Loki could not linger indoors for long that night after Sif and Hogun had departed. He slipped out and Thor did not follow. He supposed that Thor would mourn the fact that his sire was in a sort of magical coma . . . Loki did not know what to say to that at the moment and he would rather not have a flaming row with someone while their parents were indisposed.
Even though said parent had exiled them to a strange world.
He had admired Odin for his mastery of seiðr. He had wanted to learn from him. He had wanted that man--his father-in-law--to approve of him. Now all Loki could think about was how Odin’s magic had transformed them and Odin’s decree had stranded them on Midgard. With Odin’s son. And Frigga might not be rescinding that decree anytime soon.
But Thor was her son too. If she did not yield even for him, then they were stranded.
Leaning against the peeling wall of the dwelling that faced the desert beyond the town, he stared unseeingly into the night and felt the pangs of actual homesickness for the first time. He had been too busy trying to adapt after the wedding to actually miss home, but being on Midgard had left him with ample time to miss the things that he had taken for granted.
He slid down to sit on the ground, wondering when he would know the song of winter within him again, the cool burn of seiðr in his veins. Possibly anytime from months to years, they said . . .
A few years were nothing to an Asgardian or a Jötunn--akin to a few days to the Midgardians. But they were neither Aesir or Jötnar here--just mortal. Would they age like the humans as well?
These thoughts did not sit well with Loki, but he must have dozed off eventually for the next thing he knew, he was waking up in bed. As he was not prone to sleep-walking, Thor had probably dragged him indoors at some point.
He still could not bring himself to speak to Thor. Dragging themselves off to work was better than sitting around thinking about the obvious issue between them.
Fortunately for them both, Thor had to leave early for the work site while Loki was not required at the Chinese restaurant until later for someone had taken a few days of leave at the last minute.
He preferred the air-conditioned environs of the Golden Phoenix anyway--working outdoors had made them both realise that Loki was terribly prone to sunburn. He would turn red and his skin would start to hurt within an hour.
But that day, he felt slightly dizzy as he waited tables at the restaurant. His throat felt itchy and hot and there was something wrong with his nose . . .
At the end of the lunch shift, the irritation in his nose increased and he sneezed just outside the employees’ locker room. Shocked, for it was the first time he had ever had that reaction, Loki could only stand there like a stunned deer.
“Hey, are you okay?” Rachel Wu bustled out of the kitchen and looked him over. “You looked kinda peaky. I mean you look . . . pale and sick.”
“Doesn’t he look pale? I mean paler than usual?” Rachel asked her battle-axe of a mother-in-law, who unbent for three seconds to admit that he did look under the weather.
The others were of a mind that he had contracted a virus. “Probably that family with the dribbly kids. Germ factories, all of them.”
Loki was sent off with a container of chicken soup and an admonition to rest. They would not require him for the dinner shift.
Of a practical nature himself, Loki understood that a sick member of staff was more of a liability than anything else. And the thought of being ill was rather frightening and strange. Colds and the flu did not affect the Jötnar. And why was he host to a local viral parasite anyway?
A familiar voice hailed him from a side-street. “Hey neighbour.”
The Sandwich-Man, who might be called Joe on some days, nodded at him over the rim of a large box he was carrying. He did not seem very keen on parting with his real name and it was no use questioning people who might be touched in the head. They had learned that he called people that he was familiar with “neighbour”. Seeing as possibly-Joe might not have a fixed address, he might be a neighbour to most people in this small town.
“You don’t look so good,” Joe observed as he shuffled closer. “Looks like you’re coming down with a cold.”
Was his state so obvious that even not-quite-there-Joe could tell? Loki never really knew what to say to the human even when he was not feeling ill. The fact that he was on familiar terms with a human was stranger still.
“Better get some rest,” Joe continued to dispense advice as he moved on with his box. Joe collected things--they were never sure what he collected but everyone seemed to let him be or ignore him.
The laundry had a collection of discarded sheets and towels that were thriftily saved and given to charitable organisations. No-one noticed when one or two items went missing every week. So they did not lack for linens, which came in handy when Loki started sneezing again that night.
Loki decided that being ill was disgusting. Being host to some Midgardian pathogen offended him on so many levels. He had to sneeze into a towel as his nose was leaking like an old faucet. Thor took his advice and slept in the other room to prevent them both from becoming infected.
By the next morning, it was obvious that he was too sick to go out, much less argue with Thor.
“You are unwell. I will fetch a healer for you,” Thor said as he surveyed the red-nosed, watery-eyed spectre hunched up on the bed.
“They don’t have healers--they have doctors,” Loki informed him nasally from his blanket and sheet cocoon. “And most people go to doctors, not the other way ‘round.”
