Actions

Work Header

The Two for One Special

Chapter Text

“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?”

“Your Daddy.”

“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.”

“That’s it?”

“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.”

“Pappa, language!”

“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?”

“No.”

“Any pains or cramping? ‘Not that bad’ ones especially included?”

“No.”

“Palpitations?”

“What’s paltipation, Daddy?”

“No.”

“Light-headedness or dizziness?”

“No.”

“Any shortness of breath? Chest pains?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Oh, Stian...”

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.”

“Stephen.”

“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 –”

“Stephen.”

“Yeah?”

“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.”

Chapter Text

“Do I make you uncomfortable, Stephen?”

“What?”

“Would you prefer if I…changed my form?”

“What?”

“Well… as far as appearances go, I am physically male,” Loki said hesitantly. “I understand why people are looking.”

“Then let them look.”

“Stephen…”

“Loki, I couldn’t care less what you look like,” Stephen said heatedly, as if angered at the thought that Loki would even think that of him, but his indignation died at the sight of utter relief on Loki’s face.

It must have bothered Loki a lot to even broach the issue, and here he was, being an ass.

Stephen grabbed Loki’s hand and pulled it possessively into his lap, daring anyone to meet his steely glare.

“It’s the 21st century. It is no longer appropriate to assume one’s gender or sexual preferences or one’s anything simply from the way they look,” he muttered. “It’s all about gender neutrality nowadays.”

“Is this because it’s your ex’s husband we have come to see?”

“What? No!”

“You were the one who suggested him!”

“No, Loki, that’s not it!” Stephen’s voice had risen a notch and now even more people were staring. Suddenly the waiting room felt too small to be having any form of private conversation, let alone one of this kind – “Not at all!”

“Then why do you look so tense?” Loki could barely keep from hissing. “This is not how I imagined my first antenatal appointment was going to be.”

“I’m sorry, Loki.” Stephen heaved a sigh. “It’s just…it’s not sitting right with me, that’s all.”

“Having to seek someone else’s help?” Loki ventured a quiet guess.

When Stephen did not answer, it was all the answer Loki needed.

“I don’t have to like it, I know that.” Stephen tapped their clasped hands against his thigh rhythmically in a rigid staccato. “But some things are simply out of my depth, and this is one of them.”

Loki leaned his head into Stephen’s shoulder, letting his long hair fall over his face. “You need to learn to trust others, Stephen.”

“I know.”

“You trust Christine with your life, you once said.”

“I did.”

“And Christine trusts Jack with mine.” Loki stared at their clasped hands in Stephen’s lap. At his words, they had stopped the tense tap-dancing.

Stephen’s grip had also relaxed a little.

“Isn’t that enough?” Loki whispered, almost to himself.

Stephen’s lips brushed roughly against the top of his head. “How is it that you always know what to say?”

Loki hid a smirk. “Silvertongue they used to call me.”

“Yeah? You wanna show me what else that exotic tongue of yours can do?”

“I thought I already did before we left home.”

“Wanna show me again?” Stephen asked huskily.

“Are you daring me, Dr Strange?” Loki’s eyes glinted mischievously. “Because I can. Show you. And everyone here.”

Stephen was losing himself in those damned green eyes, was dangerously close to saying yes, oh yes

“Loki!” A harried voice called from across the room. A familiar, strawberry-blond woman dressed in surgical scrubs closed the distance between them in a matter of seconds and before Loki knew it, she had wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “God, Loki. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“How are you?” When Christine finally let him go, she began raining down questions in rapid succession. “Are you really alright? How are things with the children? Are you coping well?”

Stephen tapped her on the shoulder. “Dr Palmer.”

“Stephen! I didn’t see you there,” she said with a healthy dollop of sarcasm. “Thanks for the calls you did not return.”

“You’re welcome,” Stephen said coolly. She rolled her eyes and allowed for a hug in the end. Whatever Stephen had done, it must have worked, for Loki was now pregnant again, against all odds. And she could not be happier.

“Come on. He’s expecting you.” She led them down a brightly lit corridor, lined with paintings and photographs of babies. “Sorry for the wait, he was just finishing up an emergency Caesarean when you arrived, or he would have seen you sooner.”

“It’s no big deal. We haven’t been waiting long,” Stephen said, glancing at the frames as they walked past smiling babies, sleeping babies, crying babies – “Did he deliver every one of these?”

“Yeah. For some reason, parents like to send him pictures of their children.”

Christine stopped outside a door. ‘Dr James McKenna, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist’ was emblazoned across it in gold lettering and Stephen began to calm down.

They were in good hands; he could feel it.

She knocked softly once. “Jack?”

“Come in,” a voice called from inside.

A gentle-faced, sandy-haired man in his mid-forties stood, and as he walked around the table, Stephen noted that Jack was tall, almost as tall as Loki.

“Jack, this is Dr Stephen Strange, and Prince Loki of Asgard.” Christine tugged on Loki’s sleeve, and pulled him out of hiding from behind Stephen. “Stephen, Loki, this is my husband, Dr Jack McKenna.”

Like his wife, he too was dressed in scrubs, and he straightened his tortoiseshell glasses on his nose before holding out a hand.

“Dr Strange. I’ve heard a great many things about you. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Likewise.” Jack’s handshake was strong and firm. Stephen liked it. He nodded at Christine approvingly. She rolled her eyes.

“Your Highness.” Loki cringed, and Jack saw –

“How may I address you?” Jack asked politely

“I am Loki,” he said serenely. “You may address me as such, Doctor.”

“Please, call me Jack. We’re all friends here.” He gestured at his desk. “Do have a seat.”

Loki glanced at Stephen out the corner of one eye. You okay?

Stephen gave him a tight smile and a little nod.  

“I understand you are here because you suspect you may be pregnant? With twins?” Jack did not beat around the bush.

Loki nodded.

“Very well. Before we proceed, do you mind if I ask some questions? We can learn a lot from your past obstetrics history and that will help us deliver an individualised treatment plan and minimise risks.”

“Ask away, Doctor.” Being married to an inquisitive doctor himself, Loki was more or less ready.

“Are your two children the first for both of you?”

“First for me,” Stephen answered simply.

“Do you have any other children from previous relationships?”

“I did, yes.” Loki said.

“How many times have you been pregnant, Loki? Including miscarriages?”

Loki blinked. He had to stop and think.

“Ten,” he said finally.

“Number of living children?”

“Two,” Loki said very softly.

All three doctors stared at him, their faces varying degrees of stunned.

“Three miscarriages, one very recently. But no stillbirths or early neonatal deaths, if that’s what you were getting at, Doctor,” Loki said. “All my children lived through childbirth, and lived long lives.”

Loki was strangely calm and composed. “I just happened to outlive them.”

Jack’s mouth worked but no words were forthcoming. This was the strangest consultation he had ever had, and he had had plenty of those.

Jack hurriedly moved on to his next question. “Were your children naturally conceived?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were they artificially inseminated?” Loki looked on blankly.

“Were they conceived by IVF?” Jack tried again. “Test-tube babies?”

Stephen cleared his throat, looking more and more uncomfortable by the minute. “I ah…don’t think they were. Loki never had much trouble conceiving.”

“Dr Strange, have you ever had any genetic testing done on Loki?” Jack directed his question to Stephen. “Karyotyping, to be more specific?”

Stephen shook his head. “I…don’t see how that could be of importance. Our children are both healthy and well. And I know of no genetic disorders than run in either of our families.”

“Well that is very good and all but –” Jack winced. “I guess what I am trying to ask is if Loki is a...true hermaphrodite? It is an autosomal recessive condition, so it may not be inherently apparent for generations down the line.”

Loki looked to Stephen blankly, and Stephen stared helplessly back at him. He did not know if it was good or bad that Allspeak decided to not translate that; it was just his luck that Stephen was now going to have to choose his words very delicately and carefully.

Or maybe he could avoid explaining altogether.

“Yes,” Stephen answered simply. “If you ask for his consent, I’m…sure he would be willing to let you do a pelvic examination. You would need to perform a pelvimetry I presume?”

“Yes, if a natural delivery is what you are aiming for,” Jack said hesitantly. "A twin pregnancy after two Caesarean sections with a history of eclampsia in a grand multipara is as high-risk as it gets. I will need to assess the adequacy of Loki's pelvis before we can say for certain that a natural delivery is feasible."

Now even Christine looked as if she wished she could be someplace else.

Loki had finally had it. He sighed.

“Dr McKenna, I am an alien,” Loki announced loudly.

A stunned silence befell the room.

“We’re all highly-intelligent people here, yes?”

A painful wince from Stephen, a humble head-bob from Christine, an obsequious nod from Jack –

“Then there is no point in insulting anyone’s intelligence by being all wishy-washy lest this consultation cease to be effectual.”

Loki reared his head regally, looking every bit the alien Prince that he was.

“Although I may look humanoid on the outside, I am what your kind call an extra-terrestrial. I come from a planet called Asgard, but biologically I’m a Jotunn, which is kind of a long story, but basically my species is capable of childbearing, and as I understand it, you have studied scans of my anatomy before, and I assume it must have looked human enough to yourself and to your wife for she has delivered my last two children herself.”

“Now that everything has been laid out in the open, perhaps we can finally move on to the real discussion.” Stephen for once looked happy enough to be in the backseat and let Loki do all the talking.

“And the answer is yes, I have had children before, all of whom I delivered naturally, hundreds of your years ago. But having said that, none of them was biologically human. Stian and Aífe are the only half-human children I’ve ever had, and both were delivered surgically by our dearest Christine, so yes, Jack, I will allow you to examine me. My dear husband here will chaperone, of course –”

“Of course,” Stephen and Jack murmured almost in unison.

Loki ended his eloquent prattle with a forceful “SO. There you have it.”

The silence continued.

“Any questions so far?” Loki asked lightly. A collective shake of the heads.

Loki leaned back in his seat. A delicate sniff. “That wasn’t so hard, was it.”

Christine had never looked more proud. “No, Highness. That really wasn’t.”

_____________________________________

“So according to your estimated date of conception, we are looking at a gestational period of ten weeks, yes?” Jack flipped the clipboard and put it aside. “Perfect.”

He expertly glided his swivel stool over to the ultrasound machine. “Now Loki if I could have you lying on the bed for me please? Would you like a hand with that – okay, thanks, Christine.”

She gave Loki a reassuring smile and a quick squeeze on the arm as she helped him lift his shirt and expose his abdomen. If she was surprised to see the faint, jagged, silvery scars criss-crossing the white expanse of his belly, she did not show it, nor did her very professional husband.

Jack rubbed his hands together to warm them up. “May I?”

Loki nodded his consent, and Jack watched his face as he gently palpated Loki’s belly systematically from quadrant to quadrant. He was especially gentle over the scar from the previous two Caesarean sections. “Any tenderness there?”

Loki shook his head.

“Uterus is not yet palpable. It shouldn’t be anyway since you’re only ten weeks but the scan will tell us more.” He squirted some gel onto the ultrasound probe. “Okay, Loki. This will be a bit cold, but shouldn’t be anything you’ve never felt before.”

With a smile, Jack asked, “You ready?”

Loki took a deep breath. “As I’ll ever be, Jack.”

It did not take longer than ten seconds for Jack to work his magic, and Loki’s breath caught in his chest as two very distinct little things came into view, their little arms and legs paddling furiously in a dance-off, and he could not help but burst into a watery chuckle.

“Gosh.” Loki could scarcely hear his own voice for the sudden buzzing in his ears. “Look at them go.”

“Congratulations. Looks like we’re looking at a pair of monochorionic-diamniotic twins," Jack announced, sounding somewhat pleased but not at all surprised; as if seeing pregnant aliens was a daily occurrence, rather than a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

“Identical twins!" Christine’s eyes were shining. "Oh Loki, they are going to be gorgeous, I just know it!”

Loki would have returned her brilliant smile, had he not caught Stephen’s frown –

“What is it, Stephen?”

“Identical twins are called such because they are phenotypically identical in every way.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning…they are always of the same gender.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Stephen, stop being such a human.”

“Loki…”

“Freyja said they will be perfect, and perfect they will be.”

Loki could not help staring at the tiny, tiny miracles just swimming around inside him and having an absolute blast, and here Stephen was, worrying over nothing.

“They are perfect,” he said loudly.

Loki’s green eyes caught Stephen’s grey ones and spelled all lingering doubt away with his next words. “They are magic.”

Stephen’s tense demeanour softened, and he remembered to breathe. “Of course. Of course they are.”

As always, he could not resist the temptation, and before he knew it, he was kissing Loki on the forehead once, twice. “Because you’re magic.”

______________________________________________

 “I think I’ll just stick to orange juice.”

“Jack said to consume 300 extra calories per day in the first trimester, 700 in the second trimester and 900 in the third.” Stephen was being especially chatty this morning. “You’re barely hitting the daily calorie requirement of an average human, let alone what the daily requirement is supposed to be for you.”  

“Stop invoking Jack’s name in every other sentence, when it’s really you talking,” Loki growled, burying his fingers deeper into the sides of his head. “It’s like when you name-drop me to get Stian to do something and make me out to be the mean one.”

Stephen lifted an eyebrow coolly. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Right.” Loki’s nose wrinkled as the smell of whatever Stephen was cooking assaulted his senses. He rested his forehead on the cool surface of the kitchen island. Dragging himself out of bed and into the kitchen was turning out to be a terrible, terrible idea.

“You need to eat something. Here.”

Stephen slid a plate across the carrara marble countertop and it came to a perfect stop an inch away from the top of Loki’s head, which he then lifted to take a look –

All it needed was one look at the wobbling eggs, one whiff of the Hollandaise sauce, and the slight queasiness he had been feeling all morning surged into an overwhelming nausea; he bolted and made it just in time before he vomited into the toilet, bringing up nothing but water and acid.

Stephen hovered at the bathroom door, wincing at the painful-sounding heaves.

“Oh my. Never have I seen such a dramatic reaction to my Eggs Benedict before,” Stephen said lightly, but his voice was tinged with concern.

At the mention of eggs and the imagery that came with it, Loki once again found himself pacing the breathing and the vomiting so he wouldn’t pass out from the lack of air, but he must have synchronised it all wrong because the acid went up the wrong way and his nasal passage burned and now not only his stomach and gullet were on fire, his nose and sinuses were too, and he moaned in agony.

“Please kill me now…” He kept his voice at the lowest register possible to keep the pain at a minimum, but he needed not have bothered, because here came the next wave of debilitating nausea –

Stephen winced at the sound of even more acid and bile hitting the toilet. “Have you been wearing your patch like I told you?”

“Of course I have,” Loki snarled.

“Well have you been rotating the locations where you apply your patch as instructed?” 

“Why are you asking me such difficult questions?” Loki growled, his eyes and nose running like nobody’s business – “Go away!”

“Are you done hurling?”

Loki’s shoulders began convulsing, a sure sign he was about to start heaving again.

“Obviously it needs some sort of modification for higher-order pregnancies because it doesn’t seem to be working as effectively as it did the last time.”

“Obviously!” Loki seethed. “Or maybe you need to go back to magic school because it doesn’t seem to be working at all!”

“Now, now, Loki…” was definitely the wrongest thing to say, for a sudden burst of seidr flew across the bathroom and physically pushed Stephen out the door and it slammed with a bang.

“And stay out!”

Stephen shook his head and was about to walk back to the kitchen where he could at least be of some use, like for stirring ginger slices into hot, honeyed tea or something, when a pitiful groan stopped him in his tracks not a moment too soon, or he would not have heard it –

“Oh Stephen…”

Half-expecting the bathroom door to still be locked, the lever gave way readily and Stephen pushed it open all the way while keeping most of his body behind the protection of the wall, just in case Loki was still trigger-happy. It was still too early in the morning for a full-out seidr war, and Stephen was not very magic before his morning coffee. Maybe he could be a bit adventurous this morning and whip himself up something extra creamy. A Hot White Russian, but with more vodka in the coffee than actual coffee.

But the sight of his own Hot White Asgardian half-slumped, half-lying down, curled around the toilet like a puddle of melted candle wax erased all thoughts of adventure and adventurously-named caffeine cocktails.

“Honestly, Loki...” He tugged on Loki’s exposed ankles. “Let go of the bowl.”

But that only made Loki hug it tighter. “I’m not letting Stephen go.”

“You named the toilet after me?”

“We’re tight.” Loki opened eyes bleary with vertigo. “He’s the only thing that has not defied gravity in this entire bathroom.”

“Well this Stephen is not exactly against keeping you company and staying here with you all day either, but would you mind if I keep you company elsewhere? It’s freezing.”

“Sure.” Loki swallowed hard. “Just give me an hour or two. I can’t feel my legs.”

“Yeah…” Stephen drawled. “You’re sitting on them, cutting off the circulation. Which is actually a pretty dangerous thing to do when you’re pregnant. Blood clots in the legs, nasty stuff. Nastier if they break off and embolise to your lungs.”

“Yes, yes. That’s all very interesting, Stephen No. 2.”

“Okay. You’re delirious.” Stephen conjured a wet cloth and wiped Loki’s face clean. “Come on. Up.”

Loki opened his mouth, either to protest or vomit, but Stephen cut him off. “Let’s get you horizontal for a start and hopefully that would make the world stop spinning. I’ll get some fluids running to replace what you’ve lost and you will start feeling better.”

“You promise?” Loki asked pitifully.

“I promise.”

Ten minutes later, Loki was lying flat on his back on their bed with a cold compress on his forehead and a pint of saline running fast into his vein.

“What were we thinking, No. 2?”

“I was thinking about forming my own co-ed football team actually. How about you?” Stephen jested from where he was sitting quietly by the bed.

“Hmm. Stian’s going to make a great centre-forward one day. Stealthy, and fast, and –” At the peculiar look on Stephen’s face, Loki’s face fell. “Oh, you mean American football? Goodness. I don’t think my heart can take it.”

“No? Stian’s tougher than he looks.”

“Ye-ah…” Loki’s nose wrinkled. “Thor was better at roughing it when we were children. He was always so dirty and sweaty and urgh.”

Stephen’s lips twitched. “I need to teach you football one day.”

“Tell that to your unborn children who are currently playing Quidditch with my insides,” Loki sighed. “Broom football.”

Stephen’s magic could only do so much to ease the nausea, somehow this time around, nature was winning. So he fell back on good old history-taking and data analysis.

“So…eggs are out?” Stephen updated the restriction section on the food diary app in his tablet.

“Except for dinner,” Loki muttered. “Freyr is usually asleep then. Freyja loves eggs.”

“We’re still going with that, huh.” Stephen typed in ‘Restrict eggs to DINNERTIME.’

“Tentatively.” Loki’s lips pursed into a wry smile. “It’s either that, or Thor and Thora.”

Stephen shivered. “Please no.”

“Juan and Juana.”

“Louis and Louisa”

“Okay, okay, I get it!” Stephen laughed. “Freyr and Freyja it is then. For now.” A pause. “Imagine how confusing it would be if your Aunt and Uncle were to come visit.”

“Simple. We’ll just use the No. 1 and No. 2 system.”

“Like your new best friend.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t nag as much. He just takes and takes and takes.”

Stephen laughed softly. Loki must be feeling better, if he was back to making jokes.

“So what does our baby boy want for breakfast this morning then, that will not upset his sister?”

“Hold on, let me ask.” Loki clasped his hands to his stomach and closed his eyes.

Stephen watched him with an amused smile. He made the mistake of making fun of Loki the first time he did it and had to spend a good two hours locked out of his own bedroom. Amazingly, Loki was always on the money reading their unborn babies’ mercurial appetites.

“I see.” Loki nodded importantly. “Okay. This morning they are both partial to café con leche and some churros…but please hold the cinnamon sugar, and get dark chocolate sauce for the dip, as bitter as you can.”

“I was about to suggest the same, we wouldn’t want you to get gestational diabetes this early in the pregnancy,” Stephen muttered. After a beat. “If I didn’t know better, I’d be inclined to believe that our babies are Spanish.”

Loki chuckled. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they were, considering their first taste of Midgardian cuisine.”

At Stephen’s look of confusion, Loki turned his eyes away to avoid his gaze. “You did feed them Spanish wine the first time around.”

Stephen’s voice was soft. “Yeah. That I did.”

“Could have been worse. It could have been sake.” Loki was not overly fond of Japanese food. “Or Tibetan yak tea.”

Still Stephen’s eyes did not light up; obviously his husband was still torturing himself with the memory of Loki’s accidental astral pregnancy and its disastrous outcome.

“Don’t look so glum, Stephen. I did not say that to upset you.” Loki reached for his hand and squeezed. “All it means is that they probably take after their Grandmother, considering their similar tastes.”

Finally Stephen gave a smile, genuine, albeit a little sad. “I would have loved to have met her.”

“As would I, to have met your family.” Loki’s thumb rubbed soothing circles over Stephen’s knuckles.

“My sister would have loved you,” Stephen offered.

“Really?” Loki sounded surprised, but his surprise quickly turned to some kind of spectatorial glee. “So would mine. But only because she would have loved ripping you to pieces. You don’t exactly look like the kneeling type.”

“From what I know of your family, I’m kinda glad Thor’s the only one I have to deal with.”

“You get along marvelously now, don’t you?”

“There are good days, and there are bad days,” Stephen said coolly. Out of thin air he produced a small bottle the size of his thumb. When he popped it open, a soothing aroma of peppermint permeated the room.

He placed a few drops on Loki’s abdomen and massaged the essential oil in gently. “Just like this sickness. It will pass.”

Loki inhaled deeply. Stephen was right, the peppermint oil was quite soothing. “Thank you, Stephen.”

“Hmm?” Stephen placed a few drops on Loki’s wrist, gesturing for him to inhale –

“For taking good care of me.”

Stephen was careful to kiss Loki on the cheek, knowing how his husband disliked being kissed on the lips when he was still feeling so ill. “I missed out on taking care of you the first time, remember?”

“You let the God of Thunder steal your thunder.”

Bad pun aside, Loki could not have put it more aptly and succinctly.

“That I did,” Stephen agreed demurely. “I won’t let it happen again.”

Satisfied that Loki no longer looked like a walking warning poster on opiate withdrawal, he stood up to leave.

“Where are you going?”

“To get your breakfast. You’re lucky there’s no difference in time zones between Spain and Norway, but I’d better hurry if you want a shot at getting those ‘perfect’ churros from your favourite stall in Madrid before they run out – or else you’ll have to wait till Disneyland opens to get your second-favourite churros since Anaheim is 9 hours behind.”

Loki let out a happy sigh. “You know me so well.”

He turned onto his side and peered at Stephen longingly through heavy-lidded eyes. “Don’t I get a kiss before you go?”

Loki must be feeling better. Just the thought made Stephen’s heart ten times lighter. He obliged.

Loki tasted surprisingly minty.

“Loki…”

“Hmm?”

“Can I please be Stephen No. 1?”

“You’re my No. 1 everything, Doctor.”

Chapter Text

Halkirk Highland Games, Caithness, Scotland

 

“What are you eating Pappa?”

“Carrot sticks, darling. Want one?”

“No, thank you, Pappa.” But Stian could not stop staring.

Sensing something that was not necessarily amiss but may need looking at nonetheless, Stephen leaned down to whisper in his son’s ear. “What is it, Stian?”

“Something’s wrong with the carrot,” Stian whispered loudly.

Puzzled, Stephen peered closer. Loki was munching loudly on a carrot, already halfway through it.

“The colour’s not right. The smell’s not right.” Stian’s nose crinkled further. “The sound’s not right.”

Alarmed, Stephen’s intuition told him it would be best to go along with Stian’s sixth sense. If anyone could get into trouble from a carrot, it was Loki.

“Darling.”

“Hmm?” Loki’s eyes were glued to the stage, strangely enraptured by the troupe of young girls performing a traditional ceilidh dance, their tartan costumes colourful and vibrant against the green of the open grass field and the sunny blue of the sky.

Stephen used his best cajoling yet assertive voice. “Do you think I can have a bite?”

Loki absently fished out the bag of carrots from the paper bag hanging from the lawn chair he was sitting in and handed it over.

“Just give me the one you’re eating. I just want a bite.”

That got Loki’s attention. “No,” he said slowly.

“Loki…” Stephen narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“That’s not even a carrot, is it?”

“It is. It’s organic too.”

“Try again, Loki.”

Loki sighed and reluctantly handed the remaining half of his ‘carrot’ over.

“What is it?” The ‘carrot’ felt crispy on the outside, yet surprisingly squishy to the touch, not unlike a super-soft and super-crispy banana fritter.

“A deep-fried Mars bar.” Loki’s guilty answer came across the connection, mournful and longing.

“Really, Loki, all this subterfuge just for a piece of choco – OH MY.”

“That is one sinful carrot,” Stephen said casually. “You don’t mind if I finish it, do you?”

“No.” Loki winced at the loss. “Yes.”

“Where did you even get this?”

“From the kind and helpful vendor over there.” Loki pointed at a curiously-crowded booth between ‘Isle of Arran Gourmet Cheeses’ and ‘Children’s Books, Arts & Crafts.’

“Let me guess. You wanted to get books for the children and saw them frying one of these bad boys and wanted one.”

“Brilliant marketing strategy.” Loki laughed at a private joke. “One?”

“How many have you had, Loki?”

“I’m not telling.”

“How many of the strange carrots has your Pappa had, Stian?”

“Three, Daddy.”

“Stian!!” “Loki!!”

“Didn’t you listen to a word the dietician said? Crap like that has no place on the food pyramid at all!”

“I was eating it in lieu of carbohydrates.”

“Refined sugar is not the same as complex carbohydrates.”

“So I’ll just not eat anything else for the rest of the day then.” Loki’s smile was extra sunny, most likely from glee, that he had managed to scoff away three-and-a half carrots’ worth of one of mankind’s guiltiest pleasures, and Stephen was none the wiser.

Loki rummaged through the paper bag once more and this time produced a rounded object.

“What’s that now? Deep-fried cream puff?”

Loki rolled his eyes and practically shoved the peculiar-smelling cylindrical object in Stephen’s face.

“Isle of Arran Cheddar Cheese with Arran Whisky,” he read aloud with growing horror. “My God, that’s a thing?”

“They have a Three-for-Two Special, Stephen!” Loki forgot all about the confiscated Mars bar, his eyes dancing in excitement. “Do stock up while we’re here.”

Stephen watched in stunned silence as Loki unwrapped the truckle of cheese and bit into it ravenously like one would eat an apple.

“Brother!” Thor’s booming voice managed to cut through the blaring sounds of bagpipes in the background, and Loki amazed himself with his inability to get over how ridiculous Thor looked in his kilt.

“It’s the final round of Hammer Throw! Are you going to come watch me or are you just going to sit around and eat all day?”

“I eat, I don’t eat, and still I get told off. Why do I bother.” Loki shook his head.

He leaned back in his chair. “I’ve done nothing but watch you throw your hammer around for the past fifteen hundred years, Thor.”

Thor gave a happy sigh. “I’m glad you asked me to come along on this excursion, Brother. It is bringing back so many good memories, of the good old days, you and me, the Warriors Three…”

A shadow passed over his mismatched eyes and Loki could not bear it if such a sunny day were to be ruined by a sudden rainstorm –

“Yeah. You and Volstagg competing over who could throw the logs the farthest, except this time you’re doing it in a skirt.”

Thor put a hand on his hip and puffed out a kingly chest. “And do I not look absolutely braw?”

These Highland Games were really up his alley; his muscles did need flexing now and then, and thus he must flex them, lest they go flabby from disuse.

 “Stian!” Thor tightened his sporran around his waist, which he procured with the sole intention of storing the prize money, once he had won it of course – “Do you want to come cheer me on?”

“Can I go, Daddy?”

“Only if Lady Val goes with you, Stian. Wouldn’t want to lose you in the crowd.”

“Come on, Little Prince.” Suddenly Brunnhilde appeared from out of nowhere, and once again, Stephen found himself admiring her stealth; he had yet to see her in full battle mode, but it would be something he would definitely not mind seeing.

“Shall I take the Little Princess too? She needs to get a bit of sunshine.”

“Could you? Thanks, Val.” With a flick of the wrist not holding the humongous block of cheese, he deactivated the protective seidr dome around his daughter, and Aife crawled over excitedly into Valkyrie’s awaiting arms.

Her eyes looked Loki up and down coolly. Her voice was light and teasing. “Boy, you sure are living it up, huh.”

Loki’s eyes may be hidden behind his sunglasses but his grin was nothing but carefree and happy and Valkyrie could not help but roll her eyes and offer a grudging smile of her own. “Come on, Princess. Let’s leave your Pappa to his ‘apples.’ ”

“And no more ice cream, alright? I don’t want you bouncing off the walls when we get back home.”

“Yes, yes, Daddy.” Stian pulled his tartan beret over his hair, tucking the errant glossy strands behind his ears.

Stephen rolled his eyes. Talk about a perfect carbon copy of Loki, down to the attitude and the haughty little face –

And more than a little magic.

“Something’s wrong with the apple, Daddy,” Stian whispered loudly.

_______________________________________

“Did you enjoy your day out, darling?”

“Tremendously.” Loki inhaled deeply. The scent of essential oils that wafted from the scalding-hot bath water rose in a steam of wonderful-smelling haze. “This smells nice.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Stephen murmured. “Sweet marjoram, lemongrass and lavender. The lady at the booth taught me how to mix it up, she said the combination is perfect to soothe tired muscles, relieve aches and pains, and improve circulation.”

Loki groaned as Stephen kneaded a particularly sore spot at the small of his back. “Yes, please. There.” He sighed. “You enjoy mothering me, don’t you.”

“Tremendously.”

Stephen saw, and felt Loki’s muscles clench under the hand he had braced on Loki’s shoulder. He tried to thumb the knots away, but if anything, Loki was becoming more tense rather than relaxed.

“What is it, Loki?”

“Nothing.”

Stephen stared at the back of Loki’s sudsy head frostily.

As if Loki could sense the death glare, “It’s a ‘good’ nothing, Stephen.”

Stephen worked the lather into Loki’s hair. It was getting long, and certainly thicker than it used to be.

“Anything you’re not telling me cannot be good, just on principle alone.”

The pregnancy and the return of Loki’s magic to its full strength was showing in the rosy glow of his face, and the lightness in the way Loki walked…but the bouts of melancholy still crept in once in a while, albeit sporadically and farther apart.

“It scares me, Stephen.”

“What does?” Stephen’s fingers worked their magic fast picking up speed, gathering and collecting the long strands by the handful and piling them all on top of Loki’s skull, the lather gathering more and more suds by the minute.

“To have you care so much.” Loki hunched forward and wrapped his arms around the front of his shins, unconsciously pulling away from his husband as he did so.

Stephen chose to play it cool. “It’s just your luck then, Odinson.”

“And we know nothing runs out faster than that,” Loki said drily, but Stephen reprimanded him up with a gentle whapping on the back of his shoulder blade.  

“Every word you say is a wish. You never know who might be listening.”

Loki reached an arm behind him and grabbed one of Stephen’s wrists. He pulled it forward gently, intertwining his fingers with Stephen’s soapy ones-

Stephen’s other hand had stilled, his fingers still rigid, locked to Loki’s scalp-

Loki raised Stephen’s hand to his mouth and kissed his fingertips.

Stephen’s breath caught in his throat as Loki turned it over and pressed his lips softly, but firmly, against the pulse at his wrist.

“Loki…”

Loki twisted around at the waist and dropped sideways, and before Stephen knew it, his chest was covered in its entirety by suds and a bunch of soapy, black-turned-white hair. Loki’s arms tightened around Stephen’s waist under the water. “Is it selfish of me that I wish to keep you around forever?”

“I would take offense if you didn’t.” Stephen planted a soft kiss in return on the top of Loki’s head.

“You’re too good to me, Stephen.” Loki sighed, sinking deeper into the water. His head was now ensconced in the cradle of Stephen’s belly, the rest of his body submerged in the fast-cooling water.

“You’d better get used to it, Odinson, because I’m here to stay.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Loki smiled gratefully. It may well have been a lie, because no one could truly promise anything, but Stephen was the Sorcerer Supreme, and when the Sorcerer Supreme promised you the world…

Well.

“I may be falling slightly more in love with you tonight,” he confessed.

Stephen’s smile was just as grateful. “Good enough for me.”

He gently pried Loki’s arms away from around his waist. “Sit up. I need to rinse your hair. Close your eyes, you know you hate it when it gets in your eyes.”

Stephen finally managed to coax Loki out of the bath long after the water had gone cold and their fingers and toes had shrivelled like the dried apricots Loki insisted on feeding him in between the soapy kisses.

He watched in naked fascination as Loki combed through his wet hair slowly.

“You’re starting to show.” Stephen marvelled.

“Am I?” Loki placed the comb on the vanity. He turned sideways and scrutinised his reflection in the mirror.

“Huh.” Stephen was right. He was barely twelve weeks in and already there was a noticeable curving to his stomach. “Must be all the chocolates I’ve been eating.”

“And the cheese, and pastries and God knows whatever else you’ve been sneak-eating behind my back.”

At Loki’s crestfallen face, Stephen was quick to salvage the situation by halting Loki’s attempt to cover himself up with his dressing robe. “Darling, you can eat whatever you want, as long as it’s within reason, you know that.”

“Besides, this is all babies.” Stephen’s lips planted a kiss to Loki’s icy cheek, and his hand, previously loosely holding Loki’s hip, ghosted over the barely visible bump, his sun-kissed skin tanned against the white of Loki’s belly.

“How can you tell?”

“The pudge is different.” Stephen’s critical eyes roamed Loki’s figure, his critical hand feeling Loki’s belly, confirming his finding. “Yep. It’s all babies. You’re as skinny everywhere else as ever.”

Loki’s own hand found its way to caress the back of Stephen’s hand; a little hybrid magic teased the little ones and Loki thought he could feel just the tiniest flutter.

Loki felt a thrill run through him.

“Guess it’s all going to our kids, all the junk you’ve been eating,” he dimly heard Stephen say.

Loki could not take his eyes off his thickened waist. “Is that why I feel so hungry all the time?”

Stephen snorted. “That’s likely a sugar crash more than anything. You need to start eating a bit healthier, Loki. Ever heard of the obesity paradox?”

“Call me fat all you want, Strange.” Strangely Loki did not seem all too bothered about it, nonchalance winning over moderation this time around. He did have a fridge full of Scottish caramel shortcake to finish.

Stephen rolled his eyes. “I was talking about malnutrition, Loki. You still can get vitamin deficiencies even if you’re a hundred and eighty pounds.”

“Don’t know why you’re so worried when you’ve got Doogie Howser watching my every move,” Loki muttered. “He counts the pills, and even checks the insides of my mouth, did you know?”

Stephen felt his chest swell with immense pride. “That’s my boy.” He sighed happily. “Can you believe how he’s grown?”

“Oh dear.” Loki sighed. “You are one of those, aren’t you.”

“One of what?”

“One of those dragon parents who’d go ballistic if their children should deviate from his grand life plan and turn out to be artists instead of doctors.”

What? No!” Stephen pooh-poohed, rather unconvincingly. “And what’s wrong with being an artist?”

Loki’s smile brightened instantly. He turned his head and gave Stephen a long, indulgent kiss. “Exactly.”

He pulled away just so he could see where to slide his arms and a second later, Stephen was the recipient of the world’s iciest bathroom cuddle. “Our children will be whatever they want to be.”

“Whatever they want to be,” Stephen obliged. Loki smelled especially nice. He wished he had gotten more of those essential oils.

“And it’s ‘tiger’ actually.”

“What?” Loki was breathing into Stephen’s neck, seeking out the perfect spot to land a mark.

“Tiger parenting.” Loki started to suck and Stephen uttered a small gasp. “Not dragons.”

“Potato, tomato.” Stephen’s need to correct him every single time made Loki want to bite him all the more, and so he did.

“Loki!”

Whether they teleported or walked, Stephen could not tell amid the blur of frantic kisses and the pawing off of clothes that ensued, but inevitably they ended up in bed, disrobed and gloriously fragrant and clean and simply delicious –

“After all the trouble with the bath and now we’re all sticky again.” Loki’s pseudo-complaint was lost on Stephen in his post-coital stupor.

“That was no trouble. It was foreplay.” Stephen nibbled at the soft cartilage of Loki’s earlobe. “Shall I get your bedtime milk? You’ve only had that one glass in the morning.”

“I’m still full from all the cheese,” Loki admitted. “They were quite delicious, Stephen. I’m sorry you didn’t get to try any.”

“I can’t believe you actually ate them all.” A three-for-two special and not a smidge left for poor old Stephen.

Loki looked almost guilty. “Is this normal?”

“What, the cravings?” Stephen laughed softly. “At least you’re not eating the plaster off Wong’s bedroom wall again.”

Loki grimaced at the memory. “Yeah…that was nasty. But yummy.”

At Stephen’s aghast expression, Loki added hurriedly. “At the time.”

“You’re lucky there was no lead in it or you would have suffered brain damage from lead poisoning.”

Now it was Loki’s turn to look aghast.

Stephen patted a consoling hand on his arm. “Don’t worry, I tested it.”

Loki forced himself to smile. It came across shaky. “Every pregnancy is different, you did say.”

“That I did.” Stephen could not stop touching Loki’s stomach.

 A strange, tingling sensation prickled the little hairs on the back of his neck. “You never did tell me about your children.”

The distant crashing of the waves against the cliff was the only sound audible in the sudden pindrop silence that had befallen the room.

“You never asked,” Loki finally said, calm and serene.

“I never did.”

“Are you asking now?”

“No,” Stephen said, and meant it. “I won’t put you in the position of having to tell me something you’d rather I not know.”

“But you do that all the time.”

“Not about this. Not about your past.”

“Thank you.” Loki’s voice was shaking, and he would have said more had Stephen not suddenly kissed him, light and chaste.

“I love you,” Stephen said simply. “Ever since the day I met you, now, and hereafter.”

He bent down to kiss his miracle twins. “And I love you, my darlings.”

Loki’s eyes misted. “They love you too.”

“They’d better.” Stephen had been neglecting Loki’s inviting lips for far too long and from the looks of it, Loki was going to drift off soon so he’d better kiss the hell out of them –

“You do know that too much cheese gives you nightmares?” He murmured in between kisses, alternating between soft and sweet, and rough and bruising.

“How human do you think I am?” He heard Loki say.

Loki stretching languidly under him as he accepted the kisses readily was doing all sorts of things to Stephen’s body but Loki sounded diminished, and Stephen could tell that his husband was giving in to exhaustion.

“Nonsensical balderdash, disguised as folk wisdom.”

“They did a study on it actually.”

“You mortals. Always too hard on yourselves.” Suddenly Loki was in his face. “YOLO, Stephen.”

Stephen remembered. “No. You’re not getting the peppers back.” He cupped Loki’s tiny bump possessively. “Not until our babies are ready to come out.”

Loki groaned. “You’re no fun, Stephen.”

“You still love me, yes?” Stephen liked repeating Loki’s lines. He liked seeing the reaction, the pleasure, the wonder on his husband’s face every time he did –

“This galaxy and the next. Till the very last one.” Because Loki remembered all of Stephen’s lines too.

Chapter Text

“Something’s coming,” Loki murmured.

Stephen lifted the book he was reading off his lap, half-wondering if his clip-on book light was making Loki talk in his sleep; he thought Loki had drifted off by now judging from the silence from the other half of the bed for the past thirty minutes - “What?”

Loki’s groan and the knock on the door came simultaneously.

“Daddy? Pappa?”

“Stian?” Stephen slipped out of bed and padded over to the door. “What’s the matter?”

Stian peered up with eyes that were suspiciously alert despite the hour. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Stephen stared down at him frostily. “You had ice cream, didn’t you?”

Stian started to shake his head, but it changed direction into something more vertical in trajectory and resembling of a reluctant nod.

Wordlessly, he produced something from somewhere behind his back and held it out to his father.

Stephen looked at the object proffered him. “Didn’t Pappa already read you a story when he put you to bed?”

“He didn’t read this one,” Stian said simply.

“Pappa’s already asleep, Stian.”

“Oh Stephen, just let him in,” came Loki’s irritable voice from inside the room. “I’m awake now.”

With a sigh, he pushed himself up into a sitting position.

“You might as well get me my darn milk so you can cross it off your checklist in your precious food diary.” Loki could almost hear the glee in Stephen’s footsteps as his husband made his way to the kitchen.

Guarding his belly with one hand, he helped his son clamber up the bed and across his knees with the other; soon Stian was curled against him, his head tucked in the crook of Loki’s neck.

“Where did you get this?” Loki flipped the book over, studying the front and back covers. “I don’t remember buying this.”

“Uncle Thor bought it for me, Pappa.”

“He did?” Loki once again scrutinised the title. It read ‘Irish and Celtic Mythology: Fairy Tales and Words of Enchantment’ in big, green letters with caricatures of legendary characters and shamrocks in the background.

“Huh. I would never have guessed that your Uncle Thor would pick this one out. Wonders never cease.”

Stephen returned from the kitchen and handed Loki a glass of milk before sitting himself down in the armchair in the far corner of the room. “It was hardly a wonder at all. Thor decided not to take the prize money and chose a mystery box instead and that’s what he got.”

That drew forth a bark of laughter out of Loki. “He didn’t!”

“I think he was hoping to win the 3-month, all-expenses paid, round-the-world cruise on that luxury liner…you know the one we saw when we were island-hopping back on Syracuse?”

“The Oceania VII?” Loki wrinkled his nose. “That gaudy, pretentious beast of a thing? Goodness.”

He sniffed. “Well. Thor never had much taste. He got the better end of the deal, in my opinion.”

He wrapped an arm around Stian’s neck and gave him an Eskimo kiss. “Now we’ve got a new book to read before bedtime, haven’t we, sweetling?”

At the look of disappointment on Stephen’s face, Loki’s smile faltered. “What is it, Stephen?”

“Nothing.” Stephen shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I think we should start a swear jar. But instead of swear words, every time you say the word  ‘nothing’, it will take a fingernail.”

“You mean every time you say ‘nothing.’ ”

“My nails grow back in a matter of hours. It’s no skin off my nose.”

“What’s wrong with your nose, Pappa?”

“It’s just an expression, darling.” Loki turned to Stephen expectantly. “Well?”

“It’s really nothing, Loki. It’s just that…well.” Stephen sighed. “I was hoping to take us on one of those cruises one day.”

“You and your boats,” Loki muttered. “I would no sooner spend a hundred days cooped up on a ship with a thousand other people than throw myself overboard the second you’re not looking.”

Stephen fell into an abrupt silence. Loki glanced at his husband out the corner of his eye, and his throat dried at the sight of Stephen’s blanched face.

Loki had always been careful to avoid any topic that could stir Stephen’s memories of his long-dead sister and by extension, her death by drowning.

But there were times when his sentient tongue simply escaped conscious control and had to show everybody that he was clever, and this was one of them.

“I’m sorry, Stephen. I didn’t know what I was saying.”

“It’s fine.”

“I guess this is what you humans mean by ‘pregnancy brain’.”

A ghost of a smile returned to Stephen’s lips. “You know there’s a supplement for that.”

“Does it start with ‘ice’ and end with ‘cream’? If it doesn’t, then don’t bother.”

Stian, who had been looking at his parents back and forth, in his impatience, simply had to interject. “Daddy, hang up. Pappa was about to read me a story.”

He snuggled closer to Loki. “Stop interrupting.”

“Excuse me, young man –” Stephen began

“You’re eight hundred years too early to be speaking in that manner to your parents, Stian,” Loki reproached him gently as he absently flipped through the pages of the book. “Do apologise to your Daddy before he decides not to take you on our next family outing.”

He gave Stephen a knowing look. “He wants to take us out on a boat, you don’t want to get left behind, do you?”

“Sorry, Daddy.”

“It’s alright, buddy.” Stephen climbed into the bed and ruffled Stian’s hair. “One story and you’re back to bed, alright? Pappa needs his rest.”

“So…which of these stories would you like me to read?” Loki asked indulgently.

“I’ll show you!” Stian pawed at the book, flipping the pages until he came to a stop somewhere in the middle. “This one, Pappa! It’s got horses in it!”

The Curse of Macha, Loki read. His heart began to pound.

It took him the course of the next few heartbeats to calm the sudden wave of heavy foreboding and he fought to keep his voice level. “Pick another story, Stian.”

“But I want to hear that one,” Stian whined.

“I said, pick another story!” Loki’s voice cracked like a whip, and Stephen could feel Stian recoil. Instinctively his arms tightened around their son.

“Come on, Stian.” Stephen plucked the book from Loki’s frozen, white-knuckled fingers. “It’s late. Let’s get you to bed.”

Stian did not even protest, remaining mousily quiet as he followed his father out of his parents’ bedroom and back to his.

As expected, the second Stephen got Stian under the covers, his little boy burst into tears, and it took Stephen a good five minutes to get him to stop sniffling.

“I’m sorry I made Pappa angry, Daddy.”

“Pappa’s just tired, Stian.” Stephen rubbed a comforting arm up and down his son’s back. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to shout at you.”

“Do you want me to read you a story?” he offered, despite the itch to return to his own bedroom and twist Loki’s arm until the truth behind his sudden outburst spilled out of him by the law of physics.

Stian shook his head mournfully. “No, thank you, Daddy.”

He snuggled deeper into his covers, curling up into the smallest, tightest ball he could contort into. “I don’t like that book. Please give it back to Uncle Thor.”

Stephen sighed. “We’ll see how it goes in the morning, okay?”

“Okay,” Stian said softly. A hiccup. “I love you, Daddy.”

“Love you too, buddy.”

When he returned to the master bedroom, the book had been flung across the room. Stephen picked it up gingerly from where it lay open and face-down; had it not landed on the daybed, the force would have ripped the pages, instead of leaving them only slightly crumpled.

Stephen had no idea what story Stian had requested of Loki to have provoked such a strong reaction, but whichever it was, it was affecting Loki hard.

Laying himself down, Stephen turned onto his side and studied at the stiff line of Loki’s spine.

“Loki.”

Loki only gripped the pillow over his head tighter.

Stephen tried again, despite knowing it was likely to be futile. “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

“Nothing.”

Before Stephen could voice his displeasure at receiving such a knee-jerk, unhelpful reply, a pale hand shot out and hovered in the air.

“Make it quick. It’ll bleed less.”

“What?” It took a moment for Stephen to understand the gesture; when he did, he balked. “I am not going to rip your nails out, what are you crazy?”

Loki finally lifted the pillow off his face, and hugged it to his chest. “I’ve been called worse.”

“You freaked out, Loki. And you freaked out our son.” Stephen laid a tentative hand on the rounded curve of Loki’s shoulder. “That’s not nothing.”

