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The Littlest Valkyrie

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The night smelt of death and an acrid, unnatural stench that came from burning metal and concrete. Barbed wire, once strung so tight around the perimeter, it sang like a demon's harp when tugged, now formed macabre nooses, bearing the burdens of mutilated corpses in uniforms of gray stained red and brown with blood. These were the merciful deaths. The greater criminals, almost all of them still in throes of death, were stripped naked and trusted between the fence posts, helpless to defend themselves from the wild beasts that were circling the compound, waiting for the chance to strike and then feast. Even if the creatures began to fight amongst themselves for the feast laid and waiting, the men would not die from exposure.

Magic had seen to that.

How utterly fitting; to feel the cold surround you, crush you, and fill your lungs until you were certain you would drown from the lack of warmth and slip into blessed unconsciousness before death, magic was keeping the hearts and lungs of these men perfectly regulated.

For a moment, the cause of this destruction merely stood, surveying his work. He was aware of the cold; far colder than it ever was on Asgard, yet not nearly as frigid as Jotunheim. Loki Odinson's opinion of humans wasn't exactly high; he found them to be amusing most of the time, the way one might think of a beloved pet. But there was one thing that set him off against any race of beings in the Nine Realms. From elves to humans to dwarves – anyone, anyone who harmed children, they were always the one he wanted to feel his wrath. Children were defenseless, children didn't start wars, children certainly didn't ask to be born. Those that harmed the most innocent creatures in the Nine Realms, they were the real monsters.

Loki supposed that even the frost giants of Jotunhiem loved and cared for their children.

What the people in this facility were doing to little girls was beyond contempt. He had just been out for a walk on Midgard, trying to relax. Walking the realms was comforting at times; Father had done it in his youth, when he was Thor's age. Now he did it. Stumbling across a place where men and women were taking advantage of innocent children – one moment he'd been standing in the snow and in the next, all he could see was red.

Snow and ashes intermingled around Loki as he turned and walked resolutely away from the smoldering compound. In the distance, he could hear the dogs he'd released from their kennels running into the woods, whimpering in pain as they encountered the wolves and other beasts waiting to devour bigger, more helpless prey. As he came to a bend in the dirt road, a scream rent the air, followed by a snarl, and then the scream became more shrill. He smirked, wondering if it was the fat commandant who would make Volstagg look emaciated, or the reedy captain who he'd discovered beating a girl who could not be older than five.

The slain girls he'd placed together and turned the compound into their pyre. If anyone had been with him; Thor, Sif, Fandral... more girls might have survived.

Many of the 'teachers' and 'guards' who should have protected the children had instead slaughtered them like lambs. And lambs they were. Innocent and blameless in this nightmare.

One child survived. One little girl, the one he'd found being beaten. She was bundled up in his cloak, save for one slim hand that clung to the collar of his shirt. The cold wasn't bothering Loki in the slightest. Anger, rage, and adrenaline were keeping him warm as he continued onward, heading towards one of the passageways between Midgard and his home. A timid tug caused him to stop for a moment and he looked down at the small girl, the hood of his cloak falling back to reveal her face. “Yes, my little fox?”

The red headed girl looked up at him, her eyes wide with a mixture of fear and wonder. “Aren't you cold?” Her voice was barely a whisper, and just by the tone, he could tell she was afraid of what he'd say in response.

“No, little one.” He smoothed down her hair and gave her a smile. “I have my leathers to keep me warm, and my socks and boots are almost toasty. There is nothing to make you feel cold faster than having cold feet. But do not worry, soon we will be in a place where a cold like this does not exist.” He hugged her close and continued onward. “What is your name, little fox?”

The girl sniffled and tightened her grip on his shirt. “Natasha.” She coughed. “I... I don't know what my last name is – or how old I am.”

“I suspect birthdays were wholly ignored in that... that... prison you were in.” Loki can't think of a better name for the facility the Soviets called 'The Red Room' – at least, not in front of small child, or a woman. Warrior culture or not, there were just some things you never said in the company of a lady. He ducked under a low branch and slid down a small embankment. “Do you know how long you were there?”

“Long as I can remember.” Natasha sneezed. “There aren't any scary men in white coats where you live, are there?”

Loki moved to hold the girl with one arm as they came to a narrow opening between two rocks. “Hold on tight, little one, this part is difficult and I need at least one of my hands.” He felt her hand grip his garments as they slipped through the gap, and he moved at an almost crouch until he could stand, a thin trickle of light seeping in through the crack above them. Just being out of the wind made a vast difference in temperature. “No, there are no men in white coats to harm you where I am from.” He kissed the top of her head. “Let us rest for a moment, now that we're safely away.”

The girl nodded as Loki set her on one of the large boulders in the passageway. “It's not so cold.”

“No.” He straightened up and adjusted how the cloak was wrapped around her, making sure to tuck her feet underneath. “But I bet that helps, doesn't it?”

Natasha smiled weakly and pulled the fur collar closer to her chin. “It does, thank you.”

He sat down on a smaller rock facing her. “What excellent manners you have, little fox.”

She giggled, and then looked chagrined at her humor. “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” He gave her a flabbergasted look. “For what?”

“For laughing. I'm not supposed to laugh.” The look on her face was so solemn and fearful, it nearly made Loki weep.

“Enough of that sort of thinking. Little girls are supposed to laugh. In fact, everyone should laugh. I believe it is part of healthful living to have a good laugh at least once a day, possibly more.” He frowned. “Norns, I did not think to ask, are you hungry?” He came over and tucked the cloak around her again, it kept falling free. No wonder, he was nearly three feet taller than she. “We left in a great hurry.”

She shook her head and it looked as if she hugged herself. “I'm too scared to eat.” She looked at him, her eyes wide, brimming with ears. “I keep seeing...” Natasha swallowed. “Those girls were my friends.”

“I'm sorry, little fox.” He sighed, some of the drive and anger finally wearing off. “We shall continue on. As my mother is fond of saying, sometimes a hot bath and a good night's sleep can work wonders.” He smoothed down her hair, taking note of the bruises that were starting to form on her face. “and if you need to sleep before we get to our destination, that is perfectly fine.”

Natasha slowly nodded, and then frowned, looking around the cave with trepidation. “Are we going back outside?”

“No.” Loki held up his hand, concentrated for a moment, and then a ball of yellow light formed on the tips of his fingers. He tossed it casually up towards the roof of the cave, where it hovered, a half a foot above his head. “We're going another way.” He picked Natasha up and began to walk home once more.

*

It was an unspoken truth that if you wanted to know what was going on in the palace, ask a servant. Thor had learned this a long time ago, but even he had to balk a little at the ridiculous rumor the maid who brought his midnight dinner had told him. Loki being back on Asgard, he could believe; his brother had gone for a walk three weeks ago, he went for these walks all the time. But the fact that he'd returned from Midgard with a little girl? That was impossible. He must have misheard the woman, Loki would sooner come back with a strange animal that had fascinated him instead of a human being. If he hadn't been sore from a hard day's training, and tired from a night out with his friends, he would have gone to see his brother to confirm that it was a falsehood.

So it came to a great shock to the warrior when he went into Loki's room and found him sitting calmly by his bed with a mug of tea, watching over a tiny, flame haired girl. “Brother?” He winced at the loudness of his voice.

“Shh...” Loki whispered, pressing a finger against his lips. “Natasha is still sleeping.” He touched her forehead and stood up. “You are gaping like a wide mouthed bilgesnipe, Thor. One would think you've never seen a child.”

“I...” He bit back a laugh. “I did not want to believe it could be true. It is so unlike you.”

His brother snickered and went to the table where breakfast was laid out. “Have you eaten yet?”

“I have.” Thor went and joined him, still confused. “Do Mother and Father know about this?”

“Yes.” His brother frowned. “But, as I returned very late last night, neither of them offered to much of an opinion on the matter.” He sat down at the table, fixing himself a plate from the assorted fruit, meats, and breads laid on in front of him. “You're free to join me, if you're still hungry.”

He snorted and sat down in a second chair, quickly making himself a sandwich out of a biscuit, bacon, and jam. “Where did you find the child?” He nearly dropped his food at the sight of controlled rage on his brother's face.

“In an unspeakable place of misery. It is one thing to raise a child to be a warrior, but a completely different thing to subjugate them to the point of breaking, only to repeat the process over and over, until all you are left with is a rabid dog that does your bidding.” Loki sneered over his tea cup. “And that's just what they were doing the girls under the age of twelve.” His hand shook as he took a sip and it seemed to calm him slightly. “I can assume you can guess what else they were doing to the girls over that age.”

Thor felt ill. “I trust you left none alive.”

Loki smirked. “Oh I did. I left them tied up for the wolves... and the leopards.” His expression changed completely. “Did you know that there are leopards in Russia? I was certainly surprised to see them.”

He took a bite of his sandwich. “Are there other girls? Or is Natasha the only one?”

“The only one who survived.” He set his cup down. “The bastards killed the rest.”

A tiny sound came from the bedroom and a moment later, the tiny girl stumbled out of it, rubbing her eyes. “I didn't mean to oversleep, I'm sorry, I'm...” She stopped, blinked a few times and then, rushed over to Loki, clinging to him. “I thought I was still there.”

Loki rubbed the girl's back, kissing the top of her head. “It's all right, little fox.” He smiled. “Do you feel like eating?”

She nodded and climbed into a third chair, staring, wide-eyed at the array of food, and finally caught sight of Thor. “Who are you?”

“I am Thor Odinson, Loki's brother.” He offered her a smile. “and I understand you are called Natasha.”

She nodded and then her eyes grew even wider as Loki set a plate in front of her. “Is... is this all mine to eat?”

The two brothers exchanged glances.

Loki cleared his throat. “It's not too much, is it, little fox?”

Thor studied the plate; several slices of peach, six large strawberries, a sausage and one biscuit – a mere snack to most Asgardians, but Natasha was looking at it like it was a feast.

“No...” Her fingers edging along the plate. “I've never had a whole sausage to myself before, we had to split them at...” Instead of speaking, she shoved one of the peach slices into her mouth.

“Manners.” Loki said it almost automatically; and Thor knew why. How many times had the two of them heard that word come out of their mother's mouth when they were growing up? He'd long ago lost count.

Natasha wiped her fingers, looking worried. “Sorry.”

“It's all right, you're hungry.” Thor watched as his brother handed the girl a napkin and instructed her to put it in her lap. “Here you go.” He nudged the fork in the place setting towards her. “If you need help cutting anything, don't be afraid to ask.”

Thor couldn't keep the chuckle in. “Loki, you are positively doting on the child.”

The girl paused, her fork halfway to her mouth, looking from him to his brother.

Loki, however, picked up his tea cup, keeping his voice perfectly even. “Now Thor, just because the only thing you have to fuss over is a pair of goats, there is no reason to become jealous.”

*

The nursery in the family wing of the royal palace had been kept within a day's cleaning of being spotless since Frigga had first started thinking about grandchildren; which had been sixty years ago. Odin hadn't thought much about it either way, he kept stating he had bigger concerns, and wasn't even thinking about grandchildren, as neither of their sons were even courting someone, let alone getting married. But Frigga knew better. She'd seen the few fleeting glances he'd given other men his age with their grandchildren, but she didn't press the issue.

She stood in the doorway of the nursery, giving the maids a quick look as they set about airing the room, arranging furniture, and finding toys that had long been thought of as lost. She gave them each a nod of thanks as she turned and headed back to her and Odin's rooms, where Loki was expected shortly, along with the little girl he had brought home. The look on her husband's face when she came into the room was almost unreadable. “I trust you are at least going to let Loki explain the situation first.”

Odin did not look up from his book. “The child is a Midgardian. She has no business being here.”

“She's just a little girl.” Frigga sat down at the table, doing her best to contain her happiness. “You are acting as though our son did this just to make you angry.”

“I would not be surprised if he did.” He slapped the book shut. “How do we know he did not steal this child from her parents?”

She gave him a look. “Loki can scarcely watch foals being removed from their mother's sides without flinching. Why would he abduct a human?”

“I cannot say, and furthermore...” He was cut off by a sharp knock. “Enter.”

Loki came into the room, holding the hand of the tiny Midgardian girl. The child was so small, Frigga almost thought her a toddler, but her face gave her away. Her face made her look as old as the man holding her hand. “Good morning, Father. Good morning, Mother.” He stated politely, coming over to the table, but not sitting down.

“Loki.” Frigga spoke before Odin could. “Please reassure your father that you did not kidnap this little girl.”

“I did not steal Natasha.” He let go of the little girl's hand and smoothed down the child's unruly hair. “I rescued her.”

“Rescued?” Odin asked, incredulously. “From what?”

“Monsters calling themselves humans.” Their son spat and Frigga saw the girl seize her son's leg, hiding her face behind it. “One of them was beating Natasha when I happened upon them.”

“For what infraction?” The tone of his voice nearly made Frigga kick her husband.

“What possible crime could a five year old girl commit that would justify her being tied to a post, barefoot and coat-less in the snow and being struck repeatedly with a stick?” The girl started whimpering and he picked her up, and Natasha promptly buried her face against his neck. “I could not, in good conscience, leave her there.” His face became stony. “As for the rest of what I found, I will not speak of it in front of Natasha. I do not wish for her to relieve the nightmare any more than necessary.”

Frigga cleared her throat. “Well then...” She glanced at her husband before continuing. “Do you think you are ready to be a father?”

“Were you not the one who told me that no one is ever ready to be a parent? That is something you must learn?” His expression cracked, every so slightly. “But I am prepared to be responsible for her.”

“Loki...” Odin sighed, his tone worn. “I do not doubt your intentions, but you must understand...”

“Understand what? That she's a Midgardian? I do not...” The girl sniffled and his expression softened. “I do not care where she is from.” He rubbed Natasha's back, smiling. “If you found an abandoned and helpless child, certainly you would not harden your heart against it.”

Frigga had no idea how either she or Odin kept their expressions blank. She stood up, heading over to her son. “Of course not.” She held out her hands slightly. “Perhaps Natasha and I could pay a visit to Eir? Just to make sure she is all right?”

“Is Eir nice?” She heard the girl whisper to her son.

“She is.” He turned so Natasha could look at her. “And my mother will not hurt you either.”

Natasha held out arms towards Frigga and the woman gently lifted her into her own. “Now then, little one. We will leave your father and grandfather to discuss things.” She gave the two of them stern looks before sweeping out of the room.

*
“What do you mean, Loki is a father?” Sif could not believe her ears, swinging her stave towards her friend. “Surely, this is a trick.”

“It is no trick, it is no jest.” Thor replied, parrying her attack. “I have seen the girl myself.”

“But, certainly...” She lowered her weapon, frowning. “How can he hope to care for an infant? Your brother...”

“Natasha is no infant. She is a little girl, around five years of age.” He grinned. “And Loki has plenty of people ask for advice should he need it. Mother, Father, Volstagg, myself...”

She snorted. “What do you know about children, Mighty Thor?”

“I know plenty... I think.” He made a face as Sif started to laugh. “It is not funny!”

“I think something must be extremely amusing if Lady Sif is laughing.” Fandral interjected as he came over to them. “And I could use a good laugh myself this morning.” He looked around the training arena. “Where is your brother, Thor? I was told he was back from wherever he went.”

“Loki is with the Allfather and Allmother this morning. So I suggest you ask Thor how he has become an uncle in the past fortnight.” Sif managed to control her mirth into the form of a smile.

Now it was Fandral's turn to chuckle. “Now, this is surely a prank the two princes have worked out together. Who is the intended victim? Come come, I must know so that I may join in the fun.”

“It is no prank.” Thor's voice was edged with indigence. This was starting to become frustrating. He looked at his two friends. “I did not believe it myself until I saw the girl eating breakfast in Loki's rooms this morning. Ask the servants why my mother has ordered the nursery cleaned, if you need more proof.”

“Proof of what?” Volstagg came up to the three. “Has Hogun come back from Vanaheim married?”

“That, my friend, seems more likely than the tale Thor has told Lady Sif and myself.” Fandral smirked. “He has informed the both of us that Loki is now a father.”

Volstagg, much to Thor's relief, had a different reaction. “Uncle Thor!” He clapped his friend on the back, beaming. “That is wonderful news! When is the child expected to arrive and who is the happy mother?”

He had to take a breath before he explained. “There is no mother and the child is already here. Loki found a Midgardian child being tortured and rescued her.”

The warrior's face darkened with anger. “Please tell me that this criminal no longer lives. What sort of monster hurts a child?”

“Loki left him to be eaten by wild animals.” Thor saw the expressions of shock on Fandral and Sif's faces. “There were other humans left to the beasts as well. They were committing atrocities upon other girls. I did not think to ask what he did to the ones with lesser infractions. I just know that they are dead.”

Volstagg looked sick and furious. “If I had been there, even the rats would have trouble seeking a meal out of the corpses.”

“To Helheim with rats, the worms would starve on that battlefield.” Thor tightened his grip on Mjolnir.

“I feel the need to destroy something.” Sif said, whipping her staff from side to side.

“I believe that makes four of us.” Fandral stated, shaking his head.

*

Natasha fell asleep in the middle of Eir's examination. Not that Frigga could blame her, she and Loki had arrived at the palace very late last night, and she wasn't certain how much sleep the child had gotten. Thankfully, the girl's physical injuries seemed mostly healed, only a few bruises, already faded to a dull yellow. She couldn't help noticing however, that Eir kept doing the same motion over and over, frowning each time. “What's wrong?”

“This test result. Your son said she was five?” Eir shifted where she was doing the spell.

“Yes, he said that was an estimate, the girl herself doesn't know her age. Why?” She narrowed her eyes. “What's wrong?”

“For some reason, the test keeps telling me that she's closer to twelve.” She shook her head. “That should be impossible.” She frowned, running her hand over the sleeping child. “Damn.”

“What?” The look on the healer's face worried Frigga.

“Her DNA has been exposed to some sort of chemical, it's slowed down her aging process to more than half of what it should be.” She shook her head. “It could also account for the reason she looks closer to three years of age, rather than her claimed age of five.”

Frigga touched the little girl's hair. “Will she be all right?”

“She should be.” Eir sighed. “If there were other girls to compare this to, I might be able to better understand what has happened to Natasha, but...”

The Allmother frowned. “The Midgardians shouldn't have been able to do something like that.” She stood up. “They don't have the technology or the scientific knowledge. Although I get the impression that since Loki found her in a remote location, which tells me that whoever was doing this, had nefarious purposes in mind.”

“Well, I suppose the good news is, since whatever they used slowed her aging process, I should be able to find a way to manipulate the chemical enough that she ages similarly to an Asgardian.” She swept a hand over the girl, and a small extraction of blood drifted upward into a vial, the sleeping girl not even reacting to the process.“Apart from that, she seems to be in fairly decent health. A little malnourished, but I have a feeling that won't take too long to rectify.” She smiled as Natasha yawned and snuggled into the bed. “For now, I recommend a steady diet of good, hearty food and plenty of fresh air and sunshine.”

*

Loki told his father everything. Discovering the compound, what he found going on there; what he did to the those that crossed his path. Odin's opinion of humans was even less than his; he thought of the royal hunting dogs in higher regards. So the death of all the occupants of the place known as the Red Room meant almost nothing to him. The fact that Loki had returned home with a small human intending to raise her as his own was more of a problem. It wasn't that Odin was rejecting the idea; he just didn't the suddenness of it.

His father had never been one to adjust to quick changes.

So, Loki resolved to just give Odin time. Sooner or later, he might start warming up to the idea.

And Midgardians might find a way to travel the speed of sound too.

“Ah, there he is, Natasha.” Eir said brightly as Loki came into the healing wing. “I told you he'd be here soon.”

Natasha turned and jumped from her bed, arms outstretched towards him. “Papochka!”

He picked her up and hugged her. “Good afternoon, Little Fox.” He gave Eir a smile as well. “Did she sleep very long?”

“A few hours, your mother left her to oversee a few things elsewhere in the palace.” Eir came over to them. “All Natasha needs right now is good food and sunshine, and she's already had her lunch.” Something in the healer's face told Loki there was more than that. “I will come and speak with you more on the matter later.”

He nodded and set Natasha down. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” The healer smiled. “Good bye, Natasha.”

“Good bye.” She waved shyly, taking hold of Loki's hand tightly. “You're nice.”

“I try.” She chuckled and waved back as the two of them left the healer's wing.

“Fresh air, then, Natasha?” Loki beamed down at her. “Would you like to go outside?”

“Outside!” She grinned. “Because it's not cold and wintery, right?”

“Right.” They made their way down the corridor. “It's warm and sunny here.”

“Can we go see the goats? I've never seen a goat before.” Natasha looked up at him, her green eyes bright with excitement.

“Goats?” Loki frowned. “What goats?”

“Thor's goats.” She stated in a tone that made him want to laugh. “You said he had two goats, Papochka.”

He grinned, suddenly remembering the conversation from breakfast. “So I did. I think we might be able to find your uncle's goats. If he hasn't moved them again.” He turned them down a corridor that would lead to the stables and kennels. “Perhaps your uncle will be there too.”

*
“There they are!” Thor's voice boomed out across the courtyard. “I knew they could not stay inside all day!”

Sif, Fandral, and Volstagg all turned in the direction Thor had indicated and saw Loki coming towards them, holding the hand of a red headed girl, who hadn't even noticed the three of them, her attention was clearly on her companion, and she was jabbering about something excitedly.

“Are you certain that your brother did not bring home an infant, Thor?” Fandral shook his head.

“I suspect those monsters didn't feed her enough.” Volstagg stated. “If even half of what Loki said was going on in that place was true, I do not doubt that withholding food was one of their crimes.”

Loki finally reached them and frowned. “Is Hogun still on Vanaheim?”

“Yes, sadly we are without his company for another week.” Thor came over and crouched down next to Natasha. “Do you remember me?”

The girl nodded. “Papochka took me to see your goats.”

Sif barely hid her snort of amusement. “Your Uncle Thor is far too proud of those animals.”

Thor threw a look at his friend as he stood up. “And you are not overly proud of that dog of yours?”

“At least my dog is useful when we're hunting.” She looked stern. “And she doesn't smell.”

Loki snickered. “Fandral, Volstagg, I had hoped I would return from my trip to find you'd managed to make my brother and Lady Sif stop bickering like an old married couple.” He chuckled. “Or at least get them a step closer to actually being an old married couple.”

Volstagg and Fandral both started laughing as Sif and Thor became tight-lipped and refused to look at each other.

*

Odin had learned about Natasha's condition from Frigga. He wasn't overly worried; at least, not about the little girl. He walked into the observatory at the end of Bifrost, silently hoping that his suspicion of how Natasha's aging process was slowed was incorrect.

“Good evening, my king.” Heimdall didn't turn to look at him. Odin was used to that. “Am I correct in thinking that congratulations are an order?”

“What? Oh, the girl.” He let out a breath. “Thank you.” He stepped up to the dais where the guardian stood. “I am rather alarmed that you did not inform me first, when Loki returned, Heimdall.”

“It was not my news to share, your majesty.” The corner of the man's mouth went up, ever so slightly.

“Where is the Tesseract currently located?” He knew that if this place in Russia, this so-called 'Red Room' had possession of the artifact, Loki would have found it. But that did not mean that it was never there.

“It is still in Norway, your majesty.” Heimdall replied. “It is safe.” He frowned. “For now.”

“For now, what do you mean?” Odin took a step forward.

“The Midgardians are at war.” His tone worried the Allfather.

“They always seems to be at war, Heimdall. As long as the Tesseract remains safe...”

“This unlike any of the wars of their past, your majesty.” Heimdall's eyes shifted, focusing on something distant. “This war encompasses all of Midgard.”

He sighed, ever so slightly. “What year is now, on Midgard?”

“Nineteen-forty – I believe it is November.” Heimdall's expression went slack. “I shall watch Midgard closely, your majesty, and let you know if any threat arises.”

“Thank you.” Odin turned and walked away.

*

Natasha yawned and pulled the covers tighter around her chin. Today had been both wonderful and strange. First, she'd gotten to sleep as much as she wanted. She never got to do that with the bad people. Then there had been getting to eat four times today; breakfast, lunch, dinner – and a meal in the afternoon called tea. The prospect of this repeating itself tomorrow and the rest of the week? That was almost unthinkable. Tomorrow, Papochka said he was going to show her the nursery, but he wasn't really clear about what that room was, other than that there were toys in it.

She blinked tiredly at the lamp burning on the bedside table. Papochka had done something to the glass chimney, so that it cast shadows of shooting stars against the wall, their speed the same as the flicker of the flame. She yawned again and closed her eyes.

Natasha hoped she didn't have any scary dreams; but something told her that if she did, Papochka would be there when she woke.

Chapter Text

When he first brought Natasha back to Asgard, Loki hadn't really thought much about the details. He'd only been thinking of getting her out of the nightmare she was in. Well, perhaps he'd thought a little about what all he would have to do in caring for the girl, he just didn't expect there to be so much. His mother had taken care of getting the nursery ready, as well as finding clothing for her granddaughter. But in retrospect, these were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There was a nanny to hire, schooling to arrange, questions to answer, most of them more than twice, and still do all of his regular court duties – and spend time each day with his daughter.

The biggest problem seemed to be the psychological effects caused by the bastards at the Red Room, when it came to Natasha's well-being. She was afraid of the dark, of being alone, small enclosed spaces (which was discovered when she accidentally shut herself into a wardrobe) and loud voices. That was just the things Loki knew about. He had a feeling there were plenty more, waiting to make themselves known. Thankfully, she wasn't afraid of there being a monster under her bed. Then again, there was another problem; Loki couldn't get Natasha to sleep in her own bed in the nursery. She kept sneaking into his.

His mother had told him, quite plainly, that he couldn't let her continue to sleep there. If he kept giving in, then Natasha couldn't start to overcome many of her fears. Loki doubted his mother ever had to deal with him or Thor climbing into their parents' bed, although he could recall the two of them sharing one of the beds in the nursery on occasion, during particularly bad storms before Thor could control his powers or if one of them had a nightmare and didn't want Father to know they were scared.

Books weren't much help either, which was almost as frustrating. Having the vast library of Asgard fail to provide a solution to a problem was unthinkable. The methods suggested by the books he found were downright deplorable; making the child sleep on the floor, tie them into their own bed, everything was cruel. Cruel was one of the things Natasha definitely didn't need. So Loki went to the one person who might have had to deal with similar problem; Volstagg.

*
The bearded warrior felt that Loki must have been expecting something other than the look of pity he gave him. Volstagg sighed, decided that he would figure the reason for that later. “Every night?”

“Every night.” Loki rubbed his temple. “If it was once a week, I most likely wouldn't mind, but Natasha has her own room, and...”

“I understand.” Volstagg took a drink from his mug of mead. “You haven't woken up with her foot in your face, have you?” He managed a weak chuckle.

“No.” Loki bit back a laugh. “Although Natasha has managed to steal all the covers a few times.”

The man grinned. “Just be glad it's not winter.”

“Yes.” He ran a hand through his hair and took a drink from his own mug. “I suppose that helps some.”

Volstagg tapped his fingers against the mug, thinking. “Do you put her to bed every night?”

“Most nights.” Loki let out a breath. “There's only been a handful of times I haven't. I've told her she needs to stay where she is, but...”

“She's somehow managed to absorb her uncle's stubborn personality in the time she's been here.” He shook his head. “Tough love will not work in this situation, not with the sort of early years Natasha's had. It is similar to warriors who come from abusive homes. Full of piss and vinegar, ready to slay anything in their path, skill and caution be damned.”

Loki nodded in agreement, remembering some of the men who had joined Asgard's army, who seemed ready to fight at the tiniest provocation, taking no care for themselves – or their fellow warriors. “Aja, her nanny, leaves the lamps lit in the nursery well into the night, so it isn't the dark that's bothering her. Norns, I know Natasha's woken in my room in near pitch darkness, gone to the privy, and come back without a single problem.”

“That is most likely due to the fact that she knows you're there, Loki.” Volstagg sighed. “She believes that whatever is in the dark that scares her, if you're there, she feels safe.”

“I will not let any harm come to her. She knows that.” He frowned. “Perhaps she fears I will not be able to hear her if she has a nightmare, or...”

“Natasha is not like other children,” he held up a hand before the prince could interject. “Not many parents start off with a five year old, they start off with a newborn. A baby who sleeps in a crib until they are big enough for a bed will not have the same issues as one who spent years in a nightmare.” He took a long drink from his mug. “My children only seem to find their way into the bed with my wife and I if they've had a bad dream, or if they don't feel well.” He grimaced. “Be grateful you haven't woken up to find a vomiting child in your bed.” He was certain he went green from expression the prince gave him. “I think Natasha is more likely to soil a guard's boots than your bed, Loki. I have noticed she tends to shy away from them.”

“Given her past...” He sat back in his chair. “I have a feeling I should stop using that excuse. I cannot help her move forward if I keep using it as reason for the way she acts.”

Volstagg drained the last of his mug,repressing the urge to burp, a thought had suddenly come to him. “Does Natasha have any sort of plush animal?”

“I believe... yes, there are several my mother purchased, a bear, a dragon – and a unicorn. Why?” He frowned. “What are you thinking?”

“This may sound a little odd, but when I go away on quests, my wife puts the two plush animals into my wardrobe during the day; at night, she gives them to our children to help them sleep.” He held up a hand. “The animals absorb my scent during the day – they know I am gone, but somehow, the smell makes them feel safe. I cannot explain it, only that my wife assures me it works.”

Loki rubbed his chin, frowning. “But Natasha will know I am across the hall.”

“Why do you not at least try it? Go, put one of the plush animals in your room, in a place where it can soak up your scent – or failing that, put one of your pillows in her bed. That might work as well.” Volstagg offered him a weary smile. “Just make certain that Natasha knows that she needs to stay in her room, and in her bed.”

“I've told her that, she doesn't listen.” His hand fell. “I do not want to have to threaten her with punishment should she misbehave.”

“I am afraid it might come to that, if you are unable to break her of the habit.” Volstagg frowned into his empty mug. “These sorts of things are never easy, Loki.”

“I think it is not so much her sleeping where she is that bothers me.” He sighed. “It is the fact that she, a mere child, knows of horrors that no one should ever know.”

*

Natasha wanted to do as Papochka asked. Which was why she was hugging her plush dragon, staring up at the dancing shadows on the ceiling and walls of the nursery. Stars chased each other in lazy patterns, some disappearing behind the headboard, others skirted along the curtains and in the other room, she could hear Aja snoring very lightly. Through the open window, she could hear the scuffle of one of the guard's boots as they walked the length of the balcony that went from her room to the curve where it met the one in front of her grandparent's room, and then they returned. She was torn.

Every fiber of her being was telling her to do as she was bid, stay in her own bed, and go to sleep. But another part of her wanted to jump up, race out of the room and go to her father, knowing that she'd be safer there then here.

The bad people could not get her here. Papochka promised her that. Grandmother, Grandfather and Uncle Thor promised her that. There were more guards in her new home, dogs bigger and fiercer than any of the bad people had; she should feel safe.

Then why didn't she feel that way?

She sat up in bed, still holding onto her animal.

She was not going to leave the nursery.

She was going to stay in her room.

If she could just figure out what was scaring her, maybe then she could fall asleep.

Natasha held out her hands and some of the star-lights swept over them, changing colors and then went on their journey anew. “Am I scared?” She hugged her dragon a little tighter and took in the bed chamber again. The bed itself wasn't a problem – it was soft, warm and so big, wider than she was tall. She had a mountain of pillows and blankets, and honestly, it was practically a nest. So it wasn't the bed.

She listened to the guards click past her windows again, the tiniest sound of creaking leather accompanied their strides.

It wasn't the guards. They moved more quietly than the ones from the bad place – and they were nicer too.

It wasn't Aja. Aja took care of her.

Wardrobe, toys, furniture – all of it was dismissed and she frowned. What was it that made her want to leave this room every night and go to Papochka's? Natasha yawned, fell back against the pillows, and snuggled into the one she used in her father's room. She closed her eyes, skirting the edge of sleep, about ready to let slumber take her – and then the stillness of the night was shattered. It wasn't thunder, rain, or anything she could give name to – whatever it was, it alerted the guards and there was the sound of running feet. The sky outside her windows suddenly shone as bright as day, but it wasn't blue, it was red, and she could see great metal demons dropping something on the city, explosions setting the world on fire.

Rather than escape to where she wanted to go, determined to obey, the little girl pulled the covers over her head and huddled underneath them as the sounds grew loud, the palace foundations shaking and then the screaming started. Someone was screaming, so loud and high, it drowned out the sounds of the explosions, of the guards, of the panic...

“NATASHA!” Hands suddenly took hold of her arms and the world went quiet.

She blinked, looking around her room in surprise. The lights were on, the guards were standing in the doorway to the balcony, Grandfather and Grandmother were standing in the doorway with Uncle Thor, Aja was standing near the guards – and Papochka was sitting on the bed, his face ashen. It was... the demons in the sky, the explosions – she'd been dreaming. She swallowed, the terrified feeling giving way to one of shame. “I'm sorry.” She said, barely whispering.

“It's all right.” Papochka gave her a hug, pressing her face against his chest.

She could hear the others leaving, and she sniffled. “I didn't mean to wake everyone up.”

“I was not asleep just yet.” He let go and smoothed down her hair. “Now, little fox, tell me what you were dreaming about.”

*

“They are called airplanes, majesty.” Heimdall's gaze did not flicker from his watch as the queen asked him of the objects that plagued the newest member of the royal family's dreams. “Did the All-Father tell you of Midgard's war?”

“Yes.” Frigga came forward, deeper into the observatory. “But if Loki is correct of that compound's location, it does not make sense that Natasha knows what is going on elsewhere.” She frowned. “Or have Midgardians found a way to share images in a more timely manner?”

“Indeed my queen, they have. Moving pictures, they are called. A recent development, but one that is available in many of Midgard's countries.” Heimdall gave the barest hint of a wince. “It is possible that Natasha has seen these attacks on cities in a moving picture.”

The queen shook her head. “Children should not be shown such things. It is horrible enough that many must suffer through it.”

“I fear this war will only grow worse, even now one empire is preparing to attack another, which currently remains neutral.” His eyes narrowed. “A sleeping giant, one of the generals of this army calls it.”

“Are they giants?” Frigga frowned. “What an odd metaphor.”

“The neutral empire has plentiful resources, once this attack comes, all of Midgard shall be engulfed.”

“Perhaps this shall be their last war.” She folded her hands. “Then again, how many times has that hope been dashed?”

“Midgard will learn, my queen.” Heimdall shifted the observatory walls and now, the stars showed the distant reaches of space, and a faint twinkling of blue caught her eye.

Jotunheim.

“Thank you, Heimdall.” She turned and walked away from the guardian, pausing at the start of the rainbow bridge. “What year is it now on Midgard, has the new one begun?”

“Indeed it has, my queen. It is now nineteen forty-one, as they measure things.” Heimdall replied.

“Yes.” She headed back for the palace.

*

“Lady Sif, I think you have a second shadow.” Fandral declared at the end of a particularly grueling training session.

“I beg your pardon?” The warrior frowned at her friend and then slowly turned, just in time to see a tiny red-haired figure dart behind a pillar.

“See, I told you.” Fandral gestured with his foil. “Natasha has been watching you for the past hour and you never noticed.”

“She was watching all of us, I knew she was there.” Sif replied indignantly, before taking a step towards the pillar. “Don't tell me you can see through stone, Natasha. Or if you can, you must tell us how you managed such a feat.”

The girl's face slowly appeared, a stubborn look on her face. “Are you teasing me?”

“Not in the presence of your uncle.” Fandral stated, a laugh in his voice, turning around. “Speaking of, where is...”

A loud boom echoed across the training ground, shaking the ground, and it was followed by a boisterous laugh.

“When is he going to stop showing off?” Sif snorted and turned back towards Natasha, only to find that she was behind the pillar again. “I think we should sic Thor's niece on him. Maybe she can get him to act like an adult.” She shook her head and went over to where the girl was staying hidden. “You know this is just practice, right? No one is going to get hurt.”

Natasha looked up at her, nodding slowly. “It sounds real.”

“And how would you...” Sif frowned and crouched down to the girl's level. “I suppose you're right. It does sound very real. But no one is going to get seriously hurt. And your uncle Thor tends to act like he's your age.”

That brought a giggle. “He's silly.”

“Who's silly?” Fandral had come over to the two of them. “Certainly not I.”

Sif rolled her eyes. “You're the silliest one of the lot, Fandral.” She stood up.

“Nonsense. I only seem that way to you, Lady Sif, because you and Hogun are far to serious.” The man chuckled. “Which leaves Volstagg to be the voice of reason.”

“I would not say...”

“What is that doing here?” A sharp voice rang out across the training ground, loud enough to bring all conversation to a close.

Sif felt her back stiffen. She knew that voice and she slowly turned towards it. Just as she suspected, it was Celsck, a warrior who was the same size as Hogun, and was as tactless as the Vanir warrior was silent. “You're going to have to more specific...”

He cut her off and pointed directly at Natasha. “That. What is that stupid Midgardian bitch doing here?”

Silence continued to reign on the grounds and a quick glance told Sif that neither of the princes were within earshot; that and the fact that Celsck was still breathing.

“I am not stupid.” Natasha's voice quivered slightly as she spoke. “You're mean!”

“All Midgardians are stupid. Even bloodthirsty frost giants know that!”

Enough.” Sif growled, stepping between Natasha and the warrior. “Leave her alone.”

“Let the little brat fight her own battles, Lady Sif.” Celsck spat.

She felt the girl come around to stand next to her, and she glanced down to see that Natasha was doing her best not to look scared. “You must be mad to think anyone would let you do this.”

“The little bitch should run back off to play with dolls. The same place you should have stayed.” He spat.

Fandral quietly drew in a breath. “Is he trying to get himself killed?” His voice was just low enough that only Sif could hear it.

“She's just a...” Sif started as Natasha stepped out of her grasp and up to Celsck – it was like looking at a mouse meeting a tiger.

“Well, the little brat comes for a beating.” He laughed. “I'd have thought the new pet would be kept in a cage, not wandering about freely.”

“What do you think you're doing?” Volstagg finally broke the silence and started forward from the other side of the training ground.

“Teaching this thing her place.” Celsck raised one hand and started to bring it down.

The next sound that echoed through the grounds wasn't the slap of palm on cheek.

It was Celsck screaming in pain as Natasha latched her mouth onto the ball of his thumb and hung onto his arm as she bit into his hand, hard.

“You little shit!” He swung his arm, trying to dislodge her. “You disgusting...” He flung her to one side, not looking to see who was there, and the girl flew off, tumbled head over heels; and landed at her father and uncle's feet.

Loki looked murderous and Thor looked more than willing to help hide the body.

Celsck's hand was dripping with blood; the girl had broken skin. “You...”

Natasha, apparently emboldened by her actions, got to her feet, shaking. “Just you wait until I get my big girl teeth! I'll bite your hand off!”

Sif and Volstagg were the first ones to start laughing.

*

“I think we should tell Loki the truth.” Frigga knew it wasn't the best way to start dinner with her husband, but she had been silent on the matter for the past hundred and fifty years. “It is high time he knew.”

Odin sighed. “I thought we agreed this matter was closed, Frigga.”

“You agreed. I did not. Loki should be told.” She sliced her roast boar into smaller pieces. “Things are changing throughout the Nine Realms, the plans you had for him on Jotunhiem will no longer work.”

“I know that.” Odin took a drink from his goblet. “But I do not know what else there is for him; he knows that either he or Thor will ascend to the throne, but in telling him the truth, he will know that the throne is his brother's.”

“Thor will need his brother. Norns, he needs his brother now, I do not believe he knows the current status of any of the realms other than Asgard.” She stabbed at her meat. “Things cannot continue as they are.”

The Allfather set down his cutlery. “Frigga...”

“You know I am right.” She tightened her grip on her fork. “His is our son, Odin. He needs to know before it is too late. Before something happens and he finds out accidentally.”

“And how could that occur?” Odin remarked. “Jotunheim is not ready to open negotiations for trade with Asgard, there is still ill will between the two. I know that they trade with Alfheim and Nidavellir, I have reports from some of the...”

“Asgard may not be prepared, but it will not be long.” Frigga set her fork down. “We need to do this. We must.” She shook her head. “I am still in shock that he has not asked us why we did not protest him adopting Natasha.”

Odin rubbed at his temple. “You do have a point, Frigga. I take it you do not intend for us to tell him tonight.”

“There has been enough excitement for one day, I believe.” She picked her fork back up. “Before the month is out. We need not tell Thor just yet, but Loki needs to know. The sooner, the better.”

*

Loki finished tucking his daughter into bed, trying to keep his face stern. “What you did today was extremely foolish, Natasha. Celsck could have killed you.” He sat down and brushed her hair out of her face with his hand. “Promise me that you will never do something like that again.” He paused. “At least, not until you are the same size as Lady Sif.” Not that he wanted to think of the girl fighting at all.

She blinked sleepily at him. “I promise.” She grimaced. “His hand tasted terrible.”

“I can only imagine, as I have never bit someone.” He shrugged. “That I can remember.”

Natasha half yawned, half giggled. “I am not stupid.”

“No, you are not stupid.” He kissed her forehead. “You are a clever girl.” He fussed with the hem of the blanket as she snuggled under the covers, tucking it around her shoulders and the top of the plush dragon. “A little bit of a risk taker...” He gave her the barest hint of a smile. “Exactly like myself.”

She grinned and closed her eyes. “Good night, Papochka.”

“Good night, Sasha.” He kissed her forehead again. “Sweet dreams.” Loki tapped the lamp by the bed, casting the shadows into the shapes of horses, slowly prancing around the walls. He stood and left the bedchamber, shutting the door quietly behind him. When he came into the main room of the nursery, he found Aja standing there, looking rather contrite.

“Again, your grace, I want to...” She started to say, but he cut her off by raising his hand.

“It was not your fault, Aja.” He sighed. “I am afraid Natasha is going to have to deal with people insulting her for her Midgardian heritage for a very long time.”

“Perhaps she will help change the opinion of that realm.” She offered with a small smile.

“Yes.” He let out a breath. “I believe she will.” Loki walked out of the nursery and headed for his own rooms. Once safely ensconced there, he fell back on his bed, chuckling darkly. It had taken a great deal of self control not to kill Celsck, but the image of him hissing in pain from the wound Natasha had given him and Sif asking why he was wailing over a little nip to the hand (much to Loki's delight, he was certain the man would have a scar for at least a few decades) made not doing anything other than giving the warrior a cold look had been worth remaining silent.

Tomorrow, he would start looking in earnest for a tutor for his little girl; Midgardian she may be, but the child had all the instincts of an Æsir. He sighed and sat, still chuckling to himself as he made his way to his study. There were reports to read, from both here and throughout the Nine Realms. It really would help if Thor would do his reading too; having to give him an overview of the papers before the two of them had dinner with the Allfather so that Odin thought they were both reading... then again, since when had Father asked Thor any question other than 'When are you going to formally start courting Lady Sif' and 'What have you been doing on the training grounds'?

*
Laufey arched an eyebrow at the missive, before giving the Jotun ambassador to Nidavellir, Pella Scrayson, a surprised look. “This information is correct?”

“It was confirmed by the ambassador from Vanaheim.” He frowned. “Although he could not confirm whether the girl was his or if he merely found her.”

“It is of no concern, either way. A child is a child.” He balled the parchment in his fist and tossed it into the cold-burning fire. “This is a matter for another day. Do not speak of this with anyone, understood?”

“Yes, your majesty.” Pella bowed slightly.

“Good.” He settled back into his chair. “Tell me of what the rebels were seeking among the dwarves.”

Chapter Text

Despite being the older brother, children were still a mystery to Thor. There was not much of an age gap between him and Loki, but as far back as his memory went, his little brother was present. So, his niece is somewhat of an enigma to him. He oddly didn't think of her as a Midgardian, even though that's what she is. Natasha Lokidóttir was a skittish little girl; and it was impossible to think of her ever being otherwise. It'd been nearly a whole season since Loki brought her home, and still; still he had no idea how to talk to her, how to treat her, or even how to bond with her.

Perhaps the primary reason behind that was the fact that he was often busy sparing and spending time with his friends; by the time he was done for the day, it was well past Natasha's bedtime. When he saw her at meals, the girl kept her focus on her food, and said next to nothing, other than a few 'pleases' and 'thank yous' – Thor got the feeling that she wasn't afraid; just nervous. Still nervous in her surroundings despite the passage of time. The girl's arrival had also marked the time when Thor started seeing even less of his brother. Well, he might see more of Loki if Loki didn't have to wait for his little girl to go to bed.

Thor knew that Volstagg hadn't spent as much time with his children as Loki seemed to spend with his, and his friend had two children, where his brother had only one. Mother told him that things would be different between the two of them now that Loki had a 'responsibility' that exceeded being his brother. It was a concept Thor couldn't understand at all. They were brothers. He wasn't asking for Loki to abandon the girl completely, just a few nights a week. Father hadn't spent this sort of time with the two of them, Thor knew that for certain. Perhaps it was different because Natasha was a girl; or the fact that Loki was a single parent, raising the child without a mother.

Was not Aja Mooriadóttir the girl's nanny? Certainly she could watch the girl more. That was her job was it not?

