It was the tenth consecutive day of bright sunshine and intense heat in Bristol, and the pink house was stifling. Loki, the worst Frost Giant ever, still desperately hated to be cold, but he was beginning to find the heat oppressive. Even Annie and Mitchell were uncomfortable, and they were dead.
George, who as a werewolf had a higher body temperature than anyone else in the household, was by this time refusing to come out of the basement at all.
"Just leave it on the steps and I'll come get it later," he called, from his supine position before the washer and dryer, on the concrete floor of the basement, when Annie tried to coax him out to join the others for lunch. "When the sun goes down, maybe. Or I might just stay here with Philip and Elizabeth and eat cat food."
"Oh come on, George, you can't spend your entire holiday down there," Annie protested.
"How much would you like to bet?" George's disembodied voice floated up the stairs.
"He may have a point," Loki murmured, using the sleeve of his t-shirt to wipe his sweaty forehead.
"You're not going down there and joining him," Annie warned.
"I did not dream of it," Loki said hastily, retreating back up the stairs.
"I'm not coming out," George insisted. "Not unless you clear out a shelf in the fridge or let me sit in the crisper."
"Have you tried panting? I hear it's a good way to cool off," Mitchell called down the stairs. George's response sounded rather as though the full moon had arrived early. Annie and Loki both smacked Mitchell, who relented. "I have a suggestion. Let's go to the beach this afternoon. We can swim-- "
"I can't swim," Annie objected.
"And I probably shouldn't either, or at least I shouldn't get in the direct sun, but you and I can sit under an umbrella while George and Loki swim," Mitchell said.
"I cannot swim either," Loki pointed out.
"It's true, he can't," George called up the stairs.
"You swam when you went looking for the Lady of the Lake," Mitchell objected.
"I was an otter," Loki reminded him. "The otter could swim."
"Oh, right. Well, you're nine hundred years old and it's high time you learned," Mitchell announced. "George can teach you."
"Does George get a vote on this?" George demanded.
"Does Loki get a vote?" Loki wanted to know.
"And then on the way home, we can stop for ice cream," Mitchell coaxed.
There was a pause.
"George?" Loki called down the stairs. "I believe I would like to learn how to swim."
The biggest problem was loading everything into the car.
"I can never understand why we need all this stuff," George complained, as he helped Mitchell stow a cooler and several folding canvas camp chairs in the boot of the car.
"Cold drinks, George," Mitchell said. "And something to sit on. And-- " Mitchell took the large umbrella Loki was holding and began to tie it to the roof-- "something to sit under."
"Are we not going to be in the water?" asked Loki, who could not quite understand the purpose of an umbrella when it was not raining.
"Not the dead people," Mitchell replied. Annie, who was as usual clad in her grey sweater, black tights, and slouchy slipper-boots, shrugged resignedly.
"I am very sorry you will be unable to swim with us," Loki told her regretfully.
"And you're especially sorry she's not going to be wearing a bathing suit," George muttered. Loki, blushing, hit him a short jab in the ribs and George doubled over, giggling.
"What was that?" Annie asked, looking severe.
"Nothing, nothing," George said hastily, as Loki leaned into the boot to hide his red face. Annie smirked as she slipped into the backseat of the car, where Loki joined her a few minutes later. George got into the front passenger seat, and Mitchell behind the wheel.
"Everyone got their seatbelt on?" the vampire asked.
"No," Annie replied.
"Everyone alive got their seatbelt on?" Mitchell amended.
"Yes," Loki called back.
"Are we there yet?" George demanded, as Mitchell started the car.
It took them about an hour to drive to the seaside, half an hour to find a place to park, and a further forty minutes to transport the contents of the car to the beach. By the time they were settled, at a considerable distance from the crowded area patrolled by lifeguards, Loki's t-shirt was stuck to his back and he was in a fair way to be blinded by the sweat and sunscreen running into his eyes.
"I am not convinced this is a worthwhile endeavour," he muttered as he struggled with the large umbrella. Even with Annie's help, every breeze caught the bell of the device and threatened to turn him into Mary Poppins.
"It'll be fun, honestly," Annie assured him, as Loki fired a desperate burst of magic at the base of the umbrella to anchor it. "The more miserable you are before you get in the water, the better you feel when you're there."
Loki gave her a look of disbelief. "That sounds exactly like something my brother would have said, when we were very young, about sparring."
"'It will feel so good when you stop'?" Annie suggested.
"Well, we're all set here," Mitchell announced, extracting a beer from the cooler and settling in a camp chair in the shade of the umbrella. Loki gave him a narrow-eyed look.