Loki’s only answer was a small, measured sigh.

Stephen moved to wrap his arm around Loki’s waist when he noticed the way Loki fisted the covers over his stomach.  He quickly cupped a hand over Loki’s clenched knuckles in alarm. “What’s wrong? Are you having pains?”

Loki shook his head, his eyes still closed. “I’m fine, Stephen.”

“Loki…”

“Stephen, please. I’m really tired.” Loki sighed again. “It’s been a long day.”

Stephen pursed his lips. He was hardly going to sleep well tonight, that was for damn sure. “We’ll talk about this later, Loki.”

“Whatever floats your boat, Doctor.”

______________________________________________

Loki awakened to the smell of coffee, which for all intents and purposes, should indicate that it was a reasonable hour of the morning, and that he should probably get out of bed, but his limbs and head, or rather his whole body, was begging him to reconsider.

His sleep had been plagued by dreams, but instead of the vivid imageries that epitomised the dreams of foreseers he had become more familiar with over the centuries, last night they had been scanty…a baffling miasma of lights and sounds and smells and

Memories.

Loki sat up slowly. He looked to his side. The bed was empty.

He felt the sheets. They were cold.

Stephen must have been up for hours.

Loki cocked his head to listen.

Were there actually horses screaming outside, or was he only hearing the lingering echoes of his dreams?

Loki drew his legs up and propped his elbows on his knees. He cupped his hands over his ears.

Yes. He could still hear them, could still hear the screams –

Her screams. A guttural, torturous howling that stretched on and on and on, a wretched, cursed sound that only stopped when the smell began.

The stench of blood.

And before he knew it, Loki vomited onto the covers.

He heaved again, and managed to spare the bed this time, only to send flecks of undigested cheese and curdled milk spewing all over himself as he cupped a hand to his mouth to keep them in –

“Stephen…”

Loki lost all power of speech, vocal and telepathic, save for his husband’s name…but thankfully it was enough, for mere seconds later, a familiar warm hand was rubbing circles on his back, another holding a basin that had suddenly materialised by magic to catch the rest of Loki’s stomach contents.

“In hindsight, that much cheese in one sitting, probably wasn't a good idea,” came Stephen’s terse, brusque opening statement.

Playing along would keep Stephen satisfied for a while, before his keen sense of deduction would inevitably pick up on the bullshit, and call Loki out on it.

Loki nodded numbly.

“Sorry,” he gasped.

“Don’t be sorry.” Stephen’s hand was now clasped to the back of his head, massaging the tight muscles of his scalp, and Loki could feel the nausea dissipating slowly. “Let it all out. You’ll feel better.”

“Fuck.” Loki rested his forehead on his forearms. He was almost relieved to breathe in the smell of vomit on himself; between that, and the overpowering stench of blood and body fluids, a detestable residue from the dreams…

Yeah. He was fucked.

What happened next passed in a blur. He was vaguely aware of Stephen pulling him to stand and undressing him, of a warm hand rubbing pungent yet soothing ginger oil on his belly, of servants coming in to attend to the mess he had made –

His awareness only returned, albeit not fully, once he was immersed in the tub, the water pleasantly warm and scented with more ginger oil.

Loki leaned his head back against the headrest.

The beastly nausea had retreated to where all demons dwelled, but Loki dared not open his eyes, lest he see her broken body on the ground, dead and lifeless –

As dead and lifeless as her son and her daughter, borne before their time.

“Stephen,” he murmured.

“I’m here.”

“Hmm.” Loki breathed in deeply.

Long minutes passed in complete silence, broken intermittently by the sounds of water dripping from the faucets.

Loki felt finally ready to open his eyes. But he simply had to make sure – “Stephen?”

“I’m still here.”

A contented sigh. “You’re still here.”

A shrivelled hand emerged through the water to grip the porcelain rim of the tub.

“I never left.” Stephen gripped the fingers, icy despite the warm temperature of the bathwater.

“Think your eggs are burning.” Loki’s green eyes were unusually bright as they pierced through the steam fogging up the bathroom.

“Let them burn.”

Loki stared.

“Oh yes,” he whispered. “Let them burn indeed.”

Then he began to chuckle, and the chuckle turned to all-out hearty laughter that rang through in decrescendo echoes through the hollow acoustics of the bathroom.

“Loki…” Stephen’s heart thundered wildly in his chest.

His bullshit detector kicked in. “This wasn’t just the cheese, was it?”

Loki’s laughter ceased abruptly. His face began to crumple. “No.”

To Stephen’s horror, Loki began to cry. “No, it wasn’t.”

“It isn’t.” Loki bent his head forward, and his quiet tears made no sound as they dropped one by one into the water.

“Fuck, Loki.” Stephen’s strong arm wrapped around his head and Loki found his face pressed into his husband’s broad, warm chest.

“Did you read about yourself in the book?” Stephen asked quietly. Loki shook his head slowly.

Loki felt a sudden rush of water cascade down the side of his head and felt Stephen’s fingers pluck something out of the strands of hair at his temple, most possibly vomit.

“A lover from the past?”

Loki shook his head again. He searched for the right word, but alas, there was none he could find in any language known to him.

He settled for the closest, in meaning and the least-painful, in effect. “A…friend.”

“Loki…”

“I will tell you about her, Stephen.” Loki gave Stephen’s collarbone an acquiescing kiss. “Just…I will.”

Stephen forced himself to smile; it was practically impossible to fake one when all he wanted to do was give Loki a good shake, but Thor’s words came a-warning out of nowhere like a shot of magic psychotherapy

Be gentle.

Bear with him, and have patience.

“Good enough for me,” Stephen finally said. “Let’s get you clean and less a walking zombie, deal?”

Loki palmed the tears away. He was no longer sad, but somehow, they kept coming, like his leaky faucets.

He reached out and twisted the handles. The water stopped. Somehow that made him inexplicably happy, and it showed in his enthusiastic “Deal.”

Stephen pulled the shower hose closer and began to methodically rinse the suds off Loki’s body, limb by limb.

“Let’s go somewhere today. Just the two of us,” Stephen said out of the blue, just as he finished rinsing the suds off Loki’s toes. “We’ll do something completely normal. And boring.”

“You mean anything and everything Midgardian,” Loki said flatly.

Stephen ignored Loki’s snide remark. “Boring is nice. Let us try boring sometime, where absolutely nothing happens and neither of us ends up dying or crying.”

Loki gave a mirthless chuckle.

“You might end up liking it.”

Loki stared at his husband and felt something inside him give. Stephen could never hide his anxiety from him no matter how he tried. “Alright. I will give it a try.”

Loki knew not who it was that initiated it, but when the kiss came, it tasted sweet and promising and suddenly Loki did not feel so scared anymore.

After all, dreams could just be…dreams. Nothing more.

Couldn’t they?

__________________________________________

They tried baby shopping.

And Loki poohed and paahed all the way down the aisle. He turned around the corner, walked down another aisle, and the pooh-pooh began all over again.

“We never needed any of these things with our first two children.”

Stephen followed, never more than a few steps away. He knew their outing was going to be interesting, for sure.

“Diaper cream? Lanolin cream? Baby oil? Goodness. You humans would slather anything on your baby, wouldn’t you.” Loki scrutinised another section. “Oh look. Baby nail clippers. How cute. Do get one of those, Stephen.”

“Artificial nipples? Really?” Loki stopped in front of the breastfeeding aid section and stared, flabbergasted.

“They are nipple shields, to be exact,” Stephen said, amused. “They protect the nipples.”

“From what?” Loki’s eyes were wide and unblinking. “Do human babies come out with teeth?”

“They say cracked nipples can be very painful.” Stephen shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Well, mine never – ” Loki caught himself, but not before Stephen did, and he honed it on it, he simply could not resist –

“You’ve breastfed your children before?” he asked very softly and very carefully.

Loki met his gaze, and decided to be truthful and forthcoming. Stephen did let him have a bite of angel cake this morning after all.

“Yes,” he answered calmly. “Once upon a time.”

Stephen’s arms moved on their volition to wrap around Loki’s waist and pull him in, CCTV and curious eyes be damned. “Would you?”

He pressed their bodies together, and Stephen’s breath caught in his throat at the feel of Loki’s growing belly pressing against his own torso. There was no mistaking the silent question in his deep, penetrating eyes. “Would you? This time?”

Loki’s arms slowly reached up to cup Stephen’s shoulder blades.

“You make sure our babies come out the right way, and we shall see,” Loki answered the question with both his sweet eyes and sweet lips, and Stephen felt like bursting into song right then and there and who cared if he couldn’t sing –

“You are really something, you know that?”

“Do paraphrase, Doctor,” Loki teased. “We have been married six years now.” He smirked. “Can’t keep using the same line, or I’ll run away.”

“Don’t you dare.” Stephen tightened his hold. He leaned forward for a kiss, “At least not before we get one of those adorable twin strollers.”

“You read my mind, Doctor.”

Chapter Text

Hospital de la Caridad, Seville.

 

“Now this is more my jam.” There was something about the way his thousand-something-year-old husband said it that made Stephen smile. That, and Loki’s ghostly silhouette as he raised his arms to the open night sky as he made a slow, languid twirl around the marble fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

“Surprisingly, mine too.” Stephen marvelled at the sprawling architecture of the two-storey building with its Baroque-style, stucco plasterworks, stark white against lemon-yellow walls, brilliantly vibrant even in the shadows of the night. “Maybe from now on I’ll let you pick our dating spots.”

“Unconventional, isn’t it.” Loki sighed. “I had a feeling you might like it.”

“Yes, because we doctors just looove hospitals don’t we.” Stephen dug his hands deeper in his coat pockets. “We can never stay away.”

It was steeped in history, this place; he had worked long enough in hospitals and spent enough time in hospices to recognise the smell of it. Centuries of pain and suffering and death, mingling with centuries of love and care and hope and prayers for the dead, and for the living. “It’s in our blood.”

“To alleviate human suffering is to be in love with it. Even if just a little bit,” Loki murmured, studying a porcelain fresco that ran along the entire length of the eastward wall that would have been the first to be hit with the light of day.

Stephen followed Loki with his eyes as Loki stepped out onto the courtyard once more, his footsteps light and silent.

“I don’t enjoy seeing people suffer.”

“Maybe not, Doctor. But you are different…from the others.” Loki looked at him sharply. “You are indifferent.”

Loki’s movements were extra ghostly tonight; if Stephen closed his eyes, he would not have been able to tell that there was another soul around.

“It excites you, nonetheless.” Stephen watched as Loki walked past twin rows of orange trees and brushed his fingers lightly against the budding blossoms. “Wielding the power to heal. To make the pain go away.”

“If I were as indifferent as you say, I would have gone back to my old life, Loki.”

“Oh, I mean no offense, Stephen.” Loki hurried to his side and anxiously searched Stephen’s face. “Quite the contrary, actually. You were bound for greatness no matter which path you took.”

He wrapped an apologetic arm around Stephen’s waist. “Good thing you chose the one that led you to me.”

Ever the Master of Words, Loki received a deep, bruising kiss for his effort, and he reciprocated with as much gusto; if any of the infirmary’s inhabitants were to stick their head over the second floor balcony, they would have seen two lovers eating each other’s face in a late-night courtyard rendezvous under the Andalusian moonlight.

Good thing Loki’s ‘light’ sleeping spell had a reach of a ten-mile radius. They could be as loud and as merry as they wanted.

Happily, he reached for Stephen’s hand and pulled him along a deserted, mosaic-lined corridor. “Come. I want to show you something.”

“We’re trespassing.”

“Well we would have paid the entrance fee had they extended the opening hours past midnight, wouldn’t we.”

Loki led Stephen down a narrow passageway and an equally-narrow spiral staircase. “Watch your head.”

Soon they were standing in what seemed to be a chapel, its golden altars gleaming in what little moonlight that managed to creep in through the floor-length windows. Gilded paintings lined the walls, some as tall as the vaulted ceilings.

Stephen suppressed a sudden shiver.

Loki led him down row after row of silent pews before they came upon a very large, imposing, oil-on-canvas painting.

It took a while for Stephen’s vision to adjust but when it finally came into focus, the detailing literally took his breath away.

The painting, a masterwork of vivid colours and bold strokes, depicted a skeleton, holding a scythe in one hand, with a coffin tucked under its arm. At its feet were all the symbols of worldly treasures: fine jewellery, a tiara, épée and sabre swords, and velvet robes of the rich and influential.

“Beautiful, isn’t it.” Loki’s voice got all breathy, the way he always sounded whenever he was mesmerised by something, which fortunately or not, did not happen very often –

“Well, it’s certainly dramatic,” Stephen managed.

Death’s other hand extinguished a candle. Above which were the words,

In Ictu Oculi.”

Stephen knew enough Latin to know what the name of the painting meant. “In the blink of an eye.”

“Yes. In the blink of an eye, we die.”

One of these days, Stephen was going to find a way to make Loki renounce his morbid fascination with death.

Tonight, he supposed he was going to have to rely on his charm. 

Stephen’s hands slipped down past Loki’s hips, now rounded and no longer as sharp, and cupped the swell of his belly. “In the blink of an eye, we make life.”

Loki smiled in the dark. He placed his hands over Stephen’s. “And fall in love.”

Either the moon shifted, or the clouds covering it had drifted away, but a pane of light cut through the stained glass of the side window to cast a reddish hue over the painting. Goosebumps began to rise on his forearms as Stephen’s vision adjusted to the darkroom ambience of the small, cramped chapel.

Suddenly the pews around them felt filled, and not at all vacant anymore.

Perhaps the souls of all those abandoned patients, of all the condemned convicts executed and buried on the grounds had come out to join them. 

“Morbid, isn’t it.” Stephen heard Loki say, soft and lilting.

Stephen hoped Loki was still talking about the painting. “Some read Hans Christian Andersen. Some read the Brothers Grimm. There are always two ways to tell a story.”

“And always two sides to a story.”

“Always.” Stephen stole a glance at his husband, who now wore a peculiar, grim expression on his face that seemed to make the sharp shadows under his eyes and cheeks all the more prominent.

“Do you know why I’ve brought us here, Stephen?” Loki asked once they were sitting in one of the pews directly facing the grim painting, which unfortunately, from this angle, did not look less daunting.

“The Brotherhood of the Holy Charity was born in the 15th century. By the 17th century, they had constructed this church, and turned it into a charity hospital. They made it their mission to bury the drowned, the condemned to death, and the poor.”

Loki swept his eyes across the dozens of empty pews around them.

“Perhaps sitting among us right now is someone’s L'Inconnue de la Seine.”

With the haste of someone who had been caught staring, Loki abruptly turned his head around once again toward the altarpiece.

A soft breath whistled past his lips as he breathed out, “Someone’s Donna.”

Stephen closed his eyes against the black of Loki’s hair. “I see her in you sometimes.”

Loki must be frowning, for Stephen to feel the sudden tightening of his temporal muscles. “Your sister?”

Stephen shook his head. “Aífe.”

“Of course you do. She is our daughter.”

“No, not our Aífe.” Stephen hesitated. “Your Aífe.”

The fingers playing with the back of Stephen’s hand stilled.

“Yes. I can see how our tendency to talk in riddles may seem uncanny.”

“And the whole air of omniscience –”

“It’s just self-confidence, really, with a generous helping of actual knowledge, of course –”

“So you know the actual identity of the girl in the Seine?”

“No,” Loki answered serenely. “She couldn’t have been all that different from all the tuberculous floaters you humans fished out of The Thames over the turn of the century, if no one came forward to claim her.”

Stephen rolled his eyes. “And you call me indifferent.”

“She is now the most-kissed face on Earth, so the way I see it, she gets a fairy tale ending, in the end.” Loki snuggled in closer. “Not everyone does.”

“Did Macha get one?”

Loki’s quick tongue took longer than usual to answer. When it finally did, Loki did not sound like himself for how small his voice was; it sounded almost scared even –

It almost made Stephen regret asking in the first place.

“Come now, Stephen. In Stian’s book, she lived, didn’t she?”

“Books can be rewritten. History too, if you burn enough books and kill enough academicians.” Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Stephen proceeded to ask, casually yet carefully. “Would you like to tell me the actual ending?”

“You must have Googled it already,” Loki said flatly. “Why don’t you tell me.”

“I’d rather hear it from you.”

Loki was quiet for a while, before he finally relented. “Ask away, Doctor.”

“What was she to you?”

“Have you ever heard of the Mór-Ríoghain, Stephen?”

“Are they the ones who also go by the name the Morrígan?” Stephen tried to recall what he could from the skim-reading he had done on Irish mythology.

“Yes, as some of your scholars called them, the very same. A triumvirate of Celtic Goddesses, wielding power over War and Death,” Loki explained. “Macha was a fearsome goddess in her own right though, especially with the foretelling of doom, death or victory in battle.”

Loki sighed. “But as the story always goes with these godly beings, she lingered too long in the world of men, and fell in love with a mortal.”

Loki said his name with a hint of disdain, “Cruinden was a widower, a poor farmer left with three children, destitute and grief-stricken after the death of his wife.”

“A simple man he was, but he knew this mysterious woman, whom he had found sitting by his fire one day, was not of this world, simply from the way she moved.  When she ran, she ran like the wind, so swiftly that her feet barely touched the ground. And so Macha took on the role of caretaker, mother and later on, his wife.”

“One day, King Connor of Ulster called for a feast to celebrate his new find, a pair of the finest chariot-horses no Ulster King before him had ever owned.”

“And Cruinden, the fool, not wanting to be outdone by the drunken Ulstermen’s boasting of their wives’ beauties, boasted of his own wife’s special skill. That she was the fastest runner in all of Ireland, and could definitely run faster than the King’s horses.”

“The King, humiliated by this boastful farmer, had his men drag the heavily-pregnant Macha before him and demanded she make true on her husband’s words, or his life would be forfeit.”

Loki’s hand ghosted over his own belly. Stephen saw, and laced his own fingers through Loki’s cold ones.

“She begged and begged for him to reconsider, to postpone the race until she had seen to the safe delivery of her baby, but the arrogant King was adamant. She turned to all the warriors of Ulster, the brave and valiant knights, to intercede on her behalf, to make plea to the King in her favour. But no one came forth to protect her.”

“Were you there? When your King of Ulster made her race his chariot horses?”

“Yes. But you’ve got your timeline wrong, Doctor. I was not yet Cúchulainn then, or I would have interfered,” Loki said bitterly.

He continued, the note of bitterness never leaving his curt, biting voice. “Interfering would have meant dishonouring her, and the Morrígan did not take kindly to another God acting upon a Wrath that was not His.”

His tone softened, as did his eyes. “Lugh did his best under the circumstances. He weighted the horses down with his spears, his armours. Even sliced the horses’ tendons through with his sling stone to slow them down when Macha’s birth pains set upon her in the middle of the race, and her screams became too loud.”

Loki closed his eyes at the memory.

“You might say her swollen belly won the race for her in the end as it crossed the finish line, winning over the horses by a hair’s breadth. Her scream of agony as she fell to the ground, blood all around her, was nothing compared to her screams when her – ” Loki abruptly fisted his mouth.

“Loki, you don’t have to finish the story,” Stephen shook his head. He tightened his hold around Loki who was beginning to tremble. “It’s alright if you don’t.”

“But you wanted to know the ending.”

Loki buried his face in Stephen’s chest. “I have to tell you the ending. So you can burn it. Burn it so it doesn’t happen to me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing happens by chance, Stephen,” he mumbled, his voice muffled against the heavy fabric of Stephen’s coat. “Thor winning the book. Stian picking out the story.”

“Us, pregnant with twins.” Loki lifted his face, as pale as moonlight. “Can’t you see?”

“In Stian’s book, Macha’s twins lived.” Loki’s lips barely moved to speak.

But Stephen’s mind rang with a different truth altogether. Loki’s eyes began to fill.

“In the blink of an eye. And not even a breath drawn between them.”

Stephen’s throat dried in an instant.

“Nothing is going to happen to you, Loki,” Stephen said fiercely. He bundled Loki up in his coat and held him tighter. “I won’t let it.”

“What if she never forgave me for not doing enough?”

There it was, Loki’s greatest fear, one he could not even say out loud.

Stephen took in a deep breath. The air in the chapel was heavy, and stifling. One could not stay here for too long. One should not.

He needed to get Loki out of there quickly.

“If I remember correctly, Cúchulainn was the only Ulster Warrior not affected by her curse, when the rest of your comrades would fall one by one to the agonising pains just like the ones she had had to endure, at the time when their strength was needed most in battle.”

Stephen gripped Loki’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “She must have remembered enough of what you did for her to spare you the pain.”

“A terrible curse too, ‘twas.” Loki’s fingers curled around Stephen’s lapel, pulling it in closer around him. It was getting very chilly in the chapel. “Nine generations is a long, long time for a curse to die out.”

“Well if it’s going to take me nine generations to convince you that I would give my life to protect you and all our children, then nine generations it is,” Stephen said firmly. “I don’t know how yet, but I’ll do it.”

He added viciously, “If anything, it was the stupid husband’s fault.”

“Oh Stephen. You’re no Cruinden, that’s for sure.” Loki sounded relieved that the mortal of his choosing at least had some courage in him, on top of astonishingly good looks and above-average intelligence.

“Now I know why you never let me brag about you to my fellow Masters.”

Loki laughed and cried at the same time. He tried to reply, but the tears of sadness and laughter and love got all mixed up, and in the end, he did not know which was which so he simply let them flow –

“Do pregnant women cry all the time too?” Loki pressed a sleeve to his eyes. “Because I feel like that’s all I’ve been doing ever since I got pregnant.”

“It may well be hormones.” Stephen agreed. “Or it may just be that you’re honouring your vows to me.”

Stephen’s smile was soft, as soft as the kiss he landed on Loki’s lips. “And I love you all the more for it.”

Loki’s mouth fell open.

“Macha might have picked a brainless twat for a husband, but you, my darling –” Thrilled that he had rendered his usually articulate husband tongue-tied, Stephen lifted Loki’s chin with a finger, “- have picked yourself a winner.”

“Stephen.”

“Yeah?”

“We are in a chapel.”

“Uh-uh. And?”

“And it’s full of ghosts.”

“So?”

“Care to teleport us somewhere, so I can undress, inspect, and enjoy my winning prize?” Loki sounded almost breathless with the anticipation – “In private?”

“So where to, my Prince?”

“Surprise me.”

 

Navan Fort, Armagh.

 

A split second later, they were no longer basking in the warmth of a tropical Spanish midwinter’s night, but freezing their bollocks off up in the Old Country.

“Well, colour me surprised.” Loki looked up at the sky. How extraordinary it was to be looking at the same sky, but not seeing the same constellation of stars he had just seen moments ago a few latitudes lower down in Spain.

“Did you know Ireland is one of the perfect places to see the edge of the Aurora Borealis?”

Stephen hugged his arms across Loki’s chest and followed his gaze skyward. “If I did, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Celestial phenomena seem to follow you everywhere you go.”

Loki laughed silently, before his laughter died out as he took in his surroundings. They were standing on a large, circular hilltop enclosure surrounded by a raised bank overriding a deep, treacherous ditch.

“I would never have guessed that you would bring me here of all places.”

“Seems like your stories are never just stories, Loki.”

Loki simply had to raise a challenging eyebrow. “There is more truth in my lies than there are lies, Stephen.”

“I assume it looks nothing like it once was?”

Loki gently released himself from Stephen’s embrace.

“The Eamhain Mhacha was once the seat of Ulster, home to Kings and Queens. Great battles were fought here. Some losses, of course, but a great many victories too.” Loki walked around the mound, careful not to kick up any dirt; there was no need to disturb resting souls after all –

“They named it after her, did you know? ‘Macha’s Twins’ is what it means.”

Loki looked into the distance where the rolling hills would have stretched as far out as the eye could see, as green as the lushest trees if they were to wait just a few more hours till daybreak. “This was where she birthed her dead twins after winning the race.”

Loki sniffed derisively. “To modern society it is just a mound of dirt now.”

Stephen only nodded. There was little magic here, but was history not a branch of magic in itself? He had seen evidence of it himself in the way Loki would drift off sometimes with a haunted, faraway look in his eyes.

“I can’t feel it anymore.” Loki inhaled the clean, fresh air with a nostalgic hunger that longed for the glories of centuries past. “The Curse. It is gone.”

“It is Northern Ireland now. Not Bronze Age Ulster anymore.”

“No, it isn’t.” Loki’s voice was soft. When he said the words once more, it was with conviction, and heartfelt relief. “No, it isn’t.”

Stephen’s arm was once again wrapped around his neck, very warm and grounding. “You shared your fears with me, Loki. It’s my job to help you let go.”

“What happened to Macha, happened. Doesn’t mean the same’s going to happen to us.”

Stephen turned him around and kissed the crease between Loki’s brows gently. “I don’t want you to think on it anymore.”

Loki smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Stephen.”

He cupped Stephen’s face and kissed him deeply. “I would have married you every single lifetime had I met you.”

Stephen’s heart fluttered. “Truly?”

Loki nodded, his eyes shiny with what could only be tears of true happiness.

“This lifetime and beyond, Doctor.”

Stephen was the one thing he could not lose. Not now. Not ever. “I will seek you, and I will find you.”

“You promise?”

His lips sought Stephen’s again, soft and unusually warm. “Well I promised before, didn’t I.”

Stephen slid his hand around the back of Loki’s neck, his fingers curling unconsciously around a handful of black hair, grasping it like one would a ball of silk-

Loki’s kisses grew hungrier and more desperate; Stephen could hardly breathe, his chest felt tight as his pulse quickened with each gasping heave –

They broke away for a split second and the sudden rush of cold air made Stephen’s chest seize in a cough, but he did not care. His lips fervently sought Loki’s again but before he could find them, a hand shot up to put a rein on his searching lips.

“You need to stop taking me to these holy places, Stephen.” Loki sounded just as breathless as Stephen felt. “I can’t possibly undress you here.”

“Correction: We only need to stop copulating in holy places.” It came across as more of a petulant whine than anything, and Stephen reluctantly pulled away, straightening out his clothes.

“But you’re right. I guess that extends to making out as well. Who knows what kind of Gods we might end up pissing off.”

“Well, there’s one right here who’s about to be very pissed if he doesn’t get whisked away to somewhere a little less holy immediately.”

“Duly noted, my beautiful, sexy, divine, ravishing –”

“Stephen!”

Chapter Text

Loki groaned. “Get your face out of my belly, Strange.”

“I can’t. I keep seeing it, it’s so distracting,” Stephen said with glee as he buried his face once more in the porcelain curve of Loki’s exposed stomach, inadvertently nosing Loki’s sleeping tunic out of the way, despite it already riding so high what with all the stretching Loki insisted on doing just to drive Stephen crazy first thing in the morning –

“God, you’re beautiful.”

“I’m not. I’m the size of a naval frigate.”

Stephen tried to keep his cool and not burst out laughing. “Ah yes. You’re like a sleek, stream-lined, stealthy Destroyer. It’s always the tiny ones that sink the most warships.”

His eyes still closed, Loki let his hands grope the air and once they locked themselves to the sides of Stephen’s head, he pulled Stephen in for a grateful kiss. “How is it that you always know what to say?”

“I learn from the best.” Stephen brought his elbows together so they were no longer straddling Loki’s sides to keep his weight from crushing the twins and leaned into the kiss.

“Are you going to get up?” Stephen dropped his head onto Loki’s pillow and nudged his forehead into Loki’s temple. “I want to get some breakfast in you before the guests start coming. No more skipping meals, Jack said.”

“It’s not like I do it on purpose,” Loki muttered. “I’m either so hungry I could cry, or so full and bloated I could explode, I’m never something in between.”

“You’re never anything in between.” Stephen rubbed gentle circles on Loki’s growing belly. At eighteen weeks, there was no hiding it anymore. And if Jack’s latest scans were anything to go by, the twins were in excellent health and Loki’s pregnancy was progressing stellarly.

“All the scars have gone,” Stephen said suddenly. He lifted his head and true enough, gone were the contractures from the burn wounds, the silvery tram-like scars – there was nothing underneath his palm now but smooth, flawless skin.

“The ones on the outside at least,” Loki said quietly.

“If you want to go ahead with the CT scan it is entirely your decision.” Stephen breathed in deeply. “That’s the only way we can tell if the adhesions inside you are completely gone.”

“The one in a thousand risk of developing childhood cancer might as well be one in a million. I won’t do it.”

“Then there is no telling if it’s safe at all for you to attempt a natural delivery.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Loki said softly. “Jack didn’t seem to be too happy with the shape of my pelvis anyway when he examined me the last time.”

“We’ll worry about it when the time comes okay?” Stephen soothed. “There is a certain pelvic shape that is ideal for birth, but it’s too early to say if you’re going to be a bad fit, for you will only be truly tested during labour.”

“A ‘bad fit’,” Loki said with not an insignificant amount of distaste, hands automatically going to the sides of his belly.

Stephen said helplessly, “You know what I mean.”

“Yes…” It was too late, for now Loki sounded as glum as anything. “How am I going to squeeze them out, Stephen? I’m already so huge, and I’m not even halfway through.”

“One by one, of course.” Stephen rolled his eyes. “Duh.”

Loki was beginning to breathe very hard.

“Are you panicking?” Stephen asked accusingly. “Is that what you’re doing?”

“No. I am calm. I am very, very calm,” Loki said, sounding anything but. He cupped his hands over his face and moaned. “Oh what are we going to do, No. 2?”

“Okay, that’s enough.” Stephen jumped out of bed. “Come on. Up. Bruce will be here any minute with the cake.”

Loki moaned again. “Can’t you call him and cancel?”

“I could, but you’d be breaking Aífe’s heart, wouldn’t you?” Stephen pulled on a pair of long pants over his boxers. “Her first birthday party, and you want to cancel because you’re wallowing in self-pity.”

“I’m not wallowing.” Loki pushed himself up into a sitting position and stared down at the beachball he seemed to have swallowed in his sleep. “I don’t wallow.”

The sunlight that streamed in through the windows as Stephen drew the curtains did just the trick, and Loki felt his heart do a complete turnaround at the thought of their dear daughter.

A smile broke across Loki’s face as he allowed Stephen to help him out of bed; his centre of gravity was always a little wonky in the morning nowadays. He looped his hair into a loose, tieless ponytail. “Are you portalling the guests in?”

“They all flew in last night on Tony’s private jet.” Stephen flashed him a smile. “Told them I’d be busy preparing for the party.”

 “Our little Princess. I can’t believe she’s one.”

“Time does that, you know. It lies low, and the next thing you know you’re walking your daughter down the aisle.” Stephen tied his dressing robe around his waist and stood in the middle of the room, looking and sounding suddenly glum. “Talk about a sock right in the gut.”

“Aww.” Loki patted his cheek. His eyes hardened. “Yeah. Not happening. Nuh-uh.”

“It’s bound to happen sooner or later, Loki.”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Loki yelled, covering his ears with the palm of his hands.

_____________________________________________

“Loki.”

“Stark.”

“You look…um…”

“Huge? Massive? Ginormous?”

Thriving,” Tony said smoothly. “I was going to go say thriving.”

“Lady Stark.” Loki nodded courteously. “Welcome to our home.”

“Loki. Thank you for having us.” Pepper squeezed Loki’s elbow warmly. She took a step back. “Oh my.”

“Oh yes.” If this had been Loki’s first pregnancy, he would have worn a glamour from the moment of conception up till labour, but now he no longer cared to hide it. Not when there was a time when he did not think they could ever conceive again.

He had a bump, a sizable one at that, and he was going to flaunt it.

“I’m sorry, it’s just that the last time I saw you, must have been two months ago? When you came over to New York to see Bruce?” Pepper frowned. “You were hardly showing back then. Is everything alright?”

Loki shifted his gaze to her husband who had bent down to pick up what seemed to be a gaudily-wrapped birthday present almost the size of a person, and was now trying to fit it in through the door. “I’m surprised you didn’t tell her, Tony.”

“Not my news to tell now, is it?” Tony grunted. “Besides you got mad the last time I told everyone Stephen had knocked you up, so I figured I’d save myself the trouble.”

“Thanks, Tony.” Loki rolled his eyes. “We’re having twins, Lady Stark.”

“Twins?” Pepper squealed in delight. “Oh that’s wonderful!” And before Loki knew it, he found himself suffocating on a flurry of long blond tresses as Pepper threw her arms around him, and he yelped –

“Tony.” Stephen suddenly materialised by Loki’s side.

“Stephen!” Tony gasped. “A little help?”

“What did you get my daughter?” Stephen looked coolly at the massive box Tony was still struggling to squeeze past the door. “An elephant?”

Close.”

Stephen rolled his eyes. “Step aside.” With a snap of his fingers, the mysterious box disappeared, only to reappear in one corner of the living room, the one designated to keep all the birthday presents.

“Show-off.” Tony muttered.

“Uncle Tony!”

“Hey, Buddy!”

“Stian, why don’t you take Morgan outside? I think I saw Aunt Christine with Emma on the Quinjet.” Stephen took Pepper’s coat off her and slung it over his forearm. “Would you like any drinks?”

“Quinjet?” Tony echoed after Stephen left them to make his way toward the bar.

“Inflatable.” Loki flicked an invisible lint off his sleeve. “I was told it is a must-have for Midgardian children’s birthday parties. I requested one to be made just for the occasion. For old times’ sake, you understand.”

“Yeah...” Tony walked across the living room, spacious now that the furniture had been removed for the central table, and out onto the patio.

He watched as Stian and Morgan ran across the grass hand-in-hand toward the bouncy replica of the jet where they had kept Loki after ‘subduing’ him in Stuttgart all those years ago. “You’re not still sore about that, are you?”

A snooty upturning of the nose. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Barton sends his regards. He says thanks for the invite, but something’s come up.”

Loki’s face was unreadable. “Sure,” he finally said.

“He’ll come around.” Tony stole a glance. “One day.”

“Don’t think I can hold my breath that long, Stark,” Loki said lightly.

“Knowing you, you probably can.” Tony’s tone was perhaps meant to lighten the mood, but he should not have bothered.

Loki had everything and everyone he needed right here.

“Friend Stark!” Thor bellowed from somewhere across the room.

Speak of the devil.

“Here she comes, the birthday girl!” Aífe was bouncing up and down in the crook of Thor’s arm, the slight gap between her front two teeth made all the more prominent from the squealing and laughing as Thor tossed her up in the air; Erla, the royal governess looked on nervously, following slightly off-centre close behind her King, with the Valkyrie flanking Thor’s other side.

The doorbell rang, and Stephen opened it to let Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov and Wong in.

“Oh great, looks like everybody’s here now.”

“Nervous?”

“About what?” Loki plastered a semi-hysterical grin on his face. “I can be a great host. You just watch me.”

_______________________________________

“Oh look. A unicorn cake. How cute.” A voice startled Bruce from behind. “Hello, Bruce.”

“Loki. I see you’ve been avoiding me.”

“No, I haven’t,” Loki said smoothly. “I’ve been waiting for you to step away from the cake, but you seem to be guarding it with your life, so now I have no choice but to come forward and show my face.”

“Shall I cut you a piece?”

Loki sighed exaggeratedly. “You might as well.” His mouth watered at the sight of the pistachio cake with its brilliant pomegranate pearls buried in the layers like hidden treasure. “It is from that bakery on 74th and Amsterdam?”

“You were quite precise and explicit in your request, Loki. I followed it to a tee when I made the order.” Bruce cut him a small slice. “The babes sure know what they want.”

“They sure do,” Loki sighed happily as he accepted the plate.

“So your latest bloodwork came back okay-ish.”

“-Ish?” Loki asked dryly.

“Your Vitamin D level could be higher.” Bruce jiggled a bottle of pills in his face. “Fear not, I’ve got them right here.”

“Oh I fear nothing,” Loki said coolly. “What else?” He asked, not sounding at all interested.

“Your haemoglobin level’s the highest I’ve seen ever since I met you, but it’s borderline at best. A little more red meat in the diet, anchovies, green leafy vegetables…that should tide you over till the next trimester.”

“Ylech.” Loki made a face, and pointedly shoved another forkful of cake into his mouth.

Bruce blatantly stared at the platter in Loki’s hand. “And a little less of that.”

“It’s iron-fortified cake,” Loki mumbled through a mouthful of icing and pistachio-vanilla sponge.

“So you’re really doing okay?”

“As okay as can be expected,” Loki chirped merrily. “No one’s tried to kill me or come after me or my family, I haven’t needed a blood transfusion in ages, and I’m eating my daughter’s first birthday cake. Everything is absolutely peachy.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Bruce had to laugh. “Thor still hovers over you though.”

“As long as he does it inconspicuously, I don’t care.” Loki thumbed a smudge of frosting delicately off his lip. “Hoverers will be hoverers.”

“You do look well.” Bruce smiled softly. “I am happy for you.”

“It’s nice of you to come, Bruce,” Loki said awkwardly. He could never get used to the frivolities of human interaction and conversational niceties, despite knowing Bruce for years. But the physicist was someone whose company he could tolerate, apart from Stephen of course. Tony too, if he came bearing the right gifts – “You should visit more often.”

_______________________________________

Loki watched as Wong pulled Stephen to one side to whisper something in his ear, and the first alarm bells rang at the sight of Stephen’s suddenly tight face.

Stephen strode across the room to where Loki was sitting on the couch. He slowly climbed to his feet. “Stephen?”

“I have to go.”

“Something wrong?”

“I’m heading over to Kamar-Taj. Something’s happened and I need to take a look at it.”

“Now?” Loki scanned the room still full of humans and Asgardians eating, drinking and basically making a mess of his living room.

“I’m sorry, Loki.” Out of nowhere, the Cloak of Levitation flew and settled around his shoulders. “Bad timing, I know.”

“You’re leaving me with all these people?” Mild panic tinged with horror jacked the pitch of Loki’s voice a notch.

“I’m leaving you with all these people –” Stephen pulled him in, “ – and a kiss.”

Loki let out an unintelligible whine.

“The party’s almost over anyway. All you need to do is tell people you’re tired and they’ll be out of your hair in to time.” The Cloak hid Stephen’s hand from view as it lightly cradled the curve of Loki’s belly. “Anything you want me to get you?”

Loki looked almost ready to jump at the first opportunity to regal Stephen with what was likely to be a long list of his heart’s desires when hesitation stilled his countenance and he demurred, “It’s okay, Stephen. I don’t think I need anything.”

“I didn’t ask what you needed,” Stephen said quietly. “I asked what you wanted.”

“Well.” Loki’s eyes twinkled. “You asked for it.” He leaned in to whisper in Stephen’s ear.

“You okay there, sweetheart?” Loki teased. “You’re looking a tad pale there.”

“Sure,” Stephen managed. He cleared his throat, and mustered a brave smile. “It’s…a tall order, sure. But I’ll get it for you.”

“It’s okay if you can’t find it. It’s a 1,500-year-old recipe dating back to early 4th century AD. I highly doubt you could find any living Roman who still knows how to make it.”

Stephen lifted a finger. “Odinson.”

Loki peered at him through doleful eyes. “Yeah.”

“If Hadrian loved Antinous and made him a God…”

Stephen traced the arch of Loki’s cheekbone,

“Named a constellation after him…”

– and thumbed the line of Loki’s lower lip, fuller and rosier now for some reason; pregnancy had indeed made Loki all the more beautiful if that was even possible –

“Built an entire cult devoted to the worship of him…”

 A determined look fell over his steely grey Sorcerer Supreme eyes. “Then I can certainly get you this Icisia Odentama.”

“Isicia Omentata,” Loki murmured with a delicious thrill.

“Yes, yes. That. Whatever that is.” Stephen finished his lengthy declaration of love with his trademark witty quip, “If it lives in the sea, I’ll fish it. If it grazes on land, I’ll hunt it.”

“Darling.” Loki sighed. Deciding to take pity on Stephen, he looped his arms around the back of his husband’s neck and whispered in a conspiratorial manner. “It’s just a fancy word for a Roman burger.”

“Oh. Oh.” The relief on Stephen’s face was something to behold. “Well. That’s – yeah. Okay.” He laughed. “Okay.”

Loki laughed. “I love you.”

“Ditto.” Stephen gave him one final peck on the lips. “Won’t be long.”

________________________________________

“Who found him?”

“His roommate.” Wong pointed his chin out the window where they could see a distraught-looking young man sitting under a tree, his head in his hands, surrounded by a group of equally-distressed looking disciples.

“It is a mystery. He was a fit, young man.” Master Hamir sat by the bed, his stump glowing as he ran his diagnostic scan down the length of the body once more. “There was no indication that he had been ill.”

Stephen sat on the other side of the bed. Judging from the body temperature, he must have died sometime in the night. “Sudden death in someone so young is very rare. Still, it does happen, usually due to an undiagnosed heart condition.”

“Surely not in his sleep?” Wong frowned.

“We may have to dig into his family history, and his medical records too, see if there’s something we’ve missed.” Stephen’s lips thinned into a grim, tight line.

Wong shook his head. “Poor lad. He’s only been with us what, a year? A year and a half? A promising student too.”

“Who spoke to him last? Did he complain of anything?” Stephen demanded.

“I’ll go talk to his friends in a minute, see if there’s anything they can tell us.” Wong hooked a thumb into his belt. “The family’s been informed.”

“And?”

Wong shrugged. “Said we can do whatever the hell we want with the body. They want no part of it.”

“Figures.” Stephen muttered. “The brightest ones are always the ones parents don’t want.”

His forehead unfurrowed. “On the bright side, that means we can proceed with a post-mortem request.”

“Is that really necessary?” Wong wrinkled his nose.

“The cause of death is undetermined, Wong. We can’t just say he died of natural causes.”

“Aye, aye, Boss.” Wong sounded glum. “Man, I didn’t even get to have cake.”

Stephen and Master Hamir glared at him.

“Wong,” Stephen growled.

“On it.” Wong sighed and left the room, his footsteps heavy and trudging.

“Master Hamir.” Stephen called quietly. “What are you thinking?”

“The body is in excellent physical condition. There is nothing wrong with the structure of the heart or any of the other major organs.” Master Hamir shook his head. “But his soul is just – gone.”

A bad feeling did not even begin to describe the sickening sensation that had begun to churn in Stephen’s gut. “Gone.”

Master Hamir nodded, his eyes narrowing behind his little spectacles. “Gone.”

Chapter Text

Kamar-Taj, present time.

 

“The post-mortem report is back.”

“Already?”

“I pulled some strings.”

“Excellent work as always, Wong,” Stephen said absently, scanning through the pathologist’s report at lightning speed. He sighed in frustration.

“Same like the first?” Wong hazarded a guess.

“Nada.” Stephen reread the report, carefully this time, just in case he had missed anything. “Hearts, lungs, brains, histopathologically normal yadda yadda yadda – ”

“Could it be an infection?”

“Post-mortem blood cultures taken separately from both left and right ventricles…negative.” Stephen zoomed in on the ‘Investigations’ section. “Cardiac enzymes…negative. So not a heart attack either.”

“This can’t be good, Stephen.” Wong looked deeply worried now, which for his fellow Guardian, was saying something. “Our second mysterious death in less than two weeks? People are starting to talk.”

“Good. Get them talking, someone’s bound to spill sooner or later.” At Wong’s inquiring gaze, Stephen shrugged. “I watch The First 48 with Loki sometimes.”

“You are thinking murder?”

Stephen took his time closing the report and returning it to the classified folder in front of him. He clasped his hands over the sealed files and studied his friend. “Don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking along the same line.”

“Motive. Murder weapon. Suspect.” Wong rattled off. “Potential victims.”

“Opportunity.” Stephen continued his train of thought. “Modus operandi.”

“We’ve got our work cut out for us.” Wong’s eyes danced in quiet glee.  

“Wong, people are dying here.” Stephen tapped his index finger on the table exasperatedly. “Don’t look too excited.”

“You know me, I work best under pressure.” Wong crossed his arms across his ample chest. “So what’s our next move?”

“I’m going back to Asgard to check on my husband and children.” At Wong’s frown, he added reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Wong. I’ll be back here before you know it.”

“Well, you haven’t been home in three days,” Wong finally said reluctantly. “How is Loki?”

Stephen tried to think of the best way to put his assessment of the current state of his husband’s emotional and physical state into words but in the end could only manage, “Pregnant.”

“Level of volatility on the scale of one to ten?”

“Nine before food, three to seven after, depending on which twin is awake at any given time.”

Wong laughed. “Good luck then.”

____________________________________________

“Daddy!” The wonderful thing about time zones was their amazing ability to stretch the very fabric of time; if night had fallen over Kamar-Taj, it was only late afternoon in Asgard.

“Oh, No. 2. You’re home,” was Loki’s cool greeting. Any cooler, frost would be coming out of his husband’s lips.

Stephen warmed them up just the way Loki liked it, and soon the frost gave way to warmth and Loki melted into the kiss like he had wanted to from the start.

“Rough week, huh,” Loki murmured quietly.

“Rough month,” Stephen admitted as much.

“Daddy! Daddy, look at me!”

“Stian Lokisson-Strange, you get down from there right this instance.” Loki did not even sound angry anymore; only tired. It was not the first time their frisky firstborn had clambered onto the top of the indoor playground set like a cheeky little monkey and stood on its roof.

“He’s your son when he’s like this.”

Loki gave him a scathing look and would have delivered an equally scathing line before something out the corner of his eye distracted him.

“Aífe, how in the world did you get up there?”

“Stian, please watch your sister!”

“Aífe, please be careful.”

“Loki, relax. You’re hovering.” Stephen poured himself a glass of water and picked a macaron from the tea sandwich stand.

“Let’s see how well you relax when your infant daughter gets trapped inside her toy castle and we can’t get to her because we can’t fit through the gates!”

“I’m sure Ser Stian of House Strange over there can rescue his sister if it ever comes to that.” Stephen popped another macaron into his mouth. The only ones left were the coffee-flavoured ones so Freyja must be awake.

“Heavens, why do Tony’s gifts have to be over-the-top all the time? What’s wrong with just a regular dollhouse? Or one of those cute fairy garden kits where they make you do the weeding and plant your own cabbage and stuff?”

Stephen chuckled. “Oh, Loki. How I’ve missed you.”

“Stian, can you please slide down feet first? You’re setting a very bad example for your sister! Oh for crying out loud, now look what you’ve done – Aífe, you can’t slide down head first like that!” Loki began to stand on tip-toe so he could reach for his daughter at the top of the slide but the moment he did, he gasped loudly and doubled over in pain.

“Pappa!”

