“Huginn, to me!” the Allfather called, but the great inky bird remained on Hela’s gloved fist, mesmerized as she brought him to her breast and caressed his soot-black head with her slender fingers. After a moment, his brother Muninn came to land on her shoulder, stroking his obsidian beak through the loops and whorls and elaborate plaits of her hair.
The handmaidens she’d been given as her own had become increasingly complicated in their designs, petting Hela as if she was a child, exclaiming over her long, preternaturally soft tresses as they braided and twisted and pinned. The attention both amused and bemused her (she'd become fat more accustomed, in her ordinary life, hearing one or the other of her parents shout, "Hela, where is your hairbrush?" five minutes before she'd be late for school). She was fond of them, her maidens. Pretty, soft, foolish ones with their velvet hands and flower-petal gowns. Any one of them would have died to protect her, without thought, and Hela almost feared to ask herself if that was her own doing, or the way they naturally inclined.
She was unused to getting her way so easily, when at home even little Fen looked at her askance if she tried to influence his thoughts, and would give her a solid, “No way!” That had actually been one of the phrases he’d first learned to speak, soon after "Santa Dad" (an example of Fen bathtime humour), “I love you” and “more, please?”
Her dad, Tony, mortal and unmagical though he might be, would momentarily set aside whatever currently occupied him to ask, “What the actual hell, Empress?” Jöri looked at her with knowing disappointment, whilst Pabbi would say something poetical and strange, then generally block her abilities outright until bedtime. Even Uncle Thor, because he’d changed greatly since he left Asgard, would blink his bright blue eyes at her and inquire, “Is not what you attempt forbidden unto you, small princess?”
Hela loved in her family their ability to deny her, an ability that made her feel safe. She had been forbidden, absolutely, from using magic of any sort on friends, employees, delivery drivers, or anyone else in the tower, up to and including the Avengers, on pain of losing her abilities until she was eighteen (by chronological age, no less, rather than biological).
Pabbi’s eyes had gone fire-green when he told her, and he’d said, “I threaten you not, belovéd Hela. Indeed, I promise you, it shall be as I say.”
He could do it, too, making use of the immense magic that dwelt inside his damaged body.
He could do it, and he would bleed, and she would feel horrible to the depths of her soul for ever having hurt him.
Hela promised herself she would never but, knowing herself, she feared that someday she would. Exceptions to the rule would be made, naturally, for matters of self-preservation, or in defense of those who could not defend themselves—or to fend off those things that attacked under cover of darkness, that Pabbi had fought alone so long, and so bravely.
He’d never known that Hela had gone to see Dr. Strange on her own (Sorcerer Supreme, her dainty white arse), as Pabbi had done before her. Mr. Hogan drove, and she had given him a memory of a special Christmas choir practice (featuring all his favourite carols, which he enjoyed thoroughly), and after, a shared treat of warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
She’d felt guilty, but not overly so. Mr. Hogan liked her, and would store what she’d given him within his mind under the heading “Excellent Holiday Memories.” It wasn’t so much a lie as it was fiction, and Pabbi made fiction all the time.
Uncle Kurt would almost certainly call that justification, and Hela knew he’d be correct. Uncle Kurt was a moral person, in the very best way, because he thoroughly examined the twistings and turnings of what was right and what was wrong, and didn’t merely pretend to look, while truly seeing only through the distorting-glass of his faith (of which she remained suspect)—not necessarily as it was practiced by Uncle Kurt, but as it was believed in by Capt. Rogers, who though a nice man, would not forgive Pabbi, and of course by the Hateful People, who whined always of their own purity and their right to judge, as if hatred was a right sacredly given them.
There were people Hela would quite like to smite, in divers and sundry ways (as Pabbi might say) and felt a certain gratitude that Uncle Kurt remained near, to remind her why smiting wasn’t often the best idea.
Dad, Uncle Logan and Uncle Thor often came down a little too much on the pro-smiting to be totally relied upon, and dearest Pabbi… Dearest Pabbi wasn’t well, and she ought not to ask him difficult things until he became strong again.
Hela plucked a small feather from Muninn’s back, hid a message within its barbs and sent it fluttering. To Midgard. To Pabbi. With her love.
And the all-seeing Allfather never noticed.
Hela reminded herself of the need to take Pabbi’s cautions seriously. He wanted the best for her, always, and had learned his own difficult lessons about the drawbacks of a thorough mindthrall. As Pabbi was also her hero, the thought of disappointing him made her cringe.
