“It really doesn’t hurt you anymore?”
“No, Stephen. It really doesn’t.”
“I’m not – dreaming, am I?”
A pale hand pressed his scarred, calloused hand to where their miracle babies lay in slumber. “Look again and tell me if you’re dreaming. Because I know I am.”
And he looked. And found himself fighting back tears for God knew how many times that night.
“Odinson-Strange…you make me the happiest man in the universe.”
“Ditto.” For Loki could not speak, not when he felt like his chest would burst simply from the effort of breathing –
“Ditto, ditto, ditto.”
When the news broke of his pregnancy the next morning, Loki was the recipient of a healthy number of hugs; many expected, but the fiercest one came completely out of the blue.
“Good to see you too, Valkyrie.”
“Shut up,” she muttered.
Her thick black hair tickled his nose as they hugged, each not wanting to be the first to let go.
“You’re exceptionally emotional, My Lady,” he teased.
“Shut up.” She sniffed.
“What is all this?” Weeks later, Loki surveyed the myriad of bottles and pillboxes in front of him with a mild look of distaste.
“Vitamins. Folic acid supplements. Iron tablets.”
“Oh dear.” Loki shifted Aífe out of his lap and straddled her onto one thigh to keep her enthusiastic fingers from reaching for the colourful pills and tablets.
“These are for you?” Loki asked hopefully.
“Nice try.” Stephen’s smile was sweet and just a few watts shy of sadistic.
A little wishful thinking shouldn’t hurt – “For the children then?”
“You’re not carrying just one baby, Loki,” Stephen announced grandly. “That means there’s a double risk of everything. Anaemia, hypertension, preterm labour, growth restriction, Caesarean sections, ALL of which applied to you, by the way.”
“You forget one thing,” Loki muttered. “You becoming double the insufferable, nervous Nellie that you are.”
“Nellie? Who’s Nellie, Pappa?”
“But Daddy’s name is not Nellie.”
Stephen tipped his chin in Stian’s direction, looking smug –
“It’s Fancy Man,” Stian announced, every bit as grandly as his father did moments ago.
Loki burst out laughing.
“Can I just take everything all at once and be done with it?”
“Sure, if it doesn’t make you sick afterwards. As long as you don’t take the iron tablets with milk or anything with milk in it.”
Loki secured his hold on Aífe with an arm snaked across her chest and grabbed for the nearest bottle of pills.
Before Stephen realised what was happening, Loki nonchalantly tipped the entire bottle out onto the palm of his hand when a quick arm shot out and blocked the path of Loki’s cupped hand before it could shove the fistful of iron tablets into his mouth.
“What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
Loki frowned. “You said I could take everything in one go?”
Stephen’s mouth opened and closed like a fish as he tried to decide if Loki was being deliberately thick or suicidal or difficult or simply ignorant.
“Everything meaning all your different vitamins and supplements altogether, not exceeding the daily maximum dose!” Stephen snapped his fingers and pointed at the empty bottle. “Put those back in. Jeez.”
Loki shrugged. “Jeez, sorry.” He added with a pout. “I was only trying to be helpful.”
Stephen quickly put all the supplements away in his pocket dimension, except for the pillbox for the week. “Uh-uh.”
“You never made me take any of these when I was pregnant with Stian and Aífe.”
“I did. You just never took them.”
“Like I said. You never made me.”
“Well then. Consider yourself officially under directly-observed treatment orders.”
“Yeah?” Loki lifted a challenging eyebrow. It was one thing doing things voluntarily, and a completely different thing altogether being made to do things. “Whose orders? And who’s going to be ‘directly observing?’ ”
Stephen coolly pointed at the figure sitting at the other end of the kitchen island, at the same time the figure shot out a hand, waving it frantically high in the air. “Me, me!”
“Thank you, Dr Stian Strange.”
“Really. You roped your son in to be your accomplice.”
“Not the word I’d use.” Stephen closed the last lid of the 7-day pillbox. “Apprentice. Protégé. My second-in-command.”
“At least someone will be around to stop you the next time you get the urge to take a month’s worth of iron tablets just because it’s convenient. Why you would want to burn a hole in your gut when we worked so hard to close them all the last time I will never know.”
Loki’s glare softened when he saw the earnest expression on Stian’s face. “Smart.”
“I’m not taking any chances this time, Loki.”
“We never took any the last two times.” Loki nuzzled his face into Aífe’s hair. “We’re all still here.”
“Right.” Stephen snorted. “So I assume you will be returning the ghost peppers back to where they came from?”
“Those were a gift, Stephen.”
“A jar of gourmet fruit conserve is a gift. Crates of the hottest peppers in the world aren’t.” Stephen cut the crusts off a slice of bread the way Stian liked it. “Those are weapons of mass destruction.”
No amount of eyelash-batting was going to save his peppers this time. For all Loki knew, they were already on their way back to Tony Stark.
“Fifty-percent of twin pregnancies end up in preterm labour. Ten percent even before they reach 32 weeks.” Stephen slathered some almond butter on the toast before scattering some fresh berries on top. He slid the plate across the countertop. “You can put your hands down now, Stian.”