"I am quite sure you are not legally permitted to consume such beverages if you intend to drive us all home," he protested.
"That's the nice thing about being dead already," Mitchell replied smugly. "Alcohol has practically no effect on me." Loki arched an eyebrow at his friend. "Well, Earth alcohol," Mitchell amended, perhaps remembering the outlines of a couple of rather foggy nights in the tavern of Asgard. "Oh, look: George is ready to start your swimming lesson."
"I'm not the best swimmer in the world myself," George warned them.
"Surely you can teach him to dog-paddle," Mitchell suggested, as Annie dropped into the chair by his side. Both of them were still giggling when George kicked sand on them and gestured to Loki to follow him to the water's edge. Loki removed his t-shirt and did so.
"We should have gotten the waterproof sunscreen," George remarked, glancing at Loki, who was already feeling self-conscious. With his shirt on, bespectacled George looked like the least athletic creature in England. In swimming costume the effect was rather different, lycanthropy apparently doing more to promote the development of muscles than, for instance, sorcery. Loki's primary athletic endeavour on this realm was running and it was not that he was out of condition, but he was, and not for the first time in his life, conscious of being scrawny and pale and awkward.
George, who normally was the one who felt awkward, did not seem to notice Loki's discomposure. "All right, let's set a couple of ground rules. No turning into something else that can already swim."
Loki scowled, then reluctantly nodded before proposing a rule of his own: "And no pushing me under the water."
George sighed. "Would I do that?" After a moment's thought, Loki shamefacedly shook his head. "All right. In we go."
George waded into the sea, and after a moment Loki hesitantly put a foot into the water. He yelped and flinched back a hasty step. "Why is it so cold?"
"It's not cold," George corrected him. "It's refreshing."
"If it were any more refreshing I would have to assume the form of a Jotun-- or a walrus-- in order to avoid instant death!"
"It's the sea, Loki, it's not going to be like bath water. The purpose is to cool off."
"I believe I am sufficiently cool," Loki assured his friend, hopping on one foot and shaking the wet one rather like an outraged cat. "It must be time for ice cream now."
George sighed. "Loki, don't make me drag you." Loki gave George a doubtful look and then recoiled again as the werewolf took a step toward him. George stopped, ankle-deep in the water, and held out his hands in the gesture that indicated he was unarmed and also meant no harm. "No, really. Swimming is fun. I promise. You'll like it." Loki looked intensely doubtful. "And you'll warm up as soon as you get moving."
"But I am warm already," Loki pointed out. "Surely it is not logical to engage in an activity to cool down, only on the assurance I will shortly warm up again."
"No, right now you're hot. And incidentally beginning to sunburn," George corrected. "Come on in the water. It's much nicer once you're in." Loki twisted his neck to examine his own shoulder, which he had to admit even out of focus looked rather suspiciously pink by now. "Come on," George repeated patiently. "Trust me."
Loki cast a quick glance back up the beach. Mitchell raised his beer in salute and Annie waved.
Loki held his breath and wincingly followed George into deeper water.
It quickly became apparent that, whether as a result of his unspecified species or because of his physical composition, Loki was not what one would call buoyant. George was extremely patient as he demonstrated how one let go and floated, then made slow progress by paddling with one's feet and hands.
Loki attempted to follow suit, but he could not seem to stop himself becoming stiff, which resulted in his immediately sinking to the sandy bottom and then erupting to his feet in a flailing, spluttering panic.
"Hey, hey, calm down," George was saying, hands reassuring on Loki's arms as he blew his nose clear and swiped at his eyes. "It's all right, you're standing up, water's not even up to your chest, you're fine." Loki found himself breathing hard and pawing his dripping hair out of his eyes. George patted him. "All right?"
Loki nodded tensely. "All right."
"I guess that wasn't the best idea," George said apologetically. "Let's try something else. Suppose we try you floating on your back, and I'll make sure your head stays above water while you get used to it. Would that be all right?"
"I feel very silly," Loki muttered, although what he actually meant was cowardly.
"No need," George said kindly. "Everyone panics a little when their face goes under. I should have remembered that. Of course it's frightening when you can't breathe."
"I should have better control over myself," Loki protested. "Little children learn this quite easily."
"Yes, well, that's the problem," George said cheerfully. "Little children aren't afraid of anything." At Loki's arched and dripping eyebrow, George reconsidered. "Okay, little children aren't afraid of anything real." He smiled, and after a moment Loki smiled back. "Now. Shall we try it?"