“Then we shall go to the doctor’s. We have some money to utilise,” Thor said. The only advantage of their current dwelling was that they did not have the rent and the electricity bills that all the Midgardian adults moaned about on a daily basis. Thor had become rather good at basic Midgardian mathematics. “At least fifty of these American dollars. And then some for the medicine.”
Loki remained silent for a while as he clamped another towel over his dripping nose. Doctors implied an examination that might be a little too much information to share with the Midgardians.
“I like it not. They might require things of us that we cannot provide again.”
Thor opened his mouth, then closed it. He did not look like he was going to debate the point. “I will fetch medicine then.”
“Do you even know what kind to get?” Loki asked hoarsely, sticking his nose out for a moment.
“I do not . . . but I will seek help for they are most responsive to queries.”
And Thor’s smile, in all likelihood. The Midgardian women liked their men tall and polite. Loki had been surprised that two of his co-workers at the Golden Phoenix had tried to drop broad hints in his general direction as well.
Thor had to explain it to him though. “This giving of numbers and asking them to call them is a courting ritual. Since we do not appear to be married, they are trying their luck.”
What strange courting rituals. Loki doubted that the Migardian women knew what they were in for. On Asgard, he had been a curiosity, but definitely the spouse of a prince and hence off-limits. And on Jötunheim . . . well, it had been a long and painfully frustrating adolescence.
Thor left for work and to find whatever medicine the Midgardians had to offer, leaving Loki with a lot of water bottles and a bucket to use as a chamber-pot.
Most of the morning was spent resting. Loki drifted in and out of sleep, feeling congested and tired in turns. Fragmented images jumbled up his thoughts and he thought he was daydreaming when he imagined the faces of his brothers.
A most recognisable set of faces that were growing more solid by the moment now that he came to think about it--
“Brother?” There were faces outside his window. Craggy Frost Giant faces with the ridged lines that were like his own.
“H-Helblindi, Býleistr?” Loki managed to croak out. His disordered thoughts tried to assert themselves several times and failed.
“Greetings, Loki,” his younger brother hailed him from outside. “Our dam sends his condolences.”
Loki sat up and struggled to shove open the obstinate window shutter wider. Helblindi helped when he saw what Loki was trying to do in his uncoordinated fashion. It was fortunate that he did not rip the frame out.
Býleistr moved closer and bent down to sniff at him as he stuck his head out of the window. “You do not smell like the Aesir, brother.”
“Our brother is not well . . . And he smells human,” Helblindi said, having a better instinct for these things despite being the least intellectual of three brothers.
Loki had to suppress the urge to thank him for stating the obvious. They had come to see him--no doubt the message had been delivered. Frigga and Laufey had been surprisingly free with information.
And Laufey had the Casket with all its powers at his disposal. So his brothers had leave to come see him.
Mystery solved to his satisfaction, Loki leaned his weight on the window frame, sacrificing dignity for comfort. “A mild infestation of some Migardian parasite known as a virus. It will pass.”
“Are you sharing your spouse’s exile?”
“I am, as you can see.”
Býleistr shifted on his great feet. “You only need to ask of it and we will petition Laufey to complain of this to Odin All-Father’s regent.”
“I have some honour left, I will owe up to my mistakes,” Loki said, praying to the gods of chance that there was no-one driving past to notice two Frost Giants bent over in conversation on the shaded side of their ramshackle dwelling. “It will only be for a while.”
In truth, that was not a lie. Not to Býleistr and Helblindi, eight hundred and seventy-five and nine hundred and fifty-one years old respectively.
He would return to see his brothers come of age--he was determined to.
“Can you visit Jötunheim . . . like that?” Helblindi asked, hesitancy showing in his speech and movements. They were both acting cautiously and did not even lean on the walls of the Migardian dwelling. Loki himself must seem especially fragile to them.
“I’m not certain,” Loki admitted. Thor and his compatriots could withstand the cold of Jötunheim because they were Aesir. Mere humans would freeze within the hour. “Not like this.”
“Then we will visit. Though our dam bade us take care not to be seen.” Helblindi looked rather put out that he could not terrorise the humans as his sire had all those centuries ago.
“You will frighten the humans and it will get messy if you are seen,” Loki said, feeling weary again. “They know not of the other Realms and we are the stuff myths and legends to them.”
He suspected that the Midgardians had come a long way from spears and swords as well and would not be so easily cowed.
“And it is too warm here,” Býleistr complained. “Without the Casket to bring the winter, this place would not be worth conquering.”
It occurred to Loki’s barely functional brain then that his brothers were discomfited by New Mexico’s weather, some sixty of those Migardian degrees over what they were used to. No doubt his brothers were as befuddled as he currently felt.
