“You summoned me.”
“It is time, then.”
“For my plans to be put in motion.” He rose, clasping his hands at his back as he stared out into the star-filled void. “Our preparations are complete. We will await further word from our ally to make sure matters in the Nine Realms are as we need them to be, and then we will strike. Make ready your army, and see that our… guest… has his instructions.”
“Of course.” The Other bent his head low as he backed away. When he had reached the stairs, he turned and descended them excitedly. After many long years of waiting in this little corner of space, it was at last time to begin.
“It’s time to begin!” Tony spun in his chair. “Are you excited?”
“Busy, Tony.” Jane’s fingers flew across the keys, paused as she watched the screen change to reflect what she’d done, and then stretched across to adjust some of the dials on the board next to her. Black cables snaked from it to various pieces of equipment, all of it humming. “Could you change the base parameters on the thaumatic converter to align with my settings? And Loki—are you ready to go?”
“Yes,” Loki, sitting by a large metal panel with his Kindle propped on his knee, glanced up and replied with a note of irritation in his voice. “As I have been the last three times you have asked.”
“Right. Yes. Sorry. It’s just—“
“Relax, Foster,” Tony said brightly. “I’m sure it’ll work this time.” He made one last adjustment to the panel in front of Loki and got back behind the consoles. “Parameters set. Waiting on you, Doctor.”
Jane took a deep breath, her fingertips resting on the slider on the screen for a heartbeat. “Here goes,” she murmured, and pushed the bars up. The hum of building power filled the air, and Jane pressed her thumb to a dial that appeared on the screen. “Ten percent power and climbing.”
In the center of the room, the black, conical structures arranged around a central platform lit one bby one, glowing white. Jane grinned, her thumb still pushing the holographic dial along.
“Fifty percent… sixty… seventy, Loki, now!”
Sparks crackled around his fingertips as Loki placed his palms down on the metal plate. The green light intensified, becoming almost the same blinding white the conductors were putting out, and the optical wires blazed green as they carried his magic around the circle. Jane’s grin widened as the power levels jumped in response, and she quickly input the seven sets of coordinates that would open a stable bridge to Asgard.
“It’s working!” she shouted over the now-deafening roar of power. “One hundred percent power – engaging conductor-transporter link, inputting telemetry information—“
Without warning the buzz of power became an agonized squeal, almost like an animal in pain. White bolts leaped from one conductor to the next as showers of sparks cascaded from the equipment, the accumulated power suddenly left without anywhere to go.
“Down!” Tony shouted and Loki yanked his hands away from the plate to grab Jane and push her to the floor, shielding her with his body until the hum of power subsided into the pops of blowing fuses. Warily he raised his head and both he and Jane peeked up over the console to see a cloud of acrid smoke hanging over the center of the room and showers of sparks bursting out of the conductors.
“Are you all right?” he asked Jane. She nodded, knocked his hand away impatiently when he offered it to help her up, and pulled herself up with the console.
“I don’t—ugh,” she hissed, tapping the screen and narrowing her eyes at the readouts. “Something’s causing interference again, just like the last two times. See this gamma spike here? Whatever’s causing this… it’s like a party line on a telephone…”
“Perhaps you should take some time away from it,” Loki began, but Jane waved her hand at him.
“I’ve got to work on this,” she muttered. “Values… makes no sense…”
Tony leaned over the console. “Better get out now,” he said in a stage whisper. “She’ll be like this for a while.”
“I know, I have been here before…”
“And so I know there’s somewhere else you’d rather be.” Tony jerked his head toward the door. “I’ll cover for you if Princess Brainiac gets cranky. Go on.”
“I heard that!” Jane, now bent over and pulling cables and bits of circuitry out of one of the machines, poked her head out and glared at Tony. Her gaze softened a bit when she turned it on Loki, though. “You can go, though,” she told him. “I’ll need some time to fix this stuff and go over the data to see if I can figure out what the hell’s going on. I’ll let you know, Loki, okay?”
“Generous of you,” Loki quipped, but his smile – at least for Jane – was actually somewhat sincere. She was his sister by marriage, after all, and one of the very few mortals he could tolerate for extended periods of time. “Good luck, Jane Foster.”
With that he pulled the shadows around himself and vanished from the room, reappearing in the watery September sunlight of London. The Einherjar who had been stationed around the Bifrost site stepped smartly to attention and closed around him as he moved to the center of the rune-scribed circle, and the crowds in Kensington Gardens swarmed as close to the barricades as they could, shouting for his attention.
This time, though, Loki ignored them and instead let the Bifrost take him. He had somewhere else to be.
The command deck of Fury’s Helicarrier was quiet; it was the night shift, and nothing had cropped up since they’d come on duty. Nobody seemed to be drifting in their attention, though, and everyone sounded alert as they reported in at regular intervals, their voices soft to match the dimmer lighting that ensured preservation of night vision.
Fury turned as Coulson swiped his fingers across the screen of his tablet; windows slid into view on the console and Fury examined them. “The latest from SWORD, I take it?”
“Yes. It’s… gotten worse, sir. Agent Brand requests updated orders, though she wasn’t as diplomatic as that.”
“She won’t like it, but tell her to hang tight for now.”
“She won’t like that at all.”
“The Project isn’t ready yet, and without it, making any move is just going to show our hand before we’re ready.”