“Ooh. You’re sexy when you spout statistics no one really asks nor cares about.”
“Thank you.” Stephen smiled. He awkwardly tried to think of something to return by way of compliment. “You’re sexy when you…um, yeah. You’re just sexy.”
“Yes. It is safest to say that you’re sexy all the time,” Stephen said bravely. “Isn’t it?”
“You’re learning, Doctor.” Loki leaned across the counter and his lips met Stephen’s midway.
“Eww. Daddy!” Stian protested. “Not when I’m eating!”
“You’re sexy all the time, too.” Stephen always looked particularly handsome in the morning. It must have something to do with the Norwegian sunlight hitting off the sharp angular lines of his face. Or Loki’s insatiable sexual appetite.
“Shall we go through the checklist?”
“Yeah…I take it back.” If Loki had been a lesser being, escaping Stephen’s deep penetrating gaze would have been impossible. He pulled back in disgust.
“Come on then. Let’s get it over with. You and your silly checklists.”
“Honestly, darling, you’re becoming as bossy as your father.”
Stian beamed. “Thank you, Pappa!”
“Okay,” Stephen said loudly, suddenly brandishing a tablet he must have conjured by magic. “Any spotting, or bleeding?”
“Any pains or cramping? ‘Not that bad’ ones especially included?”
“What’s paltipation, Daddy?”
“Light-headedness or dizziness?”
“Any shortness of breath? Chest pains?”
“Nausea or vomiting?”
Loki’s unconvincing ‘No’ came a few milliseconds too late.
“Loki?” Stephen eyed him sharply.
Someone really needed to find the off button on Stephen’s bullshit detector and disable it for him.
“Some.” Loki gritted his teeth.
“When?” he demanded.
“Yesterday, Daddy. After Pappa had breakfast. And after lunch too,” Stian offered helpfully.
“Stian!” If Loki weren’t holding Aífe, he’d be chasing Stian halfway down the hall by now.
Stian stared at him all round-eyed and innocent. “You didn’t tell me to keep it a secret, Pappa.”
“It can’t be morning sickness already. I’m barely six weeks along!”
“Your hCG levels tend to be higher with twins,” Stephen muttered. “That, plus your heartburn…I keep telling you to lay off the spicy food but do you ever listen to me.”
Stephen rummaged through his pocket universe and just as Loki expected, produced even more bottles.
“More pills?” he said in disbelief, the exasperation brewing below the surface in danger of turning into quiet dissent.
“Just to keep the nausea at bay until I come back later with that patch you wore when you were sick carrying Stian.” Stephen was still mumbling as he popped open the individual lids on the pillbox to add more pills. “Need to figure out where I saw the spell book last…”
Loki fought the urge to scream; Aífe was turning out to be a fantastic grounding force and he hugged her to him tighter. He felt something tug on his shirt. He looked down.
“What is it now, Stian?” It came out more sharply than he intended.
To Loki’s horror, Stian’s eyes began to fill.
“Did I make you sick, Pappa?”
Without a word, Stephen stepped around the kitchen island and Loki handed Aífe to him, but not before he bestowed upon his husband the fiercest glare he could ever remember giving before breakfast. “Thanks a lot, big mouth.”
“Sorry,” came Stephen’s sheepish response.
Loki held out his arms. Stian clambered onto his lap and promptly buried his face in Loki’s chest. “Darling, you didn’t make me sick.”
Stian was still crying softly, his shoulders shuddering with each sob.
“Shh…” Loki rubbed his hand up and down Stian’s back. “In fact, you helped me. I couldn’t eat a lot of things back then. You liked toast, so I could eat that.”
Loki kissed the top of his head. “So, thank you, Stian.”
Stian sniffed. When he finally lifted his face, Loki had almond butter smeared all over his shirt but at least his son had stopped crying. “Toast is nice.”
Loki broke into a relieved smile. “I agree. Toast is nice.”
“I’m sorry, Pappa.”
“Don’t be, my sweet. You have done absolutely nothing wrong.” Loki clapped their hands together. Soon, Stian’s hands would no longer fit in his, and just the thought filled Loki with a discordant mix of of deep sadness and pride. “You’re my No. 1 Superhero.”
Stian beamed. “Really?”
“Really really.” Loki kissed the tears still clinging stubbornly to the snow-white cheeks. “Now finish your breakfast, or you’re going to be late for class.”
“Nice save.” Stephen’s voice rang through the acoustics of his mind.
Loki glanced at his husband and was about to retort something clever, but he felt something melt inside him at the sight of Stephen mushing some banana and feeding it to Aífe with his little finger.
“You scratch my back, I scratch yours.”
“Yeah you did. Literally. My back’s a map of the Australian Outback.”
Loki laughed silently.
Amazingly Aífe finished half a banana before she started spitting it out, and when a glob of banana-flavoured spittle hit Loki in the face, he chuckled. “I think she’s had enough, Stephen.”
