing. Loki should have--”
“Loki should have nothing,” Tony snaps, suddenly irritated and not sure why.
But a week ago he'd finally emerged from the workshop he'd set up in an old drawing room at the back of the house, and stumbled up the stairs, exhausted and aching, barely registering how quiet and empty the mansion felt, how the pattering footsteps and occasional thump that he associated with his daughter playing at war around their home were missing. He'd collapsed face down on the bed, unsurprised at not finding Loki there, and it was only the irritation of paper scratching against his cheek that prompted him to read the note lying there innocently on the pillow, his vision blurred from lack of rest and an excess of alcohol. Ever since then, feelings – pain, and loneliness, and guilt – had been building, swirling, inside his chest, and it seemed they were finally finding an out.
“You know as well as everyone here, James – as well as most of Jotunheim, if not the rest of the Nine Realms – that I've been terrible ever since that blasted Muspelheim expedition. You know better than most that I've just got worse. I'm awful to live with. I would have missed Síf's birthday this year if Loki hadn't come and fetched me out of the study and cleaned me up personally. I haven't-- I can't-- I don't know how to fix this, to fix me, and it's torn my family apart.”
He pauses, sighs, stares at the ground. He wasn't used to all this talking. Bottling up his feelings – or rather, emptying them into a bottle – was far more normal for him. But it was true, this marriage had been dying by degrees for years.
Bruce reaches across and pats his waist, while Pepper clasps his wrist. They're the grounding influence he needs, but he can't bring himself to look at them, to see the pity and the condemnation staring back at him.
“I'm only surprised that Loki stayed this long. He's--” Tony laughs, a rough bark of a sound, painful and unexpected, at the thought of what he's about to say. “Remarkably, Loki's been a saint.”
There's a silence, and Tony stays as still as he can, hardly daring to breathe under the barrage of I-told-you-so's and If-only-you-had-listened's that he imagines are flying at him.
Of course, when he finally does gather himself up enough to raise his gaze, all three of his friends are looking supportive, encouraging, and above all, sympathetic. Like they don't blame him.
It takes away what little breath he has left.
First to rise is Pepper, business-like and bustling as usual.
“Well, Tony, it's clear what we have to do then. We'll find a way to track Loki. He clearly wants you to do so, after all.”
Bruce stands, tugs his waistcoat straight again and smartens up his cravat and collar, shoots a soft smile at Tony, who returns it gratefully. Rhodes still looks like he's about to explode, like he wants to defend Tony to the last – and Tony's immensely thankful for his loyalty, never mistake that, but he couldn't take it right now, doesn't want it, and luckily Rhodes seems to understand that – but it's reduced to simmering behind his iron gaze and the firm pat he gives Tony's shoulder before stepping away.
“Agreed. I'm not due to return to the regiment for a month, and if necessary I can delay that further--” he quells Tony's objection with a look before he's even able to give voice to it, “--because finding your daughter – and husband,” he adds grudgingly, “has to be our priority. There are people I can ask, and the household staff may know something.”
Pepper nods, looking down at the paper again. “Really, Tony, darling, you should have told us before; Loki has at least a week's lead on us now. But it can't be helped. Come, you can help me talk to your staff.”
She's hurrying off out of the room before Tony can answer, and Rhodes is following, a march habitually present in his step. Tony, in fact, finds himself rather at a loss, wide-eyed and in shock at the speed with which his friends have taken over his problems.
A quiet chuckle behind him is a reminder of Bruce's presence.
“Pepper always did like to take charge, I hear, even when you were children.”
Tony turns, smiling at the soft-spoken man. “Yes, we argued over it more than once. I always wanted to think of myself as the leader of our little group, but I rather suspect I was Pepper's puppet all along. Rhodes, of course, was happy to stand back and roll his eyes at us. Sensible bloke.”
Bruce's grin widens, and Tony suddenly feels a warm surge of affection for his friend, the only one to hang back, to remind him – consciously or not, although more likely the former, knowing Bruce – that he isn't alone in this. He'd met the Banner siblings just before he turned twenty, only a few months before he met Loki, and they'd almost immediately been accepted into the close-knit group that Pepper, Tony, and Rhodes formed.
Bruce smiles, almost as though he too is remembering how they met, given seats next to each other at yet another interminably dull charity dinner, and talking only around each other until Bruce murmured a snide comment during one of the speeches and Tony was suddenly choking on the wine.
“Well, I don't have the same contacts as Rhodes, or the wiles Pepper can employ, but I do know a few people in the city I can ask for you. Maybe I'll try to get in touch with Natasha again.”
He adds this last as though it is only a throwaway thought, as if it wouldn't mean much to him either way. But Tony, looking right at him, sees the way his eyes dim, the way his gaze turns inwards, focused on the pain and betrayal that have dogged him for the past month or so. He knows that Bruce had immediately disregarded the accusations against his sister, would protect her name in public if it ever became necessary. But he misses her terribly, and longs to know that she is safe.
Tony almost wishes Bruce would rage and shout, because it is far too easy to forget how recent and powerful his hurt is, how every day he is followed by the whispers and stares.
Nevertheless, Bruce shakes his shoulders, snaps back into the present before Tony can offer any awkward consolations.
“Pepper will be missing you, you know,” he jokes, smile just a little too bright, edged with a brittle bitterness. “And Tony--” he grabs Tony's arm, gripping just on the safe side of too tight, eyes apologetic but stern. “--Loki was right about one thing. You need to stop drinking. It's not safe, you're hurting yourself. You should see the results of experiments at the university, I can't-- I don't want one of those corpses they cut up to be you, my friend. I know it's hard, but pull yourself together. For your daughter. For yourself.”
Tony nods dumbly, speechless. He knows that his friends are aware of his problem – how could they not be? But none of them have raised it with him, not out loud. Bruce is right though, and Tony desperately tries to forget about the wines in the cellar, and the spirits tucked away in his study.
Taking a deep breath, he strides after Pepper, determined to meet Loki's last challenge.
Chapter 3: Such As These Would Be Blind Anyway
Loki groans inwardly as he – once again – bumps, almost literally, into Thor Odinson, this time on the way to the sweet shop (he'd promised Síf a treat for sitting down and working at some arithmetic that morning). Thor looks stressed and uptight once again, and the glare with which he levels Loki just makes Loki's honey-sweet smile come faster.
He's been in Midgard over a fortnight now, long enough now to hear all the gossip about the Odinson family – how they used to be old money, had roots, and powerful ones at that, in Asgard of all places. He knows that Odin, the father for whom Thor was named, had moved his family to Midgard and in only a few short years set up the most successful cotton business in the Nine Realms. Most importantly, he knows that said business is currently failing, its downward tumble even more impressive than its original rise had been, and the word from the mouths of worried workers is that it's due to Thor's refusal to give his employees anything but the best, even at the cost of his own profit margin.
It's admirable, really, being so principled and moral and egalitarian.
Loki has no sympathy whatsoever.
Honestly, he thinks, twitching his lips ever so slightly just to make his expression that much more grating for Thor, if the man can't remember that he's running a business and not a charity, then he hardly deserves to be in charge of one. Even before he met Tony, with his fanatical interest in machines and progress and the way things work, a sizeable part of Loki's assets had been tied up in various business ventures, and every single one of these ventures (apart from a few disastrous experiments as he was finding his feet in the thrust-and-cut world of money-making) had heaped up profit upon profit. And that was because he ruled all of them with an iron fist and, although he was never outright cruel to his workers, he showed little sympathy beyond making sure they were able to do their jobs. Tony agreed.
After all, there was a reason that the Stark-Laufeyson name was spoken of with as much dread and disgruntled mutterings as it was with respect and quietly thrilled awe.
But back in the present, Thor actually growls at Loki. “Excuse me, sir,” he snarls, surprisingly vicious. Loki smirk grows even wider, vindictive, as he steps back and twirls an overly done bow.
It's really rather amusing watching the hot red flush of anger crawl up Thor's neck and into his cheeks.
“Ah, Mr Odinson, what a pleasant surprise. My apologies, I was caught up in my own thoughts.” He could, if he wanted, make the words genuine, charm Thor so completely that he'd be begging to eat out of his hand – metaphorically, of course, Loki does have some standards, thank you. It's not hard to see that this overgrown boy would respond so well to flattery, would no doubt blossom under someone's undivided attention... But Loki is having too much fun to be seriously tempted by golden good looks and muscles that press out against a crimson waistcoat. Not to mention that he's married, of course – but really at this stage that's nothing but a technicality.
And in not too long, it will be entirely irrelevant. By Loki's estimation, Tony's friends – never Loki's friends, not even after all these years – will be helping to search for him. Luckily, Loki knows how to hide, and it would be no fun if the hunt was an easy one, so he still has a good while before the whole situation gets unravelled.
Thor's heavy brows draw together even further at Loki's snide tone.
“Mr Laufeyson, I am afraid I do not have time to talk, I have pressing business elsewhere. Do convey my greetings and well-wishes to your daughter and Mrs Rushman, though, if you'll be so kind.”
Thor's tone is stiff and uptight, clearly keeping a lid on his anger. But still, Loki bristles. It's not often someone – especially not a simple, big-hearted do-gooder like this man – gets one up on him, but delegating him as messenger boy, that could only be-- Then Loki remembers where he is, and quickly erases the beginnings of a frown, settling his fine features into a pleasant smile.
Thor's confusion indicates that he saw the flicker of expression, the haughtiness that Loki is usually able to hide with his delicately chosen, syrupy-sweet words. No matter. Thor already dislikes him, and it is not as though Loki is planning to stay in Midgard for much longer.
“Mr Laufeyson...?” Thor asks, pausing, clearly eager to be on his way but feeling obliged to check up on his neighbours – or some such rot, Loki thinks uncharitably. “Are you feeling quite well?”
His voice still booms, deep and with emphasis on every word as though Thor is declaiming to an audience rather than conversing with a single person right in front of him, but somehow it is slightly quieter, dimmed with what may just be concern.
Loki chuckles, brushes the words away with a casual flick of one long-fingered hand.
“Mr Odinson, I am quite fine. Merely wondering quite what treat my dear daughter will demand on my return. I shall, of course, pass your compliments along.”
And with a swish of his long, forest-green coat, Loki continues on his way, neatly sidestepping a fuming Thor. It was so much fun to layer on the condescension until he could almost see the steam pouring out his ears.
“Mr Rogers, I do believe that we agreed that the fee for the Hodges case was to be £20. Yet somehow this receipt appears to only be charging him £10. I don't suppose you'd know anything about that, would you?”
Stephen Rogers, youngest member of SHIELD Legal Services, shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Ah, Mr Coulson, sir, I can explain. You see, Mrs Hodges fell ill a fortnight ago and what with the medical fees, they couldn't really afford to pay as much as we asked, and really, we don't need the extra to make a profit this year--”
He breaks off abruptly, fixing his gaze on his hands, twisting together on the desk in front of him, when Coulson sighs.
