It was just shy of two months.
Loki had expected a year would pass before his return to Midgard—a year at the very least—and now he stood on Norway’s soil for the second time since that initial departure. The New Year had not even come to pass. Christmastime was nigh. When he and Thor departed, there had been rotting pumpkins on the doorsteps, and now there was evergreen garland.
Seine, Norway. It still smelled of fish, but now it was...holiday fish? There was a sweet smokiness to the air and Loki breathed deep.
The sky was completely dark; the Polar Night had finally arrived, but that only meant there were thousands of fairy lights twinkling at what would have otherwise been the middle of the afternoon. A warm welcome, Loki decided. More and more, he had to admit he actually liked some Midgardian customs, at least the Scandinavian ones. Christmastime was more about nature here, the phases of the moon, the position of the cosmos. Aside from the religious significance, it was not too unlike Yule. This place and Asgard would always share a deep bond with one another. A familiarity.
He began to trek through the village hills on foot. The final league of his journey. It felt like the longest segment of all, the path to Cora’s house, both physically and poetically. Too close for a portal, too far for his heart not to be pounding by the time he reached the door.
But really, traveling between Midgard and New Asgard—or more accurately, Naphurn , the small, sovereign planet where the Asgardians had been given a parcel of land—was far easier than Loki expected. He’d procured a decent ship, he’d been given Thor’s blessing to visit as often as he desired, and he was working with Stephen Strange to ensure all this went without meddling by the government powers that distrusted Loki’s prolonged interest in Midgard.
For once, the odds had broken in his favor. If luck was real, then his had been astonishingly good as of late. Loki, God of Mischief, or whatever the hell he was these days, was beginning to trust that the Norns did not have it out for him. At least, not as much as he’d always believed.
Cora tended to hyper-focus on whatever task was at hand, blind and deaf to the world while she worked. Loki took advantage of this whenever he could. Was it childish to creep his way into the house, just to see if he could make her jump? Yes. Absolutely. But she had known what she was getting into when she gave him a key.
The key hardly mattered, of course; walls hardly mattered, but opening a door without a sound was the sort of challenge Loki had difficulty resisting. Inside, he removed his boots and glided down the hall, feeling wicked in all the best ways.
His arrival was a day early. He was totally unexpected. Cora was in the kitchen, standing at the island, chopping vegetables with a large knife, listening to holiday music on the radio. There was a Christmas tree in the corner and festive gnomes scattered across the house, some even perched among her vast collection of Norse artwork and artifacts.
A pot on the stove was releasing a steady billow of steam. A pan sizzled. The smell of onion was in the air.
Cora was wearing a pink blouse, fluttering and long enough to serve as a dress over her dark leggings. Her bare feet squeaked on the wooden floor. She looked exceedingly pensive, almost cross with her onions as she chopped them, with a few strands of her whitish hair clinging to her burdened brow.
Loki could have led a horse in-hand through the kitchen and Cora might not have noticed until it whinnied. He wondered if he should simply jump and shout—not really his style, but it would get the job done. Then again, he’d once seen Cora slip with a similarly large cake knife and, regardless of her ability to magically heal, the memory of her bloodied hand still haunted him.
Loki waited for her to safely place the knife to the side.
She turned to drop the chopped vegetables into the pan. Quick as a snap, Loki positioned himself against the living room wall, folding his arms and bending a knee—immediately realizing the look would have been far more attractive if he’d kept his boots on rather than exposing his socks, but Cora was already turning around.
He cleared his throat. “Pardon the intrusion, lovely—”
Cora screamed. Loki doubled over, laughing. For a second, she looked as though she might throw something—hm, just where had that kitchen knife ended up? But then her face lit with a joy Loki suspected would stagger his heart for as long as Cora reserved it for him. Eternally, he hoped, although he kept that part to himself. They had only been lovers for weeks, but she made him feel like the most damned of all sentimental fools.
She ran to him. She pulled him down into a kiss. She was so solid in his arms. That was the best part, the sensation of muscle and bone and warmth pressed against his chest, after so much empty air. The way Cora smelled, like coffee from her cafe and honeysuckle from her perfume—and fresh vegetables, at the moment. The way she slowly drew her hands down the sides of his face, as though she was begging him to kiss her just the slightest bit more .