“No, not worth conquering,” Loki said quickly. “It’s mostly desert around here anyway. And you’ll need an enchantment or a charm to prevent you from suffering the effects of the heat should you come again.”
They would need it to prevent them from accidentally wandering off in the wrong direction, confused and disorientated by the heat. A Frost Giant with heat-stroke in the middle of this small town was an incident even Laufey could not have predicted.
He packed them off quickly, making sure that they were heading in the direction of the desert and not down to the town proper. Loki clung onto the window ledge until he saw the momentary blue spark in the distance that told of their departure via the Casket.
Relieved, he flopped back into bed and drank more water. This was not what he had expected when he had married Thor Odinson.
It was supposed to be . . . well, it had seemed easy in theory. Get married, obtain the Casket, get pregnant, carry the babe to term, maybe have a spare, all sides would be satisfied and he, Loki Laufeyson would have proved himself beyond reproach and he would reign beside his brash spouse, a king in his own right.
But he had thought that he would have his dam's advice and Queen Frigga's knowledge of childbirth to tide him through most of it. It would have been done in Asgard, in his iced-over solar, with a proper midwife and the healers on hand, with him in his natural shape, a number of appointed witnesses and preferably finished within an hour . . .
Which was a lie he could not swallow for his own comfort even if they had not been in exile. There would be hours of labour, according to Laufey’s tales and his own rather harrowing experience witnessing the birth of his youngest brother. But there would have been more experienced people on hand to help. Even the Migardians had midwives and doctors for that sort of thing.
And look at them now--unprepared, unwilling and possibly unable to take that extra step to finish what they had started.
No, Loki had to believe that he could accomplish it . . . one day. Else it was all for naught. There could be no doubt cast upon their fertility.
Ironically, their exile had become his--their--salvation.
In exile, there would be lesser pressure for them to produce an heir and prove themselves fertile. No loss of face, no loss of honour.
Even his brothers had looked in askance at their dwelling place, forbearing to call it a hovel, but it had been obvious in their avoidance of the topic. His current shape was another thing altogether. He could see that it bewildered them--that he was not the Loki they had known. Alien and foreign to their senses. Short-lived and vulnerable.
They would carry word to their dam and king of Loki’s exile. How Loki was prone to sickness now that he was practically human. Loki had fought all his life to avoid that label--undersized but not sickly.
When Thor came back with chicken soup as well the drugs known as Benadryl and Claritin, Loki had to grudgingly admit that Thor could be competent when he had to be.
Loki tried one tiny tablet first and when he did not show any adverse reaction within an hour, he moved onto the dosage stated on the packaging. One to two tablets every six hours. Benadryl would make him drowsy.
The Wus had sent him ginseng chicken soup, which became his dinner before he dozed off again. Being ill was inconvenient to say the least. He would avoid this in the future if he could--probably by not falling sleeping outdoors.
After the shocking news that Hogun and Sif had brought, Thor braced himself for another argument which never came.
The Odin-Sleep had worried him when he was younger and unused to his father’s absence. Thor had not understood the ways of sorcerer-kings. He doubted that he did even now. Ill-timed as it was, it seemed as though his father’s absence was going to impact his future as well.
And Loki’s fate appeared to be tied to his at the moment. He was sorry for that, of course, but Loki was not the sort to accept apologies easily.
Thor had found Loki asleep outside when he finally bestirred himself that night. The prince always looked younger when he slept--unguarded and a lot less angry. He did not wake when Thor brought him back indoors.
There was very little conversation the next morning. They went their separate ways for work--if Thor was not mistaken, Loki actually looked relieved about that. At least there was no blow-up.
Loki’s illness later that night merely underlined that fact that they were as vulnerable as the humans were.
It was daunting to say the least, for Thor had not been ill for centuries and by the look of it, neither had Loki. But at least they could do something about it.
Loki’s reticence and his reluctance to go to Midgardian healers bespoke of certain seldom addressed issues. He was wary and possibly uncomfortable with his shape. The Jötunn prince had spent half of his time in Asgard in his own skin, going as far as to convert his solar into an ice-covered cavern.
Thor elected not to press him about doctors. There were apothecaries known as drug stores after all. The problem was, everything in the drug store was alien to him and he had not brought along any of his acquaintances from the work site who might know something about all the bottles and boxes that lined the shelves.
So he threw himself on the mercy of the lady apothecary in the white coat.
The lady was ever so helpful and he had over-the-counter cold and flu medication without the need for prescriptions.
On his way back that evening, Rachel Wu’s streaked hair bobbed up in his vision. She was almost a foot shorter than he was, but she could make her presence known instantaneously. “Hey, how’s your brother?”
He was used to it by now--the Midgardians’ relaxed greetings and their forward ways--and did not hesitate to answer. “Poorly, good lady.”