Dearest, dearest Pabbi. She hoped he fared well. Did he know about the new baby yet? When Heimdall had taken her from home, it had not yet even kindled.
This world was strange, Hela considered. Stranger than Midgard, in its way. Midgard's oddness lay in the way that every place one went, every person one met remained so very, very different from the next place or person. Asgard's strangeness was the opposite: it showed such conformity in every great or small thing, even the people matching in their thoughts, needs, wants, actions… Was that the Allfather’s influence? she wondered. Did he use his craft to enthrall them, perhaps even without knowing?
Hela had quickly realized her grandfather, by any way of measuring, could well be described as more than a bit mad. He was also (to list just a few of his excellent qualities), a selfish, egotistical, control-freakish, sadistical turd, intoxicated by his own power.
For now, though, Hela smiled sweetly, pretty as a picture, as they said on Midgard.
Here in Asgard, she’d set aside her much-loved inky raiment for childish gowns in what her dad would almost certainly have referred to, snidely, as “Easter colors.”
If he’d seen her now, in a yellow frock embroidered with nosegays of complimentary hues, he’d probably have said, “Don't look now, Empress, but I think the Easter Bunny threw up on your dress.”
She missed her dad bitterly, though he’d been his worst self when she left. She missed her Pabbi as if the heart had been torn out from her breast. She loved him almost unbearably, and feared for him. No wonder she crept away to Sleipnir (his boyish form now enrobed in a glamour that made him look "horsey," as if nothing had changed), night after night in this mad place. Only Sleip remained to her of family, love, sanity… All that mattered in Hela's world.
She fed, now, each of the ravens a tidbit of meat, crooning to them, “Pretty birds, pretty birds, oh my pretty birds.”
“Your voice is dulcet, granddaughter,” the old monster said, his tone indulgent, “But they are not pretty birds. They are my Thought and Memory, my eyes and ears, as you know.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” Hela replied, smiling adorably. They are also thoroughly enthralled to me, she thought, hiding her mind carefully under notions of childish, foolish things. She climbed toward him up the long golden stairs, stretching out her arms so that the ravens flew to Odin’s shoulders.
He’d had a small chair placed for her, close by his throne, but Hela climbed up onto the throne itself, as her grandfather liked, and perched upon the arm. She had made her pale skin pinker than was its wont, and her eyes a clear summer blue, so that the old god would see Thor’s eyes, or Baldr’s, when she looked at him, and not the rage and hurt trapped behind his stolen son’s emerald irises.
The ravens told the Allfather tales of Muspelheimr, and of the Vanir, but nothing at all of the visitor who had drunk wine and eaten cakes with Hela throughout the last night, the two of them alone in her rooms.
Hela had liked her very much. The two of them were, she'd found, far more alike than they were different, and they had chatted and laughed easily. The dead side of her visitor's face wasn't really so horrifying as one might have expected, and the living side glowed with life. The visiting queen who shared her name had been glad to promise aid in a just cause. She enjoyed the telling of Hela and Pabbi's plans.
"Simple and elegant, dear child," she declared, then bit down upon a delicate white cake. She'd removed her branching headdress and her black, curling hair hung loose about her shoulders, long and silken as Hela's own.
"And ever so amusing. How far do you think you will carry it, darling? Until the end?"
"That, I have not decided, Great One--but it may be that I shall."
"Even so far as that?" Queen Hela nodded. "Whatever you decide, sweet child, I do believe this plan shall go well, and I grant the boon of my unconditional support. By the name we share..." The living side of her mouth curved in a smile, as her dead eye reflected the candlelight, silver-orange, as in a mirror.
"So shall it be." Hela rose, bending low, right hand pressed over her heart. "My loyalty always, most-beloved queen. And there will be no Valhalla?"
"Its gates are closed to him," her visitor agreed. "Now, how are these little pink cakes? As scrumptious as all the rest? One cannot find good pastry in my Realm, however one tries. Do you think it might be the humidity?"
"The green are my favorites," Hela said, with her best and brightest smile.
"Look at you, charming me!" Queen Hela exclaimed, dusting sugar from her green-gloved fingers. "Which makes me recall, I've brought a small something from my Realm, as a token of faith, and to make us good friends always."
Loki found the bag almost the moment he stepped onto the terrace, a simple pouch of black leather, clearly constructed in haste, yet somehow far more stylish than it needed to be for its purpose. That, and the inky colour, spoke to him of his Hela, and Loki had to firmly suppress a cry, he missed her in that moment so painfully, and so deeply.