“Loki.” Stephen was by his side in an instant. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m okay.” One hand still clenching the edge of the slide in a death grip, Loki’s other hand gestured wildly at Aife who was peering over curiously and quite precariously from the top of her castle.

“No, you’re not okay.” Stephen stretched upward to pluck Aífe before she could topple over the slide and plummet some seven feet to the floor. “Stian, can you please get Lady Erla here? Quickly.”

“Loki, talk to me,” he said urgently.

“I keep getting these stabbing pains in my side.” Loki concentrated on his breathing; the last time he had tried panting and it made the pain worse. Luckily the couch was just within reach and he lowered himself down very gingerly.

Stephen scanned Loki from head to toe. “Your right side?”

Loki nodded and to his relief, the episode lasted for no longer than ten seconds this time, and with the cessation of pain, he opened his eyes and regretted it.

One look at his husband’s paper-white face and Loki wondered if maybe he should have kept his mouth shut after all.

Loki patted the couch; to reach for Stephen’s hand would require some leaning over and right now, the slightest wrong movement would almost certainly trigger another twinge of pain. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Stephen.”

“I can think of five differential diagnoses off the top of my head and believe me, not one of them comes close to nothing.” If one were to carve Stephen’s face with a knife it would not have bled, it was that pale. “For one thing, acute appendicitis in pregnancy is a lot commoner than you think.”

“It’s not appendicitis, Stephen.”

“And how would you know?”

“Well in order to have appendicitis, I need to first have an appendix. Which I don’t.”

“And how would you know?”

“Jack told me.”

“Your Highness?” Erla strode into the living room. At the sight of Loki doubled over on the couch, she hurried over. “Is everything alright? Shall I call for a Healer?”

Loki shook his head vehemently. “No there is no need, I am fine.”

Stephen had never looked more uncertain and he fought the urge to override Loki’s refusal for a Healer. “Erla, could you please take the children outside for a while?”

“Of course.” Erla hefted Aife into one arm, and extended the other, “Come, my Prince.”

Once they were alone, Stephen whipped his head around, all ready to tear Loki a new one as tactfully and tastefully as possible.

“You’ve been talking to Jack?” Stephen asked incredulously. “Exactly how long have you been having these pains? And please don’t be vague with your answer, you know I can tell when you’re lying.”

The look of irritation on Loki’s face must have mirrored Stephen’s own.

“Stop treating me like a child and maybe I’ll tell you.”

“Loki…”

“Fine. I’ve been having them on and off for the past three days now. Happy?”

“Three days?” Stephen’s voice rose in pitch. “Three days and you didn’t think to tell me?”

“I…kinda forgot.”

“You forgot.”

“I would have told you had you been around, wouldn’t I?” Loki retorted. “Besides, I did exactly what you told me to do in case of an emergency, I called Jack. I even used the stupid mobile and everything.”

“So not only was the pain bad enough it warranted an emergency call to Jack, you waited three days to tell me about it. Thanks, Loki.” Stephen did not bother hiding his hurt. “In fact, you would have kept it from me had I not seen it with my own eyes, wouldn’t you?”

 “Jack said it was nothing to worry about. I really don’t see what the big deal is, Stephen…”

“You don’t – ” Stephen valiantly suppressed the overwhelming urge to tear his hair out in frustration. “You could be having premature contractions for all we know!”

“Oh for the love of – Stephen, don’t you think I would know what a real contraction feels like?”

“Honestly? I don’t think you would.”

“Jack said everything was fine and told me it would get better with rest and that’s what I’ve been doing, you’re the one who keeps saying Jack this and Jack that –”

“Well last time I checked Jack isn’t your husband, I am!”

“For heaven’s sake, Stephen, it’s just some obnoxious ligament pain, it’s not fucking labour so get your head out of your knickers and calm the Hel down!” Loki roared. “Ow!” a hand flew to his side, and Stephen started forward but a snarl held him in place – “Don’t touch me!”

Common sense could not quite figure out which was wiser, walking or teleporting, so Loki opted for the latter; it would get him away from his infuriating husband faster. One second Loki was sitting next to him, all green-eyed and furious, the next he was gone.

The master bedroom door slammed shut with a loud, rattling bang.

Let it never be said that Stephen was not the most determined man in the universe. He marched toward their bedroom and rapped his knuckles on the door.

“Loki. Open the door.”

A stubborn silence.

“Loki. I’m not going to force my way through. But I wish you would lower your wards and let me in so we can talk this out.”

“You mean you talk and I listen.”

Stephen winced. Loki knew him too well.

“I promise to keep quiet for the first five minutes?” he attempted a bargain. It was a realistic offer.

“That’s nowhere near long enough because I still feel like smiting you to chunks of carbon right where you stand.”

Smiting? Loki must have watched the latest Good Omens episode without him and just the thought of it was upsetting him way more than it should –

Important things first, Stephen.

“How about we keep the smiting to a minimum and talk about this like two grown adults in a perfectly stable and loving relationship, what do you say?”

Another long period of silence, this one stubborner than before.

“Come on, Loki. I haven’t seen you for three days.”

“I miss you.” Should have gone without saying, but every little helped in situations like this –

And it did!

The door swung open silently.

Loki was lying sideways on the bed, his back to the door and his legs bent at the knees.

The direct approach would be something Loki least expected and Stephen was nothing if not resourceful. He produced a tin from somewhere behind him and quietly presented it to his husband.

“And what is this?” Loki asked coolly.

“Sachertorte.” Stephen opened the lid and tipped it at an angle so Loki could see the inside without having to lift his head off the pillow.

“Vienna?”

“Straight from the Sacher Hotel.” Stephen closed the lid and put the metal gift tin on the side table, before sitting down hesitantly on his side of the bed.

Loki’s eyes began to water and from the tight pursing of his lips, Stephen had a sinking feeling they were not tears of happiness as he had hoped –

So the torte did not work. But at least Loki was talking to him

“Why can’t you just trust me?” Loki asked quietly.

Stephen did not immediately answer. Maybe this was the start of his five minutes of silence.

“It’s almost like you’re hoping it’s something bad so you can gloat and tell me ‘I told you so.’ ” Loki wiped a tear away. “It’s infuriating.”

“I’m sorry if that’s how I come across to you.” He did promise to act like a grown adult after all. “Believe me that’s not my intention.”

“Well it sure feels like it.” Another furious tear trailed down the other side of Loki’s face and disappeared into the pillow. “Like you’re just waiting for something to go wrong.”

“It does sound suspiciously like something the old Stephen Strange would do.”

“No wonder Christine thought you were a nightmare.”

“In my field it was something to be proud of, actually.” Stephen smiled apologetically. “The bigger a jackass you are, the better surgeon people think you are.”

“Well it’s stupid.”

“Look. I know you didn’t want me to worry, but I need to know these things, Loki.”

“Then maybe you should have given a mandate to your son to take over your royal checklist duties if you knew you were going to be away for a few days.”

“Point taken.” A mutter. “I really should have.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose, Stephen, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. When Jack told me it was nothing to worry about, I took him at his word and simply didn’t think too much on it.” Loki sniffed. “If it had been anything serious, you would have been the first to know.”

Stephen sighed. He flopped onto his back and sank his head into the pillow. “I hate how these things always happen when I’m away.”

“I guess someone was listening when you said boring was nice and granted your wish.”

Stephen flipped onto his side, and propped his head up with the heel of his hand. He searched Loki’s face, his heart ten times lighter now that the tears had stopped. Hormone-driven or not, he hated seeing Loki cry.

“So Jack said it was ligament pain?”

Loki only nodded.

“Broad ligament or round ligament?”

“I don’t know. Is there a difference?”

“Well, both support the growing uterus but usually they do it quietly and painlessly.”

“Well, quiet and painless is my middle name.”

“You wish.” Stephen’s eyerolling turned into a wondering gaze. “You really don’t have an appendix?”

“Just like you humans discarded your tails somewhere along your natural history, we Jotunns must have disposed of our appendices and other vestigial organs we no longer have use for. We must be somewhat superior to you in that respect, among many others.”

Stephen rolled his eyes again, his brain whirring with them too; Jack McKenna may be an expert in his field, but so was Stephen.

“Do the pains come and go, like in waves?”

“Waves?”

“Yeah, are they colicky, crampy pains or are they constant, continuous in nature?” Without waiting for Loki’s answer, Stephen shot out a hand and felt his forehead. “Doesn’t feel like you have a fever…”

Loki pried Stephen’s hand away. “Why on earth would I have a fever?”

“You could have one if it’s chorioamnionitis. You’re certainly irritable, your uterus might be too.” Stephen ran through his mental checklist. “Have you experienced any leaking or gushing? Bleeding? Discharge? Does it hurt when you pee?”

“It’s hurting me listening to you right now.”

“You’re avoiding the questions.” Stephen’s heart began to pound. “So the answer to one of them must be yes. Which is it?”

“None of the above, Strange!”

But Stephen was not listening. “Oh God. Not the bleeding?”

“Stephen,” Loki growled. “Call Jack yourself if you don’t believe me. In fact, call Christine. She was there.”

“Christine was there too?”

“Like you’ve never kept things from me about my own body?” Loki asked lightly.

“So this is payback?” The taste of Stephen’s own medicine was as bitter as hell. He knew he was treading once more into dangerous waters with the way this conversation was progressing, world-famous Viennese dessert or no world-famous Viennese dessert.  

“No!” Loki closed his eyes to keep from shouting. If it wouldn’t hurt his stomach like he knew it would, he would have lashed out a leg and kicked his husband off the bed already. “If you can’t do much to help me with this pain, the least you can do is do as you promised and be quiet for five damn minutes.”

But Stephen’s anxiety-fuelled energy had to go somewhere; it went to his hands as they busied themselves with shoving as many pillows under Loki’s back, belly and between his knees.

“Better?” Stephen asked anxiously.

“Much,” Loki murmured. This was as comfortable as he was going to get; he might as well not move for the next three months or until the babies popped out, whichever came sooner.

“Can I ask one final question? Just one.”

Loki sighed and finally gave Stephen a smile, sickly-sweet and false through-and-through. “Why not. I love the sound of your voice.”

“You have been passing wind, haven’t you?”

A gust of wind, the Wrathful kind, blew in from out of nowhere and the door flung open –

“Get out!”

But whoever said a war could not be won by chocolate probably had not eaten enough of it, or had not had excellent chocolate.

By the time Stephen was allowed in their bedroom once more, it was dark outside and an eighth of the torte was gone.

Stephen was pleased with Loki’s self-control, although he may not understand it yet. “Was it not good, darling?”

“It was good.” Loki thumbed the corner of his mouth. “But Jack said to cut down sugar, and I did have quite a considerable number of macarons for tea.”

Despite his exasperation, Stephen had to smile. If Loki’s appetite was unaffected and he was eating fine, that pushed adhesion colic and its life-threatening cousin, the feared intestinal obstruction further down the list of potential diagnoses, all the way down.

“Why do you still look so worried, Stephen?” Loki asked him later that night as they were getting ready for bed. “Is everything alright back at Kamar-Taj?”

Stephen stared at the back of Loki’s head.

“Do you…want to talk about it?” Loki asked uncertainly when he finally caught Stephen’s eyes in the dresser mirror.

“It’s nothing to concern yourself about, Loki.”

Loki’s gaze sharpened. “I know your nothing face, and that isn’t it.”

Stephen walked over to where his husband was sitting in front of the mirror and leaned against the dresser, crossing his ankles in front of him. “We…might have a First 48 situation on our hands.”

Loki’s paled. “There’s been another one?”

Stephen nodded.

Loki rose carefully to his feet, a hand pressed to his lower belly, but thankfully the pains seemed to have called it a day. He took advantage of it and quickly wrapped his arms around Stephen’s waist.

Caught off guard, Stephen knocked his back into the dresser, jarring the various bottles and toppling them over.

He did not think it was possible for Loki to go that many shades paler, but it was. “Loki…”

“You’re telling me a serial killer is on the loose at Kamar-Taj?”

“Possibly.” Stephen’s deep voice rumbled in his chest and Loki buried his face deeper.

“I don’t want you to go back there.”

“Loki, you know I can’t –”

“I know. Just shut up.”

Loki hugged Stephen as tightly as his belly would allow and the way the twins were kicking inside him, he had a suspicion Stephen could feel them too.

“I don’t want you to go back there.”

“I know.” Stephen kissed the side of his head. “I know, Loki.”

“So don’t.”

“Loki…”

Loki closed his eyes and imagined the worst. He chased it away, and it came out in the form of a long, knowing, resigned sigh.

“I know, Stephen.”

Chapter Text

“Will you leave that and sit down? You’ve been on your feet all day.” Stephen nervously watched his husband potter around the kitchen. “You’re making me tired just watching you.”

“This belly donut thing you got me is fantastic. The pains hardly bother me now, at least not when I’m wearing it.”

“It’s called an ergonomic maternity support belt, Loki.”

“That’s what I said,” Loki said simply.

Loki fussed for a few more minutes in the kitchen, banging and clanging and rummaging through the fridge for God knew what.

“Did we not just have dinner together, or did you make me have dinner with your Doppelganger again?”

“I don’t want to have to get up in the middle of the movie just to get a snack.” Loki paused in the middle of opening a bag of tortilla chips. “Are you sure it’s alright for you to be here?”

“It’s three in the morning in Kamar-Taj. Wong drew the short straw and got the graveyard shift.”

Loki threw him a knowing smile. “Funny how he always draws the short straw every time it’s movie night eh?”

Stephen stretched his arms lazily over the back of his head, popping a crick in the back of his neck. “I didn’t rig the lottery if that’s what you’re implying. It might just be that he’s become more invested in our relationship over the years.”

“As has everyone,” Loki muttered.

When he figured that Loki was about done, Stephen got off the couch and walked over to the kitchen.

Stephen surveyed the spread in front of him with morbid fascination and just the tiniest pinch of horror.

“A snack, did you say?”

A challenging “Yes.”

Stephen bit his tongue before it could escape the snark filter and further say something critical by accident.

 “Fair enough.” Stephen tried to balance the burgeoning tray on one hand but it was impossible. He would rather come back again for the dips and drinks, than drop the tray and ruin all of Loki’s hard work.

“What are these?” Stephen’s eyes and belly did not know where to start.

“Chopped chicken liver crostini, loaded baked potato soup, sauerkraut balls, jalapeno poppers, and cola cake à la mode.”

“Looks good. Sure beats the usual popcorn and nachos.”

Loki sighed a happy sigh. “Don’t you just love food that loves you back?”

“Well you do have another seven hundred kcal to go before you exceed your daily – ” Stephen’s voice trailed before he clammed, mentally muzzling himself at the sheer viciousness of Loki’s glare. “Yes, I do love food that loves Loki back.”

Loki smiled a happy smile.

“Where did you get all this?” The food looked too Midgardian to be something the kitchens would prepare. Their cooks would certainly make anything the Prince requested no matter how outlandish, but the spread looked suspiciously authentic.

“This magical place called Ohio.” So Loki must have binge-watched the Food Network again.

“Should have told me what you wanted. You didn’t have to go all the way to Ohio.”

Loki shrugged. “I once tracked and killed a steppe bison with my bare hands while heavily pregnant. I didn’t moan about having to hunt for my own food.”

“Well, the next time you’re craving for steppe bison meat do let me know.” Stephen sounded determined as he quoted what was now a self-added addendum to his wedding vows. “Anything that swims, I’ll fish it. Anything that flies, I’ll catch it. Anything that grazes, I’ll hunt it.”

“Well, it’s extinct now, but that’s very sweet of you, Stephen.” Loki rewarded him with an equally sweet kiss on the lips.

“Well, it’s just your luck then that you happen to be married to the one person in the universe who can actually go back in time and get you a dodo if you so wish to keep it as a pet.”

“You would do that.” Loki wonderingly searched his husband’s face. Despite already seeing the answer, just to clarify, “For me?”

“Loki. I’ve told you before, Imma tell you again.” Stephen had never sounded more patient. “Don’t ever doubt that you deserve anything good.”

Loki’s eyes glazed over. “A dodo.”

Stephen shrugged. “Or a Tasmanian tiger, if that’s more your thing –”

If there was one thing Stephen loved more than making Loki smile, it was making Loki laugh.

It made Stephen want to kiss him more, and he did, softly and gently. “I draw the line at dinosaurs though. We can always go to the Museum of National History for that.”

“A not so unreasonable caveat.” Loki smiled softly. “You spoil me, Strange.”

“No, you spoil me.” Loki felt a pair of hands cup the sides of his belly gently. “Every second of every day. For every beat of our children’s hearts, and every beat of mine.”

Tray of food forgotten, Loki pushed all the cushions off the couch with his seiðr, and Stephen onto his back with his hands –

“Stephen.”

“Your ice cream’s melting.”

“Which I can refreeze with just the power of my mind.” For someone so cold, Loki’s lips were warm, so warm tonight, as warm as the feel of his deliciously rounded belly against Stephen’s own.

“Which part of Ohio?” Stephen murmured in between kisses.

“What?”

“Don’t tell me Cleveland?”

“What’s wrong with Cleveland? The women there are very funny.”

“It’s one of the most dangerous cities in the States!” Stephen’s arms tightened involuntarily around Loki’s waist.

“Well, Hot In Cleveland should have said something about it then.” Loki shrugged and only resumed enjoying his pre-movie-snacks appetiser. Stephen still tasted of the amaretto from the tiramisu he had had for dinner.

“Loki…”

Loki rolled his eyes. He straightened his elbows and propped himself up. The tips of his long hair tickled Stephen’s chest as he looked down at his husband and glowered.

“Stephen. You do know I am bulletproof.”

“Oh.” At the revelation, Stephen realised it had been a while since he last updated his List of the Things That Loki Can Die From and the Things Loki Won’t.

He still wanted to win though. “It didn’t stop you from getting your throat slit before. Or stabbed.”

“I can say the same about you, Doctor,” Loki growled. “But you don’t see me chaining you to a tree and locking you in another dimension for good measure.”

In disgust, Loki pushed himself off his husband, shoved Stephen’s legs off the couch with his seiðr and sank into the space Stephen’s legs had just vacated.

“You always know how to spoil the mood, Strange.”

There goes that, Stephen thought with an immeasurable amount of regret. He winced. “It’s an inherent flaw, I’m afraid.”

Loki snorted derisively. He split the melted ice cream into two puddles and froze only his share of cream.

Stephen sighed. Maybe something romantic and sappy would swing things back in his favor. “So what would you like to watch?”

Loki pinched some cola cake with the tips of his fingers viciously and mopped his ice cream up with it. “All this throat-slitting and stabbing talk is making me bloodthirsty. Put Game of Thrones on.”

“Loki.” Stephen swallowed hard. “Maybe we should watch something else.”

“If you’re going to say something inanely ridiculous like how I shouldn’t watch it because I’m pregnant, I am going to physically hurt you.”

Loki grabbed a crostini next and crammed it into his mouth angrily.

Stephen frowned. “Don’t eat like that, you’re going to give yourself indigestion –”

The remote control suddenly flew off the coffee table and headed straight for his forehead; it was only his lightning reflexes that saved him from the inevitable goose egg as Stephen ducked, and the poor control-turned-projectile smashed into the wall behind him.

A sniff. “I warned you.”

-----------------------------------------------

A good night’s sleep was harder to come by nowadays, as the weight and bulk of Loki’s womb pushed on all things vital to his comfort and livelihood, like his stomach and diaphragm and lungs and everything in between; many a times Loki awakened just to change his position so he could breathe.

Tonight was no different, but no matter how he tried to force himself awake, the pull of the dreamscape was especially strong, and despite his better judgment, Loki allowed himself to sink deeper.

He found himself standing, no, trying to stand on a spinning arena of some sort, high up in the air –

His heart leapt to his throat.

Aífe?

The Ancient One stood her ground, tall and straight-backed in her golden yellow robes, as four individuals dressed in identical, drabby tunics circled her like a school of sharks.

Loki centered himself and gained enough motor control of his dream limbs to finally stand. A quick hand down his midsection, flat as a prepubescent child’s chest, confirmed that this was not real.

This was all in his head.

Well. Dream or not, Mirror Dimension or not, pregnant or not, he would rather not plummet some fifty storeys to the ground below, thank you very much.

When he lifted his head again, the battle had begun. Aífe was one with the wind, moving swiftly from side to side, up and down, for and against gravity with an agility and style Loki had never thought he would see again. Her hands glowed with mystical energy as she sliced her fans through the air, cutting into flesh and bone, each stroke calculated and deadly.

Too deadly for this to simply be a training session, Loki realised.

What was he seeing?

He launched himself at one of her opponents but his fist met only air. No one could see him, nor could they feel him.

Nor could Aífe, he thought with a crushing sense of devastation. Loki was but a spectator in what was becoming more and more apparent to be a fight to the

Death.

Loki reeled.

No.

I don’t want to see this, he screamed inside.

But for the life of him, he could not tear his eyes away –

A well-built man with greyish hair tied back into a ponytail was clearly the leader, brandishing swords of glass that he seemed to be able to conjure right out of the palm of his hands.

The Ancient One was a force to be reckoned with and not one to go down easily, and for a while, it looked as though she was winning; manipulating the Mirror Dimension to her advantage was child’s play to the Sorcerer Supreme and it took Loki his all just to remain standing on the ever-changing landscape. His centre of gravity was not that much better in Dreamland, so it seemed.

It was a brief moment, and it could only be a cruel coincidence, but their eyes met across the arena and time stood still. Just as Loki tried to call out and say her name, time began running again and Aífe lost herself to the call of battle once more.

It’s coming, Loki thought numbly. The moment.

The moment when Loki should have been there to protect her and he wasn’t.

For he saw, as clear as day from where he stood, the man with the ponytail creep right up behind his fellow teammate in the Ancient One’s blind spot –

And rammed his sword in, impaling both his friend and Aife.

Loki heard her sharp intake of breath, which should be as soft as the silent ‘O’ of her mouth, but to Loki, it was deafeningly loud, it must be, for him to be able to hear it over and over like a broken record against the earthshattering roar in his ears.

NO.

Before he could grieve, before he could throw himself off the spinning arena

as he was wont to do, throwing himself off things

to catch her body as it began its long fall down, the world darkened, as black and as silent as The Void

Where he should have crawled out of to get to her

He could have saved her, or died with her

Where he should not have fallen into the first place, why oh why did he let go

Loki jerked with a gasp.

Am I awake yet?

He found himself standing on a dark, wooden platform. Had he not grabbed onto the railing, he would have tumbled backward down the precarious staircase right behind him.

He knew this place. He had been here enough times to find his way around in his sleep.

It was the New York Sanctum.

What am I doing here?

Voices. One of them he would not mistake for anyone else but

Stephen?

Even his footfalls as he ran across the landing to get to the other side of the second-floor deck sounded the same – this was real, this was really happening, right now.

This was not a dream.

The man with the ponytail was on his knees, his joints held in awkward angles by a relic Loki had seen Stephen use several times, a relic that did not exist anymore for it had been destroyed in the last battle he and Stephen had fought together against the Kree, Yon-Rogg.

The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak.

This was not a dream.

What, then?

A memory?

Stephen looked younger, the grey hair at his temple not as white, the eyes more youthful and not as heavy and hooded –

But how far back was he?

Before Sorcerer Supreme?

Loki looked for the Eye of Agamotto and there it was, hanging around Stephen’s neck. He looked down and looked at Stephen’s ring finger. It was bare.

This Stephen was before Loki, definitely.

They were having a conversation, this Stephen and the man with the ponytail. Loki strained to listen, but try as he might, he could not.

The mute movie continued in pin-drop silence; not one to give up easily, Loki came closer, almost within reach of his would-be husband and the strange man with his strange eyes and strange markings on his face, and tried to read their lips.

A single tear trailed down the stranger’s left cheek, which Loki only saw once it left the hollow of his eye, rimmed in a peculiar shade of orchid violet with a halo of grey cobblestone.

His eyes were the saddest eyes Loki had ever seen, save for the ones he occasionally saw when he looked in the mirror sometimes… so why was this man…smiling?

Loki turned his head.

And saw the man running up the staircase.

The helpless spectator once more, Loki tried to scream, to shout a warning but he was mute, as mute as this cruel, cruel dream.

The spear shot through the air like a missile and Loki watched in slow motion as it found its mark, right in his husband’s heart.

And Loki screamed a silent scream.

“Stephen!”

Like a movie that was running out of screentime but still having a lot of story-telling to do, the sequence changed, and Loki found himself standing in the middle of a lush grassland.

Asgard.

Loki almost wept in relief.

He was home. He was safe.

Thor. Valkyrie.

Loki turned away from the ocean.

And a sword of glass rammed right into his stomach.

Loki dropped to his knees.

He looked up.

There was something different about the man now. His form was more ethereal, not as corporeal as Loki had seen him last, all blurred outlines and grey.

Or perhaps that was just Loki’s vision failing on him as blood poured out of him in great gouts, fast bathing the ground around him a fascinating shade of scarlet.

“Sorry. I should have asked before I stabbed you. I’ll start again.” The man withdrew his sword, cold and icy as it slid easily past torn bowels and

Babies.

“Any last words?”

My babies.

“What was that? I didn’t quite hear you.”

Loki must have said something, or maybe this man was a lip-reader too.

“Babies? There’s more than one?” The man asked, almost gently. He peered down at Loki, his grotesque eyes obviously studying the gaping wound in Loki’s stomach, still pouring blood and amniotic fluid like a broken dam.

“Thank you for telling me.” Kaecilius lifted his sword high up in the air, and Loki could only watch through fading vision, willing it to blacken quickly so he would not see it as it plummeted once more into his belly.

Loki closed his eyes and screamed.

____________________________________________________

“Loki!”

“Loki, wake up!”

Loki’s eyes flew open. He shot up too quickly and a jab of pure agony shot through his right side and he screamed again.

“Loki!” Stephen fought Loki’s flailing arms as they grabbed his belly and Loki screamed and screamed; his voice sounded hoarse and raw like he had been screaming for hours, but he could not for the life of him stop –

“Loki, please!” Stephen pleaded. “You’re alright! It’s alright!”

Loki’s screams were not of pain, but of terror.

“Loki, it’s me! Look at me!” Stephen grabbed his arms and shook him once, hard. “It’s me! It’s Stephen!”

Loki’s scream died in his throat as awareness began to return, little by little –

“Stephen?”

Stephen nodded tersely. “It’s just a dream.” He gripped Loki’s arms harder. “Whatever you saw, it’s not real.”

Loki shook his head, his green eyes bright with terror and pain and tears.

Loki’s hands released the death grip on his belly only to grasp the sides of Stephen’s face, before desperately tearing away at his husband’s T-shirt.

“Loki, what –?”

Loki fingered something on Stephen’s chest.

Stephen looked down at the faded scar right over his heart, where Lucian Aster had stabbed him and almost taken his life.

“Not a dream…” Loki whispered hoarsely. “It was real.”

His eyes widened, and once more his hands found themselves searching his own abdomen.

“Stephen, they’re not moving.” Loki began to hyperventilate.

Stephen frowned and clasped his own hands to the cradle of Loki’s bump, where he could clearly feel and see the twins kick, violently too, if the little foot imprints stretching the taut skin of Loki’s belly were of any indication.

“Loki, darling, they’re fine! Look!”

“Check them!” Loki screamed, near-hysterical.

Stephen grabbed the sides of Loki’s head and pressed their foreheads together, willing Loki to feel their babies’ movements as he did, to hear their babies’ heartbeats in the way only Loki could –

“Ask them.”

Stephen kissed Loki deep and hard to bring him around the only way he knew how without intruding Loki’s fragile mind.

“Ask them what they want for breakfast tomorrow.”

Loki’s tears fell in silent rivulets down his chalk-white face.

“Stephen…”

“I’m here.” Stephen said, and willed the words through in Mindspeak too.

“I’m here.”

 “There was so much blood…” Loki had started weeping again. “They can’t – I couldn’t – he k-killed –”

“Loki…” Stephen whispered aghast.

And Loki crumbled in Stephen’s arms.

Chapter Text

“What’s this?” Loki looked numbly at the two pills Stephen had palmed into his hand.

“A little something for the pain. You are probably going to be very sore for a day or two.”

“I don’t need them,” Loki said flatly. He handed them back to Stephen.

“Loki, you were screaming in pain.”

Loki stared. When his answer finally came, it sounded as if the wording had been chosen very carefully, or very carelessly.

“I was not, and now I am not.”

If Stephen had learnt anything from the short (or long, depending on one’s perspective of course, be one a human or an immortal alien) time that they had been married, a lyrical Loki was an evasive Loki; he could be staring at you head-on and his expressive eyes could still shield what he was feeling, and right now his shield was up at one hundred and ten percent.

“I want you to rest in bed tomorrow.” Stephen held the mug of chamomile tea between his hands, and warmed it up. He had made it far too soon before Loki was fully recovered from the night terror, and Loki had let it go cold.

“Absolutely no sudden movements, your round ligament’s bunched-up enough as it is.” He handed Loki the tea.

For a second, Loki looked all-set and ready to argue, but his protest never came. It may have something to do with the way his husband’s hooded eyes had suddenly darkened to a steely, stormy grey.

“It’s either that or the Healing Hall. Take your pick.” The no-nonsense, perfectionist surgeon in him was in charge now, and he was letting Loki know not in so many words. “I’m sure you don’t want to spend the rest of the pregnancy in perpetual agony and unable to walk.”

Loki accepted the tea mutely.

Stephen laid a hand on Loki’s belly and dispensed as much magic morphine as he could to help Loki get comfortable enough to sleep through the rest of the night, all the while watching Loki’s face; it was, by any measure, still unreadable.

Loki had gotten much better at opening up to him, but his level of readiness to share seemed to be inversely proportional to the ferocity of the monsters in his head. Stephen would probably get more out of a brick wall than this locked-in Loki by the looks of him tonight, but he could not leave his husband like this.

“Do you want something to help you sleep?” he asked gently.

“I want something to keep me awake,” Loki said softly.

“Loki,” he began. They had been through this before; this was not the first time Loki had let his nightmares get the better of him –

Fine.

The quickest way to get Loki to do something was always the simplest. All it needed was a little sacrifice.

“I’ll keep you company. I’ll make us some coffee and we can watch something on the TV. No Game of Thrones. I mean it.” Not ever.

“Stephen, you need your rest,” Loki protested.

“If you’re not going to sleep, I’m not going to either.” Stephen shrugged. “I only have a few more hours left until I need to leave.”

Loki was silent for a few moments.

“Take me with you?” he finally asked quietly.

Stephen frowned. He had not expected that. “To Kamar-Taj?”

Loki nodded.

The first answer that popped in his head was a ‘Hell, no’ but thankfully it did not escape past his lips, for this was clearly not a yes or no question, to which a simple yes or a no was the answer.

“Are you in danger?” Stephen asked carefully.

Loki visibly recoiled, and he sank deeper into his mountain of pillows. His eyes darted left and right, looking everywhere but Stephen, but when they finally stopped wandering, they reluctantly landed on something below the level of Stephen’s neck.

Stephen looked down. Almost instantaneously, his heart twinged, and he resisted the urge to rub where the scar tissue began to throb, as it was wont to do from time to time.

“Am I in danger?”

It was in the way Loki closed his eyes but could not hide the turbulence behind his closed eyelids, and the way Loki tried to conceal the tremors in his hands by clenching the mug tighter, something Stephen had done enough times himself to know that it would not work.

Stephen pried the tea out of Loki’s hands. It was obvious he was not going to drink it.

“We are all in danger,” Loki whispered.

Stephen felt his face burn as his heart started to pound, sending blood rushing all over his body and his nerve-ends tingling. “What did you see?”

“What Aífe didn’t see.”

When Loki opened his eyes again, a distant haze of absence had taken over the turbulence, making his green irises appear lighter, almost blue.

“What you didn’t see.”

Loki’s gaze dropped to his baby bump, safe and warm under the protection of a blanket. “What I am not going to see coming.”

Stephen’s mouth fell open.

“Loki. You were tired, you had a big meal, we watched something we probably shouldn’t have, and we went to bed straight after,” Stephen said, appealing to Loki’s rational side, which he knew existed because he had seen it sometimes.

“Over-stimulation, over-tiredness, psychomotor and sensory overload…these are all known causes of poor sleep and nightmares.”

The pitying look on Loki’s face was one he tried to never wear around his only-too-human husband; despite Stephen’s powers, his brilliant scientific mind, and his calling as the Sorcerer Supreme, his naiveté was astounding sometimes.

Loki sought to break it the only way he knew how. He had heard enough of his would-be murderer’s voice to emulate him, down to the accent and that peculiar lilt in his tone.

“ ‘You ever wonder how she managed to live this long?’ ” he asked softly.

Stephen’s blood ran cold.

It may be Loki’s voice…but it was not Loki he was hearing behind the words.

How could he forget the words to the very first question that triggered an avalanche of more questions, each harder to answer than the one before?

But there is no way, Stephen thought numbly.

No way Loki could have known

Yet in his mind’s eye, the single tear running down Loki’s cheek was running down someone else’s face

“ ‘Time is what enslaves us.’ ”

“Stop it,” Stephen whispered.

“ ‘Time is an insult. Death is an insult.’ ”

“Loki, stop it!” Stephen shouted. He cupped a hand over his eyes. “Stop it.”

Loki turned his head very slowly.

“I don’t dream, Doctor. I see. The past, the present.” Loki’s thumb played over the spot where their son had just given him a kick, gentle and playful. It was the very spot Kaecilius was going to drive his sword in one day, where it would pierce their little boy’s heart and go out Loki’s back, impaling him to the ground, blood fast congealing underneath him.

The future.

A whisper. “Just like you.”

Stephen was still refusing to see, his hand trembling as he gripped his eyes tighter.

“Kaecilius is dead.”

“Was that his name?” Loki tasted the name on his tongue silently. Kaecilius.

It fit him.

“He is dead.” Stephen’s hand finally fell away. His grey eyes were rimmed with red and grief.

“So was I. Once.” A soft, gentle reminder. “And here we are.”

“He is one with Dormammu. He is never coming back.” Stephen had died enough times to make sure of it.

“Your stolen pages from the Book of Cagliostro.” Loki’s voice cracked like a whip. “Have your Order recovered them yet?”

“This is crazy,” Stephen muttered.

He sank back on his haunches, and a pillow tumbled down the side of the bed and onto the floor. He shook his head. “I must be dreaming. I can’t believe we are actually having a conversation about this.”

Loki’s casual delivery of his dark premonition belied the shadows of true fear brewing in his eyes. “Well you’d better decide quickly, for by the time he drives his sword of glass into my belly the way he drove it into the Ancient One right in front of your eyes, it might just be a tad too late for you to wake up and only start believing then.”

Stephen’s face blanched.

Careful not to put pressure on it, Loki’s hand ghosted over his lower right side, where it was still exquisitely tender.

“I was looking for a shard he might have left behind.” Loki’s face crumpled in the way that always seemed to herald tears, but he held fast. His hand groped blindly across the sheets, and thankfully, he did not have to search very far, for Stephen’s hand was quick to grab it.

“Stephen, I am frightened.” Loki’s lower lip trembled. He brought their clasped hands to his mouth to still it. “I am very, very frightened.”

“I need you to believe me, because if you don’t – ” his voice cracked as the tears he fought hard to swallow finally caught in his throat.

“Shhh…” Stephen walked his hands and knees across the bed, and fiercely gathered Loki’s head to his chest, extremely careful not to jostle him unnecessarily. “I believe you.”

Loki’s shoulders began to shake.

“Stephen…” He heard Loki call his name and felt his husband's long arms snake up his back, clinging to his shoulders for dear life. A hot wetness seeped into his T-shirt. 

Stephen threaded his fingers through Loki’s hair and massaged the back of Loki’s scalp.

“I believe you.”

Loki’s quiet sobs continued and the only thing Stephen could do was hold him until Loki finally sagged in his arms from exhaustion. Soon, he fell into a restless sleep, courtesy of one of Stephen’s more potent sleeping spells.

Stephen rearranged Loki’s limbs on the bed, placing pillows in strategic places that would limit his movements and by extension, the pain.

Stephen smoothed Loki’s sleeping tunic over his bump. He spent long minutes just staring at it, marveling at how far they had come. He could just see the hint of movements underneath the thin fabric; which one of their twins was awake at this ungodly hour? He envied Loki who could always tell with a hundred percent certainty.

By rough calculation Loki had just entered his twenty-second week, and it was the greatest joy Stephen never knew he needed in his life, to watch Loki sail through the first half of his pregnancy.

Was it too much to ask for Loki to sail through the second half, as smoothly as he did the first one?

Stephen cupped a possessive hand over Loki’s belly.

“I will not let anything happen, Loki. Not to you, not to any of our children.”

He stared at his husband’s face, his sharp features drawn and troubled even in sleep.

“I swear upon my life.”

He uttered words to a binding oath, an oath so steeped in enchantment that had Loki been awake, Loki would probably put a knife to his throat and demand upon him to undo it right this instant.

But Stephen had never been surer of anything. And Loki was asleep, so.

A deep sense of satisfaction filled him to the very core as he said the last words to the spell; successfully casting it without Loki waking up, that was an achievement in itself.

No one was going to harm Loki or his babies.

Not Kaecilius, not Dormammu, not anybody.

Not while there was still breath in him.

_________________________________________________

 Kamar-Taj, present time.

 

“Which Season?”

“Season 3.”

“Which episode?”

“Wong, how is this important?”

“Not The Rains of Castamere?”

At Stephen’s instantly guilty look, Wong slammed a hand on the table. “The Red Wedding? Are you insane?”

“Well in my defense, I didn’t know it was what we were going to end up watching, we just picked a random episode –”

“And your random was the one episode no pregnant woman should ever, ever watch.” Wong shook his head. “Oh Strange…”

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Stephen could not help a smile of amusement. “Loki was right. You really have become invested in our relationship.”

“When you have saved a guy’s life over and over and the guy happens to be your best friend’s husband, and he tries to ruin all your hard work? You tend to get a bit pissy.”

Stephen rolled his eyes. “I can no more control what Loki does than I can control the weather, Wong.”

“Yes, yes, Loki does what Loki wants.” Wong was still shaking his head disapprovingly. “Jeez Strange do I need to spell it out to you? Get Loki to do what you want by making him think that’s what he wants.”

“Doesn’t sound as catchy.” Stephen mulled it over, wrinkling his nose. “Too wordy.”

“So now we don’t even know if it really was a vision that Loki saw, or a product of an overactive imagination, triggered by one of the bloodiest and most violent scenes in television history.”

“He may look it but he isn’t delicate, Wong. I’m sure he’s seen his share of violence these past fifteen hundred years.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Stephen,” Wong muttered.

But something Wong said was not sitting quite right with Stephen. “You don’t think he was telling the truth? That Kaecilius is the one behind all this?”

Wong was quiet.

“He knew, Wong. Things that he couldn’t have known. Things Kaecilius said, and did,” Stephen stressed. “He even knew that it was Kaecilius who killed the Ancient One, and how he did it.”

“Question. If someone’s trying to tell us something through Loki, who is it? Who’s sending him these visions? The Ancient One? Kaecilius himself?” Wong looked uncomfortable. “Or one of Loki’s many, many guardian angels?”

Stephen opened his mouth to speak, but Wong gave him a look that said ‘I’m not finished’.

“Another question. Who was with you when you witnessed the Ancient One’s final moments?”

“Karl Mordo.”

Wong held out a hand in a ‘there you go’ gesture. “Loki could have gotten all the information from Mordo and stored it in his subconscious. We never knew what really happened between those two all those years ago.”

Stephen found himself the one rendered silent this time.

Wong was right, of course. Back when they had just become lovers, Loki, then four months pregnant with Stian, had been kidnapped and held captive in the Mirror Dimension by Karl Mordo, before he broke himself free, nearly killing himself and their unborn son in the process.

“He knew what happened to me, Wong,” Stephen said quietly. “Mordo wasn’t there when Lucian Aster stabbed me through the heart and nearly killed me.”

“Loki described it word for word, the conversation I had with Kaecilius.” He rubbed at his chest absently, as was becoming his habit lately; when he realised what he was doing, his hand dropped away like releasing a piece of hot coal.

At the doubtful look on Wong’s face, Stephen sighed in frustration. “Just say it, Wong.”

“Loki could have lifted all that from your head,” Wong said quietly.

Stephen’s eyes hardened. “Loki would never do that.”

Wong gave him a disgusted look. “Of course not. Not knowingly.”

Stephen stared. “And how could he have looked into my head unknowingly?”

“You’ve not only walked in his dreams, but his memories, Stephen,” Wong said exasperatedly. “And you guys do that creepy magic telephone thing all the time. You’re connected on so many levels it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if you can control each other’s bladder function from afar.”

Stephen simply did not know where to start counter-arguing, so he randomly picked a point, “Creepy?”

Wong’s grin was especially savage. “The many times I’ve caught you smiling to yourself, Strange…If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were schizophrenic.”

Stephen had the decency to look horrified. “Those are private moments, Wong!”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.”

“Have you?”

“Yeah. I tell people that you see dead people.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I tell people that whenever they see the Sorcerer Supreme smiling or talking to himself, that's just him talking to spirits.”

“I…really don’t know what to say.”

“Well I do. I’m kinda sorry I started that rumour, now the pressure’s on you to communicate with the dead and tell us who’s been committing these ‘murders’.”

Stephen only looked at his friend glumly.

“It is not Kaecilius, Strange,” Wong stressed. “It can’t be. If someone’s opened the pathway to the Dark Dimension and set him free, we would know it.”

“Would we?” Stephen asked quietly. “The Ancient One failed to stop Kaecilius the last time. The Zealots killed the Librarian. Killed Sol Mara. Mutinied against her right under her nose."

“You are not her.”

Stephen chose not to call out on Wong’s steadfast loyalty to him. “Or maybe he set himself free. If I could bargain with Dormammu, so could he.”

He heaved a long, troubled sigh. "I have never seen Loki so afraid, Wong.”

As if on cue, a sharp pain stabbed him in the stomach. It lasted for a few seconds, but it was enough to steal his breath away.

“Stephen?”

Stephen forced himself to grin. “Nothing to worry about, Wong. It’s just Loki. He must be up already.”

“How was that just Loki?” Wong demanded. “Strange, what did you do?”

“Nothing you wouldn’t have done yourself, Wong.”

“I doubt that. I doubt that very much.” Wong narrowed his eyes accusingly. “You did something stupid again, didn’t you?”

“Or something very clever.” Stephen gingerly rubbed the phantom pain away. When Loki said it was painful, it really was. Who knew an innocent piece of ligament could hurt that much? “I explicitly told him to stay in bed today, but does he ever listen? No.”

“Ye-eaah.” Wong sighed. “Like I said. Conjoint bladder function.”

Chapter Text

“What are you doing here?” Loki hastily conjured a robe when he realised he was not alone.

“See what I’ve been reduced to?” Valkyrie only looked up for a second from whatever she was working on over the stove.

“Babysitting children?” Within his immediate circle of…friends and family, the Valkyrie he considered one of the closest, but he was still feeling quite raw inside; for fear of showing his vulnerability, he fought the urge to wrap the robes around himself tighter lest he let the Valkyrie in on it.

“Babysitting you.” So much for not letting her in on it.

Stephen must have given himself a head start.

Loki cursed under his breath, an expletive so vulgar his sentient Allspeak refrained from translating it. Young ears could be listening after all.

“Sheesh. Language.”

“I am fine.”

“Sure you are.” Brunnhilde shrugged. “Lil Princess can beat you in a race the way you’re limping. Need a hand to the bathroom?”

“Not if you value your sword arm.”

“You don’t know which one it is,” Brunnhilde said coolly.

“You sure about that?” Loki asked savagely.

“Goodness. Fancy Man was right. You’re smoking like dry ice, and that’s saying something when it’s only seven a.m. and your children aren’t even awake yet to drive you up the wall.”

“I’ve had a terrible night.”

Brunnhilde accepted the unspoken apology. “Sit down.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“That wasn’t a request.” It sounded too much of a grumble that Loki obliged readily just to see how this was going to go –

Loki watched curiously as Valkyrie ladled a batter of something onto a sizzling pan. She twirled a wrist and chopped tomatoes went in; with another twist, it was broccoli florets. Finally, with a swordsmaster’s expertise, she flipped the batter and,

“Voila.” A platter slid across the countertop.

Loki stared. It smelled wonderful.

“I’m sorry, Val. I wish I could, but –” he shook his apologetically. “I’m afraid I can’t partake.”

“Sure you can.” She slid a fork toward his neatly-clasped hands. “Dig in.”

Sensing Loki’s hesitation, Brunnhilde rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to poison you, Highness.”

“It’s not that…” Loki said sheepishly. “Although I wouldn’t put it past you.”

“Oh Lackey. I’m hurt. After all we’ve been through.” Valkyrie poured some hot water into a cup and instantly the fragrant smell of peach perfused not only the tea, but the kitchen.

“It’s not eggs, Highness.”

Loki sniffed at the very eggy looking omelette. Surprisingly the smell did not make his stomach flip; in fact, it did quite the opposite. His mouth started to water. “It’s not?”

“It’s something called a vegan chickpea omelette.” Brunnhilde looked immensely proud of herself.

“You never cease to surprise me, My Lady.”

“A lot of things you don’t know about me, Lackey.”

“I bet.” Loki said dryly. “Didn’t even know you keep anything in your kitchen other than a corkscrew.”

At Valkyrie’s confused look, Loki amended his previous statement with a largely rhetorical question. “Of course. You don’t need one. You just open your wine bottle with your teeth, don’t you?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” Brunnhilde raised a genuine eyebrow. She discarded the teabag and placed the mug of steaming hot tea near Loki’s elbow.

“Credit isn’t all mine.” She shrugged modestly. “Big Guy sent me the recipe and the video.”

“Bruce sent you a cooking video.” Loki wondered if he was still sleeping and dreaming. At least this was looking to be a good dream, so far – “Why?”

Brunnhilde shrugged. “Your Fancy Man’s been circulating your meal plans and dietary restrictions to the whole of Asgard. Big Guy must also be on the mailing list.”

“He’s what?”

Brunnhilde nodded. “Daily updates too. Sometimes multiple. I’ve flagged them as spam, but don’t tell him.”

Loki felt too exhausted to muster much beyond a snarl. He took a small bite, and chewed thoughtfully.

Brunnhilde watched as a tongue probed the inside of his cheek as he pondered. After a while, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

She hid a smile as Loki took another bite, a bigger one this time.

“I think you should leave Thor and come work for me,” Loki mumbled.

“This is a one-time thing, Highness.”

She watched Loki eat.

“Did something happen?”