“It’ll be a nightmare for interplanetary relations either way. And on that note…” Coulson flicked his fingers again and another window appeared. “Another incident happened, sir.”
“Are we any closer to figuring out who’s supplying the Asgardian steel that makes these bullets? We’ve been working on this since Latveria. Asgard’s getting antsy.”
“All our leads haven’t gone anywhere, I’m afraid. Asgard’s own investigation has strongly hinted at someone in the palace itself, but they haven’t gotten much more information than we have. The Queen sent me a report on it last week – she regrets not having more time to devote to it. Apparently there have been rebellions across the Nine Realms lately, she’s been putting out fires.”
“Not taking it easy, I guess.”
“She’s Asgardian, I don’t know if she needs to.”
“It might make her husband less touchy.” But Fury shrugged it off; he doubted he’d ever see eye to eye with Loki, but for all that Sif could be as idealistic as Captain Rogers sometimes, she was a born leader. That, he could respect. “How’s he been taking it?”
“Sources say with varying degrees of exasperation. But Dr. Foster’s project keeps him busy.”
“Sir… what if he finds out about our Norway installation? About our work there?”
“He can’t. That place is shielded from here to doomsday, there’s no leakage.”
“I’m just asking if there’s a contingency plan. If Asgard learns that we’ve developed…”
“We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it, Coulson. But until then, make sure Hill keeps her team on alert, and call the Captain.”
“The other Captain.”
“Ah. Yes, sir.”
Fury watched as Coulson went over to his console and slipped on a headset. He knew he had the man’s loyalty – among other things – but Coulson had been voicing misgivings about Project Genie since Dr. Foster’s project had really begun gathering steam, and they’d only been building. He wondered if he ought to listen. Coulson’s gut tended to be pretty spot on, and that wasn’t just the attraction talking.
It’s important, vitally important, that we lessen our dependence on Asgard and their Bifrost, the Council members had told him when they’d read over the treaty with the Realm Eternal. We’ll continue to fund Dr. Foster, but we want you to figure out something with no ties whatsoever. Their goodwill isn’t infinite, Director, and we can’t let them know our movements so easily. There’s a limit, and they’re close to crossing it. And for once, Fury had agreed with them.
He called up the two project reports on his tablet and headed to his ready room. The core of SHIELD R&D was redundancy, and he wanted to make sure that both his options were still viable and on schedule.
The town of Roda’s Forest in the realm of Vanaheim was a sizeable one; being close to one of the major trade routes leading into the realm’s capitol had expanded its size such that it was almost a city itself, and certainly possessed of many Vanir of reasonable influence and wealth. Goods from the communities for hundreds of miles around funneled through Roda’s Forest, and rural families sent their children to be educated there, and as such it was an important place to control for anyone wishing a tactical advantage in the region.
The gates of the council citadel burst open jut in advance of the group thundering out on their horses. Guards on the walls drew their bows, shooting at the riders; arrowheads plinked off armor (which was made of good Asgardian steel, after all, a product that was scarce in this part of the realm), but most of the archers were aiming for the rider leading the pack, hooded and cloaked. The rider bent low over their horse’s neck, and the dappled gray courser snorted and sprang forward, hooves clattering on the cobblestones of the street.
The leaders of Roda’s Forest were smart, however, and had put guard posts around the city, so that when the riders – a delegation from Asgard attempting to determine the root cause of the city’s decision to rebel against the Vanir leaders – left the shadow of the citadel’s walls, they pulled up short before ranks of the city guard, standing with swords drawn.
“You dare!” yelled one of the horsemen, his curved helm marking him as one of the Einherjar. “You dare bare blades when you know—“
“We no longer recognize Asgard’s authority,” the leader of the guardsmen said. “Dismount and surrender your weapons, and by the council’s word you will be treated fairly and well until you can be ransomed.”
The hooded leader of the riders nudged their mount forward; sensing the mood; the horse laid his ears back as he was drawn up, pawing the stones so that his shoes threw sparks. “You are one city of a realm,” the rider said, lowering her hood. Sunlight gleamed on the wings of the Dragon Crown and seemed caught in black hair that rippled down her back, and Queen Sif stared down at the guards who barred her way. “You do not have the power to deny the right of Asgard to mediate on realms beholden to the throne. Now, lay down your weapons, and I will conveniently forget we had this conversation.”
She said this all in such a confident voice that for a moment, the guardsmen looked between each other, unsure. Queen Sif had done their realm a great service and respected them in a way that certain other rulers of Asgard and the Nine Realms had not; one of her greatest friends was of the Vanir himself, and rumor had it that she had taken as page a Vanir girl. But their orders were clear, and the leader straightened his back.
“You are Queen of Asgard,” he said, “And so you will be well-treated. Now, please, my lady. We do not want to spill your blood.”
Sif could not help it; her lips twitched. Her sword was strapped to her saddle, but she raised her hands, holding them slightly away from her body. Behind her, her guard shifted, the horses snorting.
“You would die before your first stroke fell,” she said quietly, and dropped her hands again, and the horsemen at her back sprang into action.
The city guards, alarmed at the sight of Einherjar seemingly charging right at them without caring for their safety, trembled. And that was all the time that was needed, that moment of hesitation. Sif gathered up her reins in one hand – no time for finesse – and bellowed “Now!” over the racket. With amazing precision the riders split, sending their mounts as fast as they dared down the narrow alleys between walled merchant estates.