Stephen washed her face and hands at the sink. “Come on, Stian. You can walk me to the nursery and after we drop your sister off, I’ll take you to Master Eoin.”
“I can go by myself, Daddy.” Stian crammed the last of his berries into his mouth.
“Oh no. The last time we let you go by yourself, it took half the palace to track you down. No, no more unchartered detours.”
“You’ve got your Spy Mission watch on?” Stian lifted his wrist proudly. Loki nodded approvingly. “Good. Make sure the GPS tracker’s on. Underground, underwater, in orbit or out of it, we should be able to find you.”
He bent down to accept Stian’s sticky kiss on the cheek, as was the routine. “You be good now.”
“You be good too, Pappa.”
Loki watched the disappearing silhouettes of his husband and two children walking down the long corridor of the Prince’s private wing, before he closed the door behind him.
“Goodness. Any bossier and I won’t be able to tell you two apart.”
“Just you wait till I come back and I’ll show you the difference.”
“Ooh, so naughty, Doctor.”
Loki did not have to wait long, for minutes later, he suddenly felt arms circle around his waist. “And what would you like for breakfast today, my Prince?”
“Hmm.” His own arms travelled upward to wrap around the back of Stephen’s neck. “You?”
“You had me for breakfast, lunch and dinner yesterday, Loki,” Stephen murmured into the underside of Loki’s jawline. “Delectable as I am, I don’t count toward your calorie intake.”
“That’s too bad.” Loki turned his head to offer Stephen better, unrestricted access to his lips. “I could eat you all day.”
Stephen’s hands roamed Loki’s torso and travelled downward with glee. Yet he pouted when they found nothing but a toned, flat stomach. “I can’t wait till you start showing.”
Then his eyes narrowed. “You haven’t gained any weight since you found out you were pregnant. Are you sure you’re eating enough? I’ll book you an appointment with a dietician. There was one I used to work with back at Metro-General who didn’t get on my nerves so much.”
“And we need to get you in for your first scan sometime later next week, or the week after at the latest. You don’t mind if I get Christine’s husband to see you, do you? He’s a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, he’s used to dealing with high-risk pregnancies.”
“And I need to get you to see Bruce to get some bloods done. Knowing him, he’s probably got some herbal teas stocked up for you like last time, but do thank him even if they don’t help –”
“If you’re going to freak out, can you at least do it while you make me a sandwich? I like the Nutella-to-bread ratio when you’re overexcited, it’s always somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1, it’s perfect.”
Stephen sighed and walked over to the pantry. He fished the humongous Nutella jar out of the topmost shelf where all the nice-but-not-necessarily-good-for -you things were kept. “This thing is the size of my head. When this is finished, I’m not getting any more.”
Loki shrugged. “Don’t know what you’re worried about. It’s all going to your kids in my belly. I get the scraps.”
“Don’t say that, Loki.”
Loki pouted. “You won’t let me eat what I want. What was I supposed to say.”
All this over stupid ghost peppers. Damn you, Stark.
“You tell me what you would like me to get while I’m out and we’ll take it from there, how about that.”
Loki took a small bite of his Nutella sandwich and chewed very slowly. “I’d kill for some cherries, actually. Big, plump, juicy cherries.”
“Cherries? At this time of year?”
“It’s cherry season somewhere. If Tony Stark could get me ghost peppers in the middle of winter, surely you can –” Loki’s voice trailed at the frown on Stephen’s face. “Never mind. Forget I asked.”
Loki took another miniscule bite, his face suddenly so glum he looked like he was seconds away from crying into his sandwich.
“Hey, hey.” Stephen danced the tips of his fingers across Loki’s knuckles. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’ll try and get some for you.”
He kissed Loki’s Nutella-flavoured lips gently. “I’d do anything for you, you know that.”
Loki’s eyes instantly disappeared behind his unusually wide smile. “Good. Because since you mentioned Australia, I happen to know that it’s cherry season there right now. Oh, and while you’re at it, do get me some persimmons too. But make sure to get ones no bigger than your fist, those just aren’t as sweet.”
Stephen opened his mouth to speak, but Loki was far from finished.
“Oh, and some of the patatas bravas from that tapas bar we went to in Seville, not the one with the awful, watered-down sangria, but from the other one right across the street from the café that does excellent chili hot chocolate. Oh, do grab me a cup of that too. But please tell them to skip the garlic aioli, it makes them soggy –”
“No one puts aioli in hot chocolate, Loki.” But then again, one never knew with pregnant Loki.
“No, I meant the patatas bravas, Stephen. If they haven’t run out of garlic shrimp, please get that too.”
“That’s a whole list, Loki.”
“You’ve got your checklist, I’ve got my list. You got a problem with that?”
“No, no. No problem at all.”
Stephen smiled because there was a time when Loki could eat absolutely nothing; it was a time too recent for his liking, and definitely too recent for him to complain about having to go to the other side of the world to fulfill the demands of his fussy eater of a pregnant husband.
“Your wish is my command, Your Highness.”