“Define something.” Loki pushed a chunk of tomato to one side of the plate. And another. “Define happen.”

“Fancy Man’s day job’s left you by yourself plenty of times before. But this morning he was particularly worried.” She narrowed her eyes at the tidy row of tomato chunks lining one half of the plate. Wasted culinary effort aside, “Certainly worried enough to get me to keep an eye on you before he left.”

“It’s nothing you should concern yourself about, Val.”

“Your husband came to me for help, Lackey.” Brunnhilde studied him, not bothering to conceal her concern at all, only disguising it as curiosity. “Have you ever known him to ask me for a favour? He doesn’t do that if it’s ‘nothing’.”

Well. Two could certainly play at this game. Between physical pain and emotional pain? There was no contest which one hurt more.

“I’ve just been having some pains,” Loki muttered, feigning heavy reluctance at having to disclose something he would rather not.

“Define some.” Valkyrie’s eyes were unreadable. If she could see through Loki’s ruse, she chose not to call his bluff. “Define pains.”

Appetite largely diminished, Loki placed the fork down carefully. “Thank you for the meal.”

“Lackey…”

“Give me a minute.” Loki pushed himself off the bar stool gingerly. He had to give Valkyrie more if he were to get her off his tail. “Would be easier to show you.”

He walked over to the couch slowly, a curious Valkyrie right at his heel. Once he was lying back on the couch with his knees bent fully, he loosened the robe he was wearing and slid a hand into the groove between his right side and thigh, mimicking the action of one slipping one’s hand into a hip pocket. “Here.”

Valkyrie looked alarmed. “Have you seen the Healers? You’re still many moons away from –”

“It’s not the babies, Valkyrie. They’re fine,” Loki said softly. For now. “It’s a pulled muscle thing. Guess my body’s still taking time to adjust to the reality that it’s carrying two instead of one.”

“Well, adjusting is one thing. Staying still is another.” Valkyrie cocked her head. “You’re not very good at doing either.”

Loki glared. “Thanks, Val.”

“Anytime,” She said absently. She looked curiously deep in thought. “Muscle thing, did you say?”

“Yeah.” Loki offered a wry grin. “Completely normal thing by my standard, huh.”

“Glad you’re not letting it bring your spirits down,” she bantered. She did not miss the sudden faltering of Loki’s smile.

“Highness?”

“I’m okay,” he reinforced his smile with a playful wink, but there was no fooling the Valkyrie. “I just need to find that belly donut belt thing, I’m sure I left it here somewhere in the living room…”

“You and your son. If your limbs were detachable, I’m sure you’d lose them too.”

“This coming from someone who kept me chained up in her pigsty of an apartment for hours, I knew it’d take you ages to track my brother and that green beast –”

“It just seemed long to you because you were tied up, Lackey. I found them in just under two hours, like I said I would.”

“I bet you did.” Loki let out something between a nostalgic, and an extremely-relieved sigh. Sakaar was…Sakaar. There were no other words to describe it. “Those were the days.”

“Those were the days.” Whoever said yawning was contagious should add an addendum, because so was sighing. “I didn’t spend my entire life being waited hand and foot you know.”

Loki’s smile disappeared. “Neither did I.”

Valkyrie frowned. “Are we going to have start doing that now? This thing, it’ll go away right? Cos I don’t want to be doing this every day.”

Loki wrinkled his nose. “I certainly hope so.” He looked uncertain.

“Wait. You said your body’s still adjusting?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Have you tried shifting?”

“Into who?” Loki stared at her quizzically.

“The gap between your toes is wider than your hips. Maybe your male form is just too…narrow?”

Loki gaped.

Valkyrie took the advantage of his momentary loss of speech to further elaborate, before her stroke of genius left her. “Think about it. The womb is growing twice the size in the same amount of time it did with your last two children. The muscles are under twice as much strain and having to compensate by stretching upward –” Valkyrie’s hands moved upward vertically in a ‘rising’ gesture, “Rather than…you know –” her hands moved outward and sideways, “Because you don’t have –”

She slapped her bountiful hips appreciatively. “These beautiful babies.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “That’s your theory.”

“Try it, and my theory might just turn out to be a cure.”

“I haven’t shifted form in centuries.” Loki leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling.

“Not even Fancy Man’s seen it?”

Loki shook his head.

“Huh.” Valkyrie sank back into an armchair. “I would ask why, but since it’s none of my business…”

“It isn’t.”

“I said I would, but I didn’t, did I.” She leaned forward and leaned her vambraced arms on her knees. “Because it’s not important, is it?”

Loki remained stubbornly mum.

“Try it,” she insisted. “Before you son wakes up. Or after. Your choice.”

Loki sighed. “I hope you’re wrong about this. Or right. I can’t quite tell anymore.”

“Anytime today, Princess.”

Loki willed the change and surprised himself at how easy it was; he had thought shapeshifting while pregnant would be difficult if not impossible. When he opened his eyes again, the look of wonder on Valkyrie’s face was something to behold.

“Oh, Highness.” She breathed out, making no attempt to conceal her naked eyes. As if realising she was staring, she dropped her gaze. “You might want to cover yourself up.”

Loki rose slowly from the couch. She took a moment to straighten out her robes where they had pulled apart at the chest area, and tied them around her waist once more. She reached behind her neck to pull her hair out of her collar by the handful, letting the long, glossy locks cascade down her back in a shiny tumble.

“So? How do you feel?”

Loki took a moment to listen to her body. Freyr and Freyja, happy and content from the meal she had had, had gone back to sleep. She ran a hand down her belly, her long waist, and lastly, her well-rounded, wider hips. “No different.”

Valkyrie stood and studied the Princess up and down critically. At her full height, Loki was still more than a foot taller. “Try walking and do things that would normally cause you pain and see if it comes.”

Loki obeyed. She walked around in circles, slowly at first, before picking up speed.

Valkyrie watched with a growing smile on her face as Loki’s look of trepidation turned into one of relief and excitement as she moved faster and bolder, until finally Loki stood on one leg and extended the other behind her body in a classic Arabesque position.

“I think you’re cured.”

“I think I am.” Loki gave her a brilliant smile, her eyes twinkling. There was a slight dimple to her chin that would have looked out of place, seeing how her male form did not have one, but it gave her narrow face character and an unexpected softness. “Thank you, Valkyrie.”

“Aw, shucks.”

Valkyrie frowned when green began to envelope Loki’s entire form again, before receding to reveal Loki in his male Aesir form once more.

At the unspoken question in Valkyrie’s eyes, Loki offered her a shrug. “I’ve fixed it.”

“You’ve fixed it.” She said flatly. She sank back into her seat. “Fixed what?”

“That ligament thing. All I needed to do was isolate the offending ligament, study its mechanics and structures and attachments while in female form, and re-create the same internal environment now that I’m back in my original form.”

“You never cease to surprise me, Lackey.” She shook her head a couple of times, her ponytail shaking from side to side. “You’re better off in this form anyway.”

“Yeah? Why is that?” Loki tested out his theory by walking around his living room once more. To his great relief, movements that would once leave him stiff with pain he could now execute painlessly with a fluidity he had come to miss.

Valkyrie pursed her lips. “I choose not to answer that.”

Loki stopped in his track. “Val?”

She looked like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders but there was clearly still something on her mind, from the way she was looking at Loki’s belly with an almost longing expression on her face.

Then he remembered. “Ah.”

“You haven’t been introduced.” Loki took a seat in the armchair next to her.

At her inquiring gaze, Loki nodded his consent. “Anytime today, Captain.”

Valkyrie could not hide her excitement. She reached over and placed her hand first on the right side of Loki’s belly – “That’s Freyja,” Loki murmured. Another hand on the left side, “And that’s Freyr.”

The Valkyrie’s eyes glowed at first a blinding white, then a brilliant, silvery pewter.

Loki waited for the now familiar thrum of Valkyrie’s seiðr, but the proverbial knock on the magic door never came.

He opened his eyes. “Valkyrie?”

Valkyrie’s eyes had returned to their usual brown and she was wearing a deep, troubled frown. “I don’t understand.”

“What?” Loki’s throat went dry. “What is it?”

“Are they not responding to you?” Loki demanded. When Valkyrie did not answer immediately, the first pangs of panic began to bang away in his heart. Was his fate already sealed? Was he really going meet his death? The twins too?

“Did they reject you?”

“No, it’s not that.” Valkyrie shook her head. “There’s somebody else.”

Loki felt faint. Somebody else – “Triplets?”

“No!” Valkyrie snapped. “Somebody else’s magic. It’s…blocking me.”

“Blocking…you.” Loki felt fainter.

His nightmare was coming to life. Whoever was after him not only had him at a disadvantage now that he was in a delicate situation, he had also disabled access to the one thing that could have given Loki and his unborn children any semblance of protection.

“Breathe, Highness.” Loki felt hands pushing him back onto the couch. Valkyrie shoved a pillow under his head.

“Whose magic? What’s it doing to me? Can you tell?” Loki leaned back and closed his eyes. When the world darkened enough that it stopped spinning, he willed his seiðr to start looking, coursing to every part of his body to seek out this foreign magic –

“It’s not blocking me per se, but it’s like, someone got there before me, you know?” Valkyrie was rambling. “It doesn’t feel malevolent, not at all. In fact…”

She had felt this before, this foreign magic in Loki. She had felt it course through her own veins, once.

Yes, that one time, with the poison arrow, meant for Prince Stian.

“Damn it.” She and Loki said at the same time.

“For Heaven’s sake, Stephen!” Loki raged, propelling out of his seat and disappearing out of sight in the blink of an eye.

“Oh boy.” Valkyrie sighed. For someone so close to fainting, the Prince sure seemed pretty steady. That must have been the legendary wrath of Loki of Asgard doing the standing/flying/teleporting.

She got up, cleared the dirty dishes from the dining table and chucked the half-eaten omelette into the bin. She wondered if she needed to call her new-but-not-that-new friend Wong and tell him to send back-up or something, just in case the Fancy Man needed it.

“This ain’t gonna go well.” She was sure of it; she would bet her sword arm. Both of them, in fact.

"Ain't gonna go well at all."

_____________________________________

Kamar-Taj, present time

 

Stephen stood behind two stupas just outside the main entrance to the courtyard where a group of apprentices were practicing with their sling rings.

“So, the two victims were from this group?”

“Yes, same summer intake from early last year.”

“Other than their age, and gender…”

“The only other thing they had in common was family background. Came from broken families, parents didn’t care if they lived or died. One Master Minoru found panhandling on the streets of Hong Kong, the other tried to mug Master Arslan at knifepoint in London.”

“How were they, performance-wise?”

“Slow-going at first, but Master Hamir was quite impressed with how much progress they had made. He was about to teach them weapon-conjuring and calling up the Mirror Dimension next.”

“That’s what you meant by promising.”

Wong nodded. “Proteges are harder and harder to come by these days.”

“Well…”

“No humble-bragging please. The only reason why you got so far ahead compared to your peers was because you were given the right…motivation.”

“You think stranding me out on the Everest was motivation?”

“Of course.” Wong gave him a sidelong glance. “What would you call it?”

“Attempted murder,” Stephen muttered under his breath.

Speaking of which, 

“Uh-oh.” Wong stood up straighter, looking left and right like he was not quite sure if he should stay or run. “Incoming. Your three o’clock.”

Stephen turned his head just in time to see a familiar figure step out of a portal at the other end of the courtyard. Loki?

Their eyes met over the heads of his pupils; he had to give them all credit, none of them paid any attention to the sudden intrusion. It would take a great deal of self-discipline to ignore this tall, pale waif of a man with his obviously distended belly marching across the courtyard, heading straight for their Sorcerer Supreme –

A glint of crystal out the corner of his eye begged for his attention.

Ah, okay. Loki had put up the Mirror Dimension. That explained a lot.

This…can’t be good.

Stephen watched Loki approach with a mixture of awe, dread, relief and…confusion.

From the way his husband was stalking toward them, Loki should be in agony. In fact, ever since that first twinge in the morning, Stephen had not felt anything since, and had assumed Loki had finally taken to bed as per his doctor-husband’s advice.  

He checked himself. The binding spell was still in place, Loki had not broken it. Loki must have not found it. He was safe.

“Sorcerer Supreme.”

Or…not.

Loki nodded curtly to Wong, but his green eyes were locked on Stephen like ready-to-launch missiles. “May I have a moment with my husband, Master Wong?”

“Of course.” Wong could move very fast if he wanted to, but he could not get out of there fast enough. His only hope was that the Mirror Dimension would hold and the fiery couple not destroy anything out here in the real world.

“Darling. I wasn’t expecting you to come visit.”

Stephen hid his wringing hands behind his back. Perhaps a diplomatic start to the conversation could delay the inevitable spiral down to the realm of verbal (hopefully) altercation. “How are you feeling?”

“Save it, Strange.” With Loki at his current setting, there was never any bush to beat. “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You heard me.”

“I…am not quite sure what you’re asking me, Loki – Ow!” Stephen howled. “What the hell, Loki?”

Loki held out a hand in the air, all tapered, pale fingers splayed for Stephen to see, except for one. His index finger had been bent all the way backward, and the disjointed finger now lay floppy against the back of his hand.

Without saying a word, he straightened it again with an audible crack, and Stephen cursed again from the transferred pain. A quick healing spell later, the finger was fully healed, and the pain in Stephen’s own hand receded.

That.” Loki spat. He looked as though he was going to faint, or explode in fury any second now, so white-faced was he. “Please explain.”

Stephen sighed. With a snap of his now-functioning fingers, he transported them both to the privacy of his office. He crossed his legs and leaned back in his armchair. He clasped his hands in his lap. The table was a barrier between him and Loki, so he made that disappear.

“Won’t you sit down?” he asked quietly.

“No, thank you.”

“Tea?”

“No, thank you.”

“Loki, please sit down. You’re being unnecessarily active when you should be resting.” Stephen watched his husband pace, bracing for the onslaught of pain that could potentially come at any moment.

“Am I making you nervous, Husband?” Loki asked sweetly. “You’re not scared of a little pain, are you?”

“Loki…”

In a complete turnaround, “Explain!” Loki thundered.

“How did you find out?” Stephen gave his not-answer in the form of a question.

“The Valkyrie might want to have a word with you when you get home.” Loki finally sat down, and with a flexibility Stephen had not seen in a while, crossed his long legs to mirror Stephen’s body language. “She cannot offer her binding oath of protection to the Norns until you lift yours.”

“I see.”

“You see,” Loki echoed. “That’s it?”

“I’m not going to apologise for what I did. I knew exactly what I was doing.”

“No, you did not.”

“Yes, I did!” Stephen’s voice rose a notch. “And I would do it again, without hesitation.”

“Lift it.”

“No.”

“Stephen.” Loki rested a hand on his belly. All this anger and shouting was upsetting his stomach, not to mention the twins. “For the love of your unborn children who I am currently carrying in my belly, lift it.”

“I will not. For the love of my unborn children you are carrying in your belly. And for my love for you.”

“Do you understand what you’ve done?” Loki hissed. “Every pain I feel, every paper cut, every snubbed toe, every dagger in my heart, you’re going to feel it.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Why?” Loki demanded.

“Same reason why you took the Vow.”

Loki stopped breathing.

“You prolong my life by cutting yours in half, Loki. If this was a competition, which it isn’t –” Stephen lifted a finger, the very one Loki had psychically broken – “You would win. Hands down.”

“That’s different,” was the only response Loki could manage.

“How is it different?” Stephen asked in a challenging tone, knowing full well Loki would be itching to answer.

“You are the Sorcerer Supreme, Stephen.” Loki growled. “What happens if you’re in the middle of a fight, and I get a migraine, or – or a bout of vomiting? What then?”

“Then I will finish the fight, and quickly come to you to give you a head massage or hold a bucket under your head or both, depending on what the situation calls for,” Stephen explained patiently. “If it’s a true emergency, I’d freeze the enemy in time, and attend to you, after which, I would resume the fight and end it accordingly.”

“I can’t believe this.” For the second time that day, Loki propelled himself out of the chair faster than he should, and Stephen felt more than a slight wooziness wash over him for a second, but if Loki felt it and Stephen knew he did, he did not show it, his face as blank as stone.

“What, when the time comes, you’re going to go through the birth pains too? How does that work?”

“Unfortunately, the spell could only do so much against Mother Nature. Would if I could, but it could not, no matter how powerful I am, no matter how much I want to.” Stephen shook his head again. “No, the spell can only let me know when you’re in distress. It’s…sort of like a burglar alarm. It senses pain, and it sends me signals to tell me to come and check.”

“In other words, you don’t trust me that I would come to you.” An aghast whisper. “This is payback. Because I told Jack about the pains, but not you,” Loki said, finally realising the true reasoning behind Stephen’s actions –

Or so he thought.

No, Loki! Will you stop trying to twist my words?”

Loki reared his head.

“I didn’t want you to suffer alone.” Stephen came closer. He reached out a hand and laid it gently on Loki’s hip. “You’ve suffered enough.”

Loki’s eyes smarted. “I don’t want you to have to suffer with me.”

“We humans have a name for it. We call it sympathy pain.”

“And if someone drives a sword through my heart?” Loki fingered the spot where Stephen had one driven through his once upon a time. “Will the pain still be as sympathetic? Or will it kill you too?”

“That’s never going to happen.” Stephen’s hand tightened his grip, his other hand joining its fellow to hold Loki’s other hip possessively. “I won’t let it.”

“Answer the question,” Loki commanded softly.

“I’ll live,” Stephen answered tightly. “But I can’t promise I won’t die of a broken heart shortly after.”

“It is an actual thing you know, the broken heart syndrome,” Stephen said in amusement, wishing he could say something to lighten the mood. “Look it up, you might find it under its other boring name stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, after the guy who discovered it.”

Loki only looked at him, forlorn and silent.

“Please don’t be angry with me, Loki…”

“Undo it. Please,” Loki pleaded. “I can’t bear it if anything happens to you too.” His eyes filled. “Someone needs to stay behind to look after Stian and Aífe.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Stephen could feel his anger rising. “Nothing is going to happen to you!”

He quickly turned his anger into energy, and he poured it all into a kiss so deep and hard he could feel his lips throb, mirroring Loki’s bruised lips.

“You started off this pregnancy as happy as a kite, Loki. You had so much faith in your Aunt, your Uncle, your Mother – remember what Thor said? Remember what they promised you? They promised that you were going to be okay and you believed them. I did too. I still do.”

“I want to see that side of you. All the time.” Stephen traced his thumbs along the Loki’s lower lash line, where they fit the imprints of the dark shadows under his eyes perfectly. He frowned deeply.

“Happy Loki. Smiling Loki.” A soft kiss. “My Laughing Loki.”

“I can’t.” Loki shook his head slowly.

“Yes, you can.”

“I can’t, Stephen,” Loki said, clearly frustrated. “How can I when I risk hurting you with every step I take?”

“Then you just have to be extra careful with everything you do, don’t you.”

“Being careful is exhausting.”

Stephen rolled his eyes. “Only you can say something like that and still make sense.”

“Lift it, Stephen,” Loki begged. “Please.”

Stephen sighed. This was not how he pictured his plan unraveling. And so soon too. Damn you, Valkyrie.

He cupped the sides of Loki’s face and thumbed the tears away. “Let’s give it a few days and see, shall we? If you’re still feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing…” he hesitated but something in his heart gave at the sight of Loki’s imploring eyes. “I’ll lift it.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to stay away from spindles for the next few days.”

“Spindles and poisoned apples and killer Kree assassins from space and toy castles -”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

Green eyes glinted, sorrow and fear momentarily forgotten. “Kiss me until I bleed, Strange.”

Stephen stared. Knowing Loki, his request was as much a simple request of love as it was a spell, to bind his promise. Either way,

“As you wish.” For he would bleed too, and for Loki, he would do anything.

“I am no Princess Buttercup.”

“You going to push me down a cliff too?”

“Only if you fall with me.” Loki’s gaze dropped to Stephen’s inviting lips. “But kiss me first.”

“As you wish.”

Chapter Text

“Not these again, Strange,” Loki began, but a ‘shush’ from Stephen called for silence, albeit a temporary one. He allowed Stephen to put the compression stockings on him, but resumed his whining once Stephen was done.

“I don’t know if you’ve worn them, but they are super-tight and super-uncomfortable,” Loki complained, making a show of wriggling his compressed toes. “They make my legs go to sleep.”

“Better your legs than your whole body,” Stephen mumbled, gathering the empty box and plastic packaging. “Can’t have you fainting left, right and center every time you so much as stand.”

Loki gave him a look of pure loathing. “Oh I get it now. So there’s to be no more secrets between us. So what, if I hold my breath too long for your liking, you’re going to force me to breathe?”

Stephen only looked at him coolly. “Are you planning on it?”

Loki’s gaze was equally frosty. “I can’t even if I wanted to, can I.”

“Not until the babies are born, no. So whatever breath-holding tantrums you think you’ve got planned, I’m afraid they’re going to have to wait.”

“I hate you.”

Stephen only smiled sadly. “Okay, Loki.”

“I hate you,” Loki said it again, but with less conviction and a much smaller voice.

“I know, darling.” A gentle pat on the shoulder, more indulging than placating.

“So.” Stephen resettled in his armchair, happy now that the woozy spells were likely to be a thing of the past. It also thrilled him to no end that any deliberate non-compliance on Loki’s part was as good as doing it openly; this sympathy-pain spell thing was phenomenal.

“So.” Loki was still staring at his stocking-clad legs unhappily.

Stephen gave in to the itch. “The pains in your side. They don’t seem to bother you anymore.”

Sometimes Stephen’s statements were questions, and his questions statements. Loki could tell which was which, but damned if he was going to give Stephen the satisfaction.

“They don’t?” he purred. “Surely you can tell, now that we’re practically sharing bodies.”

“I can. I’m simply curious as to how.”

“Valkyrie taught me some…exercises.”

Stephen frowned slightly. “Exercises?”

“Yes. She’s very flexible,” Loki said simply. He did not elaborate further.

“I must thank her later.”

“I suppose you must.”

“Loki…” Stephen sighed. He was a doctor after all, and very familiar with the importance of protecting a patient’s rights and privacy. “I get it. You’re angry. You think I’m invalidating your autonomy over your own body.”

“I don’t know what that means. You use too big words sometimes,” Loki sniffed.

He crossed his legs into a cramped lotus position in the tiny chair, a feat that should have been very difficult if not impossible for someone of equal height and delicate constitution. He cradled his belly in his lap.

Loki looked like a little angry white Buddha.

Stephen hid a smile.

“What?” Loki snapped.

Stephen opened his second-last drawer.  “Here.”

He tossed something in the air, which Loki caught with one hand. It was a roll of Tums.

“Your heartburn’s getting worse by the minute,” he heard Stephen say gently. “Take one.”

Loki stared at the object in his hand. For some inexplicable reason, tears began to sting in his eyes. “It’s not that bad.”

“Now I know what your ‘not that bad’ feels like.” Stephen’s voice was still gentle. “Take two.”

For a second, he looked as though he was going to chuck the medication out the window or at Stephen’s head, but he did neither. Loki furiously wiped a hand across his cheek, and silently unwrapped the roll of antacids.

Stephen felt the burning in his stomach recede momentarily after Loki took two just as he was told. He sighed in relief and relaxed in his chair. “Thank you, Loki.”

Loki watched as Stephen rubbed a hand across his own stomach, and was torn between relief and displeasure, so he settled for something in between. “I am glad I’ve made you feel better.”

Stephen’s smile could not be any sunnier. “Share your fears, share your pains, remember?”

Loki rolled his eyes. “I hardly meant it in the literal sense of the word, Stephen.”

“Then perhaps you should have been more specific with your wording, Loki,” Stephen said easily. “For this is looking to be one of the best ideas I’ve had in a long time.”

“You really are a masochist, aren’t you.”

“Oh no, that’s all you, my darling.” Stephen stood. “As much as I love the idea of gazing upon your lovely visage while I’m at work, Loki –”

He clapped his hands together. “Will that be all? Or is there another purpose to your visit today?”

Loki regarded him suspiciously. “You seem very eager to get rid of me.”

Stephen’s smile faded. “Only because Kamar-Taj isn’t the safest place to be right now.”

“Oh, I’ve heard.” Loki uncrossed his legs and pushed himself off the chair. He walked over to where Stephen was standing, and stared at his husband across the table which had mysteriously reappeared. “You left early this morning because you didn’t want to take me with you.”

“No, I left early this morning because you were still sleeping and I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Still.” Loki shrugged. “You left. And instead of motherhenning over me yourself like you normally would, you talked the Valkyrie into doing for you. For which I thank you.”

“Loki…”

“So that means…you still haven’t figured out what’s going on.” Loki slipped out of the room so fast, Stephen would have lost sight of him had he not teleported -

And nearly lost his footing when he reappeared on the steps where Loki had already reached the first floor landing. “Loki, wait.”

“I know this place as well as the back of my hand, Strange.”

“I’m sure you do, honey, but I don’t think you being here is such a good idea…”

“Why?” Loki stopped in his tracks. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“No, no – why would you even think that – never mind.” Stephen pulled on an elbow. Loki let it go rigid. “I’m worried for you.”

“Why? Your victims so far had been young, male, human, and not pregnant.” Loki shook Stephen’s hand off. “They were all that I’m not.”

“True. True.” Stephen hesitated.

“Right then. Let’s get cracking.”

Wong appeared out of nowhere and soon the three of them were scurrying across the courtyard, Loki leading the pack like a bloodthirsty hound.

“What are we doing now?” Wong asked.

“I’m not completely sure.” Stephen halted when Loki abruptly stopped. He watched as Loki stood stock-still for a few seconds, first facing eastward, then west, north and by the time he was facing the south, he had his arms spread apart as if welcoming the sun had he only been facing the right direction.

“Yoga?” Stephen ventured a guess.

“You think this is the first murder I’ve investigated here at Kamar-Taj?” Loki murmured, his eyes still closed.

“I’m guessing that’s a rhetorical question.”

“This place has a long and bloody history, Master Wong. Oh, the stories I could tell…” Loki inhaled deeply.

Stephen felt the slight change in the atmosphere; he recognised it as Loki’s seidr rippling through the air as if in search of something. It felt like a subtle electrical static prickling the fine hairs on every inch of exposed skin, and from the look on Wong’s face, his fellow Guardian could feel it too.

“Someone’s opened a portal.” When Loki turned around to face them once more, his eyes were grave.

Stephen threw a look over his shoulders where the apprentices were still deep in sling ring practice with variable results - some portals nicely-rounded, some huge and misshapen, some barely sputtering. “Lots of portal action going on over there.”

Loki was demonstrating great patience for someone burdened with explaining what should have been obvious for all to see. “Someone has opened a portal to the Dark Dimension.

“What?” Stephen could not believe his ears.

“I cannot pinpoint the exact when, but from the residue, it was at least two to three weeks ago.” An elegant lift of a sculpted eyebrow. “Good thing I came too. All traces would be gone come next week.”

“If someone had summoned Dormammu –” Stephen shook his head. “We would have known. I would have known.”

“I didn’t say anything about summoning Dormammu, Stephen,” Loki said calmly. “I clearly said that ‘someone has opened a portal to the Dark Dimension.’ ”

“He kinda did, Boss.”

“Shut up, Wong.” Stephen crossed his arms. “It’s bad enough that I can now ‘see’ dead people, I’ve got people opening portals into another dimension right here under my nose too?”

“That does sound far-fetched, Loki.”

“Pick a side, Master Wong.” Loki smiled savagely. “The right side will let you see some real magic.”

Loki’s smile wavered. “I for one, can see dead people if I choose, but I haven’t seen a single one ever since I arrived.”

“And that’s…bad?” Wong’s forehead furrowed. At Loki’s silent nod, “Wait, why is that bad?”

“Long and bloody history, Wong,” Loki reminded him. “This place should be teeming with spirits. But they are all gone. For some reason.”

“Okay, Loki. Enough with the mystery. What are you trying to tell us?” Stephen demanded.

Loki studied his husband with a sinking heart. Stephen was bleeding skepticism. “You don’t believe me.”

“What I believe or don’t believe is hardly the issue here. The Dark Dimension is. You can’t bring up something like that and sweep it under the carpet,” Stephen ranted. “You gotta give me more.”

If only Wong could give Stephen a sharp jab in the side, he would. Loki’s body language was not all that difficult to read, for God’s sake!

“Please, Loki. If you know something, tell us.”

Loki’s posture lost all its defensive stance and his shoulders slumped. “Sure. Take me to your Library.”

Wong could not hide his sigh of relief. “This way.”

A pale hand pointed. “But he’s not coming.”

“But –” Stephen started to protest, but stopped short at Wong’s frantic throat-slashing gesture. Cut it out. I’ve got this.

“Fine!” Stephen threw his hands up in the air, but Loki and Wong had already left him standing alone in the middle of the courtyard like a bullied kid in a playground.

“I’ll just…wait here then.”

_______________________________________

 

“How are you holding up?” Wong ventured into his first attempt at small talk.

“Fine.” The moment Stephen was out of earshot, Loki began his vicious, rapid-fire interrogation. “Did you know about it? What he was going to do?”

Wong was a wise man, and a wise man never, ever insulted another person’s intelligence, not when the other person was a thousand-something-year old sorcerer who might very well be as old or older than most of the books beyond these heavy, wooden doors.

“No. But I had my suspicion this morning, when he suddenly doubled over for no reason and accused you of disobeying your doctor’s orders.”

“Did he now.” 

“I understand why he did it.” Wong glanced at him. “I know you do too.”

“Yes, but I don’t have to like it,” Loki muttered. “And I don’t like it. Not one damn bit.”

Wong muttered a word under his breath, and the doors unlocked and swung open silently. He took down the wards to let Loki in.

Without looking left and right, Loki strode in and headed straight for the forbidden books, suspended in their locks and chains. He pointed wordlessly at the Book of Cagliostro.

Wong released the dangerous tome from its binding chains and gingerly placed it on the table.

With deadly precision, Loki flipped the book to the exact page he wanted to find – or did not find. They stared down at the ugly, uneven edges where the pages had been torn.

Loki’s lips curled in disgust. “Whoever butchered this book needs to be executed.”

“Well…they kinda were.” Wong bobbed his head. “In a sense.”

Loki placed both palms on the pages on either side of the torn binding, and concentrated. His hands began to glow.

“Loki?”

“Just a minute, Wong.” Loki’s magic stirred the musty air of the Library and for a few seconds, Wong watched enthralled as the dust shimmered around him like airborne flecks of gold.

Loki sucked in a sudden, sharp intake of air.

“Loki?”

“It's done.” The glow around his hands died, and the dust around them settled. The air became heavy and stifling once more. “You can return the book to its holding place now, Master Wong.”

“What was that spell just now?”

“Did you think I was going to regenerate the missing pages?”

“For a second there, I thought you were.”

“I could.” Loki shrugged.

At Wong’s raised eyebrows, Loki shrugged again, his grin somewhere between mysterious and mischievous.

“Who do you think wrote the Book of Cagliostro, Wong?”

“Let me guess. You?”

Loki tsk-tsked. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“I wouldn’t, actually. Somehow I have a feeling the less I know about you, the better.”

“You’re a wise man, Master Wong.”

“I have been told,” Wong concurred readily. “But I do know one thing.”

Loki leaned against one of the bookcases.

“You mean more to Stephen than his own life.”

Loki leaned his head back and it thudded against the bookcase with a thunk, made all the louder by the hollow acoustics of the sparsely-furnished Library.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Loki finally said softly.

At the hollow look in Loki’s eyes, Wong felt something in him give. “I’ll keep an eye on him, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Thank you, Wong.” Loki smiled gratefully. “You’re a true friend.”

Wong just had to laugh. Stephen and Loki were more alike then they realised. “I have been told that too.”

______________________________________

 

“So? Did I miss a good show?”

The cool looks on his husband and his friend’s faces were identical.

“I can’t believe this. You’re ganging up on me now?”

“There goes that inflated sense of self-importance again.” Wong tipped his chin at Loki, to which Loki responded with a vicious smirk.

“Yeah. Not everything is about you, Sorcerer Supreme.” Despite the sharp words, Loki’s voice seemed to have lost its bite.

Stephen frowned. “What happened? You look tired. Are you okay?”

“And not everything is about me, darling,” Loki soothed, finally taking pity on his husband. He started to walk away. “You coming?”

“Wong?” Stephen turned to his friend. Wong gave him a genuine shrug, and gestured at him to follow before Loki could disappear around the bend; for someone so far-along in his pregnancy, he was fast.

Loki had a hand in the air as if he was navigating his way by feeling for the direction of the wind, but Stephen knew better. Loki was tracking something.

“Oh I get it. We’re on a treasure hunt,” Stephen nodded importantly. They had let him back in the game after all. “What are we hunting for again?”

“A steppe bison, what else,” Loki muttered. “Now could you please be quiet? You’re disturbing my genius.”

“Yeah, could you please be quiet? You’re disturbing his genius.”

Stephen ignored the urge to bare his teeth at his supposed best friend.

They walked past courtyard after courtyard, ignoring curious looks from students and fellow Masters alike.

Loki’s sharp intake of breath halted both Loki and Stephen in their steps, and Stephen winced at the sudden prick of pain drilling into his temples.

He bent his head forward, but that only seemed to increase the pressure building in his head. He lifted it again and the pain disappeared, but when he opened his eyes, his stomach sank.

They were now standing in front of a giant acacia tree. The smallest of its old, gnarly roots were the size of elephant trunks, and they wrapped around themselves at the base of the tree like a mother protecting her children in her bosom. The tiles around them had long since been uprooted, and Stephen walked around the broken pieces of mosaic carefully.

“Loki?”

“Get your students out of here, Strange,” Loki said softly.

At Stephen’s nod, Wong hurried to the group of students practicing their martial arts and got them to disperse.

“Here.” Loki placed a palm against the trunk. “A rift had been opened right here.”

“A fissure between dimensions.”

Stephen looked up the acacia tree. It was old, at least in its last decade and on the brink of dying. Instead of alongside Loki’s hand, he placed his own hand on top of it, and let his magic fuse with Loki’s seidr, so he could feel what Loki felt, see what Loki saw –

He drew back with a sudden gasp.

“Do you believe me now?” Loki asked, still as softly.

At the sight of Stephen stumbling backward, Wong jogged over. “What did I miss?”

“You can’t open a portal to the Dark Dimension without the spell. And it’s lost.” Stephen swallowed hard. “It’s not possible.”

“Urgh. The number of times I’ve heard that in this lifetime alone,” Loki muttered.

He stepped back. He sat heavily on the steps leading up to an ancient-looking candi about ten feet away, stretching and cracking a crick in his back. “Show’s all yours, Sorcerer Supreme.”

Stephen hesitantly fiddled with the Eye of Agamotto around his neck.

“I don’t need scrolls or pieces of paper to open an interdimensional portal, Stephen.” Loki leaned his head back and breathed out the excess magic, closing the loop on his tracking spell. “Neither did Aife, because I taught her how.”  

His green eyes focused on the peculiar, blackened mark right in the heart of the tree, as if someone had thrust a burning torch and scorched the trunk. “Whoever did that? They did not know what they were doing.”

Loki’s next words sent chills down his spine. “They may have unleashed something that had been lying in wait on the other side.

“Guess we’ll just have to take a look, don’t we.” He took a deep breath, and clasped the Eye of Agamotto in between his palm.

“Stephen…”

“People have died, Wong. I need to know the who, the how, and the why.”

Stephen’s eyes were hard. “No more. Not under my watch.”

His hands began to glow an iridescent green, and the tree began to take on the same ethereal glow.

Bracing one hand against the brick structure he was sitting up against, and the other on the curve of his belly, Loki pushed himself off his haunches and rose to his feet; as much as he wished he could be as far away from there as possible, he could not help but want to take a closer look –

The Time Stone did not disappoint for right before their eyes, the tree trunk began to tell its fate in reverse; the scorching mark began to take on a fire that burned black and hot and for long seconds that seemed to stretch forever, Loki found himself staring into an abyss –

Wong’s grip was strong around his upper arm as it guided Loki to sit down on the steps again.

Loki could scarcely breathe; the gaping maw into the Dark Dimension was as inviting as he remembered, beckoning him to just take a peek inside, just one little peek – had it not been for Wong’s hand pinning his shoulder down, there was no telling what he would have done.

It was too loud to ignore, the distant roar of Dormammu, the once-adversary of Asgard, promising everything and nothing and Loki cupped his hands over his ears and moaned.

“Stephen!”

“Almost there Wong!” He shouted over the roar. He needed to know, needed to know who had opened the portal, how they did it and who they had let escape –

The rift closed as the trunk took them further back in time, and there they were…the stolen pages from the Book of Cagliostro. Stephen would recognise them anywhere – he watched with unblinking eyes as one, two pairs of hands pushed the pages deep into the heart of the tree, and another pair of hands staked it into the trunk with a spike.

Drops of blood lifted off the pages back into where they came, likely from puncture wounds from the ends of someone’s fingers -

“Show me their faces. Show me who!” Stephen demanded, as the magic from the Eye coaxed the truth out of the tree, the silent witness – and a face flashed through Stephen’s mind like a vision.

“Stephen, enough!” Stephen heard Wong bark from somewhere behind him, and something warm and sticky ran down his lips.

Stephen turned his wrist counter-clockwise, and reversed the spell, and in an instant, the tree trunk was back to how they had found it, blackened and charred and silent.

He turned around and dropped to one knee. “Loki?”

Wong had Loki’s head in his lap where Loki had listed sideways; drops of blood stained Wong’s pant legs and judging from the handkerchief Wong had stuffed under Loki’s nose –

Stephen rubbed the back of his hand across his face but it came away clean. Yet when he licked his lips, he could taste the phantom taste of blood, metallic and tangy at the back of his throat.

“Shit, Loki, I am so sorry.” Loki pushed his hands against Wong’s thighs to sit himself up.

“I’m okay. It’s just – memories. They were all coming back to me.” He took a few deep breaths. “They were quite unpleasant ones.”

“Memories did this to you?” Wong asked incredulously.

“No walk in the park being me, Wong.” Loki waved off the concern. “I’m alright now.” His green eyes were too-bright against the pastiness of his face. “So? You were saying?”

The concern in Stephen’s eyes turned grim with his new-found knowledge. “The two dead students somehow found the missing pages and used the spell but you were right in saying they didn’t know what they were doing.”

“The blood sacrifice they offered was not enough to do much beyond opening a tiny rift in between dimensions, not enough to summon Dormammu –”

“But certainly enough to let something slip out.”

“Not just something,” Loki said darkly. “Someone.”

“I saw three pairs of hands.” Stephen offered a hand up, and Loki accepted it reluctantly. He answered Stephen’s inquiring squeeze with a reassuring squeeze of his own hand. “We need to find out who the third person was. I have a feeling he’s going to be next.”

“Y-eeeah…” Wong heaved a heavy sigh all of a sudden. He pointed to where a figure was running toward them, waving his hands frantically in the air. “I have a feeling he might just be able to tell you.”

Shit.” Stephen cursed aloud. “This is effing unbelievable.”

Soon they were all standing in a dank, small room. It was a utility closet where the gardening tools and lawn machineries were kept. “He wasn’t even one of us.”

“This is turning into one of those plot twists that’s always fun to watch on TV. Not so much in real life.” Wong stared at the lifeless form of a man he had never seen before.

Stephen crouched down and studied the dead man’s features, his glassy eyes staring blankly back at him. “He looks familiar.”

Loki walked around silently around the storage room. The smell of death was not yet strong enough to mask the scent of the perpetrator. “He is getting stronger. He will soon gain a corporeal body.”

Stephen and Wong turned to him, wearing matching expressions of apprehension and fear-tinged doubt.

“Believe me, or don’t.” Loki tipped his chin toward the corpse. “He ain’t talking, that’s for sure.”

Stephen exhaled loudly. “So what next, Detective?” He meant the question for Wong, but it was Loki who answered.

“I’m going into the Water of Sights.”

Chapter Text

Kamar-Taj, present time.

 

“What is the Water of Sights?” Stephen glanced at Wong out of the corner of his eye; at the equally baffled look on his friend’s face, it was likely the first time his fellow Guardian had heard of it too. There was solidarity in ignorance after all, and he turned to face Loki once more, all the more determined to not leave the place before Loki gave him some answers.

For all his air of mystery before, Loki was surprisingly forthcoming. “There was a place called the Cave of the Norns, for those brave enough to seek an audience with the Norns. I used to frequent it when I was younger.”

He added reluctantly as an afterthought. “Before the fall of Asgard.”

“Asgard is no more.” Stephen’s hand involuntarily fisted the Eye.

“I am not asking you to take me back, Stephen.” Loki said exasperatedly, waving a dismissive hand. “Every Realm has a reflection of it. It is where the Norns reside, and where I need to go.”

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know…” A determined look set his green eyes hard as steel. “Yet.”

“Okay…” Stephen tried another route of questioning. “Why must you need to go?”

“To get some answers.” Loki avoided his husband’s probing gaze. “The visions I had…they must mean something.”

The thought of Loki revisiting the horrific nightmare that had left them both shaken till the early hours of the morning was as horrifying as the prospect of letting Loki sink himself into something as ominous-sounding as -

“This Water of Sights, where the Norns allegedly reside...” Stephen summarised with a healthy dose of suspicion. “Why are we only hearing about this now?”

“Your diagnostic intelligence is hardly the same as mine, Strange.” Loki blew a stray lock of hair out of his eyes flippantly. “How you solve your puzzles and how I solve mine is simply incommensurable.”

 “Why do I get the impression this place isn’t as exciting as its name promises?”

“Sorry to disappoint. It isn’t Disneyland. Not everyone can afford its exit fee.”

“You mean entrance fee.” Wong’s attempt at clarification fell short of the mark; Loki’s choice of words had been deliberate.

“Men who entered the Water of Sights…they never came back. Or they came back wrong.” Loki’s voice trailed off. “I…never dared to take the plunge myself.”

“And what makes you think it is a good idea to take this plunge now?”

“Thor did. He came out fine.”

“My God extracting answers out of you is like pulling teeth.” Stephen gritted his own teeth, and Wong glowered at him or Loki, or possibly both.

He took it upon himself to gauge just how far this all was from madness.

“Your visions, Loki,” Wong began carefully. “Are you sure they were not just…dreams?”

Loki laughed softly, but his laughter was benign and benevolent, for he knew Wong had never been one to let emotions and fear cloud his logic.

He dropped his head and murmured. “ 'No one steps in the Sanctum.’ ”

“Wasn’t that what you said, Wong? You, the Lord Protector, the Guardian of Sanctum Sanctorum? And you did as you vowed to do.”

Wong only stared at him with eyes as dead as his expression.

Loki raised his head and met Wong’s dead stare head-on.

“You protected the Sanctum. When he came.” Loki spoke as if in a trance. “And you died for it.”

He took a few steps closer, his footfalls silent and stealthy as a fox –

And suddenly Wong found himself staring at Loki’s chest. He looked up and found himself lost in the depth of the ancient, all-seeing eyes.

“Are you still letting Kaecilius tell you which side of history is right, and which is wrong?” Loki towered over him, his lips barely moving when he spoke; yet it sounded as if Loki was whispering right in his ear. “Choose your own history, Wong.”

Loki tipped his head downward, as if pulling him in for a juicy secret. “Like you, I chose not to stay dead.”

He straightened once more to his full height. His face, as still and white as marble only seconds ago, reanimated itself into a weak, half-hearted smile.  

“I have no choice.” A pale hand came to a gentle rest against the side of his belly. “Not anymore.”

Loki turned on his heels and began to walk away.

The spell broken, Wong pulled away and drew in a few, quick intakes of air. He did not realise he had been holding his breath.

Stephen's voice was quiet, as quiet as the silence that had suddenly befallen the air. “Now do you believe me?”

“Yeah.” Wong cleared his throat. He watched Loki’s retreating back with not so much wariness, but a deep-seated, almost grudging awe. A shiver ran down his spine. “Guh, he gives me goosebumps.”

“You’ll get used to them,” Stephen predicted weakly. “Eventually.”

________________________________________________

New Asgard, present time.

 

“No.” If Thor could shake his head any harder, he would. “Absolutely not.”

“I am not taking you there, Loki.”

“You took Erik Selvig.”

“Erik Selvig took me.”

“Great! Thank you for the information.” Loki made to push himself off his chair. “Now excuse me while I reacquaint myself with my old friend Dr Sel-”

“You will do no such thing,” Thor’s thunderous voice boomed, and Stian looked up sharply from his book. Thor fought to calm himself. “I forbid it.”

“You forbid it.” Loki’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“I know you, Loki. You latch onto an idea, you cling to it blindly without considering the alternatives, less dangerous alternatives.”

“Are you sure you’re not talking about yourself, Thor?” Loki crossed his arms across his chest as much as his belly would allow, hoping to look formidable but from the pitying look in his brother’s mismatched eyes, Loki had a suspicion he only looked defensive more than anything.

“And besides how dangerous could it be? You came out of it with all your pieces intact…more or less.”

“You wanted my opinion, Loki. I have given it. I am against it with every fibre of my being.” Thor unclasped his hands only to slam his palms on the table none too gently. “The King of Asgard has spoken.”

Loki was not going down without a fight. No one was in his corner, not even Stephen who had been sitting quietly next to him and not spoken a word.

“Thor, think about it,” Loki implored. “It could only work in our favour. If you had not gone into the Water, you would not have seen the catastrophic power of the Infinity Stones."

"You would not have awakened that sentient flying thing your people have curiously named Vision.” He tried his cajoling best to get his Brother to see reason, to get Thor on his side. “You would not have defeated Ultron.”

Thor gaped.

“Am I the only one here who sees how dangerous this is?” Thor's mismatched eyes flicked back and forth between the two of them. “You are nearly six months pregnant, Loki.”

“Finally someone sees sense,” Stephen muttered.

Loki’s face darkened. He wrapped a protective arm around his belly. “Mock me all you want, but that is exactly why I must go.”

“People are dropping like flies at Kamar-Taj and this is the only lead we have so far.” He glared at his husband. “What Sorcerer Supreme here is not telling you is that an old enemy has resurfaced and we need to be ready before he comes and kills us all.”

“Is this true, Brother?” Thor growled. “Someone is after you, and by extension Loki, again?”

Stephen winced inwardly at Thor’s less-than-savoury choice of words. “What little evidence we have is circumstantial –”

“Circumstantial?” Loki rapped his knuckles on the table, sharp and ringing. “Why does no one believe me?”