There was barely enough room for two abreast, but they soon emerged into another large thoroughfare and turned back toward the main city gates and the shortest route to where they could safely be transported home. Heimdall had certainly enough precision to pluck a traveler up with the Bifrost anywhere, but when it came to horses and riders, it was simply easier to do it in an open space.
Of course, this was when the cannons mounted on the walls of the citadel started firing. Sif frowned at this, but spun Gylfi on his hindquarters and made for the city gates as fast as she could.
I told them to be swift, she thought, a spike of worry in her heart. We may not make it out if they are not.
“Not to be a spoilsport, but if we do not hurry—“
“You’ll wither away from lack of feeding? I very much doubt that, my vast friend.”
“I was going to say that our dear Queen will have gotten herself into trouble, because these cannons have quite a range and one that can easily reach the Bifrost site besides, and, well…”
“I jest, old friend, I knew what you were talking about. Now…”
Fandral, his hand on the hilt of his rapier, peered up the winding staircase. From above, great deep booms shook the steps every time the cannon fired… and it was firing off a lot of shots. Beside him, Volstagg adjusted his grip on his axe. Fandral turned back to him with a grin.
“Now all we have to do is wait for Hogun’s—“
The body of one of the guards came clattering down the stairs from the cannon platform, and Fandral and Volstagg pressed themselves back against the wall as it bounced down, coming to rest against the wall.
“—sign,” Fandral finished. “I suppose—“
Hogun stuck his head around the bend in the staircase. His expression didn’t change much, but there was a definite look of what’s keeping you in his eyes as he jerked his head back up the stairs. Without further ado, the other two of the Warriors Three swept up onto the cannon platform behind their friend, and between Fandral’s rapier, Volstagg’s mighty axe, and Hogun’s deft work with his mace, the city guardsmen who had been manning the weapons were all dead or unconscious in a trice.
Hogun bent to tie up the ones who had only been rendered unconscious as Fandral peered at the controls of one of the cannon. “It’s not dissimilar to the ones at home,” he said brightly. “What say we help out our gracious Queen, eh?”
He climbed up into the seat and laid his hands upon the controls, grinning the whole time. Volstagg shaded his eyes with a hand as he watched.
“Do you have any idea what you are doing, Fandral?”
“Not at all! But it seems like a good and helpful idea, right, Hogun? See, he’s silent, Volstagg, silence means yes.”
“It does not.”
“He speaks and it’s not favorable to you, Fandral. Shouldn’t you get down—“
“Probably, but I’m not going to. Now, how do I get it to fire?”
Sif yanked Gylfi’s reins hard to the left, avoiding another volley of arrows from archers on the rooftops nearby, only to run right into a shower of dust and shattered stone from the house exploding beside them. The cannon fire was coming fast and hard, and Sif cast a glare over her shoulder as the guards with her pulled in close, raising their shields to protect her.
“What are they doing?” she muttered, then heeled Gylfi forward. Fearlessly he galloped onward, and her guard kept up with her as best they could. Houses seemed to burst to either side of them as the city guards in the emplacements fired more and more recklessly, and Sif ground her teeth that the innocent people in this city were being made to suffer for the sudden idiocy of their leaders. She did her best to maneuver around them, and for their part when they saw her coming at them fast, crowned and with a determined look upon her face, they got out of the way.
“My lady!” one of the Einherjar shouted. “The cannons, they’ve stopped!”
Sif turned her attention from plowing through a group of the city guard to look back at the now-quiet cannon emplacements. She could just barely see two people waving frantically at her, and grinned.
“They’ve done it!” she said. “Make for the—“
A glowing ball of energy went whizzing overhead and Sif ducked, watching it go bowling into an oncoming group of city guardsmen.
“—gates,” she finished. “Oh, I am going to have words with Fandral when we return home…”
She pushed Gylfi across the scorch mark left by the cannon fire and led her group of Einherjar through back onto the main road out of Roda’s Forest. Shortly after, she was joined by the other group, the part that had split off. The gatekeepers, perhaps, had wised up and the gates stood open before them. Hoofbeats sounded rapid and hollow over the bridge over the city’s canal and then they were out, their horses covering the grassy ground easily and quickly.
When they reached the Bifrost site Sif called for the Captain of the Einherjar who had come with her. “Task some men with waiting for the Warriors Three here,” she told him. “Make sure they know I will want to speak with them when they return to Asgard.”
“Yes, my Queen.” The Captain fidgeted a bit. “My lady, I must ask…”
“I am quite well, Captain.” Sif straightened, repressing a sigh. “Your concern is appreciated, but I think it will take somewhat more to stop me from doing my duty.”
Sensing he had perhaps toed a line he was not meant to cross, the Captain quickly bowed his head. “Of course, my Queen,” he said respectfully, then turned away to give his orders.
Five minutes later, Sif led them into the column of the Bifrost.
“Are you still playing with that stuff?”
Bruce pushed the holographic projection down so he could look at Tony over the top of it. Years on and he still hadn’t figured out what it was about the mysterious black rock that made it block not only Loki’s innate magic, but any magic. They’d tested it with artifacts from Asgard, SHIELD had apparently tested it with other people who had relevant abilities, and nothing - nothing - got past it.