“Look, Mr Rogers, you cannot keep on deducting fees because of every sob-story that clients dish out to you. We are a legal firm, not a knitting circle. I, in fact, happened to see Mrs Hodges just this morning in the square, and she seemed in the peak of health. Now--”
Rogers head snaps up, and his cornflower-blue eyes are wide and just the tiniest bit wet. Philip Coulson may be a lawyer, but not even he can bring himself to do anything other than attempt to bank the waves of betrayal that he's practically drowning in, despite the fact he's standing at the door, several feet away from his overly-compassionate employee.
“Never mind,” he mutters, looking away – and glaring, when that puts him face to face with James Barnes, who is grinning knowingly, “I'm sure she must be recovering well. The fresh air probably did her the world of good.”
Mentally, he sighs in relief when Rogers' shoulders untense and he smiles happily down at his paperwork all spread out and covered in neat scribbles of blue ink.
“Anyway,” he continues, fixing Barnes with a stare that could peel paint – and did at least make Barnes try to hide his amusement – and holding out two new files, “the Hodges are no longer an issue. Rogers, just don't dock any more fees without mentioning it to me first. Barnes, stop flirting with the clients; I happened to bump into Lord Njord last night, and had to spend almost thirty minutes assuring him that you wouldn't try anything with his daughter.”
Barnes does at least have the decency to look apologetic, and nod silently. Coulson magnanimously decides to ignore Rogers' quiet snort of derision.
“Besides all that, we have a new case. It shouldn't be difficult, and I could easily handle it myself. However, the pair of you are in dire need of further experience if you are ever to become decent lawyers, and so we will all be leaving tomorrow morning for Midgard. The carriage will be here at seven o' clock sharp--” he glares pointedly at Barnes, “--and I expect no delays.”
Rogers grins, almost childlike in his glee. “Midgard? I've never been there before. Some of the best landscape painters of our time do their work in Midgard; apparently the countryside is beau--”
Barnes rolls his eyes but grins, fond and unguarded, seemingly forgetting for a moment that Coulson is watching them. “I don't know about the landscape, but I've heard that country girls are far less picky than city ones – especially if that city's Asgard. With any luck, we can pick ourselves a couple of fine dames, Steve.”
A faint blush stains Rogers cheeks, but Coulson's impression is that the two of them are lifelong friends (to the extent that they even applied for these jobs together, and before saying anything else, Barnes refused to accept any offer unless Rogers was hired as well) and he's pretty inured to Barnes by now.
“That's if we can see any of them past your massive ego, Bucky.”
Coulson sighs. Loudly.
Two heads snap round to stare at him guiltily.
“Finish up here, and then go home. Pack your bags. Our client has kindly agreed to let us lodge with him, but that means that you will need smart dinner wear, as well as your normal clothes. You will make a good impression, or you will not be coming back to Asgard still in my employ.”
Silent, and completely serious for once, they nod obediently. Coulson hides a smile.
“You can be the men for the job, you just need something to push you in the right direction. Hopefully, a bit of responsibility will do that. Now, I will see you tomorrow.”
He nods, waits for their mumbled replies, and then leaves, attention already returning to the letters he left on his desk. He thinks he has copies of the Mjölnir Mill's figures in his files, and going through them this evening will make him feel better about the case. There's never any harm in being prepared, after all.
He's taken five quiet steps down the corridor, when the noise from his apprentices' office starts up again, excited and boisterous as always. He grins, now that they can't see him. He'll turn them into the best legal team in the Nine Realms, even if he has to take them on trips to every known city just to get it done.
An unmarried woman of independent means is an unusual enough thing across all nine Realms. That same woman adopting three orphaned children of unknown descent would be even odder, frowned upon in many places. If the woman was incredibly rich and belonged to the upper classes, it just meant that the frowning would occur behind her back, and whispers would follow her wherever she went.
None of this, however, bothers Miss Peggy Carter.
Conventionally, of course, she is not a member of the highest echelons of society, her family having earned its wealth in trade. However, a history of distinguished service in the armed forces (her father, Captain Harrison Carter, had been awarded numerous medals for his sterling work and tireless defence in the face of enemies during more than one campaign in Muspelheim) set her family apart and demanded them respect from those who might otherwise have been their social superiors. For generations, the Carters had been growing apart from the traditional class system – fitting in with neither the middle or upper ranks of society. The Carters themselves never seemed to notice the oddity they had become amongst their peers, and simply grew more and more eccentric as time went on.
Peggy – forward-thinking, strong-willed, independent Peggy – is seen by many as the most eccentric of the lot.
(This is possibly something to do with the fact that she spent several years serving – unofficially – in the army under the direction of her father, and then promptly went on to become a foremost figure in the fight for women's rights; all while dabbling in investment, the textile business, and extensive travel and study. It also didn't help that when she returned from her longest trip, having spent almost three years hopping between Realms and doing who-knows-what, she had in tow three small boys, none of whom looked related to each other or to her. She then of course went about her business without a word of explanation to anyone, until those around her were finally forced to accept that the tiny terrors were there to stay.)
But regardless of how odd people (privately) think Peggy, it's nothing on the strange and slightly scary man who is her best friend.
“Peggy, Peggy, are you here? Look, I've worked it out! I've got the plans all here, and I just need the materials and I'll have a train flying in no--”
“Howard. What are you wearing?” Peggy sighs, rolls her eyes, and resignedly covers little Fandral's eyes. Hogun covers his own, the permanent stern expression on his face (that makes him look at least six times as old as he actually is) not wavering for a moment.
Howard pauses, blinks, and looks down at himself, standing arms akimbo in the entrance hall to the Carter manor house. Scratching at his jaw and absently registering the bristling stubble there, he doesn't entirely know what Peggy wants him to say.
“Uh, a shirt? And waistcoat?”
For almost a full minute, Peggy doesn't reply, wandering quite where her life went wrong that this has become the norm. Fandral peeks between her fingers and giggles.
“Yes, Howard, well noticed. You're wearing a shirt and a waistcoat – unbuttoned and rumpled, but you are wearing them. I was more concerned about the fact that you aren't wearing anything else.”
Howard blinks again, slowly, then nods. “Huh. You're right. But Peggy, you don't understand, I've made a scientific breakthrough, I just--”
“Go and put some trousers on. Or at least some underwear. No wonder the townspeople try to stay away from you,” she adds, ushering Hogun and Fandral further up the stairs so she can set them some reading for the day. “Unless you undressed on my porch especially to make your greeting all the more attention-grabbing – and I wouldn't put it past you – you must've come all the way from your house like that.”
Howard grins up at her, unapologetic. He does lower the plans and notes he had been waving around to cover his groin though.
“Sorry, dear. I did use the carriage this time, at least.”
“Oh, so it's only your own staff that you scarred for life, is it? I suppose that makes it all better.” Her voice echoes down from the landing above, distorted by the bizarre acoustics of the giant hall, but still clearly more amused than anything else. “There should still be some of your clothes in the drawing room, by the way.”
A few minutes later, Howard's dressed and standing in the doorway of the upstairs drawing room. Peggy's set up the space so that the boys can use it as a study area, each with their own little table and chair. He leans against the door jamb and can't help but smile at the sight of Peggy attempting to convince her children that they really do want to work. It's the same routine she goes through every day, and her eyes are laughing even as her voice stays firm and her hands gently push each of them towards their books.
Once they are all finally settled, she looks up at Howard and rolls her eyes again. He doesn't bother to smother his laugh.
“Morning, younglings,” he throws out, when they all look towards the source of the noise. Fandral grins and waves, Hogun nods at him, and Volstagg cheerily bounces in his seat and returns the greeting. “Mind if I borrow your ma?”
Each of the boys looks down at the books set in front of him, then across at his siblings. Then suddenly, Howard has three angelic, innocent faces staring up at him and as one, they chorus “Of course not.”
Fandral's giggle does ruin the effect somewhat, and even Hogun has a twinkle in his eye. Peggy sighs in mock exasperation.
“Fine, fine, I can see when I'm not wanted. That doesn't mean you're getting out of work – you're not going out to play with Síf until you've all read at least a chapter, and done a couple of writing exercises.”
A groan meets her words. She grins over their heads at Howard.
“Don't worry, my little warriors, you can fight each other to the death as much as you want later. But do you really think Síf will play with you if you can't read? Even Thor had lessons like this when he was younger, you know.”
There's a pause, and then an excited clatter as the boys throw themselves into working, picking up books and pencils with small, pudgy hands. Howard chuckles softly, and lets Peggy precede him out.
They walk in silence for a minute or so, Peggy cocking her head to the side, apparently focusing on the noises coming from the study, trying to make sure her sons were working. Eventually though, she turns to Howard and raises an eyebrow.
“So this is what you choose to dress yourself in? Don't you think it's a little over the top? I mean, you've gone from barely wearing anything to being dressed in your full finest.”
She's laughing at him, that laugh that you can only see if you know where to look for it, a subtle curve at the corner of her mouth. Howard smooths his waistcoat protectively, tugs at his cravat.
“Everything else in there was so old-fashioned, Peggy,” he whines, knowing he sounds like a spoiled brat and not really caring, “Some of the shirt cuts looked like they were two years old, for heaven's sake.”
This time, Peggy laughs out loud.
“Wait, wait, Peggy,” he interrupts, mind suddenly throwing up details he'd glossed over before, “before I dazzle you with my brilliance again--” Peggy rolls her eyes good-naturedly, “--who's Síf? I didn't know the boys had any close friends in town, and I don't think I've ever heard that name.”
Peggy peers at him, almost as though she's trying to see if he's joking. He runs a careful hand through his hair, checking it's still perfectly arranged, the silver bits at his temples still flat and sleek against his head. Her expression is making him feel like he's missed something important.
“Howard,” she begins, slowly, “when was the last time you went into town?”
He pauses, thinks about it.
“Last week, I think. I had to pick up some more ink, and I bought a couple of wheels and a hammer from the cartwright. They were far too big for my purposes, of course, but the closest I could get on short notice, and I was able to calculate the--”
“Yes, yes, Howard.” She waves her hand, waving away his words before he can get too far into a monologue about his experiments (which he does tend to do, he will admit). “But did you not notice – I suppose it's perfectly possible you wouldn't have met them, but surely even you would have realised the place was positively buzzing with gossip?”
Howard looks blank. “Isn't it always? It's an oversized country village in Midgard. Do people do anything but gossip? Why do you think I live so far outside it?”
Peggy sighs. “There's a newcomer in town, moved in a few weeks ago. He's living in the old house Natalie Rushman owns over on the hill the other side of town. His name is Loki Laufeyson, he moved here from Jotunheim, he's very rich, and he brought his daughter with him. Her name is Síf.”
Her eyebrows are practically at her hairline by now, and this time it's Howard who can't help rolling his eyes.
“That's the big gossip? The thing no one can stop talking about is that someone finally moved into that decrepit old mansion with its leaking roof? Why does anyone care?” He throws his arms in the air.
Peggy smiles, pats him on the shoulder as she moves off again, leading him to the kitchen.
Over her shoulder, she adds “I think it's less that he's new, and more that he's the only person in town who doesn't get on with Thor, actually. Thor gets grumpy at the mere mention of him.”
Her eyes are sparkling with mirth, and Howard lets himself laugh.
“Fair enough, I suppose. And now that I am fully up to date on all the latest news, can I tell you about my experiment? If I can just get permission from one of the railway owners...”