He turned his head wildly to the side to face his husband, the sheer force snapping his hair tie, sending his long locks cascading down his back. “Kaecilius murdered your predecessor.” His voice caught in his throat; he could not even bring himself to say her name.

But Loki persevered. “He murdered your fellow Guardians. Destroyed your precious Sanctums. That thing around your neck was the only reason why you are still alive.” He stabbed a tapered finger in the air in the direction of Stephen’s throat. “Why your reality still stands.”

“I am not saying you were wrong in your deduction, Loki,” Stephen began.

“But I am,” Thor interjected. “You were wrong, Loki.”

Loki turned his head once more to face his Brother, his face as white as snow.

“Yes, I came out. Intact? I am not so sure.” Thor’s gaze dropped. “No one comes out of there unscathed. And I am not simply talking about the physical pain, which was atrocious –”

Stephen’s automatic look of alarm did not go unnoticed.

“Yes, Brother. I, the God of Thunder, had never felt such pain, as deeply as I did the day I went into the Water of Sights.”

“I can take pain,” Loki said stubbornly.

Thor held his gaze, unwavering in his conviction. “Have you known me to scream, Brother?”

Loki’s lips pursed shut.

“Not even when Hela carved my eye out of its socket, not even when Thanos himself sought to fry every brain cell in my head, did I scream as I did, that day in the Water.” Thor stabbed a finger once, twice into the hard wood of the table. “Ask Erik Selvig.”

“I wouldn’t let you go anywhere near that wretched pool. Not in your condition.” Thor was adamant. “For the love of your unborn children, don’t do it.”

Thor’s eyes dropped to where his hand could not, and as if Loki could feel his Brother’s gaze burn through his skin, he unconsciously hunched forward, obscuring his belly from sight.

“You suffered so much just to get them back," Thor said pleadingly. “Are you willing to put them in danger, risk their lives even before they could draw their first breath?”

“But my dreams…”

“Are not just dreams, I know.” Thor’s eyes softened. “I know, Brother.”

“But what Freyja showed me, they were not dreams either.”

Loki’s gaze flicked upward. It searched Thor’s face for any sign of mockery. There was none to be found.

“Would you like to see them?” Thor asked gently.

“Them?” Loki whispered uncomprehendingly.

“Your twins? If you want to, I can show you.”

“You would…let me inside your head, Brother?”

“If that could get you off this suicide mission, yes,” Thor said simply.

“If that could restore your faith in those who will protect you and your children till the very last breath – ” Thor’s fleeting gaze landed on Stephen, on the Valkyrie standing stock-still in one silent corner. “Restore your faith in yourself...” Thor’s voice trailed. “Then, yes.”

Loki’s eyes filled. “Well. I am…tired.”

“Of what?” Thor asked gently, and for a heartbeat, Loki could hear her, through him.

And just at the very thought of his Mother, a tear slipped and ran slowly down one hollowed cheek. “Running.”

“The Water of Sights will not stop you running, Brother.” Thor could not have been any gentler. “If you don’t believe a single word I have told you, believe that.”

“I believe you.” Loki hung his head low. An acidic tear dropped onto the teak of Thor’s table and he quickly wiped it away before it could leave a mark. “I believe you, Thor.”

Thor reluctantly tore his gaze away from his Brother.

“Now. To get to the crux of the matter. Who is this Kaecilius you mentioned, and how do we kill this son of a –” At Valkyrie’s warning look, Thor cleared his throat. “Excuse my language. Come to think of it, I believe I have heard of that name before…”

Loki looked up in surprise.

Stephen’s eyes danced as Thor’s words jogged his memory. “Yes…you have. I believe I have mentioned the Dark Dimension, and of Dormammu to you?”

“Yes…yes I remember it now.” Recollection returned to Thor’s eyes like a moth nearing a flame. “You wanted to draw this dark power this Kaecilius once summoned, when you were looking for a way to break down the prison where your rogue sorcerer had Loki held captive.”

“What? When?” Loki’s hiss died. “Mordo?”

Stephen did not answer. It was a fight well-fought, hardly won, and not worth revisiting after all.

“You wanted to summon Dormammu, just to break me out of the Mirror Dimension?” Loki cupped a hand to his mouth, and closed his eyes. He sighed heavily. “Oh ye of little faith…”

“Well, I hardly knew you back then, did I?” Stephen flipped the table back onto Loki. “If I could do things differently, I would.”

“Really? You would have bargained for power from Dormammu just to set me free?”

“Well knowing what I know now, I should have just waited for you to set yourself free, and caught you as you fell.”

Stephen met Loki’s eyes, unflinching despite the intensity of Loki’s glare. “But yes, I would have, had your Brother not stayed my hand. For he knew it would have consumed me, and that you would not have wanted me to go down the Dark Path.”

“My Brother was right.” Loki must give credit where credit was due. Thor could be wise when the situation called for it, and for that Loki was eternally thankful. “Doesn’t happen very often, but Thor can be right sometimes.”

Thor mouthed a silent ‘Thank You’ to whoever was listening; Valkyrie caught it with a roll of her eyes.

“He told me to have faith in you.” Stephen reached for the hand still cupping Loki’s mouth. Sure enough, Loki’s lips were trembling. “And now I am asking you to have faith in me. In us.”

“I would never let any harm come to you.” Their conjoint hands landed upon his belly, warm and heavy. “Or to any of our children.”

“Majesty?” Valkyrie cleared her throat. She cocked her head, gesturing for the King to make himself disappear, to give the Prince and the Prince Consort their private moment –

“In a minute, Brunnhilde,” Thor murmured, still watching the scene unfolding before him in fascination.

“It’s alright, Valkyrie,” Loki said absently. His thumb rubbed circles over Stephen’s knuckles. “We’re done here.”

“So…no more crazy talk about going down the Norn Cave or what have you?” Thor stressed.

“No more,” Loki said softly.

“Promise me, Loki,” Thor pressed.

“I promise.”

Loki was still looking into Stephen’s eyes, so whoever it was Loki made the promise to, Thor could not care less, just as long as he promised. “Great. Shall we all go down together for supper? I am famished.”

“You go on ahead, Brother –”

“Come now Loki, it’s been quite some time since we last had a meal together. A family dinner, what do you say?” A giant hand clapped Stephen on the shoulder as Thor walked around the back of his chair to get to the door. “You should show your face to the people once in a while.”

“You mean, my enormous belly.”

“That too.” Thor perched half-in, half-out the door, holding a hand out for Stian to take. “Come on, Stian. Last one to the table is a rotten egg!”

Stian hopped off his reading chair and scampered over to his Uncle. With a squeal of delight, Stian found himself swung in a wide arc in the air, before Thor sat him upright on his broad shoulders. “Get a move on, Loki. I can’t be receiving all the blessings from the people of Asgard on your behalf all the time. They’re your people too.”

Valkyrie bent down to pick Princess Aífe off the floor. “Come on, Highness. We’ll play again later. Your Uncle’s hungry.”

Loki held out his arms and Valkyrie handed the wriggling princess over. “Please see to it that Stian doesn’t twist Thor’s arm into giving him his dessert first, Valkyrie.”

Valkyrie snorted delicately. “If Lil Prince is half as subtle and crafty as you, he’s probably got some of those petit fours hidden away in his magic pockets by now.”

Loki laughed, and at the sound of his laughter, Stephen wrapped an arm around the back of Loki’s waist. It sounded genuine, but he simply had to be sure.

“You alright now?” he asked quietly.

Loki forced a smile; it reached his eyes, at the very least. “I am, Stephen. I still have that bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, but there’s hardly anything I can do about it now.”

A dark cloud passed over Stephen’s eyes and Loki took a brief moment to touch their foreheads together to spell it away. “I will try not to think on it too much, husband. At least, not tonight.”

He opened his eyes, and to his relief, the cloud had lifted slightly. “Okay?”

“Okay, Loki.” Stephen leaned in for a quick peck on the lips. “Come on. I am kinda hungry too, what with all the detective work I’ve been doing.”

You’ve been doing?” Loki raised an eyebrow. “You mean, all the work I’ve been doing.”

He’d seen Loki do it with Stian multiple times, but having never been on the receiving end himself, was understandably jealous. Hence, for all of Loki’s hard work and effort, he gave his partner in crime and in life, the adult version of an Eskimo kiss. “Exemplary work today, Watson.”

“Is that right?” Loki burst out laughing and their noses jiggled against each other. “You know you really are quite alike.”

“Who? Me and Sherlock Holmes? Of course we are.”

“No, silly. You and Doyle.”

“Doyle? As in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?”

“Yes, of course. Do you know of many Doyles in your lifetime?”

Stephen rolled his eyes. “Are there any famous people left that you did not know, Loki?”

Loki pondered the question seriously. “I did not know of Houdini, not until Bruce and Tony told me about him.”

“Really? Now that must have been one interesting conversation that I missed.”

“You didn’t miss very much.” Loki snorted. “Only my using Stark’s head for my knife target practice.”

“O-kay.” Stephen did not push Loki to elaborate further; he for one knew the deadly accuracy of Loki’s marksmanship. “So you’ve really met Arthur Conan Doyle?”

“Uh-uh.” Loki nodded enthusiastically. “Did you know he was a medical doctor, like you? He gave it all up for writing. And Spiritualism.”

Stephen nodded at a passing servant he knew by face, though unfortunately not by name. Thor was right. Like it or not, the people of Asgard were as much his people now, as they were Loki’s. “Did he now?”

“His wife, Louisa, was struck down by consumption, or tuberculosis I think is what you call it nowadays.” Loki’s footsteps slowed as his eyes took on a faraway glaze. “She died in his arms.”

“That’s…sad.”

“Yes. If she’d only lived for fifty years longer, you doctors could have cured her.”

“The paradox of time and space. Born at the wrong time, you die.” Stephen may sound flippant, but to Loki, the truth could not have been more clear.

A sick realisation churned Loki’s stomach, warring with the incessant, nauseating pangs of anxiety. “Born at the right time, you live.”

Loki stopped at the top of the stairs. With the hand not holding Aífe, he grabbed Stephen’s hand and pressed it palm-down against the side of his belly.

“Swear to me, husband.” His green eyes began to shine brighter and brighter by the second with unshed tears. “Swear to me that you will see our children born. Even if you have to cut them out of my dead, broken body.”

“Loki,” Stephen said warningly. “No.”

Loki pressed his lips to Aífe’s cheek. He did not remember the first two weeks of Little Aífe’s life; he remembered only of a red moon, a monstrous pain in his head…and sweet oblivion.

Perhaps with Freyr and Freyja, the oblivion would come first, and he would not feel a thing.

“Swear to me,” Loki whispered. “Or I will take myself to the Water of Sights, as I had very much wanted to do, and still do.”

“Loki, stop this.” Stephen shook his head helplessly.

“Swear to me while my mind is still my own,” Loki pleaded with voice thickened with tears. “Please.”

Stephen felt one of his twins kick against his hand, and instantly, a strange sense of calmness washed over him.

“I swear.” Stephen’s heart thundered in his chest. He lived in a world of magic and oaths and spells. What he had just sworn to was as binding as the shore to the sea; he knew not which of his futures lay ahead of him –

All he knew was that he had just sworn an oath he could not break…and he would not have it any other way.

“I swear.” Stephen kissed him gently. “Our children will live, Loki.”

“Pa-pa.” Aífe’s sweet voice, as clear as a bell, called his name, and Loki broke into a brilliant smile. “Pappa!”

“Did you hear that, Stephen?” Loki’s eyes danced. “She called my name!”

“Pappa!” Aífe pointed at something just beyond Stephen’s line of vision.

“What is it, honey?” Loki followed the line of Aífe’s stubby, little finger but could not quite make out what she was pointing at. Curiously, he took a few steps down.

His smile froze.

Beyond the flight of stairs was a landing that headed out onto a long corridor that would take them to the Dining Hall, lined on both sides with marble columns as thick as the bole of Yggdrasil itself...and peeking out from behind the very first one they would walk past should they take the rest of the thirty or so steps down…was a face.

A pale, translucent face, that would have been completely see-through had it not been for the grotesque bruising around the eyes and the red mark upon its forehead.

And as their eyes met, the ghostly head broke into a smile –

Loki’s heart leapt to his throat.

He abruptly turned to run. Run back up the stairs, run from where he came,

but his knees wobbled

And he slipped.

“Loki –!”

A hand groped for him in mid-air, but he could not reach it, he was holding Aífe…

Wasn’t he?

No. He was holding thin, empty air.

“Aífe!”

And he was falling.

A flash of red swooped in front of his face.

Clumsy hands made a grab for him, almost missing him by a hair's breadth, and strong, heavy arms wrapped around him a split-second before Loki felt the first impact of the hard, stone step against the side of his head; before the second impact came, long legs had tangled around his waist and lower body like a serpent –

And as they began their tumble down the stairs, Loki kept his eyes closed and tried detaching himself from every hit and bump and the pain that came with it and wished and wished for it to be over soon and just when he thought they would never come to a stop –

It came with the heavy cracking sound of someone’s skull hitting the dense, hard stone floor.

“Highness!!” “Prince Loki!!”

Loki could barely hear the screams, for the roar of the blood in his ears was too loud; he could barely feel the hands pawing him from the top of his head, down the length of his body, for the numbness had begun to set in.

He sighed in relief at the absence of pain.

But someone was crying.

Aífe?

“Aífe?” he mumbled.

“Princess Aífe is alright, Your Highness,” someone spoke, he could not quite make out who. “The Prince Consort’s Cloak caught her. She is not injured.”

Loki pushed himself off the ground. “Your Highness, you should stay down. Your head’s bleeding.”

“I’m alright,” he tried to speak; his tongue felt twice the size. “I’m alright.”

For it was not his skull that he had heard cracking on the cold, hard floor. Loki’s breath caught in his throat. 

He whispered sickly, “Somebody get help…”

“Oh, Stephen…” Loki walked his knees across the marble to where his husband was lying just a few feet away.

Stephen lay on his side, blood trickling slowly from his temple and from an open gash on the back of his head. His grey eyes were dull and unfocused, but at the sight of Loki, they widened and brightened.

“Loki…” He smiled weakly. “You alright?”

Loki held Stephen’s hand against his cheek. “I’m alright, Stephen.”

Stephen’s bleary eyes dropped to Loki’s belly. “We’re alright?”

“We’re alright.” Loki kissed Stephen’s bloody knuckles. “Help is on the way.”

“Good.” Stephen’s eyes started to close. “Good.”

“Stephen –” Loki dropped his hand and grabbed hold of his husband’s shoulder. He was about to give it a shake, before he caught himself, not wanting to injure him further. “Stephen, stay awake!”

But Stephen was too far gone. And Loki, Aífe and the twins seemed to be alright, so. He could sleep now.

“Stephen!”

Chapter Text

“Ah, Mister Doctor. Just the face I wanted to see.”

Stephen groaned aloud. So he was real. Kaecilius was not just a figment of Loki’s imagination, but an actual specter that had slipped between worlds and escaped from inside a dying tree.

He opened eyes bleary with pain. He blinked and that made his double vision worse.

“Sorry if I can’t return the compliment. You still look as ugly as ever.”

“Beauty is meaningless.

“Here we go again.” Stephen rolled his eyes despite the direness of the situation; why must he always get stuck with the wordy ones?

“Why have you come?”

Kaecilius chuckled. “Kamar-Taj is still as unruly as ever, I see. Perhaps you had nothing better to offer these lost souls. If only you did, they would not have come knocking for me.”

“They were no more no less lost than any of us, Kaecilius. You murdered them.”

“They knocked, I answered,” Kaecilius said flippantly. “I only seek to give what people seek of me.”

“And what is that?”

“The gift you have kindly given to me. Eternal life as part of The One.”

“Uhuh. Somehow I have a feeling there’s something about being a headless ghost that doesn’t sit quite right with people,” Stephen deadpanned

“Oh, but the head is where life begins, and where life ends, don’t you agree?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Stephen hit the side of his own head. “I think I hit my head pretty bad in the fall. But I’m still here listening to this drivel so I must be alright.”

“Quite a nasty tumble you took. And all I needed to say was ‘peek-a-boo’.” Kaecilius cackled.

“God you’re really ugly,” Stephen muttered with a shudder. “No wonder Loki couldn’t stand you.”

“Oh, are we comparing spouses now?” Kaecilius’ watery eyes glazed over. “I think I had a wife once. An aneurysm stole her from me. This wife whose face I no longer remember.”

“But I remember yours.” His eyes lit up. “A brain surgeon didn’t you say you were? Maybe if I had met you instead of her…”

Her?

At Kaecilius’ sneer, Stephen could gander a guess just who it was Kaecilius was talking about.

The Ancient One.

“But it is no matter now. The witch is gone. Adria is long gone. But time?” Kaecilius shook his neckless head. “Time is still wrong. Time is still merciless.”

“Why are you after Loki?”

“Loki?” Kaecilius blinked. “You must be mistaken.”

“Am I?”

Kaecilius tsk-tsked. “Oh, Mister Doctor. I am after you.”

And he attacked.

Stephen leapt backward in preparation to counterattack, but to hit a target as fast-moving as a flying head was more difficult than he had imagined, what with the perpetual ringing in his ear and the vertigo threatening to turn his stomach inside out and his knees to jelly.

What was worse, in astral form, he could only rely on close, hand-to-hand combat.

He swatted and kicked and kneed and thrust but to no avail for his fists and feet met only air; Kaecilius’ weightless head was gaining the upper hand without the inconvenience of mass.

A stroke of luck gave him an opening and Stephen seized it, wrapping the crook of his arm around the crown of Kaecilius’ head.

He squeezed with all his might, and Kaecilius let out a guttural scream.

Just when Stephen thought he was finally going to crush the skull of his number-one nemesis to ash and dust once more, Kaecilius reared his head in a sudden burst of strength –

He twisted his head upon his severed cervical spine, extended his neck, and bit into the flesh of Stephen’s throat.

___________________________________________

“What does he have, Dr West?” Loki snapped. “Intracranial bleeding? A skull fracture?”

Dr Nicodemus West studied the CT scans again. Despite the reassuring radiological findings, he could not help the niggling sensation of uneasiness crawling underneath his skin.

It had been over two hours, and there was no clinical reason why Stephen should still be unconscious.

“None, actually…at least, no pathology that can be seen on the brain scan.” Nick shook his head. “My working diagnosis is a mild traumatic brain injury, a Grade 3 cerebral concussion at the most.”

“Which he should have awakened from by now, correct?”

“Correct. But –”

“Can it kill you?”

“What?”

“Is it fatal? This cerebral concussion you mentioned?” Loki pressed impatiently.

“No, it isn’t –”

“Good.” Loki’s hands began to glow.

“Lackey, what are you doing?” Valkyrie demanded.

Loki did not answer. The tips of his fingers pulsated against Stephen’s temporal arteries as he coaxed his transference spell through, green and steady.

Before long, the first throbs of pain began to colour his vision red, like the beginning of a very bad migraine.

He watched Stephen’s eyeballs track left and right beneath his closed eyelids.

Hang in there, Stephen. I am coming.

The bitter gall of waterbrash rose in his gullet as an overwhelming nausea erupted within him like a deep-sea volcano.

Mind over matter.

He breathed in and out slowly.

Mind over matter, Loki.

The nausea abated slightly. Loki opened his eyes. He could sense the transference spell nearing its peak; that could only mean Stephen’s affliction was encroaching its nadir, Loki was near healing him –

“Dr West, keep trying to wake Stephen up. Under no circumstances must he slip into a coma.” Loki’s chest filled, gathering with resolve. “Valkyrie, do keep my body alive.”

“Lackey…” Valkyrie kept her warning growl on the quietest register her baritone would allow. “I think we should wait until Thor gets back.”

“By the time he gets Dr Palmer here it might just be too late,” Loki murmured, his eyes closed in deep concentration. “I have to do all I can beforehand.”

“Loki, what are you planning to do?”

Again, no answer was forthcoming, for it was but a waste of breath. Whatever he was planning on doing, it needed to be done.

It must be done.

It was the only way.

In a matter of heartbeats, he found the invisible threads binding him to the epicenter of Stephen’s pain nociceptors, brilliant and golden in his Mind’s eye.

The threads, once severed, would waive Stephen’s rights to all his pain and suffering.

All his agonies, his secrets…would once more be his, and his alone.

The hammering in his skull was masking the wording and hampering the unravelling, but Loki persevered; he was losing precious time, he needed to get Stephen out quickly.

There was hardly a language known to mankind, dead or alive, that Loki did not know, and Loki almost wept in relief when he finally found it –

He should have known. Latin was Stephen’s favourite go-to language for spell-casting anyway.

Yes, he breathed the last of Stephen’s illness in.

Yes, he can take this. And he can break this.

He wondered if he needed to apologise for something he was not sorry for…but he supposed he must. Stephen might be listening in for all he knew.

I’m sorry, Stephen.

Et conteram vinculum.

A spool of thread unfurled itself.

Et conteram vinculum.

And another one.

Et conteram vinculum

And Loki was free.

He lifted his fingers off Stephen’s temples.

Norns, give me strength

“Catch me, Valkyrie,” he whispered.

He struck himself in the chest.

___________________________________________

Stephen screamed as excruciating pain flared up and down his neck, radiating into his head and down the entire length of his spine, down to the tips of his toes like needlepricks of fire.

Before his very eyes, Kaecilius began to take on a more corporeal form, his astral body becoming more complete by the second with each drop of life-giving, life-forming spiritual energy he was tapping right from Stephen’s very core.

The arterial trunks of Kaecilius' thorax formed first, then the veins, the brachial plexus –

The shoulders.

Shit, Stephen thought dimly.

He would have thought it a beautiful work of art, a masterful creation, had it not been him, his reiki, that this monster was siphoning.  

The arms came next, then the hands.

Fingers. All ten of them.

He remembered them vaguely, for the fingers had been the first of Kaecilius to go, to crumble into ash and dust and become one with the wind and one with The One.

“How now, Mister Doctor?” Kaecilius purred. “Shall I drain you dry right here, right now? Till you’re no more than a husk, an empty shell?”

A whisper. “Just like poor Lucian Aster?”

Stephen’s eyes flew open.

“Oh yes. You remember now, don’t you? You murdered him in cold blood. Electrocuted him. Burnt him to cinders,” Kaecilius reminded him with glee. “Till naught remained of him but a broken, empty shell on the floor of your precious Sanctum.”

“Did you know it was his brother who found his corpse?”

As recognition dawned in the dimming grey eyes, Kaecilius began to laugh.

“Ah yes. That body you found in the shed. It was none other than Dorian Aster, Lucian’s twin brother.”

“I promised him revenge. In exchange, he gave me you.” Kaecilius murmured.

“What a win-win situation. For me.”

Kaecilius’ astral form was almost complete down to his waist now.

Stephen could feel his consciousness slipping.

Is this how…it’s going to…end?

Loki…

I’m sorry.

“Save it for another day, Strange!” A new voice snapped. It sounded familiar, and very, very outraged.

“Loki?” Stephen opened his eyes blearily. “What are you doing here?”

His head lolled against his chest. His ears were ringing. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“You can’t fight him, Strange,” Loki said urgently. He placed his hands on Stephen’s astral shoulders and shook him once, and shook him hard.

“He means to devour your soul, just like he devoured your dead, and all the spirits back at Kamar-Taj,” Loki said hurriedly, as though he was afraid that he would be cut off at any second.

It was impossible to tell in the amphitheatre of Stephen’s dimming mindscape, but Kaecilius’ grin might have just become wider.

“What he wants is a corporeal body and I can’t hand you to him on a silver platter.”

“I can’t let you fight him by yourself,” Stephen began to protest, but Loki cut him off with a look and a sharp, hard kiss.

“Yes, you can. And you will.” Loki’s hand shot out and landed on his forehead. “Time to wake up, Stephen.”

“Loki, don’t-!”

Loki propelled him backward, watching in satisfaction as the sheer force of his seiðr catapulted Stephen’s astral form back into his physical body. He waited fearfully for a few seconds; if Loki’s healing efforts had been for naught, Stephen’s body would only reject him but thankfully, Stephen’s astral form stayed adherent to his physical body.

“So you are Loki.”

Loki turned around very slowly.

To his dismay, what little energy this parasite had managed to suck out of Stephen before Loki intervened had not been insignificant; Kaecilius was now possessed of an upper body and most of his lower limbs down to the level of his knees.

Loki never thought he would say this but he would take a floating head any day over this.

“Mister Doctor’s…Missus?” Kaecilius cocked his head to one side. He did appear to be genuinely confounded.

“I am nobody’s Missus.”

Loki loathed the sound of the half-man’s name on his tongue, but he was a warrior, and warriors called each other by name, out of malice and the promise of blood and death everlasting, if not respect. “Kaecilius.”

“You know of me.”

“She told me you were coming.”

“She?” Had the periorbital bruising not extended beyond his raised eyebrows, Loki would have seen Kaecilius at his finest, feigning ignorance that fast gave way to pure, unadulterated hatred.

“Ah. La menteuse éternelle,” he spat. “The Eternal Liar.”

“She never lied to you, Kaecilius. People like you…” Loki’s green eyes glowed in fury. “You only see what you want to see.”

Kaecilius shrugged. “Sounds like a line from a movie.”

They circled around each other, just like he had once done with Karl Mordo. Loki looked down at himself, and found himself cursing the burden of his luck. He had been with child back then, but not as further along as he was now, and certainly not with twins.

No matter. There was only one outcome that truly mattered.

His children must live.

He studied Kaecilius out the corner of his eye; it surprised him not in the least to find Kaecilius studying him too none too surreptitiously.

“If you knew of her…” Kaecilius’ eyes narrowed.

He halted in his steps, a look of pure hatred and disgust on his ghastly face. “A man out of time.”

“Sorry. Wrong guy. Blond, buff. Speaks boring English. Not me.”

“You are not so afraid of me anymore.”

“Amazing what a little tumble can do to change your perspective.”

“Shall we tumble again, Mrs Doctor?”

Loki stole a glance at the real world. Stephen had more or less stirred out of unconsciousness, moving his head from side to side to something Dr Nick West was saying in his ear.

So. On the bright side, Stephen was waking up, and Loki might have a shot at ending this once and for all.

“The name is Loki. And I will never fall, Kaecilius. Not again.”

“We will see.” Kaecilius’ lips curled upward into a gleeful, secretive smile. “Loki.”

A slow, maniacal grin cracked across Loki’s face in return.

“Come.”

______________________________________________

“Nick?”

“Hey, Christine.” For all his outward display of confidence, beads of cold sweat had begun to dot his forehead, and the look of utter relief on his pasty-white face was reminiscent of the times when they were junior doctors together with not a clue between the two of them on how the real world of medicine worked.

Stephen was at least breathing spontaneously, but Loki’s respiratory effort was beginning to falter, and Nick was not looking forward to intubating anybody, let alone a heavily-pregnant, non-fasted alien Prince, and let alone doing it solo. “A little help?”

“Oh, no, not again…” The lights began flickering above their heads, and a rush of déjà vu flooded through her with flashes of what was certainly the most bizarre experience of her life, one that she was not looking forward to revisit.

She rushed toward the figure lying in the middle of the room.

“Looks like he’s coming out of it…” Christine ground her knuckles into Stephen’s collarbone and Stephen groaned. “Rousable. Who is still under?”

She whirled around, looking for just the thing she was afraid to see –

“Oh no…”

“Excuse me, Majesty –” Valkyrie pulled Thor away from the bed before Christine could physically shoulder Loki’s much bigger-sized brother out of the way, dread uncoiling in the pit of her gut like shards of glass petals, prickly and icy. It matched the ice of Loki’s skin, not so much the rapid pulse fluttering in his wrist, and her own heart began to race in response.

“Come on, Loki...”

Her eyes landed reluctantly on the defibrillator machine just waiting on stand-by, silent and ominous in the dark corner of the treatment room. She shuddered at the thought of having to use it on Loki, and its inadvertent, catastrophic impact on his unborn babies.

“This…this has happened before?” Nick asked as he continued to pump away madly at the bag-valve mask, keeping a close eye on Loki’s oxygen levels and other vital signs. They were holding, so far. “This is madness.”

“Welcome to my life, Dr West.” She offered a weak grin. She ran her hands down Loki’s abdomen and heaved a sigh of relief when she felt the babies move. She beckoned and a Healer pushed the fetal heart monitors forward toward the bed.

“Please don’t do this to me, please don’t do this to me, please don’t do this to me…” she chanted fervently as she began to strap them onto Loki’s belly one by one, each monitor to a twin.

“If you tell me what you’re praying for, I can pray with you?” Nick offered.

Christine barked a semi-hysterical laugh. “When was the last time you intubated an extremely premature baby, Dr West?”

Nick blanched. “Shit.”

“Just pray that he doesn’t go into labour,” Christine breathed out shakily. “And that we don’t have to shock him while his heart is still beating.”

_______________________________________________

In astral form, Loki’s body was as light and agile as ever, the pull at the centre of his gravity not as heavy and destabilising as it would have been had he been fighting in corporeal form. Yet, with each passing second, his head grew lighter, and when stars began to flash in front of his eyes, it was then he knew that time was not on his side.

He felt his babies stir inside him and the stars dissipated; the twins had been quiet ever since the fall, and Loki had been struck by a fear so great and unprecedented, that had he not witnessed Stephen almost dying in front of his eyes, the terror of losing his children at this stage would have been too much to bear.

A swift kick aimed for his head Loki parried with an arm, the same arm with which he made to strike Kaecilius in the nose, the cracking sound it made as sharp as his elbow.

“You even fight like her,” he dimly heard Kaecilius say as Loki twisted his body backward in an arch, narrowly missing a devastating knee to the head that would have rammed into his belly had Loki’s back not arced a few angles wider.

Fighting a man with no feet had never been more frustrating for Loki could not for the life of him track where he was going to go next –

And suddenly Kaecilius was all in his face. “You’re going to die just like her.”

Loki snarled and headbutted Kaecilius right in his star-spangled forehead.

Kaecilius reeled backward and like an eagle, Loki swooped in; before long he had Kaecilius straddled on his back, the sharp knob of Loki’s knee pressed into his neck.

They could draw no weapon here in astral form; Kaecilius, not his swords of glass, nor Loki his daggers.

Loki had nothing to fear, for Loki’s seiðr was working just fine.

He drilled his knee harder into Kaecilius’ neck, and as the hollow man sputtered and choked, Loki’s hand began to glow.

“Die,” he whispered.

______________________________________________________

“Dr Strange?” A hand tapped him lightly on the cheek. “Stephen?”

Awareness was slow to return, but the rest of his body was on high alert. The adrenaline was pulling at him, and at the same time pushing him closer to the brink of consciousness, somewhere between the plunge back into dreamscape and into the beckoning light of reality.

A thumb drilled into the middle third of his eyebrow, and it hurt. “Stephen, wake up!”

“Kaecilius.” Stephen’s eyes flew open. “Loki!”

“No, it’s me. Nick West. Hey.” A stranger’s face stared down at him. “You back with us?”

Nick…West.

Nicodemus West?

“What are you doing here?” Stephen pushed against Nick, but pulled on his shoulder at the same time to hoist himself up. The world spun for a second, but righted itself in a matter of heartbeats.

“Shit.” He rubbed a hand across his face. Everything was still blurry.

Deep breath, Strange.

He took a couple.

Now look around you.

“Shit,” he cursed louder. He pushed himself off the examining table and dragged his leaden legs over to where Christine was working feverishly over a familiar form.

“Christine!”

“Stephen, you’re awake!”

“What’s happening?” he snapped. “What’s going on?”

“You’re asking me?” Christine asked incredulously. “I was in the middle of a mortality inquiry when the God of Thunder barged in and flew me here on an axe.”

“West?” Stephen snapped. Now that Stephen was awake, it was all-hands on deck; he snaked the chest electrodes underneath the oxygen tubing and face mask and handed them over to Stephen, who quickly fastened the electrodes onto Loki’s chest.

Nick tipped his chin downward, gesturing at the unconscious form lying before him. “Your husband called me up, said there had been an emergency. You took a fall and that you’d hit your head. Guess he didn’t know who else to call. I too flew on an axe.”

He cocked his head at the X-ray viewing box on the wall behind him. “Your brain scans are over there if you want to take a look.”

Stephen barely gave the scans a passing glance.

It was all coming back to him now.

Kaecilius.

He had been fighting Kaecilius in astral form.

He had almost been overpowered, his life force about to be sucked out of him, until Loki got into the ring.

“How long has it been since he’s gone into astral form?” He directed his question to the one person who could probably give him the correct answer.

“A little over three minutes,” Valkyrie said tersely.

“Damn it.” Stephen cursed. “I’m going back in.”

“No, no, Strange, I don’t need you to go back in wherever in is!” Christine hissed. “I need you to get him out!”

She whipped her head around. “Get the OR ready. And somebody please get my husband on the line. Speed dial 1 on my phone over there!”

Christine tried to quell the panic threatening to rise in her throat. “We need to wake him up now. Fetal heart rate’s dropping.” She pointed at the monitor where the numbers blinked, red and ominous. “Both of them.”

“Loki, wake up!” Stephen palmed Loki’s forehead. “You need to get back in right now!”

_____________________________________________

Kaecilius gave a beastly roar as he fought desperately to free himself from the hands Loki had locked to the sides of his head, but Loki’s death grip was steadfast and unshakeable.

He screamed as Loki’s seiðr burnt into every neuron, short-circuiting the newly-formed neural end-plates –

“Loki..!

Dots of red began to appear in the whites of his sclerae as Loki’s magic incinerated the new, fragile blood vessels in his eyes.

“Die, Kaecilius,” Loki whispered.

When Kaecilius’ eyes began to close, he forced them open again by the sheer force of his seiðr.

wake up

“Not yet.” He spat. “You will look into my eyes as you die.”

Just like she looked into yours.

“It was you? You were her little secret?” Kaecilius wheezed a laughter in his face, spraying blood all over Loki’s face.

“Kill me swiftly if you can, little swiftlet.”

An icy, cold hand reached deep inside his head

“No, Strange, not yet -!”

“For if you don’t, I will come back, and I will rip your heart out from the back.” A sibilant hiss, a sworn oath –

“But not before I reach deep inside you and pull your unborn babes from your womb with my bare hands and crush their soft little – ”

and pulled.

And Loki screamed in rage.

“No!!!” Loki thrashed.

He bucked violently in the bed and flailed, knocking Christine into Nick who would have both tumbled to the floor had it not been for The Cloak’s quick action. Stephen leaped forward to grip his arms down before Loki could fall over and hurt himself even more than he already had –

“I could have had him!” Loki screamed.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Stephen shouted. “And our babies too?!”

Loki’s chest heaved with each breath, his belly quivering with exertion.

Christine climbed to her feet and grappled for the baby heart monitors on each side of Loki’s abdomen, her shoulders slumping in relief as the babies’ heart rates began to pick up pace and return to normal.

Loki stared at her, speechless and stunned.

As full awareness returned the light to his eyes, he scrambled off the bed and groped for the walls, as if seeking to escape –

The telltale shudder of his shoulders heralded what was coming, and true to her name, the Valkyrie swooped in in the nick of time with a basin to catch the meagre content of Loki’s stomach as the nausea from the transferred concussion reared its head.

She forced him to sit in a chair and set out to massage the back of his neck, changing her mind upon discovering how sticky with sweat it was. She held his hair away from his face instead, murmuring pointless nothings. “Let it out, Highness.”

“We could have had him,” Loki spat, his face as white as a sheet.

Christine winced at the sound of his retching and squatted next to him, studying the fast-fading bruise on Loki’s temple. It looked almost healed, but the vomiting was worrying. “Looks like you hit your head too. Has someone taken a look at you?”

Nick West cleared his throat. “I have. He was fine before he –” his voice trailed uncertainly at the sight of Stephen marching forward slowly across the room until he towered over the hunched form of his violently-sick husband.

“Before he what, Nick?”

Stephen remembered the fall.

He remembered the sickening crack his head made against the hard, cobblestone floor. Falling from such a height, it was a wonder he had not split his skull open at all.

And there had been blood, he remembered that much.

He felt the back of his head. A patch had been shaved slightly off-centre to his occiput. He could feel the stitches, crudely and hastily sutured. And yet…he felt no pain. None at all.

“Before you what, Loki?” Stephen’s chest began heaving. He felt not the slightest nausea, not one iota.

“Stephen…” Christine shook her head, clear warning in her eyes. Drop this. Not now.

Loki closed his eyes, willing the world to stop spinning, just for a minute, so he could get up and disappear and never suffer anybody’s company ever again for the foreseeable future should the migraine continue to beat as viciously as it was beating now –

But Stephen was the first to walk away.

“Stephen.”

At the quiet sound of Thor’s voice calling his name, Stephen stopped and turned his head slowly to look at his brother-in-law who was standing just next to the door, from where he had been watching in silence.

“Brother.”

Stephen shook his head. “No, Thor.”

He walked out.

____________________________________________

“Daddy.”

“Stian.”

“How long do I have to keep doing this?”

“I thought you liked helping me out with this?”

“I do. But I don’t think Pappa does…”

“Why do you say that?”

Stian shrugged. “He doesn’t make it fun, the way he does it with you.”

“What do you mean?”

Stian shrugged. “He just doesn’t.”

Stephen scrolled through the ticks and crosses. He frowned. “Headaches? Pappa’s been having headaches?”

Stian hesitated. “He said no, but he keeps doing that eye thing he always does when he’s angry or hungry and I wasn’t sure so I just ticked yes just like you told me to if I think Pappa’s hiding something.”

“Yeah?” Stephen absently rubbed Stian’s arm up and down. “Good thinking, Stian. Thank you.”

Stian leaned his head against the bulk of Stephen’s shoulder muscle.

“Daddy, are you angry?” he asked hesitantly.

Stephen turned to gaze down at his young son in confusion. “Angry? What about?”

Stian’s mouth worked, but his usually eloquent child was strangely subdued and at an obvious loss for words.

“I don’t know how to explain it, Daddy.” Stian looked on helplessly.

“You’re imagining things, Stian,” Stephen said gently.

Stian sighed. “That’s what Pappa says too.”

He handed Stephen the pillbox. The iron tablets were the only ones untouched.

No prompting was necessary this time for Stian had been trained well, at least in this respect, and it showed in the flawless delivery of his answer. “Pappa is kindly requesting for a change in medication, Daddy. These ones make his tummy burn. Like the one time he swallowed the sun and he forgot to drink water.”

Despite the serious subject matter, Stephen could not help a smile from creeping into his voice. “He said that?”

Stian nodded. He nuzzled his head against the side of Stephen’s arm again. “I hope my new sister and brother will make things noisy again.”

“It’s too quiet, Daddy.” Stian rubbed his fists against his eyes. Quiet made him sleepy, and sleepy made him slow and tired. “I don’t like it.”

Stephen’s fingers jerked as he hastily slid the tablet shut.

___________________________________________

“Pardon the intrusion, Your Highness.” A Healer bobbed her head. “My Lady.”

“What’s this now?” Loki asked tiredly.

“New orders from the Prince Consort, Your Highness.” The Healer expectantly showed him the blood pressure cuff. “Daily blood pressure monitoring for the next one week.”

Wordlessly, Loki held out an arm and rested it on the kitchen counter. He had expected as much, after seeing Stian hesitate with the wretched checklist earlier in the morning.

He stared dully as his whole arm blanched with the mounting pressure of the cuff.

“Your blood pressure is normal, but your heart rate seems to be elevated, my Prince,” the Healer murmured. “It was the same yesterday, I believe.”

Valkyrie sat up straighter.

“Any fever? Palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pains?” Loki shook his head to all the questions.

“Must be stress,” Loki mumbled. “I feel fine.”

“Maybe you need to lay off the caffeine, Lackey,” Valkyrie suggested quietly.

“Just tea,” Loki mumbled, tipping the cup so the Healer could see the content. “I take my coffee black but it seems to irritate my stomach nowadays.”

“Speaking of which – ” The Healer handed him a bottle filled with capsules as red as saga seeds. “Here are your new iron pills, Prince Loki. Different formulation, should be gentler on the stomach.”

The Healer bid them goodbye and she was barely out of ear-shot before Valkyrie barreled into him.

“Stress? Really?”

Loki clasped his hands together into a ball, upon which he promptly propped his chin glumly. “What else could it be?”

“Have you spoken to him at all? About what happened?”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific, Val,” Loki said listlessly.

“Lackey, it’s been nearly a month. You mean to tell me you haven’t talked to each other? Not at all?”

“We talk,” Loki said vaguely.

“Sure.” She snorted. “Like how I talk to my imaginary pet cat at night, you mean.”

“You wouldn’t understand, Valkyrie.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t. But that’s the thing. I don’t need to.” Valkyrie looked fierce and sounded even fiercer. “He does.”

“Why?” Loki shrugged. “Maybe he’s tired of listening. Or asking. Whichever.”

He sighed as he walked over to the couch. He sank heavily against the mountain of pillows Valkyrie had helped stack earlier. “Doesn’t matter.”

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, the line of his neck stretched taut and tight.

“I don’t need to explain myself to anyone.”

“Lackey…”

“That will be all, Captain,” he said firmly. He made as if to stretch his back, when a hand suddenly flew to his side and everything momentarily froze.

“What’s the matter?” She caught his wince, and counted the seconds until she saw his chest rise to finally take a breath as the episode of whatever it was passed. “Is that ligament thing bothering you again?”

Loki shook his head.

“Just the Braxton-Hickies,” Loki said softly. “Didn’t expect them to come this early but I suppose it’s different this time, carrying twice the load and all that.”

“Did you tell anyone?” Valkyrie looked at him sharply. “Please tell me you told the Little Prince?”

“They’re not painful, Valkyrie,” Loki said dryly. “They’re just practice contractions. Like that muscle twinge you get in your arm when you’re really itching to swing your sword.”

“Oh yeah, I do get that. Not all that often nowadays, what with you out of action for the next year, year and a half?”

“Choose your next words wisely, my Lady.” They exchanged savage grins. “The baby fat will just fall off me like melting snow, you just watch me.”

Her smile faded slightly as she caught Loki wincing again. “Hope that’s the only thing that falls off you, Highness.”

“I hope so too, Valkyrie.” Loki sighed as he tried to relax, settling in for a short nap. He was a few days shy of twenty-eight weeks; the third trimester had always been the most trying and tiring time if past experiences were anything to go by.

“Hope so too.”

Valkyrie watched him snooze for a few more minutes. She placed the empty tea cups in the sink without washing them. She had a more important task to attend to after all.

She had a phone call to make.

_______________________________________

“Someone’s here to see you, Boss.”

“Ask him to get in line, Wong.”

“It’s her, actually – ”

“I can announce myself, thank you.” A familiar voice said loudly.

Stephen looked up sharply at the sound of his door frame hitting the wall.

“Highness.”

Brunnhilde’s face was unreadable. That could only mean she had brought news.

Stephen’s heart skipped. Is it Loki -?

“No, this isn’t about your husband.” She was a step ahead, as always. “Wait, maybe it is. But anyway. I’m not here to talk to you about him.” She bit one half of her lower lip. “Or maybe I am.”

Stephen watched her fidget, shifting her weight from one foot to another.

He finally held out a hand. “Have a seat.”

“What can I do for you, my Lady?”

“Cut the bullshit, Fancy Man.”

At Stephen’s brusque nod, Wong reluctantly closed the door quietly behind him. It did not shut properly, gaping slightly at the hinge. Obviously Brunnhilde was not pleased with him and had taken it out on his door, knowingly or not.

From the looks of her, Brunnhilde was near bursting with the invisible weight in her chest; the heavier it was, the faster she spoke, the louder her voice, and the more acerbic her tongue.

“It was I who found your spell.”

Stephen held her gaze and waited. It was something he had known from the start after all.

“He could have easily broken it right then and there had he so wished.” Valkyrie could not sit. She must pace, so she stood and did just that. “The Loki of ten years ago definitely would have.”

“You think this is what this is about?” he asked quietly.

“Isn’t it?” She pressed. “Why do you think he didn’t break it the moment he found out?”

Stephen did not answer.

So, he was letting her talk huh? Fine. “So he lifts a spell that you didn’t have the right to cast in the first place. Big deal.”

“In the old days, you would have been executed for such trespass, husband or not.” She grasped the hilt of Dragonfang lightly. “I can still run to Thor and tell him what you’ve done. Technically it is my duty.”

Stephen shrugged nonchalantly. “You’ve never really liked me. I don’t really see what’s stopping you, my Lady.”

“Your head is still attached to the rest of your body, isn’t it?” She lifted an eyebrow. “I must like you just a little bit. Your children like you a lot.”

“Your husband? Not so much at the moment. Thor even less, I can promise you that.” She was finding his rigid, sullen countenance more infuriating by the second.

“It’s not a competition, Fancy Man.” She needed to say her piece, and say it quickly, before she broke more than a rickety door around here. Everything here looked wooden and at least a hundred years old.

“It’s not about which one of us lays our head on the chopping block the fastest. It’s not even a matter of who loves him the most. It’s about establishing trust.”

She glanced at him. “He has changed ever since he met you. I…am not all sure if all the changes have been for the better.”

It took a few seconds for the meaning of her words to sink in. Even then, Stephen did not think he had heard her right.

“I am not your Prince Loki, My Lady. I don’t decipher codes for fun. I don’t speak in riddles. So don’t expect me to understand right off the bat what you’re trying to say and get all upset when I don’t.”

“Let me ask you something, Highness.” She crossed her vambraced arms across her chest. “Those mysterious pains he had been having. Did he ever tell you how he got rid of them?”

His eyes narrowed. “He told me you did. Taught him some exercises.”

“Did he now?” She sounded surprised.

“That’s not true?” His eyes narrowed even more.

Valkyrie only laughed. Stephen recognised enough of scorn; he had in fact dispensed enough of it himself in his lifetime to note the complete absence of it in the timbre of her voice.

There was no gloating to be found, only pity. “Honestly you two. Makes me wonder if the years he’s given you are ever going to be enough.”

“Enough for what?”

Valkyrie did not answer for a very long time.

“You are still trying to change him. Acceptance on conditions precedent is not full acceptance at all.”

Stephen’s face began to burn. In anger, humiliation, grief? He honestly could not tell.

“Even after all this time you still think that I don’t love him.”

“I think you love the part of him that listens to you. The part of him that doesn’t, you punish him for it.”

“It was never about punishment, Valkyrie. It’s about compromise. Sharing things. Going through things together. Which is what marriage is all about. Supposed to be anyway,” he said bitterly.

“Yeah? Says who?”

“Says whoever the expert authority on marriage is at the current moment.”