There was work to occupy him in New Asgard. Plenty of it. He was the right-hand man of Thor, who was at last making good use of him. Loki was never bored, which was saying a lot. At night, he was even social. He had friends—well, they were really Thor’s friends, as per usual, but they seemed to like him more than the Warriors Three ever had. They laughed at his jokes, they seemed happy when he was around.
But Loki’s eyes would turn again and again to the vacant spot where Cora ought to be, and his spirits would take on water. When he wasn’t alone, it wasn't impossible to divert himself, but he could only be social up to a fairly low threshold and then he needed to actually be alone. To recharge. To rest.
But the solitude he sought, Loki had discovered, didn’t preclude Cora, and it was then that her absence seemed to fill every corner of his mind. And his home. Leaving behind his tasks and his companions only caused Loki’s heart to bloat with a desire to see her, to talk with her. To enjoy doing absolutely nothing with her.
At night, his house echoed. Loki’s very thoughts echoed, trapped in his skull with nowhere to go. And his bed—which he had selected to suit two, in a hope-filled, love-drunk haze—felt more like a chilly, empty plane which stretched all the way back to Norway.
Now, Cora looked up at him with the remnants of surprise still hanging on her. She looked fatigued—although it occurred to Loki that she, too, might be suffering restless nights in an equally lonely bed. Was it wrong to hope she felt his absence acutely?
Her eyes took their time tracing his face. Her muscles were tense, almost hard beneath her shirt. She caressed his cheek and sighed. A sound of relief? Was she ever fearful he wouldn’t return?
It had happened before. Long ago. A husband who’d vanished, who’d been taken from her and was long dead before she’d realized he was never coming home.
Cora lifted onto her toes and pressed her forehead against his. Loki tightened his hold until her body at last began to soften in his arms. “I thought you wouldn’t be here until tomorrow morning,” she said.
“Neither did I, and that is why I left a day early.” Loki couldn’t help but chortle at himself. His arrangement was to meet with Strange tomorrow, but now he wouldn’t have to rush off. “I’m yours for the entire evening, if you think you can find some use for me.”
“I think I can. How are you at washing dishes?”
“Oh, the absolute worst! ”
Loki dug into her hips and lifted her onto the island counter, still mindful of where the knife had ended up. She giggled—a rare sound from his oh so mature , sensible Cora. He grinned up at her and she looked down at him from above, combing through his hair and glided over his cheeks.
Her smile waned as her breathing slowed. She swallowed. She looked far too serious.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, half-laughing because everything was perfect. Cora needn’t have worried for a second. Why else would she appear so somber?
“Sorry, I’m...just so happy you’re here. It’s been—”
“I’m still in shock that you can be here this often, after what we expected.”
“It’s still three weeks of...” Loki paused, unsure if he was capable of conjuring words poetic enough to convey what he felt like to be in his empty house, day after day. “...missing you.”
She kissed him—although Loki had thought his words deplorably lacking.
There were moments when Loki wondered how any of this could be real, how a person could really look at him and kiss him the way Cora did, with tenderness, as though his absence had been sorely felt and she was less happy without him.
That he wasn’t capable of adding a weight to someone’s life.
Loki pushed himself as close to her as he could. He anchored his swimming mind on the scent of the peppers and tomatoes, and even the onions, clinging to Cora’s skin. Everything smelled very real, at any rate. He spotted a container of feta cheese at his elbow and knew at once that Cora was making a meal she called Greek pasta . One of her favorite, overly pungent foods.
“Can dinner wait?” he asked, although his hands were already moving beneath Cora’s blouse. Her skin was so warm. He wanted to bury himself inside her. All of him. Everything.
She glanced at the stove, looking more forlorn about her decision than Loki would have liked. “Well…”
“You’re actually thinking this over?”
“No, of course dinner can wait. I’m just—Oh!”
Loki wrapped her up and carried her away from the kitchen, not entirely sure where he was going until his back touched the wall. He turned around, pressing the wall into service to support her.