It was actually starting to become rather annoying. It'd been hard enough to drag Loki out for a night of fun before Natasha came to Asgard. Now it was next to impossible. Perhaps the two of them could remedy that today; both of them had been instructed to keep their schedules free of outside events. No training, no spending time with friends, and no whatever it was Loki usually did with his days. Thor had a feeling this was connected with Mother's upcoming name day; her three-thousandth one. Father no doubt meant for him and his brother to help with most of the planning so that Mother would have to do little more than decide what to wear, show up, and enjoy herself.

That was all Thor ever had to do for his name days. And most of the time, he didn't even do the first of those three things.

The breakfast table was rather quiet for a family that should be planning a party.

“Have you finished reading the latest reports?” Odin finally broke the silence, looking from Thor to Loki. “The ones concerning Alfheim?”

“Yes, Father.” Loki replied, straightening his shoulders, not even glancing across the table at him. “However, I do not think there is any cause for concern. If they wish to trade with Jotunheim, that is their affair.”

“Why would anyone want to trade with frost giants?” Thor interjected.

“Did you not read the report?” Odin frowned, his brow furrowed. “This is not something you could just ignore, or wait for your brother to inform you of what was in it.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Loki duck his head slightly, suddenly intrigued with the eggs and steak on his plate. Thor cleared his throat. “I still want to know why...”

“Natasha!” Odin's sharp tone caused the girl to jump in her seat.

“Yes, Grandfather?” Her voice was barely audible, but free of any tremble.

“Do you know what the residents of Alfheim trade with the residents of Jotunheim for?” Father sounded angry and Thor was confused. All of this over forgetting one report? This wasn't something that would be tolerated for much longer. Trade? What business did the monsters have trading with other realms, with civilized beings?

Natasha set down her fork, still looking borderline terrified. “The elves trade wool and cotton for medicinal herbs from the jotun, Grandfather.”

“Correct. Eat your breakfast, like a good girl.” His voice softened a fraction, and then it was gone as he turned his attention back to Thor. “I strongly suggest that you spend the remainder of this day reading the reports from the nine realms that you should have been keeping up to date on. A king must always have as much information on what is happening as possible. Both within the borders of his kingdom, and without.”

Thor risked looking down the table at his mother, but she merely shook her head, not saying a word in his defense. Mother would have defended Loki in his place; but then again, Loki loved to read. Why should he have to read the reports if his brother could just tell him what was in them in the first place? Father hadn't needn't have had Natasha answer the question she did. It certainly didn't matter that she knew, but there was no place for frost giants in the Nine Realms, they were just monsters. When he was king, he'd be ridding the realms of their existence. Medicinal herbs, who cared? There were better cures for things on Vanaheim.

To Helheim with this.

He pushed back his chair and threw his napkin down onto the table.

“Where are you going, Thor?” Mother's voice sounded shocked. Well, good.

“Apparently, I need to spend my day reading.” He stalked to the door and yanked it open.

“Thor!” Father's voice called after him, but he didn't turn around. Instead, he left the room, slamming the door behind him.

*
Loki had no idea what had just come over his brother. Breakfast with the entire family usually only happened on special occasions. It had been very strange, when he had come into the room with Natasha, the atmosphere had seemed tense. Now, with Thor's departure, it seemed doubly so. Before he walked into the room, he thought the breakfast would have something to do with his mother's impending name day celebration. It was either that, or he and Thor's parents had waited long enough for either of them to start courting and were going to be arranging a marriage for one of them before the year's end. It most likely wasn't his brother. Thor and Sif would be courting if Thor realized that one of his best friends was in love with him. Which most likely meant it was for him instead. He had a rather short list when it came to qualifications for a girl he'd marry under arranged circumstances; she wasn't in love with his brother and she didn't want him to get rid of Natasha. The rest of the details he didn't worry about; his mother no doubt had several volumes worth of qualifications for a daughter in law.

The only sound in the room now was the clink of silver on china as the family ate, not looking at one another.

It was a wretched silence; one that was familiar when Loki was younger, and quite frankly, he didn't know why Thor was so upset about the Jotun trading. He might not be a fan of frost giants personally, and maybe, just maybe, if his brother had read the reports like he was supposed to, like he'd told Loki he was, then maybe he wouldn't have been so blindsided. Loki knew that his brother left a lot of things unread, but to be that unaware of the happenings of Jotunheim would mean he hadn't read a report concerning them in years.

“Odin...” His mother's voice broke the silence, and there was something in her tone – it was the same timbre she used when trying to get either him or his brother to confess to something.

Father set down his fork and cleared his throat. “Leave us.”

Loki frowned as the handful of servants in the room left, shutting the door firmly behind them. “Father, is something wrong?”

“No, Loki.” He straightened in his seat. “Perhaps it is better that Thor has left.”

That alone sent panic into Loki's mind. Father never spoke like this.

“Your mother and I have not been honest with you about your origins, my son.” His voice didn't waver, but there seemed to be a tone of regret in it; either from the dishonesty from the start, or the pain of having to tell him now.

“What do you mean?” He looked down the table at his mother, who is sitting just as still as her husband, but her face was softer, the barest hint of a smile on her lips.

“You came to live here in much the same fashion as Natasha did.” Here, Father gave the girl a look that was almost – fond. For a man so often devoid of emotion, it was significant. And then the words sank in.

“What?” The word comes out like a hiss. Things suddenly start falling into place in his mind. All these years, all these years wondering why he was second best, why he couldn't earn his father's love the way Thor could; the slights of teachers, of acquaintances, all of it; he never quite understood; now he was starting to. “What do you mean?”

“It was near the end of the war with Jotunheim.” Odin seemed to be steeling himself up to speak. “After the last battle, I went into the temple, and I found a baby. I found you, Loki.”

Cold washed over him, a wretched, abandoned feeling that was edged in anger. Abandoned? He had been left? Why? He tried to find his voice. “I am... not...”

“You are our son, Loki.” His mother's voice was calm. “You always will be.”

“And what's that supposed to mean?” He snarled, standing up and knocking the chair to the floor - and then he heard a tiny whimper next to him.

Natasha was gripping the seat of her chair, looking up at him, her face half-hidden by her hair.

Keeping his temper in check, he closed his eyes, resolved to hear this to the very end. “How can I be a... Jotun? I am... I am too... small.”

“You were a small, helpless infant.” Odin's voice seemed to come from very far away. “I do not know if you were abandoned for your size, or if you were left in the temple for safety. I did not want to risk Laufey hurting you a second time by asking.”

“All these years.” He clenched his teeth. “You could have told me from the beginning, why didn't you?”

“It is complicated, Loki.” Mother sounded as calm as ever. “And you are right, we should have told you this a long time ago.”

The air in the room was insufferable. The walls were closing in, everything seemed to press down on him. Frost giant. It was too much to take in, too much to absorb – and Loki knew his anger was starting to boil. Both of you were born to be kings. Well, that wasn't a total lie, but he knew what this meant. Thor, the great selfish idiot, was going to be king of Asgard one day. Well, that was just fine. In fact, that was just perfect. “Then I suppose it is a damn good thing I never wanted to be king anyway.” He spat. “I just wanted to be Thor's equal, but I suppose even that is impossible.”

With that, he turned on his heel and left the room, shutting the door forcefully behind him.

He needed to be alone for a little while.

*

“I hope you are satisfied, Frigga.” Grandfather's face was dark with rage.

“It had to be done. You know it did.” Grandmother looked ashen. “Before something happened; what if the boys took it into their heads to go to Jotunheim for a lark the same way they do on Vanaheim?”

“Come now...” Natasha couldn't tell what he meant by that tone.

“You know I am right!” Grandmother was angry. “It is better for Loki to be upset now, when things are relatively calm throughout the realms, the war on Midgard be damned!”

She sank down in her chair. There was a war on Midgard? Of course there was, the bad people had said there was. It must have grown worse. Clearly, whatever was going on between her grandparents right now was clearly not something she should be witnessing. “Grandfa..”

“Silence!” He barked and Natasha wanted to vanish into the wood. What had she done wrong? “I have more important matters to attend to than listen to....”

“Odin!” Grandmother's voice admonished. “Natasha, what did you want to ask?”

She swallowed, not certain who she was supposed to address. “May I please be excused, Grandmother?”

“Of course you may.” She smiled in response. “Have a nice day, and we will see you here for dinner, Natasha.”

Natasha stood, set her napkin on the table and pushed her chair in. “Good day, Grandfather. Good day, Grandmother.”

“Thank you.” Grandfather frowned. “Do not discuss our conversation with anyone who was not in the room, including your uncle. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Grandfather.” She replied stiffly and left her grandparents, doing her best not to run down the corridor to the safety of the nursery.

Why was Papochka so upset? If Grandfather had brought him to Asgard the same way Papochka had brought her, had he been with bad people too? And Papochka had been just a baby! She didn't really understand why Jotunheim was such a bad place. Uncle Thor said that was where the monsters were from, but she knew better. She had already seen monsters. Whatever a Jotun was, they couldn't possibly be as bad as the monsters of the Red Room.

If Papochka was a Jotun, then they definitely weren't monsters.

She let herself into the nursery, heading for the work table and sat down with one of her textbooks. Since her tutor, Master Siry, wasn't here, she would just reread yesterday's lessons until he came.

*
Loki was furious.

His parents had lied to him. His entire life, his entire history was nothing but a lie. He was no prince of Asgard, he wasn't an Æsir, he was nothing but some unwanted, abandoned frost giant. He wanted to scream, he wanted to rage, he wanted to throw things and watch them shatter under impact.

And yet, Loki couldn't.

All he could do was sit in one of the comfortable chairs of his room, clasping his knees, trying to understand what the devil had just happened at breakfast. If they had told him when he was younger, maybe it wouldn't be as bad, but to wait so long – almost a thousand years to tell him, that somehow made it worse.

He rose to his feet and headed for his dressing room. He couldn't stay here. He had to get out of Asgard, had to go for a walk and think for a while. A few weeks, maybe a season... something. He'd no sooner pulled his thick, fur lined coat out of one of the wardrobes when he remembered the last time he'd worn it.

Natasha.

Loki slumped down onto the padded bench in the center of the room, the cloak falling from his fingers. He couldn't just leave the way he used to. While she had a nanny, a tutor and servants to look after her, he couldn't just abandon his little girl for that length of time.

His little girl.

A broken giggle escaped his lips.

Norns, the reason he'd found Natasha; it wasn't just a coincidence. He'd been meant to find her. To save her, bring her home; he had brought her home the same way Odin – Father – brought him home.

It still didn't mean he couldn't be angry over the lie.

“When I'm king, I'll hunt the monsters down and slay them all!”

Thor's deceleration on the matter of frost giants all those years ago suddenly terrified him.

“Why would anyone want to trade with frost giants?”

If frost giants were monsters and nothing more to Thor, then what was his opinion of Midgardians? Did he think them stupid, silly or worse? And was it his imagination or was his older brother rather resentful of Natasha's presence in their lives? Oh, he'd protect her; but that was duty.

Loki rose and put his cloak away. He would not be leaving today. No, he would wait. Wait until Natasha was a little older; wait until the war on Midgard was over. He'd come up with a reason between now and then. The two of them would just go away for a little while.

Maybe his idiot brother would grow up and start doing something other than sparing and training for war.

He hadn't been lying to his Father when he said he never wanted to be king.

But one thing was certain; Thor was still laboring under the delusion of being a great war hero, of leading armies and vanquishing foes was the best possible thing for a king.

Loki snorted.

A good king never seeks out war; but he is always ready for it.

“Let's see how well the mighty Thor does once his sorcerer-healer-reading brother takes off and leaves him alone.” He smirked and headed for his study. On the way there, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He backtracked and went into the bedchamber.

His bed was just as he left it; normally the servants would have had the room in order before he returned from breakfast. Going into the bathing chamber, he also found the things he'd left out exactly where he'd left them. “Odd...” Rather than ringing for one of the servants to come clean the room, he left the bathing chamber as it was and went to his study. There was a small stack of notes from the last council meeting he wanted to look over.

*
Thor told himself for the umpteenth time that he was not pouting.

After reading a few of the reports on the conditions of the crops in the western part of Asgard and nearly falling asleep doing it, he decided he'd had enough school-boy work for one day. He didn't need to know all of this, that was what council members were for. This was the sort of thing that Loki liked to do anyway.

He changed into his riding clothes, frowning at the few garments that were still scattered around his dressing chamber. Perhaps the servants were occupied elsewhere at the moment. Then again, he hadn't spent the morning in his room in a great while. Perhaps they would clean things up while he was gone.

The hallway was empty, save for a few guards. The doors were all shut; good.

He just needed a break from reading, that was all. He'd finish the reports from Vanaheim after lunch.

*
Natasha was halfway through the chapter when it occurred to her just how quiet it was. Normally, there was the sounds of servants cleaning, people below in the courtyard, and general city noise. Also, Aja wasn't back from breakfast in the servant's hall. She looked behind her towards the balcony and could make out one of the Einherjar slowly walking the area.

She rose from the table and went to the door that led into the hallway and opened it. Just as she did, an unfamiliar servant ran past, heading for her grandparent's room. A moment later, Grandfather came rushing out of it, racing down the corridor with Grandmother and the servant in his wake. Grandmother noticed her as she passed.

“Stay in your room, Natasha.”

She nodded in reply and shut the door. Something was wrong, and well, staying where she was told would keep her safe. Natasha went back to the table and began to read again, but after a few moments, her head started to hurt. She pushed the book away, got up and slowly walked around the room, the ache starting to grow worse. It would help if Aja was here. Why wasn't Aja here? She should have been back by now. Her or Master Siry. She didn't feel sick, she just hurt. She stumbled towards the balcony, whimpering. “He...help...”

*

Loki decided to check on Natasha purely out of what happened at breakfast. One of the last things he should have done was leave his little girl alone in the room when his parents were angry. He frowned at the lack of servants in the corridor; that was unusual for this time of the day. He pushed the door of the nursery open just in time to see his daughter crumple to the floor. He ran over to where she was, helping her sit up. “Sasha?”

Her green eyes blinked up at him, slightly unfocused. “Papochka, I don't feel good.”

He picked her up and carried her over to the bed. “It's all right, you're not going to be sick, are you?”

“Stomach doesn't hurt. Everything else does.” She looked up at him, shivering slightly. “Cold.”

Loki wasn't fooled; the girl's skin had been burning hot. “Don't you worry, Sasha.”

Aja came into the room, breathless. “Sorry, I'm sorry...”

“It's all right.” Loki wasn't concerned with the fact that the woman hadn't been here; the nanny thought she had the majority of the morning off. “Tell one of the guards to fetch Eir. Natasha is ill.”

“Yes, your grace.” The woman replied, heading for the hallway.

*

Thor was almost finished saddling his horse when his father strode into the stables. Perfect. Now his temporary escape was over before it began. Then he noticed the look on his father's face. Something was wrong. He came out of the stall just as Odin caught sight of him.

“Good. You're here. Ride out to the Observatory and tell Heimdall to close the Bifrost. No one leaves or enters Asgard.” Odin turned.

“What? Why?” Wasn't this a task for a servant?

“Asgard is under quarantine until further notice. The Fever has returned.” With that, the All-Father left the stables.

“The Fever?” Thor led his horse from the stable and mounted up, kicking the horse's flanks, setting off to the obey his father.

*

The universe still turned while Asgard remained isolated; and while parents worried over their children and other loved ones, Heimdall watched as a madman stole the Tesseract from its hiding place. With the Æsir occupied with matters close to home, there was no one to stop him. No one to reclaim the lost gem. And all the lone being in the observatory could do was stand guard.

*

Loki had been an infant the last time the Fever was in Asgard. The illness didn't even have a proper name, it was just known simply as 'the Fever' and anyone would know instantly what you were speaking about. It had an incubation period of several days and then it struck, unleashing its symptoms of muscle aches, headaches, chills – and fever.

The reason for many of the absent servants was explained; many of their children had come down with the Fever, and several of the servants had become ill as well. Natasha's tutor, Master Siry, was among the ill adults. The healing wing of the palace was full of the sick – and dying – but Natasha was not among them.

Loki kept her in her room, tucked safely in bed. There was nothing to be done other than give cooling elixirs, keep the patient comfortable, and pray. He rung the cloth out over the bowl of herbs and water, before setting it back upon his daughter's forehead. The girl let out a soft wheeze and whimpered. “Cold, isn't it?”

She nodded. “Smells.”

“Good smell?” He smiled when she nodded. “You just rest.” He settled the blankets around her. “Comfortable?” Loki picked up the book off the bedside table and opened it. Natasha had been sick for the past four days and only now had started to show signs of improvement. “Now, if you fall asleep while I am reading, do not worry. I will simply read the same chapters again tomorrow.”

She let out a very tiny laugh and then closed her eyes. “Tired of staying in bed.”

“I suspect you are.” He adjusted the cloth. “But bed is where sick little girls stay until they are told they are well enough to get up.” He flipped through a few pages. “Let me see, where were we.” He gave her another smile. “Ah yes...” He cleared his throat. “Chapter Four, Madame Fidola and the Dancing Class. The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training was in Bloomsbury. It was three large houses joined inside by passages.” He glanced over the top of the book at Natasha, who was half awake, her eyes just barely open.

She was going to get better. Eir and his mother had assured him of that. It would just take time.

*
The whole of Asgard was subdued. Thor couldn't remember it being so quiet or empty. He has not seen Volstagg in over a week; both of his children have the Fever. Fandral and Sif had split the man's duties between them, so he had not seen them either. Hogun was ill with a mild form of the Fever, the same as Natasha. The best that could be determined was that the illness had returned to Asgard unknowingly from a band of traders from Alfheim. Thor supposed it was a good thing that they hadn't left Asgard when the epidemic started; thus they were prevented from spreading the illness to other realms.

The Fever was only raging in one part of Alfheim, according to Heimdall, the rest of Yggdrasil was safe. The guardian told him that twenty-four years ago, the Fever made its way to Midgard where it mutated with an influenza virus that turned lethal and killed millions. The last time the Fever came to Asgard, eight-seven citizens, mostly children, had perished. Thor had a vague memory of a mass funeral and his mother weeping.

Thor, for his part, seemed to be playing messenger between his parents and brother. Mother was always with Eir, Father was usually in the throne room, and Loki was at Natasha's bedside.

Looking back, he was rather ashamed of himself for storming out of the breakfast that marked the last time his family was together.

It didn't mean he wanted to start reading reports though.

*
The hand that pushed the comic towards him was thin, but with finely manicured fingernails. Steve Rogers looked up into the face of a little girl of about six, with copper-colored ringlets, a nervous smile on her face. Despite the ginger hair, almost no freckles adorned her face and she had the air of someone who had recently overcome an illness, judging from the way her dark blue utility coat hung off of her frame. “And what's your name, Miss?”

“Natasha.” The girl replied, offering him a smile.

He quickly signed his name and handed the comic back. “There you go.”

“Thank you.” She hugged the small book to her, and her green eyes suddenly took on a mischievous look. “Are you going to go over to Germany and punch the real Hitler, Captain America?”

“I think I just might.” Steve smiled and winked at her. “But don't tell anyone, or there might be more danger if he finds out I'm coming to arrest him.”

What the girl said next was something he never forgot. “If you do arrest him, make sure you break his leg. That way, he can't run.” She waved. “Bye.”

He was so stunned at her statement, he can't even return the words to her and instead watched her head over to a tall dark haired man in a black coat and green scarf. He inwardly sighed and turned his attention to signing autographs. This wasn't how he expected to serve his country.

Chapter Text

Loki's plan to leave Asgard when Natasha was a little older was derailed by being asked to leave for diplomatic reasons. It wasn't about succession to the throne, or even being banished; the All-Father had given him something that he'd been wanting for some time -a responsibility. Not that he didn't have them in the past, but to have an official task was something to be happy about. Even better, Loki didn't need to have his big brother with him. Not only that, this task was important enough that Thor was actually going to be told to leave him alone.

It was hard not to be smug.

Loki was now the newly appointed ambassador to Vanaheim from Asgard.

In a few days, he and Natasha, along with Aja and his manservant, Ghin, would be leaving for that realm and settling into the embassy. Many things had already been sent ahead of them, such as clothes and other personal items they wouldn't need for the next few days. Both Aja and Ghin were from Vanaheim, so for them, they were going home. Natasha was looking forward to going as well; there would be school for her. Of course, she understood that this meant an end to their trips to Midgard and Alfheim for a while. Vacations would have to be planned and even then, most of them would have to be spent on Asgard.

Mother was proud, if not slightly sad that they were leaving. Father was all business as usual, not saying much about their departure, but there mere statement of telling Loki 'I trust you with this' was quite possibly the greatest praise he'd ever been given. There was only one person who wasn't happy about the situation; Thor.

So it really didn't surprise Loki when he was working on packing up books from his personal library that his brother came into his room without knocking.

“You're too young for this honor.” Thor stood in the doorway, arms folded.

Loki glanced over to him from his bookshelves. “I believe that Father is the one who decides these things, not you, Thor.”

“You're needed here.” His brother stated, coming more into the room. “There are things you need to do...”

“And what things are that, pray tell?” He set his books of simple beginner spells into the trunk. Sasha would need them soon. “Keep track of the state of the realms for you? Patch you and your friends up when you've gone off doing something you shouldn't and don't want Eir telling father?” He rolled his eyes. “Thor, we're of age. Both of us. It's time to start acting like it.”

“I do act like it!” Thor bellowed. “You are younger than I am! Why do you...”

Loki resisted the urge to slam the lid of the trunk. “Because you are the crown prince, and I am just a spare!” He kept his voice calm, even though he wanted to scream. “One day, you will be king. That is the job you need to be prepared for.”

“And how are you even ready to take on such a responsibility of being an ambassador?” Thor's face changed slightly after he finished speaking, almost as if he regretted the words. “That is... what are your qualifications?”

In response, he set a few more books into the trunk. “I have spent the past four hundred years helping clean up your messes, brother. Surely being an ambassador cannot more difficult than that. Not to mention this job entails much reading and other things which you find boring. Vanir youth do not spend their days longing for battle or fighting.”

Thor's face went red. “I still say you are not ready to leave home.”

“And be that as it may, I am still leaving.” Loki ran his fingers along the lid slowly. “I have never understood this desire for war and fighting. It is good to be prepared and to be able to defend oneself, but to actually want it?” He gave his brother a look. “Do you know what happens in war, Thor?”

“There is the glory of the fight, the thrill of victory...”

“And children starve!” Loki hissed.

“What?” Thor gave him a look as if he had just punched him. “There are no children on a battlefield.”

“The children are at home, waiting for loved ones. When a people is conquered, defeated, what happens then? Their homeland is destroyed, there are widows and orphans left behind – and there is your victory, Thor. The price paid for your glory. Starving and homeless children.” Loki spat. “The victims of a war they did not even start.”

“Then their fathers should not have acted so rashly.” Thor folded his arms. “Surely you can see...”

“I see that you have learned nothing about the horrors of war.” He took a deep breath, trying to keep calm. “And therein is Asgard's Folly.”

“What do you mean? Asgard's Folly?” The man shook his head. “I do not understand.”

“Asgard has never lost a war, Thor.” He took a breath. “Which I believe is not a blessing of the Norns, but something that should make us wary.”

“No army could defeat Asgard.” Thor gave him a smug look. “None will.”

“It is that sort of thinking that tells me some day, someone or something will. We are overconfident in our abilities and that makes us vulnerable.” Loki rubbed his temple. “Thor, if you feel I should not be going to Vanaheim, do not voice your complaints with me, voice them with Father.”

“I shall!” His face suddenly lit up, as of Loki had just announced they were going hunting. “I will go and talk to him at once!” He gave him an arrogant smile. “I suggest you stop packing!” He strode out of the room.

Loki shook his head as his brother left. “And I suggest you brush up on your reading skills, you will need them once I am not here to tell you what is going on in the universe.” Knowing his time would become rather limited once he assumed his duties, he added only a few of his favorite books in terms of fiction, mostly ones he and Natasha could read together. He tapped his fingers on the bookshelf, deciding that he'd packed enough tomes for at least a year; if he needed something else, he would simply ask for it to be sent, or use one of the Vanir libraries. This wasn't a permanent job, it would last for ten years, barring anything happening. No doubt his father would have another task for him when he returned. Most likely he would be back to cleaning up after his brother, unless Thor underwent a rapid personality change while he was gone. He smiled. “It's all right, Sasha, you can come in.”

“Was I that loud?” Natasha leaned against the door frame. “I was trying to be as quiet as I could.”

“And so you were.” He turned and gave her a half grin. “I saw your shadow.”

She came into the room and sat down on the desk, clasping her hands in her lap. “Now I know what I need to work on.”

“Clever girl.” He ruffled her hair. “Let me guess, you've been sent out of the nursery so you are not underfoot?”

“They are doing packing and cleaning at the same time.” She sighed. “So here I am, out of the way. I'm not in your way, am I, Papochka?”

“No.” He opened one of the desk drawers. “Nervous about going to Vanaheim?”

She shrugged. “A little.”

“It is similar to Asgard in some respects; however, they actually have more than one season there.” He set his writing case on the desk. “Or rather, the change of seasons is more noticeable.”

“Are you nervous, Papochka?” She tilted her head downwards, trying to make eye contact with him.

“Some.” He tried to smile and failed. “It will be the longest I have ever been away from home. So I suppose it is only natural.” He opened another drawer and pulled out several journals. “The first few weeks might be a little difficult for us to spend time together. Once we are settled and into a routine, it will be easier.”

She nodded. “Just a little time each day?”

“Something like that.” He ruffled her hair. “And I am going to have to stop doing that.” He smoothed down the hair he'd just mussed. “Manners and propriety.” He crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue, and he heard her giggle as he resumed a straight face. “But not all of the time, just the majority of it.”

“Like it is here, Papochka?” She asked as he took a few of the items from the desk and placed them in the trunk.

“Exactly.” He shut the trunk. “Enough packing for now.” He took her hand. “We're going down to the stables – I think you're due for another riding lesson.”

*

“It is not your place to decide what Loki needs to be doing.” Odin rubbed his temple. “Thor, your brother understands politics and court intrigues in ways that you have only begun to grasp. This is an opportunity for both him and Asgard.” He gave his son a sharp look. “Loki also knows that one day you will be king. When that time comes, your brother will be one of the greatest assets at your disposal.”

Thor laughed. “He's no warrior, father, no...”

“There is more to being king than war!” Odin barely kept his voice level. “It is time you learned that! And you will not learn anything of politics and policy if you are merely waiting for Loki to inform you on things that you should do on your own!”

“But, ambassador?” He shook his head. “He can't possibly....”

“He can and he will.” Odin glowered. “As much as your brother is one for mischief, he does understand duty.”

“Father, it is...”

“Enough!” He slammed his fist into the table and stood up. “Why?” He spat. “Why do you want your brother to stay here when the two of you have scarcely spent any time together in over two centuries?”

“He is not...” Thor frowned, swallowing. “I do not think he is...”

“Is not what, Thor?” Odin came around the desk, shaking his head. “Ready? Capable? I would not have given Loki such an important task if I did not think he was up to it.”

“Vanaheim, Father?” It was a last-ditch effort. “Alfheim or...”

“Your brother and niece are leaving at the end of the week. You may not approve or you may not like it. Your mother does not wish for them to leave either, but she understands. This is how things are, Thor. And on that matter, while your brother is gone, you and your friends are not to go to Vanaheim and distract him from his duties. I suggest you use the time to focus more on your duties and preparing to become king.” Odin set a hand on his shoulder. “This is for the best, Thor.”

Thor nodded solemnly. “I understand, Father.”

“Dismissed.” He went back to his desk and Thor watched him for a moment before leaving.

That hadn't gone as he planned. As he went back into the corridor and headed back for his room, Thor resisted the urge to throw something. Things had been different in this family since Loki brought Natasha home. His parents had been different, his brother had been vastly different; and things only got stranger after the Fever. He didn't put any blame on his niece, she was just a child. But it was odd, the way things were shifting on Asgard. Subtle little things; things he couldn't name, couldn't quite place. Had he been changing? Nothing made sense anymore. Thor did still not like or approve of Loki leaving. But the All-Father's mind was set and he would have to accept his will.

One thing Thor knows is that he's certainly not jealous of Loki's new assignment. He knew what ambassadors did. They were representatives of their realm, of their people and looked to the welfare of citizens when they visited other realms. There was a lot of reading, protocol and paperwork associated with the job, things that Thor found boring. It was bureaucracy, and politeness and things that he doesn't honestly think Loki likes any more than he does. But there's also intrigues, gossip – and secrets.

If there's one thing his little brother liked, it's secrets.

Thor smirked. Perhaps Loki was the perfect choice for ambassador.

It would keep him out of trouble for at least a decade.

*

Frigga was not looking forward to her youngest child's departure anymore than her oldest was, but for a different reason. She had grown used to his frequent trips to other realms, his explorations and tales; it was rather sad that Loki and Thor had drifted apart, surely Thor would enjoy the journeys as much as his brother. But Loki always came back, he was never gone more than a few months; a heartbeat of time. She kept telling herself that ten years wasn't that long, and he was only going to Vanaheim, but to her, right now, ten years seemed to be a lifetime.

Eir had managed to determine the responsible factor for Natasha's slow aging, and once the child had eaten one of Idunn's apples, produced a result that would cause the girl to age one year physically for every fifteen years that passed. The healer estimated that it would become one for thirty once the child had a second apple next century. The girl would leave Asgard looking six and coming back looking nearly seven; not to great a change in face, but mentally... oh, she could come back so much smarter than she was now.

Loki was convinced that he could teach his daughter at least the basics of magic and have her be able to perform such simple spells as summoning a flicker of flame to a candle, locking and unlocking doors. It wasn't that Midgardians weren't capable of such things, there were some who had been fully capable of performing such craft; they just lacked for teachers and proper books. The last tomes that could have helped Midgard were destroyed in the fire of the Library of Alexandria – a disaster that happened before Thor or Loki were even born. There had been other works, housed in a library in Antioch, but that city and its scrolls had been turned to dust by two catastrophic earthquakes.

So Midgard was left rich in myth but poor in magic.

Now they were gaining power in science. Slow, but steady. Frigga was under the impression that it was unfair to call Midgard backward; the realm was harsh, and it was difficult to flourish intellectually when cultures and beliefs were constantly clashing. Once they settled, once Midgard exhausted itself on war and its people reached an understanding, they would shine, possibly even brighter than any other realm.

It was the belief of the court and in truth, most of Asgard, that Natasha was Loki's biological daughter by some woman of Midgard; most assumed the lady dead, why else would the child be here? Frigga was not foolish – both of her sons no doubt had bastards scattered throughout the realms; but like many a mother in her position, she said nothing about it. Norns, Odin had his share of them as well. At least she had forbidden the court and the staff to speak of Natasha's mother, or ask the girl in regards to the woman.

Frigga felt that Natasha's biological parents, no doubt dead from war or famine could rest in peace knowing that now their little girl was protected and provided for, free from the Hell that had been called the Red Room.

The knock on the door of her sitting room brought a smile to her face. “Enter.”

The door was opened by one of the guards and Natasha slipped into the room, standing next to the unopened door until the guard shut the other. She curtsied, her face solemn. “Good afternoon, Grandmother.”

“Natasha.” She stood up and went over to the girl, kissing both of her cheeks. “How are you, my dear?”

“I am...” Her poise vanished instantly and Natasha hugged her tightly. “I don't want to go to Vanaheim, I want to stay here!”

Frigga sighed and returned the hug. “I know my sweet, I wish you could stay here as well. But unfortunately, it is rare that we get what we want in life.” She kissed the top of her head. “So let us not spend our tea time together in sorrow.”

Natasha dug a handkerchief from her pocket and rubbed at her face. “I am sorry.”

“Do not be sorry.” She guided the girl over to the table where the tea was waiting. “You will make many new friends in Vanaheim and surely, when it is time to come home to Asgard, you will want to stay there.”

She let out a slight giggle. “I do not think so.”

“We shall see.” Frigga sighed and sat down, and a moment later, Natasha did as well. “I suppose I should ask you if you know who is who in the court of Vanaheim, but I believe your grandfather would rather do that at dinner.” She poured two cups of tea and handed the girl one.

“Thank you.” She set the cup down before placing a napkin on her lap. “I believe I know who is who... although I do not have faces to place with names.”

“Having the names down is best.” She offered a smile. “Not that you should expect to have to interact with the court on a daily basis. Monthly, perhaps.”

Natasha nodded, looking nervous. “Papochka said I would be going to school, instead of having a tutor.”

“Yes. The school you will be attending is for intrinsic studies. Things such as grammar, mathematics, science and history. There will be private instruction as well.” Frigga added a slice of lemon to her tea, along with a cube of sugar. “Although I imagine your father will go over those subjects with you, so that you may choose what you wish to study.”

The girl frowned into her teacup. “You mean, like magic?”

“Yes.” Frigga smiled. “I am certain that you will succeed at whatever you set your mind out to do.” She took a drink of tea. “And I am also counting on you to make sure your father behaves himself.”

Natasha gave her an incredulous look. “Grandmother, Papochka's a grown up.”

“True, but even adults sometimes forget that they are adults. If you remain on your best behavior, then your father undoubtedly will do the same.” Frigga gave her a smile. “Do not worry, I do not expect you to have to remind him once to mind his manners.”

*
The dinner was as tense as the breakfast where Loki learned the truth about his past. It was an odd feeling, knowing that this was the last time the family would be together like this for some time. He was relieved, however, that Father hadn't decided have a feast. In the past, he might have considered it a slight; but tonight, he was extremely grateful. He was spared the barely-concealed scorn of well wishing, of watching his brother and his friends drink themselves unconscious (well, save for Sif) and thus, no risk of Thor saying something that would bring gales of laughter and more snide remarks.

Natasha had yet to tell him if someone said anything to her about being Midgardian, but then again, Mother rarely let the girl out of her sight on such occasions and only an absolute idiot would insult the All-Mother's only grandchild in her hearing.

Feast it may not be, full course dinner was an order. When he and Thor were younger, they used to called these meals a manner minder; it was a struggle to remember to behave through ten whole plates; even worse when there were twenty-one. Loki was hoping he would not be required to host many such... and that's when he realized that something had completely slipped his mind in all this packing and such nonsense. He was unmarried, not even courting and was taking up a job that would require meals like this at least once a season.

The silence was the worst part of this meal. No one had spoken through oysters, soup, sorbet, the fish and now, as portions of venison and vegetables were set in front of each of them, Loki knew this couldn't go on much longer. Thankfully, it was Father who broke the silence.

“What do you have planned for tomorrow, Thor?” He spoke more to his plate than to his son.

“After escorting Loki to the Bifrost for his departure?” Thor glanced around the table, as if the answer was simple. “I suppose I will be on the training grounds.”

“I see.” He didn't say anything else, and out of the corner of his eye, Loki could see that his brother suddenly looked confused, and then realized what he had said.

“Unless there is something you need me to do, Father.” He hastily added.

“Perhaps. We shall see.” He picked up his fork. “Have you been reading the reports as of late?”

“A few. The ones from the guilds here on Asgard and some of the trade agreements we have with Vanaheim.” Thor turned his attention to his food.

Loki sliced into his meat, not looking up from his plate. He hoped his brother had started doing the reading he was supposed to; he was the next king of Asgard and needed to be prepared. Perhaps that was the real reason behind his recent appointment. With him off-realm, Thor might actually start behaving like a king.

He made a mental note to find something else to occupy himself away from home when this assignment was over. Perhaps he would go and retrieve the Tesseract. That madman, Red Skull, or whatever he called himself no longer had it. It was currently in the possession of a man named Howard Stark and some organization he couldn't recall the name of. Certainly, spiriting it away from them shouldn't prove too difficult.

If nothing else, he could keep the Midgardians from accidentally annihilating themselves with it.

*
Natasha slowly walked around the nursery, noting how different it was from the one at home. It was much brighter, owing to the row of tall windows that ran along the wall. Looking outside, she could see the drive that led around to the back of the house and the strip of green that ran between it and the iron fence. She didn't really miss the stone balcony of home; she was hardly ever allowed to go out onto it. Hugging her plush dragon to her, she circled the table, with a silver bowl full of brightly colored flowers that filled the room with a pleasant scent, much like lavender.

The walls were butter yellow and the drapes were burgundy red. It seemed less like a nursery and more like the bedroom of someone older than her. The bed, nearly the same size as hers at home, was tucked into an alcove with pocket doors. She set her dragon on the bed and investigated the cupboards that lined one wall, suspecting that was where the toys were hidden. One of them contained blocks, another a small army of toy soldiers, and the third paper, jars of paint and brushes. That was it. The rest of them were empty. Natasha frowned, but told herself she'd be spending more time with schoolwork than playing anyway. She also liked being outside more than being indoors. She frowned at the large replica of the embassy sitting on a low table. When she came around to the back, however, she saw a small latch.

She undid it, and the rear facade of the structure could be pulled away, revealing all the rooms within. A perfect replica, she assumed, of the inside rooms. “No dolls?” She looked around on the table and found a small box that had been masquerading as a piece of greenery. She'd expected to find a small family within, but instead, there were just two; a dark haired father and a red-haired girl. Natasha picked the two of them up, setting the girl in the room she was in and the father in the library downstairs. That worked.

She left her room and made her way down the hall, where she could hear her father moving around in his chamber. She knocked.

“Come in, Natasha.” He sounded tired.

“How did you know it was me?” She stepped into the room and caught sight of another bowl of flowers, just like hers.

“Familiar knock.” He gave her a wan smile. “I suppose Aja has not arrived yet?”

She shook her head as she came over to where he was standing, sorting piles of books on the table. “If she has, I have not seen her.”

“As it is the first time she has been home to Vanaheim in several decades, I do not begrudge her for being late.” Papochka set a few things from his trunk onto the table. “All settled?”

“Yes. I still like home better.” She frowned, watching as he adjusted a stack. “That's... not wrong, is it?”

“No, Sasha, it isn't.” He gave her a grin. “Do you suppose your grandmother has stopped crying?”

“She did not cry that much, Papochka.” She gave him a look and folded her arms.“She told me she was allowed to cry as much as she wanted, as long as it was not in view of the public.”

He laughed. “I suppose I cannot contradict that.” He shut the lid of the trunk. “Shall we go exploring this place before formality prevents us?” He took her hand.

She squeezed it back. “One nice thing about it is that I don't think I'll get lost.”

*
The fire had happened years ago, from the look of the way the building had settled. Rusted curls of barbed wire hung from the trees, heaps of scattered bones littering the ground. It was like a scene out of a nightmare. Some of the soldiers started to dig a large pit, the ground well thawed from another brutal winter. Others collected corpses from the outlying areas, carrying them to where the majority of them already awaited burial.

The Red Room had been largely forgotten during the war. The push of the Nazis out of Russia and back into Germany, the people of their country and other such matters had caused many to carry on with the belief that their hidden project was safe and sound in the mountains of Ukraine. Now that they were here, they found that their dream of an army of elite spies had gone up literally in smoke.

“Commander Branskhof?” A young man came out of the ruined husk of the building and saluted him.

“Yes?” He frowned. “Yuri, isn't?”

“Yes, sir.” He cleared his throat. “We've found the girls.”

“Take me to them.” He barked and then followed the younger man into the wreckage. At the center of the building was the great metal room that had been placed here in the event of a bombing. It was largely intact, in a great contrast to the ruin that surrounded it. The heavy metal door had been removed and several soldiers were waiting inside. “What in the name of...”

The bodies of the girls were lying side by side, arms crossed over their chests. The faint scent of death still hung in the air, and in the dirty clothing the commander could holes caused not by age, but by bullets or some other form of weapon.

“Mutilate the adults, place the girls somewhere safe.” Yuri shook his head. “Who could be capable of such a thing?” He frowned. “You don't think?”

“The Nazis would have slain them all where they stood, they would not leave the girls where they are.” Commander Branskhof kept thinking that something else was wrong here; something he hadn't yet noticed. “It is likely that we will never know.”

Yuri looked over the girls. “How successful was this project at the last report, sir?”

“Most of it is classified, but they had managed to slow the aging of four of the girls; and those four had shown remarkable promise.” He shook his head. “So much wasted. We do not even have the formula they were using and...” He stopped, finally seeing what it was in this tomb of children that he hadn't when he first came in. “There are only nineteen girls here.”

“Sir?” Yuri turned to look at him. “Only nineteen?”

“If everyone here was killed, including the girls, then there should be twenty corpses.” He scanned the bodies, struggling to remember faces, and coming up blank. “We shall need more trucks. We are taking the girls back to Moscow.” He waved Yuri towards the exit. “See to it.”

“Yes, sir.” He saluted and then left the room.

The Kremlin was going to raise Hell over this.

Chapter Text

School, it transpired,was far better when it wasn't run by sadists. At least, that was how Natasha felt. She felt the worst part of school on Vanaheim were the ten pounds of small-clothes that were currently considered an essential part of Vanir fashion. Even for school uniforms. When she first saw the clothes laid out, she'd balked at them. The petticoat was tolerable; if it wasn't coupled with pantaloons and an absolutely wretched device designed to ensure good posture. It was worn over a camisole, and because of the bone sewn into the garment, it was next to impossible to bend over in the thing. Papochka had said that people in Vanir were more open minded about things like citizens and cultural ideas from other realms, but when it came to fashion, they clearly hadn't heard of practicality yet.

The rest of her classmates seemed to think that many of the assignments were too hard, that the teachers asked to much of them, and (Natasha's personal favorite) was when some of them started muttering my father will be hearing about this when a privilege was lost due to failure to complete an assignment or for acting out. She knew full well that these children had no idea what real punishment was. She had no idea what all the fuss was about when it came to behaving in school and doing their work. Perhaps it was the time spent at the Red Room and the lectures she'd received at home on things like duty. Yes, duty could be annoying and bothersome; but you still did it. You did it because you had to; if she had her way, she'd wear riding clothes all the time.

Except for formal occasions. Natasha didn't mind dressing up for those; that was sort of fun.

Tonight was one of the most formal events of the year; the name day of his majesty King Frejaon. Well, not his actual one; but the dinner to honor it was tonight; celebrations would last for an entire week. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear, stepping back to look at herself in the hall mirror. The dress was a light shade of green, with accents of a pale pink. Another silly Vanir fashion idea; children weren't supposed to wear bold colors, save for earth tones. Brown, gray and black wouldn't do for such an event. “These sleeves are silly.”

“Bare arms aren't allowed for anyone at court.” Papochka's voice called out from behind her and came to stand next to her, smoothing down her hair. “Although how they expect any child to eat neatly with belled sleeves, I haven't the slightest idea.”

She looked up at him, putting on a brave smile. “I wanted to ask; how can a dinner last for seven hours? Are there going to be speeches?”

Papochka shook his head. “No, it's seven hours long because there are thirty courses.”

Thirty?” The idea floored her. “That's awful!”

“It's a wretched extravagance.” He shook his head. “Throughout the nine realms, there are so many hungry people; and here we stand, going to attend a meal with more food served than many people see in their lifetimes.”

Natasha thought for a moment. “It isn't fair. Couldn't we just have seven courses and give the rest of the food to the hungry residents of Vanaheim?”

“Sadly, no.” He smoothed out a wrinkle on her sleeve. “This also isn't typical for this event. It is only because the good king is celebrating his three-thousandth name day.”

Her eyes widened. “His grace is three thousand years old?”

Papochka nodded. “Do not look so surprised, your grandfather will celebrate his four-thousandth the year we return to Asgard.” He held out his arm.

“That's still a really long time.” She set her hand on his arm and the two of them headed for the door. “I mean.. I'm only...”

“Fourteen years, perhaps fifteen.” A servant opened the door and they stepped outside where a coach was waiting. “Although most children your age are still toddling about.”

“Not on Midgard.” She answered as they got into the carriage. “Fifteen is nearly grown.” She knew about her slowed aging a little. Eir was still trying to unravel what the scientists at the Red Room had done to her. “It's kind of strange, knowing I'll be young for a long time.”

“And I suppose you think your father is an old goat at his age of nine hundred and eighty?” He chuckled.

“Now you're being silly.” She giggled. “But thirty courses is too much food.”

“They won't all be platefuls, some will be merely two or three bites worth.” He settled back against the seat. “I am just glad we shall be spared excessive drunkenness.”

“Uh huh.” She sighed. “I don't like the smell of alcohol, Papochka. There's just something about it that makes me feel queasy.”

“That makes the both of us.” He shook his head. “I have never seen the point in imbibing drink to the point where one is incoherent. Particularly in public.”

Natasha nodded and looked out the window of the coach. “Five hours is also a long time to sit and behave.”

“Well, if you fall asleep in your chair, I can assure you no one will say anything about it. One cannot expect children to stay attentive and be on their best behavior for so long. Regardless of their birth.” Papochka let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes. “We shall find ourselves doing double duty tonight, Sasha. Representing both Asgard and the royal house. Your grandparents are unable to attend the gathering due to urgent business at home, and it would look unseemly for both princes of that realm to attend, seeing how we are both unmarried.”

“Protocol nonsense?” She giggled.

“Exactly.” He shook his head. “I find myself only slightly chagrined at their absence. As much as I miss them, having them here would be... well, much like the way when I stand over you when you are doing your sums.”

She made a face. “But you're a grown up, Papochka.”

He snorted. Her father actually snorted. “Not entirely, it seems.”