“Mr Barton, I really don't see how the exact nature of my relationship with Mr Laufeyson has any effect whatsoever on you.”
Making sure her back is turned, Natasha – no, Natalie Rushman, she has to keep thinking of herself as Natalie – smirks to herself, pretending to focus on rooting through the tiny, fashionable purse for her money. Behind her Clinton Barton, the younger brother of Thor Odinson (and while legally they share the same surname, when he came of age, Clint apparently chose to use that of his biological parents. Natas-- Natalie isn't entirely sure why), pouts slightly and dramatically clasps a hand to his heart.
“Mrs Rushman, your cold dismissal wounds me so. That after all these years you would deny the affection that we feel for one another, would turn away my faithful yearn--”
Natalie looks over her shoulder, rolls her eyes at him. “There was faithful yearning? And affection? And you are aware that I have barely been in Midgard for a twelve-month, let alone 'years'? Have you been hit really hard on the head recently?” Her voice is exceedingly dry, unimpressed, but she is well aware that Clint knows her enough to translate the small quirk of her mouth, the subtle tilt of her head.
Clint smirks right back, and Natalie almost forgets to turn back to the post office counter to pay for the letter she wants delivered.
“Fine, fine, I may have exaggerated somewhat. But only because of the jealousy that clouds my fevered mind, I assure you. So, come on, do tell. Who is dear Mr Laufeyson to you?”
Counting out a handful of coins for the clerk, Natalie smiles without realising it, softer than she would ever allow herself otherwise.
“Loki – Mr Laufeyson – is a very dear friend of mine. We met in Asgard, and belonged to the same social circle back in Jotunheim. There was a group of us, including Loki and his husband--”
Clint interrupts suddenly, apparently too shocked to hold onto his amused demeanour. “He was married to a man?”
Natalie freezes for a moment, then turns to face Clint fully, the skirts of her deep purple dress (a full-length one today, not bloomers or a half-skirt or anything else that might be more normal for her) rustling ominously. A real frown is settling on her face as she leans right into his personal space – far closer than is socially acceptable – and lowers her voice to a silkily menacing tone. “Is that a problem for you, Mr Barton?”
Clint holds up his hands, steps back, hastening to make amends. “No, no, Mrs Rushman, that was not what I meant! My apologies, I was merely surprised. I had assumed that little Síf was related to him, they look so alike, but if he had a husband then I assume she must be adopted.”
Natalie stares hard for a few more moments, examining his features for pretence or disgust. Clint, for his part, allows her, keeps his shoulders relaxed and his face open. This is not a game, after all.
Finally she nods, and returns to the counter – where the clerk is looking rather uncertain and a mite terrified. Clint smothers a laugh, not sure how far he can push Natalie right now.
“Síf does indeed look remarkably like both her fathers, yes, but that is not my story to tell. The point I was trying to make is that while Mr Laufeyson is dear to me, it is not because of any scandalous or amorous intentions on either of our parts. He stood by me during the difficult circumstances that brought me here, and has done ever since. Giving him somewhere to live-- I have red on my ledger, Mr Barton, and I want to wipe it out.”
There is a silence, but Natalie refuses to look away from the clerk, who is rummaging through the incoming post to check for letters for her. She isn't expecting anything particularly, but Clint has always been able to read her shockingly well, and she cannot turn round lest he read secrets he must not know.
Eventually, though, Clint responds, tone deceptively light. “Difficult circumstances – the death of your husband, I assume. The hunting accident.” He does not phrase it as a question, but there is a lilt in his voice that invites Natalie to nod silently, suddenly not quite trusting herself. Clint is apparently content to brush it off, however. “Whatever happened to Mr Laufeyson's husband? What did bring him here? There is an awful lot of speculation in town; I'm sure you understand my curiosity.”
Natalie gives in and turns to face him, a tiny smile on her face. Clint looks concerned; she doesn't realise how terribly sad she looks right now.
“It's ...complicated, Mr Barton. And again, not my business to tell you. I'm sorry. You could always ask your brother. He and Loki are just so close; Loki keeps telling me about all the times they've talked to each other in the street--” Her tone is becoming lighter with every word, a return to the playful banter of earlier.
Clint matches her perfectly. “Ah, but the relationship between my brother and Mr Laufeyson, it's such a private thing, I wouldn't like to intrude--”
“--the way they glare at each other with such force--”
“--mutter death threats when they think no one can hear them--”
“--spend the evenings thinking up more snide remarks to use on each other--”
“Excuse me, Mrs Rushman?” The timid voice comes from the clerk, a young boy with a mop of mousey hair and a bad case of acne. He's holding out a small letter, a note really, with nothing written on it other than 'N.R.' and 'Midgard'. A different hand, a neat script, has expanded on the curling green letters with 'N. Rushman, Midgard Residential District'.
A small frown creases Natalie's face, and when she takes the letter she traces the lurid green ink with one finger before turning it over and breaking it open. Clint wants to ask, but there are still boundaries, very firm ones, and he can't--
Natalie's already pale face turns alabaster white, and her hands clench in the paper.
“Nata-- Mrs Rushman?!” Clint dares to push a little, presses a hand between her shoulder-blades, support should she need it. “Are you quite all right?”
Somehow, he refrains from reading the letter over her shoulder, although he could swear that the accidental glimpse he catches before he can stop himself shows the name 'Natasha'.
Natalie pushes him away gently, although the tightness of her grip on his arm for just a moment is both a thanks and a warning. Clint wants to crowd her, shake her, find out what's blown her eyes so wide, what's got her crumpling the note in a fist and staring unseeingly out the door.
“Mrs Rushman, what is written in the letter? Who's it from? Please, Mrs Rush--”
“Mr Barton,” she interrupts, not even looking his way, voice firm with not even a hint of a tremor, “I'm afraid something urgent has come up. I really do have to go. Business to attend to, you know.”
And before Clint can object, before he can even say goodbye, she is gone. He spends a good minute standing in the doorway, distantly aware of the anxious clerk fluttering around inside the post office, watching her hurried progress up the street. He watches until she signals a passing hansom, climbs inside and is gone from view.
The mystery of Natalie Rushman just got that much more compelling.
The days after Clint returns from running various errands around town looking thoughtful and worried, after he brushes off Thor's concern and shuts himself in his rooms, are very strange.
Thor finds himself wondering quite what happened to his happily ordered life, and when it was pulled out from under him.
Mrs Rushman disappears completely, no explanation given. When pressed, Mr Laufeyson mutters something about “business that must be seen to” and “an emergency requiring her presence elsewhere,” but he looks unconvinced by his own assurances that she is fine, well, safe.
On both the times that Thor comes across him in the street – the second time, he even walks into him as he is stepping out of a hansom cab – Loki is the one to absently apologise and continue on his way.
It is enough to make Thor start to reconsider his opinions of Loki. It is not quite enough to make him wish for the old, arrogant, mocking Loki back.
Chapter 4: Carrying Two Days At Once
Of course, when Síf falls ill – a summer cold that quickly turns bad and has her bundled up in bed sniffling and hacking and hallucinating at the ceiling – and Mrs Rushman is still mysteriously missing, Thor cannot feel anything but a deep sympathy for Loki Laufeyson.
He wants to offer help, or at least condolences, but their rocky relationship doesn't leave him with any sure footing on which to stand. Instead, Thor watches from a distance, tries to make sure that the Laufeysons have everything they need, gets necessities delivered to them when Loki is too distracted to remember to buy food and such.
Clint, too, is conspicuous by his strange behaviour. His quietness is out of character, and where he used to lose himself in books about foreign lands, he is suddenly remarkably interested in the daily newspapers. Questions are brushed off with a wave of his hand, a brief smile, but the Mjölnir house, the Odinson household, has become a ghost of its former self.
Unfortunately, he does not have much time to spare on thinking about the Laufeyson problem, or even his own brother, because his mill's fortunes are failing more drastically with every passing day. Hours are filled poring over ledgers and employment lists with Fury, preparing for the arrival of his lawyers. Every day, Thor becomes more and more convinced that he has run his legacy into the ground, and that there is nothing he can do to save it.
He is getting quieter and more withdrawn as well, but he cannot see a way to avoid it. All he can try to do is to keep them all hovering at the edge of whatever abyss wants to draw them all in, and hope against hope that some solution to every problem will come before they run out of time.
Steve can't manage to hold back a gasp as they are shown into the Odinson's family house by an elderly butler. Even as he nods his thanks, he's more focused on staring wide-eyed at the arching ceiling, the grand staircase, the imposing wooden panelling. Surely 'house' is an understatement. And the amount of gold sparkling and shining everywhere is just mind-boggling.
Logically, he knows this is nothing compared to most of the buildings in Asgard – especially the homes in the Valhalla District – but it's not as if Steve is in the habit of paying house calls to the wealthiest elite of all the Nine Realms.
He and Bucky make do with a shared set of rooms – a bedroom each, a washroom, and what they laughingly call the drawing room – rented for six shillings a week, in one of the seedier side streets in Asgard.
Bucky nudges him, and gestures around them, and Steve can do nothing but nod back. He's pretty sure he's gaping just a little bit, but he really can't help it. At least Bucky's standing there with a stupid expression on his face as well (although, of course, this is Bucky, he can't help having a stupid expression on his face).
“Coulson, is that you?”
Steve laughs as Bucky jumps almost a foot in the air at the voice that suddenly booms down around them, echoing from around a corner. He's doing his best not to giggle nervously.
Coulson, unsurprisingly, is perfectly composed, and merely folds his hands behind his back, bows slightly.
“Mr Odinson, it's a pleasure to see you again, although I wish it could be in better circumstances.”
“As do I, as do I, Mr Coulson.”
The man who marched around the corner and is now vigorously shaking hands with Coulson, looking rather mournful, is huge. Steve doesn't think he's ever seen a man as big, not even Lord Baldur, the well-meaning eccentric who runs an orphanage a few streets away from SHIELD. There's a mane of blonde hair, unfashionably long but somehow it suits its owner perfectly. Steve dreads to think how much it must have cost to put together enough material to make the neatly pressed navy trousers and waistcoat with a subtle zigzag design picked out delicately in silver thread. His white shirt looks fine, if well-worn, and his pale grey cravat is clearly silk. Most bizarre though is the heavy red coat that is draped around his broad shoulders, small capes flowing down to around his elbows.
“Who exactly dresses like that?” Bucky mutters out of the corner of his mouth, polite smile never slipping from his face.
Steve represses the urge to shoot Bucky a disapproving frown, but does nudge him in the ribs when the man – Mr Odinson – gestures for them to follow him further into the house.
Soon enough, they're seated in a pleasant (and rather less opulent, thank goodness) living room, Bucky and Steve sharing a couch, and Coulson settled into a comfortable armchair. All of them are clasping how cups of tea, and Mr Odinson has thrown himself down onto the remaining chaise longue. He's abandoned his coat somewhere, but the smart blue and grey still looks horribly out of place against a pastel pink floral design. Steve is going to go ahead and assume that Mr Odinson wasn't responsible for the purchase of that particular piece of furniture.
“But I cannot let any workers go. I am their employer, and I cannot abandon them like that. I do not think myself above them!”