“It’s still a mystery,” he replied. “There’s nothing in its molecular structure that indicates why it does what it does, all our chemical tests don’t indicate anything particularly special… there’s nothing to explain its effects in our current scientific knowledge.”
“So what about outside of it?”
“Tony,” Bruce said patiently, “The point of defining ‘current scientific knowledge’ is to say that there is literally nothing in our realm of understanding that I have not tried to use. But if there’s a way to determine it, it’s not anything that we, on Earth, know or understand.”
“Yet.” Bruce ran his hands through his hair. “And we’re no closer to figuring out what Doom’s been doing with optics-grade glass.”
Though Doom wasn’t their responsibility (another group who had been dealing with the antics of Latveria’s ruler and who was not also banned from crossing its borders had taken over) they had received samples now and then of more glassine material that all turned out to be the same as before. They were absolutely no closer to figuring out what that was all about either.
“Maybe he’s trying to make a mirror that will show him how beautiful he is inside.” Tony threw his hands up. “At least whatever he’s trying, he’s still unsuccessful.”
“Small comforts.” Bruce watched as Tony spun around to his console, running a newly-programmed decryption. He’d come up with it in conjunction with some previously very bored MIT grad students, who were no longer bored as they all had paid internships at Stark Industries’ R&D division. They’d wormed their way deep down into SHIELD’s files that Tony insisted on pilfering every so often, and there was some pretty exciting encryption going on. According to Tony, anyway. Bruce wasn’t a programmer or an engineer or a thrill-seeker, just a scientist with a sense of adventure. “Still messing with that?”
“I like knowing what SHIELD is up to.” Tony fiddled with some of the settings. “Don’t you? They just brushed off what we told them about the Tesseract-like emissions from that ‘bot in San Francisco, that’s not normal.”
“To be fair, we weren’t exactly honest ourselves.”
“Still.” Tony watched the decryption program humming away to itself. “We’re supposed to be top tier with them. I don’t appreciate being used and misled.”
“Neither do I. And I only say anything because you’ve been playing with it for years and it’s hilarious how determined you are.”
“I’m a persistent man. How else do you think I got Pepper to agree to go out with me?”
“When you put it that way it sounds like you’re in high school.”
“Well, she’s like the popular, smart girl in the class and I’m the troubled, troublemaking genius.”
They continued to shoot lines back and forth, though they both turned to other projects. This was part of why Bruce had stayed, though; it all made him feel relaxed, accepted, and in his position that was huge.
It wasn’t until Tony failed to respond to one of his little barbs that Bruce looked up from manipulating the holographic structure of the black rock to try and figure out something new about it.
“I didn’t actually mean it, you know,” he said. “I don’t think you’re a—“
“Anyone at SHIELD ever mentioned a Project Genie to you?”
Tony’s voice was strange, tight and controlled under the casual veneer. Bruce straightened, waving his hand to shut down all the analysis he’d been doing. “No. Why?”
“Come take a look at this.”
Five minutes later, Bruce was leaning against the lab bench. All the calm was gone from before; his heart raced his mind for speed, his palms felt sweaty.
“So,” he said. “Now we know.”
“Yeah.” Tony passed a hand over his mouth, staring at the screen, at the damning words on it. “You realize this explains a lot.”
“Yeah.” Bruce pulled off his glasses and pinched his nose. “Yeah, it really does.”
“So what are we going to do about it?”
Bruce hauled his brain off the edge of a very dangerous rage and, quietly, outlined his plan. When he was done, Tony was grinning. He was angry, but he was smiling, and Bruce knew better than anyone that anger with a purpose was far healthier and less destructive to oneself or in general.
“You,” Tony said, “Are a genius.”
“Highest praise, coming from you.” Bruce pulled out his phone and tapped one very specific contact. “Let’s get started.”
The hum of the Bifrost was still loud in his ears as he crossed the gleaming floor toward the archway. The outer shell had already spun down, and beyond it he could see his gun-ship waiting for him, draped in green and gold cloth. In the same way as Sif lovingly cared for her weapons or her horses or her motorcycle, Loki had cared for this gun-ship. He’d made certain special enhancements himself, adding more when he’d learned of his impending fatherhood. But mostly it was built for speed, maneuverability, and giving anyone opposing him in it a powerful headache.
“No horses?” he asked Heimdall as he passed.
“I thought perhaps my King would like to get back to the palace quickly.”
There was a note of amusement in Heimdall’s eyes that made Loki pause half a step, but he paid it no mind and continued on, climbing into his gun-ship and taking the tiller in hand.
“I would sit down if I were you,” he told his guards. Very wisely, they complied, and with a grin, Loki gripped the tiller tightly, fingertips coming down along the outer edge. Engines whining, the gun-ship rose and shot off at speeds strictly faster than necessary, the light of Asgard’s sun glittering off its gold-painted designs.
Heimdall had not been wrong. For all that he did love traveling this way, and had taken the gun-ship out for loops of the city when he grew bored, he had been away from Asgard for nearly a week this time, and there was someone he very much wanted to see.
He landed smoothly on the wide platform atop one of the towers of the palace, fingers easing off the speed and slowly releasing the tiller, letting it settle into its landing position before springing lightly to the ground. The guards seemed a little shaky as they stepped off, but said nothing of it. Brave souls, they were, or else just very smart, and Loki was not unaware of the fact that it had become common knowledge that one simply didn’t annoy him too much if they wanted to keep their position.