The carriage lurched to a stop and then slowly began moving again as it became a part of a long, winding line up the palace. Music drifted down towards them, along with the heady smell of flowers, perfume, smoked meats, spices and an underlying scent that was hard to place. Natasha coughed as the scent seemed to hang in the carriage and grow stronger as they drew closer to the entrance.

“Here we are.” Her father spoke solemnly before giving her a flash of a mischievous grin. “And what are you to tell any foolish boys who think they can court you at the tender age of five and ten?”

She grinned. “That first they must slay a dragon, craft me a pair of boots from the hide, walk across the coldest part of Jotunheim barefooted and without a cloak, swim across Midgard's widest ocean at its widest point, and, lastly, win a battle of wits with my father. That is assuming they survive asking Grandfather's permission to go on a quest to slay the dragon first.”

Papochka laughed. “Very good!” He continued to chuckle as the door opened and he stepped outside, before turning to offer her a hand down. “Perhaps you should come up with a list of things any lady who wishes to court me to perform.”

In response, she giggled.

*

If duty didn't demand it, Loki would have stopped eating after the eighth course. Vanaheim might not have the sheer millions of starving people some realms did, but there was more food served in the past hour than at least ten thousand Vanir saw in the past week. The king had apparently spared no expense, importing food from everywhere he could, even an ice-rose flavored sherbert for cleansing the palate from Jotunheim to a luxuriously spicy Midgardian dish called saffron rice. He had to wonder how the court managed to acquire that. He also had to wonder how he managed to eat any of the food at all due to an unexpected guest (at least to him) at the feast.

Prince Byleistr Laufeyson.

The king of Jotunheim's second son.

His brother.

Loki spent courses one through ten wondering if the prince knew about him and courses ten through sixteen if he also knew about Natasha. He spent courses seventeen and eighteen silently berating himself for that; almost no one knew the truth of his daughter. There was a break in dining after the nineteenth course; and it was more than welcome. He was about to ask Natasha if she wanted to get up and stretch her legs; she'd started to look drowsy after the thirteenth course, a delicate soup from Alfheim; when a shadow fell over the two of them.

“Your Excellency?” Byleistr was staring down at him. “Might I introduce myself, I am Byleistr Laufeyson, of Jotunheim. He held out his hand – it was almost twice the size of Loki's

He promptly stood and shook the offered hand, tilting his head slightly. “Yes, of course.” He saw the Jotun smile slightly; at least, Loki assumed it was a smile. He turned to his right in time to see Natasha rise to her feet. “May I introduce my daughter, Natasha?”

“Princess Natasha, if I am not mistaken?” There was a slight tone in his voice that Loki recognized; it was the same one he had when he was uncertain of something.

“Yes, your highness.” He absently wondered if Byleistr was as uncomfortable as he was.

“It is an honor to meet you, your highness.” Natasha bobbed a small curtsey, tripped on the hem of her dress, and caught herself before she smacked her face on the table. “Sorry.” She went pink as she straightened herself.

“What have you to be sorry for?” The Jotun chuckled softly. “It's not your fault that the table is too large for you.” He patted her head and Loki was uncomfortable at how his palm dwarfed her tiny frame. He was almost surprised the touch didn't send her to the floor. “I also imagine it is quite late for you to be up.”

“That's why I took a nap this afternoon, your highness.” Natasha stood, arms behind her back – military rest – and looked up at him, her face unreadable.

Byleistr laughed again. “Yes. Excuse me.” He tilted his head and walked away from them.

Loki let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. “You all right?”

His daughter nodded. “Are you, Papochka?”

“I will be, shortly.” He smoothed down her mussed hair. “Nothing torn?”

She shook her head and resumed her seat on the small stack of cushions on her chair. “But I am getting sleepy.”

He sat down as well. “That makes two of us. I suspect that the next course will most likely be something cold, in an effort to wake us all up a bit.”

“It's not going to be raw fish again, is it?” She made a slight face and leaned towards him. “The oysters were slimy.” She whispered.

Loki chuckled. “But they were good, were they not?”

She nodded and then covered a yawn. “They tasted good, but the texture reminded me of mud.”

He didn't want to think about how his little girl knew what mud in the mouth felt like. “There shouldn't be any more fish, or exceptionally heavy dishes from now on; with the exception of some cakes.”

“Do you think they imported chocolate from Midgard?” Her eyes lit up at the prospect.

“If they brought saffron, I can't imagine them forgetting chocolate.” Loki grinned as a bell sounded and the guests resumed their seats for the twentieth course; a small salad of greens with nuts.

*
Natasha managed to make it all the way through the entire meal without falling asleep. However, they were no sooner back in their carriage than she fell into slumber, using her arms for a pillow. Loki rested his head against his hand, dozing himself. The drive back to the embassy was longer than journey there. Half-slumbering horses, tipsy guests and the occasional ill rider caused the line of coaches to trail along at a snail's pace. A bell in the square rang out the hour – three in the morning. His daughter was expected at the children's gathering later this afternoon; although what sort of party the king was having for children, he could not imagine. He most likely wanted to get a gauge of the children the crown prince of Vanir would end up ruling one day; and possibly, Norns forbid, looking for future betrothals.

Loki's mind kept drifting back to Byleistr. He wasn't exactly sure what to make of the appearance of the second son of the king of Jotunheim. He had no idea where the giant was staying, how he had gotten here, and what the devil King Frejaon was thinking. He knew that if he didn't inform his father of the prince's appearance, some simpering court fop would, and there would be hell to pay. This whole ambassadorship was starting to feel like he was spying on the Vanir court, rather than seeing to the well-being of Asgardians visiting the realm.

It was very fortunate that Thor had not been here.

Thor no doubt would have attacked the prince between courses five and six, and war would be declared before the seventh and that brought another unpleasant thought to Loki's mind. Would Thor kill him if he knew the truth? That his younger brother was a frost giant? A runty one, but a Jotun all the same? Surely his brother wouldn't do such a thing. Mother would never forgive him and Natasha – he didn't want to think about what would happen to Natasha if something were to happen to him.

A loud explosion suddenly rocked the carriage, and the could hear the horses rear and whinny, unseating Natasha and sending her to the floor.

“Papochka?” She whimpered, still half asleep. “What?”

He helped her into the seat next to him and peered out the curtains as footsteps and shouts suddenly echoed around them. Behind them, coachmen were calming other horses, but in front of them five carriages were on fire, one of them completely engulfed. The smell of burning horseflesh seeped under the seams of the windows and made his stomach turn. “It's all right, we're fine.” He hugged her, not certain of what their next move should be. There was a shout and the coach lurched to the left and a moment later, they were parked on a side street, along with four others.

The door opened and one of the guards who had been riding next to the driver looked in. “Are your highnesses all right?”

“Yes, what has happened?” His exhaustion was gone. Now he just wanted answers.

“We do not know much, my prince. They are currently trying to identify which coach has been lost and treating the wounded. We have been asked by the Vanir guards to remain here until all the parties have been accounted for.” He bowed slightly. “I do apologize for this.”

“There is no need for that. Inform the Vanir that I am more than willing to do whatever is necessary to bring justice for the victims.” He let out a breath and a high shrill cry of a horse rose above the noise of the crowd, only to be cut off abruptly and Loki winced as Natasha began to whimper. “And keep me informed.”

“Yes, my prince.” The guard shut the door, cutting off much of the noise.

“What's going on?” Natasha looked up at him, fear evident on her face.

“Some sort of accident, Sasha.” He smoothed down her hair. “But we're fine and safe. Don't worry, we won't have to be here long. Try and go back to sleep.” He gave her a smile. “You didn't hurt yourself when you fell, did you?”

She shook her head. “I guess all these small-clothes are good for something.”

Loki bit back a chuckle. “And the full belly also helped, I assume?”

Natasha gave him a wry look. “Papochka...”

He kissed the top of her head. “Get some rest. It is far past your bedtime.” He took off his coat and covered her with it, and settled into the seat for the long wait.

*

The rest of the events for the week were canceled and the mood in the capitol was tense. Four residents of Alfheim were dead; the second son of their king and his family. Whether they were the intended targets or not was still under investigation. The coachman was also dead. Nine Vanir nobles were injured, although only one of them seriously.

Courtiers came and went into the embassy, and Loki was about ready to scream after the fourth day. How hard could it be to find the person or persons who planted the explosives? The driver and guards from his coach had already been questioned twice. If the horses could talk, they most likely would have been questioned six times. They had even questioned Sasha. She answered the questions calmly, her face drawn and when they were done, she said she was sorry she couldn't be of more help. He had been questioned as well; and he knew why.

Foreigners were always at the top of the suspect list; disgusting, but true. Even if the people who had died were not citizens of the realm.

Again, Loki was thankful that his parents and brother had remained on Asgard. Well, he wouldn't have minded having either of his parents here, but Thor... Thor might be terrorizing servants by now, demanding answers. Unless, by some miracle, his brother had learned to control his temper in the past year. But that seemed highly unlikely.

Nearly every visitor from Asgard now seemed determined to get away from Vanaheim as fast as possible; and while the traders knew the process, some nobles felt that they had the right to push their way to the front of the line. The trouble was, no one was allowed to leave the realm until the culprits were apprehended. Making people unaccustomed to denial understand that, however, proved next to impossible.

Which was why Hogun's arrival on the morning of the fifth day filled him with a twist of apprehension. He hadn't known the warrior had returned home until one of the staff informed him of the man's arrival. Then again, of his brother's inner circle, Hogun the Grim had the most common sense. When he came into the room, Loki almost didn't recognize him; he wasn't wearing his customary armor. If that had been the case at the dinner as well, it was no wonder he hadn't seen him.

“Hogun.” He managed to keep his face expressionless.

“Loki.” He came over to the desk, studying him.

“Feel free to sit, if you wish.” He indicated the chairs, resuming his own seat.

“Thank you.” He sat, and for a moment they stared at each other, the clock on the mantel sounding louder than it should. Another minute, and a string of haphazard notes echoed towards them and then, Hogun gave him a half-smile. “Natasha is learning to play the harp?”

“Yes.” He didn't wince at the next string of notes. “Not exactly an easy task, trying to play an instrument that's four times your size. Rather like myself and a broadsword.”

That made the warrior's smile strengthen. “Still the humor, I see.”

“Old habit. One I don't plan on ridding myself of.” He frowned. “Please tell me you're not here to try and move ahead in the queue of people who wish to return to Asgard.”

“No.” He straightened his shoulders. “My services are needed here, at home.” The solemn look was back. “Something else is wrong. With the assassination.”

Loki frowned. “Meaning?”

“There are too many witnesses and no one claims to have seen anything. One cannot plant an incendiary device where it was and not be seen. Unless the culprit themselves is also dead.”

“Do you suspect the coachman or a member of the Alfheim royal family, attempting to frame someone else?” Loki folded his hands and rested his elbows on the desk, thinking. “For what purpose?”

“Protest?” The warrior frowned. “A warning?” His expression darkened. “I saw you speaking to the frost giant at...”

“The Jotun in question is Byleistr Laufeyson, second son of Jotunheim's king. Bombs are not exactly a weapon used on that realm.” Loki wondered if Thor knew the truth about his heritage. If he did, there was no way he'd keep it to himself.

“No. He would not do it, he most certainly would have been seen and the Jotun are...” He stopped when Loki held up his hand.

“Alfheim trades with Jotunheim. One of the two realms that do, and it is possible that Vanaheim is seeking to open up commerce as well. There are plenty who would object to that.” He sat back in his chair, thinking. “But to be so bold about what they did... someone may be protecting the guilty, if they still live.”

“The ones who would object to trade the most, your excellency, would be Asgard.” There was a look in Hogun's eye that Loki caught, and slowly, he smiled. At the same time, a string of notes, simple but in accord, echoed up the corridor.

“I've been away from court, Hogun. Who has been trying to seek favor lately?” He raised an eyebrow. “And are they currently on Vanaheim?”

**

The building was long, with a low ceiling. The glass in the windows had been painted black in the early days of the war, and scratch marks were apparent throughout them. The lights were half-burnt out, and those that remained flickered wanly. The air smelled stale, laced with the faint whiff of over-ripe fruit. The place had been used as a storehouse for the army. For what it contained now, it was surprising that it did not smell of death.

Nineteen bodies, arranged in groups of four, paired together by age. They were arranged along the floor of the warehouse, their bodes covered to the chin with white sheets, as if they were merely sleeping, and not dead.

Five men in uniform, each with four files, (sixteen of them brown, four of them green) compared faces with skulls, matching the corpses with their identities. The first to be given names were the older ones; they had more records, their teeth giving the most information. A crooked molar on one, the rupture of wisdom teeth in others, a pair of extra-long canines on a few. Once given a name, their heads were covered and their meager history left on their chests. Girls between the ages of nine and fourteen proved to be a little harder; some were missing far more teeth than they should; the idiots in the Red Room had maimed the girls before they died. Had any of those bastards lived, they would be getting a crash course in Russian justice at the moment.

The government needed willing workers; so many lives had been lost in the war and everyone needed to help rebuild. The countries in Europe would not be made a part of their empire; but they would still yield to the will of Mother Russia.

And here was a great loss; nineteen dead girls who were the hope of a super soldier. A soldier in the form of a innocent girl. Girls who would look helpless, sweet, and unassuming. They would have taken countless men down, gathered valuable information, and been unwavering in their loyalty.

It was all gone now.

They would have to begin anew.

Starting with the serum.

The girls who were under nine were the last to be paired with their files, until, at last, there was one girl, and two files. The five men stood over the last child, her age either five or six. One of the front teeth was missing, and her left arm showed evidence of having been broken once. The leader of the group, Peter Tekanoff, opened the green file, not one of his originally, and frowned. “This isn't her. This is the one who is missing.” He took the other folder and it on the girl's chest. “This is Olga Barakoff.” He glanced into the green file, frowning at the name. “Romanov...” He looked at his comrades. “It has been thirty years, but please tell me...”

“They are dead, sir.” The stockiest of the four answered. “Dead, their bodies lying at the bottom of a mineshaft in the middle of nowhere. No one will find them for decades, if ever.” He blanched. “That is...”

“I know.” Peter frowned and then chuckled faintly. “See that you don't go repeating such stories. The past is over and done with, only the future matters. She's only the late Czar's niece, but there are always fools with imperial delusions.” He sighed. “Natasha Romanov was either taken by whoever destroyed the Red Room, or she ran off into the woods and died there. But we still don't know who or what attacked the place.”

He saw the youngest man open his mouth, only to quickly close it.

“What is it?”

“Nothing, sir.” The man flushed.

“No, it's something. What is it?” Peter put an edge on his voice.

“It's just a legend, sir. It's not possible.” He seemed to shrink under the gaze of the other four.

“At this point, legend might as damn well be a place to start.” Once they eliminated all the impossible things, they could focus on more plausible theories.

The man swallowed before beginning. “It's about a sky-walker.”

**

Hogun returned to Asgard already expecting things to be difficult. The discovery, trial and execution of two Æsir and two Vanir for the murder of the Alfheim royals had shocked many. The warrior was expecting the full brunt of the elder Odinson's anger, demanding to know why his brother hadn't done more to prevent two of Asgard's citizens from meeting the axe. He was already planning on saying nothing. Justice had been served and Thor needed to realize that. Loathed as he was to admit it, Loki had made a point in stating that his brother still had some growing up to do.

He just wished Loki was still around to calm his brother down.

“You've returned!” Thor appeared in the practice yard, all smiles. Hogun's guard was up instantly.

“Yes. I arrived late last night, I was more interested in sleep, than seeking you out, my prince.” He adjusted his gauntlets. “I also wasn't in the mood for a game of hide and seek.”

“It would have been a hard search, we'd gone on a hunt, we grew bored while waiting for you!” Thor laughed and clamped a hand on his shoulder. “The boars we caught will be served at dinner tonight!”

“Well, look who's back!” Fandral chuckled. “I was beginning to think you'd run off with some maiden, and that was the cause for your delay!”

“No.” Hogun looked from one friend to the other. Something was wrong, it was as if they had no idea why he was back two weeks later than he was supposed to be.

“How fares my brother? Has he had enough of playing grown up?” Thor was grinning, only adding to his confusion.

“Your brother is quite well. Natasha is learning to play the harp.” This conversation was wrong; it wasn't as if the crime had been hushed up.

“The harp?” Fandral laughed. “Perhaps when she comes home, she can give Sif lessons.”

“I do not think the harp string is the sort of string that suits her.” The prince laughed. “Bow string, yes.”

“Idiots.” Sif came up to them. “I'd sooner take up weaving than the harp.” She turned to Hogun. “Pay them no mind. Between the two of them and Volstagg, they might have been sober ten waking hours of the past two weeks.”

Hogun kept his face blank, which was a total contrast to how he felt inside. Did Thor really have no idea of what had happened on Vanaheim? Was he completely oblivious? “I should have asked you to join me on Vanaheim, Lady Sif.”

“Oh, Sif wouldn't have liked that...” Thor started to say before Sif interjected.

“The things you know about what I would and wouldn't like couldn't fill a teacup!” She turned on her heel and left, muttering.

“Now you've gone and upset her, splendid move, Thor, now how...”

“Fandral, as Natasha is fond of saying, do the Nine a favor and hold your tongue.” Hogun deadpanned before picking up his mace and heading for the practice dummies. He was starting to wish he'd stayed on Vanaheim with Loki.

*

“She is not his daughter by blood. Nor does she smell like an Æsir.” Byleistr stated, his expression disappointed. “Though as to how he acquired the girl, I do not know.”

Laufey waved his hand. “You are forgetting, my son, that Odin has them both in the line of succession for Asgard, and they are no more beings of that realm than you.” He frowned. “If Loptr has, in fact, stolen the girl, he has merely acted exactly as the man who stole him.”

“She is a sweet thing, tiny, of course. I was informed that she was his daughter by some Midgardian woman who died.” He shook his head. “I was unable to learn more. The assassination interrupted a great many things.”

“It did.” The king drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “Do you think that your brother knows of his true parentage?'

“I am not certain.” The barest hint of a smile came to the prince's face. “What if he does?”

“Then it will be easier when the rebellion is over. Winter always brings thing to rest for a while.” Laufey looked down at his hand, a smile slowly coming to his face. “I would see our family all together again.”

“Princess Natasha could not survive on Jotunheim, Father. Not forever.” He didn't know why he cared about that, but for some reason, he did.

“We will let the All Father keep his granddaughter most of the time.” He raised his head. “Things need to be mended within Yggdrasil. If the realms do not stand together, then we cannot hope to weather storms that come from beyond the Nine.”

“But first, the rebels.” Byleistr closed his eyes, thinking. “When winter is over.”

“Yes.” The king folded his hands and sat back in his chair. “When spring returns.”

Chapter Text

Ten years went by alarmingly fast. It seemed as if Loki and Natasha had just gotten settled on Vanaheim when they were suddenly getting ready to leave. After the murder of the Alfheim prince, the time had been blessedly uneventful, the greatest problem that arose after that was a minor trade dispute. He wasn't sure how it happened, but Loki was immensely thankful he'd made it through the decade without Thor coming and bothering him once. Trips home to Asgard had been short, and often, only he had gone, coming back to the embassy within seventy-two hours.

He tossed the last of his books into his trunk, sighing. “Didn't get nearly enough reading done.” He chuckled. “Still can't sneak up on me, Sasha.”

“I wasn't trying.” She shuffled into his room and stood in front of his desk. “I'm going to miss my friends.”

“I know you are, but you'll get to see them again. It'll just be a while.” He let out a breath. “I suppose I should tell you that you'll make new friends back home, but it won't be the same.”

She nodded. “However, I will be glad to be rid of the ten pounds of small-clothes.” She rolled her eyes. “I'd rather be comfortable than fashionable.”

Loki laughed. “I completely understand. You don't mind having to go back to tutoring under Professor Siry instead of school, do you?” He shut the lid of his trunk. “He will, no doubt, be impressed with all that you've learned in such a short time.”

She shrugged. “I guess.”

“What's the matter, Natasha?” Something was definitely wrong; this wasn't her typical behavior. “Don't tell me you want to stay on Vanaheim.”

“No, I want to go home. I just...” She sighed. “It doesn't feel as much like home as it used to.”

He nodded. “Well, you have spent more time here than on Asgard. There will be time to adjust to being back there.”

She raised her chin, smiling slightly. “I don't have to give up the harp, do I?”

He chuckled. “Of course not. Although I suspect your grandmother might start teaching you how to weave, and knowing your Aunt Sif, she'll want to teach you how to fight.”

“Maybe I could find a way to combine the activities.” Her smile spread into a grin. “Play the harp while I defend the weak with a deadly loom shuttle.”

He shook his head, chuckling, and came over to her. “We'll see. You all packed?”

“Mostly. I was going to go on a room-by-room search to make sure I don't forget anything.” She bit the corner of her lip. “I'm supposed to keep the dolls that look like us, right?”

“Yes. They were a gift from Queen Lyra. I remember that you wrote quite the pretty thank you letter for them.” He smiled. “You are one of the few children I know that her majesty has spoken of more than once.”

Now his daughter looked downright embarrassed. “I don't know why, I just am always on my best behavior in her company and...”

“That's not an easy task. She can be...” He searched for the right word. “Trying.”

“Considering some of the grown-ups I've known, she's not bad.” She rubbed her nose. “Am I going back to the nursery at home?”

“I'm not certain. Your grandmother might have decided that it's time you moved to rooms of your own.” He chuckled. “I remember telling you before we came here that when it was time to leave, you'd want to stay.”

“We'll come back for visits, right?” She gave him a hug. “I do like it here.”

“I know you do, Sasha.” He smoothed down her curls. “Go and make sure you haven't left anything. We'll be leaving shortly.”

“Yes, Papochka.” Natasha managed a smile and hurried out of the room.

Loki watched her go, feeling rather sad about leaving himself. Perhaps he would receive the assignment again, perhaps next century. The notion that returning to Asgard meant returning to his brother's shadow was already weighing on his mind. Thor was still unaware of his true heritage, although why their parents were delaying in telling him, he could not understand. He certainly hoped that the Allfather and Allmother weren't expecting him to tell him the truth. Thor would never believe him.

Then again, they could return home and find that Thor had started doing all the things he was supposed to be doing; like reading reports, no matter how boring they were. In observing the princes of Vanaheim, they seemed to be the exact reverse of him and his brother. The elder was more serious, more committed, more dutiful; the younger ones seemed to be trying to see just how much fun they could have and get away with it. However, that may have to do with the small fact that the princes of Vanaheim who were his age were the grandsons of the current king.

Loki grimaced at the thought of returning home to his mother asking if he'd made any lady friends while on Vanaheim. Ambassadorship hadn't exactly left him with a lot of time to consider starting to court a maiden, not that there hadn't been offers. Unfortunately, most of the ladies were far more interested in his title than himself. And the looks of disdain a handful of them had given Natasha when they thought he wasn't looking? They had committed Asgardian Society Suicide. Whether it was the fact that Natasha was there or that she was Midgardian (part, according to what the court at large was told) it did not matter. His little girl was part of his family package. His daughter fully understood that she would fall back in the line of succession once Thor married and produced an heir; falling further back with each child he and his wife had.

When he informed her of that, Natasha flatly told him that she didn't want to be Queen of Asgard. She wanted to be Midgard's first official Asgardian Ambassador. Loki didn't even scoff at her statement. No doubt by the time she was even half his age, Midgard would be ready to join with the rest of the Nine Realms.

*

Natasha was delighted not to be sent back to the nursery on Asgard. In the past ten years, Grandmother must have decided that she was no longer a baby; and so, was sent to rooms of her own, which were further down the hall than Papochka's, closer to the gardens. It wasn't just one room either; she had several different rooms that were all hers. She didn't even know what she was going to do with so much space. A room just to sleep in, a room that was called a study – it had a desk and bookshelves, a bathing chamber, a breakfast room (since that seemed to be the only meal she ever ate in her room) and another place that held a harp and a few small chairs.

Since she didn't have to unpack her things, and had no interest in getting 'settled' as the adults called it, the first thing she did after a hasty lunch was change out of her traveling dress into pants and a loose shirt and sneak off to the stables. She didn't plan on going for a ride; but she wanted to check on the horses and see the new foals that there never had been time to see on the few short visits back home in the past ten years.

Most of the guards didn't give her a second glance or try to stop her as she skirted the shadows, and she was certain a few of them chuckled at her as she passed them, reaching the long barn in only fifteen minutes. The wonderful smell of sun-kissed straw greeted her and she breathed a heavy sigh of relief. There weren't many grooms about as she ducked inside, keeping her tread light and slow as she passed the stalls of the carriage horses, only a few of them tossing their heads at her as she slipped by. Not many changes among this group; she turned the corner and slowed her steps as she entered the corridor where the war horses were housed.

They were massive, even by horse standards. The smallest ones stood at twenty hands, the largest was nearly twenty-five, and while right now, stabled and content, they seemed nothing more than oversized lap dogs, Natasha knew the truth; these creatures were fearless and deadly. A single kick from any of them would kill her. She paused to peer into one of the stalls at the roan within, its attention more on the bucket of grains than on the little girl watching him.

“Guess you don't remember me, Dyr, you were just a yearling when I left.” She rested her chin on one of the cross-planks of the door, observing as the horse lifted its head from the bucket and tossed his head several times, letting out an odd whiny, which echoed back to him from other stalls.

Natasha slipped back into the isle and continued down towards the end of the room to the main horse she had wanted to come and visit. The one horse that was bigger, more dangerous and more bizarre than any of the other animals combined.

Sleipnir.

At twenty-four hands, standing next to the eight-legged animal made Natasha feel twice as little as she really was. Glancing over her shoulder, she carefully climbed up the door of his stall and sat down on top of it, not exactly afraid; but she remained cautious as she took a piece of bread out of her pocket and held it out. “Here you go.”

The horse whiffed at her and then, in a manner far to delicate for a beast of his size, nibbled on the offered treat before tugging it free from her hold to munch on it. When he was done, he came over and nudged her a little with his head, and she obliged in his request to scratch him behind the ears.

“I know, I missed you too.” She giggled and planned a kiss on the horse's head. “Sorry, I didn't bring you any sugar cubes.” She ran her hand down his mane, rubbing the area gently.

“Now, Natasha, don't tell me you are planning something foolish.” A voice stated, very softly, right next to her and the girl barely managed to keep herself from jumping in alarm.

“No, Grandfather.” She managed to eek out. “I just wanted...”

He chuckled softly and came to stand next to her. “I know, lamb. But given your father's penchant for mischief, I felt it was a valid question.” He also gave Sleipnir a soft pat on the neck. “However, the horse does like you, Natasha. So I do not believe he would ever harm you intentionally. But he is still dangerous.”

“I know that, Grandfather.” She ducked her head. “I'm not late for anything, am I?”

“I don't believe so.” He lifted her down from the gate and ruffled her hair, frowning when he measured her next to him. “You've grown.”

She blinked up at him, uncertain of exactly how to respond to that comment. “I'm still small.”

He chuckled and set a hand between her shoulders, guiding her away from the war horses. “Well, there is nothing wrong with that, Natasha. I'm certain that if your father and grandmother were to have their ways, you would be a little girl forever.”

“Do you want me to stay small, Grandfather?” She moved so she could hold his hand as they headed into the part of the stables where the riding steeds were kept.

“I doubt that I shall live to see you grow to your father's age.” He gave her hand a comforting squeeze. “So I shall ask that I always see you happy.”

“I shall try, Grandfather.” She didn't want to think about him dying. Papochka had told her that Grandfather was almost four thousand; and that age just staggered in her mind. She still had trouble believing that while she only appeared to be seven, she was nearly thirty. Of course, most thirty year old Asgardians looked four. She returned the squeeze. “Where is Uncle Thor? He was not here when we arrived.”

Grandfather made a noise she couldn't understand. “Your uncle is with his friends. He is expected...” His voice faded as they came into the stable yard just as Uncle Thor and his friends, minus Aunt Sif, rode into it. There was a deer slung in front of Uncle Fandral, and there was a boar on Uncle Thor and Uncle Hogun's mounts. “You are late, Thor.”

Her uncle dismounted. “Late for?”

“You forgot.” Natasha whispered, doing her best to keep her face blank; the way Papochka had taught her.

“Your brother and your niece returned to Asgard four hours ago.” Grandfather sounded more disappointed than angry. “They have been on Vanaheim for the past ten years.”

Now Uncle Thor looked uncomfortable. “I thought they were returning tomorrow.”

Natasha glanced at Uncle Hogun and she could swear the man rolled his eyes in a very 'I tried to tell him' manner. She felt rather hurt that her uncle had forgotten she and Papochka were coming back. When they had arrived at the Bifrost site earlier today, Grandmother and Grandfather had been there, along with several other members of the court; and Aunt Sif had been present. When she'd noticed that her uncle wasn't there, she'd figured he was waiting back at the palace, or he was at a meeting, or something... something important that couldn't wait. Papochka hadn't said anything about it; perhaps he had assumed the same thing.

Grandfather was frowning. “This is not the time nor the place to discuss this.” He glanced down at Natasha, pulling a piece of straw from her hair. “Natasha, I believe your grandmother will be expecting you for tea shortly.”

Natasha knew full well that her grandmother wasn't expecting her for at least two hours, but she also knew what the Allfather was telling her. “Yes, Grandfather.” She bobbed a small curtsey and headed back to her room, turning back to look behind her when she was on the other side of the yard. Uncle Thor was standing alone, looking at the ground. He glanced up and saw her watching him. She couldn't read his expression, but he gave her a small wave which she returned before turning back to go inside.

*

Thor stared at the small mountain of reports sitting on his desk, wishing he could just absorb the information by osmosis, rather than reading. He really hadn't meant to let the files get so backed up; he'd had a plan to go through them all in a timely manner; but one thing led to another and now he was hopelessly behind. He knew that down the hall, Loki had a similar pile waiting for him; Thor was fairly certain that his piles might be worse; ten years worth. That is, assuming he'd not gone through reports on his brief trips home.

There was a feast to celebrate Loki and Natasha's return home tonight and he was determined to at least make some effort in the task set before him. It might lessen his father's disappointment in him. He never exactly questioned, okay, he's never even asked what his father expects from him. It was much easier when he and Loki were young, when they were Natasha's age, or thereabouts. Then it was just do the work the tutors gave him and show up clean and neat at the dinner table. Somehow, between training to fight, hunting and riding – somehow the expectations grew and he'd not noticed. The way he hadn't noticed he and his brother drifting apart.

Thor took the missive from the top of the stack on the left and inwardly grimaced at the date; it was three years old. Certainly he wasn't that far behind, was he? He scanned it; frowning in concentration. Something about a dam being built in a western country of Asgard; it was an indictment against one of the foremen who had been using child labor on the project. While slavery wasn't illegal on Asgard, it was illegal for children to be pressed into service of any kind that was not an apprenticeship or with their family. “How did...” He set the paper down and quickly started searching through the stacks for more about this dam and the workers. “I should not have...”

He found several swaths of papers on the project, going back all the way to the original proposal, dated eight years ago. Thor grimaced and began at the beginning, a feeling of dread starting in the pit of his stomach. Certainly he couldn't be that far behind in his reading, could he? He glanced at his desk, wincing as one stack of papers teetered on the edge for a moment before slipping off, crashing to the floor with a loud thunk, the contents spreading outwards. It sounded the way his heart felt; if Father knew the state of his lack of knowledge about the state of the realm. To Hel with the realm, he couldn't keep track of things going on his own family. He knew plenty of what Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg and Sif were doing, but he couldn't keep up with his parents, brother and niece?

Thor looked at the stack in his lap and then at his desk. He felt his shoulders slump and he started to read. He would just read what he had; he couldn't read it all tonight. First thing tomorrow, after breakfast, he would start working on the backlog. He might not be able to keep his father from never finding out how behind he was; but he could try and delay it as long as he could.

 

*

Frigga felt she might just be the happiest woman in the Nine Realms. The past ten years had seemed far too long for her taste; a mere heartbeat of time to the Æsir, but it had been dreadfully slow to her. Now Loki and Natasha had returned and while she didn't expect it to last, she was determined to make the most of the time now. It was almost silly, how delighted she was. She kept her smile guarded as there was a soft knock on her door and a moment later, one of the servants opened it, letting Natasha into the room.

“Good afternoon, Grandmother.” She looked around the room, pausing when she caught sight of the other person sitting at the tea table. “Good afternoon, Lady Sif.”

Frigga smiled. “Good afternoon, Natasha.” She waved the girl closer. “Still so shy at times.” She busied herself with preparing the cups of tea as the girl sat down. It didn't escape her notice that Sif looked just as uncomfortable and uncertain as her granddaughter. Sif had only come to tea a few times in the past; the shield-maiden wasn't exactly one for quiet conversation and being indoors. Frigga had invited her today mostly because she knew that it was going to be hard enough getting a handful of words out of Natasha; besides, the queen wanted to get to know Sif a little better than the few moments of conversation they had on occasion.

“Good afternoon, Sasha.” Sif broke the quiet, smiling faintly. “You've grown.”

The girl looked down the floor, frowning. “Have I?” She twisted the other way, her face still looking uncertain. “The ground still seems pretty close.” She stopped, suddenly looking very uncertain. “I mean...”

“Oh, Norns... she's returned from Vanaheim a little bundle of protocol and propriety.” Sif rolled her eyes.

Frigga repressed her own urge to laugh. “It's all right, Natasha.” She set a cup down in front of the girl. “You've had a very busy day and it's far from over.”

*
Loki slid the last of his books back into place on his shelves and let out a relieved sigh. It was wonderful to be home. He would have to issue a full report to his father before the end of the week about the state of Asgard's relationship with Vanaheim, debrief the next ambassador and then get caught up with things here at home in the next fortnight. He knew that he could expect minimal amounts of sleep and roughly an hour of time with Natasha each day for at least the next month. Once all that was done, he could finally, finally start spending the time he wanted to with his little girl.

Father hadn't said much when they had arrived at the Bifrost site, and Thor had been suspiciously absent. He hadn't asked about it; he might have had some sort of duty to preform that prevented him from attending; or his brother had simply forgotten when he was returning. Given the tense mood between his parents when he arrived, he had a feeling it was the later.

Loki went over to his dressing room, looking for his familiar robes that he always wore to feasts. The fact that Thor may or may not have forgotten didn't exactly bother him; other than he had been hoping that in the past ten years Thor had done a little growing up of his own. Somehow, that hadn't happened – or maybe it had. It was going to take a while to get caught up on all the things that he had missed in the past ten years. He rather wished he'd had the foresight to ask someone to keep him informed of all the gossip and intrigues that were constantly happening. He knew more about what the princes of Vanaheim were up to – and there were seven of them – then he did about the one prince of Asgard that wasn't him.

He set his garments out on his bed, having dismissed his servants for the afternoon, knowing they had more important tasks to attend to. As much as it thrilled him to finally be receiving recognition for something that he had done, Loki would have dearly loved to have just put the feast off for a few weeks so there could be some adjustment. It wasn't even the same season on Asgard as it was on Vanaheim currently. He went into the bathing chamber and turned on the hot water. A bath would help ease some of the tension of travel.

Loki settled into the tub, letting out a contented sigh. It was wonderful to be home. Maybe the feast wouldn't be quite as bad as he was thinking it would be; as Natasha would point out, it wasn't like there was going to be thirty courses.

*

After tea with Grandmother, Natasha returned to her rooms to get ready for the feast. She was supposed to rest as well, but she'd done her resting between her excursion to the stables and tea time. If lying on her bed and listening to the activity outside counted as resting. Her time on Vanaheim had also made her rather independent when it came to getting dressed and ready to do anything, so after brushing out her hair and changing into a proper garment – including the dreaded amounts of small clothes – she wasn't certain if she was supposed to go down to the banquet hall alone or if she was supposed to wait for someone to escort her.

So she did the only logical thing she could think of; she settled down to read a book – some new Midgardian work called The Lord of the Rings – it was a wonderful, thick book. It had been a gift from Grandfather upon returning to Asgard. She wasn't certain how or when he'd gotten down to Midgard to acquire it, but the fact that he had... well, she was delighted with it. She wasn't even two chapters in when she heard an odd sort of shout in the hallway and she went to investigate.

Uncle Thor was standing down the corridor, still wearing his riding clothes, taking steps in one direction, only to retreat a moment later, then go another way.

She slipped out of her room and headed down to him. “Uncle Thor? Are you all right?” He wheeled around to look at her, and at the sight of his face, she was rather startled. “Uncle Thor, what's wrong? You look as if someone just canceled your name day at the last minute.”

He shook his head, not even trying to hide his distress. “The... the assassination of the prince of Alfheim... the...”

Now it was Natasha's turn to gape and she closed the distance between them so they could speak softer. “Uncle, that was almost nine years ago!”

“What?” He staggered back towards his room. “I do not...” He fell back through the threshold and, thinking quickly, she followed, shutting the doors behind her.

“Sit down, Uncle.” She leaned back against the doors. “It's all right, the assassins were caught, tried and executed, there's no danger of...”

“Why?” He roared and she pressed against the wood, starting to question as to why she'd followed him into his room. “I want to know why...”

“Because they were foolish.” She interjected, trying not to let her fear show. “They weren't thinking what was good for the Nine Realms, they were being narrow minded about beings from other realms.”

“But the jotun...” He waved his hand towards a stack of papers that were scattered on the rug like giant snowflakes.

“Prince Byleistr of Jotunheim is innocent of the crime uncle. His presence on Vanaheim was one of the reasons there was an attack at all.” She took a few steps towards him, shock at him not knowing any of this starting to overtake her fear. “Uncle... it's also winter on Jotunheim now. Winter lasts twenty years there.”

Uncle Thor fell down in a sit on the couch, more stacks of papers falling down to the floor. “I... it was truly nine years ago?”

She nodded. “I remember because the Vanir guards questioned Papochka and I several times. It's a hard thing to forget.” She took another step forward, rather confused. “Didn't.... didn't you know? It's why Uncle Hogan was late in returning to Asgard after King Frejaon three-thousandth name day celebrations. I thought everyone knew about the assassination and the trial.”

He let out a long breath, resting his arms on his legs. “I... I should have known... it...”

Natasha looked away from him, frowning at the chair that was in over a dozen pieces, Mjolnir resting on top of the debris. She slowly turned back. “Uncle... um...”

“You mustn't tell the Allfather I haven't been reading what I should have.” He was staring directly at her, his face now completely serious. “I cannot disappoint him.”

“How... how much reading do you need to do, Uncle?” She bit at the corner of her mouth, feeling rather uncomfortable. It was a pretty big secret, if he was using Grandfather's title instead of his name.

“Years worth.” He indicated the piles around them, he shook his head, “I fear it will take me at least two months to do it all.”

“It might be easier if it was organized.” She shuffled her feet. “Mister Siry won't be here until next week. I could help you sort it out. If.... if you would like me to.”

Her uncle managed a weak smile. “You... you would do that?”

She nodded. “I don't know much of what's happened on Asgard lately either.” She frowned. “Did... did you forget when Papochka and I were coming back?”

Uncle Thor lowered his head and nodded slightly, looking abashed. “I thought it was tomorrow.”

Natasha wasn't sure if she felt upset at him forgetting or not. She pulled a smile and forced herself to sound happy; she'd had plenty of practice for the past ten years. “Well, it's already tomorrow on Vanaheim, so you were sort of right.”

He let out a half chuckle and raised his head, lifting a finger towards her. “I recognize the diversion tactic, Natasha...” His smile strengthened. “You are just as clever as Loki is.”

She grinned. “Thank you, Uncle.”

He sighed, looking around the room again. “Again, please do not tell...”

“I won't.” She shifted on her feet. “Unless he asks me directly. But I don't think he will.”

He nodded, his expression changing. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome. I should go back to my room now.” She wrinkled her nose. “Grandmother would have a fit if you showed up at dinner smelling like..” She sniffed again, keeping her face twisted. “Like a manure pile.”

Uncle Thor chuckled. “Yes, yes she would.”

Natasha nodded and left him alone, checking that the hallway was deserted before going back up to her room. There was an odd fluttering feeling in her stomach; she knew it was a bad thing that her uncle hadn't been keeping up with the state of Asgard, but why he hadn't, she didn't know. He was going to be king one day – wasn't it his job to be informed of what was going on? The way it was her job to do her schooling? Yes, it was boring, yes, at time it was frustrating, but there were some things that you just had to do. This was just like that breakfast before she got sick, almost twelve years ago. Grandfather had told Uncle Thor then what he needed to be doing.

The fluttering feeling remained as she leaned against the closed doors of her room, her mind racing. Papochka had told her once that sometimes, when you do someone a favor, they owe you a favor in return. This was a big secret; something that if Grandfather knew, Uncle could get in a massive amount of trouble; even more trouble than she had when she'd smacked the hand of a Vanir noble after he'd pinched her cheek. True, there was a word for an exchange of favors in this case; Natasha knew what blackmail was.

But ten years of being a piece of 'dressing' in the Vanir court had taught her many things. One of them was that blackmail was as much a part of court life as drink and roast meat was. Well, she wouldn't flat out ask for something from her uncle in exchange for helping him and keeping the secret. Because that was blackmail, right? But if her uncle asked...

She settled down on her couch with her book, her mind more on what sort of favor she would want in return.

*

Loki was able to leave the feast shortly after midnight. Natasha had been taken off to bed before the tenth bell, and now, most of the guests that remained were well into their cups. Father and Mother had retired before Natasha had, but he hadn't minded. Being the actual honoree at a feast was an unusual feeling for him. He made his way quietly out of the palace and into the stables, his heart a mixture of sadness and joy.

He took an apple out of his pocket and held it out over Sleipnir's stall door, and the massive horse took it from him delicately, but his eyes were full of reproach.

“I'm sorry I didn't come sooner.” He rubbed between his son's ears. “Not exactly easy to sneak in here when everyone wants to talk to you.” He sighed as the horse finished his treat. “And that's a poor excuse.” He met Sleipnir's gaze. “Oh, Natasha stopped by?” Loki couldn't exactly smile. “No, I haven't told her about you yet. I'm not even certain she knows were babies come from in the first place. Or if she does, she hasn't let me know that she does.”

In response, Sleipnir snorted.

“You're right, she probably does know. Rather strange though, telling her that I'm your mother when I'm her father.” He sighed and gave his son another rub between his ears. “I don't like the situation we were put in either. Some day we're all leaving. I don't know when, but some day, we're leaving the palace and going to live some place quiet, where no one will say anything about you or your siblings.” He rested his head against Sleipnir's. “You, me, Fenrir, Hela, Jörmungandr... and Natasha.” He closed his eyes, the idea filling him with hope and a touch of joy, but at the same time, a twisted feeling of dread. The Allfather had taken all four of his natural children from him. He didn't doubt that in the end, he would take his adopted one as well.

“I promise, one day we will leave.” He wrapped both arms around Sleipnir's neck. “One day, we will get to be a family.”

Chapter Text

Natasha felt that one of the disadvantages in learning magic was that several of her tutors expected her to be a prodigy at it, like her father. She knew that for a novice, she was rather advanced, but she also knew full well that she wasn't going to be casting full corporeal illusions for at least another century. She could conjure fire, open locks and other 'simple' things – such as turning tea into coffee. The only academic study that she was rapidly becoming an expert in was mathematics – and, unknown to almost everyone; the state of the realm.

“There.” She set the last report into its stack and put the heavy brass paperweight on top of it. She took a step back from her uncle's desk, looking at the three piles; one requiring immediate attention, another of things that were semi-important, and others that could wait a little while longer. It'd taken her two years to figure out the best system and what was important and what wasn't. She would tell Uncle Thor which stack was which, and when she returned to his study in a week, all three piles would be gone and there would be new things for her to go through.

Natasha had been helping her uncle with his reading for nearly twenty years. Twenty years and while she knew Papochka knew what she was doing, he hadn't remarked on it. Of course, it would be nice if her uncle would stop, as she thought of it – wasting time – at the training grounds and actually learn what was important and what could wait on his own, rather than wait for her, someone barely a tenth of his age to sort it for him. She couldn't quite understand why her uncle got to spend the majority of his time at the training grounds just because he wanted to. She wanted to spend most of her days in scruffy clothes and getting dirty – but she couldn't, because she had responsibilities.

Perhaps Grandmother could start issuing Uncle Thor a schedule, the way Natasha had to have one.

However, it was time for a vacation for her and Papochka and schedules were going to be forgotten for a while. For the past twenty years, her father had been on Midgard for several months every year, helping a man named Howard Stark work with the Tesseract. For some reason, Grandfather didn't want the Tesseract back on Asgard, he felt for some reason it was safer where it was. Every year, she had been left behind; Grandfather didn't want her to leave Asgard. But after twenty years, he had finally relented and was going to let her visit Midgard and the two of them would have a semblance of a vacation together.

Yes, she understood Papochka would be busy with work.

Yes, she understood that she wasn't allowed to tag along with him to said work.

But at the same time, she knew it wasn't going to be all work. When she was first told that she would be coming along and that she would be spending most of the time at the Stark Estate, she balked until she heard that said house included a beach, stables, a pool, a library – and that there were amusement parks she would be allowed to visit with Howard's son Tony (age five) and the boy's nanny. Natasha remembered going to Coney Island with Papochka years ago; that had been when she met Captain America. It might not be a summer on Midgard with her father, but it was a summer away from Asgard, from propriety and protocol.

Two months of being allowed to get dirty every day and the only requirement was to show up clean at the dinner table was the epitome of vacation.