Odinson is giving them his version of the problems with the mill's finances. Steve and Bucky have pretty much resorted to nodding whilst staring around at this strange home and hoping they look like they're paying attention. Coulson is frowning softly.
“Mr Odinson, I understand that, and it is an admirable thought, but you are running a business. You have to consider that if you--” Mr Odinson tries to interrupt, but when Coulson holds up a hand with that expression on his face, even the bravest of men cower, “--if you run the business into the ground, then you will have failed them anyway. Then none of them will have anywhere to work.”
Mr Odinson looks so depressed that it tugs at Steve's heart.
“Of that, I am well aware, Coulson. But I do not know what to do.”
Anyone could tell that that last admission had cost him dear to voice out loud.
They are just reorientating themselves around a large round table, all the figures and ledgers and lists laid out in front of them, a map of loss and deficit on a huge scale, when there is a light knock on the open door.
All four of them turn to look, and a young man – also blond, but with his hair trimmed as short as Odinson's is long, and a friendly look on what might otherwise be a shrewd, calculating sort of face – is grinning at them.
“I see I'm late to the party, gentlemen. Clinton Barton Odinson, at your service, although I use Barton for everyday things.” He moves forward to shake either of them by the hand, and Steve is already running through what Coulson had told them in the carriage on the way here, about the Odinson family, and the cousin who had been raised as a ward there. This is Thor's younger brother then.
Introductions are done, and Steve has to quash the tiniest twinge of jealousy at the hearty handshake and broad grins shared by Bucky and Barton. He's never been able to do what Bucky does and just have people like him when he shoots them a smile, or tosses a wink in their direction.
“I have every faith that you good men will be able to help my brother get the mill back on its feet again. Now, is there anything I can do?” He rubs his hands together, almost bouncing on his feet like he doesn't want to stand still. Odinson is staring at him oddly, like this is unusual, but Barton just smiles warmly at his brother, nods, and it is as though a message has passed between them, one no one else can hear. Odinson returns the smile, and Steve wonders idly whether this is what it's like for people around him and Bucky. “I can see Thor's got you all fixed up with tea, and I'm afraid that's about where I stopped listening in our dear old mother's lessons on etiquette and such things.”
He wiggles his eyebrows, inviting them to share the joke, and Steve has just decided that he rather likes this fellow when there's another knock on the door – but the front door, this time.
Odinson and Barton look at each other quizzically, then Barton shrugs.
“Don't bother yourselves, I'll go greet our unexpected guest. You just focus on reading all those lovely numbers.”
He snorts as he leaves, clearly glad to be away from accounts and such like.
They spend the next few minutes going through the papers and organising them into piles according to relevance and urgency, and the frown on Odinson's face gets deeper and deeper, but their concentration is broken by Barton stepping into the room again, clearing his throat and looking-- nervous? Concerned?
Mr Odinson's expression turns from irritation to worry.
“Ah, Thor,” Barton begins, and glances behind him, looking uncomfortable, “Mr Laufeyson is here. He wants to ask a favour. Do you have a minute to spare, or should he come back later?”
Odinson looks positively shocked. Apparently the idea of this Laufeyson character either needing or asking for help was utterly unexpected.
“No, no, it's fine – it is fine, is it not, gentlemen?” At their slightly bewildered but obliging nods, he turns back to his brother. “Does he need to see me in private or--”
Barton doesn't get a chance to answer, as a soft, well-spoken voice interrupts. “Mr Odinson, I won't take a moment of your time. My apologies for calling while you are in a meeting, but the matter is most urgent, and--” he pauses, swallows, looks away, and Steve's heart goes out to him, “--and I did not know who else to ask.”
Loki glances at Thor, jittery and more upset than he wants to admit, and finds his gaze pinned by the depth of concern in Thor's big, blue eyes. He swallows again, compulsively.
“If there is anything that I might do for you at this difficult time, Mr Laufeyson, it shall be done. What, pray, is the problem?”
He sort of has to repress a hysterical giggle at Thor's outdated speech patterns. He can feel it bubbling up inside him, but he pushes it down, forces it away, and focuses on what is important. Now is not the time.
“The problem... My daughter, Síf, she-- she is getting worse, Mr Odinson. I don't know what to do. The town doctor, helpful as he has been, has run out of ideas. I need to go to the city – Jotunheim, or Asgard, I don't know which – and find a doctor who can help her. She is--” Loki curses inwardly as his voice breaks, but his heart isn't really in it, “Síf is everything to me, Mr Odinson.”
Thor steps towards him, and again the hysteria bubbles up. He doesn't think he can take physical comfort right now, not with his daughter at home, watched over by the elderly doctor with his crinkled and pitying face, screaming and thrashing and sobbing silently because she has already worn her voice out with pleas to make it stop, daddy, make it go away, I don't like it, please, daddy.
Luckily though, Thor stops just out of reach and hovers awkwardly. Loki isn't really paying attention to the other people in the room, but he knows they're staring at him; he knows how awful he looks, with black and red rings around his eyes, from lack of sleep and tears he can't stop, and his hair unkempt. He's pretty sure he's slept in this same set of clothes at least twice. But really, what does any of that matter now?
“You have my deepest condolences, Mr Laufeyson,” Thor replies, after a few moments' silence, cautious and clearly tiptoeing around a man with whom all his interactions have been unpredictable and bad-tempered at best. “I would gladly do anything in my power to help. Do you need transport? There is the carriage in the--”
“No! No.” This time Loki cannot stop the dry laugh, and by the gods, he sounds awful. Not to mention just a little bit insane. “No, Mr Odinson, my request is not for me, it's for my daughter. Síf, she-- I need to know that someone is looking after her while I'm gone, someone who will do their best by her. If Nata-- Natalie were here, I would ask her. But she isn't, and I do not know who else to ask.”
Thor frowns, and Loki wonders what he's missed. He happens to catch sight of the two men on the couch out of the corner of his eye; both look sympathetically up at him, and heavens, that one looks like he's in pain himself. Somewhere in the corner of his mind, Loki snorts derisively at anyone getting so involved in other people's problems – people the boy doesn't even know, at that. But mostly, he's just a little bit thankful that others do care, because at least he's not the only one being ripped into little bits by all this.
“What are you looking at me like that for?” he snaps, glaring at Thor again. This is more normal, admittedly, but it feels wrong right now, and gods, Loki wants to sleep.
Thor shakes his head slowly. “Did you not ask the Lady Peggy? She is acquainted well enough with your daughter, and she has three children of her own. They are Síf's friends.”
Loki is taken aback enough that he actually falters, half stepping away from Thor. What? Síf has friends here? He wasn't aware-- oh, Natasha had mentioned something about introducing Síf to new people, and how she'd ducked three boys in the mud at the bottom of the garden. He clears his throat awkwardly.
“I think Natalie mentioned something about a Peggy Carter? I never met her myself. She has a manor a mile or so out of town, doesn't she? Is she noble then?”
Barton jumps in with confirmation. “Yes, Peggy will look after Síf. She's not a noble herself, Thor just refers to people that way. I can get our driver to take you home and then to Peggy's with Síf, if you like.”
Loki pauses, slightly blind-sided by the fact that a solution has apparently been found so easily. Then he nods, astonished to feel a small smile – a genuine one – creeping across his face. He bows deeply in Thor's direction, thankful enough to push aside the arrogant persona he likes to revel in.
“Mr Odinson, Mr Barton,” he inclines his head in the younger brother's direction, “I am forever in your debt. The loan of your carriage would be most appreciated, if it's not inconvenient.”
“Of course, of course,” Thor replies, waving the words away and suddenly taking Loki's elbow. “It is not a problem. Come, I will see you out.”
And before he can do anything about it, Loki is being steered back to the front of the house, and pulled round to where a small but neat and well-kept carriage is stabled. Thor calls out to the driver, and soon the horses are ready, and Barton is talking to the driver, and Thor is opening the door for Loki – and he still hasn't let go of his elbow.
Loki smiles again, soft and rather touched at the concern, and shakes him off gently.
As he swings up into the carriage and shuts the door behind him, he makes sure to look straight at the blonde giant standing awkwardly, clearly still worried and wanting to help, and doff an imaginary hat.
“Thank you, Thor Odinson.”
He quickly forgets the surprised and immediate grin he earned in the face of his worry for his daughter and the planning of his journey, but the warmth curling around his belly is still there even as he kisses Síf's forehead and tucks her into a clean spare bed, even as he thanks Peggy profusely, tugs on his coat and settles himself into the carriage once more, heading this time for the station.
Chapter 5: The Knowledge Never Quite Fits The Sight
The only time on his whole journey to Asgard (safer than Jotunheim, even if it's more expensive) that Loki stops staring moodily into space and wishing he was back with his little girl is a rather surreal experience at the Midgard railway station.
He's standing there, hunched against the drizzle that's just started flecking damp spots all over his expensive woollen coat, and he's waiting for this train to leave so that the one he needs can pull into the station.
Of course, he's not seeing trains, but Síf's face, flushed and sweaty, pressed against her pillows as her forehead wrinkles, little hands making fists of bedclothes as protection against horrible fever dreams.
Then suddenly, he's being pulled out of his musings by shouts from down the platform. An idle glance to his right shows two men looking to be about two seconds from a fistfight, red in the face and yelling at each other for all they're worth. He sighs, and is shifting, bored and scared, when something about the scene filters through to his conscious mind.
His head snaps up.
The man with his back to him, he's just a generic station guard, and Loki has no interest. But the man facing his way, gesturing wildly and waving around a spanner, of all things, holds his attention. He must be in his late forties or early fifties, at least twenty years older than Loki himself, and there are streaks of silver at his temples, bright against his sleek, elegantly coiffed black hair. He's dressed well, fashion more up to date than anything else Loki has seen in this town, and his moustache is neatly trimmed even as it is also flecked with silver.
More importantly, he's the spitting image of a slightly older Anthony Edward Stark.
When Natasha – and she's too tired to stop thinking of herself that way – returns to Midgard, the first thing she does is go to visit Loki and Síf. It's the middle of the night, and she really should just go home to bed, but she needs to talk to someone about the mess her life has become.
But of course, there's no one there. The maid nervously answers the door, and is relieved to be able to tell her that the young mistress was taken ill, and where she might be found now.
Now more worried than scared, Natasha makes her way to the Carter manor, getting a ride in a hansom, staring out at the night as the seat bucks forwards and backwards as they clatter loudly over the cobbled streets.
Luckily, Natasha has been friends with Peggy from the first week she arrived in Midgard, so when the butler opens the door to see Natasha, exhausted and shivering slightly in the damp night air, he ushers her in without a word, and fetches Peggy as soon as she's curled up on a chair in the living room.
Natasha doesn't remember much more about that night. She knows that Peggy gently showed her upstairs, and that she sat on Síf's bed and brushed sweaty hair back from her forehead, and she assumes that Peggy gave her one of the other guest rooms, because the next thing she knows for certain is waking up in a sinfully soft – if entirely unfamiliar – bed, with noontime sunlight streaming onto her face.