“My King,” one of his attendants said, “Welcome home. Was your trip to Midgard productive?”
“Not at all.” He opened his mouth to ask where Sif was, but the attendant barreled on ahead.
“We have had a messenger from Jotunheim, my King, with an update on their ongoing succession crisis…”
“Did they not agree to keep Urrikr on the throne?”
“There seems to be some dispute. If I may, my lord, Asgard should—“
“Wait for an afternoon while I make sure my wife has fared well in my absence.” Loki’s eyes narrowed when he saw how the attendant paled and hustled along faster in his wake.
“But my King, the Vanir—“
The attendant stuttered to a halt as Loki spun to face him, holding up a palm to forestall any verbal protests or statements. “Algeyr,” he said. “It is Algeyr, yes? I have been away from Asgard for nearly a full week attempting to understand why a process that ought to work perfectly refuses to do so. I have a pregnant wife I would very much like to see. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“My King, it is about your lady wife.”
Ice flooded him, and he looked back. The attendant visibly shook in his robes as Loki spoke, his voice very soft, so quiet it did not even echo in the great hall.
“What about the Queen?”
“She… the talks with that rebel faction in Vanaheim, my lord, the one in Roda’s Forest, they were not going well, so she went with some of the Royal Guard and the Warriors Three to lend her weight to them…”
Loki closed his eyes, breathing slowly through his nose until the panic was manageable. It was probably nothing, after all, for he would have known if something truly horrible had befallen Sif long before now.
“Where is she now?”
“In the Healing Room, my lord. She was not hurt herself, but many of the Guard were, and she is seeing to their care.”
“Of course she is.” Loki pulled the shadows around him – doubtless giving Algeyr the attendant a horrible fright, followed by utter relief – and reappeared in the broad entrance hall of the Healing Rooms, giving the junior healers and apprentices there horrible frights. In the midst of the resulting chaos, Loki pulled one of the master healers aside and asked, in what he thought of as a very calm manner, where his wife was.
He must have been more forceful or terrifying than he thought, for the man’s eyes widened slightly. “I… follow me, my King, she is overseeing… just back here, please.”
Sif had a hand pressed into her back as she watched one of the healers help a member of the special Royal Guard contingent of Einherjar back up to his feet. The two of them watched the guardsman walk back and forth with a critical eye, the healer wiping her hands on her apron. The motion quickly became a curtsy when she realized Loki stood in the archway, and all the Royal Guard came as close to attention as they could.
Only Sif remained relaxed, looking around at her guards. “At ease,” she said, her voice clear and ringing in the space, and there was almost an audible sigh of relief from some who promptly slumped back onto their pillows. “Welcome home, husband.”
“And the same to you, dearest wife,” Loki replied, letting just a bit of the edge through. He could see her straighten, her chin tilting up proudly.
“Master Healer Eyfura, will you need me for anything else?”
“No, my Queen.” Eyfura was nervous, but her voice was clear and strong. “My staff and I can see to the rest. Thank you for your assistance.”
“It was no trouble. Let me know if there is anything else.”
Everyone inclined their heads as Sif and Loki left the room, and those they passed in the bright halls did the same. Sif occasionally paused to touch a Guard’s hand or murmur encouragement, but she seemed to know that they needed a private talk and kept it blissfully short.
Loki waited until they were out of the Healing Room and on their way back to the residential wing before he spoke. “I thought,” he said, “That you had agreed to remain behind and let the delegation do its work.”
“I had, and if the negotiations had been going any better I would have indeed left it to the delegates to carry out. But they were encountering far more resistance than they could handle, and I thought it best to intervene. As well I did, husband. By the time I reached Roda’s Forest, the delegates had been killed.”
“Did you not think that yours would be a valuable death? Queen of Asgard and the Nine Realms, killed by rebels—“
“Do you believe me stupid? Of course I thought about it. That was why I took so many Guardsmen with me.” Her fingers brushed her stomach, a gentle curve under the dark red suede of her tunic. “I know I cannot fight as I did even two months ago, and I was not going to put myself or our child in danger if I did not think I could get out.”
“You could have sent word to me, at least.”
“And you would have come haring back to Asgard, and whoever is passing information to these rebels from the palace would have known something was wrong.” She looked at him sidelong. “Don’t pretend I’m not right.”
“You are,” Loki grumbled after a moment of sullen silence. “But if something had happened to you…”
“Nothing happened, and both I and the babe are perfectly all right.” Sif pulled them both to a stop and took his hands, placing them on her stomach where he might feel her strong heartbeat, and with it, the heartbeat of their child. “I know you worry for us, but really, Loki, I am in fact capable of taking care of things and being pregnant at the same time.”
The corridor they were in was deserted, and so he felt safe stepping forward, resting his forehead against hers. “I know,” he said, “But I… Sif, I could not bear it if I lost you both, and if I cannot protect you—“
“—then I will simply have to protect myself,” Sif finished for him sharply. “A shocking prospect, I know, but one that I find very simple in practice.”
Loki could not say anything, could only press his face against her hair and reassure himself that she was all right and be grateful she allowed him to do this, to be weak without fear of it being used against him. Sif put her arms around him and pressed in as close as she could, her fingers stroking his hair.