“I hope uncle can manage this on his own.” She muttered as she slipped out of his room and hurried down to hers. Of course he should be able to handle it; he'd been reading the reports, he should be able to figure out what needed to be done first. He was a grown-up and it would be shameful if he had to have his niece to sort reports all the time.

Which she did.

But she was certain that was just because she was being helpful – and uncle thanked her each and every week. When she got back to her own chambers, she found that one of the maids had already laid out her clothes to change into for dinner and she inwardly cringed. It was the full formal regalia; apparently a quiet family dinner was being overridden by a formal meal of some kind. Was there anything more pointless than having to wear gloves to dinner? Or any meal for that matter? If Lady Sif was attending, certainly she wouldn't have to wear gloves. Sif just came to feasts in some form of armor she was always wearing. Natasha could only recall seeing the woman in a dress a few times. She had half a mind not to put them on – she'd only have to take the blasted things off to eat, but then Grandfather might not let her go to Midgard, and there was the next two months ruined.

What was so offensive about bare hands anyway? She looked down at hers, frowning at the ink smudges and the manicured nails. All she needed to do was apply some soap and water and they would be fine. “I hope I don't have to take the stupid gloves with me to Midgard.” Natasha shook her head and went to get cleaned up. No doubt Grandmother would send one of her handmaidens in shortly to do her hair.

At least she'd be spared seeing Uncle Thor and his friends getting fall-down drunk at a feast if it was formal.

She was in the middle of dressing when the expected handmaiden and her grandmother came into the room, the older woman's expression was a tight smile. “Is something wrong, Grandmother?”

“No, not exactly.” She smoothed down an invisible wrinkle in her skirt. “Let's get you ready for dinner, shall we?”

“Yes, Grandmother.” She replied, obediently as the handmaiden came over and quickly fastened up the back of her dress. Something was definitely not right; her grandmother was far too tense. “Were plans changed?”

“No, there's been no change of plans.” Frigga waved her hand towards the vanity table and Natasha went and sat down, the handmaiden trailing behind her. “At least, not where dinner is concerned.” She came over to the vanity and lifted one of Natasha's curls, frowning. “A summer of fresh air and sunshine will do your health some good”

Natasha was about to ask her what that was supposed to mean when she winced as the handmaiden tugged on her hair as she brushed it. “Yes, I am looking forward to spending time outdoors.”

“Now, remember, Stark's son is younger than you are, so you must be patient with him.” Her grandmother was hiding something. She'd already heard this lecture before.

“Yes, Grandmother.” She answered, rather than ask what was going on; odds were, she'd find out soon enough. “Do I have to take my gloves with me to Midgard?”

The tension seemed to break and Frigga and the handmaiden both laughed. “No, dear heart, you do not. I suspect that Stark does not allow children at his formal dinners; no matter how well behaved they are.” She held up a finger. “And I know, you're not a child, you're a young lady. But he will see you as a child, as will the other Midgardians.”

“I know.” She adjusted her shoulders as her hair was arranged in curls and pulled back from her face. “I shall miss you while I'm gone. I will miss everyone.”

“Oh, you will have so much fun, you will barely notice the absence.” Grandmother smiled. “And you will be home before you know it.”

She nodded. “Will you be all right?”

“I will be fine.” Frigga smiled. “We all will.”

*
Loki was already suspicious when he was informed that dinner was going to be formal, rather than the usual casual farewell dinners of years past. He had no idea what could be happening; it wasn't a small matter, that was certain. He smoothed down his hair, frowning. One of these days he was going to let his hair grow longer than the short cut he had been wearing for centuries. The haircut made him look like a damn thrall; of course, if he wanted to be technical about it, he was a ward, but he doubted that his parents saw it that way. He certainly didn't, but with winter nearly over on Jotunheim, he had found himself thinking about it more often.

Another thing he had noticed lately was how old his father was looking. He knew that the All Father was well over four thousand, and it was starting to show. It would not be much longer before he decided to step down from the throne and pass the crown to Thor. Unfortunately, Loki felt his older brother was oblivious to anything except his own plans. One of his worst fears was that something would catch Thor unaware and disaster would swiftly follow.

Thor really needed to learn that not every problem was solved with hammers and swords.

And as to why Father didn't see the arrogance and recklessness, he had no idea. It was fairly obvious to him, he was certain Natasha knew something wasn't right and Mother; mother clearly saw it but chose not to say anything. Loki certainly hoped that she wasn't expecting him to pick up the pieces of Thor's mistakes. He'd always been told to own up to his mistakes; it was time that Thor did the same.

When he came into the family's private dining room, he smiled in greeting to his mother and daughter. “Good evening.” He inclined his head in Frigga's direction before taking his seat next to Natasha.

“Good evening, Loki.” The Allmother replied. “How was your day?”

“Busy.” He answered as a servant set a plate of oysters in front of him and filled his wine glass. “I wanted to ensure I had everything completed before our departure tomorrow.”

 

“Hm. Most of the court has already departed the city for the summer. It's going to be quiet for a while.” His mother let out a relaxed sigh. “The quiet will be nice, though we shall miss you both.”

“We will be home before you know it.” Loki replied, using the same phrase he had told Natasha every summer for the past several years.

“I know.” Her chin lifted as the door opened and Thor and Father came into the room. Once the formalities were finished and they were all reseated, and oysters had been served to all members of the family, Loki felt his suspicions return. He glanced across the table to his brother, who seemed as unaware of what was happening as ever. Fortunately, he and his brother had gone through so many of these meals in their lifetimes that both of them knew that it was not their place to direct any sort of conversation whatsoever. That was for their parents to do. Natasha was more focused on eating neatly than anything.

After the plates were cleared and replaced with bowls of mushroom and brie bisque, Father finally broke the silence after dismissing the servants. “Winter on Jotunheim is over.”

“What does that matter?” Thor muttered more to his bowl than to anyone at the table. “They can all freeze to death, or burn...”

“Thor!” His mother admonished in a tone that suggested his brother was Natasha's age.

Loki glanced down the table at his father, and quickly looked away as his gaze narrowed in on Thor. “The realm has been cut off from almost all communication for nearly twenty years.” Odin continued. “We will soon learn on whether the rebellion is over or if it rages on.” He cleared his throat. “This rebellion can cause lasting affects throughout the Nine Realms and beyond. While Asgard is not ready to start open trade or relations with the Jotun, it is time our two realms brought an end to the tension between them.”

“They are monsters.” Thor interjected. “I do not see...”

“They are not monsters.” Odin's voice was sharp enough to cause Natasha to jump in her chair, and she looked cowed. “My mother was a Jotun, Thor. Does that make me a monster?”

His brother looked stunned by this revelation. Loki could vaguely remember their grandmother, but in studying history, he had learned of Father's origins. “No, but that is...”

“The fault is partially mine.” Their father sighed. “Far too many bedtime stories featuring creatures that do not deserve to be vilified.” He took a drink from his wine goblet. “You cannot judge a race of beings. Not all apples are tart.”

“So there are a few exceptions.” His brother started again and Loki resisted the childish urge to kick his brother under the table.

“Stop interrupting!” Father snapped and Thor reacted as if he had been slapped. “I know we cannot hope to mend centuries of mistrust and hate quickly, but it is time to begin to heal. Only then can we all move forward. With the way technology is advancing on Midgard, it will not be much longer before they can begin to take their place within the realms. I would rather see all nine united than risk fracture and destruction. Alfheim already trades with the Jotun. They know the risks and have already paid heavily for reaching out. But the negotiations continue, and we should follow their example.”

Loki set his spoon down, resisting the urge to just eat and keep his emotions in check. “What were you thinking of doing Father?”

“First, King Laufey and I must speak with one another. To see if we can strengthen the truce we already have.” He turned his attention to the person sitting next to him. “Natasha, tell us, why it is better to speak with Laufey than with the rebels of Jotunheim?”

She set her spoon down, her eyes rather wide. “Because with his majesty King Laufey, we know better what to expect. The rebels are unpredictable and they do not seem to have a clear agenda. They could be seeking to simply unseat the current ruling house, or they could have more nefarious plans.”

“Correct.” Father smiled. “Very good. Are you all packed for your trip to Midgard?”

“Yes, Grandfather.” She replied, then ducked her head back towards her bowl.

Mother cleared her throat. “Odin.”

Something in the All-father's face changed and he nodded. “Most of this will be better discussed after the summer is over, when Loki and Natasha return from Midgard.” He took another drink of wine. “Thor, there is something more that we must tell you.”

*
Anthony Stark was not looking forward to this summer. That strange friend of his, Mister Odinson or something, would be back, and this time, he'd be bringing his kid. It wasn't like he saw his dad all that much anyway, but the fact that the kid was coming along with Mister Odinson bothered him. Dad almost never took him anywhere. He said that was Kathleen's job. He saw more of his nanny than he did of his own mother. Mom was too busy with her philanthropy projects to be a mom. At least, a mom like the ones he saw on television.

Or did, before he took the television in his room apart last week and he was still not ready to put it back together.

Kathleen didn't care, she had one of her own.

Dad said he was expecting for him and Mister Odinson's kid to get along and do things together, because apparently the kid was smart, or some other thing – it was hard to understand his dad when he was drunk. His father had been so out of it when he informed him of this that he'd forgotten to tell Tony the kid's name and gender.

Kathleen had already arranged for the three of them to go to Disneyland in a few days.

The doorbell, though distant, echoed down towards his room and Tony rose from the pile of coils and wires that used to be his television, adjusted his clothes in the mirror, glowering at his reflection and headed towards the entry hall before he was told to. He was at the top of the stairs and could see his father shaking hands with Mister Odinson, a thin man with black hair. Standing near his side was a girl in a dress, and her hair was a serious shade of red.

“Oh, Anthony, there you are.” Howard Stark waved him down the stairs. Like a dog, Tony thought as he descended. There was something in Mister Odinson's gaze that unnerved him; it was like he knew something about Tony that even his father didn't. The girl, on the other hand, now that he could see her face, he could judge a little better; she was older than him by a few years, and her eyes made her look ten times his age. “Luke, Natasha, this is my son, Anthony. Anthony, this is Mister Odinson and his daughter.”

Once he reached the bottom step, Tony became aware of just how tall Mister Odinson was; he was even taller than his father. “Hello.” He managed to say, he never knew about his father's colleagues, they were never predictable, they either talked to him like an adult or like a baby.

It was Natasha who broke the uncomfortable silence by stepping forward and holding out her hand. “It's very nice to meet you, Anthony.” She sounded like Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who.

In response, he took her hand and shook it, wondering if she felt as silly as he did. “Hi.”

“Tony, why don't you show Natasha to the room she'll be using before we have lunch? I need to bring Luke up to speed on the project.”

“Yes, Dad.” He replied, watching his father and Mister Odinson go. As soon as they were out of the hall, he rounded on Natasha. “I don't suppose you know what the project is, do you?”

She shook her head. “No one tells me anything, except when to show up for a meal and what to wear.” She folded her arms, her gaze in the direction of the doorway the adults had gone through. “And then, when I do, they have the audacity to tell me to be on my best behavior.” She glanced at him, her eyes narrowed. “You know what audacity means, right?”

Tony mirrored her pose, lifting his chin. “Yes.”

“Good.” Her face broke into a grin.

“Come on, I'll show you around.” He rolled his eyes. “Knowing my dad, he'll lose track of time and we'll be eating alone.” They headed upstairs. “I end up eating most meals by myself, even though it's all fake, I sometimes envy the kids on television who have family dinners.”

“I don't watch television.” Natasha replied as they headed down the hallway. “I'd rather read.”

“My dad didn't tell me, is your mom going to show up later in the summer? Or is she occupied with other things?” Tony couldn't remember if his dad had mentioned a Mrs Odinson or not.

“I don't have a mom.” She replied plainly and he turned to gape at her. “Don't say you're sorry, I don't remember her, so it's not like I can miss her.”

“Just you and your dad then, huh?” He frowned. “Who watched you when your dad came the previous summers?”

“My grandparents.” She shrugged and then came to a stop in front of a large painting that Tony never paid any attention too. “That's a Renoir, right?”

“Uh huh.” He regarded the painting with some interest. “My dad has about five of 'em. Does your dad collect art?”

“No.” They continued on. “He collects books.”

*
Loki wanted nothing more than to pack up the Tesseract and bring it back to Asgard where it would be safe. Father felt that if it remained on Midgard, out of the attention of the rest of the universe at large and considered 'lost' it would be far better protected than it would be in the weapons vault. While he sometimes failed to see the logic in that, he did know that with the Casket of Ancient Winters and the Infinity Gauntlet already there, adding the Tesseract would put two Infinity items in the same place and that was more or less waving a sign that said 'please attack us' – and with the arrogance of some of Asgard's finest and the fact that Father didn't see any point in arming said guards and soldiers with anything more advanced than swords, it was insane.

If there was one advancement he could count on Thor making, it would be overhauling weapons training of the Einherjar. Asgardians and Jotuns were the only ones in the Nine Realms who still seemed content to fight with weapons that even the Midgardians knew were primitive, and these creatures still didn't have a central government.

“It's been reacting strangely lately.” Howard's voice cut into his thoughts.

“Strangely how?” He answered, taking a drink of coffee.

“The readings it's been giving off have been fluctuating, we were concerned it's destabilizing.” He frowned.

“It is a doorway, Howard. It's not just a small cube pulsing with enough energy to power this entire country.” He set the mug down and scanned the large plans in front of him. “Unfortunately, you do not currently possess the technology or the proper elements to contain said energy.”

“We wouldn't be so far behind if...” He started to say and Loki held up his hand. “What?”

“Half of the people on this project would rather make tools to destroy, rather than build.” He sighed. “Primitives.”

“I think as a whole we're doing all right.” Stark sounded offended. “For what we do.”

“Well, you've managed to not annihilate yourselves. Considering the sort of fire you've played with, that's quite an accomplishment.” He retorted. “Although this Arc Reactor you've created... this is something you can work with.”

“Everyone else thinks it's a waste of time.” The man made a frustrated noise. “The key is to make it smaller, but that is something I have yet to manage. If I cannot, then certainly by the time Tony is my age, technology will be advanced enough he will finish what I have started.”

Loki nodded thoughtfully. “From what you've told me, he sounds like an extremely bright boy.”

“He is.” He sighed. “There are just not enough hours in the day for me to spend time doing all the things I need to do here and want to do with him.”

He bit off the retort to tell Howard that he needed to make time, but Howard Stark was so stubborn sometimes he made Thor look reasonable. “Children grow up quickly.”

“Yes.” He answered and Loki hid his look of disapproval as Howard added whiskey to his coffee. “You didn't tell me, how old is Natasha?”

“Eight.” He replied automatically, it was the age she looked; and it was what he had told her to tell people when they asked.

“How old is she, Loki? Honestly.” He put his mug down.

“Fifty-something. I'm not quite sure.” He took a drink from his own mug. “Like I told you before, I found her in Russia before the Second World War.”

“Frightening to think what they were doing – to little girls. It was strange enough to watch it happen to that scrawny kid from Brooklyn.” Howard shook his head. “When we injected Steve Rogers with the serum, I wasn't expecting the results to be so... instant.”

“I think the scientists at the Red Room were more interested in slowing aging than creating a super-soldier instantly.” He had to hold onto his mug to keep himself from showing anger. “Getting back to the Tesseract...” Loki frowned. “Doors open from both sides. It might be a good idea to improve the security of the facility.”

*

Natasha set off for Tony's room, newspaper in hand. She and the boy hadn't really done all that much, he kept saying he was working on a project and didn't want to go anywhere. He acted like going to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm had been torture. It was Kathleen's day off and quite frankly, she was bored. After looking over the paper, she found out there was a movie theater nearby, and a film with an interesting sounding title – Star Wars. Tony liked science, it looked like something he would enjoy.

She knocked on the door of his room. “Tony?”

“I don't want to go swimming, Sasha!” He barked at her.

“I'm not asking if you want to go swimming! Besides, it's raining out. I wanted to see if you want to go see a movie!” She called through the door. “It's supposed to be good, the paper says so!”

The door flew open. “How can we go to a movie? No adults will go with us!”

“We can go alone. It'll be an adventure.” She gave him a smile. “It'll be fun.”

“My parents aren't here, your dad's not here, and Kathleen isn't here. We still need an adult to take us to the theater.” He was stalling.

“Uh, you have a chauffeur and he can't use the excuse he's got to wash the car.” She folded her arms. “As for permission, we'll ask the cook, Mrs Wesley.”

“We why would we ask the cook?” He gaped at her. “She's the cook.” the way he said it, you'd think the woman's job was just to scrub toilets.

“Because you don't have a butler. That makes the cook essentially the head of the hired help.” She didn't want to have to resort to begging, and she wasn't going to exclude him. Tony seemed to hate it. “It'll be three hours of your time, at most.”

Tony folded his arms. “What's the movie anyway?”

“It's called Star Wars. You haven't seen it already, have you?” She hoped he hadn't.

“No. But it's bound to be stupid, if all these people who know nothing think it's good.” He shut the door.

“People said The Wizard of Oz was dull! Critics said that!” She resisted the urge to burst into the room. “Come on... I'll show you something really neat if we go!”

He opened the door a crack. “What sort of something?”

“How about I show you and then we go?” Natasha knew she could get into a huge amount of trouble if she did what she was going to do; but she had a feeling the movie just might be worth it.

“Okay.” He opened the door. “What is it?”

She set the newspaper down and held out her hand, palm flat. “Watch.” She focused on the air over her hand, and slowly, a ball of light appeared above it, rotating. Keeping her attention on the sphere, she heard Tony's sharp intake of breath.

“How are you...” He let out a yelp of surprise as she turned to light into fire and then tossed it into the air and caught it, vanishing the conjured flames between her palms and then holding her hands out, completely unharmed. He seized her wrists, staring at her unburnt skin. “That's impossible.” He gaped at her.

“Magic.” She grinned. “We going to go see that movie now?”

Tony nodded, his eyes still wide. “You have to tell me how you did that, Torch.”

*

“You are very lucky that Anthony Stark is not a sociable child, young lady.” Loki was doing his best to keep his temper in check. It was one thing for Howard to know the truth about the two of them and an entirely different matter for Tony to know. “It was a dangerous thing to do, what if you had set the house on fire?”

Natasha looked up at him, her face contrite and cowed. “I'm sorry, Papochka. I know I shouldn't have done it.”

“Yet you did it anyway.” He shook his head. “Now that he knows, Tony will no doubt be expecting you to show him more.”

She lowered her gaze to the floor, her head bowed. “I will tell him no. I will tell him I'm forbidden to do so.”

Loki was glad she wasn't looking at him, because he could barely hold the smile back. “You will do nothing of the sort. You will tell him that you are forbidden to do it when I am not present to supervise.” He took a breath. “However, you have misbehaved and that requires punishment.” He went over to the bedside table and took up the book that was lying there, a marker halfway through it.

“Papochka?” She was looking at him, confused.

“You can have this back at the end of the summer.” He placed the book into the inside pocket of his coat. “And no ice cream for a week.” Loki knew that taking the book was a worse punishment than the lack of the sweet.

“Yes, Papochka.” She replied, obediently. “Again, I am sorry.”

“I know you are.” He smoothed down her hair. “Now, why don't you tell me what this film was about?”

*
Tony could hear Mister Odinson and Natasha through the vents; his stomach churning in envy as she told him about the epic battle of the Rebels against the Empire. It'd been an incredible story and he had a feeling it wasn't finished, how could it be? That Darth Vader guy was still alive. But just the way that Natasha's dad sounded so interested in what they had done today, it made him feel... he felt cold. Luke Odinson seemed so interested in what his daughter was doing that made him very aware of how much his own parents seemed to ignore him.

He couldn't wait to leave for boarding school at the end of this summer.

Chapter Text

Thor spent the first weeks of the summer in a state of shock. It wasn't so much the fact that he had learned that his beloved brother was from Jotunheim, it was that their parents had taken so long to tell him. His brother was a thousand years old and they had never mentioned it to him; Loki had known since before he went to Vanaheim, and quite frankly, he was rather appalled at the secret. It was the sort of thing that should have always been known, not buried away as if it was a source of shame. The sick feeling he had in his stomach wouldn't leave him.

How many times in the past forty years had he mentioned wanted to slaughter frost giants in front of Loki? His brother, who knew what he was and he had remained silent. He would never harm his brother, but certainly Loki might not see it that way. It was a wretched, wicked and shameful feeling. He had practically told his brother he was going to smash his head in with Mjolnir to his face.

He resolved that when the summer was over and the family was together again, he would be a better brother. Be the brother he should have been, rather than the one he pretended to be. He was such a hypocrite. He had relentlessly supported Sif in her desire to become a warrior and mocked Loki for his bookish and sorcerer's path. The two of them were not so different; fighting to be something society shunned them for. But while Sif had himself and the Warriors Three, Loki had had little more support than their mother.

Thor knew that it was too late to completely make up for the mistakes and errors of childhood, but he could prevent new wounds.

“And how are you today, Garnie?” He rubbed the roan mare between her ears. “I'm sorry, I'm not Sasha.” He held out an apple slice and the animal took it delicately from his hand and munched the treat. He had told Natasha he would look after her horse while she was gone.

“There you are!” Fandral's voice called down to him. “You have been a hard one to find as of late, Thor.”

He smiled towards his friend as he fed Garnie another slice of apple. “I've had other things to do.”

“So I've heard. Don't tell me your parents are trying to convince you of an arranged marriage to some Vanir princess.” He laughed and leaned against the stall door. “Or is my prince missing his brother and niece more than he expected?”

“It's odd, both of them being gone.” He gave the horse one last rub and they started up towards the front of the stable. “Even though I do not spend much time with either of them, things seem... different without them here. It may be just for the summer, but it seems longer. Even longer than when they were on Vanaheim.”

“Melancholy. You've been inside too long. It's what makes your brother so somber.” Fandral chuckled.

A surge of rage flashed through Thor. “Somber suits Loki. Hogun is just as quiet, if not more so. My brother knows how to laugh.”

Something must have shown in his face, because his friend suddenly looked contrite. “I meant no offense, my prince.”

“Words are among the most lethal of weapons.” Thor shook his head. “I believe my mother misses Natasha more than she is willing to admit.” It wasn't a total lie, but it would at least get Fandral off the subject of the fact he'd been spending time inside and not in the practice grounds for hours on end. “Perhaps we should plan a hunting trip for when Loki returns. We have not all gone on one together since before Sasha came to Asgard.”

“It will be a prime time for boar when your brother returns. A hunt will do us all some good.” Fandral smiled. “It shall be fun.”

“Fun.” Thor intoned, trying to work up some enthusiasm. He didn't think he could purge this depression that was hanging over him until Loki returned and the two of them had a long talk. There had not been time between the family dinner and their departure.

He definitely shouldn't have stormed away from the table between the soup and fish like a spoiled brat. He had offered his apologies to both his parents, but he still needed to make amends to Loki and Sasha. It was shameful when his niece had better manners than he did.

“What ails you, Thor? You are not yourself lately, and I do not think it is your brother's absence that has upset you so.” Fandral set a hand on his arm. “Come, tell me what the problem is, perhaps I may be able to help.”

He took a breath. “I fear that I have not been the brother I should have when Loki and I were growing up.” He was fully expecting his friend to laugh, but to his surprise, Fandral's usual smile gave way to a frown.

“Why would you think such a thing? You are a good friend and have always...”

“Not to Loki. I mocked him for his pursuits rather than encouraged him.” He shook his head.

“Brooding is not your nature, Thor.” They came out into the warm courtyard. “If you feel you have erred were your brother is concerned...”

“I have erred Fandral. I know I have.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I need to speak with him when he gets home. I cannot rid myself of this mood until we have spoken again.”

“Well, it is six more weeks before his return, so the best I can do is try and keep you from letting your worry consume you!” He patted Thor on the back and the prince managed a smile. “Perhaps a few sparing rounds will help.”

“It would not be good to fall out of practice.” He replied and he let Fandral lead him to the training grounds. He would not be telling his friends the truth about Loki's origins until his brother returned. He wouldn't betray his brother like that. It would make him feel a thousand times worse than he already did.

*
Tony's playroom was littered with what used to be three alarm clocks, four toaster ovens, a blender and two record players. Along with the contents of the television, there was a decent horde of wires, cogs and other parts, divided up by type. It had taken a week to acquire everything and another week to break everything down, but he judged the effort to be worth it. He frowned at the board he'd taken out of one of the record players, studying it. “This one is the sturdiest. We'll use this for the primary.”

Natasha nodded and went back to straightening out a spring from the pile of coils. “What are you wanting this thing to do anyway?”

“This is a prototype for a robot. When I'm bigger and know more stuff, I'm going to build one that can help me with other projects.” He started sorting through the wires from the television. “This one is just going to be able to respond to simple commands.” He huffed. “Sort of like a dog. Just some 'come here, fetch that' kind of thing.”

“So this is like a toaster droid and eventually you're going to build a C-3PO?” She adjusted her hold on the needle-nose pliers she was using.

“Something like that, yeah.” He huffed, blowing hair out of his face. “And I'm glad I have your help. I never would have managed to find half of this stuff on my own. I can't believe Kathleen took us to that swap meet at the drive-in when you asked.” He took the wires he'd collected and carried them over to the work table. “I mean, going there with a wagon and ten dollars and we came back with more than enough materials to get us started.”

“I asked Kathleen what a swap meet was, and when she did, I knew we could get parts, or at least start to get them for a lot cheaper and a lot less questions.” She sighed. “Do you think we'll get it finished before I go back home?”

“I hope so. You helped get it started.” Tony huffed. “I know I need to finish before I leave for school. Some stupid maid will probably throw everything away when she comes to clean my room after I'm gone.”

Natasha set down her now straightened coil and picked up another one. “You'll be back for Yule...er, Christmas, right?”

“No, I'll stay at the school year round. I might come home for a week or something next summer, but other than that, never.” He frowned. “Wait, will you come back next summer with your dad?”

“I don't know. I hope I get to come.” She managed a smile. “If I come back, will you be home?”

Tony grinned. “If you're here Torch, I'll definitely be here.”

“What is going on in here?” A voice cut into their laughter and Tony felt his smile falter.

“Sasha and I are building something, Dad. It's not done yet.”

“I can see that.” He blinked several times. “It's almost time for dinner. I want both of you downstairs shortly. Best clothes, best manners.” He turned and left the room, shutting the door behind him.

“I hate that phrase. Best clothes, best manners.” Tony folded his arms. “Put on a suit and keep your mouth shut, that's what it means.” He glanced over at his friend. “What's wrong?”

“Nothing.” She stood up and carried her tools over to the table. “I think we lost track of time.”

Tony looked around and then chuckled. “No, we just disassembled all of the clocks – including the one on the wall.” He sighed. “We should have asked Mrs. Wesley how many courses we're having. Course dinners take forever.”

Natasha set her tools down and dusted her hands on the skirt of her dress. “How many courses?”

“At least five, not counting sorbet.” He rolled his eyes. “There's extra company, so it'll probably be seven.”

“Seven's nothing.” She gave him an odd grin and he looked at her curiously.

“Seven courses is nothing? It'll take four hours just to eat dinner!” He groaned.

“I've been to a dinner that had thirty courses.” She folded her arms. “I wanted to give all my food away after the ninth.”

Tony gaped at her. “Thirty?” The idea floored him. “Who in their right mind thinks that's a good idea?”

“King Frejaon of Vanaheim. Although to be fair to him, it was his three-thousandth name day.” She rolled her eyes and headed for the door. “I better go change. I'm supposed to be playing the harp for cocktail hour, whatever that is.”

He watched as she left the room, frowning. “They don't have cocktail hours in space?” He looked around at their work, his lips pursed. “Best manners, best clothes. I should just wash my hands and go downstairs dressed like I am. No one will notice.” He headed for the bathroom to get cleaned up.

*

Howard Stark hoped that the worst of this summer was behind them. Two days ago, he had Anton Vanko deported for trying to smuggle the secrets of the Arc Reactor back to the USSR. The man was smart, but without the plans, he couldn't hope to rebuild the same reactor in Russia. The Soviets would show no pity for a man who defected to the States. While he felt some guilt, Anton had only himself to blame. He had come to this country for sanctuary and safety, and in return, he had turned out to be a traitor.

He took a drink from his martini glass, scanning the crowd in the foyer. Maria was busy with a group of women, he'd heard her talking about a charity auction they were planning. Most other conversations seemed to be about the Dodgers' chances at making the World Series. He had to wonder what Rogers would say to his hometown team from Brooklyn now being based in Los Angeles. He missed the Captain more than he was willing to admit, and he had to wonder that if Steve was still here, if he'd age just as slowly as Natasha did.

If he was here, then perhaps he could unlock the formula that was used to create them. No doubt they had to be similar, even if one seemed to amplify existing qualities and the other longevity.

“For someone at a party, you certainly seem tense, Howard.” Loki appeared next to him and he nearly jumped in surprise.

“I'm worried for Vanko. A part of me tells me I've done the right thing, but at the same time, I feel guilty. Mostly for his family.” He sighed.

“It is never easy when there is family involved.” His friend took a small sip of of whiskey and grimaced. “But you know all to well what happens when the wrong people get a hold of something dangerous.”

“Yes.” Howard replied, thinking of Red Skull. “Thank god he wasn't involved with the Project.”

“You're an atheist, Stark.” Loki stated flatly. “You don't believe God exists.”

“It's a phrase, Luke.” He responded. “Much like your name.”

“Point.” The Asgardian replied. “What did you say the children were doing?”

“Dismantling appliances, I have no idea what they hope to accomplish.” Howard shook his head. “I'm not even certain who's influencing who at this point.”

“It is good for children to have friends.” Loki set his glass down, he sounded slightly annoyed for some reason. “Although when Tony is your age, Sasha will barely be a teenager. Personally, I find that rather tragic.” He walked away, headed off into the crowd, stopping to talk to the husband of one of Maria's friends. The man kept making gestures towards Natasha, so it must have to do with her playing the harp.

Howard frowned at the proud smile on Loki's face, wondering just what it was about the father and daughter that could create that sort of relationship between two people who shared no blood. He was just as proud of Tony, but somehow...

It was different. He drained the last of his martini and went in search of another.

*
Loki came upstairs near the end of the party and knocked once on Natasha's door. “Sasha? Are you still awake?” A muffled reply was enough of an answer and he went into the room. “You should be sleeping.”

“I know.” She replied from under the covers. “I can still hear the noise.”

He chucked and sat on the bed. “Come out of there, it's not winter.”

The blankets fell back and Natasha stared up at the ceiling. “Point.” She sighed. “I'm not in trouble, am I?”

He frowned. “Why would you think that?”

“I dunno. Mister Stark seemed sort of angry when he came into the playroom and saw all the machine parts Tony and I had.” She sat up, hugging her legs. “He seems... grumpy a lot of the time.” She looked up. “I know, he's an adult and...”

“Howard doesn't understand children.” Loki shook his head. “You haven't done anything wrong, so do not worry.” He ruffled her hair. “And I've lost track of how many people told me what a lovely girl you are and how well you play the harp.”

She went slightly pink. “Papochka....”

“I'm serious.” He lifted her chin. “And you have done a wonderful job of keeping to the story we are to tell. Apart from you telling Tony the truth, but he's clever enough he would have figured something out on his own. What do you think about coming back next summer? If your grandparents allow it?”

Her eyes lit up. “Really? Come back?”

He smiled. “Of course. Granted, you won't have changed much physically, but I sincerely doubt any of these people will notice.”

“I would love to come back, Papochka.” She let out a yawn.

“All right, that's settled, it's time for you to get some sleep.” He placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Good night, Sasha.”

“Good night.” she replied as she laid back down and he tucked the covers around her. “You think maybe someday Tony could come visit Asgard?”

“Someday, sweetheart, but not for a long time. We'll discuss it when you're both a little older.” He smiled and rose from the bed. “All right?”

She nodded and closed her eyes and Loki knew she was asleep before he slipped out of the door and headed for his own room. The readings from the Tesseract were starting to worry him even more. Even with the added security, he still couldn't shake the feeling that something was going to happen. If not for the first time, he wished he had brought at least one of the books regarding the Infinity Gems to double check information.

He was going to suggest to Howard that after this summer, they lock the Tesseract up in a secure box in an even more secure vault. Having the Gem out in the middle of an open room to observe it left too much chance for something to come through the doorway. Since they didn't know who or what was on the other side, Loki felt that locked up and hidden was the best place for it.

*

Anton Vanko knew he would be punished for failing to bring back the Arc Reactor technology. He had the rough idea in his head and could copy it down, but much like Howard's problem of making it smaller, he would be short some details. He braced himself as another lash fell on his back and he managed to not cry out in pain. He could endure a flogging. The only thing he really regretted was getting his son and wife sent back here to Russia with him. But there was no way the Americans would have let them stay; and if his wife was arrested on espionage, who knew what could happen to their son? The system here in the USSR was already failing, small hairline cracks that would eventually cause this mighty empire to shatter and break apart.

“You have brought nothing of value back with you.” The taller of the guards spat, pulling Anton's head back so he could look him in the face. “Twenty years and you bring us nothing. Only hints of some mysterious Project. You do remember the last project the Americans had?” He released his hair as the lash fell upon Anton's back four more times.

He coughed, a slight smile playing on his lips. “Yes. I do,” in his mind's eye, the manilla folder sprang into being again, thin and innocuous. A name, a photograph, a story, a discovery. “I found something better.”

“Something better?” The guard held up his hand. “What did you find?”

Anton raised his eyes, blood dribbling from his lips. “Missing girl.”

“What missing girl?” The man was suddenly right in his face.

“The survivor of the Red Room. She lives.” Anton grinned, thinking of the little girl he'd seen playing with Anthony Stark and again, the file he'd found. “Romanov lives.” He let out a chuckle that was tinged with the taste of blood. “Sweet girl. Smart girl.”

“Natasha Romanov?” The guard stared at him. “You've seen her?”

“In California. She should still be there.” He grinned. “I believe she is set to return to an English boarding school at the end of the summer.”

“A boarding school?” The guard indicated for the other to put away the whip, his expression hurried. “Do you remember the name of this school?”

“Kellynch Hall.” Anton coughed. “Her – father – as he calls himself works on the Project. He is no threat. Skinny, weak. He is a professor at the school.”

The man paused and then turned to the other guard. “Take Vanko to the infirmary. It is the middle of August, we do not have much time before school is back in session. There is much work to be done.”

*

The more Natasha thought about it, the less it made sense. When Papochka had told her about Sleipnir and their siblings, Grandfather's behavior towards them seemed wrong. What could have been so terrible that would cause him to send guards to tear Hela, Fenrir and Jörmungandr straight out of the nursery and into nothingness? They weren't the monsters that myths said they were; Papochka said they hadn't even looked all that different, he assumed it was because of their mother was half-frost giant. They weren't sickly, they weren't ugly, they were just... different. When she asked, he stated that Fenrir was a pale shade of blue and Jörmungandr had been able to shift from blue to pale skinned, and as for Hela – she was simply small and thin, not a half-rotted corpse.

What was worse was that Grandfather pretended like nothing had happened; he never mentioned it. Given how often he dredged up history, it seemed off. As if the whole matter was swept under the rug and was forgotten about.

That was just wrong.

Sleipnir had told her that he really didn't mind being their grandfather's personal steed, it was far better than what would happen to any other eight legged horse. He also knew it wouldn't be forever; one of these days they were all going to leave, settle on one of Papochka's estates and be a family. Natasha liked the sound of that. Being a family. Her oldest brother had given her the task of making sure they didn't have some vapid, title obsessed, wicked stepmother.

Natasha sighed and set her clothes into her trunk, already wishing they could stay here in California. They were going home tomorrow.

“Torch?” Tony called from the doorway and she turned.

“Hi.” She frowned. “I thought you and your mom had left already.”

“We're going to in a few minutes.” He came into the room, handing her a package. “Here.”

“Thank you.” She looked down at the box, frowning. “I should have gotten you something, I'm sorry.”

His face broke into a grin. “Get me something, are you kidding? Thanks to you, I've got tons of spare parts to experiment and build with, not to mention you proved magic and aliens were real, even if I can't tell anyone.” He ducked his head. “You're gonna think it's dumb. My mom was the one who suggested it.”

“I promise I won't think it's dumb.” She undid the bow and opened the box, lifting a chain bracelet with charms hanging off of the links. “It's pretty!” She set the box down and turned the bracelet over in her hands. “Thank you!” She kissed him on the cheek and saw that Tony had gone bright red. “What?”

“I've never been kissed by a girl before. Only my mom and grandma do that.” He looked up at her. “You're welcome.”

Natasha tried not to laugh. “I shouldn't have done it then.”

“No, it's okay.” He lifted his chin. “You really like it? You don't think it's dumb?”

She fastened the bracelet around her wrist. “I love it. I'll wear it proudly and always think of you when I do.”

“I finally make a cool friend and she's an alien princess.” He mumbled. “Figures.”

“I told you, I'm not an alien. I'm just as human as you are. I just happen to live on another planet.” She lifted her chin. “And next summer, I'll be back and we're going to build something amazing. You come up with the idea, I'll figure out how to get the parts we need.”

Tony grinned. “We'll build another robot – one that can clean floors, or something practical like that.” He nodded. “That's what we'll do.”

“It'll have to be able to do stairs.” She returned the smile. “What good is a robot that can sweep up dirt if it can't do stairs? Stairs are the worst.” She bit her lip. “Or so I've been told.”

He let out a sigh and shuffled his feet. “I better go.” He hugged her quickly. “See you next summer, Torch.”

She returned the hug. “Have a good year at school, Tony.”

He pulled away and headed for the door. “I don't know why my mom is taking me on this weekend trip to San Diego. I'd rather stay here.” He braved a smile. “I wouldn't mind so much if my dad was going to, but like that's going to happen.” He left.

Natasha sighed and set the box her bracelet had come in into her trunk. The only thing still to pack were the things she'd use between now and tomorrow. She sat down on the bed and looked the charms over, grinning at the tiny silver screwdriver and the book. She let out a tiny laugh; she'd nearly forgotten that tomorrow Papochka would return the book he'd taken from her as punishment for telling Tony about Asgard and magic. Soon, she could finally finish the adventures of Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, her friend Calvin and a fictional Tesseract.

*
Sitting in a pick-up truck near foot of the massive drive-in screen, the man watched as the yellow text on black scrawled past, letting out a relaxed sigh as a breeze blew through the front seat, the mismatched smell of sagebrush and popcorn wafting past him. He had already seen Star Wars a dozen times and he could not get enough of it. There was just something about the whole story that intrigued him.

Joshua Roosevelt wasn't certain how old he was or where he came from. He had grown up in Germany before it was Germany, working as a farmhand and sometime shortly before the American Revolution, he had gone to sea, finally settling in Australia at the beginning of this century and had gone back to working on stations and farms. The best thing about working in a country that was sparsely populated was that no one noticed the fact that he didn't age the same way everyone else did. He estimated his age was somewhere around three hundred and something, but he looked to be in his early twenties.

He snapped the metal cap off of the bottle of Coca-Cola he had brought with him and held it for a moment, concentrating as he caused the soda go from warm to icy cold. The ability to freeze things was as much of a mystery to him as his slow aging. He kept the power a secret, he never shared it with anyone. Not with any of the people he lived with when he was younger, not on any ship he sailed, not even with the guys he had fought along side of during World War Two. He took a long sip of soda and then ripped open a package of peanuts, pouring the salty snack into the empty space of the bottle. He hated thinking about the war almost as much as he hated thinking about where he came from.

As he took a drink, an uneasy feeling settled over him, the sort of emotion that he could remember from the War. The moment before learning a friend had died; or a whole ship was lost. Joshua lowered the bottle, and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel; six notes of a song he could barely remember, but always brought him comfort.

A snippet of a long-lost lullaby sung by barely remembered parents.

*
Thor finished the last of his reading, rather pleased with himself. Not only had he gone through the reports, he had sorted them, he had read them until he was fully familiar with the information, memorizing important facts and he'd done it in a timely manner. It'd only taken him several hours, instead of the weeks he knew it would otherwise. Even better, he would be able to bring Loki fully up to speed on the events of Asgard while he had been gone, rather than the other way around, like it usually was.

It was an odd sort of pride; not the same as a good day on the sparing grounds or a successful hunt. He'd been doing those things for so long that it was almost commonplace. This was a new sort of feeling and he rather liked it.

He stacked the papers, his mind slowly turning to hunting. He and Fandral already had one planned, they were set to leave four days from now; and he would not let Loki refuse the trip. They had not gone on a hunt together since Natasha came to Asgard, forty years ago. Mother had already agreed to look after his niece, no doubt wanting some serious grandmother-granddaughter time after Sasha being gone for two months.

Father had fully approved of the hunt, granting him and his brother a week free of duty. If Loki agreed to it, the two of them might tell the Warriors Three and Sif the truth about Loki's origins. If his brother refused, he would respect his privacy. If they told and his friends reacted badly, well... then they were not as good of friends as he thought. He hoped they wouldn't judge or hate.

Loki was still his brother and it didn't matter to Thor if he came from Jotunheim, Midgard or even some planet he'd never heard of.

But first things first. He would issue his apologies for his poor reaction to the revelation and his wretched manners, and hope his brother would accept his regrets.

Taking his empty mug and plate back to the table where the rest of his afternoon tea was still laid out. He picked up another meat pie, savoring the taste of the gravy and delighting in the fact that it was still almost as hot as it would have been fresh out of the oven. He wondered how the cooks did it; perhaps it was some form of enchantment. He was halfway through his snack when a feeling of unease settled over him. Everything seemed oddly still; a quiet before a storm.

The sound of running footsteps followed by an anguished cry of “Grandmother!” echoed just outside of his door and he started, dropping his pie.

“Where is my son?” Mother's voice reached him, her tone half anger, half worry.

He didn't wait, Thor ran to the door and threw it back, surprised he didn't rip it off of its hinges. In front of him was his mother, holding tight to a sobbing Natasha, who had buried her face against her grandmother's neck. Mother's face was ashen and she looked at Father, who had just come into view.

The Allfather looked twice his age and heartbroken.

“Where is Loki?” His mother's voice was low and afraid.

Thor stepped into the hallway and to his mother, setting his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady. “Father, what has happened?”

“There was some form of accident involving the Tesseract.” The expression on his face was nothing short of devastated. “Your brother is lost.”

Natasha let out a sob. “Papochka! I want Papochka!”

“No.” Frigga's grip on the girl tightened and under his hands, Thor could feel his mother start to tremble. “No, it can't be true!”

Thor felt like his heart had turned to ice. He couldn't even find his voice as Father came over and wrapped his arms around Mother and Natasha, and he heard his mother start to weep. For himself, he couldn't let out a single sob. The ice in his chest had turned to lead. His brother was gone and he was left with nothing but the agonizing memory that his last words spoken to Loki had been in anger and denial. Saying that there was no way his brother was a filthy jotun monster.

The skies of Asgard clouded over and it began to rain.

Chapter Text

It was an unseasonably cold summer night, yet the air felt heavy and burdensome. Frigga steeled herself, the clear, star-filled sky a sharp contrast to the gloom that was her family and her heart. Parents were not supposed to bury their children. It was a great unspoken rule of the cosmos and even with her gift of foresight, she had not seen this disaster coming anymore than she had seen Loki arriving home with Natasha several decades ago. Surprises were a rare thing in her life and even if she had seen what was coming, she still would not have been ready for it. The Queen of Asgard's grief was slowly abating to anger. The fact that Loki was not dead, and yet they must act as if he was filled her with rage. Her son was not beyond Heimdall's gaze, but he was beyond Asgard's reach. Trapped on the other side of space with no way to escape. The Tesseract was locked away in a vault on Midgard, that path blocked to them. She could only pray that some day, her son would be returned to them, or they would find a way to get him back.

For now, with the wounds and grief so raw, the possibility of Loki returning to Asgard seemed hopeless.

There was no body to burn. Frigga somehow managed to gather up some of her son's items and place them in the long boat. Items she knew were important to him and she could bare to part with. She had taken all of his journals and put them in her own room, she would sort through them later. A book of basic spells, the cloak he had worn to Midgard when he found Natasha, his ceremonial robes, a carved horse he'd played with as a boy; those were things the family had selected. When the guild masters showed up with small tokens of their craft to add to the boat, it suddenly became apparent how much Loki had been doing behind the scenes here in Asgard. While the nobles left flowers that seemed more obligatory than heartfelt, the middle and peasant class came in a steady stream of mourners.

She glanced over at Natasha, who was standing, stone faced, staring out into the harbor, tears silently slipping down her cheeks. The girl had barely spoken two words since harried return from Midgard, and at this point, Frigga felt that the girl getting out of bed and dressed was an accomplishment.

As the boat was sent out into the harbor, Frigga caught movement out of the corner of her eye and saw Thor step up next to Natasha and take her hand tightly in his own. The boyish look was completely gone from her son's face. He looked so much older, a solemn look that told her that somehow, his carefree manner was completely gone. While she had often hoped that Thor would start to mature and leave his childish behavior, she certainly would have rather it happen another way.

Through her tears, the queen was aware of the lights filling the sky, the orbs of conjured illuminations mingling with the stars. The flaming boat was nearly at the wall now, and when the fire seemed to flare up, spiraling into the sky and catching the attention of many, Frigga felt she could not look away as the boat fell into the abyss. Loki's body might not have been in it, but the finality of it was still there.