Natasha – now Natalie again – spends the next two days imposing on Peggy's endless hospitality, puttering around the big house, and hovering near Síf's door. It didn't take long until she'd slept off her horrendously long train ride – the journey that had taken her across four of the Nine Realms in one continuous trip, with Natalie unable to rest for the better part of two days.
Of course, feeling herself again meant fending off questions from Peggy about where she'd been, and what she'd been doing with answers that got increasingly vague, but Peggy was exceedingly good at reading Natalie's twitches and knowing when to leave things be.
The rest of Natalie's time was divided between playing with the boys – who loved how Natalie was always willing to pursue them as they clambered up trees and ran through puddles – and worrying about Loki.
Come the fourth day of her stay at Peggy's, however, who should start knocking ferociously on the door but Barton. His face when he stormed out, already two steps ahead of the unimpressed butler, into the garden where Peggy and Natalie were enjoying a spot of afternoon tea and a chat was quietly furious, and Natalie quickly set down her cup and saucer and suggested a walk through the rose arbour.
Peggy's expression was a touch concerned, but mostly amused. Natalie rolled her eyes.
“Where have you been?” Clint explodes, the second they are out of sight. It is a very controlled explosion, admittedly – his voice deceptively calm and tone clearly reined in. But his eyes are flashing, and Natalie feels obscurely guilty, knowing he was worried for her.
“Mr Barton,” she begins, hedging and wondering how much she could get away with, “I'm sure Mr Laufeyson must have informed you that I was away on business. The letter--”
“The letter terrified you!” he snaps, not quite looking at her. “Don't think you can 'Mr Barton' me this time, Mrs Rushman. Natalie. I'm pretty sure we're past that point, and I want to know what's really going on with you.” His voice is quiet, deadly, as he finishes, and his free hand – the one not politely providing support as they walk – is repeatedly clenching and unclenching, white around the knuckles.
Natalie stares at it, rather than his face, for a moment, then raises her eyes to stare at him, impassive, for a minute. Neither talks. Then she starts to smile, rueful and shrugging. This has been coming for a while, and there doesn't seem much point in trying to get out of it now.
“Very well, Clint. You want the truth, so the truth you shall have.”
She looks down at her feet as she steps over a loose paving stone, and internally girds herself. She's fairly sure – well, all but certain, really – she knows how he will react, but that doesn't matter to the nagging doubt at the back of her mind, the one that is convinced that in a few short minutes she will be incarcerated for life, being shipped off to Asgard and Romanoff.
Taking one last deep breath, she raises her head and pins him with her gaze. His eyebrows lower slightly, but he doesn't flinch.
“My name is Natasha Banner. I was engaged to a man by the name of Alexi Romanoff, an important noble with an estate in Asgard, as well as several other realms. After several months, I came to realise that my husband-to-be was stealing secrets from my father, who is a moderately important official in the Diplomatic Service of Jotunheim. He was using whatever small secrets and influence he could get from my father, who remains completely in the dark, to worm his way into the higher corridors of power. I don't know whether he had a specific goal, or whether he was simply hungry for any sort of authority he could find, but there was clearly no other reason for his attempts to court me. I used my position as his fiancée – exploiting the fact that as a woman, I clearly could not be capable of secrecy and sabotage – to trace his operations. I know for a fact that he was not working alone, but before I could find out much more, I was detected. I wrote a note to my brother, and escaped before he could catch me. My disappearance was used to frame me, pin me, in my absence, with his crimes. But I made it to Midgard, changed my name, and have been here ever since. If I return – if Romanoff finds me – the best thing that could happen to me is imprisonment for life. I'd be convicted of treason.”
Natasha cannot bring herself to look at Clint by the time she's finished, and she lets a sad smile grace her face as she stares, unseeing, at the beautiful roses around them. Clint stopped walking when she began to talk and, still a few steps behind her, he does not move an inch. Processing.
A minute passes, then another.
But finally, after what feels like an age to Natasha – refusing to tangle her hands in her dress, to let her shoulders droop, to show any outward sign of discomfort – there is a hand on her shoulder, squeezing tightly just once.
“Natasha,” Clint says, rolling the name around his mouth, tasting it, trying out the feel of it. “Natasha. It suits you.”
Before she can stop herself, she's snapping her head around, cocking a perfectly plucked eyebrow, and retorting, the amusement heavy in her voice. “Really, Mr Barton? I'm so terribly flattered that you think the name I've carried for over twenty years suits me.”
He looks at her, doesn't reply, and he may not be tall but he has a few inches on her. A few seconds pass, and then Natasha's brain catches up with her mouth, and she remembers to feel wary, can't help but tense under the warmth of his palm where it still rests on her shoulder. A slow, intimate smile curls its way across his face, breathes and settles.
Natasha's breath catches in her throat, but she smiles back, lets herself relax as she leans in ever so slightly.
“Tony, Tony, I have news!”
As he looks up from his plans, maps, a couple of scribbled notes, Bruce rushes in, a broad smile – all his teeth showing – jarringly out of place with his generally calm nature. Pepper stands up behind him, her dress rustling softly as she moves to Tony's side.
“Bruce?” Tony's voice is rough, and he has to clear his throat more than once just to get that single word out. “What is it? Have you found them?”
He starts to cough, and thumps himself in the middle of his chest, trying to ignore the way the world spins as he struggles to breathe evenly. Pepper's hand in the middle of his back, petite and gentle, is a comfort that he wants to both revel in and throw off.
Bruce, of course, frowns and moves over, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it into Tony's hand. Waving it in thanks that he is unable to say out loud, he catches a brief glimpse of the elegant initials – N.B. - stitched into the corner of the silk square, just before he slaps it over his mouth and tightly shuts his eyes against the tears that are trying to fall.
Eventually, the hacking dies down, and Tony is able to breathe again. Pepper carefully unbends him from where he is leaning heavily over his own desk, and with Bruce's help, guides him back to sink into the hideously comfortable sofa on the other side of the room. He sighs, winces against the burn in the back of his throat, and lets himself collapse against the back of the chair, eyes falling closed again. Pepper tucks herself in next to him, one hand on his knee and the other softly laid over his forehead. Unthinking, he nuzzles into the faint pressure, can see Pepper's rare but incredibly sweet smile without even opening his eyes.
Bruce 'hmm's softly somewhere above Tony and to his left, and shuffles his feet for a moment.
“Tony, you need to let me examine you. You're not well. Rhodes told me about the time you had bronchitis as a child, and how it's recurred a few times since. If it's that, then it needs treating as soon as possible.”
Tony frowns, but doesn't open his eyes. “Traitor,” he mumbles, mentally glaring at an imaginary Rhodes. “And you're not my doctor.”
There's a pause, and Bruce sighs. “I'm not asking as your doctor, Tony. I'm asking as your friend – your friend who happens to be studying to be a doctor. Please?”
Tony feels hot, too hot, and he wants to push Pepper away, except then the hand massaging his temples would go away, and that would be unacceptable.
“Fine, fine,” he snaps, swallowing down the urge to cough again. “You can examine me later, but right now I want to hear whatever news brought you running in here like a child on Christmas morning.”
His heart clenches a little at the sudden and unexpected image of Síf's excited face as she tumbled downstairs to tug her bright green and red striped stocking off the fireplace, hair a mess and talking too fast to be understood. Loki had laughed, loose and free, and picked her up to swing her around his head before she could dive right into unwrapping the small gifts tucked inside the large sock. Tony had stood back, watched and smiled fondly, heart beating all the faster for their delight in the season. Of course, then he'd jumped in, tickled Síf until she went red in the face, and then they'd somehow ended up in a pillow fight, the two fathers pursuing their tiny daughter around the house.
But that was over two years ago, and it's unlikely it'll ever happen again, considering present events.
He focuses instead on Bruce's warm, slightly gravelly voice, lulling his sore muscles into loosening. Bruce really would be an excellent doctor one day, whatever his father thought of his son working for a living.
“Ah, yes, sorry. This morning, I received a telegram from a friend in Asgard, one of my fellow students. He was at the club – all those of us studying medicine tend to frequent the same one – not three days ago, and Loki was there!” Tony's eyes snap open, fix on Bruce, who is nodding earnestly. Even Pepper is suddenly still. “It was only for a moment, and he does not know Loki well – but there are few who do not recognise either of the Lords Stark-Laufeyson on sight. Apparently, he was requesting the services of a professional.”
Tony sits up, pushes Pepper away so he can stand. He has to be upright, has to do something.
“Where is he? Why does he need a doctor? Is he ill? I'll get the carriage readied. We can be in Asgard before dawn tomorrow.”
Bruce lays a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder, pushes him back down onto the couch. “I have already started enquiries. My friend did not say much – he was more wondering at the fact that Loki was in Asgard, and asking whether all was well – but I do know that the doctor he sought was not for him. Apparently, it is his daughter who is ill, and she requires better care than that of a country doctor.”
His eyes are large and apologetic, the colour of the warm chocolate they serve in some of the most elitist bars in Asgard. Pepper takes Tony's arm, and he knows her well enough that she is staring at him in sympathy and worry.
For himself, Tony is positive his heart just stopped.
Síf is ill. His baby girl is ill, badly so, and he has to get to her.
“Tell me you've found her. Tell me you know where they are.” His voice is harsh, he knows it, but he does not care enough to moderate it.
Bruce rubs his eyes, and distantly Tony notes how tired Bruce looks. But now is not the time. “I'm using my connections in the club to find out who he hired, and where they went. I'll know in a couple of days at the latest, probably tomorrow – I marked this as an emergency.”
Tony nods, swallows.
“She'll be all right, Tony,” murmurs Pepper, stroking his hair back from his forehead. “Come now, let Bruce examine you. As soon as we know where they are, we will go to them, but you need to be well for that.”
The relief that floods him when the doctor assures him that Síf will be fine, that it was just a moderately serious case of bronchitis, that she will recover in a week or so, is even more crippling than the terror which had fuelled him ever since he left her with Peggy. Loki cannot do anything but let his body collapse into the chair facing Síf's bed and stare at her, take in the sight of his precious little girl blinking blearily at the rotund old man running a damp cloth over her forehead.
A hand strokes over his hair, Natasha close at his side and just as relieved as he is, and his hands start to shake.
Peggy peers around the door, shares a look with Natasha, and then shoots him a blinding grin, quickly taking another one of the chairs scattered around the rather crowded room. Following her closely, quiet more from nerves and the oppressive atmosphere than any real understanding of the situation, are her own three children, boys clinging to their mother's dress and peering with interest at the bed and Síf.
The shudders have spread to the rest of his body now, and he is still staring at Síf, feeling inexplicable tears gathering at the corners of his eyes.
Of course, this is the point at which there is a soft, perfunctory knock at the open door, and Thor Odinson ducks in.
Thor had mysteriously appeared on Peggy's porch less than half an hour after Loki arrived back in Midgard, concerned and darting strange looks at Loki that he was too exhausted to decipher. According to Peggy and Natasha, Thor had visited more than once while he was away, hovering impotently around the doorway of Síf's room. Loki didn't really understand what was going on there, what bizarre and noble obligation he felt he was fulfilling, but he was too thankful that so many people had been there for Síf to really worry.