“In any case,” she said when they’d pulled apart and continued on their way, her arm linked through his, “I worry more for you surviving this pregnancy than myself. After all, women have been having their babes in fields for thousands of years before you or I were glimmers in the eyes of our parents, but I am not entirely sure anyone has been as utterly neurotic about colors of food as you are.”
He was certain she had said other words, but the only thing Loki heard out of all that made him pause. “You want to have the baby in a field?”
Sif threw up her hands.
“It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Thor set a mug of coffee down at Jane’s elbow. With one of her hands fisted in his close-woven tunic, Lena grinned and reached for her mother.
Jane looked up suddenly from her tablet, and Thor felt a great warmth in his chest when a smile just the same as their daughter’s blossomed across his wife’s face. Jane had been so preoccupied with her work since the failed test yesterday that he feared she’d forget everything else around her, but he should have known better. Lena was their little light.
“Hi there, little lady,” she said, taking Lena from Thor’s arms. “You been keeping an eye on your dad?”
“Yes, Mommy. Daddy been good.”
“That’s good. I’m glad I can count on you to keep him out of trouble.” She stretched up to kiss Thor and he relished it, his hand stroking her hair before resting on her back.
“Someone must do it,” he rumbled. Jane leaned against him a little bit.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed, letting Lena down so she could go tearing off across the flat. Greenwich had only been too happy to provide more funding and more facilities when Jane had come asking. After all, one of the youngest Nobel laureates had a lot of pull when it came to alumni and applications, and it didn’t hurt that the more Jane was here, the more Thor was around. But Jane had been in the lab every day, and not even Loki had escaped her grasp; Thor had barely had half a day with his brother before Jane had hauled him off. Luckily, both his brother and Sif were due to make their last diplomatic visit before Sif curtailed her travel, and Jane had agreed to take a break from her research so they could have some time together.
“I know I’ve been busy lately,” Jane was saying as they followed their daughter into the living room. “It’s just extremely frustrating that everything that should work doesn’t, and I can’t figure out why, or what’s causing this gamma spike.”
“Perhaps it is time to let it go for a while. Come, Jane, I’ve made us lunch.”
She tilted her head up to peer at him. “You made lunch.”
“I’ve been learning! I’m much better than I was.”
Thor scooped up her hand and kissed it. “You will believe me when you taste it.”
Jane grinned up at him before slipping away to help Lena up into her booster seat. Thor hesitated in the doorway, watching them together; Jane’s hair shining in the light, Lena chattering away. He loved to see his wife excited about her work, but sometimes he was as jealous of that as he was resentful of the fact that Midgard could so easily pull him away from them with its conflict. It all ate into the years he had left with Jane, each one seeming to slip away faster than the one before.
“And then Darcy taked us—“
“Took us, sweetie.”
“Close enough.” Jane surveyed the dishes on the table. “Chicken noodle soup and… Pop-Tarts. Interesting.”
“She likes them both. Don’t you, little one?”
“Yes, Papa. I like them both!”
“See, Jane?” Thor watched as Lena broke off a piece of Pop-Tart and crammed it in her mouth. “She likes them.”
“She needs to eat her—Lena, the soup first. Lena! The soup!”
They ate lunch in happy conversation. As language had come to her, Lena had become garrulous, commenting on anything and everything. She had Jane’s curiosity… but then again he should have known that when he’d found Lena working out how to get out of her crib, or how to defeat child-proof gates and cabinet locks and many other things she ought not have been getting in to.
Later, Thor came wandering into the den after putting Lena to bed. As energetic as she was, she luckily went to sleep easily. As much as he loved his daughter Thor appreciated the time he got alone with Jane. She was reading on the couch, but glanced up and smiled at him as he sat beside her.
Thor twitched the end of the blanket over and Jane draped her legs across his lap. He arranged the blanket around them. “She asked for the tale of Thrym again before bedtime.”
“I knew we shouldn’t have let your brother babysit her.” Jane set her book aside and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her knees and resting her head on Thor’s shoulder. “He’s a bad influence.”
“Perhaps. But she can hardly escape it.”
Jane hummed thoughtfully and quieted, and after a while Thor put an arm around her and rested his cheek upon her head, content to simply sit there with her warm, comfortable weight leaning against him. She was so rarely still as of late, it was as though she needed to manifest her passion for her work through movement, but there had been plenty of time lately for them to have these quiet moments. In a few hours there would be nightmares and little toddler hands grasping the bedsheets, but for now it was only Jane and Thor, and he relished it.
“I enjoy this,” he said, pressing his lips to her hair. Jane hummed, and he felt her lips on his throat.
“Me too. Lena’s got your energy—“
“I think we share responsibility for that, my love.”
“Yeah, I guess we do.” Jane shifted and got more comfortable against him. “Still, I think she takes after you in some really important ways. She fell down the steps down to the sidewalk the other day and bounced.”
Thor snorted. “Resilience can be very uniquely Asgardian.”
“Hmm, you’re talking to someone who persisted with a theory that got her laughed out of two universities…”
“And look where that got you.”
He could feel Jane’s grin against his skin. “Pretty far in life, I’d say.”
She got quiet after that, and they sat in companionable silence, letting time slip by. He thought she’d fallen asleep on him – and to be honest, Thor was prepared to sit up all night just so he could hold her like this – but about an hour after he’d sat down, she jerked a little and sat up.
“I’ve figured it out,” she breathed.