Loki was gone, a prisoner on the far side of the universe. Unreachable and alone.

This was beyond agony and how there could ever be laughter again in her heart, when her little boy was gone? Possibly forever?

This funeral was just like a confirmation that it would be forever. She might not live long enough to see Loki return to Asgard, but in her heart, she hoped that somehow, it would happen. She might herself be one with the stars on that day, but Thor would not. Natasha would not. They would still be alive, and together they would stand with Loki as the skies of Asgard came alive with fireworks, there would be feasting, dancing – there would be joy.

This present sorrow would pass away like a nightmare of childhood, perhaps not forgotten, but the agony would be but a whisper and be drowned and swept away by more pleasant events.

Glancing back at Thor and Natasha, she saw that neither of them were looking skyward either. Her son's gaze was fixed on the far side of the harbor, staring straight out into the darkness beyond Asgard's border. Natasha gaze was slightly down, watching the place where the boat had been, a look of utter devastation on her face. It reminded Frigga of the look the girl had worn when she first came here, only far worse. She knew there was not a single word of comfort she could give the child; she had lost her only parent and, if she was honest, her grandparents and uncle were poor substitutes for the man that had been her father.

Was still her father.

When the grieving period was over, what was to become of this family? The planned negotiations with Jotunheim seemed impossible now, not without Loki. So much seemed impossible now.

Frigga wasn't even certain how they were all supposed to move forward when the universe seemed to have stopped.

*

The girl peered out from under her pile of furs as the first tendrils of sunlight crossed under the seam between the closed shutter and the sash. She let out a yawn and pushed the heavy pelt back and sat up, rubbing her eyes. It wasn't the first time she'd woken up over the course of the decades-long winter of Jotunheim, but it was the first time she'd seen sunlight. It was a weird sort of hibernation; most Jotuns spent eighteen of the twenty years asleep, waking up occasionally to eat, and if they were so inclined, mate and later give birth. Then there was the unpleasantness; finding Jotun who died in their sleep. The deceased were removed from their beds, their corpses burned and ashes scattered before their families returned to their slumber, their grief washed away on the tide of rest and the promise of the return of spring.

Hela stretched and let out a slight shiver, grabbing her furs and hastily putting them on before the cold could fully seep in. At just over three hundred, she was considered a child by Jotunheim's standards, although she was old enough that she hated being treated as one. Her nest was on a shelf against the wall, overlooking the nest where her brother and grandparents slept. As she was small, (like her mother and father, so her brother told her) she couldn't hibernate in a mass of warmth and comfort without the risk of getting crushed. Fenrir was still growing; but he would already tower over any Æsir. She was still growing too; but the healers all stated she was never going to achieve the height of a full-blooded Jotun or even her brother's current height of nearly three meters. She didn't mind.

“Fen.” She called, sitting down on the edge of the shelf and swinging her legs. “Fen, are you awake?”

The mass that was her brother mumbled something and shifted.

“Come on, Fen, it's spring!” She grinned. “Wake up and see the sunrise!”

A fur fell backwards and Fenrir looked up at his sister, glowering. “How are you so damn chipper when you first wake up?”

“I dunno.” She huffed. “You going to go back to sleep?”

“No, no I'm up.” He slid out of the covers, carefully tucking them back around their still slumbering grandparents and stretched his arms over his head, yawning. “Have you woken up between the last time we both did?” He rubbed his face.

“Just once.” Hela watched him get up and pull on his boots. “I thought you and granddad were having a snoring contest.”

Fenrir snorted and stood up, letting her climb onto his shoulder and sit down. “Let's go find something to eat, certainly the larder can't be completely empty.”

“I don't think so. I know there were plenty of turnips and smoked fish left the last time I ventured into the kitchen.” She worked her hands into the stitching of his shirt as they came into the main room of their home. “You think anyone else is awake in the village?”

In answer, there were several cries of children racing by the house, laughing with the joy of reunion.

“Guess so.” She let her brother set her down on a chair and Fenrir busied himself with lighting the kitchen fire. “Are you okay?”

“I had dreams of our brother.” He replied, softly. “He was riding a horse across a vast land of red earth and rocks, and strange green plants the like of which I have never seen, not even in books.”

Hela nodded. “ Jörmungandr's like me, right? We're... like Mama and Papa.”

“Yes.” Fenrir turned from the fire and got down a pot, filling it with water and tossed in a soup bone before setting it over the flames. “And I'm like our grandparents.” He sat down at the table and handed her a clove of garlic to pare while he worked on peeling a turnip. “I just wish if I knew if my dreams of Jörmungandr were a false hope or reality.”

“I like to think he's safe. Perhaps he's on Alfheim.” Hela kept a false sense of cheer in her voice, and failed. “I still don't know why they didn't send all three of us here. Then we'd all be together.”

“I know.” Fenrir picked up a knife and began chopping the turnips. “It was all so fast and terrifying. I just knew that I couldn't let go of you. You were just a baby.” He let out a sigh. “I do remember Papa begging for them not to harm or take us...” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “He fought for us, Hela. It took six guards to restrain him and still he struggled.”

“Why has Papa never come for us?” She opened the garlic clove with a grimace. “He... he still wants us, right?”

“If he could come for us, he would. I still believe that one day he will come for us; that's why we stay where we are, and we're staying together. That's what families do. We stick together.” He tossed the turnips into the soup pot. “We were fortunate to be brought to our grandparents. We could have easily frozen on the steppes of Jotunheim.”

She nodded. “Poor Jorg, he's all alone.”

“Yes.” Fenrir turned his attention to the soup, adding the garlic and dried meat. “In my dreams he's never sad exactly, he's lonely.”

“I wish I could remember him, even just a little.” She sighed. “Just like I wish I could remember mama.”

“Mama would have adored you. After two boys, she was overjoyed when she found out you were a girl. So was Papa. I don't think it would have mattered either way, but I could tell, there was a new sort of joy in the house.” He turned from the fire and smiled. “We were going to go to Asgard after you were born. It was supposed to be a wonderful homecoming, Papa had written to his mother and we were going to go live in the palace, and be a family.”

“Then the soldiers came.” Hela shuddered. “I am glad I don't remember that.

Fenrir gave her a wan smile. “Someday we'll be a family again. Mama may not be with us, but some day, we're all going to live under the same roof and be happy. You, me, Jorg and Papa.”

“What if Papa's gotten married and has more kids?” She got down from the chair and came to stand close to the hearth, the warmth helping rid her of the last of winter's chill.

“Then they will also live with us. Maybe here on Jotunheim, maybe somewhere on Asgard.” He grinned. “Vanaheim. They're nice and accepting of all races.”

She folded her arms and gave him a skeptical look. “And exactly how many Vanir have you met?”

“I hear stories. Besides, before Winter, Jotunheim was starting to work on trade negotiations, like there is with Alfheim. Certainly they wouldn't say anything about half-jotun, part-human, part-Æsir beings.” He grinned. “Get back from the fire before you get burned.”

“I'm not a baby.” She went back towards the table. “Honestly, just because I'm only one and a half meters tall, it doesn't make me a baby.”

“You're my baby sister and I've been taking care of you since you were three weeks old. You'll always be my baby. Even when we're both old and gray.” He picked up a spoon as the sound of their grandfather yawning reached them. “Speaking of old and gray...”

In response, Hela giggled.

*
Natasha could not find any comfort or sleep in her bed. She knew she was exhausted and really, she should have been able to just pull her covers over her head and sleep for a year, but rest seemed illusive. If she could have, she would have stolen down the hall and curled up on the couch in Papochka's rooms, the place he'd always had her rest on when she wasn't feeling well and he wanted to keep an eye on her, rather than leaving her alone in her room.

But the doors of Papochka's rooms were locked and sealed; if she tried to enter, she couldn't do it without alerting Grandmother, who would no doubt just bustle her back to her own bed and give her a sleeping potion. That was the last thing Natasha wanted. She hated the groggy, helpless and heavy feeling sleeping droughts left on her. It brought back nightmares of the Red Room and being in bed, sometimes cold, sometimes not – but not being able to move, that had terrified her. She never wanted to be so helpless again.

Especially now, Papochka was not here.

She sat up as the bells rang out the hour – three in the morning. If she couldn't find sleep, she would at least go and find comfort.

Natasha got out of bed, pulled on her slippers and threw a wrap around her shoulders. When she went into the hallway, it was silent and no guards stopped her as she ducked down the corridors, heading for the stables. It wasn't as if she'd ever been told not to go there in the middle of the night. She had no idea if her grandparents and uncle took a sleeping potion or not; how they could stand to, she didn't know.

It was early enough that no stable-hands were moving about yet, and the night guards didn't even question her as she went inside. They just gave her sad, sympathetic smiles. Rather than going directly to Garnie's stall, she went straight to the one being on Asgard who might feel just as lost and sad as she did right now.

Sleipnir was awake, his gaze fixed on her as she approached his stall. He blinked and backed away from the door as she climbed it, only to return and set his head on her lap.

“Hi.” She rubbed him between the ears slowly. “Sorry it took me so long to come see you. Should have come earlier.”

The horse nickered in response.

“Yeah, it's a lame excuse.” She set her head against his. “It's just us now, брата.” She smoothed down his mane.

Sleipnir nudged her chin in what might be a horse's attempt to kiss her and nickered again.

“We'll still leave one of these days. When I'm a little older.” She sighed and rested her hands on the door. “Even if we just go to one of the estates. We'll stay there. You can run around all day, whatever it is you'd rather do than spend it inside.” He gave her a look and she giggled. “Yes, I'll bring Garnie with us.” She covered a yawn and leaned against a beam.

The great black warhorse lowered himself into his bed of straw and blinked up at her expectantly. It was scary the way Sleipnir seemed to be able to speak to her sometimes.

Shrugging, Natasha climbed into the stall, set her wrap down on the straw and laid down next to her brother, resting her head on his front flank. The comforting smell of hay, horse and – oddly, home, seemed to ease her mind and she felt her eyes drifting closed. The notion of getting caught and being punished seemed almost negligible as Sleipnir let out a snort and she felt his head nudge hers.

“Good night, брата.” She mumbled as she drifted off to sleep.

Neither of them stirred when a stable-hand found them two hours later and laid a blanket over Natasha, leaving them to their slumber.

*
It was three days after Loki's funeral that Thor, his parents, and Natasha found themselves eating breakfast together and if there was anything to make everything seem so final, it was the fact that on his brother's side of the table, there was only one chair. It made the table seem larger, somehow. The change that had come over his family was a sharp contrast to what it had been at the beginning of summer. Father looked so much older, as did Mother. Natasha appeared smaller and younger – and he had to wonder how he himself looked to them.

How any of them ate, he didn't know either.

The sound of Father putting down his fork was loud as a thunderclap. “I have decided that we will wait another year before opening talks with Jotunheim.” He took a breath. “However, I have chosen to inform them of the events of this summer.”

Thor poked at his breakfast, keeping silent. Whereas the talk of jotuns in the past might have caused his anger to flare, now there was only sorrow. On Jotunheim there was another family, the circumstances of how Loki ended up here and had not stayed there still a mystery to him, but a family none the less – they would learn that his brother was gone and they might never see him. How would they feel? What would be their reactions?

It was all... confusion.

“What if the Jotuns desire to start talks instead of waiting?” Thor offered. “It has been centuries.”

“With winter over, the Jotun will be more focused on planting and spring.” Father replied, looking back at his plate. “Odd things, seasons on Jotunheim.”

“Meaning?” Thor frowned and instantly winced; he should know the answer to that.

“Sasha.” Father mumbled, more to his plate than to anyone.

“Winter lasts twenty years, more or less.” Natasha put down her fork and clasped her hands her in her lap, looking miserable. “In the remaining years, there are seasons of planting, growing and harvest, one following the other, without a winter – sometimes a season will last several years, other times it can be short as a few months. This is due to the length and speed of Jotunheim's orbit. A year on that planet is seventy-six days longer than the Asgardian year and their days are nine hours longer.” She pushed her plate away, her food completely untouched. “May I please be excused, Grandfather?”

“Are you sure you don't want to eat just a little more, Natasha?” Mother's tone was gentle. “Just a few bites?”

She shook her head. “No, thank you.”

Thor shifted his gaze to his own food, breaking a biscuit in half, smearing it with jam, but when he put it in his mouth, it was tasteless. He heard his father dismiss his niece and the door of the room opened and shut.

“Natasha will eat when she is ready.” Father muttered. “She just needs time.”

“I'll speak with her.” Mother offered, before glancing at him. “Thor, why don't you take her out riding later today? It will be a nice distraction for you both.”

Thor nodded, doing his best to give her a smile. “Fresh air will also help. Things have seemed... oppressive inside.” He set his fork down. “Although I don't know how I will get Natasha to leave her room.”

“Garnie will need exercise. That should be enough motivation. She does love her horse.” Mother sighed. “Perhaps it will bring her appetite back.”

He wiped his face and set his napkin down. “I have things I need to get done this morning.” He stood. “Good day, Father, Mother.”

“Good day, Thor.” Mother replied, picking up her mug of tea.

“I want you to join me in overlooking some of the proposals that have been submitted to the court for the opening session.” Father stabbed at the steak on his plate, slicing it. “I do not intend to keep you long, but I still want you to be present.”

“Of course, Father.” He replied dutifully, knowing full well that his father would much rather have his brother here, doing this job. Loki, who had a head for politics and protocol; all the 'boring' parts of running a kingdom. But someday, Thor knew he would be king; and a king was more than just a warrior.

Right now, however, he'd abdicate the throne to whoever was in line after him and Natasha if it meant he could have his brother back in a heartbeat. Then again, Natasha might just be willing to become the next ruler of Asgard for the same deal.

**
Loki had never considered his tolerance for the cold a blessing – until now. He was not certain how long he had lain on the floor of his cell. An hour, a week, a year – time just seemed to stretch out, immeasurable and unclear, an hour could be an eternity, it could have passed in a heartbeat. Time had ceased to exist in this place where there was no sun, nothing to measure the day and the night. His Midgardian watch had been damaged in his journey, the time fixed on one-forty-six, the date on August nineteenth. Far above him, in the small circular expanse of open sky, the stars were unfamiliar and strange, and no moon or planet could be seen, either.

When he closed his eyes, he could see the brilliant flash of the Tesseract activating and blue light filling Stark's lab. Then he was here. Alone. None of the other scientists or assistants were with him. That at least, was a mercy. He did not want to think what would be happening to them if they had. But Loki knew he was worth more alive than dead. Midgardians, however, were seen as primitives by a vast majority of the universe and if they hadn't been under the indirect protection of Asgard, some of the beings that roamed the stars would have turned the human race into chattel or food. Norns only knew what would have become of any of the researchers if they had come with him here.

Wherever here was.

He held up his hand, barely able to make out the details and he flicked his fingers upward, small sparks of light illuminating his prison. The tiny fragments floated halfway up and dissipated, making the darkness all the more oppressive. He cast a brighter ball of light, the exact same sort he had used to travel through the caves when he brought Natasha to Asgard. Now he could make out the stones that comprised his prison and the deep gouges left by some long-gone or long-dead prisoner.

He may not know where he was, but he know who held him captive.

Thanos, the mad Titan.

The one name that was spoken with fear by all the beings in the Nine Realms and beyond. If the Æsir told their children that Jotuns were the monsters under the bed, then Thanos was the creature in the cupboard for both Jotuns, Vanir, Æsir and elves. He might not be all seeing or all knowing, but his influence and reign of terror was vast. Legends stated that Malekith had been trying to succor favor with the Titan when he wiped out almost his entire planet. The dark elves that remained on Svartalfheim refused to say either of their names for fear of drawing their attention.

Of course, the only thing that could awaken Malekith was the return of the Aether, wherever the hell his grandfather had placed it. Loki knew better than to go looking for it.

Sighing, he closed his eyes, feeling his hands fall to his sides, the tips of his fingers brushing the sides of the cell. The light dissipated, leaving him in the darkness. Somewhere, out there in the vastness of space was Heimdall, and he had to wonder if the Gatekeeper could see him. He swallowed, his mind turning to Natasha; certainly Father would have gone down to Midgard personally to collect her and bring her home.

He curled up on the floor of his cell, hugging himself as the cold suddenly seem to intensify, a long buried grief surging forward to freeze his heart all over again. He could remember the day those guards came into his modest, hidden home and took his middle three children from him; acting on the king's orders, they had informed him. It was the loss of his own children that made him vow to never see another child harmed; a vow that lead him to Natasha two centuries later.

Strange how Father seemed to act as if nothing had happened when he returned home, crushed and heartbroken. Like the good son, he had said nothing. But certainly...

Loki sat bolt upright, his eyes wide.

Neither of his parents had ever said anything. They hadn't even mentioned the late mother, Angrboða, and they had met her before she was pregnant for the first time. The two of them had run off when Loki was just over six hundred and when he returned, a widower and his children stripped from him, he had been so consumed by grief that he had not noticed the lack of it from everyone else. He could even remember his mother asking after Angrboða, dropping the subject at the look on his face.

Those guards were not sent by my father.

He staggered to his feet and looked towards the stars. “Heimdall, if you can hear me, tell my mother to read my journals. There are traitors in the House of Odin! Someone has stolen my children in his name!”

Something struck his head and he fell into a heap on the floor, unconscious.

*

On the other side of the universe, Heimdall turned from the stars and raced for the palace.

Chapter Text

Laufey had woken up before most of the court and the rest of his family, rather refreshed from a long stint of hibernation sleep that had lasted five straight years. When he made his way to the rear balcony of the palace and looked out over Utgard, the first tale-tell signs of life returning to the city were clearly visible. A scattering of houses already had smoke rising from their chimneys, and he could also see some children running through the streets, greeting each other after their long slumber. While most citizens of the Nine Realms thought the Jotun avoided fire like death, that was not entirely true. Heat was just as essential to life here as it was nearly ever other living creature. They just didn't need to depend on it to stay warm all of the time. However, it was needed for cooking, for light and energy. Almost the entirety of Jotunheim's technology ran on steam power, water was nearly abundant here as it was on Midgard.

It had been a bitter and long winter, and from what few reports he had gotten during the season, the rebels had found no sanctuary in the southern part of Jotunheim. The seven islands (known collectively as the Seven Spears) that were the only land before the vast ocean that made up two thirds of the southern hemisphere were free of his rule, however, they were more inclined to ally with him than a group of jotuns who wanted to couldn't even agree on what their ultimate goal was. When the rebels arrived, they found the armies of the Seven waiting for them. All but ten were caught, tried and executed by the middle of winter. The remaining ten had escaped and headed out to sea with no resources; they were assumed dead.

He let out a sigh and glanced skyward; they were far enough north that the sun had yet to make an appearance for more than a handful of hours, so the dark sky was littered with stars. Laufey frowned at the small constellation of new stars that had not been there when he went into hibernation. The last time he had seen such an occurrence happened after the death of the Allfather's mother, Bestla. Something must have happened on Asgard while he slumbered; the death of some important noble, or one of its heroes. It certainly couldn't have been Odin or his queen – someone would have woken him for that. He didn't want to think what would happen when either of them finally passed; for himself, Laufey fully intended on outliving the thief.

How many centuries had he believed the great king of Asgard had murdered his son? Loptr had been placed in the temple for his safety. It wasn't because he was too small – what else could be expected from a half-jotun, half-Vanir child? The boy's mother had died in childbirth, but she she had been ill before she went into labor, and the rapidly approaching winter and the ongoing war had not helped matters either. The woman had held on long enough to birth their child and then succumbed to death. He had to wonder if Odin had thought the nursemaid he'd left with Loptr was his mother. One of Odin's soldiers had killed her; an unarmed Jotun female. If the boy's mother had survived, would the Allfather have killed her as well? If she hadn't gone into labor when she did, Laufey didn't doubt that Odin would have slaughtered her before the infant even drew breath. Finding out that his son had been raised as the son of Odin was bittersweet. One one hand, Laufey was thankful his son was alive; on the other, there was anger at having been deprived of his first born.

The Vanir who had been his mother; she had been a runaway princess; escaping a marriage to some Alfheim noble. He did not know if the girl had loved him; certainly not as much as he had loved her. After the war ended, and winter came – there was no real time to grieve, he could remember curling up in his great nest of furs, lamenting the loss of everything; the war, the Casket of Ancient Winters, Loptr.

Spring came, and with it, he married and did his best to forget.

But he never could, not completely.

“New stars?” A tiny voice said near his knee and Laufey looked down and smiled.

“Good morning, Kaj.” He bent down and picked up his grandson,setting him on his arm so the youth could hold onto his shoulder. “Yes, new stars.” He frowned. “What are you doing out of bed so soon? The sun has not yet returned.”

“Tired of sleeping.” The boy pouted. “And I'm hungry.” A pause. “And I missed you. You were sleeping last time I was awake.”

Laufey laughed and kissed the boy on the cheek. “Oh, is that all?” He set his grandson down. “Well, Kaj, let us go see what is left prepared and ready in the cupboards. I suspect you do not want to wait until the kitchen servants...” He stopped speaking as a courier came running up the corridor towards them. “What is it?”

“Message, your majesty,” the smaller jotun gave a slight bow. He was winded from his sprint. “From Asgard.”

The king of Jotunheim frowned. A message so close to the end of winter was either something joyous or something horrific. He glanced at the stars, an uneasy feeling already settling over him. He took the scroll from the messenger. “Take Kaj down to the kitchens and help him get something to eat.”

“Yes, your grace.” The servant bowed again, taking his grandson by the hand and leading him away.

Laufey waited until they were gone to open the scroll and begin reading, hoping he was wrong and his fear was for naught. He skimmed the words, his heart sinking rapidly.

Loptr-Loki was lost. Lost. Worse than lost. He was a prisoner of Thanos. Of all the news he could have found, this was the least expected. He glanced up at the new constellation, knowing now why they were there and who they were for. If Loptr-Loki was Thanos's captive, it would be better if he was dead. He was beyond Asgard's reach, beyond the reach of anyone.

Laufey had planned on sending messengers to Asgard as soon as the first planting was complete. He had wanted to start putting things back together between his realm and that of the Æsir. It would do little good now. He glanced skyward again, studying the new stars – they seemed rather like a lamp. A light hung between Asgard and Jotunheim, representing the prince this realm had lost and never known, and - well, what had Loki been to Asgard?

He would need to talk to his sons before moving forward. He let out a sigh. He hoped after the winter had ended they could have found some sort of atonement where he had gone wrong with Loptr. At least explain to his lost-son why he had been in the temple and how, if he had been able, Odin would have never found him; he never would have lost his home or his family. It would have to wait now, the tragedy was still new to him, to Asgard; and to the girl. His granddaughter – Natasha, was it? It would just take time.

Time that Laufey, at seven thousand years of age, did not have.

**
Natasha held the large mug of broth in both hands and took a sip. While her appetite still hadn't returned, she knew she had to eat something. The broth was thick enough to almost be a soup on its own, the rich taste of beef was comforting and it was hearty. She let out a sigh and lowered her cup, looking across the room at her harp, which she hadn't touched since she returned from Midgard. She knew she would have to practice soon; just like she would have to go back to her studies and magic. It had been nearly three weeks – she decided she would give herself a full month, and then she would get back to her normal routine. Certainly no one would begrudge her another week and a half.

Papochka was gone – and she didn't know when or if she'd see him again. No. She would not think of this in terms of if. She wouldn't give up hope this early, it hadn't even been a month, there was no way she could just think of it as impossible. There had to be a way, she would find it, or Grandfather could find it, or... or something. Just because Asgard acted as if Papochka was dead didn't mean he was. It'd been made plain to her: her father was alive, he was just in a place where no one in Asgard could get him. Heimdall could see him, at least – and while she knew she wasn't supposed to go and ask the watchman about him, she had a feeling he was under orders not to tell her where he was and what he was doing anyway. That only made her worry; Papochka must be in an extremely bad place.

She took a few more sips of broth, frowning at the rapid opening and shutting of doors out in the corridor. She couldn't bring herself to go investigate; it was probably nothing important. If it was something that concerned her, she would be informed. It was both good and bad in her mind; on one hand, people left her alone, but at the same time, all she wanted was to just sit down and cry with someone; Grandmother, Uncle Thor – even Grandfather. If he was even capable of crying. Natasha figured he was; he was just an expert in concealing his emotions.

A loud bang caused her to jump and nearly spill her drink and a moment later, the door of her room flew open. “Natasha!” It was her grandmother, she sounded strange.

She set her mug down and stood up. “Grandmother, what is it? What's happened?”

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Her voice cracked in the middle of her question.

“What?” She frowned, shaking her head. “Grandmother, you know how many siblings I have. Three brothers and one sister. The only one I've met is Sleipnir.” She folded her arms and lifted her chin. “Grandfather sent the others away.” She didn't bother to hide the accusation in her voice. If Papochka wasn't here to be indignant about such a question, she would do it on his behalf. “They weren't monsters. They were just different.”

“Who told you that your grandfather sent them away?” Her voice was barely above a whisper; she sounded horrified.

“Papochka.” She lowered her shoulders and stood up straighter. “He was going to bring them back to Asgard after Angrboða died when Hela was born. That's when Grandfather sent the soldiers and took them away.” She narrowed her eyes. “Don't tell me you forgot about them.”

Something in Grandmother's face broke and she closed the distance between them, pulling her into a tight hug, burying her face in Natasha's hair. “Dear heart, we didn't know.” She made a noise Natasha couldn't place. “Someone has committed a terrible crime and your father and siblings have paid the price for it.”

Natasha pulled away, confused. “Why would someone do that?”

Grandmother smoothed down her hair and lifted her chin. “You know better than most girls that there are some absolutely wicked people in this universe. There's someone here in Asgard who, for some nefarious reason, has stolen your brothers and sister and have hurt your father in a way that I don't even begin to know how to atone for. He spent the last three and a half centuries thinking that your grandfather and I were involved in this. But we weren't.” She crouched down to her level, holding both of her arms with her hands. “We would never have allowed someone to hurt our family. But they have and now we must not only find out who did this, but where your brothers and sister are.”

She looked down at her hands, trying to make sense of all this. “I don't understand, why would someone want to take them in the first place? They were just children.” Then another thought came to her. “Are they going to try and get rid of me too?”

“No.” Grandmother's grip tightened. “No one is going to take you away.” She took a breath. “The important thing now is that we find your brothers and sister.”

“How?” It was a perfectly logical question. “I don't...” She bit at her lip, thinking. “Papochka always said we'd be a family again. Did he know where they were and was just waiting for a reason to go get them? Or something?”

Grandmother shook her head. “No.” She stood up, letting go of her, her face changing. “Natasha, have you ever been to a zoo while you were on Midgard?”

“A zoo?” She frowned. “Just a few times, this past summer, Tony Stark and I went to a zoo with his nanny. He didn't like it. Said it was bo-ring. Just like that. What does a zoo have to do with anything, Grandmother? They were kids, they weren't animals.”

“I'm just curious, honey.” She sighed. “I was wondering if you knew of animals that can carry their young in pouches on their bodies.”

“Marsupials?” Natasha gave her grandmother an incredulous look. “You've never heard of a kangaroo? Or a koala?”

“Is that what they're called?” A hopeful look spread across her grandmother's face. “So they're from Midgard?”

She nodded. “Only a certain area.” She went over to her bookshelf and pulled out the heavy brown atlas that Mister Stark had given her. “I'll show you.” She set the book on her desk and Grandmother came over and joined her. “They come from a place called Australia.” She found the page that showed all the land of Midgard. “That's here.”

Grandmother ran her fingers along the bottom of the page. “That is a very large island. It's nearly the same size as Asgard.”

“It's mostly desert, or sort of desert, I think.” Natasha frowned. “I read that it's almost always warm there.” She rubbed her nose. “I don't know if Papochka's been there nor not.”

“Might your grandfather and I borrow your atlas?” She closed the book and picked it up. “It might help us find your siblings, if they are on Midgard.”

Natasha nodded. “Yes, of course. You'll... be careful with it?”

Grandmother laughed. “Thank you, sweetheart, and yes, we will take good care of it.” She glanced sideways and caught sight of the mug. “Why don't you finish your broth, and then you and Thor go for a ride. You both need some fresh air.”

**

Loki was hungry. He remained curled up in a ball, lying on the floor of his cell, doing his best to try and will the empty, gnawing feeling in his stomach. He wasn't certain how long he'd been unconscious after he was struck; or even what had hit him in the first place. At least he wasn't cold. That was about the only good thing at this point. He didn't move when he heard the door open slightly and something scrapped across the floor.

“Are you awake?” A voice called out to him, low and uncertain.

He lifted his face to see a crouching figure, a girl whose age was hard to tell; older than Natasha, perhaps a teenager, as Midgardians registered things.

“You need to eat.” She moved the bowl she had brought closer to him. “You haven't eaten since you came here.”

Loki swallowed and licked his lips. “How long?”

“Time is different here.” She sat down in the doorway, glancing over her shoulder, before turning back to him. “No days, no nights.”

He managed to pull himself into a sit and picked up the bowl, giving the soup a dubious look. “What is this?”

“Asphra broth. You need to eat.” She gave him a half-smile. “It's not poisoned, if that's what you're worried about.” She gestured with her hand, and that's when he noticed her skin; it was green.

“Thank you.” He took a small sip, and just the taste of herbs and warmth from the bowl eased his tension slightly. He took another drink, knowing better than to gulp it down.

“You're welcome.” She tilted her head to the side. “You're blue. I thought Asgardians were... cream colored.”

Loki lowered the bowl. “I'm not a full blooded Asgardian.” He felt it was better to lie to the girl than to tell her the truth. He didn't know who she was, didn't know where he was; and if he told the truth, he might go down in value in Thanos's mind. “How you measure time without days or nights?”

“We do have hours.” She gave him the same sort of look Natasha gave him when he was being silly. He took another drink of broth as she continued. “It's been one hundred and twenty of our hours since you were knocked out. You've been here for three hundred and sixty of them.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “My name is Gamora.”

He nodded in response. “Loki.”

“I know who you are.” She blinked at him, leaning against the door-frame. “My father wants to speak to you after you've eaten. Thanos.”

Loki merely nodded, taking another gulp of soup. The empty feeling was edging away, but it was not nearly sated. “You're the one who hit me, aren't you?”

She looked rather pleased. “Well, you were screaming your head off. You said someone had stolen your children.”

He set the bowl down. “It's complicated.”

“It doesn't matter any longer.” She lifted her chin and cut off his retort. “You're here now. You're a prisoner of my father.” She shook her head. “That's just how it is.”

He rose to his feet. “Then let's get this over with, Miss Gamora.”

The girl stood and came forward, putting a pair of cuffs on his wrists. “Father won't be killing you, if that's what you're worried about. If he wanted you dead, you'd be dead.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?” He snorted.

“It's however you want to take it.” She stated. “Follow me.” She picked up the bowl and he followed her up a long stone staircase and then down a corridor. The air had the same sort of smell the passageway of the Bifrost sometimes did. Nothing distinct, nothing certain; only the ghost of what a smell should be. In this case, it was hints of damp, of cold, oil, and blood. They turned down another hallway and then descended a short flight of stairs and stopped.

Loki kept his face passive as a large figure loomed in front of them. On the far side of the room was a massive window that took up almost the entire wall. Thanos had his back to them, staring out the same window. On occasion, something would shoot across the expanse, moving too quickly for him to make out what it was; they seemed to be overlarge dragonflies dancing around whatever was out there.

“The second prince of Asgard.” Thanos's voice was gravely and deep; perfectly menacing. “Such a lucky catch.”

He did not reply, he merely blinked. He could suddenly remember being young, younger than Natasha, and he'd be trained how to react to being held captive; to remain passive and calm. If there was one thing that the Red Room had done for his little girl, it was move her from a novice in the art of 'what to do when you're being held hostage' to expert in a matter of days.

“Gamora, leave us.” The titan did not show any emotion.

“Yes, Father.” the girl bowed her head and left the two of them alone.

“Approach.”

Loki only took a few steps forward, and now he could make out more details of the creatures flying outside; chitauri warriors.

“You know that no one is coming for you.” Thanos turned his head just enough to gaze on him, his expression the same he might give a bug. “Why should they?”

He didn't even flinch at the titan's words, he simply clasped his hands together, the chains of his bonds clinking against each other.

“Why were you on Midgard? How did they come by the Tesseract?” He looked away again. “Primitive little gnats that they are.”

Loki was itching to issue a retort, but he kept his composure and offered a half truth. “The same way Midgardians always seem to find things. Poking around in places or with things they should leave well enough alone.”

The other being chuckled at that. “So I have heard. But what were you doing on Midgard? Attempting to take the Tesseract home? Steering the Midgardians into the future? Both?”

He did not reply.

“Not talking then?” He whirled around and before he could react, Loki found himself being held by the front of his shirt, his feet several meters from the ground. “Going to be difficult?”

Calm. He said to himself. Remain calm. Show no emotion, show no fear.

“Jotun scum.” Thanos threw him to the ground and Loki rolled several times when he hit the floor. “Must take after your grandmother Bestla.”

Two pairs of hands grabbed him, and he kicked at the pair near his legs, and then there were six pairs of hands, one on each of his arms and legs, another around his middle and the last around his neck. He struggled as he felt metal against his mouth and a moment later, something fused against his skin and then blackness overtook him again.

**

Joshua finished cleaning the last fleece before gently rolling it up for sale. He'd sheared dozens of sheep today; he'd actually stopped counting after the sixteenth; but he knew that he and the other workers had started with two hundred and fifty, and that number was looking to double next year, depending on the lambing season. At least on this station. He removed his hat, wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve and then took the rolled fleeces to join the rest of them. Tomorrow, he'd drive to another station, help in the shearing there, before moving onward. This was the only time of the year that made him miss those long-lost days of working on a sailing vessel.

The cool air of the sea, the steady work and the feeling of getting somewhere.

Of course, rigged ships were long gone; replaced by steamships and later, gasoline powered engines.

He went to the door of the shearing room and removed the covers from his boots, dusting them off carefully.

“Evening, Joshua.” The foreman came over to him. “Another shearing day come and gone.”

“Yes, sir.” He folded the covers, tucking them to hang off of his belt. “Looks to be a good haul this year.”

The man nodded. “Lambing season starts soon.” He let out a breath. “I know you were under the consideration for one of the permanent jobs here at the station, Joshua, but I'm afraid it's just not going to happen. Not this year.”

He kept his disappointment hidden. “Understood sir. Might I ask why?”

“You're an amazing worker, Roosevelt, and you get along with everyone, and quite frankly, the animals seem to love you. But the fact remains your formal education is woefully lacking.” He shook his head. “I'm sorry.”

“I was home-schooled, sir. I've tried to explain that...” The man held up his hand, cutting him off.

“I'm sorry, Joshua. I know this doesn't seem like a job that requires a lot of education, but, be that as it may...” He sighed. “I wish that dependability and hard work could outweigh the schooling, but it doesn't, again, I'm sorry.”

Joshua nodded. “I understand sir.” He took a breath. “Did you want me to return to help with the lambing?”

The man nodded. “That's in a few weeks, so yes.” He reached into his pocket and handed him an envelope. “Thank you for your help today.”

“Thank you.” He took the envelope. “And you're welcome.” He nodded and headed across the grounds to his truck, keeping his face blank until he reached his car and then let out a low curse. “I served with your granddaddy in the Second World War.” After checking the envelope for his pay – he noted that there were a few extra bills – he managed a weak smile. “Looks like I'll be able to make that drive to Melbourne after all.” He tossed his covers into the seat next to him, stashed the money into his pocket and drove away from the station.

The education thing wasn't exactly his fault; he'd never been to a school in his life – he had learned to read English over a century ago on the long voyage from Johannesburg to Sydney. A well meaning missionary had asked around on the crew and of the ship and stated that, if the captain did not object, he would teach anyone who did not how, to read. Joshua had nearly jumped at the chance – he had wanted to know how to read for as long as he could remember. Once he learned his letters, nothing could stop him from devouring any books he could get his hands on. He'd taught himself mathematics, having known the basics of that already – he didn't need to study history; he'd lived it. He'd been all over the planet, so geography was not a problem either. He knew a little about science and really, did it matter?

Apparently a little sheet of paper saying you went to secondary school and finished meant something if you wanted to gain a full time job.

Joshua knew he could not stay in Australia much longer. It wasn't so much the worry of being recognized, it was, well, he felt it was time to move on. He also needed to leave while he still could. He had been here for ninety years, not counting the time he spent deployed in the Second World War. “This world is getting smaller.” He rolled the window down and leaned back in his seat. “Where the hell am I going to go?” With all the wide open spaces out here, he thought it was a perfect place to stay; but things were changing. He knew that. The only place he could think of going was to head to Canada and go from ranching to logging, or head to Alaska.

He turned off the main road and went down gravel and dirt road that led to the small trailer park where he lived. He slowed down as a group of kids ran past, playing some sort of game that seemed to be a cross between rugby and football. He parked his truck in front of his trailer, gathered up his things and went inside. Joshua took a few minutes to open up the windows, letting out the heat of the day.

It wasn't much, but it was home.

He put the pay envelope into the crock on top of his small fridge and then sat to take off his boots. “Perhaps I should try deep sea fishing.” He set his shoes near the door and then opened the fridge, taking out a bottle of Coke and a Tupperware container. “At least I don't have to go catch my dinner anymore.” He chuckled to himself and started to prepare his meal of leftover stew.

*
Heimdall regarded the stars with a new sense of purpose. All that had been gathered from Prince Loki's journals was that his missing three children were not together. They had been separated from each other as they had been separated from their father. For himself, he was rather ashamed that he had not seen that terrible day; or rather, he had not been looking in right direction. This all could have been avoided.

The Allfather had given him one simple task; search Midgard to see if any of the children were there.

Finding someone who was more than half-jotun on a realm that was home to just over four billion souls was daunting; but he had a place to start – a large island that was both a country and a continent; Australia. Home to fourteen million people. Heimdall didn't question why he was told to start with this country; he knew that the Allmother never shared her visions with anyone; this was the closest she would get to revealing anything. He had to wonder what she had seen of this land that seemed to be as arid as Jotunheim was cold.

Jotunheim would prove more difficult to search when the time came. Due to the treaty between King Odin and King Laufey, his viewing of that realm was kept to a minimum. He could tell the Allfather what the King of Alfheim had for dinner and what the Queen of England had for tea, but he couldn't even tell when Laufey ate a meal. Fleeting glances that offered overviews, no real details. It'd been risky to find out about the war against the rebels; and in truth, most of that information had come from other realms, not himself.

Heimdall lifted his chin slightly and frowned. Something had caught his attention on Midgard; or rather, someone. He flicked his eye towards one the raven that was near his feet, and gave it a slight nod, and a moment later, the bird was bound for the palace.

**
Today had been good, in Thor's opinion. The first good day in nearly a month. He and Natasha had gone riding in the afternoon; he was thinking he should make that at least an every-other-day occurrence for a while. It was good for both of them to get out, and even better to spend time together. He finished dressing for dinner and hopefully, tonight, his niece might actually feel like eating something. As he came out of his dressing room, he glanced at the reports littering his desk. There weren't many, but he went over and skimmed over the topics; they were all things he would deem as 'it could wait' but still made a note to do the reading after dinner.

Leaving his room and heading to the family dinning room, he caught sight of Natasha who was nearly there. “Good evening, Natasha.”

She stopped and turned. “Good evening, uncle.” She gave him a half smile – he could tell from a mere glance that she was in a lot better mood than she had been this morning. There was a hint of her former, pre-summer self in her expression and she was hugging three boxes of various sizes to her chest. “Thank you again for taking me out riding earlier.”

“Oh, you're welcome.” They went into the dinning room. “Although I suspect you wouldn't mind being allowed to go off riding on your own, correct?”

“Yes.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “but I know, not until I'm at least a hundred.”

“Two hundred.” He retorted, with a grin.

“Ha!” She smirked and went over to the table, setting down a box at the other three places before taking her own seat. “I don't think you'd be able to stop me if I really wanted to go.”

Thor laughed and went over to his chair, wondering what was keeping his parents. “You don't think so?”

“I may be smaller, but that means I can run faster and get through smaller gaps than you can.” She lifted her chin.

He picked up the box at his place. “What's this?”

“I brought you something back from Midgard.” Her shoulders fell slightly. “I was going to give you it when... well, I've not felt like going through the things I brought home until now.”

“I see.” He opened the lid, folded back the tissue paper and drew out an odd looking black felt object. “What are these meant to be?” He unfolded it. “Are these supposed to be mouse ears?”

She giggled. “Papochka said I should find you something silly.”

Thor turned it over and then grinned. “Why, this has my name on it!” He looked at the shiny dots that spelled out his name in the Midgardian alphabet – or one of them, at least. “Thank you!” He set the hat on his head, even though it was much too small. “How do I look?”

Natasha covered her mouth with her hands, chuckling. “You should show Lady Sif!”

“Did I hear someone laughing in...” Thor's mother walked into the room and stopped short. “What are you wearing, Thor Odinson?”

He straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. “This is my new hat that Natasha has graciously brought me back from Midgard. I was thinking of wearing it to the harvest feast.”

The Allmother fell into her chair, covering her own mouth, trying not to laugh and failing. “I think it may need to be altered for size, my son.”

“Nonsense. It is fine just the way it is.” He winked at Natasha, who grinned and then stiffened up in her chair as Odin came into the room.

“Well, this is a much happier room than when I left it this morning.” Father sat down and glanced at his son. “Thor, while your new hat is quite fetching, it is poor manners to wear it at the dinner table.”

He set the hat down next to his place. “Thank you, Natasha, for the thoughtful gift.”

“You're welcome.” She replied. “Although the hatter was quite skeptical when I told him that your name was Thor.”

Frigga and Odin exchanged looks as the servants came in and left bowls of summer soup in front of each of them, and all but one left the room, standing next to the doorway that led to the service corridor.

Thor didn't notice what was in his parent's packages, he only heard their thank yous and Natasha's replies; that didn't come quickly – because she was finally eating.

*
Being sent to Midgard on a special assignment by the Allfather was something that Fandral hadn't expected. He also was rather surprised that he did not bring Thor with him. He certainly had no idea what had happened on Midgard. This place was like nowhere he'd ever been. The earth was a vibrant shade of red and as fauna was various shades of green, but nothing reached higher than his hip. It was also hot and arid, perhaps it was summer. He stood on a small hill, where the Bifrost had deposited him. Below him, there was a small settlement, a dozen rectangular houses, none of which were big, arranged in a half circle – a road of rocks led out towards another, which seemed more solid. “What is this place?” He started down the hill, catching sight of several horseless carriages (he'd seen them in books) parked under metal sheets held up by poles.

Several children ran around between the houses, sunburned and happy. One of them caught sight of him and stared. It was a girl, with dark hair and dark eyes.

“Good morning.” He replied, politely.

“It's afternoon.” She answered and the other children started to giggle. “Can we help you?”

“I'm looking for someone named Joshua – I'm told he lives... here.” Fandral couldn't see how anyone could live in this place. Peasants on Asgard lived better.

“Tall guy?” One of the boys said, holding his arm over his head. “Black hair?”

“Yes.” He nodded. It wasn't as if Heimdall had given him many details.

“Only Joshua lives over there.” Another boy pointed to one of the houses, where he could just make out someone moving next to a rain barrel.

“Thank you.” He answered and headed across the open area between all the houses, hearing the children laughing behind him. The house where Joshua lived wasn't as big as the other ones, it was smaller than his closet. The man in question was scrubbing a shirt. He wasn't as thin as Loki, but not as muscled as Thor. He was built rather like Hogun, his hair was black and curly – and then he caught sight of the man's face. “Excuse me, is your name Joshua?” Fandral rather felt like he had just caught sight of a ghost. He hadn't expected to find someone who looked so much like Loki in the middle of this... whatever sort of place on Midgard this was. He certainly didn't expect to find someone who, by rights, was a prince of Asgard bent halfway into a rain barrel like a commoner.

The man shook the excess water off of the shirt and rung it out, before hanging it to join several others on drying on a line. “Little early for Halloween, isn't it, Robin Hood?” He folded his arms, regarding him critically. “Yes, I'm Joshua. And you are?”

The warrior frowned and made an involuntary gesture to cover his nose. The soap Joshua had been using must be rather foul; or it was something else entirely. “Fandral of Asgard.”

“Asgard?” He gave him a wry look. “Where's that? Spain?”

“What's Spain?” This wasn't how he planned on doing this at all. He'd actually been hoping to find a younger man, one who didn't look like so close to his own age.

“Must be the heat.” Fandral watched as the man picked up the wash board and an empty basket. “Come on, let's get you into the shade, mate.” The tin abode the prince was living in was barely a shack – he was surprised that it hadn't collapsed around them when they went in. “Have a seat, I'll get you some water.”

Fandral fumbled for a handkerchief from his pocket and looked around the home in dismay. The Allmother would have a fit if she could see the place. A table with chairs that looked ready to fall apart, a couch that was sunk in the middle and the tile floor was peeling. To hell with peasants living better than this, he was certain that slaves on Asgard lived better than this. He sat down on one of the chairs, coughing once before Joshua set down a glass next to him. “Thank you.”

“Let me know if it's not cold enough.” He stated as he put the washboard away.

“It's fine.” He took a sip of water, flinching slightly. It tasted metallic.

Joshua sat down at the table next to him. “So, what are you doing so far out here? You part of some crazy hazing ritual event down at the University?”