In fact, Loki notices when he finally tears his gaze away from his daughter, trying to discreetly wipe his wet cheeks, Thor is staring at him again. His expression is even more indecipherable than usual, but there is a softness to it that seems to be the final straw for Loki's overwrought emotions.
As the doctor starts to pack away his instruments, Loki crumples, folds forward and pressed his hands to his face. He cannot stop the tremors running through his body, and isn't sure whether he's managing to stifle the dry sobs he can feel clawing at his chest.
He can feel the room emptying around him, but he can't sit up yet. A hand – presumably Natasha's – caresses his back just once as she passes, but other than that, everyone is silent, stepping around him and giving him the space he needs to breathe, work out his feelings, revel in the fact that his daughter's going to be perfectly all right.
Loki finally manages to push himself up, breathing hard but gathering his control once more, rubbing an almost steady hand over his face. He's just debating the merits of a bath versus going straight to bed, he's so exhausted, when all such thoughts are driven from his mind by a croaky “Daddy?” from the bed.
Immediately he's moving, automatically pitching his voice at a low purr, tenderly brushing fingertips against Síf's clammy face. He leans down, kisses her cheek, smiles as she struggles to keep her eyes open, and privately tries not to start crying again.
“Hush, darling. I'm here, and you're going to be all right. Go back to sleep. I'll still be here when you wake up.”
And he is. He stays while she falls asleep, settles himself on the other side of the four poster, propped up against ridiculously soft pillows and reaching out every few minutes to brush her arm, her hair, her little hand where it lies limp on the blanket. He stays through the murmurs of bad dreams, whispers nonsense words until Síf settles again, and he is still there when she blinks her eyes open as the mid-morning sun shines through the cracks in the curtains.
He is still there when she rolls over, not quite awake yet, and smiles up at him, cuddles into his thigh, and lets her eyes close again.
It is only then that Loki lets his own breathing slow, lets his head falls back and his eyes close, the siren-call of sleep finally taking hold.
Thor makes polite conversation with Peggy and Mrs Rushman for an hour or so, until obligation drives him back to the mill and the piles of debt notices and investment agreements waiting on his desk. The fact that he was having difficulty restraining himself from going back into the sickroom and tugging Loki to his chest until he stopped looking so wretched was nothing to do with needing to get away. It isn't even remotely related.
But regardless of what he told himself, Thor was still sitting at his desk, paperwork untouched, and staring into space with a broad grin on his face when Clint walked in.
“Thor, I didn't realise you were back! How was the young Miss Laufeyson? And her father, is he coping any better than when he was here last?” Clint pauses, as though he was about to continue, but has thought better of it.
Dragging himself out of a daydream – one that he is not planning to share with anyone, thank you very much – Thor blinks at his brother. “Hmmm?”
Clint is silent for a moment longer, then slowly raises both his eyebrows, an expression of surprised amusement lurking behind his eyes.
“Mr Laufeyson's doing that well, is he? Well, I suppose I should be glad. With a noble, handsome, rich man like that to support you, I can run off and travel the world sooner than I thought.”
His tone is teasing, laughter bubbling up behind it, and Thor can only stare for a few seconds. Clint thinks-- what?! Then he flushes so fast that it's a wonder he doesn't steam at the ears, and he leaps to his feet.
“Brother--? What? I am not--!”
Clint gives in, and folds himself nearly in half, cackling all the while.
Whatever his reaction to Clint's insinuations, Thor and Loki seem to take the time while Síf is recovering to start again, to wipe the slate clean.
It's really sort of adorable, Bucky supposes, watching the two men bicker good-naturedly outside the tailor's as Odinson apparently tries to convince Laufeyson to break away from his preference for dark colours, particularly green, and get a wine-red shirt. The attempt doesn't seem to be going very well, but both are half-smiling, and even from the other side of the road he can hear the occasional burst of laughter.
In fact, Bucky is more tempted to call it sickening, and he rolls his eyes. Wondering how long Steve can spend in a bookstore, he digs in his jacket for the small tin of cigarettes he had tucked inside it before they left the house. Strictly speaking, he should wait until after dinner, in private, and don a smoking jacket before lighting up – but Bucky comes from a family that was barely above working class, and the only non-necessity his father bought while he was growing up was cigarettes (and a cigar each Christmas Day). He'd smoked them wherever, whenever, and never let anyone tell him otherwise, and it's not really a surprise if Bucky learned from him, is it. It's a habit by now, anyway.
“Bucky, couldn't you wait until we were at least off the main street?” Steve sighs as he steps out next to Bucky, who shoots him a wicked grin around the cigarette tucked between his teeth, and obnoxiously puffs a little cloud of smoke into his face.
Waving it away and mock-glaring, Steve rolls his eyes, and grabs Bucky's sleeve, tugging him along until they can turn down a narrow side-street that heads out to the fields around town. Bucky likes to tell himself that he lets Steve pull him around because they're best friends, but if he's honest, he knows that were Steve to really try, Bucky wouldn't be able to break his hold. Steve's still used to being tiny, the runt of their street, and he tends to forget that he's now taller and stronger than most people they know. Admittedly, it's unusual to have a growth spurt when you're already twenty-five, but you'd think the height difference might be a bit of a signal.
Bucky chuckles though, and easily tugs his arm back from Steve, who isn't trying to hold him in place. It's still strange, seeing him fill out the buttoned-down, pinstriped brown-and-cream waistcoat, seeing the muscles in his arms shift underneath the soft blue shirt. It's warm today, and Steve's jacket is swung over his shoulder, held in one hand, hair ruffled by some slight breeze.
If this Peggy Carter that Steve keeps talking about – some rich, single dame Steve had bumped into on one of his morning runs – is really interested in him (which wouldn't surprise Bucky), she had better know just how lucky she is. That's all Bucky can say.
He grins at Steve, and drags pointedly at his cigarette, blowing smoky swirls into the air over their heads.
“So, what were you buying that it took you so long? Some sort of exotic picture book?” He winks at Steve, just waiting for the embarrassment to kick in.
“Exotic pic--?” Bucky can see the cogs turning behind Steve's eyes, and the flash when he catches up will never not be funny. “Bucky! You can't say things like that!”
He's blushing, and shifting side to side, and Bucky takes pity on him, hums in what could be agreement or apology, and is in fact neither.
“Fine, fine. But what was it? A gift for your lady love?”
Steve doesn't blush this time – which is a sure sign that he's serious. Then again, when is Steve not serious? He's always been the earnest little kid in the front row of class, wanting to help everyone with their homework even when he doesn't understand it himself. Steve just ducks his head, and he has this twitchy little smile, like he can't not, and Bucky is so happy for him, really he is.
“Ah. A book of sonnets to win her heart, then?”
Steve kicks him in the shin, but he laughs. “No, a book of flags. She was saying that she wants to teach the boys about the rest of the world, but that it's hard when all you've got is a map. I thought it might help.”
Adorable. Thor and Loki's awkward dancing around each other has nothing on Steve Rogers finally falling in love. (And Bucky has no doubt it's love, because this is Steve).
He grins warmly, lets his jokes slide for a moment. “I'm sure she'll love it, Steve. I'd just better meet her before she proposes, all right?”
Steve snorts, and smacks him on the arm, but doesn't argue. Bucky's own grin widens.
The pair of them turn back to where the street meets the main road, only to see Mr Laufeyson standing there. He inclines his head slightly when they look at him, doffs his tall top hat.
Personally, Bucky thinks his smile is a little too cocky, eyes a little too dark and secretive, but Steve always did see the best in people, and his face is open and happy as he returns the greeting.
“And Mr Barnes, of course.” Bucky nods in reply. He doesn't dislike Laufeyson, he's just cautious about him. He's got a way with words that could have you agreeing to things without thinking about it. “I was wondering if I could have a word with Mr Rogers? But if you're busy, do feel free to call at the house later.”
Steve looks uncertainly at Bucky, a question in his eyes. Bucky shrugs; he can amuse himself for an afternoon. There's a pretty girl he's seen passing the library every so often with piles of books in her arms – Jane Foster, she introduced herself as, and she's a little distant and has a slightly disturbing obsession with astronomy, but it's an avenue to explore.
So Steve nods, turns back to Laufeyson, and lets himself be led away. Bucky idles for a while on the corner, watching their progress towards Laufeyson's home, the pair of them already leaning together, clearly focused on whatever it is they're talking about.
The cigarette burns out, and Bucky is about to move on when he hears a voice behind him, a voice that is clearly trying not to be heard. Instinctively, he inches closer without turning around, letting the wall block him from sight.
“'Tasha, please, listen to me. You know you have to do something, and running away worked well enough for you this time, didn't it?”
“Clint,” hisses a woman's voice, confirming Bucky's identification of her companion, “I can't drag you into this. It is not your place, it's not your fight. You have a real life here--”
“So do you,” Barton replies, tone firm, even aggressive. “Natasha, if I want to come with you--”
“Do you even realise the scandal that would cause? An unmarried man and woman running off together would be bad enough, but when people realised that she was wanted by the law--”
“We could disguise it! Thor knows I've been planning to travel for years, and we can leave at different times--”
Bucky leans closer to the corner of the wall as the woman lowers her voice. She sounds familiar, but not enough for him to recognise her instantly, and he doesn't think he's been introduced to anyone named Natasha.
“So you would leave your brother to deal with a failing business, no other avenues open to him!”
There is rush of indrawn breath, and then Clint's voice goes low and angry. Bucky leans a little closer still, hoping no one tries to talk to him.
“And you running away, will that not expose Laufeyson to scandal? It could even bring his own secret to light. Do not accuse me of abandoning those I care about, Mrs Rushman.”
Bucky's eyes widen as everything clicks into place. And that is, of course, when he shifts slightly, his foot slips on a loose paving slab, and he staggers sideways into view.
For a moment, they all stare at each other, eyes wide like rabbits looking up the barrel of a gun.
Then Mrs Rushman – or rather, Natasha – attempts damage control.
“Mr Barnes, I didn't see you there. Are you with Mr Rogers then, or are you--”
Bucky clears his throat, tries to look a bit more sure of himself.
“Ma'am, I'm a lawyer. I have access to all the records I want. I think – uh, I think you should let me know what this little tryst is all about, because I'm pretty sure I've heard enough to upset a lot of people.”
Clint frowns, but Natasha laughs. “Mr Barnes, are you trying to threaten me?”
Bucky is a little confused. “No, ma'am. I meant, uh, I'm a lawyer and by the sound of it, you're having problems with the law. I could ...offer advice or something?”
There's a brief pause, during which Natasha and Clint eye him doubtfully. Bucky wilts a little.
“All right, all right, I admit it. I'm bored, I want to be back in the city, and if your little drama is the closest I can get to excitement around here, then I want in.”
He rolls his eyes, but Clint is suddenly grinning, and Natasha looks just as amused.
“Very well, Mr Barnes. But first, promise me that you will keep this secret.”
Bucky is about to nod, give his word, when there is suddenly a wordless exclamation from Clint, who is staring into the middle distance like he's just had an epiphany.
“That damned Jotun bastard! He fixed this-- Laufeyson's been trying to convince you to go to a lawyer for days.” Clint crows with happiness. “I knew he'd find a way to get you to do something sensible. Barnes, you had better be as good as Coulson says you are.”