How could he have been so reckless, and set his belovéd girl to this task? Their plan could only be seen as hideously dangerous, and if Odin were to discover…?
He will not, Loki chided himself. He will not.
His dearest girl, he reminded himself, never failed to be both remarkably devious and unexpectedly dangerous, and though he wished the mission could fall to him alone, both out of worry for his daughter and for his own satisfaction, Loki knew this was not his time, that his own skills were not the ones required in this case, whereas Hela’s were uniquely suited for their ends. Above that, she was not alone, as he would have been, entirely.
Painful as he found it to bend, Loki stooped to retrieve the pouch, his fingertips detecting Hela’s Craft in the very leather. The straps had been cut long, made to encompass a small dragon. Clearly, when he returned home on the eve of the Solstice, the first day of Jul, the Dagur Mæðra or Day of Mothers, they had slipped free in the moment Jöri changed once more to a little boy. So glad had he been to be back, he had not thought twice about the burden he carried.
Loki, too, had fallen out of his accustomed habits, and had not been out in the air since then, the temperature so cold these days that it hurt him. He now understood full well the hats, gloves, scarves Tony bundled the children in each winter's day, and yet he never seemed able to remember them for his own use, though they had become equally necessary for his comfort.
This Christmas Eve, as Tony called it, the outdoors seemed more bitterly cold than ever, wind whipping around the heights of the tower, the silvery sky shimmering overhead, threatening snow. Loki’s breath steamed in the air, and his bare feet burned intensely. Though he disliked wearing shoes indoors, he wished he had thought to put on warm socks, at least. He hated the aching of his battered bones beneath his skin. When would he ever feel whole again?
He hated to be so… Mortal, he supposed, was the word he sought. He longed to have adventures again—even merely to go out into the brightly lighted shops with Pepper, to run in the park, make passionate love with Tony, romp with his boys, play at sword-fighting with Kurt, wrestle with Thor. He had not so much as been allowed, the previous day, to change the silver and gold decorations of Jul to the Christmas reds and greens, and had pouted slightly about his exclusion.
To amuse him, Thor had brought him a goat made of straw and bound with red ribbons. Loki looked at it from several angles. “I thought Christmas was meant to be all Santa Claus and the birth of the Christian man-god.”
“Could you just once say the name ‘Jesus’?” Kurt laughed, shaking his head, from the ceiling, where he was replacing the silver star of Jul atop the tree with a tall red spire, which sported bells dangling from its sides, and had belonged to Tony’s mother, Maria. “Just once? For me? As a favour?”
Loki left off contemplating what a pretty name Maria was, soft and sweet on his tongue. Howard was an ugly name, however. It sounded stupid and obstinate, just as Howard with his heavy, dull name, and Maria with her pretty one, must truly have been, for they had not loved Tony according to his deserving, and so had injured him in divers ways. He would never understand why people made children together, only to despise them.
“Ii̱soús,” Loki replied to his dear friend, to be difficult, perhaps to make his friend laugh again, for he found delight in Kurt's laughter. “Or do you prefer Ihesus? Iesu?? Yeshu?”
Behind him, Logan snickered.
“The straw goat is a Jul thing of the Northmen, a Julbukk, or Julbock, they call it,” Thor informed him. “It is meant to represent one of the two goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. that pull my cart across the heavens, causing the thunder.”
“I recall you attempted to harness Adelheid to a small wagon once,” Loki said doubtfully, “And that she kicked you most mightily."
Thor laughed. “If children are naughty,” he said, pulling a comical face at Jöri, “This one will come to life and butt them with his horns.”
Loki studied the straw goat as best he could without extending his seiðr.
“Thor, my brother,” he said doubtfully at last, “I believe this one may be broken, and will not do as you say. But as it comes from you and is a thing of great charm, I will cherish it.”
Thor had put his arms around him, not too tight for once, and held him. Loki felt grateful, although he did not like to admit, not even to Kurt, Tony or anyone, the pains of the last month, indeed of the last years, bore hard on him, and he felt far from healed in spirit, mind or body. He felt so weary always, and too often as if no good could come of anything.
In time he turned his face against Thor’s chest, taking peace from his brother’s strength, from his closeness and unaccustomed gentleness.
Perhaps he even slept then, for when he looked again the penthouse was shining. For some reason the beauty of it made him want to weep, though he did not, lest his tears be misunderstood. In truth, he did not understand them in himself. What cause had he for weeping?
Everything, said a distant voice in his head. Everything that has befallen you. But those were foolish words, and he would pay them no heed.