“No.” He set the glass down. “I have come from Asgard to find you.”

“Uh huh.” The man looked skeptical. “Asgard.”

Fandral frowned. “Yes. I am here on behalf of King Odin Allfather to bring you, his grandson, home.”

Joshua looked at him as if he was insane. “Afraid I don't follow, mate. I don't have a grandfather. I don't even have parents.”

“That is simply not true.” He took a breath. “Your name is Prince Jörmungandr Lokason, son of his highness, Prince Loki Odinson.”

“Jörmungandr?” The man folded his arms. “That's quite a mouthful.” He shook his head. “You expect me to believe I'm a prince and you've come to take me back to... Asgard. Wherever that is.”

“Yes, it's the truth.” He frowned. “You don't believe me?”

“No. Why should I?” He stood up. “That's insane! Just because you say it's true doesn't mean that it is! It doesn't make sense. Why am I here then? If I'm some lost prince, then what the hell am I doing here? And where the hell is Asgard anyway?”

Fandral cleared his throat. “It's several million light years away, I cannot give you an accurate distance.”

“So I'm a prince and an alien.” Joshua scoffed. “So how'd I end up here? I toddle off into a ship, or something?”

“No, you were stolen. The details are not fully known at this point, it's all under investigation. All we know was that someone within the court was seeking revenge against your father. They had you and your siblings taken from Asgard, convincing your father that it was done under your grandfather's orders.” He sighed. “The details are sketchy, at best.”

“So who the hell are you then?” Joshua gave him a wry look.

“I am Fandral, friend to Prince Thor, your uncle. I was asked to come by Odin Allfather on his behalf, if he were able, your father, Prince Loki, would have come.” He glanced at the water. “This is a very long story, do you have anything else to drink?”

“I don't have any liquor, if that's what your after.” He went over to a tall cabinet and took out two bottles, opening them both. “Try this, see what you think.”

He picked up the bottle, sniffed it. “Smells...” He took a quick gulp of the dark colored liquid and nearly gagged on the cold, sweet drink. “What is this?”

“It's Coke.” Joshua replied, taking a swallow of his own drink. “Laundry's not going to be dry for at least another hour, so I figure we have time to talk.”

He took another sip of his beverage, smiling slightly. “I do not know much, but I will tell you what I can.”

Chapter Text

Loki was in pain. It was worse than when he first woke up in that cell. The cell seemed like a lifetime ago. It was hard to tell what hurt the most. His wrists, where the manacles bit into his skin, his ankles, where the same iron bonds held him tight. His shoulders and hips hurt in equal measure, he was suspended by chains over a vast nothingness, and the iron chains were taut, both a blessing and a curse. He didn't think he'd want to swing over this void. Mostly because he had no idea how secure the chains above him were; even bound as tight as he was, there was nothing to assure him that all the links between him and wherever the ceiling was weren't in danger of snapping.

He closed his eyes and tried to think of something else; anything other than the pain. Strangely, Loki's mind suddenly went to that estate where he and Angrboða had lived. He'd never gone back to that place again; it was too painful to remember. They hadn't even been living in the main house, but in a cottage meant for a tenant, not a prince of Asgard and his... well, he'd never officially married the girl. Perhaps he should have and then... maybe then there wouldn't have been all the horror. But if there had been no horror, then he wouldn't have gone wandering the Nine Realms and he never would have found Natasha. Trying to imagine his life without her was almost like trying to imagine life without Thor.

The good inside the bad, as his mother would say.

There was another mystery. Who had his birth mother been? What had happened to her? Was she still alive? No, that couldn't be. She was most likely long dead. He only knew sketchy details about how Father had found him. In a temple in the capital of Jotunheim, crying and alone; surrounded by several dead jotuns. What if those beings had been guards, or just innocent bystanders? War was ugly; he didn't know why Thor was so obsessed with it. His brother hadn't even fought in a war.

Loki sighed and sensed lights come on around him; he was thankful he'd had his eyes already shut, or it would have stung. He didn't respond as the lights went off and on, the time between phases rapidly accelerating. It was disorienting, but only just; by leaving his eyes shut, it was somewhat tolerable. Then the chains lurched and he fell several yards.

That jolted him and his eyes opened at the same time the lights came on and stayed on. He blinked several times, adjusting to the new environment and then he felt a hand on his face. It was that Gamora girl, she was standing on a clear platform that would escape notice unless someone was on it. Loki wasn't fooled; it most likely could be retracted. She lifted his face by his hair, her expression blank.

“How did this Terran female know about the Tesseract?” She shook him once.

“What?” He frowned. “What are you talking about?” He coughed and swallowed several times. It was difficult to speak.

“This!” She brandished a book in front of him, a blue book with green circles. “How does this woman know about the Tesseract? It does not matter that she got planetary names wrong, but the Tesseract! How does she...”

“It's only a story.” Loki blinked at the book he'd forgotten he'd been carrying with him. He'd only kept it with him because he wouldn't have put it past Natasha asking to Tony to sneak the book out of his room for her. “A work of fiction.”

“Lies!” Gamora hissed, shaking his head once and then releasing him, making the room seem to spin. “She knows!”

“No, I assure you, she does not.” Loki coughed. “If she was able to get any details correct, it was purely coincidence.”

“I do not believe you!” She snarled. “Some of it may be fiction, but the Tesseract!”

“Oh, fuck the bloody Tesseract.” The girl sounded like the epitome of a teenager trying to be tougher than she really was. This girl needed to work on her interrogation skills if she wanted to be an assassin. “That thing is more trouble than it is worth.”

“Lies!” She shook him again. “I will not ask you again, how did this woman...”

“Perhaps she heard a story about it, a mention.” He sighed. “Honestly, I find it amazing that the people of Midgard know how to dress themselves half the time.”

“This isn't a joke!” She struck him with the book and he heard the spine crack.

“Can you read that book?” He decided he would try to reason with her – he'd really rather just hang here in the dark than put up with her poor attempt of being a tough as nails girl.

“Yes.” Her voice was full of indignation. “I can read this stupid Terran language.”

“Then open the book to the copyright page. It will be in the front, most likely behind the title page.” He coughed again as he heard her fumbling through the pages.

“Is this it?” She held the book in front of him and he nodded. “What am I supposed to...”

“Look at the first two paragraphs. Read those.” Loki let his head fall as she read to herself and then threw the book down in annoyance. Natasha would have punched Gamora by now for the harm she was causing to her book. Or worse. He couldn't stop the chuckle before it escaped his lips.

“What's so damn funny?” She grabbed his hair again, and he flinched.

He didn't reply, he merely blinked at her. He tucked the emotion away, his expression even. If it was his lot in life for now to be practice for Gamora become better at interrogating prisoners, he'd have to think about how he was going to to do it. He could steer her wrong and watch her stumble, or he could help her; at the expense of his own sanity, life, what have you. “Pathetic.” He whispered.

“I am not!” She shook him again.

“You're getting angry far to easily.” He sighed. “You came in here without your emotions in check. That was your first mistake.”

Gamora let go of him and stalked away.

A moment later, it was dark again. Then he heard a soft snick of sound he couldn't place. As he shut his eyes, Loki winced. The girl had distracted him from the pain; and now that he was alone, it seemed to have returned tenfold. He worked on keeping his breathing level and letting his mind drift. Had Heimdall gotten his message? He felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth; perhaps they had found at least one of his three missing children, or had begun looking. Perhaps one of his stolen children would be back in Asgard in time to celebrate the Yule.

*

The moment that Odin informed her that Heimdall believed he'd located Loki's son on Midgard, Frigga began plans for a set of rooms in the family wing to be cleaned. She selected the ones across the hall from Natasha's, deciding that the two siblings should be somewhat close, although she'd been informed that Jörmungandr was not young like Natasha. It didn't matter to her. Details on the furnishings of the chambers could be decided once he arrived. She would merely get the basic things ready. Now that the rooms were aired, the bed made and the floors freshly polished, it was hard to wait.

Fandral had not returned from Midgard as of yet, but he had only been gone two days; certainly he couldn't be gone for too much longer. As she stood in the doorway of the newly appointed chambers, Frigga tried to think how exactly, the young man would fit into the family dynamic. As he was older than Natasha, Joshua, as Jörmungandr was called, went in front of her in the line of succession, but she doubted either of them cared about that. She wondered what sort of schooling the boy had had, what foods did he like, was he a scholar like his father, or had the harshness of life on Midgard forced him into other pursuits? With Midgard's constant wars, there was little chance he had avoided all of them, even living in a place that was as remote as this Australia seemed to be. According to what she'd gathered from Natasha's atlas and the girl's grasp of her home realm's history, it had once been a penal colony for the British Empire. Frigga certainly hoped her grandson wasn't a former criminal.

“Mother, standing in the doorway will not make time move any faster.” Thor's voice cut into her thoughts and she turned.

“I cannot stay focused, and I know I shouldn't just stand here.” She looked back into the room. “It... I cannot explain it.”

Her son came up to her and gave her a slight hug. “It is quite the opposite of when Natasha came here. We had no advanced notice, so it seemed as if things were prepared for a rush. Now, we must wait and it seems longer.”

She nodded. “I still cannot believe that your brother never mentioned the whole incident to us, nor can I believe none of us noticed his devastation when he came home all those years ago. We should have seen.”

Thor let out a breath. “The fault lies with all of us, but mostly with me. I have been a poor brother where Loki is concerned. I can only hope to atone for it by being a good uncle.”

Frigga turned and touched his cheek. “It is never easy in the ways of being siblings. I was not the sister I should have been.”

He frowned. “I did not know you had a sister, mother.”

“Oh yes.” She sighed sadly. “She was younger than I. I should have insisted on bringing her with me to Asgard when I married your father. But my father was more concerned with forging as many alliances for Vanaheim was possible.” She took a breath. “My sister was betrothed to a prince on Alfheim. The one that was assassinated when Loki was ambassador.”

“Your sister was not killed then, was she?” Thor frowned. “You have never mentioned her before.”

“No, my sister ran away from Vanaheim long ago, shortly before you were born. She never wanted to marry, all she wanted to do was explore. Due to the war with Jotunheim, no one really knew where she went, or what happened to her.” She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “I knew when she died.” She took a breath. This was something she had been keeping for so long, it was painful. She'd never talked about her sister, for various reasons. “She has been dead for a long time.”

“I am sorry, mother. I should have liked to have known her.” She felt her son's arms embrace her, and then he paused. “Is there something more?”

“Your father never met her. My parents have never met you, or your brother.” She opened her eyes. “If they had, then they would have known what I have since the day your father returned from Jotunheim with Loki.” She could not keep the tremble from her voice, and she steeled herself up. “Never did you question why I devoted so much time to your brother. It wasn't just because he shared mutual passion for magic and because I wanted to help him find his own place in the sun.”

Her son turned her in his arms, his expression one of shock and slight fear. “Mother, what are you trying to tell me?”

Frigga took a breath. “Because when the Allfather placed Loki in my arms, I did not see an abandoned frost giant babe looking back at me, but my lost sister.”

His eyes widened, but she could see him rapidly putting things together in his mind. “Your sister is Loki's mother.”

“Yes.” She pulled away, feeling sick. “Another secret that should have been revealed earlier. There shouldn't be such things kept hidden in families.”

“Did Loki know?” Thor sounded odd. “No, he didn't... you never told him, even after you told him of the adoption?”

“No. Your father doesn't even know. I suppose I shall have to inform him now.” She laughed, ever so slightly. “Ever since I was told how your father found your brother, I have wondered if he really was abandoned, or if he was tucked away, hidden from the battle for his own protection.”

“Why would father lie about such a thing?” There was a hint of anger in her son's voice.

“It's history, Thor. And the trouble with history is that it is written by the winners, and those on the other side are often denied credibility, even when the evidence is there.” She stepped out of the threshold and shut the doors. “And so therein lies another tragedy. Too many secrets and half-truths, and not enough souls left to give all the needed evidence.” They started walking down the corridor.

“So Loki and I are cousins by blood, brothers by upbringing.” A small smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Do you believe that King Laufey knows of the connection between you and Loki's mother?”

“It is possible. I do not even know how my sister came to be on Jotunheim.” She shook her head.

“I would say most likely in the same way her son was able to travel to Midgard.” He grinned.

She chuckled. “I would not be surprised.” She took a breath. “There will be much to discuss when your brother finally returns home.”

Thor nodded. “We will hardly know where to begin, after we welcome him home.”

She let out a breath. “We will find a way to bring him back, that I do know. It will just take time.” She didn't want to finish the sentence out loud.

“We will not be too late, Mother.” Her son replied, gravely. “It may not be for many years, but one day, Loki will be back with us in Asgard.”

She nodded and they both turned as a messenger came hurrying towards them.

“What is it?” The man looked as if he had just run all the way from the Bifrost.

“Sir Fandral has returned. And he is not alone.” The messenger managed a weak grin.

*
For the first time in decades, Joshua felt awed. Asgard was, well – it was beyond grand. The trip through the Bifrost, as it was called, had been strange. It reminded him a little of those few seconds of free fall when you jumped out of a plane, before you pulled the parachute open, only instead of falling down, you were falling up. The landing had been a little... odd, but he'd managed to keep his feet. He also hadn't lost the bag he was carrying, although he'd been certain he was going to lose his grip on it.

“You can't see it all if you just stand there.” Fandral called to him, several yards ahead of him on the bridge.

Joshua hadn't even left the observatory, as it was. He turned back to... what was his name again? “Thank you.”

The man dressed in gold armor turned to look at him, his expression blank. “You are quite welcome.” He went back to doing – whatever it was he was doing.

Joshua took a few more steps out onto the bridge. It was nighttime, and the city in front of him, it was hard to make out many details, other than there seemed to be many tiers of buildings and as he drew level with his traveling companion, he turned back and frowned. “Is this planet flat?”

“Flat?” The man frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

“Flat as in Asgard is not a sphere, the way Earth – Midgard is.” He shook his head. “Forget it, I'll just find a book on geography.”

The man chuckled. “Your father read a great deal. I am not surprised that you do as well.” They continued on the path. “Although I will admit, I am rather astonished that you agreed to come back with me.”

Joshua snorted. “I'd been planning on leaving Australia since before you showed up. I just hadn't decided where I was going to go.”

“Your home was entirely too warm for my liking.” He coughed – the man had been doing that a lot since he met him. Perhaps he had allergies. “It was summer, was it not?”

“Late spring.” He replied and they started up a very wide and tall staircase; it reminded him of Rome. He was rather glad for the late hour; it meant there were few people about. It made it far easier to gape at the grandeur around him. It was all massive and opulent; there weren't huge framed works of art, but there were tapestries that went from floor to ceiling, sculptures and the marble floor – yes, he was noticing the floor – he felt rather small – and rather dirty. The sound of hurrying footsteps caused him to look up just as two people came into view; a heavily muscled man who looked close to his age, and a woman whose age he couldn't tell. Automatically, he took off his hat and set his bag down. “Good evening, ma'am, sir.” The woman, covered her mouth, she looked shocked and had stopped short, but the blond man came up to him, looking him over.

“Norns...” The man said and then hugged him tightly. The man had a grip like iron. When he let go, he thumped him on the arm and Joshua was surprised he didn't fall over. “So you are Joshua.”

“Yes, sir.” He saw the woman come over, she kept staring at him like he was a ghost; it was worse than when Fandral had met him. “Ma'am, are you all right?”

She gave him a very nervous smile and touched his cheek. “I am fine. It is just that you resemble your father a great deal.”

“Oh.” He shifted his hold on his hat. “I didn't realize that. I am sorry that he is not here.”

She touched his cheek again and then took a breath. “As are we all.” She turned. “Come, let's get you settled, it's late, you must be tired.”

He took up his bag and noticed that Fandral had slipped out of the room. He also didn't want to point out that it was daytime when he left Australia; clearly this woman who was his grandmother was not someone to argue with.

*
Odin stood outside Sleipnir's stall, not exactly surprised at what he saw within; just that he'd taken this long to find out. He'd known that Natasha was sneaking into the stables at least twice a week to sleep, but he'd assumed the girl had been sleeping in the same stall as her own horse, not the most dangerous and deadly animal in the entire haras. He undid the latch and let himself into the small area, noting that the great black horse turned to look at him, blinking in surprise.

“The girl needs to sleep in her own bed, not in here.” Rather than waking her, he picked Natasha up, resting her head against his shoulder. “She can visit, but not stay.”

Sleipnir snorted in a manner that reminded Odin of Loki rolling his eyes.

“Good night.” He shut the stall door and carried his granddaughter out of the barn and back into the palace. “You think you're good at hiding what you're doing Sasha, but you're not. You don't get all the straw out of your hair.”

The girl mumbled something and then shifted her head so it was under his chin.

“Oh, yes, I know, it's not every night.” Odin sighed and nodded to one of the guards who shut the door behind him. “But little girls need to sleep in their beds, not in stables.” It was surprising how light Natasha was; she wasn't much heavier than she had been when she first came to Asgard. He chuckled. “I know, you're not a little girl, you're a young lady.” He reached the corridor of the family wing and was nearly at the door of his granddaughter's room when he heard voices heading towards them. “It is rather late for company.” He was about to set Natasha down on her feet when Frigga, Thor, and a young man, who at first glance, he thought was Loki – but another look, and the boy revealed himself to look slightly younger, his complexion was ruddy and his hair curled around his face.

“Father!” Thor called and hurried up to him, his expression changing when he caught sight of Natasha. “Has she been sleepwalking?”

“No, sleeping in the stables.” He chuckled. “I seem to recall I found you there a number of times.”

“Here, I'll put her back into bed.” He took Natasha, and the girl let out another whimper. “I don't blame her, it can be quite comfortable.” He adjusted his hold and went back down to Frigga and the boy, saying something to each before disappearing into Natasha's room.

Odin took a breath and came up to the pair, keeping his expression neutral. “I was not expecting company so late.”

“Time is different on Midgard.” Frigga gave him a half smile. “I doubt Joshua and Fandral expected to arrive in the middle of the night.”

“Joshua.” He stated, letting the name sink in, before turning directly to the boy himself. “Have you always been called that?”

“For as long as I can remember, sir.” He looked uncertain. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” Odin gave the boy a smile. “It is late, you should get settled. Things are better discussed after a good night's sleep.”

The boy nodded, his expression still rather nervous. “Thank you.”

Thor came back into the hallway and rejoined them. “Natasha went right back to sleep.”

“Good.” He took a breath. “Thor, show your nephew to his room. Then get some rest. There will be much to talk over in the morning.”

“Yes, Father.” He replied, dutifully and Odin took his leave of the two men, Frigga following next to him.

“I did not know the boy had arrived.” He said softly.

“We were only told a short while ago ourselves.” She answered, looking back over her shoulder. “I did not think Fandral would have returned as quickly as he did. I honestly felt it would take longer.”

“What do you know of him, so far?” Meeting the boy at his age was rather odd; it wasn't like it had been with Natasha, she'd been and still was very young. Who knew what Joshua had been doing on Midgard all this time; he was over three hundred, but thanks to his jotun heritage, had not aged rapidly.

“He is polite and quiet, although the later is most likely due to nerves, this is all strange to him, as it is to us.” The Allmother sighed. “I did not expect him to look so much like Loki.”

“Nor did I. But there are differences; the complexion and his eyes are blue.” Odin shook his head as they came to the door of their chambers. “Tomorrow, as I believe the expression Natasha uses, we shall play twenty-questions and find out more about him.”

*
His room. This wasn't a room. It was several rooms and it was larger than any house Joshua had ever lived in. There was a room for sleeping, a room for bathing, a room that looked to be purely for study, and a main room that – well, judging from the table, chairs and couch – was used for entertaining. It was all richly decorated, in hues of blue and bronze, and he set his hat and duffel on the long table, trying to fathom what the hell he was going to do in a room this size. The only thing missing from this place was a kitchen. Near the bathroom there was a mostly empty closet that was the same size of the trailer he'd been living in this morning.

“Oh, you've really landed in it now, Joshua.” He shook his head and undid the ties on his bag. “I'll just unpack a little and then go to bed. Or something.” He had a feeling most of the things he brought weren't going to be very useful in this place. Well, alien world or not, he wasn't ready to give up his own style of underwear any time soon.

“Joshua?” A voice called from the doorway, it was Thor – his uncle. “Mother suggested I ask if you need anything before I retire.”

“I am fine, thank you.” He shrugged. “Unless you don't feel like sleeping either and want to keep me company.”

It seemed to be the invitation he was asking for and he grinned and came into the room. “I could stay a while.” He frowned. “You do not need to unpack yourself, Joshua, there are servants for that.”

“I'm used to doing thing for myself.” He sighed and set a framed photograph and a shadowbox on the table. “These rooms are so large, I may get lost trying to leave in the morning.”

Thor chuckled and came over to him. “Natasha had that problem when she first came here.”

“Does she always sneak off and sleep in the stables?” He had only caught a glimpse of the redheaded girl.

“Not often.” He sighed. “Things have not exactly been, how shall I say, well, here in Asgard since the end of the summer.”

“Your friend, Sir Fandral was not able to give me many details of what went on.” He went into the closet, found a few hangers and returned to the table, taking out his old RAAF uniform and carefully hung it up.

“Yes.” He frowned. “What is that?”

“It's my uniform from the Second World War. I didn't think I should leave it behind.” He shook out a crease in the sleeve. “I'm not even sure if it still fits.” He saw Thor's expression. “What's wrong?”

“You did not have any armor?” He frowned. “That does not seem wise.”

“I had a flack jacket.” He shook his head. “That I didn't get to keep.”

“Flack?” He sounded confused. “I do not understand Midgardian wars, or their method of fighting. What were you doing in the war?”

“I was a pilot, I flew a plane known as the Supermarine Spitfire.” He sighed and tugged on the sleeve. “A flack jacket isn't exactly armor – well, it is. It's for high explosive weaponry.” Joshua took up the hat that went with his uniform and went to put it in the closet, when he came back, he saw Thor was holding the photograph.

“So this is you and your fellow warriors.” Thor tilted his head to the side. “Do you still speak with them?”

“No.” He set his mess-kit on the table. “I'm the only person in that photograph who is still alive.”

“I am sorry.” He set the frame down and picked up the shadow box. “Odd coin.”

“That's a seventeen eighty-seven half-guinea.” He grinned. “Would you believe that coin could have fed me for a month when I was given it?”

Thor stared at him. “And now, if I may ask?”

“Given the condition, and what not... probably would still feed me for a month.” He shook his head. “But I wouldn't spend it, wouldn't sell it either.”

“It's a coin.” He frowned. “What is so special about it?”

“Because of who gave it to me.” He took a breath, remembering the day the gold coin had been pressed into his palm. “Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson gave that to me when I carried a trunk for him.”

“Who?” He frowned. “I do not know that name.”

Joshua laughed. “He was only the greatest naval commander in the history of the British Empire.”

He set the box down slowly, his expression odd. “I should read more about Midgard and their history. What did this Son of Nel do that was so great?”

It took him a moment to get who Thor was asking about. “Well, that's a long story...”

*
“Hela, Hela wake up!” Fenrir nudged his sister. “Hela!”

The girl pushed the furs off of her head and glared at him. “Fen, I spent nine hours yesterday sorting seeds, I'm tired and I want to sleep.”

“I had a dream about Jörmungandr! It was different than others I've had!” Her brother's face was bright with emotion, and clearly wasn't thinking about the late hour.

“Different how?” She yawned, but did not pull the covers back over her.

“I dreamed he was in Asgard. I saw him with the Allfather and Allmother. Thor was there too... and someone else...” He whispered. “I... they were glad to see him.”

Hela sat up. “You think he's really there?”

“Why couldn't he be? Maybe...” He shook his head. “I do not understand how he could be there, but... I think he is.”

“Why would he be there? Do you think he's in danger?” She rubbed at her eyes, trying to wake up. “Who was this someone else?”

“I couldn't see them clearly – some girl wrapped in a blanket.” He shook his head, trying to clear it. “It... Hela, what if we weren't thrown out of Asgard. What if we were, I don't know what you'd call it... kidnapped, or something?”

“What do you mean kidnapped? And why are you asking me? I was a baby.” Her indignant look was ruined with a yawn.

He tucked the fur around her and she laid back down. “Well, what if someone was angry with father? What if they found us and pretended to be from King Odin?”

“How could father not know it was a trick?” She whispered. “If father is as smart as you remember...”

“Think about it Hela. Guards showed up in our home and were dragging us away. He was already grieving over the loss of our mom. I doubt anyone could think clearly in the situation.” Fenrir let out a yawn of his own. “We need answers.”

“Any suggestions on how to get them?” She replied, a hint of excitement in her voice.

“In the morning. We'll think of something in the morning.” Fenrir stated. “Go back to sleep.”

“Wake me up if you have another dream about Jorg.” She closed her eyes and drifted into slumber.

*
Natasha was only slightly disoriented when she woke up in her own bed. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, almost certain she had dreamed Grandfather carrying her back to her room. As she stretched, her stomach rumbled, and she was suddenly glad she didn't have to spend time furtively making her way back to her room before she ate. She tossed back the covers, finding the one she'd been using in the stables at the foot of the bed and her slippers lying on top of it. She grabbed the shoes and put them on, padding into the main room of her chambers. A covered tray was already waiting for her and she let out a breath.

While it was still very hard to get through each day without Papochka, she knew that he wouldn't want her to starve herself or make herself sick. She would have to act and behave in a more mature manner now that he wasn't here. Grandfather and Grandmother were busy, Uncle Thor was busy -and she would have to look after herself more, like she did in Vanaheim. It was called growing-up. Besides, if she didn't eat, she couldn't stay strong, and if she didn't stay strong, how could she ever hope to rescue Papochka from wherever he was?

She'd find a way to save him.

Somehow.

She went over to the table and lifted the heavy silver dome off of her tray and her stomach rumbled again. Sitting down, she tucked into a meal of eggs, sausages and fruit. Today she would inform her grandmother that she was ready for Master Siry to come back and start teaching her again. She needed to practice her harp – there were so many things she needed to get back to doing.

One day at a time, as Papochka would put it.

Once she'd eaten and dressed, Natasha checked the clock on her mantle; it was almost time for her daily viewing in her grandparent's chambers. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear and went into the hallway just as the door across the hall from hers opened. She had to look at the man twice before she realized it wasn't her father. “Good morning.”

The man smiled – it was a warm smile. “Good morning, miss. I'm afraid you were asleep when I arrived last night.”

“It must have been rather late.” She stepped forward and gave him a small curtsey. “I'm Natasha Lokadottir.”

The stranger's expression broke into a grin. “It's nice to meet you, Miss Natasha.” He inclined his head. “I'm Joshua...” He frowned. “I don't think I know what my last name would be.”

“Lokason.” She replied, holding her arms behind her back, clasping one wrist in her other hand. “Welcome to Asgard.”

“Thank you.” He coughed once. “I'm not too certain what I'm supposed to be doing, this is all... new.” He looked back into his room for a moment. “Do they always bring breakfast to your room?”

“Usually, yes. If there's a family breakfast planned, then it won't be much, usually just toast and tea.” Natasha frowned, he was looking at her strangely. “What is it?”

“How do you stand like that?” He came closer to her. “Awfully straight for a little girl.”

“I'm not that little.” She did her best to keep her tone level. “And it's not that hard, once you get used to it.” Two guards came down the hallway and both of them stopped, looking taken aback. “It's all right, nothing is amiss.” They nodded and went on their way. “I am afraid I am not certain what you're supposed to be doing either.” She bit her lip. “I suppose you might as well come with me, I'm going to see my – our – grandparents for a daily viewing.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” He shook his head. “Daily viewing? What are you, a painting?”

“It's just what they call it.” She let out a giggle. “It's not as bad as it sounds. Basically, it's how did you sleep, how did you eat, what did you do yesterday, what are you planning to do today, and is anything wrong?”

Joshua sniggered. “Sounds like an attempt at doing all the parental things in fifteen minutes, rather than the entire day.”

She bit her lip. “It was different before Papochka... before he went missing. I didn't mind it so much then.”

He came over and gave her a slightly awkward hug. “I'm sorry about what happened, Natasha. I can't remember our father, so I really can't miss him. Not the way you do.”

She returned the hug. “Thank you. It won't be so bad here, you'll see.”

“All right then.” He pulled away. “Now, perhaps you can help me. How does one go about acting at one of these viewing things?” He looked over over. “Stand stiff and proper, I assume?”

She nodded. “Have you been in the military?”

“Indeed I have.” He grinned. “I know this drill then.” He adjusted his shoulders and lifted his chin slightly. “Like this?”

“Exactly.” She replied and the two of them set off down the corridor, together.

Chapter Text

Joshua had never thought much about the subject of grandparents. Having grown up in the manner that he did, grandparents were practically fictional characters in his mind; the old, kindly sort of people that showed up in plays, books and movies on holidays and sat in corners, smiling and patting cheeks – either that, or they appeared only at their own funerals. He certainly never expected to meet his own; but, here he was. He remembered Odin and Frigga from last night, but it had been late and he was still reeling in shock from the fact that he had been stolen from his father, left on Earth – Midgard – and these people had been none the wiser. That spoke volumes to him; he'd certainly notice if someone important in his life started acting strangely. Perhaps the strange thing was that his grandmother looked much younger than his grandfather.

“Now then.” Odin began, speaking to Joshua as if he were five. “What sort of schooling have you had?”

“I have never attended school formally, sir.” He decided he would call Odin 'sir' until he felt otherwise. “I was taught how to read a hundred years ago by a missionary, after that, I became self taught.” He frowned. “Unless you count the training I received to become a fighter pilot during the Second World War as schooling.”

The man frowned at him. “So you can read, write, and know some mathematics?”

“Yes.” He barely kept the venom out of his voice. “I'm not exactly certain....” He was cut off as Natasha poked him. He shot her a glance and saw that her face was perfectly passive, but there was a slight twinkle in her eye. He cleared his throat. “Yes, I can read and write – and as for mathematics, I recently started teaching myself advanced calculus.”

That made one of Odin's eyebrows lift. “Indeed.” He cleared his throat. “Natasha, do you have any objections to your brother joining you at lessons?”

“No, grandfather.” She managed a smile. “Not at all.”

“While I have no doubts that you are a man of above average intelligence, Joshua, the fact that your education is purely Midgardian that will require you to study with your sister for a while.” He picked up his teacup. “I was not informed of your most recent employment before you came here.”

“Farm hand, sir.” Joshua pulled his most proud looking face, resisting the urge to put his nose in the air. “I've been shearing sheep for the past six weeks. Before that, I was picking fruit. I've been working such jobs for the five years. When I'm not working the land, I work in construction. Would you like to see the opera house I helped build?”

His grandmother smothered a giggle in her teacup. What was so funny?

“Indeed.” Odin set his cup back down. “I will send word to Master Siry to return to the palace the beginning of next week. Until then, I want you to become familiar with the layout of the grounds.” He glanced at Natasha. “You are to help him, understood?”

“Yes, Grandfather.” There was something in the way she said it that Joshua almost laughed.

Grandmother cleared her throat. “We are still looking into the manner of how you were taken from Asgard. We are no closer to finding out who is responsible than we are to where your brother and other sister are.” She smiled faintly. “I do not suppose you recall anything, do you?”

Joshua shook his head. “No, I'm sorry, ma'am.”

“It is not your fault.” She sighed. “Have a good day, darlings. We will see you both at dinner.”

“Good day, Grandmother, good day, Grandfather.” Natasha replied, sounding exactly like a girl reciting her sums.

“Good day.” Joshua didn't add names, and he caught an odd look that Odin gave him; perhaps it was his imagination. He and his sister went out into the hallway. “Is it always like that?”

“Like what?” Natasha asked.

“So... formal. Is it always so formal?” He shook his head, trying to clear it. “Seems...it just seems cold, that's all.”

“I think it's a matter of getting used to a new situation.” She sighed. “When I came here, Papochka had to reassure Grandfather that he hadn't stolen me.”

He frowned. “Why would he think that?”

“Because well, Papochka sort of stole me. I was taken from a military facility in Russia. I don't like talk about what went on there. I'm...” She took a breath. “I was the one that survived. The bad people there killed all the other girls.”

“If even half the stuff I've heard about what goes on in the USSR is true, I don't doubt that.” He shuddered. “Some sort of government experiment then, huh? What, are you like the Russian equivalent of Captain America? Wait, you don't know who that is...”

“I don't know if that's what I am or not. And I do know who Captain America is. I have a comic book signed by him in my room.” She grinned up at him. “So where would you like to begin your tour?”

“Why don't you start with where we're supposed to eat dinner tonight? Just in case we don't leave our rooms at the same time?” He chuckled. “I may have to draw a map to get around here.”

“Oh, it's not so hard.” She skipped down the corridor stopping three doors down. “The confusing thing is that a lot of rooms have multiple doors.” She pushed the door open as he drew level with her and he found himself looking into a large dining room, with one chair on the far side, one on each end, and two on the side nearest them. “We might be eating in here tonight, they've already added your chair.”

“We sit on the near side then?” He frowned at the ornate room. “They could seat two dozen at this table.”

Natasha made a face. “Yes, we sit on the near side. This table's nothing. There's a few in the feasting hall that can seat three times that amount.”

“That must be noisy.” He shut the door. “All right.” He turned to the door directly across from them. “Why is that door glowing?”

She let out a sigh. “That's Papochka's room. Grandmother sealed them. She won't let anyone go in there. Not even me.”

He gave her a sideways hug. “I'm sorry.”

“It's okay. Each day that goes by is one day closer to him coming home.” She gave him a half smile. “The feasting hall is this way.” She took his hand and led him away.

*
“What do you think of him, Fandral?” Thor asked, adjusting his vambraces.

“I believe he's far more dangerous than he looks.” The blond warrior shook his head. “And I'm only saying that because anyone who has survived that long on Midgard is not someone I'd want to make angry.”

“He informed me last night that he's fought in wars, although he did not wish to talk about them much.” He frowned. “I believe it makes him sad. All of his comrades are long dead.”

“That would make anyone sad.” Fandral replied as Sif and Volstagg came up to them. “Why do I feel as if we have been in this situation before?”

“What?” Volstagg chuckled as he looked the two of them over. “Fandral, where were you yesterday? We missed you!”

Sif snorted. “Some of us missed him.”

“Lady Sif, I am hurt.” He pressed a hand to his heart. “I had a duty to perform.” He gave Thor a sideways glance. “But the news is not mine to share.”

“Thor?” Volstagg set his axe down. “What news?”

“Fandral returned to Asgard last night with one of Loki's missing children.” He gave a half grin. “So it seems I now have a niece and a nephew.”

“Indeed!” The older warrior thumped him on the back. “Where did you go on Midgard, Fandral? It is as we remember?”

“I was in a desolate place.” He shuddered. “The earth was red and the heat was...” He shook his head. “It was not the nicest place of that realm, I can assure you that.”

“Oh, it can't be all that bad.” Thor interjected. “Joshua informed me that this Australia place is actually quite nice.”

“Joshua?” Sif stated. “That's an odd name.”

“According to legend, there was a great warrior named Joshua of Midgard. He once marched his army around a city for six days, pounding drums and on the seventh day, he ordered the trumpeters to play, and when they did, the walls of the city collapsed and he and his army claimed a victory.” Thor stated, smiling. “He is quiet, much like Loki is.”

“I am looking forward to meeting him.” Volstagg replied. “Do you know if he will be down here on the training grounds today?”

“When I asked after him this morning,I was told that Natasha was taking him around the palace, so I do not believe so, not unless she brings him by on her tour.” He grinned, feeling honestly happy for the first time in several weeks. “Which tells me she will be by later in the afternoon. It depends on how long they remain in the stables.”

Sif let out a tiny chuckle. “Given how much time your niece spends in there, Joshua will be lucky to have lunch.”

*
“This place reminds me of a rabbit warren.” Joshua remarked as they turned down another corridor. “I should have brought along a notebook so I could draw a map.”

Natasha stopped and leaned against a pillar. “I'm sorry, I'm not showing you too much, am I?”

“No, I just...” He frowned, looking back the way they had come. “How did you learn all these passageways when you first came?”

“By remembering the artwork.” She took a few steps back and gestured to the massive tapestry that was hanging on the wall. “Even before I knew what they were called, I remembered things about them. This work's official name is 'The Great Flood of Alfheim' but to me, it's always the 'The One With the Purple Tassels'.” She pointed to the bundles of thread that that ringed the weaving that were many colors, but were predominantly a deep shade of aubergine.

He chuckled in response. “That makes sense. So then, Sasha, what's down this hallway?”

She gave him a grin. “You'll see.” They headed down the corridor, they were deep within the palace now, he knew that, when they passed the long windows, there were buildings visible on both sides of the passageway, the small courtyards between them had short, ornamental trees that barely reached the second panes of the windows. “We could have entered the next place through another door, but for a first look, the main doors are the best.”

“Oh?” Joshua tried to remember how many doors they had passed, but it was all a bit of a blur. They also hadn't passed a guard next to one lately either. “How deep are in into the palace?”

“We're not, actually. We're almost at the extreme northern side. The corridor with our chambers is on the southern side, the feasting hall is on the western side, the main entrance is on the eastern side. The throne room is near the center.” She paused as they came to a pair of double doors. “I'll show you a shortcut back to our chambers afterward so we can go eat lunch.” She took hold of one of the carved handles and pulled it backward. Joshua took hold of the frame over her head so he could help. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome, now what's...” His question died in his throat as they stepped into the room. He felt his jaw drop as he stepped past his sister and took in the sight before him. Natasha had brought him to a library. Not just a library, the room instantly became the Library. That word needed to become a proper noun in describing this place. The far side of the room was, well it was so damn far away that he wasn't sure where it was. It spread out on both sides, and when he came forward, he could see that the two buildings that had been on the other side of the windows in the corridor, were, in fact, part of the Library as well. He turned his gaze upward, seeing that the stacks continued for five stories. “Is this Heaven?” He whispered and then let out a startled yelp as something pinched his arm. “What?”

“I'm only proving to you that you're not dead or dreaming.” Natasha looked up at him, smiling sheepishly. “This place is real.”

“How... how many books are in this place?” He ran his fingers along the nearest shelf, still struggling to comprehend what he was seeing. He'd seen pictures of the United States' Library of Congress, but even this seemed to dwarf it.

“I do not know.” She replied, “I mean, not an exact number.” She rubbed her nose. “Thousands, if not millions of books from nearly every realm.” She suddenly straightened up. “You can help sort out the books from Midgard!”

“What do you mean?” He frowned. “Aren't they sorted all ready?”

“They are, but the trouble is, many of the library workers find it difficult separating the fiction from the non-fiction.” She rubbed her nose. “There aren't many works from Midgard, well, by many I mean there's under ten thousand.”

“Ten thousand?” Joshua gasped. “That's not many?”

“Not compared to other realms. I believe there's something close to two million from Vanaheim.” She rubbed her nose. “And there's almost nothing from Jotunheim. Somewhere around fifty or sixty, and it's all fiction.” She sighed.

“Still...” He turned in slow circles. “I should have known there was a library in this grand place.” He stopped and frowned. “Where is everyone?”

“What do you mean?” Natasha came up to him, looking around. “It's not empty.” She indicated the group of young women at one table and then gestured to a guard in sitting at at table, leafing through a massive folio, his helmet resting beside him.

“This isn't private, it is? So many books, this is the sort of place that should be busy.” He frowned. “Or are all the children in school, or something?”

“Many people on Asgard don't read.” She sighed. “It's sad, but true.”

“Don't read or can't read?” He queried.

“Both.” She looked down. “I do not understand it myself.”

“Neither do I.” He let out a breath and then grimaced as his stomach grumbled. “I believe it's time we found some lunch, Natasha.”

“All right.” She took his hand and led him out a side door. “I'll show you the stables after we eat.”

**

“Are you awake?” The voice was right next to Loki's ear and he inclined his head slightly in response, and a moment later, a sponge, drenched in water was held to his lips. He closed his mouth around the material and suckled from it slightly, and a hand came to the back of his neck, helping him drink. The cool liquid slipped down his throat and returned some of his strength, wearily, he opened his eyes, and found himself looking up into Gamora's wan face. A massive bruise marred her left cheek and she looked more sad and miserable than angry.

“Thank you.” He answered as she took the sponge away.

“You're welcome.” She tucked a strand of hair out of his face, her expression unchanged. “I've been told that you have three options. One, you can give up the information my father requires and be killed. Two, you can continue to refuse my father's orders and be killed.” She soaked the sponge again and held it to his mouth. “Or three, you can join with my father and live.”

“How old are you Gamora?” Loki coughed and adjusted how he was standing, so he could relieve some of the weight on his wrists.

“Thirteen, as Terrans measure things.” She steeled her face up. “It does not matter.” She replied as he drank. “And it is no concern of yours.”

“What would Thanos want of me? I assure you, I am no one's court jester.” He coughed as she took the sponge away.

“My father doesn't have a sense of humor.” She frowned. “Neither do I.”

“Oh really?” Loki smiled ruefully. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

“What is a chicken?” She spat.

“Exactly.” He replied, chuckling weakly.

“I do not see how...” She paused and then, a ghost of a smile appeared on her lips that vanished almost instantly and started to wash his face.“My father believes I am in need of a personal trainer in regards to interrogation, hand to hand combat, and other necessary skills for an assassin. As a prince of Asgard, you, no doubt, have more than enough knowledge to tutor me in these arts.”

“So Thanos wishes me to teach you how to become a better weapon.” He frowned. “And in return, I'm let out of these chains and get to continue to breathe.”

“Yes.” She frowned. “He has put the Tesseract out of his mind for now and is currently searching for something else.” She glared at him. “Do you know where the Aether is?”

“No.” He replied, with perfect honesty. “Now there was a pleasant bedtime story. Malekith's Great Folly.” He snorted. “It sounds amusing, but considering it cost two billion dark elves their lives, it's nothing short of tragic. Svartalfheim laid almost completely to waste, save for a small city on the far side of the realm.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course, their disaster recovery is so appalling, it makes Jotunheim look like Midgard.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” She frowned. “I do not understand.”

“Quite simple, Gamora. Thirty or so years ago, the inhabitants of Midgard were engaged in a global war that left many cities in ruins. Since then, most of the cities have been almost completely rebuilt. While the scars remain, life as gone on and places have been rebuilt.” He coughed and she held the sponge to his lips again.

“Terrans, or Midgardians, whatever they are, don't live that long. They don't have a choice.” She spat.

“Yes, they do. They could just build elsewhere. But they clean up, they clear away, they rise from the ashes. Resilient little bipeds.” He sighed. “That's how they are. But the dark elves had their world destroyed when my father was younger than I am now. They still haven't sorted through all the rubble yet. Jotunheim's war happened when I was an infant; they have rebuilt and have gotten back on their feet, so they say. Svartalfheim, for all extents and purposes, have merely just sat back up.”

She frowned. “I do not see how any of this ties into the Aether.”

“I'm merely stating that I have no more idea where the Aether is than I know what my daughter is having for lunch on Asgard, that is all.” He stood up, groaning. “I have no doubt that you will be a good student. You seem like a smart girl.”

“Thank you.” She knelt to remove the chains from the manacles on his ankles and then did the same to his wrists, and caught him before he collapsed. “I'm to take you see my father.”

“I had a feeling you were.” He found his feet and they started forward. “Do lessons start this afternoon or do I have a day to prepare a lesson plan?”

“You're agreeing to all this. Why?” Gamora held him out at arm's length. “After all the defiance, why be compliant now?”

“You want to kill me then, Gamora?” He pulled away and held out his arms. “I am unarmed and weak. Feel free to attack and leave me for dead.”

She glowered at him. “Whatever you're planning, it will not work.”

“I am planning nothing.” He stated. “I have only just been released.” This was only a partial lie. In truth, his mind was already working on an escape. When Gamora had listed the third option, he knew that it meant at least partial freedom. Thanos would not keep the girl locked up on this place forever. Loki knew she would need 'practical' training and the like. It might take a while, and it would require him to give the performance of his life, but he would get out of here – and take Gamora with him. The fact that there would be innocent people harmed and killed in the endeavor... it was, tragically, a price that would have to be paid. He knew he had to return to Asgard and warn them that Thanos was after the Infinity Gems, and then who knew what.

“I do not like this.” They left the cell and Loki blinked in the bright light of the corridor. “I do...”

“You wish me to just be killed then?” Loki shrugged. “I can change my answer before we reach your father, if you like.”

“I do...” She let out a frustrated noise and ran her hands through her hair. “I don't know what I want!”

“Of course you don't, you're a teenager.” He stated as if he was telling her that her skin was green. “You're not supposed to know what you want. You're supposed to try things and figure things out, mess up, pick yourself up after a good cry and begin again. Quite frankly, if I ran into someone of your age who had iron clad convictions, I'd be torn between horror and pity.”

“Pity? Why?” She shook her head. “Are you always going to be so contradictory?”

“Yes, Gamora.” He smirked as they came to the end of the corridor. “Of that, you can be quite certain. You will need to know how to see the emotions of a blank face, hear the words that are left unsaid and much more.”

She straightened her shoulders, and he could see that she was trying to form a blank face, and failing tremendously – but he knew exactly what she was thinking.

“It's perfectly fine to be excited by the prospect of learning, Gamora. There is nothing a teacher adores more than a willing and eager pupil.” His grin widened as she smiled at his words.