Valkyrie threw her hands up in the air. “And shouldn’t that be the two of you? Yet I don’t see you offering him your support. All I see are checklists, emails, standing instructions, rules for others to adhere to, things for other people to do.” She scoffed lightly. “What is it that you do, exactly?”

“Lady, if you’re implying that I am somehow controlling Loki, you’ve got another think coming.” Stephen was seething. “Everything I do, I do out of love.” 

“I think you’re mistaking love and emotional blackmail.”

“What did you say?” Stephen hissed.

Brunnhilde’s nerves were made of steel, as was the rest of her. “I’m not the one choosing which part of him I love like some kind of chicken.”

“You think you can see right through me, don’t you?”

Perhaps it was a good thing he had let her get things off her chest; now that he was getting all riled up, all the steam seemed to have left her, and the Valkyrie sank into the seat, looking tired and suddenly every inch of her alleged three millennia of life.

“I put others’ needs before mine. After centuries of service, their needs become mine.” She reared her head. “I serve. Therefore I see.”

“And all I’m seeing right now is my Prince who also happens to be my friend suffering in silence because his stupid husband is refusing to see the one thing that really matters.”

“It’s not about you.” Her brown eyes dimmed. “So get your head out of your ass, and hold her.”

A peculiar lump rose in Stephen’s throat; it had suddenly gone as dry as a bone.

“You just hold her. And if you’re in luck, her body doesn’t grow cold and colder the longer you do.”

“Valkyrie.”

“I am done here.” She abruptly shoved herself off her chair. “Do whatever you want, Fancy Man.”

“I really don’t get paid enough for this,” she muttered.

She slammed the door behind her, but made damn sure he could hear her all the same. “Bloody children.”

 ___________________________________________________

“Still no luck on getting those stolen pages out of the tree?” Stephen asked lightly just as soon as Wong returned from sending the Valkyrie back to New Asgard.

“All known locator spells have failed to detect any organic material embedded in the tree other than the tree itself.” Wong shook his head. “We know they are there but it’s as if they exist on a completely different physical plane.”

“Or an astral plane.” Stephen sighed. “The other option I can think of is using the Time Stone, but that is one disaster just waiting to happen and I’m not going anywhere near it.”

He was silent for a while. “They are as good as destroyed if we can’t retrieve them.”

“Maybe Loki can help?” Wong suggested quietly.

Stephen was quiet for even longer. “Not an option right now, Wong.”

“Your magic telephone’s out of order, I take it?” Wong asked sassily. “Probably for the best. Kamar-Taj’s been declared a ghost-free zone anyway. Kaecilius must have hoovered them all up like the latest Dyson Cyclone V10.”

When Stephen did not even crack a smile like he normally would, Wong knew he had his work cut out for him.

“Stephen. Perhaps you need to talk to someone.”

“Who?”

“You know who.”

“He doesn’t want to talk to me, Wong.” Stephen’s lips curled. “He doesn’t need me.”

“I don’t need the extra spoonful of sugar in my coffee in the morning but I can’t live without it.”

Stephen eyed Wong’s burgeoning waistline. “Yes, you can.”

“Stay out of my business.”

“If you stay out of mine.”

“I can’t.” Wong gritted his teeth.

“And why the hell not?” Stephen snapped.

“What is this really about, Strange?” Wong asked, sounding inexplicably tired and more than a little fed-up.

He had watched Stephen mope around for far too long. “Is it an ego thing? You think Loki was just humouring you, letting you have a bit of fun with your sympathy-pain spell?”  

First, the heart-to-heart with Valkyrie, and now this?

There was simply no catching a break for Stephen today. He might as well let it rip, let all hell break loose – and the simmering fury came to a surface, like a surge of tidal wave.

“He doesn’t trust me, Wong. My own husband doesn’t believe that I can take care of him.” Stephen’s eyes flashed. “How do you think that makes me feel?”

“Butthurt? Offended? Slighted?” Wong cocked his head. “Oh wait. They all mean the same. And you know what else they are? Harmless. Can’t kill you even if they tried.”

Wong leaned forward as far as his bulk would allow him, bracing his forearms on Stephen’s desk.

“Maybe it’s my poor eyesight but I don’t see what you see, Strange. Your pride thinks Loki’s rejecting you because you think he thinks he’s stronger than you. And you can’t take it.”

Stephen shook his head in amusement. “You couldn’t be further from the truth, Wong.”

“You’re right. Because I’m so freaking close I’m in your blind spot and you can’t see it.”

“And what, pray tell, can’t I see?”

“That this whole thing? It’s unnecessary. And it’s lazy.” Wong pointed a thick finger at him. “You’re a lazy doctor and you’re a lazy husband.”

Stephen’s jaw dropped.

“What in the hell are you talking about?” He demanded.

“Was it spells that made you a brilliant surgeon? No. You used your eyes, your head, your gut feeling to guide your hands. That’s your best asset, Strange. Your basic, clinical judgment.”

Stephen sank back slightly in his seat, suddenly feeling as if he had been punched in the solar plexus.

“Did you use spells to coerce Loki to share his pains with you all these years you’ve been married?”

Stephen’s eyes fell.

“I didn’t think so.” Wong inhaled deeply. He should have said something sooner, he should not have allowed this to go on for this long.

“I don’t see pride in what Loki did. I only see someone who cannot see you hurt,” Wong reasoned quietly. “And you know what else I saw? I saw fear. And a helluva lot of guilt.”

Stephen looked at him sharply.

Wong’s gaze drifted as his mind took him back to that day all those weeks ago, the day he came face to face once more with the Dark Dimension, albeit only a memory of it.

“He taught the Ancient One all she knew about the Dark Dimension, Strange. About Dormammu. I saw it in his eyes. You were too busy looking into a tree.”

Wong’s eyes refocused as he snapped himself back into the present. “Bet you didn’t ask him anything about that, did you?”

Wong stood. He had done all he could.

The rest was up to Stephen.

“Now I don’t know about you, but I got a bad feeling about today,” Wong said with a resigned sigh. “Your warrior lady friend never comes to visit me empty-handed, but today she did, so…that’s a bad omen in itself.”

Stephen sighed and rubbed a hand against his temple. A headache was building, and it was all his.

At least if it was Loki’s, he could be bothered to do something about it.

“Gut feeling, Stephen. That’s all you ever need really. Always sets you straight with the Missus.” Wong straightened his shoulders as he prepared to leave Stephen to wallow once more in self-pity. “That, and the magic telephone.”

Stephen closed his eyes.

He did not know what it was either, but the one thing he kept seeing was Loki’s face.

First Stian, then Valkyrie, and now Wong?

Something was not quite right.

Gut feeling, huh.

He opened his eyes slowly.

Yeah. He was still seeing Loki’s face.

Loki needed him.

Even if Loki didn’t…Stephen needed to see him.

He needed to see him right now.

He stood abruptly, scraping his chair noisily against the wooden floor.

“Going somewhere?”

“Have to talk to somebody about something about a tree,” he mumbled.

“Good. Don’t bother coming back until you're done talking to that somebody about something about that damn tree.”

 ___________________________________________________

Loki perched himself on the porcelain rim of the tub and watched the water run from the faucets. Steam began to fill the bathroom, and he absently placed his hand under the running water.

It was still not hot enough. He cut off the cold, and turned the hot water on all the way.

He frowned when his belly tightened again. He looked at the clock on the wall and timed it.

The tightening lasted ten seconds before the bunched-up muscles loosened again, allowing Loki’s chest to expand to its full capacity for a full, satisfying breath.

They were still irregular and far between, these false contractions. And honestly not all that painful, not really.

They were nothing to worry about, surely.

Jack did say to expect them once in a while…all he needed to do was drink more water, and get plenty of rest.

And run the hottest bath you can, if all else fails.

Jack didn’t say that, but Loki must have read that somewhere. Probably in one of the articles Stephen sometimes left lying around.

Loki rubbed a hand across his forehead. One would think with all the naps he’d been taking, all the sleep he’d been getting, he’d be less tired.

Who was he kidding. Sleep hardly equaled rest with him. It seldom did.

Kaecilius.

Loki watched the water swirl, and imagined the swirling was his grotesque livid eyes, the froth, his cruel, jagged mouth.

The bastard was not dead. Loki was sure of it.

A bitter taste left a sour note on his tongue at the memory of it.

Loki simply did not have time to finish him off; Stephen had pulled him out before he could.

Freyja kicked him once and hard. She knew the hour was late, and he had slept through lunch.

Loki rubbed his side absently when she kicked again, harder this time. “In a minute, darling.”

He cracked a crick in the back of his neck, wincing in pain when it sent a twinge down his spine. The stress was knotting all his muscles into ropey, useless lumps of flesh; tight like a high-wire strung across his shoulder blades.

He tried not to think of how good Stephen’s hands would feel, kneading his sore muscles until they would loosen up and become pliant again.

In fact, he tried not to think of Stephen at all, for fear of calling out to him by accident.

There must be no more accidents.

He could not afford any more accidents.

The last one he had had nearly cost them all their lives; his own, Stephen, Aífe…the twins.

Loki suppressed a shiver. Despite the hot vapour steaming up the bathroom, he felt chilled to the bone.

Kaecilius was lying in wait, and all he could think about was the hot bath.

He prayed that it would settle the nagging pains in his stomach once and for all, and that he would not drown because he was simply too tired to keep his head up.

Loki’s silk robes fell to the floor as he stood and he lifted one leg carefully, holding on to the railing on the wall as he did so.

Once his legs were both in the tub, Loki immersed his whole body slowly into the scalding water, and that was when the first real pain hit.

___________________________________________________

“Loki?” Stephen called quietly. “You home?”

Empty cups sat in the sink. Lunch lay untouched, still in its platter.

Stephen looked at the clock. It was still too high in the afternoon to call it early evening. He checked behind the curtains. The sun was still out. No one was sitting on the patio outside.

“Loki?” He called again.

The living room was empty. Pillows on the couch had been slept on, Loki’s favourite light blanket thrown aside.

Stephen sighed. Knowing Loki, he’d probably sensed Stephen coming from a mile away and pulled a Houdini. He was half-sure the bedroom door was going to be locked, and was curiously but pleasantly surprised to find that it was not.

Stephen pushed the door open slowly. Their bed stared back at him. The sight of it, empty and perfect, somehow filled his stomach with a weight heavier than lead.

“Loki?” There was no answer. He did not call again. He knew his voice carried. If Loki did not answer, it was simply because he did not want to, or because he was not there.

He was about to close the door behind him when a faint cry caught his attention. It was very soft, barely audible, but there was no mistaking it – “Loki?”

“Stephen?” A strangled sob, faint and weak.

This time he did not hesitate. With a thundering heart, Stephen burst through the bathroom and was immediately assaulted by a cloud of steam. He flapped it away and his vision cleared enough just in time to make out the shaking figure lying half-submerged in the bathtub before it doubled over seconds later with a bloodcurdling scream.

In a flash, Stephen had plunged his hands into the hot, scalding water and with a burst of strength he did not know he possessed, scooped Loki out. He checked the water for blood; it was clear, but from the way Loki was clenching his belly, the cause of his distress was obvious.

“Contractions?”

Loki nodded, eyes squeezed shut against the pain.

“How long?” Stephen roughly brushed the wet black locks away from the high forehead and tightly clenched jawlines. “Loki?”

“Just…now.” Loki gritted his teeth. “They just…hit me.”

“Hold on.” Stephen wrapped Loki up in as many towels he could conjure by magic.

“Stephen,” Loki sobbed.

He pressed a frantic kiss to Loki’s temple. “Just hold on.”

Chapter Text

“Over here, Stephen.” Jack was already waiting at the labour room receiving area, what little of his eyes Stephen could see behind his glasses and surgical mask unreadable. “How far apart are the contractions?”

Stephen laid Loki down carefully on the gurney. “Three in ten minutes, each lasting ten to fifteen seconds. No show or bleeding that I could see.”

Loki’s hands suddenly shot out to grab onto the railing on either side of him and a low, keening sound began to emit from his throat.

Watching Loki’s face carefully, Jack held the sides of Loki’s belly. It tensed under his hands with another contraction.

“Another strong one, huh?” he asked quietly. 

Loki’s ‘yes’ came out strangled and garbled, his hands curling around the stainless-steel railing around the gurney and it bent and creaked and groaned as the contraction reached its crescendo.

A triage nurse shouldered Stephen aside and began to pull off the towels from around Loki’s quivering form. She dumped them into the linen bin behind her, while another nurse quickly covered Loki up with a gown.

At the sight of the wet towels, Jack’s questions became more urgent. “Did the waters break? Did you have a fall?"

Loki shook his head and mouthed a breathless ‘No’, his face pasty and slick with perspiration.

“But I found him in the bath, so if the membranes have ruptured he wouldn’t have noticed –”

“We’ll find out soon enough.” Jack began pushing the gurney into the labour room. “Don’t worry, Loki. I am going to take good care of you.”

“This isn’t happening.” The bright overhead lights illuminated Loki’s irises as they pushed him deeper into the bowel of the hospital. “This isn’t fucking happening.”

“Well whatever this is, we will sort it out. Just stay calm, Loki.”

“I am calm. I am calm. I am ca – nungh!” Loki’s chanting was cut short when another seismic wave of contraction twisted his back into a grotesque arc, and he cried out in pain.

“Loki!” Stricken, Stephen reached for him, only to have someone's hand press on his chest and push him back.

“Sir, you can’t be in here,” a nurse dressed in surgical scrubs said firmly. “I need you to return to the waiting room.”

“No, I will not just stand around and wait when there’s something I can do. Let me through,” Stephen growled, trying to walk his way around her, but she was not budging. She may be petite but she made up for it with her years of experience and a spine of steel.

“Sir, I do not want to have to call security but I will.”

“Look, lady, I don’t know if you know who I am -” Stephen began heatedly.

“I don’t care if you’re Jesus or the King of England but you’re not stepping one foot inside.”

“But I am a doctor –”

“Not today, honey, you’re not.”

“But I need to – ” Stephen protested weakly. He stretched his neck as far out as it would go but it was futile. Loki was out of his sight, and out of his reach.

“Please. I’m the husband.”

Oh, the many times he had heard the same words from worried spouses, and the many times he had callously turned them away.

But this nurse was nothing if not full of sympathy, and a hell of a lot of sense of duty. “As is every man you see out there. Now please, sir, just stay out of my hair and let me do my job.”

“It’s too soon.” Stephen began to pace. “It’s far too soon.”

When his incoherent mumbling started to drift from one end of the hallway to the other, the nurse finally took pity on him. “Oh honey…”

She gingerly pinched the peculiar-looking cape the strange man was wearing and led him to a chair. True enough, his legs turned to jelly the moment she pushed down on his shoulders and he sank heavily into the chair.

“Everything’s going to be alright,” she soothed.

“You don’t know that,” Stephen mumbled, his voice muffled. His palms felt hot against his face. If he didn’t know better, first-degree burns of the hands would be his first guess; it was the least he deserved, a scalding injury from the near-boiling bath Loki had run in his vain effort to soothe the

Contractions.

“Shouldn’t have left him alone,” Stephen mumbled. He stared at his lobster-red hands. “Should have gotten to him sooner.”

“You got to him just in time.” The nurse’s hand on his back was warm and comforting. “Just in time.”

“Not good enough.” Stephen’s voice was as flat as his eyes were empty.

“It’s never good enough when it’s someone you love." Her tone was placating and kind. "But we do our best.”

As used as she was to dealing with distressed husbands and partners, she probably did not expect her words to have the complete opposite of the desired effect. When Stephen leaned forward, his face in his burning hands once more, she could only rub Stephen’s back in slow, gentle circles.

“My best is not good enough," Stephen's voice felt raw and thick against the burning in his throat. “Not good enough.”

_________________________________________

 

“Stephen.” At the sound of his name, he lurched to his feet.

He was the Guardian of Time, but it seemed to have slipped his grasp; he had no inkling as to how much time he had lost pacing the hallway, only that it had been too much. Every second he was apart from Loki was like a knife through the heart.

“Jack.” Palpitations shelled the insides of his chest like mortar. “How is he?”

Jack looked tired, but he sounded upbeat. “He’s fine.”

Stephen waited for the other shoe to drop, his gut sinking to the floor. “And our babies?”

Jack offered a guarded, yet optimistic smile. “The babies are fine too. Good news is, the cervix is still closed and hasn’t had time to dilate. You got him here just in time.”

Stephen dared not breathe, let alone allow himself the luxury of relief. Not when Jack looked as though he still had plenty to say.

Jack led Stephen to a settee in the far corner of the waiting room. It was only mid-morning in New York, and the sun was just beginning to peek in through the blinds.

Once seated, he mirrored Stephen’s posture and leaned his elbows on his knees. “We tested for the presence of amniotic fluid and that came back negative so…that’s a big plus."

Stephen's face brightened slightly, but it dimmed again upon hearing Jack's next words.

"If the membranes have ruptured, I would have probably looked at delivering the babies as soon as possible, but since the waters haven’t broken, I’ve decided to tocolyse him. Hopefully that will buy us some time.” Jack hesitated. “At least, until the steroid injections I’ve given him to mature the babies’ lungs take effect over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”

Stephen stared at Jack’s clasped hands. They were a surgeon’s hands, clean and powder-soft, his nails clipped to the skin.

“I sense a but coming.”

Jack did not leap to answer right off the bat. He was choosing his words, as one should. This was not the norm for him, that much was evident. “I’m going in blind as far as pharmacokinetics is concerned, Stephen. I’ve had to push the dose beyond what is safe for a human because he wasn’t responding to it at first. I’m guessing his unusual physiology is to blame.”

“Thankfully, the medication has stopped most of the contractions but we still need to keep him under close monitoring, at least for the next few days.”

He waited for the words to sink in. Stephen may be a doctor, but he was also a husband, and a father.

“On last scan, the twins are of fairly good size at about two pounds each, so chances of survival are pretty high. But I’ve got the ventilators ready and neonatal ICU back-up just in case.”

Stephen’s grey eyes dimmed. He could only nod in muted understanding.

Jack inhaled deeply. He needed to pace himself, lest the information wash over them both and eddy around them aimlessly.

“There’s one thing that worries me. His heart rate’s persistently high but there’s no fever or dehydration or any other sign of an underlying sepsis that could explain it,” Jack said seriously.

Stephen pressed the ball of his fist to his lips. “You think it’s psychological.”

Jack neither denied nor affirmed the conjecture. It was not his place. “We’ve sent away some swabs and samples just to make sure the premature contractions were not due to an occult infection.”

“Can I see him?”

This time, Jack hesitated for a few milliseconds too long. Stephen swallowed his hurt. “Jack.”

He did not think he could bear this distance for a minute longer. “Please.”

“Sure.” Jack inhaled deeply. “Of course, Stephen. If you could come with me.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes, lost in thought. Jack led Stephen down a few corridors, each more dimly-lit than the one before until they came to a pair of double doors that marked the private wing of the maternity suite.

They stopped in front of a room. Jack did not immediately open the door.

“Just. Go easy.” Jack’s forehead creased slightly. “He keeps on saying he’s fine but I think he’s under much more stress than he’s letting on.”

Stephen nodded. He took a deep breath. “Thanks, Jack. For everything.”

“Don’t thank me yet." Jack managed a wry grin. "Hang in there, Stephen.”

He barely heard Jack’s parting words, nor felt the patting hand on his back.

Stephen touched the opaque glass window on the door. It was not warded. He checked his feet. They were still light and not anchored to the floor.

Just like he knew Loki wasn’t sleeping…Loki knew he was there.

He pushed the door open. The heavy curtains blocked all sunlight into the room and the only light he could see came from the various monitors surrounding the bed. The light from the corridor bathed the room in a pane of sepia yellow, illuminating the pale figure lying quietly on the bed.

He could not see Loki’s eyes but he could feel them following him as he walked silently into the room. When he could finally see them, Stephen felt his breath catch. The medication Loki had been given must be working wonders; his green eyes were now as clear as sapphires.

“How are you feeling?” Stephen asked quietly. He did not expect Loki to answer and did not bother hiding his surprise when Loki did.

“A little dizzy, which is unexpected,” Loki said, a picture of calm and serenity. “But at least the pains have gone.”

“That’s good.” Stephen allowed some relief to creep into his voice. “The dizziness is most likely from the medication they gave you to stop the contractions. It brings your blood pressure down as one of its side effects, and Jack did say he needed to use a higher dose on you."

He hesitated, but decided risking Loki's wrath with his perpetual word of caution was worth it. "I suggest staying in bed for the duration of the treatment to keep the giddiness to a minimum. Can't have you falling all over the place if we can help it."

“Hmm.” Loki hummed noncommittally.

The pin-drop silence that ensued would have been deafening had it not been for the soft beeping of the fetal heart monitors, steady and reassuring. Freyja and Freyr’s heartbeats were strong; Stephen expected no less from them. “The twins are alright, for now.”

“They are,” Loki said softly. “For now.”

Neither of Loki’s hands moved to reach for his, but Stephen kept it within reach anyway.

“You said if it was anything serious that I would be the first to know.”

Stephen may not hold Loki’s hand just yet, but no one was stopping him from looking at it. “Am I still that person, Loki?”

Loki must have noticed his longing look. He made to slip his hands under his blanket, but did not get very far when one of the tubings caught in the folds of fine cotton.

Without thinking, Stephen reached out to extricate it, and his fingers brushed lightly against the back of Loki’s hand.

Loki started slightly, but did not pull away.

“You walked away.”

“I never wanted to.”

“Then why did you?”

“It was what you wanted.”  

“Was it?” The grief in Loki’s voice was something neither of them was expecting. “It must have been something I did. I would have certainly remembered saying something so counterintuitive.”

“Who am I to you, Loki?”

Loki’s eyes hardened.

“I will not apologise for who I am, Strange.”

“I never expected you to. I just didn’t expect it to hurt.”

Loki stared at him sadly. “And for that, I am sorry.”

"All I ever wanted was a chance to take care of you." The grief must be contagious. The constricting in his throat was too real to just be a product of his imagination.

Loki averted his gaze.

“I would have lifted it if you’d only asked.”

Still Loki did not speak.

“Why, Loki?" There was no stopping it now, it was going to overflow, and Stephen knew not the wisdom of getting into an argument when they had just dodged a bullet, with Loki looking to be seconds away from bursting into tears –

"Why did you throw it back in my face?” 

“Because you fell!” Loki's eyes flashed, his voice cracking like a whip. “I slipped. And you fell with me.”

Stephen gaped in disbelief. “Was I supposed to have let you fall?”

“No one has ever caught me before, Strange.” Loki said quietly. “Until you.” He turned his face away, his throat bobbing as the lump in his throat swelled. “And that scares me.”

Stephen’s jaw dropped. Anger began to stir beneath his skin, hot and prickling.

“I am not a child, Loki. I am the Sorcerer Supreme. The greatest of them all.”

"Stephen, don't."

“I died a million times over at Dormammu’s hands for the sake of this Earth -"

“Shut up. Please, shut up.”

"I sealed Kaecilius and his Zealots in the Dark Dimension before it could devour this world. I am its Shield. I protect Time and Reality. And you think me weak.”

“Just shut up, Stephen!” Green wisps of seiðr lashed out in an explosive supernova, sending the priceless fetal heart monitors toppling to the ground and propelling Stephen’s chair backward; Stephen jumped to his feet before it could smash into the wall behind him with him still in it.  

“Loki…” The cardiac monitor that was amazingly still attached to Loki began to beep incessantly as his heart began to race.

"Why, Stephen?" Loki wept.

“Loki, calm down.” The fury swirling in Stephen’s chest began to give way to a crippling anxiety; this was not a good time for Loki to be having a panic attack, not good at all –

But Loki’s chest continued to heave. Stephen frantically looked at the cardiotocograph machine, the graph tracing was ominously tracking upward with the mounting pressure in Loki’s belly. The contractions were coming again.

Loki began to moan, muffling the sounds with his hands as he started to thrash -

Shit.

“Loki!”

Stephen scrambled onto the bed, side-stepping the fallen IV stand and monitoring devices as his instinct took over; he tried to gather Loki’s upper body to him but in his internal pandemonium, Loki's body had gone rigid, as rigid as marble. “Loki, breathe.”

Stephen concentrated on his soothing magic and he imagined it bleeding through every pore on his skin. He held Loki tighter, his sentient magic furious at work, prodding every muscle in Loki’s tight, tense body to relax. "I'm here, Loki. I'm right here."

Stephen felt Loki’s abdomen clench against his own, and he coaxed it to ease its cramping. “You’re okay.”

He took in deep, measured breaths. “Follow my breathing. You’re okay.”

At long last, Loki’s agonal gasps dwindled to soft, small breaths, and his body finally went lax, sagging in Stephen’s arms like a sack of bones. Immensely relieved, Stephen continued to hold Loki to him, pressing him against his chest just the way Loki liked it, counting on the sounds of his mortal heart to bring Loki around.

"I'm sorry."

Stephen knew the feeling, for it must be just as grounding as the warmth of Loki’s breaths against the skin of his neck.

"I'm so sorry, Loki."

Perhaps it was the transition of space and time, or perhaps New York was in his blood, but the sensation that he had been lost in time was upon him once more.

The twins stirred. He may be the first to open his eyes, but Loki was the first to speak.

“Do you remember the first time you walked in my dream?” His lips murmured against the sensitive skin of Stephen's neck. “You placed Aífe’s ring in my hand and you asked me if I could love you.”

Stephen held his breath.

“Well this is it.” A small, mirthless laughter. “I’m the weak one.”

Loki’s fingers curled around Stephen’s lapel. “I see you lying there, broken and bleeding, and I couldn’t take it.”

“You’ve always been the stronger one of us, Stephen.” Loki closed his eyes, and sighed. “That’s why I chose you.”

Stephen’s jaw clenched, and unclenched. Never had he felt a more urgent need to wring Loki’s neck like a twig.

So he kissed it instead, as fiercely as he could. “You infuriate me, you know that? You’re contrary, unpredictable, volatile, and completely oblivious. You’re insane, and you drive me insane.”

The stubborn look in Loki’s eyes could not have meant anything but ‘someone’s got to do it’.

“You say one thing and mean another. In fact, you don't say anything at all, which is even worse!" Damaged hospital property aside, Stephen continued his rant. "I'm not a mind-reader like you, Loki. It kills me to not know what you truly want.”

“You want to know what I want, Stephen?” Loki asked quietly. He did not wait for an answer, for if he did, there was no telling if he ever was going to divulge any of his secrets again, to anyone, dead or alive -

“I want to sleep and not see his face every time I close my eyes.”

“I want to hold my children and listen to them breathe instead of hearing him say over and over how he’s going to rip our babies out of my belly and crush their skulls as I watch.”

“I want to sit by the ocean and not see Aífe plunge to her death every time I feel the wind on my face.”

With every revelation, Stephen’s grip around his husband tightened. By the end, they were lying together on the bed, coiled so closely around each other there was no telling where Stephen began and Loki ended –

Loki ended his long list of wishes with the deepest one of all. “I want to wake up every morning after every nightmare and see you.”

A heavy, forlorn sigh. “Quite simple wishes by anyone’s standards, really.”

“Mine’s simpler.”

“Yeah?” Reluctance tinged Loki’s voice; perhaps he was better off not knowing, but Stephen was having none of it. Loki was not getting off that easily.

“I just want to come home.”

Loki’s chest stilled.

Stephen picked Loki’s hand up carefully. He tried to ignore the numerous freckle-like dots marring the back of it where previous needles had left their marks. He fingered the latest one, its plastic sheath translucent against the blue of Loki’s vein.

“Will you ever forgive me?” he murmured into the slope between Loki’s knuckles.  

“Only if you forgive me.” Loki’s fingers traced Stephen’s temple, his cheek, his lips - they were as cold and as gentle as Stephen remembered, but they began to tremble with his next words.

“I’m still not strong enough to carry your children, it seems.”

Stephen shook his head vehemently.

“This wasn’t your fault.” He laid a very careful hand on the crescent of Loki’s belly. “It wasn’t something you did or didn’t do.”

Loki searched his eyes but saw only truth. Stephen kissed his forehead again to reassure him.

“Although I would appreciate a heads-up next time. If we’re going to spend the next few days in hospital, I’d rather we pack our own toothbrushes and my favourite shaver.”

“You have a favourite shaver?”

“Yes. How do you think I manage to look so perfect all the time? Magic?”

Loki’s lips twitched as though he wanted to laugh but did not quite dare to. “How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“That I needed – ” Loki caught himself. “That I was in trouble?”

“I don’t know,” Stephen said quietly. “I just did.”

“No spells?”

“No spells.”

No spells.

How could he forget?

“I won you fair and square, Loki.” To think that he had gone nearly a month, a month of not kissing this face…Stephen was insane. And Stian was right. Quiet was not as quiet once was. Not when he was a father of two (plus two on the way) and the husband of one flighty –

“And I hope I get to keep you. Thighs, wings, and all.”

“I don’t know what that means.” But deep down inside Loki must, for why else were tears coming to his eyes once more?

Stephen shook his head. “No. Don’t.” He touched the tips of his fingers to Loki’s wet lash lines. “Enough of that.”

“Smile for me, Loki.”

“I can’t.” Loki could not speak his name, for fear of bringing him back to life.

“Kaecilius.”

“Is not here.” Stephen pressed Loki’s hand to his chest. “I am.”

Loki closed his eyes, refusing to look. “For now.”

Stephen shook his head again. “For always."

If his promise was not good enough to make Loki smile...perhaps a kiss?

He forced Loki's lips to part with a deep, timeless kiss.

"Always."

Chapter Text

Stephen gently felt along the side of Loki’s bump.

Once he found the firmness that was likely the baby’s back, he attached the transducer of the fetal heart monitor onto Loki’s abdomen, before doing the same on the other side.

He watched the twin monitor for a few more seconds, soothing himself with the reassuring sounds of his babies’ heartbeats. Luckily everything seemed to be in working order, or there would be a lot of explaining (not to mention reparation for damages) to be done.

Satisfied, he unrolled Loki’s gown, smoothing it out over the taut skin of his belly.

Stephen did not lift his hand immediately; he felt nothing but soft, yielding flesh underneath his palm, but he just had to be sure. “Any more contractions?”

Loki shook his head. “I think I’m well enough to go home.”

“I’m afraid not just yet, Loki,” Stephen said apologetically. “Your second steroid injection is due in another ten hours or so.”

Loki sighed and sank his head deeper into his pillow. “Wonderful.”

Stephen was quiet as he pottered around the bed. He leaned down to retrieve the bed incline controller that had fallen to the floor. “Would you like to sit up?”

Loki refrained from shaking his head again. “Not yet, I don’t think. The world’s still spinning.”

“You just said you felt well.” Stephen could not very well raise his voice, but he could certainly glare the hell out of his insufferable husband.

“I said well ‘enough,’ ” Loki countered. “Nothing I say is redundant, Stephen.”

An awkward silence ensued before Stephen finally felt obliged to agree. “Nothing you do ever is. That is your standard disclaimer, isn’t it. 'Listen to every word?' ”

“You’re learning, Doctor,” Loki murmured, finally cracking a very small smile.

Stephen finally decided he had done enough procrastinating with inconsequential things like righting upturned flowerpots and fallen clinical waste bins, and the foot of Loki’s bed dipped as he sat himself down on the edge carefully.

“Loki.”

“Hmm?”

“Am I…very controlling?”

Loki’s lips thinned. “I hereby exercise my right not to answer questions that could potentially result in any more unpleasant repercussions.”

“I’m not trying to upset you, Loki. I just want to talk.”

The tight line of Loki’s mouth quivered. “But you might not like the answer.”   

“Precisely why I’m asking. I can’t have this happen again, Loki.” Stephen looked at him sadly. “Us, not talking.”

“It took me almost losing our babies to make me realise…” Stephen’s chest heaved with a shuddery breath, “- that there are some things my checklists just can’t pick up.”

He stared down at his hands. “I called you oblivious, when the oblivious one had been me all along.”

Loki said nothing, but his equally sad eyes said plenty.

“I hate the checklists.”

Loki’s voice started out small, but it picked up courage with each confession,

“But I hate it more that it’s the Valkyrie who brings me my milk every time I forget accidentally on purpose.”

“I hate having to lie to our son and make up stories as to why your side of the bed is empty when he gives me my pills in the morning.”

“I hate having to impose on Thor when he’s got many other things to worry about like the ruling of Asgard instead of his needy brother lurking around his chambers at strange hours but that’s the only time I could actually sleep –”

Loki knew not if it was the tears clogging his throat, or the realisation that his husband was holding him that had suddenly robbed him of all coherent speech.

“I’m sorry, Loki.”

Loki buried his face into Stephen’s shoulder, clinging for dear life.

“I really am sorry.”

Long minutes passed before Loki finally stirred out of Stephen’s embrace and released him slowly.

“It’s okay, Stephen.”

He shifted slightly to make room for his belly and his husband. He wished the bed was bigger, like the ones in the Healing Halls back in Asgard. “You’re here now. That’s all that matters.”

Stephen studied him as if seeing him for the first time.

“Either they got it wrong about you, or all the legends missed out on what is possibly your most redeeming feature.” Stephen could hide neither his naked admiration nor his suspicion. “You’re very forgiving.”

“And here I thought it was my exceptionally long legs.” Loki gave him a small, teasing smile. It wavered slightly as his eyes roamed the ceiling of the hospital room where he was likely to be confined to for the unforeseeable future. “My view of what is petty and what is not may have changed drastically over the years.”

“Well, my view is pretty darn super from right here.” Stephen gazed down at him.

“Yeah?” Loki cocked his head to meet Stephen’s intense gaze. “What do you see, Sorcerer Supreme?”

“You want the truth?” Stephen asked quietly.

Loki nodded.

“I see you as this fantastic, mythical creature that could fly away at any time, and the thought of waking up one day and finding it gone…” Stephen breathed in shakily. He could not bring himself to finish his train of thought. He pressed the side of his face deeper into Loki’s soft pillow and it dipped, tipping Loki’s head downward till his temple touched Stephen’s forehead.

“Things don’t go extinct because you set them free, Strange.” Loki turned his head all the way so they were forehead-to-forehead proper. “They go extinct when you don’t.”

Stephen stared into Loki’s eyes, their depth as unfathomable as ever.

“What do you want out of our relationship, Loki?”

“Well I don’t want to be eaten, that’s for sure…”

“As much as I would love to, I do fear for the patency of my teeth post-indulging. You’re all skin and bones and not too much meat.”

“I think the right answer is that you would rather adopt vegetarianism, Stephen.”

Stephen laughed, but it was as short as it was soft. “Seriously, Loki. I want to know. I don’t want to assume anymore.”

“I want a fresh start.”

Stephen’s heart skipped a beat –

“We…were a lot happier back then.”

Finally, with great reluctance, Stephen admitted the same. “We were, weren’t we.”

He tucked an errant curl behind Loki’s ear. “We spent more time fighting things that actually wanted to eat and/or kill you, rather than each other.”

“Yeah. And whenever we did end up fighting, it was actually fun.” For all his deadpan words, Loki sounded world-weary.

Stephen wished he could just reach out and snuff the shuttered look on Loki’s face out like a light.

“What are you thinking, Loki?”

“I was just remembering the first time we kissed.”

“Oh.” Stephen wrinkled his nose.

“It was awful, wasn’t it?” Stephen sounded almost apologetic. “Please delete that from your fantastic memory, Loki.”

“Gee I thought that was one of the good things that came out of Tony Stark’s stag do,” Loki teased. “Playing tonsil tennis with a beautiful stranger, pun intended of course.”

“Yeah…no one ever passed out from tonsil tennis before, Loki.”

“To be fair to the alcohol, I think it was the alcohol…”

“Or the may-or-may-not-be accidental tumble off the bed with you ending up mildly concussed...and just a little bit pregnant.”

“Just a little bit,” Loki murmured with a soft, tinkling laugh. Then his smile faded. “No. I meant…that time. Months later. At the Sanctum.”

“That was a right proper kiss, wasn’t it.”

Loki nodded. “After a right proper fight.”

Stephen’s reminiscent smile faltered.

“Only this time it landed you in hospital, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to forgive myself.”

“I don’t blame you for the demons in my head, Strange. I never have.” Loki unconsciously shrank back and the bedside railing rattled. “They’ve been there long before you came.”

“That may be so.” Stephen’s voice hardened. “But Kaecilius was my demon. I let it haunt you and did nothing about it.”

Loki’s stomach flipped.

“Fresh start, Strange,” was all he managed to say.

Stephen unconsciously pulled the blanket higher to the level of Loki’s chin, but against the sudden pallor of his face, Loki looked even colder –

Or maybe it was the involuntary shivering that gave off the impression that Loki was not only cold, but very much afraid.

“Do I really have to stay here, Stephen?” Loki said with just a tinge of desperation. “Can’t we just kidnap Jack and take him to Asgard?”

“It’s not just Jack though, is it. We may have to kidnap the paediatrician too, and relocate the entire neonatal ICU to Asgard.”

Loki sniffed. “Entirely doable.”

“Loki…”

“Forgive me, Stephen. I just…do not wish to be alone.”

“You won’t be.”

Loki looked at him sharply.

“I’m staying here with you. I…kinda don’t want to let you out of my sight,” Stephen said sheepishly. Then, a hurried afterthought. “If you don’t mind, of course.”

“Stephen…” Loki gave a gentle shake of his head. “You need to go home to our children.”

“I will. I need to pick up some essentials anyway. “

“Get Valkyrie to send you a couple of her men if you’re worried.”

“No.” Stephen shook his head, adamant. “It has to be me.”

“Very well,” Loki finally said, resigned to his fate, and to the difficult death of old habits in general. “Can you smuggle in Aífe at least? She’s quieter than Stian. No one will ever know.”

Stephen’s smile faded. “Stian hates quiet.”

Loki’s confession came after a long pause of deliberation. “As do I, for that matter.”

“I think we owe our children an apology.” Stephen closed his eyes and all he could see was Stian’s face and his big, sad eyes. “If not therapy.”

Loki felt a sudden surge of desire to hold Stian and Aífe, a desire so overwhelming it brought tears to his eyes. He had to make do with hugging his arms around his belly and that, thankfully, stopped the stinging in his eyes.

“What’s the matter, Loki?”

“It’s nothing, Stephen,” Loki said lightly. “I was thinking what terrible parents we’ve been, and then I thought of my own parents, and somehow I instantly felt better.”

Stephen placed his own arm over the one Loki had wrapped around their unborn babies like a cocoon.

“Did I ever tell you about my father?” Stephen murmured. Loki looked at him in surprise.

“He was partly the reason why I made myself become a doctor.”

“He wasn’t one himself?”

“No. He was a businessman. A very successful one,” Stephen said with the barest hint of bitterness. “There was nothing he cared more than money. He was ruthless. It must have been him I inherited my love for money from.” He added, almost fondly. “And fast cars.”

“I must have been eight or nine when I won my first spelling bee ribbon. I ran home and showed it to him, and he just looked at me with this disgusted look on his face –” Stephen’s eyes dimmed at the memory. “Guess spelling bee champions don’t make enough to earn a decent living.”

“I’m sorry, Stephen,” Loki murmured. He had no idea that bees could spell, but Stephen looked so sad that he could not help it –

“Rearing bees sounds like a fun idea,” he offered in an awkward gesture of supportive solidarity. “We can always make it our family thing.”

Stephen frowned and stared at him in confusion for a few seconds before bursting out laughing. “Oh, Loki…”

“What? What did I say?” Loki sounded frantic.

“Oh nothing.” Stephen pressed his lips to the high forehead, breathing in Loki’s scent deeply. “I’ve missed you.”

“I think I can see the appeal with hospitals now.” Loki nuzzled his head against Stephen’s cheek. “They seem to bring out your romantic, nostalgic side.”

Stephen groaned aloud. “I am so not looking forward to telling Thor that I got you hospitalised.”

“You didn’t get me anything, Stephen. Stop saying that.” For all his thawing, Loki was beginning to sound irritable. “You’re clever. Come up with something clever.”

Stephen still looked slightly miffed.

“Throw him off with one of your boring statistics if you must,” Loki said noncommittally. “Tell him I’m one of the 10% unlucky ones. He’d buy that, no questions asked.”

“Valkyrie wouldn’t,” Stephen said quietly.

Loki instantly tensed. There was no love lost between his husband and his oath-sworn protector, that was for certain.

“Valkyrie is bound by duty and honour.”

Stephen did not speak.

“Do not take that away from her, Stephen.” Loki’s voice was soft but firm. “She has nothing else.”

“Loki, you are mistaking my silence for discontent. I am grateful for her.” The sight of Stephen’s offended frown came as a surprise to him, as did his husband’s next words.

“Now I know I can always count on her to protect you.”

Loki frowned. “Protect me? From what?”

“From me.”

“You would never hurt me.”

A wave of devastation flooded Stephen at the tiniest but unmistakable smidge of uncertainty in Loki’s suddenly small voice.

“Not knowingly.” Stephen said, perhaps a touch forcefully for someone not trying to convince himself, and it unnerved him enough to say it again…if only to get Loki to believe in him once more. “Never knowingly.”

“Then that shall be good enough, Stephen.” Loki’s smile looked forced in his eyes, and Stephen wondered if he was getting closer or further away. There was always a point of no return, and he’d damned better not be anywhere near it.

“Am I, Loki? Am I good enough?” He asked quietly.

It would not surprise him in the least if Loki could see with his eyes closed, for he suddenly felt a cold hand wrap around his wrist. His proprioceptors told him that Loki was pulling him closer, but Stephen dared not hope, not until he finally felt the palm of his hand pressed against the thrum of a heartbeat, now much slower, much calmer.

“What is your bullshit detector telling you now?” Loki’s whisper came low and husky.

Stephen splayed his hand over Loki’s heart reverently. “That I’ve been a fool.” His eyes smarted. “I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

“You’re hardly the first one to have done so, Stephen.” Loki savoured the feel of the rough, calloused hand on his chest, as it sought to claim what had always been Stephen’s and Stephen’s alone. “No one doubts me more than myself.”

“I didn’t even thank you for saving my life.” A sick whisper.

“You have saved me over and over, Stephen.” And suddenly Loki was gripping the sides of his face fiercely. “Like I told Thor, if I don’t start returning the favour, the Norns might get angry.”

“What did Thor say to that?”

Loki shrugged. “He didn’t like it of course.” He gave in to temptation and kissed Stephen softly. “But who cares what Thor likes.”

Stephen closed his eyes and relished in the kiss, savouring the familiar, comforting taste of Loki. But pangs of worry began to eat away at his insides, seeking dominance over the immense relief that had come with their reconciliation. “I for one, agree with your Brother.”

Loki’s green eyes clouded with confusion and dismay.

“You have to put yourself first, Loki.”

Now it was Stephen who was grasping the sides of Loki’s face, gently in comparison. “Love yourself. More than anyone else.”

“More than me.” Stephen searched Loki’s eyes. “Remember?”

Loki stared.

“How could I forget?” His eyes watered. He buried his face in the crook of Stephen’s neck to hide them.

“I still think it was a shitty proposal,” he mumbled under his breath.

Stephen laughed, the pulse at his neck dancing against the burn of Loki’s blushing cheek. “Shall I propose to you again?”

“Maybe later when we have cake.”

The black of Loki’s hair hid the beam of Stephen’s smile. He did not realise just how much he missed being sent on endless food runs. Maybe he would keep them up even after Loki was safely delivered.

“There will be cake.”

“Bruce knows where to get my cakes.”

“Okay.”

“And tell him I hate anchovies.”

“Duly noted, my dear.”

Loki’s voice sounded tired and drowsy. Who knew how long Loki had been battling the contraction pains before Stephen got to him. “Get some rest.”

Loki sighed and closed his eyes. “I love cake.”

Stephen watched the steady rise and fall of Loki’s shoulder with each breath, his face no longer as pale against the white of the blanket. “I love you.”

The tug of a smile. “I love me too.”

“Good.” Stephen could not be any prouder. “You’re learning.”

Almost as an afterthought, Loki added hastily for fear of falling asleep before he could say it – “I love you too.”

“Save it for the ‘Yes’, Odinson.” Stephen could barely speak for the sudden lifting of his heart. He kissed the one and only person he would ever marry…every lifetime over. “Save it for the ‘Yes’.”

Chapter Text

“The second shot is always more painful than the first, so don’t be alarmed.”

Perhaps Stephen’s warning had been unnecessary; as he emptied the syringe into the hard muscle of Loki’s leg, his husband remained stoic and emotionless, gazing into nothing in particular.

The only indication Loki was feeling anything at all was the sudden cessation of breathing that only resumed after Stephen removed the needle from his thigh and placed a warm hand and a cooling spell over the injection site.

“What does it do?”

“It speeds up the maturation of the babies’ lungs in situations where preterm delivery may be imminent. Helps them breathe better, and improves the survival rate overall.”

Now that finally brought back a glimmer of emotion in Loki’s eyes, although Stephen would much prefer it not be one of fear.

Hearing it in Loki’s voice made it ten times worse.

“Imminent?”

“It’s just a precaution, Loki. Only a minority will progress to actual labour, depending on the cause.”

He had learnt from experience that making himself sound convincing actually worked against him nine times out of ten, whenever reassuring his capricious husband was concerned.

Stephen hoped he sounded as casual to Loki as he did to his own ears. “Your contractions were likely to be a transient thing more than anything.”

To all appearances, Loki seemed to be taking it in stride. “That’s…good.” He licked his dry lips. “Transient’s good.”

Stephen poured him a glass of water and watched Loki sip it slowly, when there was a sudden knock on the door.

A nurse came in to collect the kidney dish and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was empty, its contents disposed off done and proper. It was not all that unusual for patient’s relatives to usurp her job, but this one insisted on doing everything; as far as partners went, Stephen was stellar.

“The doctor will be along shortly,” she said brightly. “In the meantime, how are we feeling? Any more of those pesky contractions?”

Loki waited for Stephen to speak on his behalf as he was wont to do and usually did. He looked up only to see both his husband and the nurse looking at him expectantly. Loki blinked in confusion that quickly gave way to mild surprise.

“Oh. Right. We’re alright, thank you,” he said, quite pleasantly. He felt pressured to elaborate. “The twins seem to like bland hospital food.”

“That’s good to hear,” a new voice joined them from the door.

“This is Dr Palmer,” the nurse started to say by way of introduction, but Christine was quick to shake her head.

“It’s alright, Elise. We’re old friends.” Christine’s face brightened at the sight of Loki sitting up in bed and looking all fifty shades of not-in-active-labour. “Loki. Stephen.”