It turned out George was right: floating on one's back was a great deal less alarming, especially with George's hand braced under the back of his head.
"Okay, you're doing great," George cheered him on. "Just move your hands a little bit, back and forth, like fins." Loki did, gradually relaxing and feeling himself rise and fall on the waves, George following his slow progress through the water.
After a moment, he suddenly realized he could no longer feel George's hand supporting him, immediately went stiff, and sank like a stone. Before he could get his feet under himself-- or bow to the instinct to transform into a fish-- George had already pulled him up. Loki clutched at his friend's hands and blew like a porpoise.
"I really do not know what is the matter with me," Loki spluttered. "This is ridiculous. Truly, I have never been like-- "
"What were you like?" George asked, rather curious. "I mean, when you were a kid and you had to do something that scared you?"
Loki shrugged. "I suppose I just did it. We all did. It did not matter whether I was frightened." He wiped at his face again and said thoughtfully, "Now that I stop and think of it, I cannot be the only one who was afraid sometimes, although I always assumed I was." George said nothing, just stood there with a hand on Loki's arm, while the sun warmed the back of Loki's head and neck. After a moment, Loki went on slowly, "There were times, before we were tested against older warriors or with new weapons, I remember... "
Thor and his friends, off in a huddle, hands on each other's shoulders, as George's were now on his. Loki had not really understood it at the time, but he thought now that his fearless brother and his brother's fearless friends had been reassuring each other. They were there for each other, whether danger was real or imagined.
They were not alone.
Loki, for his part, had been alone, and as a result he had convinced himself he was not really afraid, because there was nothing he could do about it and besides, it was shameful to be afraid. The feeling of sickness that kept him awake before and after those tests was nothing to do with fear.
He had never admitted such feelings to anyone, because of course that would only lead to mockery from his brother who, Loki was sure, had never known a moment's anxiety about anything in his life. He certainly did not express any, at least not in front of Loki.
Nor would Sif or the Warriors have made any such admissions in front of him, either. He and they were nearly friends now, but their prior hatred had been real enough, at least on his side. Of course none of them would have lowered their guard around him. Loki could easily picture himself pouncing on any evidence of weakness in the others, in an effort to turn attention from his own.
It would not have worked: Thor and his friends were too loyal to one another to join Loki in mocking each another, no matter how they teased among themselves. Loki had always known their gibes were not aimed at one another with the intent of drawing blood. Not like the barbs he sometimes flung at them, or they returned. Those really had been aimed to hurt, and he had been just as responsible as anyone for their number and ferocity.
More responsible, even, because Loki knew quite well he pushed the others violently off at arms-length, and perhaps had continued doing so even when the others might have been tired of holding him away. He had never noticed any softening, but that did not mean there never had been any. It might instead mean he had missed the signs and so the opportunity.
And while he could not have admitted weakness to Thor, it now crossed his mind to wonder a little about Volstagg, who was older than the others and generally more patient. It had not occurred to him at the time to try, and so he had always been one of six and yet by himself. And meanwhile, Thor and his friends had been learning--
"What?" George asked suddenly, and Loki wondered what had shown on his face.
"I have just been thinking about fear. About times when Thor and his friends must have felt it. I think... it was then that they learned to trust one another. And I... " He thought about it, chest-deep in seawater with the sun drying salt into his hair. Slowly, he said, "When I was not driving them away, I think I was probably engineering tests, long before the day I let the Jotun into the vault. Tests for Thor, mostly, but also for everyone else, to see whether I could trust them. Only I always knew what result I expected, and therefore there was never any chance anyone could pass, and so I was only ever confirmed in what I already believed. Tony Stark and Jane Foster would not be impressed with my scientific method.
"And even now... when we do things that really frighten all of us, we generally have no time to think about it, we just do. And besides, I am usually able to turn to my strengths, like shifting into an otter the day I went searching for Excalibur in the home of the Lady of the Lake."
"And now you're trying to learn to swim in cold blood-- so to speak-- and you're having to let yourself really trust me," George completed the thought.
"But I do," Loki protested, horrified at the implication. "George, I do."
"Of course you do," George replied calmly. "Just like I trusted my dad when I learned to swim, but I still flailed and splashed and had to prove it to myself. And I wasn't old enough to really be twisted up in my head about it. Face it, Loki. Your head-- "
"Is quite twisted," Loki admitted. George grinned, and after a moment Loki grinned back. "I think it is time to try again."