Bucky starts to wonder quite what he's got himself into, but can't resist leaning in and promising to take everything he hears to the grave if he has to.
Chapter 6: The Mystery Lies in the Distance In Between
On any normal day, Thor would dress quickly, not especially worried about which clothes he ended up wearing – because, without any particular arrogance, he knew that he could make anything he owned look good. He might spend slightly longer on his hair, but in general, he was pretty efficient.
But this morning had not been a normal one. Thor had spent over an hour putting together the perfect outfit – one that brought out his blue eyes, and made his hair seem even more golden than normal. Red was highlighted with silver and gold, and a deep blue cravat and summer coat set off the whole ensemble. His hair was brushed until it shone, and he'd even tied it back neatly, because he'd been told once that it brought out his cheekbones.
Nevertheless, right now, hovering outside the door of the Laufeysons' home and bouncing on the balls of his feet, Thor feels like all the nice clothes in the world couldn't keep Loki from throwing him out the house once he hears what Thor has to say.
Somehow, though, Thor finds the courage to knock, plants his feet wide and sets his shoulders, feeling more like he is about to go into battle rather than pay a visit to a man he can now happily call friend.
The maid – the only staff Loki appears to have brought with him from Jotunheim – answers the door, blushes, and drops a curtsey. “Mr Odinson,” she mutters, head bowed, before scuttling off to find her master.
Waiting in the hallway, peering curiously at the various knick-knacks displayed on various surfaces (particularly the strange blue stone, carved into a cube and filled with tiny tracks of white that look like lightning across a summer sky), Thor listens intently, waiting for the sharp, clipped footsteps that are so distinctively those of Mr Loki Laufeyson.
And then Loki arrives, and Thor has to remember to breathe. He's so focused on his own purpose – the reason for this morning's visit – that he fails to notice the tenseness around Loki's eyes, the hard set of his mouth, the way his fingers are constantly twisting, moving.
“Mr Odinson,” Loki greets, holding his hand out to be shaken and giving a small but welcoming smile, “I was not expecting you this morning. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Thor grips Loki's hand tight, and fears his own expression may be overly bright; he feels on edge, too sharp and keen, like something's wrong, wrong, wrong. “Mr Laufeyson. Loki. I will not lie to you. I am here for-- for a purpose, and it is one that is quite terrifying to me.”
Loki frowns, and he seems like he's suddenly less distant as he leans in, places a slim hand on the bulk of Thor's arm. “Thor, what is it? Do you have a problem? I will help in any way I can, of course, but since you will not let me assist you with the mill--”
“I do not want your money!” Thor exclaims, and then feels sheepish. “Sorry, I-- I feel strange, and I must speak my mind to you. Might we move to another room, my friend?”
Still obviously troubled, but acquiescing, Loki leads Thor through to a sunny, cozy little room, elegantly, if a little eclectically, furnished. There are a couple of cracks in the ceiling, and a bucket is stood underneath the one that runs right into the far corner of the room, but it seems the Laufeysons have been busy making the run-down old house habitable again. Thor grins. The not-quite-perfect room is sort of the opposite to what he would expect from Loki – and yes, Loki's nose wrinkles slightly, just the way his daughter's does, as he looks around.
“Have a seat, Thor. They may be horribly out of fashion, but they're clean and functional,” he adds, gesturing at the rather imposing armchairs tucked in by the fireplace.
“No matter, it is a very pleasant room. Homey.” He only says it to see Loki's face, and yes, there is a flicker of disgust as he gingerly sits down opposite Thor, apparently not even very willing to touch the furniture that so offends his sensibilities.
There is a pause, and then of course, they pass the usual and socially necessary pleasantries. Thor turns down the offer of a drink, and Loki is dismissive of the early summer weather they've been having this past week. Thor inquires after Síf, and Loki's expression turns positively doting when he tells him that she is so much better, and currently visiting the Carters – with the express order to stay bundled up and away from any large expanses of water. Then, inevitably, the conversation works its way back round to Thor and his reasons for visiting, and suddenly they're sitting there in silence again while Thor desperately tries to come up with something to say while willing down the blush he can feel creeping up the back of his neck.
“Uh, I have been thinking recently--”
“Did it hurt?” When Thor shoots him a look, Loki's face is so very innocent that Thor can't help but laugh, and all of a sudden the tension is seeping away. Loki seems pleased.
“No, now listen. I have been thinking recently about us, and about our friendship,” Thor begins, leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees, meeting Loki's bemused gaze with purpose.
“Yes?” Loki prompts, when Thor is silent too long. His heart leaps when Loki doesn't try to deny their bond.
He clears his throat. “I have been thinking that-- that I do not like us as we are now.”
Loki's eyes widen in astonishment. “You... You came here to inform me that you want to go back to bickering like children whenever we bump into each other?”
Thor blinks, thinks it through, then laughs. “Ah, no, my apologies. I have been unclear. I meant that I wished for our relationship to move the other way. To become ...more intimate.”
He cannot stop the quaver of uncertainty in his voice as he explains himself. He has no idea how you are meant to go about this – no doubt Clint would laugh in his face if he saw the mess he was making.
Loki, on the other hand, looks gobsmacked. His jaw drops and he shifts uncomfortably in his chair, knuckles turning white where he grips the armrests.
“You wish-- Thor-- let me get this straight, Mr Odinson,” Loki stammers, sounding ever so slightly hysterical. “You wish for us to no longer be friends, but to be more than that?”
Thor nods vigorously.
“You wish to-- are you propositioning me?” Loki exclaims, voice deeper than normal. He coughs awkwardly into his hand, avoiding Thor's eyes, and there is a pale pink blossoming across his angular cheekbones.
Thor flushes, waves his hands as though to bat away the insinuations. “No, I did not mean--! I would not-- I meant only to state my intention to--” he lets his voice fade, because he is completely at a loss as to how to continue.
Loki's laugh is high-pitched and jarring. “Your intention to what? Woo me?!”
Thor shifts, sits back again, and folds one leg over the other, trying to convince himself not to answer. Unfortunately, he had always been rather impulsive. “Yes, Loki, I want to state my intention to woo you. We have become good friends, and I find myself wanting to spend more time with you. I-- your company is exceedingly pleasing, you have a sharp wit, and you are most elegant to look upon.”
Loki makes a choked sound, apparently unable to reply.
“Do you not return my interest?” Thor frowns. He had not considered such an outcome, had assumed that he could not be alone in this. But before he could work out what he should do under such conditions, Loki was abruptly standing, arms going around himself.
“Whether or not I share your interest is not important, Mr Odinson. Thor. What matters is that you cannot-- you cannot woo me. It is not-- it would not-- we can't.”
His voice is a little frantic, and without stopping to think, Thor jumps to his feet, lays a hand on his back. But Loki flinches away from the comfort, and there is an ache in Thor's chest.
“Loki, I do not know whether things are done differently in Jotunheim, but there is no law against--”
“No!” Loki exclaims, and he is facing Thor, and his eyes are wide, almost insane, his grin terrifying. “You do not understand, Thor. We cannot. I cannot. These are circumstances beyond your control, and yet I cannot explain them.”
Thor feels the beginnings of anger stir in the pit of his stomach. He growls. “This matter is purely between the two of us. I know I cannot have imagined the feelings behind your words in the past days, the looks you have sent me. You want me as I want you!”
Loki glares, furious at Thor's bumbling earnestness. “I refuse your suit,” he bites out, vicious, and suddenly wanting nothing more than to hurt Thor, drive him away.
Thor opens his mouth, is about to snap back a retort, force Loki round to his point of view, when a cough from the doorway interrupts him.
Loki's glare moves to the maid, and Thor steps to the side.
“I'm dreadfully sorry, sir, I tried to stop them, but they wouldn't take no for an answer.”
Loki's face pales dramatically, and Thor's confusion doubles when Loki's nervous – fearful? – gaze flickers from the maid to him.
“No, you cannot mean-- not now.”
The maid looks so apologetic, and Thor must be missing something.
But then a large man in military dress, dark-skinned and powerfully built, shoulders past the maid and gets right up into Loki's face. Thor is about to leap in, offended on Loki's behalf, but Loki himself holds up a hand, murmurs “Please, Thor,” and so he stands still, watches.
“What the hell were you doing?” snaps the stranger, all but shouting. “Do you have any idea-- what right did you have--”
“Rhodes,” admonishes another new voice, this time belonging to a woman. She's tall, willowy, her fiery orange hair tucked back into an intricate set of clips and decorations. A smattering of freckles sets her apart from most noble women though, as does the business-like way she is standing, hands on hips and eyebrows raised.
Loki smiles, wry and – unless Thor is much mistaken – not at all happy.
“Lady Potts, what a pleasure this is. And Colonel Rhodes.” He nods to each of them curtly, then gestures to Thor. “My other guest, Mr Odinson.”
Thor is surprised to find himself the subject of two very sharp glares. The emphasis on his introduction feels like a distraction, some reminder that they are not alone, but he cannot understand why such a thing would be necessary.
“Don't play coy, Loki. Get Síf – and you'd better hope that girl is well, or heaven help me, I will--”
Lady Potts is the one who steps in, lays a hand on the colonel's arm, and smiles silkily at Loki. “Loki, dear, we've played by the rules of your little game. It's time for you to come home and sort this out properly.”
“I do believe,” Loki answers, with the air of a man who knows he's going to lose but isn't going down without a fight, “that the 'rules of the game' said that it was Tony who had to find me, not his friends.”
The smirk he shoots them is downright cruel, but Thor doesn't think he is fooling himself when he sees the hurt swirling underneath it.
“Your husband is bedridden!” Rhodes bursts out, and suddenly there is silence.
Loki looks stricken – although for what reason, Thor no longer knows – and his gaze is darting between the three of them. Rhodes is angry, glaring at anyone and anything and breathing hard. Potts looks sharply between Loki and Thor, and there might be pity in her eyes when she looks at him, but Thor is rather too occupied with his own emotions to care what she thinks she knows.
The word echoes around his head, and unwillingly he's going back over everything he knows about Loki from the day they met and slotting it in, and everything's fitting better than ever, and it hurts. Thor wants to do nothing more than rage, but he's empty apart from the pain – the anger is draining out in favour of nausea and horror and he doesn't know what to do.
This is worse than the day he realised that he couldn't fix the mill's finances. It's worse than the disappointment on his father's face were he able to see him now.
“Thor, I--” Loki chokes out, hurriedly, taking a step towards him and holding out his hands.
But Thor doesn't want his words, his lies, and he doesn't want that silver tongue to weave another spell of trust and friendship.
Without a word to anyone, Thor grabs up his cane from where it rested against his chair, and storms out the door.
When the door to his bedroom creaks open for the fifth time that day, Tony groans and rolls over, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to smother himself in the bedcovers. He hates being ill, detests it, and so he feels no guilt about burying his face in the pillow that stinks of his own sweat, and snapping viciously with the little voice he has left.
“Get the hell out, won't you? Can't you leave me to die in peace?”
There's a pause, and then an overly pleasant voice is replying, words razor-sharp in the dim room.
“Now, is that any way to talk when your friends went to so much trouble to find us and bring us back?”