“I have just the thing for that,” she said, disappearing through her back door before returning with a thermos. “Ginseng chicken soup--my mother-in-law’s recipe. It can make the dead walk.”
It was a most touching gesture. One that Loki accepted along with the medication at face value.
“You might have to erase the footprints outside,” Loki said at last after the drugs had been tested. “Býleistr and Helblindi were despatched here. Your mother has communicated with my dam.”
So Laufey-king had sent Loki’s brothers here, possibly after their messages had been delivered. The over-sized tracks could be clearly seen in the backyard--something that might not have happened if they had been on Jötunheim. Thor wondered why they had not been waiting to call him out.
“You didn’t go with them,” he stated when he went back indoors after brushing away the giant-sized footprints that trailed off into the desert.
“I didn’t,” Loki said. But he could have. That unspoken fact lay between them like the proverbial elephant in the room.
At that point, even Thor could feel the tenuous bonds between them flexing and stretching with the strain. There was nothing holding Loki here beyond the vows they had made.
And that was that. The Midgardian virus ran its course and Loki recovered within a week. Life appeared to trudge on.
Until something else manifested a few weeks later, in that back alley where he found Loki holding two men at bay with what looked like a box-cutter.
Juan had dropped the odd warning in his ear across the weeks. It appeared that his fears were being realised.
Thor did not waste time wondering where he had filched the box-cutter from. The wild light in Loki’s eyes meant that he would use any weapon at that moment.
The men were regulars at back-alley games of chance. It could not be called a fight, truly. Thor only stunned them and hoped that they would suffer no more than a headache and learn not to gamble too much with sharp-eyed, fast-fingered con-men.
“Will you move?” Thor demanded when the silence after that stretched a little too long. “And where did you get that from?”
“I have my ways.” Loki made the retractable blade vanish as they hurried through the side streets. “As you well know. It won’t be missed and I can return it any time.”
“You mean you got it from either Anderson’s or the lady Rachel’s storeroom and you were merely borrowing it,” Thor growled. He had learned a few things about how Loki operated here on Midgard. He did not actually steal from the humans he was passingly acquainted with. “We have very few boxes to open.”
“You never know.” The feral look on Loki’s face had not quite disappeared when they finally made it back to their dwelling and back indoors. “At least they are unlikely to make trouble for you--they are leaving this town soon for another city.”
“You are concerned about that now?” Thor asked, incredulous. “What about your own safety? And theirs?”
“It’s nothing new. You know what my kind are like. And yours,” Loki added.
“It’s not the same here!”
“It doesn’t change what you have known all your life! You felt it too!” Loki threw up his hands. “You miss it too. Hunting, brawling, fighting and making war--all the things that you were born and bred to do. Didn’t it make your blood boil just now?”
“I don’t think your blood or my blood is well spent when it coats the street,” Thor began slowly, for there was some truth in Loki’s words. “And you should not have cheated them.”
“And why not?” Loki challenged, stepping closer. The room was not large, so they were in close proximity most of the time. “Even in this world, the smarter predators rise on the backs of others.”
“Because they were never raised to be princes.” Thor struggled to find the words. “Most of them are only here to work and make money for themselves and their families.”
“And if I had killed or wounded them, I would still be no better than you, Thor.” Loki’s words were still tipped with malice and brutal truth. “We are not princes here. At least we are no stronger than them now. No more advantages of magic and a mighty hammer. We would be justified to kill them if they attacked us.”
Thor could not say But you provoked them. Not when Loki had brought up the past again.
“But why should we? The humans believe in change--”
“Because they are a short-lived, self-deluded race of people who think that they actually matter in the grand scheme of things!” Loki snapped at him. “Before this, you would have thought them beneath your notice, much less praise them for their ability to ignore their baser natures! ”
Loki smiled suddenly as he leaned forwards into Thor’s space. It was not a nice smile.
“Or do you think that by learning from the humans, you will earn back your rightful place? Was that the lesson that your father intended for us?”
“I know not!” Thor almost punched the wall in frustration. “But this is not the way!”
“So when will we know?” Loki’s face was terribly close now. “I grow tired of waiting. And so do you.”
It took a practiced liar to know the truth, Thor was beginning to understand. “Perhaps the lesson is patience.”
“We’ll wind up like the human Joe in time. Maybe he’s the one who’s thinking right.” Loki made an inarticulate noise that might have been a laugh and the kiss he bestowed on Thor had teeth in it.
Their coupling was rough and frantic--certainly not patient in any way. Thor was bleeding from his lips and would have dark bruises on his neck come the morning. Loki fared no better--his back was probably bruised from constant contact with the wall as they rutted.
How long would--could they last like this? Thor was not particularly keen to test their limits.