Her lips parted as she caught her breath. She looked as though she had something to say.
“What?” he teased.
Cora shook her head. “Nothing.”
Loki kissed the underside of her chin, as though it might coax out whatever it was, but all she did was tip her head back. Loki closed his eyes and kissed her harder, wetter, concentrating all his efforts on a little nook where her skin was pillow soft. She moaned. He tugged at the elastic waist of her leggings.
He snapped his fingers. The gas on the stove cut, the pan stopped sizzling, the pot stopped boiling. The snap was just for show. Cora pulled back, raising an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Don’t pretend like you’re not impressed.”
“Snapping, though. After everything?”
“I am reclaiming the gesture.”
Cora laughed softly. “Reclaim me instead…” she whispered in his ear.
With a pathetic whimper of a sound, Loki’s entire body involuntarily rolled. He pressed himself against her hips and buried his face in her neck. They were still dressed, but he could feel her as though they weren’t. Her heat. Her pulse.
“Love me…” she whispered.
“I love you—” Her voice jumped and caught as he moved. “Oh hell, I really need this.”
“You have. No idea.”
Oh, yes I do, Loki tried to say.
But he was already beyond words.
“Could you get the olives from the refrigerator?”
They’d gotten dressed. More or less. Loki’s open shirt flitted as he moved around the kitchen as Cora’s newly-appointed sous chef, although he was a sub-par cook by all counts. It hadn’t been remotely part of his royal education.
Even now, he wasn’t learning anything. He was a glorified go-fer, but he didn’t mind. He almost enjoyed it. Perhaps part of him had always been a little more domestic than he’d allowed himself to believe. The camaraderie, the intimacy, the bounce of Cora's bare thighs, not to mention the occasional glimpse of her undergarments.
Her leggings were still at large. Well, actually, Loki had spotted them in a corner several minutes ago, but didn’t think it necessary to interrupt her work. She’d returned to a state of intense, almost stern focus, chopping vegetables. Besides it was warm in the kitchen with the stove back on. Cora didn’t need her leggings; if she wanted them, that was on her.
The Greek Pasta was taking shape. It had been weeks since Loki had eaten something other than the Asgardian penchant for fat and meat, in that order. It was fine, he’d been raised on it, but it was repetitive.
He pulled open the refrigerator door, as he’d been told. His eyes scanned for olives. “Where?”
“Plastic container in the back.”
He saw no plastic container, least of all one filled with olives. Cora’s refrigerator was bare. Everything she needed was already on the counter. “It does not appear that you have any.”
Cora spun around, looking for all the universe as though he’d personally just admitted to throwing her entire dinner into the garbage. It was enough to make Loki’s stomach jump and then sink, although he wasn’t sure if it was out of pity or if he was caught unprepared by the overloaded drama of it all.
“Please tell me you’re joking,” she said.
“I wouldn’t dare.” Loki stepped aside so she could see for herself. Cora pushed through the refrigerator's contents, noisily moving what little there was to one side and then the other, muttering profanities under her breath.
An overreaction, he thought. “Why in the Nine would you set to the task of making Greek Pasta without checking for a key ingredient?”
Cora made a gruff sound, just shy of growling, which Loki thought was unfair, given how gloriously astute his observation had been. “Because I thought I had them, obviously ,” she said.
Loki shrugged. She had everything else, but the olives were, perhaps, the most Greek of all the necessary ingredients. Even he knew that.
Cora closed the refrigerator door, not quite slamming it, but with more force than necessary, and began massaging jet temples. she massaged her temples. “Stupid olives...”
“I can conjure some for you.”
Cora wrinkled her nose at the offer, but she had a point. The food Loki could create was rarely as good as its natural counterpart. He could only make what he knew exceptionally well, and even then the outcome was typically murky. It was food, but only just.
He decided to make an attempt, anyway. He waved his hand and a bowl of purple olive-looking things appeared on the counter. Cora picked one off the top and tasted it with the slightest glimmer of hope in her eyes. “Oh, Loki...” She shook her head.