No one would have mistaken Loki for an Olympic candidate by any stretch, but within the hour he was at least able to float on his back without being held up, and fin along with his face out of the water. Eventually he gathered the nerve to try swimming on his front again, with his head out of the water, rather-- as Mitchell said-- like a dog. His progress was very slow as he paddled up and down the shoreline, spluttering, but he was able to maintain his distance from the beach and be neither washed ashore nor swept out to sea. George cheered him on faithfully.
He really was tired by the time he and George were ready to declare the lesson over, and they both waded ashore to be toasted by Mitchell and Annie under the umbrella. Loki did not even bother with a camp chair, he simply stretched out on the sand at Annie's feet, with complete disregard for the heat of the sun. George settled into one of the chairs and helped himself to a well-earned beer.
"Too bad we didn't bring any buckets or spades," he remarked. Loki raised his head with an effort, and George explained, "We could have made sand castles."
Loki allowed his puzzlement to show on his face. "Why would we make castles of sand?" he asked. "That seems a less than practical material to use for building-- "
"Very tiny sand castles," Annie explained, leaning down to scruff Loki's sandy, salty hair. "For tiny crabs and imaginary princesses."
"Oh," Loki mused. "This is something one normally does at the seaside?"
"Well, if you're children," Annie admitted. Loki put his head down on his folded arms again and thought about it. After a moment, he looked up again.
"Do we really require spades and buckets?" he asked. "Or could we just make them with our hands?"
Annie smiled at him. "I think hands would do nicely."
As it turned out, hands did very well indeed when three of the group knew what a sand castle was supposed to look like and one of them was able to cast magic. Loki was eventually persuaded to remove the tiny fluttering banners from the turrets of their castle-- to say nothing of the minute sea-serpent that frolicked in the little moat they had dug around it-- but it was still a most impressive edifice.
By the time Mitchell called a halt and suggested ice cream, Loki felt they had all earned the treat. However, he was hot and sunburned and covered in sand, and such was the change in his attitude that he now felt quite willing to indulge George in his proposed final swim of the afternoon.
The temperature of the water still struck him with a shock as he waded out after George.
Passed George heading into deeper water, pausing when nearly out of his depth to slide out of his swim trunks.
Ducked his head under water and headed for the open sea with a powerful thrust of his vertical tail.
George was by now treading water and watching as Loki's dorsal fin disappeared under the surface. The shock of recognition and atavistic terror passed almost at once, and he put out a hand to run his fingertips along the rough hide that covered Loki in the place of scales. Loki doubled back, bending his heavy body around his friend as George took a breath and went underwater, for a moment coming alongside the great gray-and-white head with its double row of jagged triangular teeth visible in an open mouth. Then George reached out to hook his right hand around Loki's dorsal fin (the left being occupied holding onto Loki's abandoned trunks) and kicked along with him, his feet well short of the sweeping tail, as Loki headed away from the crowded stretch of beach. George let go to come to the surface for a breath, then caught hold of Loki again and was towed back toward shore.
As George's feet connected with the sandy bottom, Loki transformed back into his usual shape and also stood up, chest-deep in the water.
"Here," George said, shoving the trunks at him. "You're bloody lucky we're off by ourselves. I don't think anyone saw that little stunt."
"Well, if they had, we could have been assured of the beach all to ourselves tomorrow," Loki pointed out, with a smug little grin, as he struggled back into his clothing. George did not miss the other thing in his friend's expression.
"Did I pass?" he demanded, splashing at Loki.
"Pardon?" Loki asked, looking far too innocent to really be innocent.
George splashed him again. "You said you used to set tests for your brother and his friends, to see whether you could trust them. I'd be willing to bet that was only the half of it, and some of the tests were to see whether they would trust you. And it strikes me, after I made you put yourself in my hands earlier, it's just about time for some turn-about-is-fair-play anyhow. So: did I pass?"
Loki's innocent expression held for another few seconds, before relaxing into something much warmer, and rather apologetic.
"Oh, George, of course you did," he said. "And I never thought you would not. I just...."
"Yeah," George said. "I know. And I won't say it wasn't quite a thrill. In fact, there's only one thing that could possibly improve upon that experience."
"I hope you are about to say 'ice cream,'" Loki murmured.
The sun was setting and the day finally beginning to cool off when Mitchell parked the car in front of the pink house again, and he and Annie turned to look at the two sandy, sleeping figures in the back seat. There was a smear of chocolate dried on Loki's shirt and George's spectacles were askew on his nose.
"Makes you wish you could keep them like this forever, doesn't it?" Annie said fondly.
"That it does," Mitchell grinned, and reached back to gently shake George by the shoulder. "Come on, Sleeping Beauty. We're home."