**

Natasha had planned on taking her brother to the stables after lunch, but while they were eating, Grandmother had joined them and stated that Joshua needed to be fitted for new clothes. While he had tried to protest that he had clothes of his own, she countered that he needed proper clothes. She sympathized with him, she hadn't seen any issue with what he'd been wearing, but what the two of them thought and the rest of Asgard thought were entirely different things.

She ran her fingers along the strings of her harp, sighing. She adjusted a few of the pegs before sitting down and started to work on her scales, her mind drifting back to the Mister Stark's party and all the guests who had complimented her on her playing, while they told Tony how big he was getting. That was such a dumb comment. What else were children supposed to do with their appearance other than get bigger? She might pick out her dress nearly every morning, but nearly all of her garments had been selected by a grown-up.

“Natasha?” A voice called and she set her hands on the strings to silence them, and she instantly stood.

“Good afternoon, Grandfather.” She bit her lip. “Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing's wrong.” He sat down on one of the easy chairs in her room, sighing. “Where is your brother?”

“Grandmother is with Joshua, he's getting fitted.” She sat back down. “Did I miss something?”

“No, Natasha, you haven't.” He had an odd look on his face, the same sort of look Uncle Thor used to get before he admitted to not doing his reading, or something similar. “I am hoping you can help me with something.”

“What is it?” She set her hands in her lap, trying to think what her grandfather could possibly need her help with.

“Are you aware of how the treaty with Jotunheim works?” He lifted his chin, smiling faintly.

“I know that King Laufey is not allowed to leave his realm, they cannot have an army above a certain size, and in return, Heimdall is only allowed to give fleeting glances on Jotunheim.” She frowned. “And almost all of Asgard's information the realm comes second-hand.”

“True.” He smiled. “Now, as we suspect your father's two other children are on Jotunheim, it would be beneficial to know more about the realm, and what has occurred there since the war.”

She rubbed her nose. “I thought you were in contact with King Laufey, Grandfather.”

“It is only formal and not direct.” He took a breath. “I am proposing that we go to Jotunheim to inform him of what we know and to begin the search there.”

“We?” Her mind raced, trying to understand what he'd just said. “Meaning?”

“You and I are going to go to Jotunheim, Natasha. Why is it better of the two of us go and not ambassadors?”

“Because if something happened to an ambassador, the jotun could, theoretically, pass it off as a tragic accident. However, if something were to happen to either of us, the jotun would basically be waving their spears and asking Asgard to attack.” She gave him a small smile. “Correct?”

“Yes.” He tapped his fingers on the table, looking around the room for a moment, as if there was something more he wished to know. “Granted, we are not going to be leaving for Jotunheim soon, not until after the Yule.”

She nodded in understanding. “Um... you haven't told Grandmother yet, have you?”

“What makes you say that?” He asked, with a wry grin.

“Because Grandmother will need to be convinced before the privy council will.” She went pink and fully expected a reprimand for sassing.

Instead, Grandfather chuckled. “Clever girl.” He cleared his throat. “And that is another reason I came to speak with you. I need for you to speak to the privy council about the government of Jotunheim. I understand you studied while on Vanaheim?”

She nodded. “But aren't there, I don't know...”

“Natasha, unlike many of the people who sit on the council, you do not have an old warrior's bias, or any sort of prejudice against the jotun. You are also the only person currently in Asgard who has met with any of King Laufey's family.” Grandfather sighed and stood up. “Also, given what education you have received, you can explain it better, I for one do not understand how....oh, those islands...”

“The Seven Spears, Grandfather.” Natasha interjected.

“Yes, the Seven Spears...” He frowned. “Do you understand how their government works?”

“They're a constitutional monarchy. Well, sort of. Collectively, they're a confederacy, they each govern themselves, but on large matters, such a defense and inter-realm trade, they have a group of representatives that meet to discuss such things. They acknowledge that his majesty, King Laufey, is the leader of Jotunheim, but in the Seven Spears, that role, as they say on Midgard, is basically waving in a parade, kissing babies and making a speech on important holidays.”

Grandfather managed a weak smile. “See, even I did not know that.”

“Could I have my atlas back?” She worried her bottom lip. “I might be able to explain the Seven Spears better by using Midgardian islands of similar size as examples.”

“Of course you may, Natasha.” He came over and ruffled her hair. “I do not even know the names of the islands and....”

“Myrlyr, Pralt, Cendal, Lescynsr, Nysly, Qnther and Ynasl.” She recited, more automatically than intentionally.

He chuckled. “Clever girl. Do you think you can have something prepared to present to the council this time next week?”

“Yes, Grandfather.” She nodded, her mind already planning on where to start. Once she had her atlas back, she could start working in earnest.

“Good girl.” He touched her cheek and headed for the door. “I will see you at dinner.”

“Yes, sir.” She called towards his retreating form and let out a breath as he closed the door. “Oh, Papochka, I fear I'm about to get in way over my head.” She hit her head against her harp, letting out a weak chuckle that swiftly turned to tears. Her father hadn't even been missing for half a year, and it already felt like a decade.

Chapter Text

Joshua rinsed off his straight razor and set it down on the old ceramic cup he had brought with him from Australia. He frowned at his reflection in the mirror, wondering if anyone was going to say something about his now clean shaven face. While he'd noted that the majority of men he'd seen here in Asgard had facial hair, he could never stand having stubble or even a full beard. When he'd lived his life on the sea, hair was a breeding ground for lice and other unsavory things. When he'd settled down on what many would consider the far side of the world, his opinion hadn't changed. He might let his beard grow for a few days, if he didn't have time to shave, but when he was in the military, he had been fastidious about keeping neat.

He tugged absently at his hair, watching the curl spring back towards his head. He could stand letting his hair grow longer. He'd just have to wash it more often, since he couldn't hide it under a hat. He turned to look around at the rest of the bathing chamber, still rather taken aback at the opulence of it all. The bathtub alone was big and deep enough to wash a horse in, and with the marble and highly polished brass fixtures made him feel the urge to keep it looking as nice as he possibly could. Knowing that it was someone's job to come in here and clean up his mess was more unsettling than the idea of someone cooking his meals.

Truth be told, Joshua wasn't even certain why he'd agreed to come back to Asgard with Fandral in the first place.

Oh yes. Family.

He left the bathing chamber and went into what Natasha had called 'the dressing room' and frowned at the new garments that were hanging there. It was easily the most formal looking clothing that had ever been presented to him to wear, even more than his uniform from his time in the military. Joshua held out the sleeve of what he guessed was the undershirt, which was the same shade of blue as the jacket of that uniform. The pants were the color of charcoal, and the jacket was also the same shade of grey, with blue accents.

Deciding that it would be best to dress quickly, he shrugged into the shirt and pants, rather surprised that the clothing fit perfectly, because he was certain that there wasn't a place on Asgard that you could buy such things off the rack, and even if one could, Joshua was certain his grandmother wouldn't approve of such things. Then, as he tugged on the hem of the jacket to straighten it, he nearly laughed. Given what he had seen so far of this strange, new place, from the Bifrost and that massive library – such formal attire that fitted him perfectly appearing seemingly by magic in this room was relatively minor.

He checked his appearance in the mirror one last time before leaving his room and went out into the hallway, rather thankful that his first dinner on Asgard was not going to be held in that massive hall downstairs; the room seemed intimidating. Hell, almost everything about this place was intimidating, even the library and his little sister. He paused outside the glowing door of his father's rooms, wondering what things were like in there. He knew next to nothing about the missing man, so he could only guess. His curiosity on the subject was growing hourly, and perhaps, if he waited just a little longer, a month, perhaps, his grandmother would allow him entry.

“Good evening.” A voice to his left caused him to turn. Thor was standing there, watching him.

“Good evening.” Joshua managed a smile as they went down the corridor together.

“I take it Natasha did not manage to show you everything today.” His tone was light.

“No.” He smiled. “She was rather disappointed that we didn't make it outside.”

The man chuckled as they went into the dining room. “Depending on how much sleep she gets, she may take you to the stables before breakfast.”

“I am no stranger to waking early.” He noted that the other chairs were still unoccupied as Thor went around to the other side of the table, where a single chair stood. He paused at the two on he near side, looking from left to right. “Which one am I supposed to take?”

“The one on your left.” Thor drew out his own chair. “You sit closer to Father – your grandfather, I should say.”

Joshua nodded and sat down, still feeling stiff. “I feel rather like a fish out of water. I normally only get dressed up for a meal for a holiday.”

His uncle chuckled. “Today's a special occasion, normally it's slightly more casual.” He frowned. “Honestly, I do not think it has mattered what I have worn to a meal in quite some time, provided I was clean.” Two liveried servants came in and set a plate of cold greens down in front of each of them, filled each of their wine goblets and retreated from the room. “Vanir mixed lettuce and spinach salad.” He wrinkled his nose slightly. “I fear mother may have gone overboard with tonight's meal.” He took a drink from his wine glass.

“What do you mean?” He swept a look over the eating utensils that spread out from both sides of his plate, forks on the left, spoons and knives on his right – already feeling extremely sorry for whomever had the job of polishing this vast array of silver.

“Salad first means seven courses.” He stood up as the door opened and Natasha came into the room.

Joshua stood as well, pulling out his sister's chair. “Good evening.”

“Evening.” She sat down. “Thank you.”

The two of them resumed their seats. “You're welcome. I am sorry our tour was cut short.”

“It's all right.” She shrugged as a servant reappeared, set a plate down in front of Natasha, and, much to Joshua's great surprise, filled her wine goblet as well. “Thank you.” She said to the man and he gave her a half smile before vanishing from the room again. “I promise I won't come and wake you up early to resume it tomorrow morning.”

“I suspect that your idea of early in the morning and my idea of it are two vastly different times.” He chuckled as his grandparents came into the room. Once they were all settled at the table, with plates of salad and wine goblets filled, Joshua waited to see which fork his sister used before he began eating. The idea of seven courses was staggering. When she moved, he noted the silver charm bracelet on her wrist, but didn't mention it, Thor, however, did.

“Natasha, where did you get that?” His tone sounded – odd.

“Get what, uncle?” She frowned. “The bracelet?”

“Yes.” His expression and his voice didn't match – Joshua was certain that Thor was teasing Natasha.

“Anthony Stark gave it to me.” She lifted her chin. “Do not worry, Uncle Thor. His mother made him do it.”

“I am certain he is a perfectly nice young man.” Queen Frigga interjected before Thor could continue. “It's a lovely bracelet, Natasha.”

“Thank you.” She replied and went back to eating.

Joshua took a small bite of his food, the sharp, crisp taste of green exploded in his mouth. He tried to think of any food he'd eaten before that could compare, but found that he was at a loss. The only thing that came close in his mind was the memory of his first taste of wild limes, the day he had arrived in Australia, nearly one hundred years ago.

**

Natasha tucked a curl behind her ear, doing her best to remain perfectly calm as she came to the door of the council chamber, hoping that her nerves would not get the better of her. It wasn't exactly lost on her how bad it was that she, a mere child, had to give the privy council a geography and political science lesson on Jotunheim. Since her papers from Vanaheim were still firmly locked away in a box in Papochka's room, she had gone from her notes and used her Midgardian atlas to create comparative islands to describe the Seven Spears.

The guards gave her half-smiles as she raised her hand and knocked twice.

“Enter.” Her grandfather's voice had an edge to it; she knew that tone. It was the one he used when he was frustrated with someone.

Straightening her shoulders, she tightened her hold on her stack of books and papers with one arm and pushed the door open with the hand of the other. Most of the council members looked annoyed. Perhaps they didn't like the idea that she was here to teach them. She shut the door behind her and came over to the empty seat that was next to her grandfather, setting down her materials. From his seat directly across from her, Uncle Thor gave her a quick wink. “Good afternoon, your grace.” She said to Odin, bobbing a curtsey before turning to the rest of the table. “Good afternoon, councilors, uncle.”

There was a murmur of a reply from them, Thor gave her a second wink, and her grandfather gave her a flash of a smile before speaking again. “Princess Natasha is currently the only one on Asgard with more than a rudimentary idea of the state of affairs on Jotunheim. As all of our information comes secondhand, she is here to brief us on the area of that realm known as the Seven Spears.”

One of the men cleared his throat. “Allfather, I do not doubt that this is going to be a fascinating lecture, I do not see how it is relevant.”

“Of course it's relevant, Ivar.” Another man interjected. “We have not been fully aware of what happens on that realm in quite some time.”

Natasha took the opportunity to open her book and take out several sheets of paper. “The Seven Spears became independent from the mainland of Jotunheim roughly six hundred years ago. They are a confederation, with each island dealing with smaller affairs on their own.” She took a breath. “Things such as infrastructure, and legal matters. However, for things such as trade and defense, the Seven have a council, much like Asgard's, except that its members are elected by the citizens of Jotunheim.”

“How ridiculous.” Ivar snorted.

“That is the second time you have spoken out of turn, Councilman Ivar.” Odin broke in. “If you cannot maintain a modicum of civility, this meeting will continue without your participation.”

The man flushed but didn't say another word.

Natasha gestured for one of the pages to come over to her and handed him her stack of papers. “One for each member of the council.”

He nodded and quickly handed them out and resumed his post.

“The trade between Alfheim and Jotunheim goes solely through the Seven Spears. Leaving the islands for the mainland of Jotunheim without permission or an escort from the High Council, is illegal.” She set her hand on her own stack of papers. “The islands form a ring around Jotunheim's equator, but consist of only one third of the realm's land. There is no land further south, save for the massive ice cap at the bottom of that planet, which is uninhabitable.”

“Are these islands subject to Jotunheim's winter?” Her uncle raised his hand as he spoke.

“Yes, although it's milder, with the temperatures reaching seventy below zero degrees Celsius, whereas on the mainland can have temperatures closer to minus two hundred.” Natasha saw a few shudders at the idea of such cold. She cleared her throat. “Although, due to their location, the islands receive more snow than the mainland does.”

“How is that possible?” Another councilman, one she didn't know, asked.

“It's too cold for it to snow heavy accumulations on the mainland.” Now that she was actually speaking, this was getting easier. “However, winter will not return to Jotunheim for another seventy-nine of their years, which is the same as eighty-three of ours.”

*
Thor was still slightly confused about how the government of Jotunheim worked. While he had read the reports he received, usually within hours of them winding up on his desk if he wasn't at the meeting, the idea of a form of ruling other than the one he knew boggled him. Since Natasha only had only been to explain so much of it, he decided he would ask Joshua, who certainly knew more about different forms of governing, no doubt having lived under several.

He knocked on the door of his nephew's chambers, before opening the door slightly and looking inside. “Joshua?” He wasn't certain if he wanted to laugh or cry at the sight that greeted him – a dark haired man with his attention on a book, forgetting the world around him. “Joshua?” He repeated and this time, he looked up.

“Yes?” He looked at the mantle clock. “Am I late for something?”

He chuckled and came into the room. “No, not that I'm aware of. I take it Natasha does not take you with her to tea with my mother.”

He shook his head and indicated the plate and mug on the table with him. “No. Did you know that in some cultures on Midgard tea was used as dinner for the children on certain days?”

“No.” Thor sat at the table. “My grasp on Midgard culture is somewhat lacking, I'm afraid.”

“Well, given how many different versions and variations there are, I don't think anyone on Earth – Midgard – is an expert on all of the cultures.” He pushed his book aside. “How was the meeting?”

“Informative.” He set his hands on the table. “But I still have some questions, nearly all of which Sasha isn't able to fully answer.”

“I'm certain that it does not help that all of the books from Jotunheim in the library are fiction.” He grinned weakly.

Thor gave him a slight smile. “I actually hadn't looked there yet. Now you've saved me the trip.”

Joshua split his meat pie in half. “Would you care for some?”

“No, thank you.” He took a breath. “I'm actually hoping you could help me.”

“Me?” He frowned. “How?”

“I have trouble grasping how a constitutional monarchy functions. Or is it a commonwealth? I did not understand either term.” He set an elbow on the desk so he could lean against his arm. “I do not see how a king can be recognized as such but have no governing power.”

“Well, then you've come to the right person to ask. I know exactly how that works.” He took a bite out of the pie, chewing for a moment before speaking again. “Australia is a commonwealth...” He set his food down, frowning. “No, we've actually never declared our independence from Great Britain...” He looked about ready to laugh. “Does that mean I need to write a letter to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second stating I am no longer her subject?”

Thor gaped at him. “This Great Britain has no king, but a queen?”

“Well, King George the Sixth only had daughters.” He took another bite of his food. “I suppose it doesn't matter, I mean, this is the family who changed their last name during the first World War because they felt it was too Germanic and they didn't want to give the wrong impression.”

He chuckled. “Midgard is confusing. But the government?”

“Right.” He set the pie down. “In a constitutional monarchy, the sovereign ruler is the head of state. They can't declare war, they can't levy a tax. It's more of a symbolic role, rather than a political one.”

“Why would such a government exist?” This was the thing that confused Thor the most about different government. “I know lives on Midgard are short, but certainly there are capable rulers...”

“Ah!” Joshua held up a finger. “There's that word – capable. The fact that these governments exist is because it would do no good to expect a ruler to be able to do the task. Just because someone is born heir to a throne does not mean they will make a good king or queen. It's thinking like that that brought Russia to the state it is in today. When the Americans declared their independence from Great Britain, fought and won a war against the most powerful empire on earth, the rest of the monarchs, well, at least those in Europe, to use a Midgard term, freaked out.”

Thor thought a moment. “Does that mean they panicked?”

“Yes!” He grinned. “And it became worse when the people of France attempted to do the same thing. They didn't just try to overthrow their monarchs, they killed them.”

“Are you serious? The king and queen, the people murdered them?” His face darkened. “Why would they do such a thing?”

“Well, uncle, here I am with a meat pie.” He held it up, his expression blank. “I'm guessing this is rather humble fare for this place, correct?”

He nodded. “An everyday food, a staple of tea throughout Asgard.”

“Right. Now, imagine for a moment that we were the only ones allowed to eat the meat pies. You, me, Natasha, basically anyone in the family, or a member of the nobility.” Thor frowned, but nodded in understanding. “Now, imagine everyone else, had to eat rats.”

His jaw dropped. “That isn't right.”

“No, it isn't. What happened in France sent Empress Catherine of Russia to do something extremely stupid. Instead of making certain her people were happy, so they wouldn't rebel the way the people of France had, her brilliant solution was to oppress them even more. Which is like putting a brick on the lid of a pot of water set to boil. Sooner or later, it will get ugly.” He took a large bite of his pie.

“I can imagine.” He rubbed his eyes, feeling far less confused than when he first came into the room. “I suppose what makes it hard for me to grasp how another government system works is I've only known one form.”

“That actually makes sense.” Joshua picked up a napkin and wiped his fingers with it. “I'm just glad that there's something around here I'm not hopelessly behind on.” He pulled the book back towards him with a frustrated look. “I don't think I'd mind nearly as much that Natasha knows more than I do about Asgard if she wasn't so damn little.”

Thor chuckled. “Don't ever tell her to her face she's little. I know for a fact that she bites.”

“I believe that.” He shook his head and leaned back, frowning down at the book and Thor could see it was a textbook that a young child, younger than Natasha, would use. “I think I need a break.”

“What do you need broken?” He frowned. “I do not understand that term.”

Joshua grinned. “It means I need a rest, a break from studying.”

“I see.” He stood up. “Well, I was going to head to the training grounds for a short while, you welcome to join me.”

“I'm not one for fighting.” He rose. “But fresh air does sound good right now.”

“You do not wish to be a warrior?” Even as he spoke, the words sounded hollow to Thor. He'd never said them directly to his brother, and saying it to his nephew – Loki's son – he had a feeling he should have kept silent.

“I've fought my wars, uncle. I have no desire to participate in another if I am given a choice.” He took up the other part of his meat pie before they left the room. “I've seen too many lives cut short, some in particularly horrific ways.”

“It seems wrong that you have seen the brutality of war when you are less than half my age, and my experience with battle is... lacking.” He shook his head. “Your father once told me that war was not the glory I imagined it to be. I have been trying to adjust my thinking, but it has not been easy.”

“Is there any sort of inter-stellar rescue division?” They came to the end of the hall and started down the stairs. “Go after criminals, rescue kidnapped children, things of that nature? I wouldn't mind doing something like that.”

“Ah ha! You wish to be a hero, instead of a warrior!” Thor grinned. “No, there is no such group on Asgard, nor is there one on Vanaheim. However, I suspect that if anyone knows of such a force, Vanaheim would know how to contact them.”

“Nothing wrong with being a hero.” He dusted off his fingers from pie crumbs. “Best I've done in that line of work lately is shooting snakes.”

“I understood that you were working on a sheep station.” He frowned. “Why would you need to kill snakes?”

“Snakes are a danger to lambs, sheep, horses, people.” They stepped outside, heading for the training grounds. The late afternoon, while sunny, held a hint of a cool autumn in its breeze.

“Will you be coming to the feasting hall for dinner tonight? I know that you are still adjusting to being here, but you are always welcome to join us downstairs.” He offered, rather wishing he'd tried to talk to his nephew sooner than he had this afternoon.

“I might. I will think about it.” He grinned. “Perhaps I should have Natasha take me to dinner, I'm certain she could use some socialization as well.”

“Ah! Here he is!” Volstagg's voice echoed towards him. “Just when we thought we wouldn't see you until tomorrow!” The older man came over and thumped him on the arm. “Thor, where have you been as of late?”

“Duty.” He replied, smiling faintly. “That wretched thing that one must do to continue enjoying the things one loves to do.”

Joshua covered a snicker with a cough. “Excuse me.” He shook his head as Fandral and Hogun came over to join them.

“Is Sif not here today?” Thor asked, looking around the training grounds, then caught sight of her, throwing Celsck to the ground. “I see. Someone insulted her again.”

“More than once.” Fandral rolled his eyes then turned to Joshua. “How are you adjusting to life on Asgard, young man?”

“Slowly.” He replied, a tiny flicker of annoyance in his eye. “The weather alone is a vast improvement.”

“I concur. While I am sure that your... Australia has its beautiful places, I found it far too hot and dry for my liking. Excuse me.” Fandral moved away towards a group of girls.

“He'd be certain of Australia's wonders if he saw the Great Barrier Reef.” Joshua muttered.

Volstagg broke the awkward silence that followed. “So you are Joshua, then?”

“Yes.” He held out his hand, a gesture that Thor had seen him do several times and, much to his surprise, his friend grabbed his nephew's hand and shook it. Perhaps Fandral had told him what to do.

“I am called Volstagg.” He then thumped Joshua on the arm. “You need to eat more.”

“So I've been told.” He managed a grin.

**

Howard Stark looked at the small file of papers that had come to him thanks to the Central Intelligence Agency. When Loki had first told him how he had acquired Natasha, the man knew that somewhere, there had to be a paper trail in Russia. As chaotic as things were in the USSR, if you knew how and where to dig, you could find things that were buried. He didn't know why, exactly, he went looking – maybe it was his own curiosity – perhaps it was on the off chance that the Russians might restart their super-solider program. Quite frankly, there were few things that seemed scarier to him than a lethal killer in the body of a child. He could almost picture some little girl in bows and braids, hiding a weapon in a doll.

So here it was.

There were only a handful of photographs; the oldest was black and white, the woman looking thin and worn, the man tired, but heavily muscled. Eleven years in the mines of Siberia had done that to the man; exile and fear. There was still noble bearing in the two, but also something sad; a defeated, worried look.

The next oldest was of the couple holding an infant, perhaps two months old; and the parents smiles were forced, as if they were being held at gunpoint; Howard would bet good money that they were.

Then there was the picture of the baby alone, at the age of about nine months, a mop of ringlets already covering her head, her expression was an awkward sort of smile; a silly, rather sweet expression.

Howard sighed and turned his attention to the documents, his eyes widening slightly at the name in the top space, the old-text of a typewriter suddenly reminding him of Steve Rogers, for some reason. But the name, however, told just how dangerous it was for anyone he didn't trust to know about the little girl in Asgard.

Romanov, Natasha Alexandria.

Romanov.

He quickly scanned the 'living relations' below the birth-date (May 17, 1928) and recognized at least half the names. All of them listed as 'cousins', even though most should be followed by a second or third. The names were the monarchs of the United Kingdom – it wasn't a recent list, as George the VI, was still listed on the document.

Howard let out a weak laugh, wondering what the hell Loki would say if he could tell him that his little girl was, technically, the heir to the throne of Russia. The late Tsar Nicholas II, had been her uncle. He shook his head as he poured himself a glass of whiskey, and toasted the late duke and duchess that had been the girl's biological parents, hoping they were resting in peace, despite the fact that they were lying in some mass grave out on the steppes of Siberia.

**

“It doesn't bug you to carry me around like this?” Hela asked as she settled into the harness on her brother's back as they started down the street.

“No, I'd rather you be somewhere that I can keep track of you.” Fenrir chuckled and paused, adjusting the strap over his shoulder. “I'd think you'd have the bigger problem with it than I would.”

“It's not so bad.” She rested her arms on his shoulder, her chin resting against them. “I just don't like having to do it after you've been working all day long.”

“Compared to sacks of grain, little sister, you are light as feathers.” He ducked around a cart. “How was your day at home?”

“It's not fun to be home alone. I know I'm too little to help out much with the planting, other than sorting seeds, but it'd be nice to do something besides housework.” She sighed.

Fenrir laughed. “Perhaps Asgard will find us and whisk us all off to live a life of luxury in the palace.”

Hela snorted. “They'd never let you go, big brother. They'd take me and leave you here.”

“True, so it's mending, cooking and cleaning for you, little sister.” He sighed. “I suppose that is better than the two of us struggling out in the wilds of Jotunheim.”

“I don't think we'd have survived in the wilds, either on the mainland or here on Cendal.” She chuckled. “I don't even think we'd have made it on the smallest spear...” She tapped her fingers on his shoulder. “What's it called again?”

“Ynasl.” He replied as they went around a corner and then started down a long flight of stairs to the docks. “I hope the catch is good this afternoon. Fresh fish would be wonderful for dinner, I'm getting rather tired of dried meat.”

“That makes two of us.” Hela straightened up, catching sight of a ship heading into the harbor. “Isn't that a mainland ship?”

Fenrir stopped short and looked in the direction where his sister pointed. Sure enough, a boat with a long, narrow, red and yellow flag flying from its topmast was heading into port. “That's not just a mainland ship, it's a ship carrying a member of the royal house of Laufey. None of that house have been here since shortly before King Frejaon's three thousandth name day. Remember?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “His grace Prince Byleistr took a tour of the spears before heading to Vanaheim from Myrlyr. Then the Alfheim prince was assassinated and there went Jotunheim's trade negotiations with Vanaheim until the end of winter. Maybe that's why someone is here. They want to restart the process.”

“That makes sense.” He resumed walking down the stairs. “Well, if we all need to put our best feet forward and present ourselves as respectable citizens of the nine realms, if it means more trade and it's for making all our lives better, than I am all for it.”

“Me too.” She grinned. “You think someday I could be the ambassador to Vanaheim from Jotunheim?”

Fenrir laughed. “I'm counting on you to be our ambassador to Asgard.”

Chapter Text

“I should have known you were behind all of this.” Frigga's voice was like ice as Sif and Amora dragged a bound and gagged Lorelei was brought into the court. How anyone had failed to connect the woman with the kidnapping of Loki's children three hundred some-odd years ago when they first learned that there had been a crime sooner, she couldn't say. It made perfect sense; if anyone could convince a group of warriors to attack her son and his family, tear it apart and then dispose of the evidence as easily as washing her hands, it would be this woman. Lorelei glowered at her, and the Allmother could tell that the woman longed to be free of her captors. Sif looked ready to break her neck and Amora looked ready to hide the body. Sighing, she came down to the others and struck the woman across the face. “Thank you.” She said to the two women holding her and she stepped back as they threw Lorelei to the floor.

The sorceress pulled herself to a sit, shaking her head to clear it. The crude fabric gag had fallen off and she glared up at the queen. “You know nothing.”

“I know petty jealousy when I see it.” She spat.

“You should be thanking me.” She swung her head to the side, blinking and smiling rather sheepishly. “Angrboða was a filthy jotun-half breed.”

Sif kicked the woman. “The only filth is you.”

Amora let out a snort. “You know, it annoyed me too that Prince Loki was better at illusions than myself, but rather than plot treason, I settled for being better at potions.” She gave the queen a hopeful look. “Are you certain we cannot cut out her tongue?”

Frigga shook her head, almost breaking her stoic look to give them a bemused expression. “Then I would have to stand here and listen to the two of you argue over who would get the honor.” She turned her attention back to the prisoner. “I just have to wonder, how deep this deception goes. The fact that Loki never suspected you were behind the attack speaks volumes.”

The woman smirked. “He thought the soldiers were there on his father's orders, they thought they were following orders and I was nowhere around. Why should he?” She grinned and moved to a sit, looking far too proud for Frigga's liking.

“I am giving you one chance, Lorelei. Where are the other two children?” She spoke through gritted teeth. “Where did you send them?”

“If I tell you, you will kill me. I don't tell you, you will kill me. I fail to see what I have to gain by telling you anything.” She smirked and focused on the far wall.

“Very well.” Frigga grasped the gag, pulled it back into place and pressed her hand against the woman's mouth, and that brought a reaction. As Lorelei struggled, causing Sif and Amora to take hold of her. “Then silence we will have.” The gag glowed under her hand and the fabric began to fuse and work stitches into the woman's skin, from one end of her jaw to the other. Blood trickled down her wrist and as she pulled her hand away, several drops fell from her fingertips. “Take her to the dungeons. We shall see if hunger and isolation will loosen her tongue.”

Sif and Amora hauled the sorceress to her feet and half-dragged, half-carried her from the room. As they left, the Allmother drew a handkerchief from her pocket and cleaned the mess from her skin. When they first started investigating the attack on the estate, there had been too many gaps in people's stories. They had names of soldiers from Loki's journals, but they kept swearing that they had not been there and they knew nothing about the attack. But little things started adding up – as the men had all been brought in gave the same story, but those that were married wives' confirmed that they had been gone for several days; and could not give clear answers where they had been upon their return. Who else could it have been but that infernal woman who abused her magical talents to bend men to her will, with no care and concern for the consequences?

The soldiers involved were all being reassigned to remote outposts, since technically speaking, they had been brainwashed into their actions, but they could not go without punishment. It wasn't even permanent – it was three hundred years, the number of years that Loki's children had been lost. Hopefully, they would soon find the missing two. Frigga wasn't certain what they would do when they did find them; confirming that they were alive and safe was first. They would worry about after, once there was an after.

Joshua was adjusting to Asgard by leaps and bounds, far better than either she or Odin could have hoped. She could only imagine how things would be once Loki came home. Loki was going to come home, there just wasn't a set date. Heimdall reported that the place where her son was had been cut off from his view, and this wasn't the first time that Thanos had managed to block the watchman's sight. She sighed and strode out of the room, the morning's unpleasantness already dealt with. Now there were more pressing matters, such as Odin and Natasha's pending visit to Jotunheim.

“Good morrow, Mother.” Thor's voice greeted her as she turned down a hallway.

“Good morning.” She stuffed the stained cloth into a pocket. “What brings you to this part of the palace today? The council is not meeting until this afternoon."

He offered his arm, which she took. “I had intended to spend some time with Joshua, but he is at lessons.” He chuckled weakly. “While I imagine he is an eager student, having to study with Natasha might be somewhat difficult.”

“I am sure they will both manage.” She smiled. “Although I suspect it is also confusing at times, separating your nephew from his father.”

Thor let out a sigh. “I will confess, it is. I find myself having to stop a moment before I call him Loki.”

“I believe the only one of us who does not suffer that problem is Natasha.” She shook her head. “You have not mentioned your feelings towards your father visiting Jotunheim.”

“It is something I have little say in, Mother.” They turned down another corridor. “If Father feels that it is time for Asgard and Jotunheim to move forward in their relationship, that I am in support of it. We cannot hold ourselves up as a shining example throughout the nine realms if we continue to isolate one of them out of spite over a war that is a thousand years over.”

“When did you start to sound so old?” Frigga stopped them and tucked a lock of her son's hair behind his ear, as if he were a child. “That is more of something your brother would have said, not yourself.”

Thor nodded solemnly. “It is true. I feel as if I have aged six hundred years in the eleven months that Loki has been gone. All of our celebrations have been subdued and while I am certain you had wished previously that I would act in a more king-like manner, I believe you wish that it would not have taken the loss of my brother to do so.”

She swallowed and touched his cheek. “Your brother will come home, Thor.” She then smiled. “But I understand your meaning. Loki shall wonder what has come over you once he returns.”

**

Gamora rested on her hands and knees, breathing hard. “No more. Please, no more today.”

Loki let out an exasperated sound and hauled her to her feet. “One more round, then we shall call our training done for the day.” He handed her the wooden stave back, and lifted her chin, giving her a worn smile. “I know you are tired, Gamora. I know that your bruises have bruises and everything hurts. But the more you do this, the stronger you will become.”

She backed away from him, panting. “I do not know what good a stave will do in a battle of guns or advanced weaponry.”

He swung his own stave, stopping so that it was paused a hairsbreadth from smashing her nose. “You will not always have a weapon of your own choosing. The greatest weapon you should ever have is the one the Norns gave you. Your own body. From your forehead to your toes, everything should be honed so that even without a gun, a sword, even a simple dagger, you can escape using solely your skills in hand-to-hand.”

She pushed the stave away, eying him. “So what are the purposes of these weapons, if I am to use my hands, feet, arms and legs?”

“Because if you're ever in a situation where you have the opportunity to turn something such as a chair leg, a curtain rod, or a floor lamp into a weapon, you will know how to wield it.” He stepped back and swung his stave, this time, her arm came up and she blocked his blow. “Very good.”

“What is a floor lamp?” She backed around him slowly, keeping her focus on his hands and where the stave went.

“A Midgardian device in which a lamp is hung on a long pole.” He swung the stave down and struck her leg, causing her to stumble. “Up, up.”

She backed away, out of the swing of his arm. “You keep talking to me, it's distracting.”

“Of course it's distracting.” He advanced, holding the stave in front of him protectively, twirling it between his hands. “Compared to the conversations your enemies might have with you, this is mild and polite.”

“I don't plan on letting them talk...” She ducked as he swung his weapon.

“You may not have a choice.” He swung the stave the other way, this time cutting downward and she jumped, avoiding having it connect with her legs but couldn't adjust as he countered and swung sideways, knocking her to the floor as he struck her arm and her weapon clattered out of her grasp. He kicked it away as she backed away from him, hands behind her back, using her feet to propel her. “You need to stay focused.”

Gamora lunged for his weapon, only to find herself caught by the back of her shirt and he held her up, her feet kicking out, and he made no reacting when her strikes connected with their target. “Then. Stop. Talking!”

Loki yanked her down so he could stare into her eyes. “Stop. Listening.” He dropped her to the ground.

She glowered at him. “I hate you.”

He crouched down to her level. “No, you don't. You actually think this is fun.”

“I do not.” She rubbed her side. “I do not enjoy having you kick my ass around every day.”

“I'm holding back, Gamora. You'd have been out cold hours ago if I was using my full strength.” He shook his head. “Don't you understand what I'm trying to teach you here?”

“I know I'm learning nothing!” She spat, knowing that she sounded horribly petulant and then saw the flicker in the corner of her eye and a moment later, caught his wrist before he slapped her with the back of his hand.

“Very good.” He ruffled her hair with his free hand. “You are learning something.”

She let go, breathing hard. “So when does it start being fun?”

He smirked. “What, we aren't having it all ready?” He pulled her to her feet. “I know what you mean, Gamora. Fun is not exactly what comes to mind when it comes to endless sparing. Tomorrow, we shall do something easier. Conditioning.”

She clenched her teeth. “I'm looking forward to it.”

“Liar.” He gave her a half hug and lifted her chin. “You are doing well. I know it may not seem like it now, but soon you will see how far you've come in just a short time.”

“It doesn't seem like it.” She hated to pout, but it was frustrating.

“You have.” He took up both of the staves and hung them in their places on the wall. “When we first started, you wanted to quit after thirty minutes. Now it takes you two hours to start your mewling.”

“It does not seem as if it has been two hours. It seems longer.” She headed for the door. “I will see you at dinner.”

“Dinner.” He inclined his head. “Go, do something for those bruises of yours. And we have been at this for five hours, not just two.”

“That I can believe.” She paused in the doorway. “You said I should learn how to use everything in my possession to be a weapon. Does that include biting?”

Loki grinned. “Indeed it does. Biting happens to be my daughter Natasha's weapon of choice. She once took on a very foolish warrior twice my size, and nearly had his thumb for tea.”

“How old was she?” She folded her arms, her face full of disbelief.

“Younger than you.” He waved her off. “Go, rest, do whatever it is girls do in the afternoon between lessons and the evening meal.”

She rolled her eyes in response and headed for her quarters, her mind already on a hot shower and a nap.

**

Joshua took a small sip of mead, still unused to the sweetened liquor that the men of Asgard seemed so fond of. It reminded him of rum, of cramped quarters of a ship, and the rolling seas of Midgard. He'd never been one for drinking to the point of inebriation, and watching others do it was unsettling. Wrapping his hands around the mug, he kept his focus on the amber colored liquid as Fandral came over and sat down across from him.

“You're too young to be brooding in your cups, boy.” He let out a chuckle. “What's got you so solemn this evening?” He took a drink from his own mug.

“All my brothers in arms lie in their graves. Some in fields of stone, others lie at the bottom of the sea.” He took a gulp of mead and winced at the taste. “I'm also being called boy when I haven't been a boy in decades.”

Fandral's eyebrows raised and he let out a drunken laugh. “Brooding as always, Loki.”

“I'm Joshua.” He rolled his eyes. “Loki is my father and he's missing.”

“Come, Fandral, you've had one too many, I think.” Volstagg started to lift his friend up.

“No, I'm talking to Loki.” He shoved the bearded man away. “He's not come out with us since before Natasha came to live here and I don't want to waste this night.” He sat down and grinned. “Now, how have you been?”

He gave Volstagg a look. “When's the last time he got this drunk?”

“Not recently.” He hauled his friend to his feet. “Come on, Fandral, we can talk to Loki tomorrow.”

“But I... he won't be here tomorrow, I know he won't...” The blond said as he was led away and he was replaced by a solemn looking woman with dark hair. Automatically, he stood up.

“Sit down.” the woman rolled her eyes as she took Fandral's seat. “I know, I know, manners...”

Joshua did as she told him. “You're Lady Sif, correct?”

“It's just Sif.” She shook her head. “It's about time someone around here stopped treating you like you're Natasha's age when it's quite clear your not.”

“Thank you?” He frowned, uncertain how to respond to her comment.

“You're welcome.” she tapped her fingers on her own mug. “I will be honest with you, Joshua. Your father and I were – are not the best of friends, but I have given the matter thought and the reason for our – ongoing stalemate is that we are too similar in many ways.” She chuckled. “both of us wanting to do the opposite of what society expects of us.” She took a drink. “Tell me, are women warriors on Midgard?”

“Some are.” He frowned. “It's not exactly a common career for women, although most who join the military do so in more supportive roles. They are still considered part of the armed forces, even if they are not the ones in the trenches.” He grimaced. “I was not sorry to see that method of warfare go.” He closed his eyes, shuddering from the memory. “When the pictures came back from Gallipoli in the First World War... while I remained in Australia, building weapons... how anyone survived that gods-awful mess, I do not know.”

“Where is this Gallipoli? I have never heard of it.” Sif sounded genuinely curious.

“Turkey.” He opened his eyes and rubbed his temple. “Then the Second World War came... this time I fought and no, I don't know how many men I killed.”

“Well, you're a jolly one when you drink.” she retorted. “I don't suppose that anyone's told you that here on Asgard, women aren't expected to be warriors and men aren't expected to practice magic.”

“What a stupid expectation.” He blurted. “If you have the talent and opportunity to do something, you should bloody do it.”

“Thank you!” She threw up her arms. “the Lokason has common sense!”

“Another!” Uncle Thor's voice carried over from another table, followed by a shattering mug.

“Natasha warned me not to come down here, I'm starting to see why.” Joshua shook his head.

“That girl is the wisest person under one hundred in this place.” Sif chuckled. “I could use a good story, your father has a talent for those, what sort of tales do you tell?”

He blinked for a moment as Hogun sat down next to Sif, his expression stoic as always. “Depends on the sort you want. Happy, sad, tragic, heroic... a mixture of many things.” He took a sip from his mug and then grinned. “Would you like to hear about the elephants?”

“Elephants?” Hogun frowned. “What are those?”

“Massive grey four legged animals, once commonly used as beasts of burden in certain countries.” He grinned. “The war elephants I'm talking about are the ones that the king of Siam wanted to send to President Lincoln during a civil war in the United States.”

“How far is it from Siam to these United States?” Sif frowned. “How many days travel?”

“If the weather is good and one does not encounter any problems, the voyage could be made in about two months. That's if you sail west from Siam, not east.” He took another drink. “Only a fool would set sail across the Pacific Ocean with a herd of any animal. Particularly during typhoon season.” He set his mug down and began his tale.

*

Hela looked up from her mending as someone pounded on the front door. She frowned, setting down her work as the knock sounded again. “I am coming, please wait a moment.” She quickly hauled herself up onto the low table that stood beneath the window and pushed open the sash, leaning on the sill, almost falling at the sight of two massive royal guards standing on the stoop. “May I help you?”

The nearer of the two turned towards her. “Good afternoon, m'lady. Is this the home of Finnboga Massalason?”

“Yes, but my grandfather is not home at the moment.” She straightened up. “He is in the fields, working.” She wasn't about to admit that she was home alone, but she was fully prepared to run from these two if she needed too – small she may be, but that didn't mean she couldn't escape and hide, just like a mouse.

The two exchanged glances and then the first spoke again. “We want to confirm that we have the right home, little one. Is your mother's name Angrboða Finnbogadottir?”

“It was.” Her eyes narrowed. “My mother has been dead these past three hundred and five years.”

“May I help you?” Fenrir's voice called out from the road as he came up to the house. “Beg your pardon, but...” He was cut off as both of the guards suddenly both fell to one knee, their heads lowered. “Hela, what's going on?”

“I don't know!” She held out her arms. “I was just talking to them and then...”

“Forgive me.” The guard who had not spoken yet rose. “We have come here to find the children of the lost prince Loptr Laufeyson.”

Fenrir came up the path. “I know no-one by that name. Our father's name is Loki Odinson, prince of Asgard.”

The second guard stood. “Loki and Loptr are one in the same, forgive me, my prince,” he turned to Hela, “my princess, but this is not a story that should be told on stoops or in front gardens.”

Hela made a move to climb onto her brother's shoulder as he came over to her, an odd feeling settling in the pit of her stomach. He held up his hand, keeping her inside the house. “There must be some mistake. Our father is an Æsir, not a jotun.”

“Might we come inside?” The second guard asked. “As we have said, this is not a story one should hear out in the open.”

“Unlock the door, Hela.” Her brother said, his expression cautious. “We shall hear what they have to say.”

She nodded, swung down from the table and pulled on the lock, swinging back on the door as she opened it. Her brother came in first, picking her up and carrying her over to the table as the two guards followed them inside, the shorter of the two shutting it behind them. “Please excuse the mess, we weren't expecting company.” She was silently thankful that she had managed to wash the breakfast dishes and put them away.

“It is not a problem.” The one who had shut the door answered. “I must admit, we do not entirely know the circumstances of how you have come to live on Jotunheim, we only know how your father came to live on Asgard.”

“Then perhaps it would be best if you begin there.” Fenrir sat down, using one hand to support Hela as she sat on the table. “Or perhaps you could tell us how you knew to look for us here, on Cendal.”

“We were not entirely certain we would find you here.” The other guard replied. “We had limited information concerning the two of you.” He glanced at his companion. “I understand that you have a brother.”

“Jörmungandr. ” Hela replied. “We don't know where he is.”

“Yes.” The guard shook his head. “I can, however, inform you that you have another sister, Natasha Lokadottir, who lives on Asgard.”

“What kind of name is Natasha?” Fenrir snorted.

“Midgardian.” The second guard said. “But we are not here to talk about her. Our information on her is quite, if you will forgive the term, my princess – small.”

Hela rolled her eyes and folded her arms. “I imagine she is too.”

Her brother snorted in response before turning to their guests. “You were going to tell us how our father came to live in Asgard.”

“Yes.” The jotun cleared his throat. “We first must begin with your paternal grandmother, Princess Jora of Vanaheim.”

**

Natasha ran a currycomb along Garnie's back, only half-focused on her task. In three days, she and Grandfather would leave for Jotunheim, and they would be there for six weeks. It didn't sound like a great deal of time, but it would be the first time she went anywhere for an extended amount of time without Papochka. She sighed, knowing that this was something she would have to get used to; her father had already been gone for a year, but it felt much longer. Perhaps it would be easier if time were relative everywhere, instead of everyone's being different. A year on Asgard, three years by Jotunheim, nearly two by Midgard – and, according to Heimdall, in the place where her father was being held, it had been all of seven months.

She had to wonder if Papochka kept track of days and weeks, counting out the time he was there. When she asked Heimdall, he said that after her father's attempt to contact them shortly after his capture, Thanos had blocked the place where he was from his sight – offering only fleeting glimpses from time to time. She wasn't entirely sure who this Thanos person was, only that he was powerful and dangerous enough that Asgard wasn't going to mount any sort of rescue. That's why there had been a funeral; in the place where Papochka was, he was as good as dead.