“My family, my friends,” he said. “My thanks, for you have brought to our home surpassing beauty.”
“Glad you like,” Tony said, coming round behind him and kissing the top of Loki’s head. “Did you have a nice sleep?”
“I only rested,” Loki said, with dignity, and Tony had laughed, kissed him again—properly this time—and gone off to one of his Meetings of Excessive Drinking.
Tony did not much care for the Big Book he had been given to read. He said it must not have been intended for a cynical bastard like himself. He did not greatly enjoy the meetings, either, as he cared not much to listen to the sorrows of those he did not know. He jested also that he would not believe in a higher power, unless it was Loki the Norse god of mischief.
“I am not a god,” Loki reminded him. “I am nothing.”
“You are, in fact, my own personal god, babe,” Tony disagreed, “I believe in you wholeheartedly and worship you always.”
It was a very sweet thing to say, but Loki did not feel godlike in the least. Sometimes he found it difficult, even, to get out of bed, and what sort of god had such feelings? The god of sluggards and dullards and sloth?
Hank had given him divers stern lectures, and was being very strict with him, and would not allow him to do anything interesting.
Magic, of any sort, for any reason whatsoever, was strictly forbidden. He was required to rest a great deal, he must eat no less than six small, properly nutritious meals a day. He might play his piano a little, quietly, paint or write a little (also quietly), if he wished (though not until his hands hurt). He was also allowed to read. For his Jul gift, Kurt and Logan had presented him with a large stack of books with intriguing titles, many of them in the science fiction and fantasy genres Kurt favoured, and also a few by men called Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, whose works Logan enjoyed. He might watch films and programmes upon the television, if they were not overly exciting. He was allowed to have visitors if they were friendly and kind (if they were not kind to him, Logan had threatened to cut off their noses with his formidable claws, and Loki was not entirely certain whether or not his dear friend had been joking).
The boys, under no circumstances, were to climb on him, neither was he to lift them, and he and Tony were not allowed to be intimate until he was well. Even when he had suggested some things he could do to Tony that his husband would no doubt very much enjoy, and would not hurt him at all, Hank had just said, “No!” rather crossly, and soon after left the room.
Loki had found it humourous at first, but after it had struck him that he had forgotten himself, and that Hank, who was normally so kind, had been repelled by his ergi ways, especially in regard to bedchamber matters.
After Hank had gone he went off by himself to one of his secret places in the tower where Tony could not see. He’d wept a little, and felt ashamed, only emerging when he perceived his husband’s worry.
When Tony asked him what was wrong, Loki gave his usual excuse, that he had become emotional because of the pregnancy. It was lovely when Tony held him, stroking his hair, but Loki wished sometimes he could be honest, always, about everything—his fears for Hela and Sleip, his fears that this baby, too, would slip away from him, like small Wilhelm. His terror that Tony, even without his Ghost in the Wall to goad him, would once more fall beneath the sorrows of his own life, and begin to drink again.
He knew Tony waxed tired, ofttimes, with reading in his Big Book and, already, of attending the meetings required of him, from which he came home cross and irritated. That he kept less and less patience with the strangers who surrounded him.
Loki feared, too, that Tony would soon tire of a husband who was forever weak and ailing--especially when the Sickness of Mornings (and many other inconvenient times, as well, it always seemed) began in him, who was not comely, and could not, at present, attend to his needs, even though he had spoken to Loki of what he must and must not do in words nearly as stern as Hank's.
Tony must be concerned for his line, as yet unsecured. He must be. And many a stallion grew weary of its brood mare, especially such an unsuccessful one as he, who had already cost him one heir. He must desire a son of his blood safely born, as poor Wilhelm had not been, to one day take charge of his great empire. He could not truly intend that poor Jöri, born of torture and spite, should reign after him, any more than the Allfather had intended that Loki should one day reign over Asgard.
It stung, to feel a prince in his heart, but to know in his head he was no more than an unwanted, unneeded bargaining chip. A Jötunn on the Golden Throne, Hliðskjálf? Unthinkable! It could not be!
Even if he was Jötunn no longer, it appeared.
Loki touched the depressions in his skull where the roots of his horns had been. Though they still ached and itched, they had begun to fill in, the holes now harder to feel.
Loki sank down upon his usual chair by the firepit, which being formed of iron, nearly froze his arse.
He glared at the pit and commanded it, “Light yourself!” but of course it did not, and he knew better than to countermand Hank’s orders with his usual declaration of “I do what I want!”
No, not this time.
No, he must not.
Loki sighed aloud, and hated a great many things.