He tried one. Her reaction had been kind. It tasted awful, like salt with no other discernible flavor.
“They might be better once you mix them with everything,” he said, unconvincingly, as he swallowed and discovered his mouth had already gone completely dry.
Cora made a pitiful sound, and Loki might have continued to tease her if it was not also so heartfelt. The pasta would essentially taste the same, would it not?
She stared at the floor, frowning. Her fingers began to twist the side of her blouse—her familiar anxious tick. Loki’s forehead tensed.
“I know I’m acting like a child. Give me a minute to mope and I’ll be fine.”
Her candidness felt staggeringly sincere, although Cora, like his brother, did not have a disingenuous bone in her body. It was occasionally difficult for Loki to process how a person could be so devoid of guile.
He also didn’t think she was acting remotely like a child. His concern turned to sympathy—or guilt, actually, although he could not put his finger on just why he should feel such a thing. He’d come in the door and distracted her from cooking, but that was hardly worth feeling guilty over—and yet, he did. It pricked at him. Was he picking up on something else? Was this about something more than olives? Were olives, perhaps, the remedy for another problem?
Loki suspected he was overthinking this, but he could not imagine himself grumbling over lost food that wasn’t dessert.
She looked around what she had ready. “It’ll be fine without them. You’re hungry, aren’t you? Let’s eat.”
Loki nodded. “I’m sure it will be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.”
Was there an echo in the room?
They ate and it was fine, at least the flavor of the dish was fine. Cora must have enjoyed it, because she had several helpings. Loki didn’t really care for olives, anyway. He was just glad to be eating with someone who wasn’t Thor.
He called forth a bottle of wine, one he had stored away and didn’t need to create from scratch. Alcohol was next to impossible to replicate. When it wasn’t real and properly aged, it tasted like the sort of thing suited to cleansing wounds. “I picked this up in France,” he said. He had vintages from far more distant corners of her universe, but he knew what Cora liked. “French wine goes with Greek pasta, doesn’t it?”
He thought this was a funny thing to say, but Cora did not laugh. She worked her jaw. “Oh. Yes. Probably.”
The same shadow had crossed her face.
“I have other bottles...” he said.
“Um. No, I can get wine glasses.” She’d already risen from the table when Loki called forth his own. She stared down at them, at him, before sitting again.
Loki didn’t pass a glass across the table.
It was as though she was in some sort of doorway, glancing again and again at whatever was going on in the next room, something Loki could not see, but he could sense. He wasn’t stupid. Or he wasn't that stupid. Something had been amiss since the moment he entered. She’d been so serious. He’d diverted her attention, perhaps selfishly. Was that why he felt guilty?
He hated feeling guilty. He hated how familiar the feeling was and he hated asking if he’d done, because the answer was usually yes—but he had to ask.
“No,” she said emphatically. “It’s not you.”
But that only confirmed that something, in fact, had happened. Loki waited. Cora pressed her lips together.
She was usually so forthright.
She shook her head. “It’s not…”
Was it nothing? Some inconsequential trifle in the grand scheme of things? A minor issue in the village or some other tiny thing which there was no point in troubling him with, not when their time together was so limited.
But Loki very much desired for her to trouble him with it, whatever it was, and her hesitation turned his stomach. It was the strangest part of loving someone, be it Cora or Thor or his mother: the need to know when something was wrong so that he could attempt to fix it, in spite of the fact that he was terrible at fixing things. The effort counted, didn’t it?
Loki realized he was staring at her now, accusing her. He knew he was visibly uncomfortable. He’d shed too much of his stoicism over the past year, what little he had ever been able to call his in the first place. Loki knew she could see through him as well as he could see through her.
She took a very long, very deep breath. Her hesitation was grating on him like a knife. At his core, Loki's hurt always quickly gave over to anger. “You suspect I won’t take whatever it is well.” He didn’t praise it as a question. He was beginning to snap.
“It might be nothing."
He flinched. His blood chilled. “What does that mean?”
She looked to the side. She shook her head again. She seemed...utterly at a loss...and Loki went from feeling cold to positively freezing.