Tony freezes, and then all in one motion rolls over and sits up, leaving himself dizzy and swaying in his bed. “Loki?” he croaks, not quite believing his eyes.
His husband cocks his hip and raises a sardonic eyebrow.
“Tony. Really, dying now would just be excessive. All I want is a divorce, dear.”
He's angry, Tony realises with a shock. Loki's angry. That's a rare thing, always has been – he can be a vengeful cad, but everything Loki does is tinged with a wicked mischievousness. Genuine anger is so far from the norm that Tony doesn't quite know what to do with it. His head's too full of fluff to work it out.
“Loki, what-- so you were in Midgard then? Bruce said-- Síf! Bruce said Síf was sick. Is she all right? Where is she? I can--” he's struggling to get up, to unwrap himself from the blankets that are weighing him down, but suddenly there are cool hands on his bare chest, firm pressure pushing him back into the pillows.
Loki's suddenly much closer than he was, but the room is spinning and Tony can't keep up. “Loki, no, Síf--” he manages to mutter, but Loki shakes his head.
“Tony, Tony, it's all right, Síf is perfectly well. She fell asleep on the way home, but someone will bring her to see you as soon as she wakes.”
He takes a second to breathe, to let his panic slip away. It's strange having Loki so close after so long – and he's not just talking about the time Loki's been hiding. Tony's not sure quite how many months must have passed since he and Loki sat and talked, touched each other more than in passing.
“What was--” he coughs, tries to speak again. “What was wro--”
Loki takes pity on him, sits on the edge of the bed, strokes two fingers soothingly over his throat as his other hand covers his eyes and forehead. Loki always was incredibly cool, and Tony arches into the touches before he remembers that it probably won't be welcomed. But Loki just laughs. He always was unpredictable.
“It seems that Síf has inherited her father's weakness to infections of the lungs. It was a cold originally, but the doctor said it became bronchitis. He thinks she may have asthma. I said that once I was sure she was better, I would look into getting her to see a lung specialist.”
Tony nods, trying not to fall asleep. “Mmm, good,” he mutters, not really awake any more.
There is a shifting of the bed under him as Loki stands, a last caress over his face before he moves away. The last thing Tony manages to get out before sleep has pulled him under is a hoarse “Loki-- 'm sorry.”
Loki stops, hand on the door handle, and looks back over his shoulder at Tony, tangled in sheets and splayed out across most of the huge bed. His smile is rather fonder than he wants it to be, but then, there's no one there to see.
“Thank you, Tony.”
Back at his rooms in Midgard, several days after the 'revelation' at the Laufeysons – assuming that is even the man's name, Thor thinks, angry and uncharitable – Thor is still stomping around, vacillating wildly between a red rage and a depressed lassitude. He can barely focus on the mill and the finances and everything he should be doing, and Coulson is getting more and more frustrated, but it doesn't make a difference. Betrayal, being played with, it's got his emotions in such a state that Thor can't even tell how he feels towards Loki at any given time; he should be angry, and a lot of the time he is, but there's so much regret, longing, mixed in that he cannot even honestly say that he doesn't want the blasted man to come back.
“Mr Odinson, I really do need you to look through these papers. I've tried to highlight the avenues most likely to yield a solution, but-- but you're not even listening to me, are you, sir?”
Coulson sounds irritated, and Thor is sorry, wants to tell him so – but he's so confused and riled up that he can't see straight, can't concentrate at all. He's going to lose the mill, but even the pain of ruining everything his father had worked for is insignificant compared to this maelstrom inside him.
A few minutes later, Coulson leaves again, and Thor is left to brood alone – at least until his brother returns from wherever he is during the day, he acknowledges sourly.
Clint has spent every moment he can hovering, hedging his way around the topic of Loki's guilt, trying to offer condolences, comfort him, and still tell him that maybe he should give Loki another chance – all at once. Thor doesn't quite know what to make of that, isn't sure why his brother – who seemed fairly indifferent to Laufeyson until recently – is suddenly the man's biggest supporter. If he's honest, it rather makes the hurting worse, not even being able to count on the unquestioning support of the brother to whom he has always been so close.
Thor has been thrown sideways by this news, and cannot quite get back on his feet. He can't work out whether the fact that he cannot stop wishing Loki would come home is a result or a cause of this knock to his equilibrium.
“Mr Laufeyson, Mr Stark, thank you very much for putting me up in such grand fashion.” Steve bows slightly, feels silly doing it, but his mother raised him to be polite. Then something occurs to him, and his face falls. “Oh, wait, should I have said 'Misters Stark-Laufeyson'? You are still married--”
“Mr Rogers, it's fine. You are here to work out a divorce for us, after all. And that counts for both the name and the accommodation.” Loki rolls his eyes, but there's a hint of what might be a smile around his mouth, and his eyes sparkle with mirth. When no one's watching him, he looks so incredibly sad, and his hands won't stop moving – tapping, twisting, clenching – like he's uncomfortable, like there's some other thing he wants to be doing. Steve is sympathetic; he watched Thor and Loki dancing around one another, saw the look on Loki's face when he'd come by to pick him up before they returned to Jotunheim, Rhodes and Lady Potts sitting in the carriage behind him.
But right now, the best thing he can do to help him – to help the pair of them – is to broker an amicable divorce between Loki and his current husband.
“Yes, Steve, don't worry about it. We mostly only used the name for official purposes anyway, and so we wouldn't have to argue over which one of us should give their name to Síf. All our business holdings are still run in our own names, and most friends still use them. 'Stark-Laufeyson' is just a bit clunky, don't you think?” And Tony is grinning brightly at Steve, his brown eyes still a little red-rimmed from illness, but as oddly comfortable with Steve as he has been ever since they were introduced.
It's bizarre, how quickly he took to a newcomer – a newcomer here to end his marriage, no less. But maybe it was just Tony enjoying throwing Steve off; when Loki had introduced him as “Mr Rogers,” Tony had stared at him for a moment, raised a teasing eyebrow, and asked for his first name.
The three of them are seated in a comfortable room something between a study and a drawing room. It's smaller than most anywhere else in this house – palace, Steve thinks sardonically, inwardly rolling his eyes at both Tony and Loki's flair for dramatics – but still horribly large and opulent, tastefully decorated with a mixture of old and new so that it appears virtually timeless. Steve has the relevant papers on the coffee table in front of him, and today they are going to be signed.
“Well, at any rate, thank you. Now, on to business.”
They discuss the contract, go through it one last time. They've been in Jotunheim over a fortnight – first waiting for Tony to recover, and then working through the details of a divorce with Steve.
Thank goodness Loki had explained the situation to him before they'd even needed to leave Midgard, back on that day he'd bought Peggy a book on the flags of the world. If he hadn't, Steve really would have been quite lost.
As it was, the pair of them – Tony and Loki, that is – really did appear to still be good friends, although it was clear that Tony was making an effort to keep Loki smiling and comfortable. Steve could see how well they would have worked as a married couple, and couldn't help but feel sad that they'd lost that. Of course, he knows perfectly well that Loki has Thor back in Midgard (although in what sort of state, Steve cannot be sure), and Tony does not appear to be pining for his husband.
And a few days ago – when they were just starting to hammer out the basics of the divorce – both parents had taken Síf into the garden, everyone else keeping a respectful distance for hours, to explain the situation to her. There were a few tears, unsurprisingly, but apparently, once assured that she would still be able to see both of her fathers, that they would still be remaining friends, she didn't seem too concerned. She'd also seen fit to tell Tony all about Thor and how good a friend he'd been to Daddy, which had led to Tony shooting Loki inquisitive and sympathetic looks which Loki then did his best to avoid.
But now, finally--
“Is this really it?” Loki murmurs, and Steve isn't sure whether he's meant to answer.
He does anyway. “Yes, this is all it takes. It won't be official until I've sent them into the central offices in Asgard – they'll have to file them with the authorities and make sure everything goes through the system properly – and they've replied with a letter of confirmation. But on your end, this will be it.”
Loki's eyes are wide, and possibly a little wet, although Steve is doing his best not to notice anything of the sort.
Tony is quiet, slightly subdued as he signs his name – but he ends it with a flourish, and promptly turns to Loki with a grin.
“So, this is it, husband of mine.”
Loki matches his expression, sharp and delighted. “This is it,” he echoes, then holds out his hand. “Tony, it's been – mostly – a pleasure, my dear.”
Tony laughs, shakes his hand enthusiastically, and Steve feels like the pair of them have had a great weight lifted from their shoulders. He quietly and unobtrusively packs away his things, smiling softly to himself.
“All good things must come to an end, I suppose,” Tony shoots back at Loki, and maybe it means something to them – or maybe they're just that happy – because suddenly they're laughing, properly, doubling over and leaning on each other to avoid falling off the couch.
Not that, you know, Steve feels a bit awkward or anything right now.
He clears his throat, and slowly – very slowly, and with much wiping of eyes and slapping each other on the back – Loki and Tony compose themselves again.
“If I'm not being rude--” both Tony and Loki roll their eyes, nudge each other, “--I was wondering what you're planning to do now.”
For a moment, they look almost serious, glancing at each other. But then Tony breaks out into a broad grin.
“I do believe we're going to Midgard!” Steve blinks. Loki hides his face in his hands, sighs loudly and pointedly. Tony pastes on an expression of false sympathy, pats him on the back in an obnoxious fashion. “Yes, my dear, almost-divorced husband has some business to sort out there, I hear. Apparently, he upset some people? I don't know, I mean it's so out of character for him--” Loki doesn't raise his head, but whacks his thigh, hard. Tony sniggers. “And at any rate, I want to meet these people who were able to put up with him for so long.”
“Tony, you--” Suddenly, Loki pauses, raises his head. “Oh, I forgot to tell you, didn't I? Hah, you have to come back with me, if only I can introduce the pair of you and stand back and watch your faces.”
He cackles, and Tony shoots Steve a questioning look to which he can only shrug. He looks somewhat concerned, patting his – former? Steve isn't sure whether that counts at this point – husband on the back and raising his eyebrows.
“Loki, what on earth are you talking about? Who do you so desperately want to introduce me to?”
Loki's smirk is positively evil. “Well, now that would be telling, wouldn't it? Suffice to say, it is a reunion, of sorts, and I hereby reserve the best seats in the house for watching it happen.”
And with that he stands, striding out of the room and calling for his daughter, still chuckling lightly.
Tony and Steve look at each other.
“Hmm, yes, sorry about him. He gets like that sometimes.” He still looks worried though, but in a sort of affectionate way. The pair of them do know each other rather excellently, Steve realises, and he finds that really quite adorable. “Anyway, we were planning to leave in a couple of days – but I suppose, if we're going back so that I can get my ex-husband married off to some bloke I've never met, we ought to wait for your confirmation letter?”
Steve smiles. “Actually, it shouldn't take long – the pair of you are high profile enough that the case will be dealt with as quickly as possible to avoid complaints. I can ask them to forward it to my address in Midgard if you prefer. Given how long the journey will take, that should be fine.”
Tony's grin is blinding, and he claps Steve on the shoulder as he stands. “Excellent! I'd better start thinking about what to pack!”