Jane threw the blanket off and scrambled off him. “The problem! The reason why every attempt has been unsuccessful, the interference—what time is it in the States? I’ve got to call...”
Thor sighed, but felt a surge of excitement to mirror what was on his wife’s face. If it meant the stress she’d been under would go away, he would be happy for her discovery. “What is it?”
Jane grinned. “For once, Thor,” she said. “I can explain this in terms you’ve grown up with. Oh, Stark’s going to hate that.”
She clicked over to Skype on her laptop and sat down, running her hand through her hair a few times. “It’s about the Tesseract.”
The next day saw Loki walking into Fensalir, his mother’s hall. She still took petitioners, so unsurprisingly, he came face to face with a group from the city just on their way out. Athey had all bowed and given him and Sif their best wishes for a healthy child, they left and he was able to proceed out onto the patio where his mother sat on a cushioned stool, putting away her spindle. Not only mother of the reigning monarch but a beloved woman in her own right, Frigga often still saw petitioners and did what she could to aid them. Lately he had been going to her as well, asking for advice about Sif and pregnancy and child-rearing and all that came with it. He had been somewhat relieved to find out that Sif often did the same.
His mother stood and took his hands, and Loki suffered himself to bend over so she could kiss him on both cheeks. “You look well, Mother,” he said quietly.
“Thank you, dear.” She leaned back, eyeing him critically. “I am going to send for some tea, you have a look about you.”
“Tea is a treatment for many ills, Loki, and worry is one of them. Walk with your old mother until it comes, won’t you?”
She gave instructions to one of her handmaidens and then took her son’s offered arm. It was pleasant in the gardens; a breeze blew off the rim sea, and as they walked he let his formal court garb melt away, replaced by more casual gear.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Frigga murmured gently, though her lips were tilted up. “It baffles people.”
“I like them better that way.”
“Four years as King has done nothing to dull your taste for such things.” She paused, leaning over to smell one of the blooms on a rosebush.
“Did you expect it might?”
“Not at all.” His mother straightened and tucked her hand in his elbow again. “Now, what is it you wanted to talk to me about? If it is about Sif again, she came to me yesterday and we have ascertained, using a considerable amount of my many thousands of years of knowledge, that she and the child are both perfectly safe and healthy.”
“I—yes, that is good.” Loki pursed his lips. “Have I become that obvious?”
“I am your mother, Loki, I know you better than most. But really, as endearing as your concern is, you must remember to trust Sif. She is perhaps even more fiercely protective now that she is with child than she was before, and should anyone threaten her or the babe they will have another thing coming if they think she will present less of a challenge.”
“I know, Mother.”
“Not that you should not be concerned at all.” She leaned over again, this time touching the petals of a star-flower. “But try not to dog her footsteps too much. She is just as nervous as you are… but you knew that, of course.”
Loki walked along in his mother’s wake for a while, watching her smell her blooms, prune away dead or dying branches with a tiny silver knife she kept for the purpose. Occasionally she asked his opinion or requested aid, but for the most part she let him follow along just as he had as a child and an adolescent and even after he’d reached majority. Here he was not a King, just a son and a husband and soon, a father.
It was that last that he fretted over the most. It had been one of the sticking points years ago, when he and Sif had really sat down to talk about the prospect of children. Loki felt he had not exactly had the most shining example of fatherhood in his life, and after circling round and round this a few times Sif had thrown her hands in the air and said that he need not follow in Odin’s parenting footsteps, and she would in fact prefer that he do anything but.
This still left him in a state of confusion. Any child of himself and Sif would inevitably be strong-willed, talented, brilliant, possessed of a number of potential gifts, one of the first children of two realms born in almost a thousand years… what if he did not nurture them properly? What if he created another person who was like the man he had been—was still fighting to get away from?
“I can all but hear you thinking, dear.”
Loki sighed, passing a hand over his face as they walked back to the patio for their tea. Frigga poured it for them, deftly keeping her sleeves out of the way. “Another one of my known traits.”
And he told her of his thoughts, his tea growing cold as he did. When he finished he took a sip, grimaced, and pushed a bit of his magic through it to warm it again. His mother watched him, one of her little enigmatic smiles playing about her mouth as she did. Loki knew that expression very well, for it was one he wore often.
“My dear, lovely son,” Frigga murmured, reaching across to rest her hand on his. “You will be a wonderful father. I wish there were easy things I could teach you, as I did so long ago when you were learning your powers… alas, parenting is a magic of an altogether different sort, and its mysteries are not contained within any tome or scroll in any library in the Nine Realms or beyond them. It is the sort of thing one must learn for oneself. And you are a very smart man, Loki, and a good King, and you will be a good father as well, in the same way that Sif is a brilliant warrior and a wonderful Queen and will likely be a better mother than I was—“
“Nobody will be a better mother than you,” Loki cut in, and Frigga beamed at him.
“Trust Sif, and trust yourself,” she told him, letting go of his hand. “I am so very proud of both of you.”
“Thank you, Mother.”
They finished their tea and he rose to leave, kissed Frigga on both cheeks this time, and went for the door.
“Oh, Loki? Do try not to put much stock in some of those things the mortal Tony Stark sends you to read, dear. They’re dreadfully inaccurate.”
Loki froze. “How…”
“Sif was in fine form earlier, quite upset about your obsession with her eating habits. I assure you, we are working with the kitchens to ensure she gets the nutrition she needs, and you needn’t concern yourself with that.”