“Christine.” Christine tilted her cheek for a quick kiss from Stephen, but her eyes were on Loki. Jack had been tearing his hair out since the minute he received the telephone call from Stephen, and she had spent a good portion of the day trying to calm her husband’s nerves.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, eyes full of concern.

“Back to normal, Christine.” Loki gave her his most dazzling smile. “You must have heard this a million times before, but may I go home now?”

“Unfortunately, the decision’s not up to me, Loki.” Christine walked over to the cardiotocograph machine and spread out the long sheets of graph paper as far as out as her outstretched arms would go.

“No contractions over the last six hours, and the uterine contractility’s gone back to baseline…but I assume, he’s still on medication?” She looked to Stephen who nodded silently.

“Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Jack says,” was the best she could offer.

“And how is my favourite patient doing this fine evening?”

Speak of the angel and he doth appear, in all manners of grace and quiet confidence despite looking nearly dead on his feet. Jack strode in and planted himself heavily at Loki’s bedside.

Loki took in his tousled sandy hair and haggard eyes.

“You look tired, Doctor,” he said awkwardly.

“To say that today’s been one of the more trying days would be an understatement,” Jack murmured in reluctant agreement but his gentle eyes were smiling behind his glasses. “All in a day’s work.”

“Then I simply must apologise,” Loki said with a heavy sigh. “If I can make it up to you in any way…please tell it to my husband, and he will take care of it.”

Stephen looked slightly amused but said nothing, and only gave Loki an indulgent smile that did not quite reach his eyes.

Jack laughed. “It’s no bother, Loki. These things are expected.” He gestured, and Elise pulled the curtain around them for privacy. “May I?”

Loki nodded his consent. “I’ll be outside, Loki,” he dimly heard Stephen say and the door close with a quiet click seconds later.

Jack slipped his hands under Loki’s gown and held the sides of his belly.

Loki watched as the doctor listened for contractions with his magic hands for a good five minutes, before he finally spoke.

“You’re really feeling alright?” Jack asked quietly, in that gentle but probing way, evocative of one’s determination to elucidate the cause of suffering beyond the façade of physical pain.

For a second, Loki imagined he was hearing his Brother, and the tight knot in the pit of his stomach loosened.

“I’m fine, Jack,” Loki said softly. “I wasn’t…for a while. But I think I’m alright now.”

He searched the doctor’s face, but if Jack disbelieved him, he did not show it. Knowing what he knew now, being married to one of the best bullshit detectors in the realm, Loki sought to pacify him the way he had learnt how.

“I will be, Jack,” he promised. “And I will tell someone if I’m not.”

That seemed to appease his doctor greatly, the invisible weight seemingly lifted off his shoulders instantly. “Thank you, Loki.”

Loki stared at him in wonder. “I should be thanking you.”

“You already have.” Jack felt for the pulse at his wrist next. “By you being here and not running already.” He added as an afterthought, “And by not kidnapping me.”  

Loki lifted surprised, half-guilty eyebrows.

“Christine warned me. I think she was speaking from experience.”

Loki groaned. “Then I really must apologise…for past, present and future trespasses.”

“I can think of a way you can make it up to me,” Jack said quietly.

“Anything, Doctor.”

“Stay here until I am really confident that I can let you go.”

Loki stared at him for a few, long seconds. He had a feeling he was not going to like what was coming. “I am guessing it is not anytime soon?”

“Not tonight, no.” Jack said apologetically.

Loki’s face fell –

“Your pulse rate is alright, and all preliminary results from the samples we’ve sent have come back negative. But you had one big spike of contraction this morning despite the highest dose of nifedipine I’ve ever given anyone in my entire career – ”

Jack paused when Loki opened his mouth as if to say something, before closing it again abruptly.

“Loki?”

“Go on, Jack. I’m listening.”

Jack nodded briskly. “I’m going to wean you off the medication and observe you for at least twenty-four hours and if, and this is a big if, there are no more contractions, I might think of letting you go.”

Every pore in Loki’s body bled frustration as he sank his head back against the pillow.

“We have to be extra careful with twins, Loki,” Jack said gently.

“But they’re magic,” Loki muttered, visibly morose. He looked down at his belly unhappily.

“I know.” Jack gave him a conspiratorial smile. “Never in my twenty years of practice have I ever come across a pair of monochorionic diamniotic twins that aren’t the same gender.”

And suddenly Jack’s hand was grasping his, gentle in stark comparison to his firm words. “But the magic needs to stay inside for just a bit longer, okay?”

Loki stared into Jack’s kind eyes and thought of the miracles that were Stian and Aífe.

Perhaps it had been as much their own magic as Loki’s that had kept his children safe in his womb. It was no walk in the park being him, that was a given. But for the sake of his children? There was no contest.

“Okay, Jack.” Loki held his head higher. “Okay.”

_________________________________________

 

If hallway chats were going to become their thing, then let it be a real thing. She handed Stephen a cup of coffee from the vending machine. “My treat.”

“You alright?” Christine asked quietly.

“Yeah.” Stephen took a quick, minute sip. For something that smelled delicious, the coffee tasted like ash. He forced a smile. “I’m good. Never better.”

Christine leaned against the wall, cupping her own coffee but not drinking it just yet.

“Try again, Stephen,” she said lightly.

Stephen stared at a tiny speck of what could only be blood on Christine’s pair of old Crocs. The sight of it brought him back to the old days when the only thing he had to worry about was keeping his patients alive long enough to hand them over to the next surgeon on duty, or long enough for them to pay his bills. He was one of the few who always succeeded at both.

“I’m just worried about Loki and our babies, that’s all,” he said softly.

Christine placed her coffee on the window sill, and crossed her arms.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about you guys is that things always turn out okay for you in the end. No matter how bad it gets.”

She allowed her words to sink in before trying again.

“Is it very bad now?” She asked, more out of courtesy than curiousity, for she knew the answer after all. It was there in his unusually dejected countenance and in the uncharacteristic slump of his shoulders, all only made apparent once Stephen stepped out of Loki’s hospital room.

“It’s not just about Loki, is it?”

Stephen did not answer.

She looked outside when the sounds of a siren caught her attention. Red strobes of light played across her features from the blaring ambulance that had just pulled up into the emergency receiving bay three storeys below.

“Is something coming?”

Stephen looked up sharply.

Christine met his eyes knowingly. “We didn’t…neutralise the threat, did we?”

“We?”

“I was there, Stephen.”

She had once thought Stephen’s world would forever remain a mystery to her, but Stephen meeting Loki had changed all that. The promise Loki had made her all those years ago was her one beacon of hope that Stephen would always be safe.

As powerless as Christine was, she certainly did not wish to interfere in things she had not an ounce of understanding of. “I asked you to pull him out from…wherever he was. I heard what he said.”

Stephen frowned. “None of this is on you, Christine.”

Christine only looked at him sadly.

Stephen shook his head. “I don’t blame you. And neither does Loki.”

He would hear no more of this. “You did what any good doctor and friend would do. If we’d waited any longer, we would have lost all three of them.”

“Would we?” she asked quietly. “Would an extra ten seconds have made a difference?”

“Be it ten seconds or ten minutes, we will never know now, and honestly, I am grateful we didn’t hang around to find out. I refuse to look at it as anything other than a win,” Stephen said tersely.

His priorities had taken a detour for a crucial chunk of the last month, brewing into a largely one-sided Cold War that ended up blowing in his face and landing his husband in hospital with premature labour. It was high time they regrouped and restrategised.

Christine asked the one question that had been plaguing her ever since she learnt of Loki’s emergency admission into hospital.

“Are you and Loki in danger here?”

“He came for us in Asgard, Christine. There is nowhere on this Earth that we are not in danger.” Stephen leaned his head back into the wall. “This is beyond…space.”

Beyond time, Kaecilius corrected.

A place beyond time. Beyond death.

Despite it only being a remnant of his memory, it still sent a chill down Stephen’s spine.

“But I know one thing. Anywhere if I’m not there is an immediate place of danger for Loki, on principle alone.”

Christine nodded. “I understand. So I guess this means you’re stuck here with the rest of us poor working class for the next couple of days.”

Stephen finally cracked a smile. “Could be worse. We could be stuck on another planet with no Netflix and nothing to eat.” He prodded his forehead. “Which reminds me, I need to get cake, or I will end up on another planet on permanent exile.”

Christine’s face immediately brightened. “So you remembered!”

“Remember what?” Stephen frowned in confusion.

“Your own birthday!” Christine’s eyes danced with excitement. “Oh, this is brilliant.”

“Why?” Stephen asked very, very warily.

“Your birthday and Emma’s are a few days apart, remember? She turned three yesterday. Oh, this is fantastic. We’ll have a small party here, Stephen. No need to worry about party supplies, I’ve got plenty of leftovers. And a freezer full of fingers foods. Oh but you may have to run to the store to get some fresh dips – ”

Stephen moaned and buried his head in his hands. “Christine, no...”

“Look, you’re the one who told me your dad never threw you a birthday party when you were growing up.” Christine was nothing if not determined. “You’ve thrown one every year for your children, Stephen, and if that’s not some unfulfilled childhood desire right there I don’t know what is.”

Stephen still did not look up.

“Emma wanted the same cake as Aífe, and that was what we had so we’re practically regular customers now – ” Stephen perked up, and Christine nodded away enthusiastically, “I’m sure if I talk to the bakers tomorrow they can give us a good deal.”

“What have become of us that we get excited over cakes?” Stephen murmured in amusement.

“Parents?” Christine answered right off the bat.

“And food runners for pregnant spouses. And right now, my pregnant spouse wants cake.”

Christine smiled a soft smile. “You guys are perfect for each other.”

“Yeah?” Stephen sounded full of hope that Christine’s smile softened even more.

“Yeah,” she said reassuringly. “Knowing Loki, his cravings are probably mind-blowingly insane and out-of-this-world weird. And you’re one of the few who could probably cater to such demanding demands.”

“Few?” Stephen’s eyes narrowed. “Who else but me?”

She tsk-tsked. Stephen made it so easy for her sometimes. “Why, Loki, of course!”

Stephen was instantly soothed.

But not for long. “Well he can’t go back in time, can he? If he was craving for Pyrenean ibex then he would still have to come to me, wouldn’t he?”

“Yes, yes, Stephen.”

“And Loki isn’t all that good with queuing, is he? People get murdered from cutting in line you know.”

“Oh, my Lord,” Christine muttered under her breath. “Thank you for Jack. Thank you.”

____________________________________________

“Brother!”

“Thor.” Loki had never been more pleased at the sight of his Brother.

Thor stood in front of the portal, all large hands on large hips, blocking all Norwegian sunlight. The Valkyrie stepped around him coolly and sashayed to one corner of the room, a silent sentry, poker face largely unreadable.

“What have you done to yourself this time, Loki?” The expression on Thor’s face was something in between accusatory and concerned. “Stephen told me it was for a routine procedure?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Loki said vaguely. He tried to avoid looking in the Valkyrie’s direction lest he reveal too much. He had let her get too close; it would not surprise him if she knew all his tells now, if he ever had any.

Thor stared at him. “You didn’t go into the Water of Sights?”

“What? No!!” Suddenly Loki was not so sure if he was all that pleased anymore.

Thor was still staring at him suspiciously.

Loki rolled his eyes. “I did not go into the Water of Sights, Thor. I promised you I wouldn’t, remember?”

Thor glared at him some more before finally easing his stance. “That you did, Brother.” He patted Loki’s shoulder. “You’re looking well, so I believe you.”

“Gee, thanks,” Loki said acidly.

“Pappa! Pappa, Pappa!”

It took all Loki had not to leap out of bed. “Stian!”

Stian was practically flying as he crossed over the portal; Asgard looked absolutely brilliant and sunny behind him and Loki felt a wave of homesickness wash over him, but it disappeared as soon as Stian leaped onto his bed.

“Stian, be care –” Stephen lunged forward to catch the back of his son’s collar but Stian was simply too fast.

And Loki found himself enveloped in a tangle of arms and legs and glossy midnight-black hair.

“-ful.” Stephen sighed. He righted Aífe in the crook of one arm and closed the portal behind him with a wave of his hand.

Loki laughed as Stian’s wet kisses landed on his cheeks, his forehead and everywhere in between. “I’ve missed you too.”

“Pappa, where did you go? I was looking all over for you.” Stian cupped Loki’s face between his small hands. “I went to your room and I couldn’t find you! You haven’t taken your pills!”

He sank back on his haunches and looked at all the machines Loki was connected to. “What’s all this Pappa? You look like an octopus.”

“I just had a bit of a tummy ache, Stian. Daddy took me to see Aunt Christine and she gave me some medicine.”

“Oh, just like the time when Daddy gave me too many cookies?”

“Yes, just like the time when Daddy gave you too many cookies.”

“But my new brother and my new sister are in your tummy, Pappa. Do they have a tummy ache too?” Stian asked curiously.

Loki laughed out loud. “They’re just fine, Stian.”

Stian searched his face. Loki shook his head at how similar suspicious Stian and suspicious Stephen looked.

“I’m really okay now, Stian.” Loki gave him the usual Eskimo kiss. “Trust me.”

“Aunt Christine made you all better?”

“It was your Uncle Jack that made your Pappa all better, Stian.” A new voice joined them.

“Aunt Christine!” Stian decided he had had enough of showering his Pappa with love and flew across the room into Christine’s open arms.

“Really. Does he ever walk anywhere anymore?” Loki wondered out loud.

Stephen shook his head. “Not that I’ve seen.” He sat down next to Loki.

“Pappa,” Aífe called quietly. “Pa-ppa.”

“Come here, my sweet girl.” Aífe crawled out of Stephen’s lap and into Loki’s awaiting arms.

“Are you okay? Did you miss me?” Loki asked, running his hands through the soft strands of her hair. Aífe tucked her head against Loki’s breast and played absently with the bed incline controller dangling from the side railing by its springy cable.

He breathed in the scent of his daughter’s hair deeply. “Thank you, Stephen.”

“Hey, hey, hey, look who’s here!!!” An annoyingly familiar voice boomed from the door.

“Uncle Tony!”

Loki could hardly believe his eyes and ears. This had better be a product of his imagination. Purely a product of his imagination.

“Stephen…” he said warningly.

“Believe me, I had nothing to do with this.” Stephen sounded resigned and defeated.

As if he knew what was coming and was looking for a bit of sympathy, he leaned his head into Loki’s shoulder. Aífe reached up and made a grab for his nose, giggling as Stephen made as if to bite her little fingers.

At the sight of his daughter’s wide, grey eyes peering at him, Stephen could not help but smile, but his contentment did not last long, for someone had begun to sing from halfway down the corridor, right at the top of his lungs.

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you…”

Loki straightened and frowned at both the singing, and the sound of rolling wheels, grating and squeaky against the linoleum floor.

“Uncle Bruce!”

And in a scene right out of a nightmare, Loki’s room was suddenly full of people and towering cake and as if it could not get any worse, everyone who was in the know joined in the singing, all merry and loud,

“Happy Birthday to Stephen…”

Loki’s eyebrows shot up to meet his hairline.

“Happy Birthday to You!” A resounding cheer ended the merry singing and confetti appeared out of thin air by magic, obscuring Loki’s field of vision for a few surreal seconds.

“Happy Birthday, Daddy!” Stian squealed, as more and more magic confetti streamed out of his hands, colourful and iridescent.

Loki turned to look at him, mouth agape.

“Yay?” Stephen tried.

It’s your birthday?”

“You said you wanted cake, Loki,” Stephen said helplessly.

___________________________________________

“Reindeer Games.”

“Stark,” he sighed. So he was real, and not just a visual hallucination.

“Lil ones okay?”

“They’re okay, Stark.” Loki’s forced smile turned genuine by approximately fifty percent, and it converted completely at the sight of the basket of goodies in Tony Stark’s hand.

“Thank you,” he said grudgingly.

“I’ll just…leave this here where he can’t see…” Tony mumbled, fussing about behind the settee by the window.

Loki smirked conspiratorially. “Omertà.”

Still Tony looked like a nervous poppy. “They’ll keep for at least six months so please, Loki –”

Yes, Tony! Goodness, does no one take me at my word anymore?”

“Aw, Bambi, where would the fun be in that?” Loki bristled, and Tony added hastily. “Pepper says hi, she would have come but the invite came at such late notice, we had to draw straws and she gets to go to a board of directors’ meeting while I get to come here and celebrate my best buddy’s…fiftieth? Sixtieth?”

Tony shrugged. “But who’s even counting.”

Loki watched the crowd and wondered how anyone could hear each other what with everyone trying to out-talk one another. “This must be against hospital regulation or something,” he mumbled.

“We make our own rules, Loki,” Tony said absently. “As long as no one dies.”

No truer words had ever been said.

“That sounds like something I would say.”

“Does it?” Tony sniffed, and a self-satisfied smile creased the outer corners of his eyes. “Well. Can’t always let you have the best lines.”

“It’s okay. You can have that one.” Loki decided to be generous. It was his husband’s birthday, after all. “As long as nobody dies, right?”

“Damn right.” Tony glanced at him out the corner of his still-smiling eyes. “You’re alright, Reindeer Games.”

Generosity, Loki. Generosity.

“You’re not bad, Stark.”

_____________________________________________

The small party was still in full-swing when Loki decided he had had enough; he had lost count of the number of times he caught Bruce frowning disapprovingly at him from a distance over his judge-y little glasses.

Loki pushed the plate of cake away and leaned back against his mountain of pillows, feeling as full as a Cappadocian hot air balloon.

“You alright?” A quiet voice startled him and Loki’s eyes flew open.

“Oh.” Loki closed his eyes again. “It’s just you.”

Stephen laughed silently. “It’s just me.”

He sat on the bed, knee bent at an angle, the other leg left dangling down the side of the bed. He reached out to touch the tips of his fingers to Loki’s stomach gently. “Have they been behaving?”

Loki managed a tired but fulfilled smile. “More or less. Good thing they both like pistachio and vanilla.”

“Guess they got that from you.”

Loki opened his eyes slowly. He was remembering something. Something vague, something someone must have said to him in a dream.

“The vanilla they got from you,” he said slowly.

“That they did,” Stephen murmured.

“I didn’t even know it was your birthday,” Loki said quietly, uncertain if he should be feeling guilt, dismay or something else altogether. This was one of those times being married to a human and all the normal social convention associated with it totally escaped him.  

“It’s a largely Midgardian thing, Loki. Don’t worry about it.”

“It must be important. We celebrate Stian’s birthday all the time, and I suspect will be celebrating Aífe’s too on an annual basis from now on.”

“Exactly. It’s important when it’s children.” Stephen shrugged. “Not so much when you’re an adult.”

The look of utter relief on Loki’s face sent a rush of unnamed emotions running through him, warm and fuzzy. “It’s fine, Loki.”

“Does this mean I have to come up with a birthday gift for you?” Loki asked seriously.

“You’ve already given it to me.”

Stephen leaned in closer to kiss him softly on the lips, his hand stroking the side of Loki’s belly that was hidden from view by his favourite fluffy pillow Valkyrie smuggled in from Asgard. “You said yes.”

“Want me to say it again?” Loki murmured.

“Again and always.”

“Well, then, Doctor.” Loki pulled back a fraction, eyes the softest Stephen had ever seen them.

“Yes.”

Stephen’s heart sang. “Yes?”

“Yes, oh yes.”

“Well then.” Stephen’s eyes disappeared behind his smile – “Happy Birthday to me.”

Loki lifted his face to catch Stephen’s searching lips half-way.

“Happy Birthday, sweet, gentle husband.” Stephen tasted of coffee.

“Thank you, darling.” Loki tasted of cake.

What a perfect combination.

The birthday boy should partake, as the birthday boy must, and so he did.

Chapter Text

“Valkyrie.”

“Majesty.”

Thor was still looking at her. She was still looking elsewhere.

“At ease, Captain. Eat something. Join in.” Thor had helped himself to the point of gluttony and the Valkyrie had not budged from her position since they arrived. “I know there’s no alcohol but that is no reason not to be merry, surely?”

“Yeah, sure,” Valkyrie said distractedly.

Thor curiously placed his head next to hers to try and see what it was that was so interesting –

“Valkyrie,” he chastised. “Why am I looking at you looking at my Brother engaging in private moments with his mate?”

Valkyrie wrinkled her nose in disgust. “You should thank me.”

Thor straightened to his full height in alarm. “Why?”

She sighed. “Nothing, Majesty.”

“Valkyrie..." he drawled her name out like a warning. "Is there something I should know?”

“Yes.” She turned around to face him. She uncrossed her arms and placed her hands on the small of her back, finally standing at ease. “You should give me a raise.”

“I…should?” Thor watched as a self-satisfied smile slowly broke across her face.

“The things I do for you Odinsons.” She shook her head ruefully, muttering under her breath. “I must be getting soft.”

She watched with a deep sense of satisfaction as Stephen leaned in to kiss Loki softly on the mouth.

“I should,” Thor repeated slowly, nodding away but not really comprehending, safe for his suspicion that it must have something to do with his Brother and his husband.

She inhaled deeply and delighted in how satisfying it was; her chest felt lighter now, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

No, she did not need a raise after all. The smile on Loki’s face was reward enough.

And her triumph?

Her triumph was hers alone.

“You all should thank me.”

____________________________________________

 

Tony turned his back and popped his contraband can of beer, because, really, what sort of party served no alcohol? He offered it to Stephen, who gave a disapproving shake of the head. Tony shrugged and took a sip.

“You ever heard of Claire Lomas?”

The name sounded very familiar. “Yes. I came across her during my research when I was trying to...” Stephen hesitated, resisting hard at first, but failing miserably; he looked down at his hands. “You know.”

“So you knew she was the first paraplegic to complete the London Marathon using an exoskeleton, despite being completely paralysed from the chest down?”

Stephen nodded. Tony had a tendency to be wordy but Stephen supposed there was no harm in indulging his friend once in a while. He would always get to the point in the end, one way or another.

“I used to make weapons for fun and tell people I did it for a living, Strange.”

Stephen was still not following, but listening was entirely feasible, interest largely optional. “Okay.”

“I applied the concept of biomechanical loading into potential tremor suppression and by just reducing their involuntary tremor, my customers were quite impressed by how much I’ve improved their soldiers’ weapons accuracy.”

Sad eyes never lied, and Tony’s eyes were the saddest Stephen had ever seen on anyone who may well be telling one of his life’s greatest achievements. Tony put his beer down on one of the many tray tables they had pilfered from the other rooms and scratched the air.

“Give me your hand.”

“Tony…”

“Just – ” Tony glowered. “Give me your hand.”

Stephen reluctantly held out his right hand. Whatever Tony wanted to do with all this talk of weapon and stuff had better not come anywhere near his left. His wedding ring was centuries old, to call it an antique did not quite cut it.

Tony produced something from behind him. At first glance it looked similar to the external fixators that were once embedded into Stephen's hands to set his broken fingers.

Tony fastened the exoskeleton expertly, clasping the mechanical braces around all the small joints in Stephen's fingers before fastening the clasp at his wrist and finally the cuff around the middle of his forearm.

“Taps directly into the resting potential of your muscle fibres so it bypasses the need for an external power source. This is medical exoskeleton technology at its best.” He caught himself. “Well. Tony’s best.”

Stephen stared at his hand in wonder. Gone was the coarse tremor that he could barely control with the best anti-parkinsonian drug in the market – he dared say his hand was now the steadiest it had ever been since the accident, sans magic.

“It’s still too bulky and fickle for you to be performing any brain surgery, I’m afraid, so I suggest you don’t quit your day job just yet,” Tony snarked, but his eyes, sad no longer, were soft. “But maybe now you can finally take up horseback riding with your family without having to worry about spooking or confusing the poor animal.”

Stephen had only ever mentioned it to Tony once in a casual conversation; how his exaggerated reflexes post-accident would overcompensate for his tremor by jerking on the reins, resulting in a few disastrous attempts at horseback riding and him abandoning the activity altogether, much to Loki and Stian’s disappointment.

“Happy Birthday, Doctor.”

Stephen finally looked up, his eyes suddenly stinging; it must be something in the air, the dust more like.

“Loki was right,” Stephen croaked. “Your gifts are over-the-top.”

Tony laughed. “Have you met me? I am the epitome of over-the-top!”

Stephen struggled to find the right words to say – and finally settled for the only thing that felt right.

“Thank you.”

Tony Stark was never one for awkward silences. “Come on, give us a hug.”

“So…twins huh?” Stephen nodded fiercely into his best friend’s shoulder. Tony chuckled. “Double trouble. You want me to build another hospital for you in Asgard?”

Stephen let out a laugh. “Shit, Tony. You give me goosebumps, you know that?”

“The good kind, I hope.”

“Doing great so far, Tony.” Stephen finally released him, feeling giddy and all kinds of blessed. “Doing great so far.”

______________________________________

It was black, as black as The Void.

No, it was darker.

The Void, at least had stars and passing constellations. They had been out of Loki’s physical reach, of course, but when the eternal fall reached such agonising velocity that it rendered him insensate…it was the stars that Loki saw. They kept silent company, but beggars could not be choosers.

Not even a beggar prince like him could say no to such company.

No, this was not The Void.

There were no voices in The Void.

Wisps of whispers rustled like leaves, sibilant and fleeting.

This was not The Dark Dimension either. Dormammu never whispered.

Where am I?

The Dark Prince they called him. He did not remember a time when he had not always been called that.

How fitting, that The Dark Prince of Asgard should find himself catapulted into every dark place, every dark corner of the universe, devoid of all light and hope

And love

Begrudging Thor his Golden name and Golden hair and Golden spirit had abolished nothing, and accomplished less.

It did not turn his hair any less dark, his heart any less shattered.

Even when the fire of the fall finally burned his eyesight, it had not been total darkness then. He could at least see red. A red the very shade of Aífe’s hair, before she lost every strand of it pulling Loki from the brink of countless deaths over the centuries.

She was always there to catch him, always had been.

And suddenly she wasn’t.

His guardian angel was dead.

It was the cruellest joke in the universe.

And now he was falling again, with no end, no hope, no light in sight, and the whispers grew louder.

Sister, be gentle.

He wanted to laugh.

Hela? Gentle?

Loki wanted to laugh, so he laughed.

In this dark, whispery place, he laughed and laughed until he could laugh no more. There was no breath left in him.

I really am tired, Thor.

Down to the very last atom in my body.

And his soul

Where do I go, Thor?

Where do I go to rest?

If he offered it to The Norns right now, would they take it?

His soul hurt.

Would they embrace it to their bosom, and keep it safe somewhere?

“I’ll take it,” a voice hummed.

Loki’s heart thrilled. He turned around, expecting to see the Norns, if not the darkness -

No.

Kaecilius smiled, luring, seductive.

No.

Anybody but you.

Loki commanded his body to move, to run, to fight.

But as the distance closed between them, invisible shackles anchored Loki's feet to the ground.

His spirit began to lift off his body.

Kaecilius, like a beast glutting upon a feast, began to pull

My soul, Loki thought dimly.

Anybody but you.

Run, Loki.

“Loki.”

A hand shook him awake. “Loki.”

Loki's eyes opened. A man stared down at him, his face a mask of mild concern.

"Yes?" he croaked. "Bruce?"

“You dozed off.” Bruce peered into his face. “And you were mumbling.”

“Did I?” Loki pressed the heel of his hand to one eye. It throbbed. The eye or the hand, he could not say for certain. “Was I?”

Bruce’s voice dropped. “You alright? You look pale.”

Without waiting for Loki to answer, Bruce began to step away from the bed and into the crowd, with all intent to disperse the guests. “I think we should leave you to rest now.”

“No!” Loki stopped Bruce in his tracks with a sharp plea and maybe even a bit of unconscious magic, judging by the way Bruce suddenly reeled backward into the railing. “No, Bruce.”

“Stay.” Loki’s heart thundered in his chest, his throat suddenly as dry as sandpaper. “I don’t –” want to be alone.

“I’m fine.” A bright, false smile lit his face. “Come." He patted the mattress gently. "Talk to me.”

Bruce still looked mighty suspicious. “Alright, Loki.”

He settled into the visitor’s chair, taking in the remnant of what looked too much like fear for it to be anything less alarming in Loki’s unusually bright eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but for once, Loki took the first rein in the conversation.

“Thank you, Bruce, for planning this…gathering.”

“I take it Stephen didn’t tell you?”

Loki shook his head.

“Yeah…you did look more surprised than the birthday boy himself,” Bruce said wryly.

Loki glanced at the far corner of the room where Stephen was deeply engaged in conversation with Tony Stark. His husband looked the most relaxed Loki had seen him in weeks, and certainly since Loki had been admitted into hospital. For one thing, there was an actual smile on his face.

Bruce was surprised to have received the call from Christine Palmer that morning, telling him of her plan to throw Stephen a small, not-all-that-surprise-anymore birthday party at the hospital, not so much because of the party, but to hear that Loki had been hospitalised in the first place. Bruce for one knew there was still a ways to go before Loki was due to deliver.

“Have you been having contractions?” It was the single most important reason he could think of as to why Loki was allowing himself to be confined to the bed and machines, and Bruce was nothing if not observant.

“Some,” Loki said, reluctant to divulge much more. “But they’re mostly gone now.”

“I’m glad to hear it." Bruce's voice and smile exuded such relief that Loki felt strangely warmed inside.

“What is it, Bruce?” There was a hidden meaning to Bruce’s smile. It looked melancholic, almost sad.

“Oh, it’s nothing.” Bruce threw a glance over his shoulder. His eyes softened at the sight of the Prince and Princess sitting side by side on the couch, where Stian was enthusiastically teaching Aífe on the enunciation of the names of all his beloved dinosaurs. Stian was being very patient for someone whose student was only vocalising in limited monosyllables.  

“They’ve grown so much.”

Loki followed the line of his gaze. Then he understood.

“Thank you, Bruce.”

Bruce looked at him in confusion.

“You were there for me right from the beginning.” Loki tipped his chin. “The beginning of them.”

“Something called a Nobel Prize, was it? The one you wanted Stian to win for you?”

Bruce laughed heartily. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

“I remember a lot of things,” Loki said. His tone may be light, but his meaning heavily-nuanced. “Too many things.”

“Delete some,” Bruce said immediately.

Loki looked at him sharply.

Bruce gave him an almost-imploring look. “You gotta make space, Loki.”

Loki stared, unblinking.

Bruce countered his gaze with a steely look. “That much baggage…they’re going to throw you off the plane."

“The things you humans say sometimes.” Loki’s smile was small but wistful. “You’re the only species whose language can make so much sense, even when it doesn’t.”

“Each of us has gifts, Loki. We can’t all be the same. There simply isn’t enough space in the universe for too many of the same thing.”

“How true.” Loki nodded seriously. “There can only be one of me.”

“Oh, one of you is enough, believe me.” Bruce visibly shuddered, and Loki simply had to laugh –

If only to forget.

“I’ll take it.”

Loki abruptly closed his eyes.

“Loki?”

“It’s mine.” His hand clutched absently at his chest. “Isn’t it, Bruce?”

“What is?” Bruce asked softly.

“My soul?” Loki asked uncertainly.

Bruce had given up a long time ago trying to understand the hidden meaning behind Loki’s words sometimes. It was easier to take them at face value and answer his questions as honestly as he could –

“If there’s one thing that no one can take from you, it is that, Loki,” Bruce said firmly.

That had never failed him before, and from the look of utter relief on Loki’s face, Bruce was pretty confident he had answered something none of his PhDs could have ever prepared him for.

“Any time you’re bored of Tony, you can come work for me, Bruce,” Loki said importantly. Bruce should feel honoured; Loki's inner circle was exclusive after all.

Bruce laughed again. “I’ll keep that in mind.

Loki smiled and grabbed his plate of half-eaten birthday cake off the tray table, appetite reawakened and soul returned, thanks to good old Bruce.

“How many pieces have you had, Loki?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one who’s been staring at me the whole day, didn’t you keep count?”

Bruce shook his head in amusement. “I guess when you’re pregnant, your insight is the first to go, if not your waist –” At Loki’s death glare, Bruce amended quickly, “Wavy. Wavy hair.”

He scrutinised the length of Loki’s hair. Loki’s hair had grown past his shoulder blades and though much straighter than it had been, it was also thicker and fuller. “Is it just me or did you get hair extensions? I don’t remember seeing your hair this long the last time we met.”

“Va-va-voom, Bruce.” Loki winked. No glaring was necessary now that the topic of conversation had turned more palatable, as palatable as the cake he was shoveling into his mouth with gusto. “Stephen says it’s hormones, I say it’s magic.”

“I’m sure it is.” Bruce stood up. “Well. I wish you the speediest recovery so you can get out of here quickly. Hospitals aren’t exactly the nicest places to be around.”

Stian’s exclamation of wonder at something caught his attention. "The kids will miss you, for sure.”

Loki looked at his children who were now standing on the couch, looking out the window. Stian pointed at something but Aífe was hardly paying her brother any attention, staring instead at a goldcrest that had come to perch on the windowsill outside.

As if realising he was being watched, Stian turned around. “Pappa, may I please have what he’s having?”

“What is it, Stian?” Stephen walked over to the window, waving a hand to get Loki to stay seated right where he was. He looked out, and saw a boy walking toward the hospital parking lot, holding in the hand that was not holding on to his mother a stick of - “Cotton candy?”

Stian nodded longingly.

“Didn’t you already have cake?” Stephen frowned. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time you had too much sweets?”

Stian kissed his forehead to the glass, still staring forlornly. “Please, Daddy?”

Stephen sighed. He looked to Loki, who gave a vague, non-committal shrug. He was hardly in the position to say anything; he was on his fourth slice of cake already, by Bruce’s count.

“Come on, then. Before I change my mind.” Stian jumped off the couch and grabbed onto his hand excitedly. “Aífe, you wanna come?”

Aífe’s only response was the rubbing of her eyes with her fists.

“I think it’s time for her nap.” Bruce gathered her in her arms and was about to deposit her onto Loki’s bed when the Valkyrie appeared out of nowhere.

“I can take her back to Asgard,” Valkyrie offered. “Thor and I had better get going anyway.”

Loki looked crestfallen, but the sight of Aife nodding off in Bruce’s arms forced his hand; he nodded reluctantly.

“Hand her over, Big Guy.” Bruce relinquished the drowsing princess into Valkyrie’s arms, who then tipped her over the side of the bed so Loki could give his daughter a goodbye kiss.

“I’ll come home soon, Princess.” Loki pressed his lips to the top of Aífe’s head. “I promise.”

“You’d better,” Valkyrie said coolly. She gave him a knowing look. “The next time you’re stressed, try yoga. Or pilates. Or waltz. This place gives me the jeebie-jeebies.”

“Heebie-jeebies, Angry Girl,” Bruce corrected.

“That’s what I said.”

“Come on, Daddy,” Stian pressed.

“Just a minute, Stian. I have to see your sister safely home first.” Stephen drew a circle in the air and Asgard loomed before them; it was already dusk and the horizon was a beautiful amber streak across the sky.

“Get well soon, Brother.” Thor squeezed the back of his brother’s neck warmly. “I am going to miss you and our afternoon naps together.”

Bruce muttered something unintelligible under his breath, his face reddening. No doubt he was remembering his faux pas from all those years ago, when he was playing the guessing game in his head as to who was the actual father of Loki’s baby.

Loki rolled his eyes, two spots of colour rouging his cheeks. “Will you go away already?”

Thor bellowed and clapped Stephen on the shoulder. “Many happy returns of the day, Stephen.”

“Thank you, Thor.”

“Let us come, Valkyrie, and leave my dear Brother-in-law to his guests and the rest of his special day.” Thor took his grand leave, his cape sweeping through the air with a swish, with the Valkyrie following close behind, Princess Aífe already fast asleep on her shoulder.

Stephen and Valkyrie’s eyes met, and for once, there was no animosity between them, only understanding and mutual, if not reluctant, respect.

“Take care of yourself, Highness.”

“And you, Valkyrie.”

__________________________________________

“You’re leaving too?”

Christine looked up from her mobile, a frown marring her delicate features. “Oh yeah,” she said distractedly. “Something’s come up.”

“Is everything alright?”

“It’s just the strangest thing. My post-laparotomy patient landed in ICU yesterday after a failed extubation. He was much better this morning and I was thinking of moving him back into the regular ward when he suddenly deteriorated, went into a coma, and never woke up.”

She shook her head in utter disbelief. “They’ve just pronounced him dead. It’s a total mystery.”

Stephen frowned. “Is it?” During his time, it was not all that unheard off. Patients who were very fit and unexpected to die could suddenly keel over at any time.

She stared at him with troubled eyes. “It’s the fifth mysterious death in the ICU since yesterday. Jack lost one too, a new mother who they were just keeping under observation for post-partum haemorrhage. They were about to discharge her when she slipped into a coma and passed.”

“A new superbug going around the ICU?” Stephen guessed. "There's always one rampaging around this time of year."

“Must be one hell of a superbug,” Christine muttered. “They’re on the verge of declaring a quarantine and shutting down the ICU, if not the entire hospital.”

“Anyway.” She looked down and forced a smile. “Where are you going, my little prince?”

“Daddy’s getting me a cloud candy.”

“Cotton candy.”

“Cotton candy, Aunt Christine.”

“Now doesn’t that sound yummy.” She ruffled his hair. Then she sighed loudly. “I need to go down to forensics and see what I can find out.”

“Happy Birthday, Stephen.” She squeezed his elbow. “We should do this more often. Just, make it a nice restaurant next time, okay?”

“No more, please," Stephen begged for sympathy. "But thanks, Christine.” He gave her a one-armed hug. “If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.”

Christine laughed. “Yeah. I’ll propose it to the hospital administrators and see what they say. But don't get your hopes up. The last thing they need is a Master of the Magic Arts –”

Mystic Arts.”

“Pardon me, Your Highness.” Her phone rang again, and she looked at it in frustration. “I really have to go. Catch you guys later?”

“Bye, Aunt Christine.”

“Goodbye, my darling.” She blew him a kiss and disappeared down the corridor.

“I like Aunt Christine. She’s really nice.”

“Yeah?” Stephen walked down the corridor in the opposite direction toward the elevator. To get to the gift shop was quite a walk; it was in another building adjacent to the Private Wing, connected by a sky bridge on the second floor. “She’s my best friend.”

“You’re lucky, Daddy.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah. Uncle Tony’s your best friend. Uncle Wong’s your best friend. Uncle Bruce says he’s your friend too.” Stian was back to his chatty self, now that his good spirits seemed to have returned. At least he was walking this time, matching his father stride for stride.

“Pappa’s lucky too. He has Uncle Thor, and Lady Val, and me, and Aífe…” Stian’s voice trailed off.

“What about me?” They stepped into the elevator. “Pappa has me too.”

Stian studied his father, his soulful, big eyes staring deep into Stephen’s soul.

For a moment Stephen could swear he was gazing into Loki’s eyes, with all his secrets simply out in the open and begging to be sucked into those mesmerising eyes.

Stian’s hazel eyes softened and he smiled the widest, merriest smile that dimpled his cheeks. “Yes, now he does, Daddy.”

His grip tightened around his father’s hand. “You are coming home with us, aren’t you, Daddy?”

The elevator doors opened. Stephen did not step out immediately for his feet were glued to the floor, his son's little fingers curled around his bigger ones in a death grip.

“Yes, Stian.” Stephen’s heart fluttered. “I guess I am.”

“Cool!” Stian pulled on his hand, and they stepped out of the elevator together.

Stian saw the sky bridge and its glass floor, where the New York traffic bustled below in a hubbub of horns and colours. “Cool!!”

He began to run.

“Stian, wait!”

But Stian was not listening.

“Stian, you’re going to be the death of me one day,” he muttered.

“I’m afraid he isn’t, Mister Doctor.” A voice suddenly whispered in his ear.

And the next thing Stephen felt and saw was a shard of glass protruding from his abdomen, its crystalline tip bloodied and glistening.

“Daddy!”

All strength left his lower body and he wobbled. He dropped heavily. Blood began to drip onto the transparent floor of the sky bridge, collecting in an ominous pool around his knees.

“Daddy!” Stian screamed again and began to run back toward him –

Stian, no. Run.

Run.

“Loki,” he tried to call, but knew he only had the strength to say but one word –

Stian…

“Run!!!”

Stian’s terrified screams were the last thing Stephen heard before everything went black.

Chapter Text

Loki looked up upon sensing the prickle of static energy hovering in the air, and just as he expected, a portal flickered into view. He tensed in anticipation of more unexpected guests pouring in; for someone who was so proud of his quiet private life, Stephen seemed to have a lot of friends.

A familiar figure stepped out of the portal, his generous form jiggling as he landed heavily onto the floor where the portal had overshot the ground by almost a foot. “What did I miss?”

“Ah, Master Wong.” Loki’s shoulders visibly relaxed. “I was wondering when you were going to show up.”

“Big Boss gets called away on a family emergency, it falls on me to keep the business afloat,” Wong said importantly. "Had to see to a few things."

Loki’s gaze dropped to his lap, feeling self-conscious all of a sudden. “Well. I’m sure he’s…very apologetic about the whole thing.”

Wong studied him with his eternally impassive eyes. He seemed satisfied with what he was seeing. “Good.”

Loki sighed. He felt as if he had done more apologising these past few days than he had in a century. Midgardian courtesy was so draining sometimes. “May I offer you some cake to make up for it at least? Stephen told me you did not get to have any the last time.”

“Don’t have to twist my arm,” Wong said with a healthy amount of glee, heading straight for the buffet table. He nodded to Tony and Bruce, who seemed to be the only guests left at this sorry excuse of a birthday party. Maybe he did arrive too fashionably-late after all.

Wong looked around; the birthday boy himself was nowhere to be seen. “Where is he?”

“He’s taken Stian on a walk to get him something called a cushion candy.”

“Cotton candy.” Bruce could not help but quip.

Loki made a face. Typical humans, always too eager to autocorrect when it was hardly going to change the world by any significant measure.

Excuse me. I knew it by another name, a more alluring one.” He salivated just at the thought. “Silver silk candy.”

“Dragon’s beard candy?” Wong knew it by its more colloquial street name. He helped himself to the birthday cake, cutting himself a slice the size of a mini pineapple. “Didn’t Stephen go all the way to Beijing to get you some?”

Loki shrugged, trying not to sound ungrateful. “I prefer the ones made in Sichuan.”

Wong took in the forlorn look on Loki’s face. He took the first bite of cake and found it delicious enough to offer his services. “I’ll let that slip in a conversation or two.”

“You have my thanks, Master Wong,” Loki said dryly.

The door suddenly burst open, and a tall figure in surgical scrubs walked in, his movements jerky, his gloved hands visibly trembling.

“Jack?” Loki frowned.

Tony rose slowly from the couch. Judging from the look of him, this must be Loki’s doctor, Christine Palmer’s husband. There was something in the doctor’s body language that was ringing all kinds of alarm bells inside him.

Jack looked around the room. “Are these all your friends and family?”

“Yes. Yes, we are,” Tony said hurriedly. A look in Loki’s direction dared him to say otherwise.

The expression on Jack’s face could only be described as shell-shocked; for someone who was used to dealing in life-or-death situations on a daily basis, it was not something Loki had expected to see. In the short amount of time they had known each other, not once had Loki ever seen Jack as rattled.

“Jack, what’s going on?” Loki asked softly.

“Loki, I’m afraid I have some bad news.” Jack approached his bedside.

“Something’s happened to Stephen.”

Loki’s stomach plummeted.

Jack's face was as pale as a ghost. “He was attacked on the sky bridge on the second floor.”

Loki stared into Jack’s eyes, dark-rimmed and haunted behind his glasses. “Loki, Stephen has been stabbed.”

Bruce shot to his feet.

“What?” Tony exclaimed.

“Is he alive?” Loki managed to find the strength to speak.

Jack looked grief-stricken. “He’s been rushed to surgery. Christine’s working on him as we speak.”

“Who?” Loki’s monosyllables came out tight and brusque. “How?”

“Witness accounts claim the suspect to be a man of Eastern European descent with long grey hair and the weapon he used was some kind of – ”

“Sword. Made of glass.” Loki could not hear his own voice for the deafening roar of blood in his ears. “Kaecilius.”

Wong’s plate dropped to the floor with a wet splat. “They actually saw him?”

“Yes, they are pulling up the CCTV footage for the police but that’s what the witnesses said. An assault on the sky bridge in broad daylight, someone was bound to see.” Jack raked a hand through his sandy hair and gripped the top of his head. “The police will be over shortly, they will want to talk to you.”

“Where is Stian?” Loki asked dimly. “Where is my son?”

Jack’s hand slowly released his head. He looked and sounded like he was going to faint. “Stian's not with you?”

No.

Loki knew the only way he was not going to hyperventilate was to stop breathing altogether.

Not Stian.

He had to take his mind off breathing.

“He’s taken him.” In the blink of an eye, Loki was out of the bed and frantically pulling the wires and machines off him by the handful. “Kaecilius has him.”

Jack’s throat went dry. “Loki, where do you think you’re going?”

Loki did not answer.

This was a nightmare. A nightmare he could not seem to shake – Jack looked to Tony and Bruce, shaking his head violently, Stop him!

“Loki, listen – ” Tony began.

A dagger appeared in Loki’s hand; Jack took an involuntary step backward, Wong a step forward. “Loki!”

Loki reached behind and grabbed a fistful of hair, lifting it off the nape of his neck. With one quick, slicing motion, he slashed it off.

He muttered an incantation in a language so foreign its articulation may well have been lost to human speech and the long locks in his hand spontaneously combusted in a burst of green flames. Bruce uttered a cry of surprise and all his human companions visibly recoiled from the sheer heat of the magical fire.

It burned quick and hot and Loki closed his fist around the flame, extinguishing it with a breath of another spell…it finally dwindled and died. His hand lost its ethereal glow and returned to its normal pale colour.

Loki opened his fist to reveal a gaia stone the shape and size of an eagle's beak, gleaming in its brilliance and diamond-like in clarity.

He grabbed Wong’s wrist and slapped the healing stone into the Guardian’s palm. “Remember our tryst with the Dragon, Master Wong?”

Wong nodded tersely.

“Go to him.” Loki’s face crumpled. “Please. Save him.”

Jack stared at Loki with new eyes, sheer disbelief at what he had just witnessed warring for dominion over his logical senses.

“Take me to Stephen, Doctor.” When Jack hesitated, Wong’s voice hardened and rose by a few decibels. “Doctor, you are wasting precious time. Take me to him now!”

Jack threw Loki one last warning look that clearly meant that Loki’d better stay put right where he was, before turning on his heels and marching out of the room. “Come with me.”

Loki turned to Tony. “Find Stian. Now.”