He swallowed. His mother’s words had carried no tone of rebuke, but he felt the same as he had as a child when he’d been caught in some bit of mischief. Back when he had still been able to be caught.
“Yes, Mother,” he replied, and left the room.
Lena actually slept longer than she usually did, which was just as well. Thor made coffee and sat down to watch Jane pacing back and forth across the room designated as her office.
She was talking quickly to the computer – he had ducked in briefly to say hello to Tony and Bruce, and to say that his time here was very nice and that London was quite lovely but that he’d be ready for duty again in a few weeks when his leave time ended – explaining her idea, which as far as Thor could tell involved the Tesseract interfering with her Earth-based Bifrost system. He’d tried explaining that the Tesseract was not only dormant after being drained four years ago, it was shielded by a variety of spells of both Loki’s and their mother’s devising, and even if Loki had left himself a loophole, Frigga would not have done. But Jane was determined, and it was best to get out of her way when she was like this, so Thor sipped his coffee and leaned back against the couch, closing his eyes and waiting for Jane to finish up.
He cracked an eye open. Jane was standing silhouetted in the doorway, staring at her computer. She looked confused, her mouth slightly open and her brows drawn down and together. Bruce said something that Thor couldn’t quite hear, and Jane’s expression changed, becoming more angry than confused, and she stalked over to her computer, out of sight.
“What did you say, Dr. Banner?”
Thor got up and went to lean in the doorway. Jane mostly obscured the screen that showed Tony and Bruce seated in one of the labs in Stark Tower, while in a smaller window what looked like some kind of document appeared. The SHIELD logo was bold in the upper left corner, and Thor stepped around the doorway to see what was going on.
“Hey again,” Bruce said. “You should probably see this too, Thor. It’s your people that SHIELD’s been lying to as well as us.”
“We’ve all kind of agreed that you’ll be the one to tell your brother and Sif, though,” Tony added. “Whatever abuse they team up to hurl, you can probably take. I mean, you’ll at least survive.”
“I do not understand,” Thor said, coming to lean on the desk beside Jane. He brushed his fingers over her knuckles and she took his hand for a brief squeeze, her anger taking second place to a fond look before she turned back to look at the other two again. “What is the matter?”
“Read that little memo, Hammertime,” Tony said. So Thor did.
And then he read it again, because he was certain that he was misunderstanding something in the language, some nuance of English that the Allspeak didn’t catch.
And then he read it a third time, but by then he knew what he was seeing and, much like Jane, confusion was giving way to anger.
“They lied,” he growled. “To us, to the rest of the Avengers, to my brother and Sif and Asgard…”
“That’s what’s been causing your interference,” Tony said. “Dr. Foster, it’s not cosmic at all. It’s right here on Earth, it’s in Harstad. Project Genie.”
“Those bastards,” Jane breathed, and though he too was angry, Thor was startled to hear so much venom in her tone of voice. She clicked a few times and more documents appeared, each one more damning than the last. “They’ve been screwing up my work because they don’t think it’ll yield results as quickly—“
“They are meddling in things far beyond them,” Thor added. “So, friends, Jane—what do we do?”
“First things first,” Tony said. “We tell Asgard. How do you think they’re gonna take it?”
“In here, my lady.”
The guard opened the door for her and put his fist over his heart as she passed. The hall was empty save for Loki and a messenger, who looked extremely uncomfortable.
“What is going on?” she asked. “Loki?”
She could see the anger writ plain on his face when she came closer, and that was enough to slow her steps. For Loki to be so plain-faced…
He didn’t greet her or look around at her, only pointed at the messenger. “Again. Repeat what you have told me to your Queen.”
“As you wish, my King.” When he turned to face her and bowed, Sif made a note to personally commend him; he was quite obviously aware of the gravity of the message he carried, terrified to be confronted by his rulers, one of which was livid and would probably soon be followed to that state by the second, but he did not waver and his voice did not crack or sound thin.
“My Queen, we have received word from Midgard, from the Avengers, friends to the throne and the House of Odin, and from the Lady Jane, Princess of—“
“Yes, yes,” Loki waved a hand irritably. “Get on with it. We know everyone this message is from.”
“…very well, my King. The Midgardians of SHIELD have constructed a Tesseract of their own, hidden away in a kingdom of the north. Its effects have been causing problems for the Lady Jane’s work, and she requests your aid and support in this matter.”
Sif stared at the messenger a moment, trying to determine if he might be lying. Judging by Loki’s reaction, she thought that he had probably been put through her husband’s own ways of determining honesty, and resolved to have this messenger commended for bravery, if only because she was starting to feel hot rage bubbling up in her as well.
“Thank you,” she said quietly to the messenger. “The King and I will discuss this and send you back to Midgard with our reply. Please wait outside.”
The messenger made his manners and left the hall with alacrity, the door shutting with a very final-sounding thud. Sif felt her child shift within her, and then a sharp kick. She winced, stroking the spot. “I know,” she murmured.
That seemed to get Loki to step back from his anger for a moment. “The child?”
“Just as angry at this betrayal as we are. So, is it time to start our last trip to Midgard rather earlier than planned, and pay SHIELD a visit?”
“Yes,” Loki said slowly. “Yes, I think that is a most appropriate idea, dear wife.”
“Then what are we waiting for?”