Tony reared his head. He did not know where to even begin. But Tony Stark was never going to let something like that stop him. “I’ll take a look at the CCTV recording, see if we can’t get any clues off it –”

“The Spy Mission watch you gave my son, Stark,” Loki snarled in frustration. “Track it!”

I’ll be damned, Tony thought.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” Tony murmured. “You getting this?”

“Activating GPS tracking.” His ever-listening A.I. responded. “Geo-fencing initiated, rapid emergency alert standing by – ”

Loki’s casual clothes had given way to his battle armour, his abdomen concealed behind an elaborate glamour and an invisible shield of protective seidr.

“Well?” Loki snapped. He snapped on his vambraces.

Tony caught Bruce’s eyes. He silently mouthed, “Get Thor.”

Loki caught the stealthy exchange of correspondence.

“Thor can no more stop me going than he can stop Kaecilius from crushing my son’s –” Loki furiously blinked the stinging in his eyes away. “No. You’re stalling me. Where is he, Stark? Where is Stian?” he barked.

Tony reluctantly pressed a control on his timepiece, and a hologram projected itself onto a makeshift interface in the empty space triangulated by himself, this glowering Norse God who’d clearly gone off his rocker, and Bruce who was trying to come closer to said God but finding himself pushed back by the sheer density of wrathful seidr swirling around him.

Tony spread his fingers, and the satellite images sharpened. “Kathmandu.” 

“Kamar-Taj?” From the instant look of recognition in Loki’s eyes, Bruce’s educated guess was spot on; the brick-red structures arranged in formation that he was willing to give a green thumb had to be magically significant.

“Right where it all started.” Loki’s whisper was thin, as thin as the line of his lips. “So be it.”

“So be what?” Bruce’s voice rose a notch. “Loki, you can’t possibly think of going there, not in your condition!”

“I’ve told you so many times, Bruce, I don’t have a condition.” Loki’s voice was strangely calm. “But I have a son and he’s waiting for me.”

“He’s waiting for me.”

“Loki, we need a plan of attack.” Tony did not even sound like himself; he too, was as desperate as Bruce to make Loki see reason, despite knowing full well if he was the one in Loki’s position, if it was Morgan’s life on the line, he would do the same thing, no doubt about it.

Loki heard Tony’s words, fleeting and faint, as if he was hearing them from a distance. “You can’t face this enemy alone, not after what he did to Stephen.”

His babies shifted inside him, restless and unsettled.

“I’m not alone,” Loki said softly. “Not anymore.”

“For God’s sake, think, Loki,” Bruce growled. “Tony’s right. You are seven months pregnant. We can’t let you go in blind without backup, you will die.”

Loki stilled. If anything, Bruce’s fearmongering only assuaged his crippling anxiety and spelled away all doubt.

“My birthright was to die. Cast out onto a frozen rock.”

Loki’s words were as serene as the way Odin looked on the day he said them.

“As long as there is still breath in me, I will not let that happen to Stian.”

Loki gazed deep into Bruce’s eyes. “There is only one of him.”

“And there is only one of you, Loki,” Bruce said fiercely.

“Exactly.” Loki’s lips curled into a smile, sadistic and completely devoid of mirth. Stian’s smiling face flashed before his eyes and the mania diminished, but only slightly.

Stian.

“He is only six years old.” Loki could feel pieces of his heart crumble away into flakes of ash. “He’s just started to live.”

“Loki…”

Bruce held out a hand, and Loki looked at it dully; it looked too much like an attempt to placate a beast to be anything resembling a friendly gesture.

“Loki, we don’t know if Stian’s even – ” His words died at the sight of the tears in Loki’s eyes.

“He’s still alive, Bruce.” Loki’s ragged breath clawed at his burning throat. “I can feel it.”

“Kaecilius will not kill him, not just yet.” Loki clutched at the pendant at his neck. “Not when I have what he wants.”

“And what does this lunatic want?” Tony demanded.

“Something I must give willingly.”

The darkness was beckoning to him, calling him. He had forgotten just how loud it was.

“I’ll take it.”

Loki closed his eyes and tried to drown out that horrible, horrible voice. When he opened them again, they were clear, as if only remembering something important that he had overlooked.

Now it was Thor’s face he was seeing. Kind, gentle, loving Thor.

Loki clutched at the triskelion again. “Time to believe in promises now.”

He twirled around to face his husband’s friends, no, his friends now, and friends would do anything for friends, right?

“Take care of Stephen.” Loki could not remember the last time he begged for anything. “Please.”

“Loki…” Bruce let out a horrified hiss. “Loki, take me with you.”

But Loki was no longer listening.

“Tell him…” Loki swallowed hard. “Tell him I’m fighting.”

For us.

But most of all...

Images flashed through Loki’s mind, unfiltered. Uncensored.

Stephen’s face gazing down at him in naked wonder on the very first night they shared, the unexpected gentleness of his calloused hand as it traced the outline of the ugly scar courtesy of Algrim’s Kursed blade sending shivers down his spine -

The sight of his own hand fingering the unsightly keloid over Stephen’s heart.

“Finally. One thing we have in common,” he remembered saying.

Stephen frowned.

“What?” he rasped breathlessly. For a human, the weight of Stephen’s warm body was driving all breath out of him.

Stephen cocked a mocking eyebrow. “You’ve only found one?” His intense grey eyes raked all the sleek curves and sharp angles of Loki’s body. He was liking what he was seeing, so very much –

“Show me then, Sorcerer.” Loki’s gaze was no less intense. “Show me what I’ve missed.”

The memories skipped to the moment Stephen placed Stian, their sweet-smelling, beautiful baby boy in his arms…

Their firstborn.

Awareness returned to Loki in a rush of intense sorrow, despair twisting his voice into a raw, anguished rasp. “Tell him thank you.”

Bruce was having none of it. “I’m coming with you.”

“Enough.” Loki shook his head. “Enough of running.”

He straightened to his full height, tall and statuesque. “It’s time to end this.”

“Loki, think of your babies.” Tony made a desperate, last-ditch effort at stalling, at least until Thor could get here and knock some sense into his lunatic brother. What were the names Loki had picked? Stephen had told him, that one time, that they were naming the twins after some obscure God and Goddess – “Think of Freyr and Freyja-!”

“Oh, they’ll live.” Loki smiled. “Stephen promised me.”

“But do tell him to hurry.” Grief darkened Loki’s eyes to a shade of Aegean blue, his black pupils near swallowing them whole.

“I’ll keep them alive inside me as long as I can.”

“Loki!”

And a swirling surge of seidr geysered upward in a column of green and gold –

And Loki was gone.  

“Fuck!” A wild swipe of Tony’s hand toppled the tray table and it came crashing down. The can of beer clanged noisily onto the floor, rolling across the floorboard and landing at Bruce’s feet with a thud.

Bubbles frothed at the mouth of the can like blood.

Tony met his eyes and let out another stunned, tired, “Fuck.”

Chapter Text

‘Help me, for a mother bore each of you.

Give me, oh King, but a short delay until I am delivered.’

 

_______________________________________________

 

“Tony, we have to go to Nepal.”

“Of course we do!” Tony was already on the move, taking the stairs because the elevator was too damn slow and he needed to run. “You think we could hitch a ride when he’s like that? We couldn’t even come within three feet of him!”

Also, he was not staying there a minute longer; talking to the police was the very last thing he wanted to do. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., ready Mark XXXIII for deploy.”

“The Silver Centurion? I thought it was destroyed!”

“I love it when people destroy my toys, Bruce. Makes me kit the hell out of them when I make new ones.” Tony muttered under his breath, “Swords of glass, huh? Let’s see how they fare against my Vibranium Blades.”

“Well can your new toy fly us there at supersonic speed too? We’re talking about fifteen hours flying time here!”

“Doctor, for all your PhDs you do like to make things hard for yourself,” Tony said with a hint of sarcasm. “Strange and Wong can’t be the only ones with the portalling know-how. How can your pride take it?”

“It takes it the way it takes everything else that doesn’t really concern me.” Apparently, there were still no snark receptors in Bruce’s brain. “I leave it to the expert.”

The moment they stepped onto the sidewalk, Tony’s car sped around the corner and pulled up in front of them as if by magic.

“Yeah, and now the expert is incapacitated with a hole the size of Canada in his gut and his husband is on a mad rampage and we’d better stop him before he kills himself and the poor babies he’s carrying.”

Tony slammed the door shut with more force than he intended. “I swear that guy’s headspace is still a mess.”

“You’re one to talk, Tony.”

“At least I’m talking. On the phone.” Tony said sassily, holding his mobile to his ear. He held up a finger, signaling to Happy to wait. “To someone who can actually help us.”

“Who? Fury?”

“I happen to know Erik Selvig’s working on a little something something in his little basement.” Tony tapped his foot anxiously. Pick up, pick up – “I broke Loki’s mind control over him back in 2012 remember? He owes me.”

____________________________________

It took all Thor had not to crush the phone in his hand, but for all his self-restraint, the heavy chair still toppled backward with a resounding crash onto the floor as he abruptly stood.

Valkyrie looked up – and ducked just in time to dodge what would have been a devastating blow to the skull as Stormbreaker flew over the top of her head and into Thor’s awaiting hand.

“Majesty?” She growled. “What happened?”

Thor did not answer. Tendrils of electricity began to sizzle, enveloping him from his feet all the way up; temporarily blinded, Valkyrie reopened her eyes to the sight of Thor, all bedecked in his full battle regalia.

“Majesty, what is going on?” She had never felt more like stomping her feet, and she was certainly not liking that look in Thor’s eyes. Not one damn bit. “Thor?!”

“Stephen’s been stabbed.”

“What?” Valkyrie could not believe her ears.

Did she not just see the Prince Consort being his perfectly untouchable and annoying self not an hour ago? How could he go from that to stabbed?

A chill ran down her spine.

Loki. Oh Norns. Loki had finally lost his marbles and stabbed his own husband.

“Is he -?” She could not bring herself to say it.

“He’s still in surgery, but it sounds dire.” Thor’s eyes had darkened so much they seemed to be the same shade of dark, turbulent blue. “His attacker has Stian, and now Loki’s gone.”

“What?” She shrieked. “What do you mean, gone? Gone, as in missing?”

“Gone, as in going it alone like the suicidal idiot that he forever is!” Thor raged.

“I’m coming with you.”

“No. Someone has to stay with Aífe. Send Asgard into lockdown if you have to. Whoever this Kaecilius is, he seems to be targeting their entire family.”

“Where are you going?”

“Sweden.”

“Loki’s in Sweden?”

“No.” Thor growled in frustration; all this talk was wasting nothing but time and breath and life. “But Jane is.”

“Thor – ”

But Thor was no longer listening, summoning all his energy for he was going to push Stormbreaker faster than it had ever flown before. “Guard the Princess with your life, Valkyrie.”

And the God of Thunder was gone.

___________________________________

Kamar-Taj had been overrun.

What remained of the Order, Masters and students alike, battled in formation against a horde of Mindless Ones ten to one, and they were not on the winning side.

How Kaecilius managed to turn this many number of sorcerers into Dormammu’s servants within such a short period of time was anyone’s guess.

“He has the Eye,” Master Hamir said tiredly, exhaustion showing in his voice and hand. His stump had long since hung uselessly by his side, a Mindless One had broken his elbow. A quick spell from Loki healed it right then and there, and the fight returned once more to the old man’s eyes.

“Every Mindless One we kill, he resurrects,” Master Hamir said, desperation evident in his eyes and voice. “We need the Sorcerer Supreme.”

“Doctor Strange has fallen.” Loki’s own voice sounded hollow to his ears, as hollow as the gaping hole in his heart.

Master Hamir’s countenance stilled.

“Then we shall not fall.” His golden mandalas glinted off the lenses of his glasses. “Kamar-Taj will not fall. Not today.”

“Not today,” Loki echoed.

The image of Stephen’s face, happy and smiling, flashed through his mind.

“Not today,” he whispered again, and threw himself into the fight.

_______________________________________

“Doctor.” The runner nurse lifted the urinary drainage bag. It was filled with blood.

Christine cursed under her breath. “Call Dr Gaudoin for an emergency consult. Bastard could have nicked the bladder or one of the kidneys.”

There was no mistaking the look of uncertainty in Nick’s eyes; there was no love lost between Stephen and a lot of people in the hospital, and Stephen’s feud with Dr Gaudoin was legendary back when he was still working at Metro-General.

“They made up,” Christine said simply. Despite having backed out from undergoing a vasectomy at the very last minute, (a decision Christine had embraced whole-heartedly for purely selfish reasons, she just did not want to be picking up the pieces had he gone on to regret it further down the line), Stephen and the elderly urosurgeon seemed to have buried the hatchet.

“Where is he bleeding from?” Beads of sweat dotted her forehead. Christine packed even more gauze inside in the attempt to identify and isolate the bleeding vessel.

Nick suctioned more blood from the abdominal cavity, and just as soon as he emptied it, it began to fill up again with spurting, bright-red blood. “This is arterial.”

His eyes narrowed at the anaemic-looking loops of small bowel. They did not look healthy at all. “Check the proximal superior mesenteric artery again.” He looked up as the anaesthesist hung another unit of blood. “That’s what, the fifth bag now?”

“Sixth,” the anaesthetist answered. “And there’s more O-negative on the way. You’d better find the bleeder quickly. Blood pressure’s plummeting, he’s decompensating and not going to hold up for much longer. DIVC’s my second biggest concern.”

“Mid-transverse colon is perforated.” Nick lifted a loop of bowel and angled it better so Christine could see. “Segmental resection and colostomy, followed by a mucous fistula?”

“Can we try primary repair first?” Christine implored. “I don’t want to break the news to him. He hates colostomies, you know that.”

Nick sighed heavily. “I’ll try, but from the looks of it, intestinal ischemia is already setting in. If it turns out to be non-viable, we will have to chuck it out anyway.”

“What do we have, Palmer?” A new voice joined them.

“Dr Gaudoin! That was quick.” Christine’s face brightened slightly.

“Lucky for you, I was next door overseeing a procedure.” Marco snapped on his sterile gloves and joined them just as soon as the nurse tied his gown. “That stabbing incident on the bridge, that was Stephen?”

“There are psychopaths everywhere,” Nick muttered darkly.

“Found it.” Christine lifted the pancreas to take a closer look at the vessels underneath. “There’s a near-complete transection of the superior mesenteric artery, at the level of the exit of the middle colic artery. Oh, this is bad...”

“He can live without his small bowel, Christine,” Nick murmured.

“And sentence him to a lifetime of diarrhea, indigestion and malnutrition? I will never hear the end of it,” Christine said tersely. But Nick was right; the entire length of Stephen’s small intestines looked poorly-perfused and ischaemic, almost grey instead of the usual, healthy pink.

Shit.

“There’s a right renal laceration.” Dr Gaudoin frowned. “I will try to repair it but it’s quite extensive. I might not be able to save it.”

“He can live without a kidney,” Nick murmured.

“Nick, you’re not exactly helping.”

“Sorry. Just being realistic.”

“Who could have done this to him?” Christine felt tears threaten again, blurring her vision. She blinked them away furiously. She needed her eyesight if she was going to save Stephen’s life. She began to work on the torn artery, and hoped against hope that she could still save his bowels. And his kidneys. And everything else he needed to continue living.

“Has anyone told Loki yet?” Nick asked.

Christine’s heart plummeted to the floor. “Jack’s probably with him right now.”

“Loki?” Marco swabbed the blood from an oozing blood vessel and continued suturing.

“Stephen’s…spouse. A patient of Jack’s.” Christine placed the empty needle holder in the kidney dish and picked up a fresh suture. “Got admitted with premature contractions yesterday morning.”

“The wife’s pregnant?” Christine and Nick nodded silently.

“Poor thing,” Marco murmured. “Well. Looks like we have to do our damndest to patch Dr Strange up, don’t we?”

_____________________________________

Loki stabbed his dagger into a Mindless One’s neck, and slashed at another. They were all mortal blows but every so often a green glow would sweep across the courtyard like a laser beam, and the dead would rise again like corn stalks, all flailing limbs and no brains.

If only they would just stay dead.

“Kaecilius!” Loki roared. 

Loki had not seen the man himself ever since he arrived at Kamar-Taj.

Loki launched himself into the air and felled a Mindless One with a devastating kick to the side of the head. His hand glowed green and hot and before the Mindless One could get up off the ground, Loki seared his brains right out of his skull with his seiðr.

The Mindless One twitched and stayed down.

“Burn them! Burn the bodies!” Loki yelled and was about to climb to his feet when a sudden surge of pain drove him back onto one knee.

“Loki!” Another Master he only recognised by face crouched down in front of him.

Loki looked up, and drove his dagger just in time through the eye socket of a Mindless One who would have sliced the Master’s head cleanly off his neck from behind.

“I’m fine,” he groused, accepting the hand up as the contraction thankfully passed. “Just…catching my breath.”

The Master nodded his thanks, and immersed himself once more into the pull of battle.

Loki took in a couple of deep breaths. Freyr and Freyja had not ceased their tossing and turning. Like him, they were restless. “Just hang in there a bit longer, my little ones. I have to get your Brother back.”

Loki drew in another ragged breath as the tightening in his belly eased. “I have to get Stian back.”

He straightened up just in time to see a group of Mindless Ones heading toward him, this one looking more intelligent than the rest of their horde, judging from the myriad of weapons in their hands.

Loki smiled. Kaecilius must have heard him call, and he was answering. Good.

His movements were much slower now but Loki compensated by making sure each stroke, each slash of his dagger count. He kept his feet planted to the ground, only turning around on an axis to prevent too much oscillation and too much disturbance to the centre of his gravity.

This group of Mindless Ones had advanced martial arts training, that much was evident, and Loki was tiring. Perspiration began to stick the tufts of what remained of his hair to the back of his neck.

When Loki lifted his shield nearly a second too late to deflect a kick aimed right for his belly, he lost his grounding and would have fallen backward onto his rear had someone’s metal hands not caught him.

“Reindeer Games.”

“Tony!” he gasped. “What are you doing here?”

“Saving your skinny, pregnant, stupid ass!” Another familiar voice growled, more pissed-off than Loki had ever heard him –

“Bruce!”

Bruce Banner, already halfway green, emerged from the portal, generated courtesy of one Dr Erik Selvig. “Let’s get this show on the road!”

Tony hauled Loki back onto his feet. “Go. Find Stian.”

Loki could not see his eyes behind his mask but his voice was gleeful enough. The palms of his metal hands began to glow as the Mindless Ones surrounded him in a circle. “No rules, am I right?”

Loki grinned viciously. “Don’t die, Stark.”

Tony scoffed affectionately, “Look who's talking.”

__________________________________________________

"I don’t think it’s working,” Christine said worriedly. She had repaired the torn blood vessel and Stephen was no longer actively bleeding out into his abdominal cavity, but the loops of bowel still appeared poorly-vascularised and an unhealthy shade of grey.

“I must have taken too long.” Every word was steeped in regret. “The collateral circulation must have not been able to compensate for the sudden interruption in blood flow.”

“I’ve had to take many sections of large bowel from too many places too distant to each other for satisfactory primary repair.” Nick sounded just as dejected. “There’s no going around it. He needs a colostomy.”

Grief-stricken, Christine finally took a look at Stephen’s face, her first real look at him since they wheeled him into emergency surgery. Stephen had never looked so pale. “We have failed him.”

Marco tossed his bloody scalpel into the kidney dish. “There will be no such talk. You saved his life.”

He glanced at Nick out the corner of one eye.

“And not for the first time too. From what I’ve seen, he has greatly changed. He will not hold this against you.” Marco’s decades of experience spoke with no hint of uncertainty at all. “This is just another patient. Just another person you are trying to keep alive. And you do your best.”

“Now do what you must,” Marco said sternly.

Christine inhaled deeply. “You’re right, Dr Gaudoin.” Her eyes met Nick’s. “You ready?” she asked quietly.

Nick nodded.

“Number 11 blade please,” she murmured, mentally and physically preparing to cut into the loops of dying intestine.

“Christine!”

“Jack?” Christine looked up, her forehead wrinkling in confusion. “Master Wong? What are you doing here?”

“I’ll take over from here,” he said curtly, his hands already glowing green and golden from something he was cupping in his hands.

Jack shrugged helplessly. “Loki.”

________________________________________

 

“Sorcerer Supreme.” Loki’s voice was demure, but his tone was nothing if not blisteringly mocking.

Of course Loki would find him here. In the courtyard where the acacia tree stood, dead and looming over them; an ever-watching silent observer.

“Finally. Someone who doesn’t have to lose a limb or a head before yielding to the inevitability of me.” In his corporeal form, Kaecilius was no less distasteful, the proptosis of his eyes more pronounced, the line of his mouth just as cruel. “Looks like my predecessors trained you well.”

“Your predecessors?” Loki stopped just a few feet shy of the makeshift throne of skulls and bones. Distasteful. “Which one?”

“Whichever one whose leadership couldn’t even run an Order of three hundred sorcerers so…both, I gather?” Kaecilius made himself look busy studying the back of his nails. “Barely a handful of them left alive at last count now. I’ve only been here what, a day? And they have all bowed down to me.”

“The Mindless Ones?” Loki pfft-ed. “Ten a penny nowadays. My…companions are wiping the floor with them as we speak.”

“A man made of recycled old metal and a green beast whose alter ego is a soft putty of a man who seems incapable of killing a fly?” Kaecilius tsk-tsked. “And you call my followers mindless.”

Loki felt the back of his hair stand with static electricity.

He sniffed the air deeply. There was no mistaking it, the scent of faint petrichor in the atmosphere –

Thor. Thor is here.

Loki tried hard not to let his glee show. He kept his face straight and voice flat. “For someone so obsessed with Dormammu, you seem particularly keen to stay.”

“Being one with The Eternal not quite working out for you?” Loki looked him up and down. “Perhaps you lack the strength. The magic.”

“Perhaps you lack a spine.”

Kaecilius rose slowly from his seat.

“Or perhaps I intend to rule this Realm in his name by the authority and the power vested in me by the Order of the Master of the Mystic Arts.” Kaecilius’ tongue turned acerbic at just the thought of her. “The power she withheld from me. My rights and my claim to knowledge denied me, just so that witch could hoard all that power to herself.”

“Have care how you speak.” A soft, unmistakable warning. “She was once my everything. She was better than a thousand of you.”

“So you have a thing for lying, hypocritical Sorcerer Supremes.” A careless shrug. “Chosen by favouritism instead of merit as they were, I do wonder what it is you see in them.”

Kaecilius’ eyes roamed Loki’s figure with open curiousity and not an insignificant amount of newfound interest. “You will not be too disappointed in me then.”

The sight of the Eye of Agamotto around Kaecilius’ neck filled Loki with such anger, fury coloured his words rather than the disgust and scorn he would have preferred. “Stephen is not dead.”

“Stephen?” Kaecilius murmured. “Ah, Mister Doctor. I have forgotten about him. He is quite forgettable.”

“I’m sure he would love to remind you of the time he sealed you and your Zealots in the Dark Dimension when he was barely a fledgling sorcerer.”

“What happened to him was your fault.”

“What?”

“Hospitals are teeming with spirits, dead and nearly dead ones. Did you know the closer they are to life, the stronger the astral forms? All those bodies just lying there, their souls hovering over them just waiting to be allowed inside their vessels, all ripe for the taking.” Kaecilius looked at his now very corporeal hands. “I didn’t even need your husband’s soul anymore.”

“You intended to kill him.”

“Just a bit of fun really.” For such a sunny smile, it did not quite reach his violet-rimmed eyes. “There may have also been an element of payback.”

“What do you want?”

“You know what I want.” The look of confusion on Kaecilius’ face was alarmingly genuine. “You heard him calling too.”

“And you think offering me up to the slaughter would…endear you to Dormammu? Make you one with him, make you less of a Mindless One?” Loki sneered. “You killed The Ancient One. How did that work out for you?”

“It was not The Ancient One Dormammu wanted.”

“And yet you killed her anyway. For that I will not let you live.”

“Such fierce devotion, such beautiful fury.” A breath of emotion finally stirred Kaecilius’ chest. “I am beginning to see what it is they saw in you.”

“You can’t handle me, Kaecilius.” Loki’s lips curled in disgust.  “No matter who you kill, you will never be strong enough.”

“I am but a humble man, Loki. Of humble ambition, and even humbler achievements, I’m sure.” Kaecilius’ very dry brand of sarcasm reminded Loki of Stephen, and not knowing if his husband lived or died made his stomach twist into gnarly, serpentine knots.

“So what will it be, Prince? Will you give yourself willingly? Or will I have to kill you, and make your son watch?” Kaecilius mirrored Loki’s sneer, and watched in satisfaction as his next words wiped all derision from Loki’s face.

“Or maybe I’ll kill him first and make you watch.”

A twist of Stephen’s old sling ring, and the Mirror Dimension around them contracted and pulled around the edges of reality, its walls illuminated by millions upon millions of impenetrable crystals.

Stian.

Stian hung from a good twenty feet off the ground, his head bowed low, his long black hair fallen over his face. Loki could not see his son’s face.

“I’m afraid I am not much of a spectator, ‘Sorcerer Supreme.’ ” Loki’s daggers glinted in his hands.

It was taking all he had not to scream.

“Your soul for your son, Loki.” Kaecilius’ words echoed off the infinite walls of the Mirror Dimension. “A fair trade if ever I’ve seen one.”

“Come now. Is killing children the best you can do? Will that be your first order of business restoring the Kamar-Taj to all its former, bloody glory?”

“Restore?” Kaecilius stared at him long and hard, eyes empty and devoid of emotion, yet calculating and cold. “Maybe.”

Kaecilius aimed the Eye of Agamotto at Stian.

“No!” Loki’s heart leapt to his throat. “Stian!”

At the sound of his Pappa’s voice, all life returned to him and Stian lifted his head,

He screamed a shrill, loud squalling scream, and a burst of cerulean blue seiðr snaked around the green up Kaecilius’ forearm like a serpent meeting its mate.

Kaecilius’ smile faded for The Eye suddenly lifted off his wrist and flew across the yard –

And smacked into Loki’s outstretched hand.

Without thinking, Loki palmed the relic away into his most secure pocket universe, accessible only to him and one that would instantly collapse should grievous harm befall him in some way.

Kaecilius screamed in rage, in his now empty hand a sword, aimed right at Stian’s heart.

He lunged. 

And smiled in satisfaction when he hit flesh and bone.

“Pappa…”

He frowned. How could this child still be talking?

Loki’s vambrace had shattered where the blade had entered his forearm; the sheer thrust had driven it past the tough, fibrous membrane in between the bones in his arm, and out the other side, its bloody tip mere inches away from Stian’s face.

In frustration, Kaecilius tried to pull his blade out but it caught in one of Loki’s bones with a grinding, grating sound –

If there was pain, Loki was not feeling it. With his dagger brandished in his other hand, he sliced through the magical bonds that were suspending Stian to the walls of the Mirror Dimension.

Loki caught his son around the chest as he fell. “Pappa!”

With a sleight of his hand, Loki held out a shining object in between the tips of his fingers. “Take this and run,” he whispered hurriedly. “Now, Stian!”

“NO!” Kaecilius abandoned his attempt at freeing his weapon and lunged for his now-free hostage, but Stian was too small and quick for him, and Loki suppressed a sob of relief as Stian breathed his magic into Loki’s wedding ring and made his escape, flickering out of sight in a swirl of blue and green seiðr.

Kaecilius’ scream of frustration rattled the invisible walls of the Mirror Dimension, but not Loki’s cold heart. Not in the slightest.

“Now.” Loki’s lips pulled back into a wide, maniacal grin. “Shall we play?”

________________________________________

“Wong?” Stephen murmured.

“Shh. Save your strength.”

The golden dome of restorative energy thrummed with magic, forming a giant velodrome of chaotic swirls of healing seiðr over Stephen’s supine, motionless form.

The hospital room was bare, except for a drip stand from which two bags of blood were hung.

Stephen looked at them numbly. He did not remember the last time he had a blood transfusion. Did he have a fall and hit his head again? “What happened?”

“You have been stabbed.”

Ah. Stephen hummed a non-committal grunt of disinterested acknowledgment. “Don’t feel like it.”

Wong sniffed. “I’m not surprised. You’re medicated up to your eyeballs.”

Stephen’s eyes roamed his surroundings blearily. He looked at the green-tinted Wong through the shield of the healing dome.

Loki. This felt like Loki.

Stephen lifted a finger and was surprised to find how much energy that simple movement took. He sent out an inquiring nudge of magic.

It touched the swirling vortex of seiðr around him and it came back unequivocally Loki.

“Loki…”

Wong nodded curtly. “He sent me.”

“Sent you?” Stephen frowned at the peculiar choice of words. “What do you mean he sent you?”

Wong did not answer, only concentrating on healing the myriad of internal injuries modern medicine and surgery could not fix.

In alarm, Stephen tried to rise but everything from his chest down did not seem to work. His limbs lay flaccid by his side, his legs throbbing with a paralysing weakness. He was shivering from head to toe with chills.

Blood loss, he realised. Massive blood loss.

“Wong.” Stephen gritted his teeth to stop them from chattering. “Please.”

“You don’t remember what happened?”

Stephen closed his eyes. He remembered a party. Everyone was there, his friends, his husband, his children –

Stian. Stian wanted something. Something teeth-rotting and definitely of the junk category.

“Kaecilius.” His eyes flew open. “Ambushed me from behind.”

The grief was coming; it was coming now in an avalanche of despair and agony, an agony unparalleled, not even by the crippling, excruciating pain in his gut. “He took Stian.”

Wong nodded wordlessly, his eyes unreadable and downcast.

“Loki?” Stephen asked desperately. Whatever Wong was not saying with his words, he was telling him with his eyes.

“No.” Horror dawned on him. “Don’t tell me Loki’s – ”

“Gone. Loki’s gone, Strange,” Wong said thickly. “We couldn’t stop him.”

“You should have stopped him!” Stephen raised his voice. “He was in no condition to go anywhere!”

“Stephen. We couldn’t stop him.” Wong repeated slowly, just as grief-stricken as the first time he said it.

“I have to go to him. I have to get Stian back.” Stephen tried to rise again, but his body was still not responding. “Fuck!”

“Loki said he had something Kaecilius wanted, and that was why he had to go.”

“What?”

“Said that was the only reason why Kaecilius was keeping your son alive.”

“You’re not making any sense, Wong.” Stephen desperately willed his body to heal faster. He coaxed his magic to bend its will to Loki’s seiðr, and accept it without hindrance. He needed to get out of there quickly, needed to get to his husband, and his son –

They had to still be alive.

“How many times have we had this conversation before, Strange?” Wong asked tiredly. “Loki is one hell of a cryptic bastard but every word he says counts, remember?”

“Now shut up and let me heal you properly so I can get back to doing my real job,” Wong growled. “Kamar-Taj is in chaos, and they need you.”

“Mobilise everybody. The Sanctums. Hong Kong, London.”

“Already done.” Wong said coolly. “Now shut up. You’re ruining everyone’s hard work.”

Stephen closed his eyes tightly so the tears of frustration would not escape. “Wong…my son. My husband.”

Wong would not allow himself to fall into the deathtrap that was panic and pandemonium, and damned if he was going to let his friend lose himself too. “Have faith, Strange. Everything is going to be just fine.”

He sighed with a heaviness that hinted at a reluctance in believing his own words. “Have faith. We have nothing else.”

_________________________________________

“Uncle Thor!”

Stian would know his Uncle’s aura anywhere.

“Stian!” Thor shouted. “Oh thank the Norns!”

Stian threw himself into his Uncle’s arms. “Uncle Thor!”

“Oh Stian.” Thor kissed the side of his head fiercely and ruffled his hair. “Are you alright?’

“I’m fine, Uncle Thor.”

“Take him somewhere safe, Thor!” Tony shot another repulsor beam at another Mindless One, toppling it over. Curiously, this time it stayed down.

He shot at another one. This one did not get up either. “Hey, hey, things are looking up!”

“Where’s your Pappa?” Thor asked urgently. “Have you seen him?”

“Thor, get him out of here!” The Hulk bellowed from somewhere behind them.

“I’m taking you back to Asgard. Lady Val will keep you safe – ”

“No, I need to get to Daddy, Pappa told me to!”

Thor frowned but the lines on his face gave way to a semi-grudging half-smile. It sounded as if Loki was still alive. And by Loki’s standard, that was more than Thor could ever hope for, for now at least.

“Hold on tight, buddy.” Thor held the Stormbreaker tight, and his nephew tighter.

“No, you hold on to me, Uncle Thor.”

“Hey, that’s my line!”

“Not anymore!” Stian yelled. And Uncle and Nephew disappeared in the twinkle of a brilliant, blue star.

____________________________________

“That was a big mistake, Loki of Asgard.”

“You’re forgiven for getting this all wrong.” Loki watched coolly as Kaecilius took a step outside the barriers of the Mirror Dimension. “If you had not gone and died so fast, Karl Mordo could have told you. I have no need of your trinkets to break myself free.”

Kaecilius’ smile diminished. “You knew of him.”

“I also killed him,” Loki said coolly.

“And your Stephen Strange still wants you?” Kaecilius tsk-ed. “Boy the standards have gone down down down since I left.”

“Taunt me all you want. I will end you the same.” His eyes hardened. “Just as dead.”

“I would like to see you try.”

“Gladly.” With a twist of his wrists, Loki summoned the Casket of Ancient Winters.

Kaecilius frowned, more out of curiousity than concern for his wellbeing.

No matter. Loki willed the relic to life, and as it roared in his hands and his form began to change, Loki began to wonder if he had not made a big mistake – shifting between his male and female form was one thing, but to shift between his Aesir and Jotunn form? That was an entirely different thing altogether.

But at the sight of Kaecilius taking more than a few steps backward against the sheer glacial power of the Casket, Loki persevered.

He would never be anyone’s prisoner.

Never again.

And the Mirror Dimension exploded into a million tiny pieces.

Kaecilius took in the red-eyed, ice-skinned form in front of him with new eyes.

Loki willed the change back to his Aesir form, and sucked in a breath when a twinge of pain twisted his belly. It took every ounce of willpower he had to remain standing and not double over in agony.

“You don’t look so good, Prince.”

Loki straightened up again gingerly. “Says the guy whose face looks like he’s been permanently branded with Kool-Aid.”

“Hmm.” Kaecilius’ smile took a turn for the sadistic. “I’m going to enjoy branding you.”

And he pounced like a tiger.

Loki fended off the attack as best as he could, but he could feel the pressure building once again in his abdomen.

Damn it.

Kaecilius took advantage of the slowing of Loki’s movements by slipping in attacks, each one faster and stealthier than the one before.

Hand-to-hand combat was Loki’s forte but the contractions were coming again, and they were coming in fast and hard.

One of Loki’s daggers fell uselessly to the ground when a particularly strong one had him grabbing for his abdomen.

I am going to die, he thought dimly, as his reflexes took over, sliding in and out of the way of Kaecilius’ merciless rain of kicks and punches. He deflected one too late and took a knee to the gut, the only thing sheltering his babies from the devastating blow being the protective layer of seiðr over his belly. Still, the force pushed Loki a few yards backward, sliding across the ground on one knee.

No.

Loki knew not what came over him, but he closed his eyes. Perhaps if he closed them tight enough, everything around him would stop moving.

“I will not die today,” he whispered. “Not like this.”

He opened his eyes again, only to see Kaecilius marching toward him brandishing his swords of glass, one in each hand, glinting and sinister.

There was only one thing left to do –

Old Irish rolled off his tongue, desperate and in song.

“Macha.”

Hear me. Hear my plea.

If thy strength were as iron, thy bones as light as the wings of birds…

Help me.

Freagair dom, O Mhacha.

Answer me.

Please.

“Lugh.”

A sweet melodious voice answered.

And Loki raised his forearms just in time to the level of his eye, and the twin glass swords cracked against his crossed vambraces, the shards falling and shattering against the hard ground. A splinter flew and grazed his cheek.

The surge of ancient energy coursed through Loki’s veins; he could feel it burn hot and scalding, evoking memories long lost to human history, but as fresh to his as the blood running down his face. But Loki was no longer feeling the pain.

Loki leapt to his feet and lunged. Macha was as strong and resilient and fast as he remembered, and as she moved like the wind within him, Loki felt the ground shake beneath his feet as her ancient Celtic magic stirred from its dormant, centuries-long sleep.

“What is this?” Kaecilius hissed. “What is this power I am smelling on you?”

Loki only smiled. Macha was not very talkative by nature. His fists moved with lightning speed, catching Kaecilius in every exposed joint, every exposed patch of skin, his grotesque face, his neck, his chest.

And at the same time, Loki’s long legs lashed out in succession one after the other, catching Kaecilius in the groin once or twice unapologetically. The agonising labour pains had all but disappeared, and Loki was flying.

Frustrated, Kaecilius raised his hands and the world around them folded unto itself; out the corner of his eye, Loki watched disinterestedly as a brick wall came careening toward him like a giant accordion.

“Like I said.” Loki raised a cool hand and the brick wall stopped a good ten metres away. “Trinkets are for children.”

The mark on his forehead burned.

He balled his hand into a fist, and the brick wall changed its trajectory and headed straight for Kaecilius.

Kaecilius slapped his hands and spread his arms apart; the brick wall split into two and parted harmlessly past him like the Red Sea.

And suddenly something slammed into Loki from behind and he lurched forward.

Golden tendrils snaked out of Kaecilius’ hands and wrapped around Loki’s throat, the last gust of air escaping his constricted airway in a sputtered gasp.

A dagger appeared in his hand, but Kaecilius thwarted his attempt to cut the tendrils loose by knocking it out of his hand with another lash of the golden whip.

The second whip wrapped itself around the back of Loki’s shoulders and pulled him forward with such force it buckled his knees, and Loki shielded himself just in time before he slammed into the trunk of the acacia tree. A quick run-through affirmed that his babies were safe but the impact still left him shaken.

He climbed to his feet only to find himself shoved backward into the trunk by a hand at his throat.

“This is the end, Prince.”

And Kaecilius rammed his sword into Loki’s stomach.

_____________________________________________

“Daddy!”

“Stian?” Against his better judgment, Stephen pushed himself up on his elbows. The stitches pulled at his wound but the only thing in his line of vision, therefore the only thing on his mind, was his son. “Stian!”

Stian jumped out of Thor’s arms and threw himself at his father.

Stephen kissed him fiercely all over his face. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

“Thor?” He craned his neck in vain for any sight of his husband. His heart fell at the sight of Thor’s grim, tight face. “Loki?”

Stian was the one who answered, his eyes quickly filling with tears. “Pappa saved me, Daddy. The bad man took my ring and he tied me up and I couldn’t escape –”

He held out a gleaming object in the small palm of his hand. Stephen’s throat dried at the sight of Loki’s ring.

“You need to go to him, Daddy.” Tears were streaming Stian’s face in fat, silent globules. “The bad man’s going to hurt him.”

______________________________________

Loki’s mouth formed a perfect circle as his breath escaped in a silent gasp.

This is a dream. Just a dream.

The sadistic smile never leaving his face, Kaecilius thrust his sword in deeper past flesh and babies and bowels, and blood began to seep from the slit where the blade had entered Loki’s stomach.

Kaecilius drew back slightly to admire his work and was about to conjure another sword when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

He turned around, and a blast of raw seiðr propulsed him backward –

And impaled him on his very own blade.

Kaecilius felt the tip of the sword protruding through his right breast with trembling fingers. “What?”

Lok’s shadow loomed over him, tall and dark. He stepped into the light, unharmed and very much alive.

“An illusion?” Kaecilius whispered.

“I saw you coming from a mile away, Kaecilius.” Loki smiled benignly. “She showed me.”

“She?”

A blade, silver and gleaming and thrumming with ancient magic, appeared in Loki’s hand. At two feet long, it was too short for a sword, yet too long to be called a dagger.

Kaecilius tried to remove himself from the tree, but the magic he had breathed into his own sword with the intention to impale Loki onto the tree was potent, and made no less potent for impaling an illusion did not count – Kaecilius’ magic had devoured its own master.

“So this is revenge?” he spat.

Loki regarded him silently, twirling his blade in the air a few times as if deciding whether to kill him or to spare him –

“You can’t do it, can you?” Kaecilius grinned. “Because deep down you’re a coward and a hypocrite just like that witch –”

and with both hands on the hilt, Loki slid it cleanly into Kaecilius’ heart.

Blood began to bubble from the corner of his mouth.

So…is this revenge?

“Just a bit of fun really,” Loki whispered in grief. “There may have also been an element of payback.”

For Aífe .

Loki drove Fragarach deeper into Kaecilius until its hilt was buried in his chest.

For Stephen.

Kaecilius stared at him, eyes filmy with tears.

Yet he felt not a single shred of sympathy.

“Do you name your weapons, mortal?” Loki purred. “I do.”

“This one is called The Answerer. The Whisperer if it disturbs your rebellious sensibilities,” Loki said silkily. “It cuts though any shield, any wall, any man.” He cocked his head. “Once it is embedded in you, you can neither move nor tell a lie.”

“Try it,” Loki said coyly. “I haven’t used it in over a thousand years, I am quite eager to see for myself.”

He watched in fascination as Kaecilius sagged against the tree, unable to speak, unable to blink, blood as black as ink trickling down the side of his mouth.

“Cat finally got your tongue?” Loki whispered. “No matter. As long as your eyes are open so I could watch when the life finally leaves you.”

A dagger materialised in his hand, the very same he had driven through the Kree Yon-Rogg’s skull.

A shadow flitted past his peripheral vision.

The apparition sharpened, and Kaecilius’ dimming eyes widened, the glimmer of recognition darkening his irises a dark, burnt caramel. 

“Ah, Mr Librarian,” Loki said brightly.

He listened to ghostly words only he could hear.

“As you wish.” He sighed.

He turned around to face Kaecilius once more and gave the dying man an almost apologetic shrug. “Sorry, mate. Dead man’s wish.”

With one quick stroke, Loki slid his dagger cleanly across Kaecilius’ neck, slicing through the sinews and bones like butter.

It thudded heavily onto the ground and rolled a few feet, before it finally stopped at the feet of the Librarian.

Thank you, the apparition mouthed.

Loki smiled. At least, in death the Librarian was whole again.

Loki retrieved Fragarach and stowed Lugh’s sword away.

He crushed Kaecilius’ sword into powdered crystal, blowing it into the air to be carried off by the wind at his command.

With both swords retrieved, Kaecilius’ headless body dropped unceremoniously to the ground in a tangle of disjointed limbs and sluggish, stagnating blood.

The mark was burning hotter and hotter now. Loki held a hand to his forehead, and the other on the blood-soaked tree trunk.

He commanded the Dark Dimension to open, and he stared into the abyss, its gaping maw as dark and as black as he remembered. He waited for the fear to come.

It did not.

“Dormammu.”

“Loki of Asgard.” Despite its earthshattering rattle, the roaring rasp came across apathetic and flat. “It has been too long.”

“Not long enough.” Loki amplified his voice with the force of his seiðr. “You have not been holding up your end of the bargain.”

“Had I come near Asgard I would have known, little swiftlet.”

At a twist of Loki’s hand, Kaecilius’ severed head floated off the ground. “And yet you sent your pet after me.”

“Opportunists, you and I, Loki of Asgard.”

“Asgard is no more.”

“So our agreement is null and void.” Dormammu’s disembodied voice was titillated with glee.

“Null and void, yes,” Loki said, his voice mellow yet unshakably firm. “But you shall not have my soul. And you will not come for Earth.”

A sharp grin. “It is under my protection now.”

Dormammu bellowed, its hearty laughter sinister and echoing. But it stopped abruptly as it caught sight of what Loki was holding in his other hand.

“Do we have a deal?” Loki asked softly. The Eye of Agamotto burned in his hand, its green glow made all the more resplendent and blinding by the brilliance of his seiðr. “O Dread Lord Dormammu?”

With a roar, Dormammu retreated, and the portal to the Dark Dimension and all portals to the Dark Dimension thereafter collapsed unto themselves.

The wind carried the whisper of a spell, and instantly, the dying tree spontaneously combusted in a great, big fire, its flames an unearthly green and scorching.

And Loki of Asgard watched as the acacia tree burned, until it was nothing but a husk of black, charred cinders.

___________________________________

He staggered across the courtyard. His footfalls, moments ago airy and as light as feathers, now dragged the earth akin to leaden weights pulled by force by beasts plowing arid and rocky fields.

There was a peculiar pain in his belly, gripping and clamping.

He fell to his knees just as a pair of hands caught him and lowered him to the ground.

“Loki,” he heard someone say.

The arms encircled his shoulders just as a heavy tarp-like piece of fabric wrapped around him everywhere else, and he felt as if he was floating, as much as one could float when one was laid out on a patch of dirt that was getting wetter and wetter beneath him by each passing second.

He wished whoever was holding him could at least hold him somewhere it was not raining.

He sighed.

“Loki!” The voice called again.

He opened his eyes.

Stephen reached up to grasp the side of Loki’s face but his fingers stilled in mid-air –

The eyes staring back at him were not Loki’s eyes.

“Whoever you are…” Stephen's voice hardly sounded like his own for its perilous trembling. “Thank you.”

“But please return him,” Stephen murmured, heart thundering in his chest like a stampede of rabid stallions. He braved a gentle thumb across the high arch of the vessel’s cheekbone.

The red eyes stared back at him, blown pupils scarlet and dilated.

“Return him to me,” Stephen implored again.

The eyes narrowed. This person was not Cruinden. Cruinden was long gone.

Cruinden did not hold her like this in the end.

Or perhaps he did. It was more difficult to recall things that happened after one became dead.

Macha closed her eyes.

Stephen’s chest stilled, he was not going to take another breath, not until

Loki opened them again.

“Stephen?” he murmured. “Is it…really you?”

“It’s me,” Stephen nearly wept at the sight of his husband’s familiar ocean-green eyes. “It’s me, Loki.”

“Loki…” he sighed in content, and closed his eyes again. He longed for rest. If only his stomach would stop hurting. “That’s my name.”

Macha may have bestowed upon Lugh her supernatural strength and her otherworldly speed, but she could not spare him her fate. It was written in her stars.

And Loki’s stars were fading, just as the world began to fade before him. Oh, but how his stomach hurt.

“Stephen…” It was Tony who saw.

Stephen looked down.

A warm, sweet-smelling liquid was spreading on the ground, pooling underneath Loki like the welling of a wound staked deep into the belly of the earth.

There was no mistaking it. Loki’s waters had broken.

The Eye of Agamotto fell from Loki’s grasp –

And the screams of agony began.