Natasha refused to believe that. She knew that Grandmother felt the same way – as did Uncle Thor and Grandfather – Grandfather didn't talk about it.

“Sasha, are you in here?” Her uncle's voice carried down from the far end of the horse barn.

“Yes, Uncle Thor.” she called out in response, and a moment later, he appeared outside Garnie's stall. “I'm not late for something, am I?”

“No.” He leaned against the door, watching her. “Ready for your trip tomorrow?”

She shrugged. “I guess.” She paused. “You'll watch Garnie for me, won't you?”

“Of course.” He reached in and gave the horse's mane an affectionate ruffle. “You'll be home before you know it.”

“I'm not worried about that.” She gave Garnie one last brush and then climbed down from her step-stool and gathered her grooming tools as Thor opened the door. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” He smiled and then they went down towards the tack room. “I must admit, I rather wish I was going to Jotunheim as well, but your Grandfather feels the time isn't right. Perhaps he fears I might have a relapse into my old wish to wage war with the jotun.”

“I don't think that's it.” She handed the groom that came out to meet them her supplies and they went out into the stable yard. “If you, I and Grandfather were all on Jotunheim, the only heir to the throne left on Asgard would be Joshua. If something nefarious were to happen, like the rebels suddenly returning or an unknown faction were to take action, and we were unable to return, the Nine Realms could be in serious trouble.”

“That is actually plausible. Although I know security is quite tight, one never knows if there's a traitor in the ranks, waiting to strike.” He sighed. “I would hate to imagine such a catastrophe occurring, but as I have been told, a king must be ready for anything, from war to assassination, to a failed harvest. Not that I imagine it will, any jotun with common sense would know there realm is no more ready for war than Midgard would be of an alien invasion.”

“Midgard has some amazing weaponry, not to mention that even basic weapons, such as spears and bows, can bring down an enemy, if you strike the right spot.” Natasha sighed. “I don't want to think about that happening to Midgard. I'd be worried for my friend, Tony. He's just a kid.”

“Aren't you a child yourself, Natasha?” Thor grinned. “You appear to be one.”

“Joshua says I tend to sound like an old woman.” She rolled her eyes. “He's one to talk, considering his age.”

“I do not think your brother has spent much time around children.” He answered and then swept her up onto his back. “Come on then.”

“What are you doing?” She answered as she set her arms around his shoulders. “I can walk perfectly fine!”

“I know that, but you're long overdue for a piggy-back ride, I believe it is called.” He chuckled. “You might come back from Jotunheim grown.”

“Ha!” Natasha laughed. “I was gone for ten years on Vanaheim and grew only three inches in that time, I doubt I can accomplish such a feat in three Asgardian weeks, which is six on Jotunheim.”

“You never know.” Thor picked up his feet and began to run back towards their home.

**
“It's strange.” Fenrir said over his mug. The guards had left over three hours ago, and their grandparents had yet to return from their own labors, leaving him and his sister alone to discuss the revelations.“I don't quite know how to feel about the fact that Odin Allfather took our father from Jotunheim – angry, or glad.”

Hela nodded in reply. “I think it's supposed to be that way. If he hadn't, there's no guarantee that some soldier from Asgard wouldn't have killed him, or worse. And also, we wouldn't have been born.” She frowned. “I think it's one of those cases were everyone is at fault, so all must take some of the blame.”

“War is ugly.” He shook his head. “One of us is going to have to go to Utgard, we cannot get around that.”

“It's not permanent, it's just to meet the rest of the family.” She frowned. “Norns, does that sound odd.”

“You should go.” He stated, setting his mug down. “I may not like it, and it is a long way there, but to be perfectly honest, they're far less likely to force you to stay.”

She frowned at him. “Is it because I'm small or because I'm a girl?”

“Girl.” He shook his head. “Think about it, Hela. I'm the oldest son of King Laufey's oldest son. I'm not giving up our freedom here on Cendal, not for the royal house, not for Asgard. This is our home.”

She sighed. “I do not think Crown Prince Helblindi would be set aside for you, Fenrir. There's the rather large fact that you're only three hundred and fifteen years old. If King Laufey were to die and you were placed on the throne, the stability of Jotunheim would collapse.”

“Point, but still, it is better if you go.” He sighed. “Think of it as a stepping stone to becoming our Asgardian ambassador.”

“Oh, I'm certain the people of Asgard would just love that.” She folded her arms, frowning and then, slowly smiled. “You know, it might work. I could be the ambassador to Asgard and our baby sister, Natasha, could be Asgard's ambassador to Jotunheim.”

Fenrir let out a laugh. “Natasha is scarcely out of infancy, it will be a long time before she could be an ambassador.”

“Well, it will be a long time before we're ready to speak with Asgard directly. We're not exactly grown ups either, you know.”

“I do.” He rubbed his neck. “I am just glad that there is to be no grand announcement about who we are, Hela. It'd be strange to work in the fields if everyone knew.”

“We are free jotun of the Seven Spears. Titles mean nothing. Everyone already knows that we're the children of Prince Loki, it's not like this changes that much.” Hela sighed. “The guards will be back tomorrow, expecting us to have spoken with Grandfather and Grandmother. In two days, they'll return to the mainland.”

“And you'll be with them.” He sighed. “My little sister, sailing for five days, then another six overland to Utgard. That is, if the weather is favorable.”

“Then two weeks in the capitol, before coming home.” She sighed, resting her head on her arms. “Why are we avoiding the frost-beast in the corner?”

Fenrir let out a deep breath, closing his eyes. “I don't want to believe our father is dead. It...I just can't do it, Hela.”

“They told us he'd died in an accident on Midgard, something to do with an Infinity Gem.” She shook her head. “I don't want to believe it either, but...”

“I know.” He smiled. “I suppose we are truly orphans now, Hela. But the good inside this bad is that we can stop waiting for him to come find us. He's never coming.”

“I wanted him to come.” She let out a breath as he reached over the table and scooped her into his arms. “I wanted us to be a family. You, me, father – and Jörmungandr. And Grandfather and Grandmother – here, maybe – or some place tolerant of the jotun.” She sniffled. “When I was really little, I thought we should settle on Svartalfheim and have a big plantation – since there's so much empty space there. We could help the dark elves, be a family, be together and...”

Fenrir held her close as she started to weep, a tear of his own slipping down his cheek. “I know Hela, I know... I wanted that too.”

**
Laufey watched the glittering of the Bifrost as it made contact with the ground, remembering the last time he had seen it; the day King Odin's army left Jotunheim, carrying his Loptr with him. This meeting wasn't about that war, it was about moving forward. While the two realms were a long way from having an open relationship, the idea of having one that wasn't filled with hate and suspicion that had plagued their respective realms for centuries.

The small group from Asgard that came with Odin consisted of four guards and two servants, along with one other person; Natasha Lokadottir, the youngest child of Loki. Adopted she may be, but still recognized as a member of the family. From what Byleistr had told him, nearly all of Asgard thought her to actually be a blood relation; just as they thought Loptr was the blood son of Odin.

Of course, his youngest son was not currently at home, he had gone to search the Seven Spears to find two of Loptr's missing children. Their mother had a free-city name, and if the ones who had stolen them had any compassion, they might have left them with their relations. He did not expect his son to return before the end of the year.

Taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders as the small entourage came towards the stairs of the palace. His first thought on catching sight of Odin was how old the king looked. He showed the last thousand years more than himself, his hair white shot with blond, and lines crossed his face like a map. Next to him, her face almost completely hidden by the fur collar of her coat was Natasha – a pale white face peering up at him from under a fur lined hat, red curls barely visible. “King Odin.” He inclined his head slightly.

“King Laufey.” Odin returned the gesture. “We thank you for your hospitality.”

“Welcome to Jotunheim.” He replied, smiling and gestured for them to come forward.

*
Natasha burrowed deeper into the furs, willing herself to sleep. They had been on Jotunheim for exactly two weeks and she had suffered trouble falling into slumber nearly every night. It wasn't being cold, perhaps it was being homesick; perhaps it was because the first time she'd been off-realm without Papochka. Things might be easier if he was here. Or if she knew he was waiting for her at home. She was just about ready to take some of the sleeping drought that her grandmother had sent with her, somehow knowing that she'd have this trouble when a long horn sounded, distant and outside, and a moment later, another horn, closer.

She sat up, listening to the horns echo one another a second time. Since it wasn't accompanied by a cacophony of footsteps, the horns weren't summoning warriors to a drill or something similar. “It's not like I was told I had to stay in bed at night.” She quickly got out of bed, threw on a cloak and slippers and headed down the long corridor that she knew only seemed massive due to her small stature.

No one noticed her as she reached a balcony and she looked down, almost jumping when King Laufey passed underneath her, the top of his head only five feet or so below her. Two servants were opening the massive front doors of the palace and as she watched, the only somewhat familiar face in weeks appeared from outside; Prince Byleistr.

“My son, you are home earlier than expected!” Laufey hugged his son. “You have only been gone three months.”

“I know.” There was a sense of pride in his voice and that's when Natasha noticed a third person in the group, a small jotun, with black hair, the top of her head barely reaching the prince's hip. “My search did not take as long as we feared.” He set a hand behind the small jotun, “Father, allow me to introduce you to my niece, Princess Hela Lokadottir of Cendal.”

Natasha let out a gasp that ended up echoing around the front entrance and she clasped her hand over her mouth as all three of them turned to look in her direction.

King Laufey let out a chuckle. “Why don't you come down here, little owl?”

She made her way down the stairs to join the group, holding her fur wrap tight around her shoulders. Now that she was closer, she could see that Hel, except for the dark hair, looked nothing like Joshua. She must look like her mother then, she supposed. “Sorry.”

“Now, do not be sorry that you could not sleep. And it is not as if you were instructed not to go wandering and poking about. Curiosity is a good trait to have at times.” He said, nudging her forward with his hand. “I believe you remember Prince Byleistr.”

“Yes, your grace.” She managed a small smile. Her mind was still racing at the fact that the girl standing in the room with her was her older sister; the sister she thought was as lost as Papochka.

“Princess Natasha.” Byleistr grinned. “I see you have gotten rid of those ridiculous sleeves.”

She giggled. “They were rather silly,” she answered, remembering the dress with the belled sleeves that the Vanir were still considered fashionable.

“You're not a baby.” Hela spoke for the first time, folding her arms and frowning. “I was told that Natasha Lokadottir was an infant, or at best, a toddler.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Hela why she looked like the human equivalent of thirteen, when Joshua looked twenty, and there was only a three year age gap between them. Instead, she tilted her head to the side, frowning. “I thought you'd be taller.”

Chapter Text

Fenrir ran a rag over the leather harness that his little sister rode in, polishing the brown material until it shone. Hela had only been gone a fortnight, but it felt like longer. She would be in the capitol by now, meeting a grandfather they hadn't known they were related to, meeting other family members, making contact with Asgard. He missed her, horribly – what had he been thinking, letting her go all the way to Utgard? She was still practically a baby! Granted, she hated to be referred to as such, but she was so little, so young...

...and Hela would sock him in the knee if he said as much out loud.

“She'll be home before you know it.” His grandfather's voice cut into his thoughts.

“I suspect she will.” He put the lid on the jar of polish. “I – we've never been apart.”

“Hm.” The older jotun nodded. “I'm certain she misses you as well, but even you know that your sister can't stay on Jotunheim forever. This realm is to harsh for one of her stature, her mother couldn't stay either.”

“Mother still died.” He hissed. “She was in Asgard and she died. Hela's lived here for centuries, endured three winters, one of them when she was just a baby.” He started to clean up the table. “I just...” He gave his grandfather a woeful look. “I don't like to think about her growing up. She'll always be my little sister that I'm supposed to protect and take care of. Now that's she's all the way in Utgard, I cannot do that.”

“Your devotion to your sister is admirable, Fenrir. And at the tender age of three hundred and seven, your sister is still a child, as are you.” He set a hand on the boy's arm. “Even if you have had to grow up so quickly.”

“It isn't fair.” He couldn't keep the petulance from his voice. “I still want us to be a family, and now all that's changed.”

“We are a family, Fenrir Lokason. Your sister will be home soon and things can get back to normal.” The jotun sighed and went over to the fire, setting the kettle on. “You'll see.”

“How can we? We still do not know where Jorg is, Father is dead and I now have another little sister, who lives in Asgard.” He shook his head, he hadn't given Natasha all that much thought, but she was still his sister and he was the oldest. It was his job to look out for her too.

His grandfather chuckled. “I know that your baby sister couldn't survive the climate of Jotunheim for more than a season, young man. It is better for her to remain where she is and ensure that all of Odin Allfather's hair turns white.”

“If it isn't already.” He managed a weak smile. “But still, is it so wrong for me to want us all to be together? Somewhere?”

“No.” He sat down next to the fire. “Although where that place is, I do not know. Your sisters and Jorg could, no doubt, settle anywhere.”

Fenrir let out a heavy sigh. “They are the same size as the Æsir. Although with her blue skin, Hela might have some trouble.”

“Perhaps the four of you could get a space ship, travel from place to place.” He gave his grandson a teasing grin. “I'm certain that could prove interesting.”

“The girls are babies.” He retorted. “Besides, Jotunheim's meager space-fleet is comprised almost solely of cargo vessels. The only reason no one attacks us is because of our climate or the fact that they're terrified we'd turn them into lunch.”

“Mmm... deep fried alien.” Grandfather smacked his lips together. “I think I'll pass. I hear some planets haven't heard about the benefits of bathing yet.”

Fenrir threw back his head and laughed as he set the harness up. “Any culture has faster than light travel but doesn't have running hot water and soap is a poor culture indeed!”

“Priorities, I suppose.” He sighed. “Your grandmother should be back soon. Don't tell her, but I believe the second-biggest problem with your sister being in Utgard is that when we come home from working, dinner isn't started, if not ready.”

“Hela is a wonderful cook.” He went over to the cold-pantry and took out a crock of oysters and set it on the counter. “I suspect she's up there in the capitol, worried that neither us know what we're doing.” He handed his grandfather the tea container. “I think you need that.”

He scrunched up his nose as he took the tin, looking only half-annoyed. “I was going to get it, young man.” He stated as the kettle began to whistle. “Oyster stew then?”

Fenrir nodded. “I think we should get as much done as we can, so that grandmother doesn't have to do anything more physical than setting the table.”

“I believe that would be a welcomed surprise for her.” Grandfather replied and went to the vegetable cupboard to retrieve more ingredients for their meal.

*
Natasha had not shared sleeping quarters with another person her own age since the Red Room. It wasn't a problem for her in the slightest. She was actually rather glad of Hela's company in the room. The bed was designed for a full-sized jotun, and while it had been lowered somewhat, the two of them still had to literally climb into it. They each had their own pile of furs, so there was no worry about one of them ending up with all the covers. The only difference in their bed-clothes was that she had thicker furs than Hela, owing to her lack of jotun blood.

She also hadn't needed a sleeping drought since her sister arrived.

“Natasha? Are you awake?” Hela whispered, sounding pensive.

“Yes.” She turned over and pushed the fur off her head, peering in the darkness at the older girl next to her. “What's wrong?”

“I don't like it here.” She shuffled closer. “Everyone here is so – formal. I'm not used to that. I can't get around people calling me 'princess' and 'your grace.'” She sighed. “and I miss my – our – brother.” she gave an awkward smile. “Even if he does think I'm a baby.”

She grinned in response. “I think that's his prerogative. I can't imagine what Fenrir would say about me.”

Hela chuckled. “He probably wouldn't want to let you out of his sight.” Her thin hand came out and tugged on one of her curls. “I know for a fact he's never seen someone with hair the color of yours.”

“I'm just glad no one has told us to run off and play with our dolls. I hate when adults say things like that.” She covered a yawn. “I don't even have a doll.”

“Neither do I.” Hela tucked a fur under her chin. “Do adults really say that to you back on Asgard?”

“Sometimes.” Natasha sighed. “It seems to be a standard sort of phrase, along with the 'look how much you've grown' thing.”

“I hate that phrase.” Her tone was venomous. “I know they mean well, but sometimes I think it's just plain insulting.”

“It is.” She giggled. “Imagine if we remarked to the people who said to us that they've grown too. Sideways.”

Hela burst out laughing. “I never thought of that!”

“Well, I've never said it.” She lifted her chin. “Nor do I tell nosy adults that they've got more gray hairs. Why do adults even ask those sort of questions?”

“I don't know.” She shifted closer to her. “The only thing I ever hear from my grandparents is how I look more and more like my mother.”

“That's not so bad.” Natasha sighed.

“It is and it isn't. I just wish I could remember her.” Hela glowered. “They should do something bad to that Lorelei woman other than sew her mouth shut and keep her locked up.”

“I saw her, it's more than just her mouth. Her whole jaw is sewn together, ear to ear.” She shuddered. “I think Grandmother is going to cut her tongue out and feed it to the dogs.”

“I hope she uses a dull knife.” She spat. “I bet Fenrir could crush her under his foot.”

“Pfft. Then Fenrir would have to use gallons of bleach to get his foot clean and that can't be good for his skin.” Natasha's eyes narrowed. “We could cut out her tongue and then toss her into a piranha infested lake.”

“What's a piranha?” Her sister was suddenly close, her eyes wide. “A fish?”

“Uh huh. They live in a certain area of Midgard called the Amazon. Meat eating fish.” She shuddered. “I've only seen pictures of them, but they scare me, the only thing that scare me more in the aquatic life of Midgard are Portuguese man o war's, which are sort of like jellyfish.”

“We have those here, jellyfish, that is. The fisherman sometimes find them tangled in their nets. They then use them for bait when catching skilgar*.”

“Skilgar?” She frowned. “What's that?”

“It's a large mammal.” She tapped her chin, “it's sort of like a sea-cow.”

“I bet those have a lot of meat on them.” She covered a yawn. “I don't know about you, but I'm rather glad that no fussy nursemaid has come in here and told us to go to sleep.”

“They do have a lot of meat. A single skilgar has enough meat for a family of five to eat their fill, and still have some left over for soup the next day.” She pulled a fur over her head. “We probably should sleep.” Hela shifted in the bed until they were only a few feet apart. “I just wish there was a way for all of us to be together. You, me, Fenrir and Joshua.” She sighed. “Guess that's not going to happen.”

“All that needs to happen for us to do that is for Uncle Thor to get married and his wife to have a baby.” She said plainly. “Although, knowing Grandfather, he'd make us wait until they had two.”

“Is he getting married?” Her voice sounded winsome.

“No.” Natasha admitted, rather sullen. “He would be getting married if he and Lady Sif would stop bickering like an old married couple and actually became one instead.”

Hela giggled. “Well, we'd still need to find a place to live. You can't live on Jotunheim because of winter and I bet summer on Asgard wouldn't be good for Fenrir. And he's also too tall for us to settle on Midgard.”

“We could live on Alfheim.” She whispered. “They're the most tolerant of the nine realms.” Her mind was already thinking of a home where they could all live together, and she'd be sure to bring Sleipnir with them. Horse or not, he was still a member of the family. She just didn't know how to explain to her sister about him quite yet. She hadn't even told Hela that Papochka wasn't dead, because Grandfather had forbidden her to do so; but as to why, she was clueless. It seemed to her that that was the sort of thing that Hela and Fenrir should know.

“That sounds good, Jotunheim already trades with them, so getting there shouldn't be too hard. We'll have a farm. We could grow tea, or something.” she sighed. “And sheep, Joshua knows about sheep, right?”

“Midgard sheep, yes. I don't know if there's a big difference between the ones on Alfheim and the ones on Midgard. For all we know, the ones on Midgard don't have two hearts.”

“You haven't seen one?” Hela frowned. “I thought you'd been there several times.”

Natasha gave her sister an indignant look. “It's not like you can see the inside of a sheep from the outside. The only inside of a sheep I saw on Midgard was when I had lamb curry for dinner, and it was in an orange colored sauce.” She yawned. “That's the thing about Midgard I like best. There's an amazing variety of food.”

“That's what we could do on Alfheim!” Hela sat up, her eyes bright. “We could open up a restaurant that serves Midgardian food! I'd just need a few cookbooks so I can learn how to do it!” She paused. “Or Fenrir and I could open one up on Cendal, and you and Joshua can do the same on Alfheim!” She frowned. “We wouldn't be together though.” She fell back on her furs. “I just hope we can all be together a few times before the next winter. That's in seventy-seven years.”

“That's a long time.” Natasha burrowed into her bed-covers. “We'll figure something out.” Personally, she was hoping that Papochka would be home safe before the next winter on Jotunheim more than anything.

*

Joshua wandered down the isle of the stable, the warm scent of hay and horse was somewhat comforting, reminding him of the few stations he had worked years ago, of nights sleeping out under the stars. He had never been a squatter, and when he'd first arrived on Australia, he'd found work before he'd even heard of such a lifestyle. He turned the corner, leaving the empty stalls of the cart horses and stood, gazing down the long rows of the war-horses. He did agree with Natasha, there was nothing small about these animals. The only horses he'd seen on Midgard that came to a relative size as these was a Clydesdale, but these creatures were built like Thoroughbreds. Why a culture that lived in space, had ships and guns that would make the Galactic Empire jealous had war-horses and trained both man and beast for a rather archaic method of battle made almost no sense to him; perhaps they believed in fighting fair, or some other such nonsense.

Many things on Asgard made no sense.

He came to the end of the isle and leaned against the door of the stall, giving the horse within a lopsided grin. “Good afternoon, Phin.”

Sleipnir looked up from his bucket of mash and tossed his head in reply, shaking slightly as he flicked away a fly.

“That bad?” Joshua sighed, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching them. “And yes, I miss Sasha too.”

His brother snorted, coming over to him and nudged his shoulder.

In response, he grinned. “You're as bad as she is.” He took the apple out of his pocket and held it out, letting the large black horse nibble and then take it out of his upright palm. “I'm still trying to understand things around here.” He rested his arms against the door, watching his brother eat. “Then again, legends say I'm supposed to be a giant sea-serpent.” He snickered. “Ten to one says Fenrir's not a wolf either. I say we blame psycho-tropic berries.”He shook his head, chuckling.

“Joshua?” Thor's voice called from elsewhere in the stable. “Are you here?”

“Yes.” He turned and saw his uncle appear at the turn of the isle and then head down towards him, leading a horse and then he went into one of the empty stalls. “I'll be back, Phin.” He jogged up to where Thor was. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” He fastened the tether to a hook and began to remove the horse's saddle. “I wanted to see if you were back from exercising Garnie.”

“Yes, although I don't think that horse likes me very much.” He leaned against the stall door. “You need some help?”

“No, thank you.” Thor sighed and picked up a curry comb. “Father and Natasha will be back at the end of the week. I'm starting to think I should have spent my first free afternoon since they left doing something other than riding.”

“You needed the fresh air.” Joshua rubbed his eyes. “I just wish I could have been of more help.”

“You have helped.” His uncle grinned. “There have been several guilds wanting the Midgardian section of the library organized for decades. I think they also have been wanting to give apprentices something to do. Granted, it might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but we cannot hope to one day unite all the realms if we leave one of the most populous wholly ignored.”

“True.” He managed to return the smile. “History also happens rapidly, I can attest to that.” He folded his arms. “I can remember being downright furious when they finally started building the Panama Canal. Going the long way around South America was one of the worst things about going from Europe to western North America.”

Thor nodded. “I have seen Natasha's book of maps. I just cannot imagine why someone did not think to build a canal sooner.”

“That makes two of us.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Is something else bothering you?”

It appeared that his uncle suddenly found the mane of his horse utterly fascinating, as his cheeks went pink before he spoke, not looking at him. “Far too many members of the privy council have taken it upon themselves to remind me that I am neither married or courting anyone.”

“I think I know where this is going.” He rolled his eyes. “I assume they think it's shameful that the younger prince has two heirs living on Asgard and the crown prince has none, not even a possibility of one.”

“Exactly.” His face was still flushed. “It is not that I am opposed to the idea, it is the fact that I do not want to be pressured into it.”

“I've not met many of the council, how many of them have daughters or granddaughters of an age comparable with yours?” He took up an awl and began cleaning mud and other debris out of the horse's hooves.

“There are six unmarried girls whose ages are close to mine.” Thor's face was still flushed. “All of them rather – vapid.” He looked over at him. “Then there's also several off-realm princesses whom I am certain have fathers who would love to use as a bargaining piece for a treaty.”

Joshua snorted. “Do not tell me there's not a single woman on this realm or off of it that you do not wish to court, leading to the possibility of marriage.”

“Sif's not the marrying kind of girl.” He snapped, far to quickly.

“Oh, really?” He straightened up, keeping his expression even. “Are you certain of that?”

Thor went even pinker. “Do not assume...”

“Invite her to dinner.” He remarked. “Not the usual sitting together in the feasting hall, I mean one of the family dinners we seem to have once a month.”

“I don't think that would be proper.” He grumbled. “And I do not think Sif would want to come.”

“You'll never know if you don't ask her.” He tapped the awl against his leg. “The worst she can do is say no.”

His uncle shook the comb at him. “You are just as bad as the privy council!”

“Am I?” He folded his arms, grinning. “Well then, may I ask her to dinner?”

Thor responded by throwing the brush at him. “Shut up, Loki!”

Joshua picked up the comb and set it back in his uncle's hand. “I'm Joshua, uncle. I have no intentions of asking Lady Sif to dinner. But judging from your reaction, you would love for her to join us for next week's meal.”

He took the comb, sighing. “I am sorry, I just...” He swallowed. “Your father used to say that Sif and I bickered like an old married couple. Natasha still says it sometimes..” He looked up. “And you are right, the worst she can say is no.”

**

“We must do what is best for the children of both realms.” Laufey peered over his folded hands at Odin, who sat on the other side of the table, his face passive. “Unfortunately, ridding our respective kingdoms of a thousands years of falsehoods and hate will take a great deal of time. The end of which, if I must be honest, neither of us will live to see.”

“Agreed.” The Allfather's tone was solemn as he scanned some of the documents scattered on the table between them. “Change cannot come swiftly, however, this meeting alone is a fairly large step in the right direction.”

“True.” The jotun closed his eyes, taking a deep breath before continuing. “But then, this is the same discussion we have had for the past several weeks, with only minor variations.” He opened his eyes and smiled. “In a few days, Hela will begin her journey to return to Cendal. I believe that her and Fenrir remaining in the Spears is the best thing for the both of them. I have received reports that the rebellion here on Jotunheim was not snuffed out by the rebels trek to the islands or last winter. There is also the risk of a succession coup or assassination. On the Spears, they are safe.”

Odin nodded slowly. “I suspected that they also enjoy the freedom that living there offers them.”

Laufey inclined his head in agreement. “The Spears are planning on reopening trade negotiations with Vanaheim, once the first harvest is gathered. I would ask on their behalf that Asgard not interfere.”

The Allfather frowned. “I cannot stop objections, but I can keep Asgard from preventing the talks.”

“Thank you.” He replied, sincerely. In all respects, the talks that the two of them had been taking part of in the past five weeks had been mostly beneficial for both of them, despite the mutual mistrust between the two of them, much like their realms. Of course, there was the delightful fact that his granddaughters were already thick as thieves and they had only known each other for three weeks – he was looking forward to seeing more of them as time went by. Laufey did not expect to see Fenrir travel here to Utgard, as his eldest's eldest, he knew that the young jotun visiting here was just asking for the rebels to attack. He took a breath and asked Odin the one question he had wanted to for centuries. “Why did you take Loptr?”

The king of Asgard was clearly caught off guard, given his expression. “It was war, I thought he had been abandoned. I saw only a defenseless baby.”

“You're lying.” He raised his chin. “You knew who he was, and knew that he was in a temple, why did you take him?”

“Would you rather I had left him to die, his head crushed under a boot-heel by some errant soldier?” He blanched. “Even now, I cannot completely justify my actions on that day, I know that.” Odin sighed. “Yet, you never demanded I return him, you knew I had Loki – Loptr with me when I left Jotunheim.”

Laufey face fell, only slightly. “My realm was in tatters, my wife was dead and you had my son, I was in no position to make requests or demands.”

Odin shifted in his seat. “That is valid.” He sighed.

“We have both failed him, Allfather.” He swallowed, his eyes narrowing. “What we cannot do, is fail his children.”

“Agreed.” There was something in the Asgardian's face that he couldn't quite read, there was something on the man's mind that he wasn't sharing. He decided not to press the issue before clearing his throat and continuing.

“I believe the issue at hand is that now that they've met, it will prove difficult to keep them apart.” He let out a weak chuckle. “At least where Hela and Natasha are concerned.”

“You can understand my reservations on not wanting Joshua to leave Asgard any time in the near future.” He coughed. “I know that it is unfair to him and to his siblings at the moment, however...”

“I do understand.” He managed a more certain smile. “I would still like to meet him, someday.”

“And he wishes to meet you as well.” He let out a half-laugh. “Although he has fought in far to many wars for a boy of his age.”

“War is a constant of Midgard. I long have maintained the belief that if there's not a war somewhere on Midgard, something must be wrong.” He sighed. “And I concur, a youth such as he should not be near a battlefield.”

“He does not look his age, he looks closer to his father's age than what he should.” Odin shook his head. “I suspect being on another realm was the cause. However, perhaps it is best that he has no desire for war, or fighting. Even in the culture he now finds himself in, if anyone can understand the horrors that war brings and can explain it to others, it would be him.”

“A blessing and a curse.” Laufey let out a breath. “I for one, hope that all of our grandchildren can one day live in a universe without war. I may not be there when it happens, but a cherished wish, nonetheless.”

Odin nodded. “I do not know if the whole universe will be at peace, but we must endeavor to do our best to see that our realms are without it, but still ready for it.”

Laufey nodded. “There will be no peace in this universe, or at least, an assurance of it with Thanos and the Kree still out there.” He shook his head. “Although I do not believe the Kree would be foolish enough to attack either of us.”

“Your realm is too cold and mine is far too remote.” The Allfather took a breath. “That doesn't mean Thanos won't make an attempt.”

“We must unite the Nine, Odin. Once that occurs, such will be our combined strength that the Kree and the allies of Thanos would turn and run.”

*
Loki hovered somewhere between the edge of a trance and the sweet oblivion of sleep. He was hyper-aware of his even breathing, the steady thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat and he leaned back against the wall, reaching out, slowly, hesitantly, and then, came the scent of sun-kissed hay and oats. It was a brief, fleeting touch – but he could see the stables on Asgard clearly, despite the late hour and a surprised whinny made him smile.

Slephnir.

The horse seemed to nudge back as he pictured himself giving his eldest an affectionate rub between the ears.

Taking a deep breath, Loki pulled himself away and turned, reaching out in another direction, seeking for someone else, and he frowned as the smell of warmth gave way to the scent of ice. Sinking deeper into his sleep-trance, he found himself standing in a room full of too-large furniture. A massive bed, loaded with furs stood in the center and he approached it cautiously, not certain what to make of this strange room and strange place.

He lifted the nearest fur, catching sight of a flash of red before a tiny hand grabbed the cover and pulled it close.

Natasha?

There was a muffled groan and then he approached the bed again, the pile of furs moved and he lifted himself onto the bed, sitting on its edge, reaching out, nudging the small figure that was curled into a ball near him.

Natasha?

Papochka?

Her voice was muffled by the bedclothes and he moved closer, pulling the one nearest him back to reveal his alabaster skinned daughter, her breathing slow and even, and then he saw a second face, sharing a pillow with his little girl. It only took Loki half a second to recognize who Natasha's companion was. Almost in disbelief, he reached out and touched a cheek that was the color of the summer sky on Asgard and hair the same shade of black as his.

Hela

Papochka?

Natasha's voice suddenly cut into his mind again and he looked back at her, the girl's green eyes were wide and staring, and her hand reached out, the expression of joy on her face breaking when the vision of him faded when she touched it.

Papochka

The broken sound was agony in Loki's heart. Here were his two girls, snuggled together and he leaned down, wishing he could make her understand.

I am here, but I am not here. I am going to come home, Sasha, I will come home.

Natasha sniffled and pulled her furs close, her body trembling with unreleased sobs.

Leaning down, he placed a kiss first on his youngest daughter's temple, and then on his eldest. He had already lingered here too long. It took all of his resolve and strength to wrench himself away from the girls and he slammed back into his own consciousness in his cell in Thanos's citadel, gasping for breath.

For a few moments, Loki remained on alert, the tension at being caught slowly ebbing away. What did the mad titan care? His sole focus was on the infinity gems, the misery of any of his captives was inconsequential. He wrapped his arms around his legs, resting his head on his knees. Despite the wretched feeling of grief and sorrow that was threatened to consume him, a spark of hope remained in his heart. Somewhere, out there in the great cosmos, his little girls were together. How, he did not know – he didn't care how.

His mind drifted off into a rather delightful fantasy of Natasha teaching Hela and Gamora how to climb trees.

**

Cendal's twin spires of rock appeared suddenly on the horizon, the massive black volcanic stone that marked the entrance of the northern harbor jutted into the sky, both of them part of the chain that skirted and lined the equator of Jotunheim. Giving the Spears their name and reminding all that once, the realm had not always been a land of ice and snow. As the ship moved closer, the rest of the chain came into view, an undulating strip of purple against the blue sky and gray ocean.

Hela was glad to finally see her home again. The time she had been gone seemed much longer than it should have; too much had happened. When she had arrived in Utgard, the last thing she expected to find was her sister, or her sort-of grandfather, King Odin. What news she would have to tell Fenrir! Their brother was safe and sound in Asgard, and some day, once Prince Thor married and produced an heir, they would all be together, somewhere.

Fenrir would, no doubt, have an idea of what they could do – and Natasha was right, Alfheim would be the best place for them to settle, the light elves were tolerant and decent citizens. Had they not been the first ones to wish to trade with Jotunheim?

Things had been odd in Utgard to her. Hela was not used to having someone else clear her place from the table, or wash her dishes, cook her meals. Granted, every now and then Fenrir did the dishes and sometimes Grandmother did all the preparing and cooking; but that was usually her job, and it had been for years. Natasha, as she had predicted, had no idea how to cook or clean, outside of caring for a horse. But she wasn't jealous, not entirely – while she might have a tutor, a horse of her own and other luxuries that Hela never entertained of having, her baby sister didn't have what she did.

Freedom.

Oh, Hela might have the title of princess, but she wasn't going to be one. Ever. She liked living on Cendal and knowing that she could make her own way in the world, once she reached adulthood. No one was going to force her into a marriage for the good of her realm, she was a proud, free jotun of Cendal, not Princess Hela Lokadottir of Asgard or Jotunheim.

The only thing Hela was jealous of in regards to Natasha was that her little sister had memories of their father. Papochka, she called him. A word in her native tongue on Midgard, which she said was Russian. The name had a familiar, childish tone, and during the trip to the harbor, she'd tried saying the word herself, but it sounded wrong in her voice. The word was Natasha's, the way that Asgard and all that went with it was hers. Her sister wouldn't talk about Russia, or her mother – and she barely talked about their father.

Perhaps she was lucky in the regard that she didn't remember their father as well. Natasha had memories and therefore, missed him in a way that she couldn't.

It was nothing but confusion.

The long horn of the ship blew, jarring Hela from her thoughts and she straightened up, grinning. The sight of the docks and the familiar stench of the fisherman's catches lingered in the air, the cry of krells* and the waves of other jotun in her direction only reenforced the idea that this was home. She scanned the people on the piers, seeking out the one person she had missed more than anyone; Fenrir. It didn't take long – he was standing with two older jotuns – Grandmother and Grandfather, and he was already wearing the familiar harness that he carried her around in. In Utgard, it'd been rare to see someone of her stature, she had seen perhaps a dozen, but here in Cendal, there were hundreds. Granted, most of them weren't hauled around on their elder brother's backs, but it wasn't uncommon. This was her home and this was where she belonged.

It seemed only a matter of seconds passed from the gangplank being put into place and her suddenly being hugged tightly by her family.

“I think you've grown!” Grandfather exclaimed while Fenrir picked up her trunk.

“Let the child breathe!” Grandmother exclaimed as they stepped aside to let more of the crew and passengers disembark.

“I'm fine.” She grinned and planned a kiss on Grandfather's cheek. “And I don't think I've grown that much, if any.”

“Well, goodness knows, the weather on the mainland couldn't have done you any good.” She quipped as Fenrir helped her into the harness. “Are they still up to their knees in snow in Utgard?”

“No, Grandmother, just their ankles.” She replied and they started away.

“Home at last!” Grandfather offered. “Perhaps you can find where your grandmother has hidden the pepper, our food seems to have been bland without you.”

“Enough of that!” Grandmother interjected. “You've been spoiled with her cooking, that's what it is!”

“They've been like that almost as long as you've been gone.” Fenrir muttered as they fell behind their grandparents, heading up from the docks and into the city proper. “You'd think after five thousand years, they'd have run out of things to argue about.”

“I'm just glad we don't have to have an escort to the house.” She muttered. “I wasn't even allowed outside alone in Utgard.”

“Sounds terrible.” He remarked. “How was it, really?”

“It... it was strange. Everything is so different there.” She leaned closer to his ear. “I met Natasha.”

“How? She's a mere babe, is she not?” Fenrir paused to adjust his grip on her trunk.

“Well, in age perhaps, but she looks to be around a hundred and fifty.” She beamed as he turned his head to look back at her.

“Something tells me that there's more.” He grinned. “What is it?”

“Jörmungandr's on Asgard. He's called Joshua now, but he's there. We're all safe and accounted for.” She sighed and rested her head on his shoulder. “I'm so happy to be home.”

“I am glad you are back as well.” There was a solemn tone to his voice. “Natasha and Joshua of Asgard, Fenrir and Hela of Jotunheim. It works out rather... well, I suppose.”

“Don't be angry, brother. We'll all be together, some day. We'll go to Alfheim.” She chuckled. “Natasha says all she and Joshua have to do is wait for Prince Thor to be married and have two children of his own.”

“She's thinking like a child, it will take a great deal more than that, I fear.” Their grandparents were far ahead of them now. No doubt they just wanted to get home and get settled. “It's a foolish hope, that is all it is.”

“Sometimes hope is all one has to go on.” Hela replied, gently. “And aren't we children?”

“I suppose.” He sighed. “It sometimes seems like we aren't.” Fenrir chuckled. “What did you learn of our brother?”

“He's not a child. He – he grew up on Midgard, so he sort of aged like a Midgardian.” She sighed. “So he may only be three hundred and ten, but he looks six hundred, or twenty-five, as they measure things on Midgard.”

“I'm still older.” He stated, smugly.

“You're also bigger.” She rested her hands on his shoulder. “I could have walked back, you know.”

“I do. But you've got sea legs, so you'd be stumbling if I didn't carry you.” He laughed. “You stumble even when you haven't been on a boat for a week.”

She let out a contented sigh and closed her eyes. “It's good to be home.”

“I'm glad you're home too, Hela.” Fenrir chuckled. “You can tell us all about your adventures in Utgard over dinner. Grandmother is making skilgar spring soup.”

“She didn't have to do that!” She interjected. “That's a soup for special occasions!”

“And my little sister coming back is a special event.” He grinned. “I am certain that brother Joshua is going to pester Natasha for stories just as I will!”

Hela rolled her eyes. “How did I suddenly become the serious one of the two of us?”

**

It seemed as if everything happened in a matter of days, rather than a matter of months. Frigga didn't know how time had raced by so quickly; it seemed as if she had gone to bed the night before Loki's last trip to Midgard only yesterday and now, now it was just over a year later. So much had happened; the discovery of three other grandchildren, a wicked plot that her son had believed was the will of his father for centuries, and the return of one of her grandsons, and learning that the other two children were alive and well on Jotunheim.

Jotunheim.

Ever since Odin had made it know that he was planning on reopening communication channels between Asgard and that realm, things had become tense. It wasn't obvious, but there was definitely a feeling of unease over the court and the councils. The guilds seemed to be silent over the matter, at least. What did they have to fear from Jotunheim? No ties to the military and it wasn't as if there were discussions of trade and other commerce, it was just communication.

A thousand years, she reflected, was far too long for silence.

It might take another thousand years just for the rest of Asgard to accept it.

Alfheim was leading the way in realm unification, although Frigga doubted they would talk to Midgard any time soon. When it came to that realm, that would have to lie solely with Asgard. Jotunheim was a first step. Granted, it was a fairly large one, but it would not be so had not old wounds run deep. Svartalfheim needed help as well – it was all quite daunting.

Sighing, Frigga set down her shuttle and rose from her loom, a small smile playing on her lips. When Thor had informed her that he'd invited Lady Sif to dinner this week, she had managed to keep her composure and resisted the urge to tell him that it was about damn time. While she knew that the council had started muttering things about her son's unmarried status, she knew that this wasn't their idea, if anything, it was Thor's way of shutting them up.

She came out of her weaving room, her smile fading when she caught sight of her husband, his hand pressed against his chest, clutching the back of a chair. “Odin?”

He held up his hand. “I am fine, Frigga. The Odinsleep will soon be upon me, that is all.”

She sighed and came over to him, holding his face in her hands. “You've been putting it off again, haven't you?”

Odin took another deep breath. “I know, I should have done this before Natasha and I went to Jotunheim, but I felt I could rest easier if things were started before I went to sleep.” He managed a smile. “Lady Sif is joining us for dinner tonight, yes?”

Frigga nodded. “Yes.” She smoothed down his collar. “No more delaying after that, understood?” She used the same tone she did with her sons when she had instructed them to do something several times already.

The King of Asgard gave her a contrite smile. “Yes, my queen.” He continued to look sheepish. “Although I do not think Thor will thank me any time soon for handing the responsibilities he was just relieved of right back to him.”

She chuckled. “You have only been home four days, he can't have had time to make many plans, if anything, he's caught up on his own sleep and should be well rested and ready.”

Chapter Text

Sif had both been shocked and secretly delighted when Thor asked her to dinner. She had sat with him plenty of times in the feasting halls and at taverns, but being invited to attend a meal in the family dining room was an honor she had barely dreamed of entertaining. She'd had tea with Queen Frigga, dozens of times, both in her chambers and the gardens, but somehow, the dining room that was part of the family's inner sanctum was a place she couldn't dream of eating. Well, she could dream but to actually have it happen? She still was in a state of shock. The afternoon he had asked her, Sif was certain she had floated the whole way home, wondering how she had kept herself from going around with a stupid, silly grin on her face. She had to wonder if Thor had felt similar; he'd fairly beamed when she had accepted.

Her mother, however, had to be revolting about the whole situation the moment she had come home and announced that she was to dine with Thor and the rest of the royal family. First, she insisted that she needed a new gown, then remarked that she couldn't spend the entire day of on the training grounds, but needed to use the time to get ready. Why her mother thought she needed to spend an entire day primping for dinner was beyond her. It hadn't helped that her father had not said a thing about it either way, he'd told her long ago that if either of the two princes ever invited her to dinner, or wished to court her, she better have an incredible reason if she refused.

So, with her mother acting like a silly school girl and her father woefully oblivious, Sif decided that she would spend only her morning on the training grounds and then, rather than return home, she would effectively hide – with a little help from Natasha. The girl had been more than happy to volunteer her chambers for her to rest and change into proper clothes for dinner. Which was why, right now, she was up to her chin in soothing hot water and bubble bath that smelled of gardenias in the princess's bathing suite while the girl herself was practicing her harp in another part of her chambers, the tune wholly unfamiliar. When there was a pause, she cleared her throat. “What is the name of the composer of that tune?”

“Williams.” Natasha called. “He writes scores for Midgardian moving pictures.”

“Judging from the song, the story that goes with it must be fascinating.” Sif stretched her arms, tilting her head back against the lip of the tub. “I do not suppose you know what we're having for dinner tonight, do you?”

“I only know that the main dish is roast quail.” There was a thump that she guessed might be Natasha setting the harp back into place. “And dessert is crystallized fruit.” There were more shuffling noises that Sif could only guess at. “I'm supposed to start archery lessons in a few weeks.”

She smiled in response, remembering all to well the first weapon she had been handed, centuries ago and had long since abandoned in favor of more hand-to-hand combat. “I am certain you will do well, Natasha.”

“I'm not worried about that.” There was a thunk and Sif could tell the girl was sitting next to the open door. “I just worry about having to use it for something other than hunting or sport some day.”

Sif let out a long breath. “For the record, I hope you do not need to either.”

“I am not a coward, Lady Sif.” Her voice quivered. “I just...”

“No one said you were a coward, Sasha.” She sighed and turned over in the tub, and she could see the girl's back. “Forgive me for saying so, but you are still a little girl. Little girls shouldn't have to worry about defending themselves in combat.”

Natasha turned her head, looking back at her. “Anyone who thinks I'm just a little girl is going to be in serious trouble if they try to hurt me.” Her eyes narrowed. “I'll just set them on fire.”

Sif didn't doubt her words for a moment. “Certainly wish I could do something like that.” She managed a smile. “I wouldn't have to worry about getting blood out of my clothes.”

“Why don't you use magic?” Her tone was genuine and she frowned. “I know that you are skilled in all manners of weapons, why not magic, which can be as good as a weapon?”

She let out a chuckle. “I suppose no one has told you that I prefer to do everything the hard way.”

“Magic is hard.” She frowned. “And there's nothing wrong with it either.”

“I didn't say there was.” She sighed as the girl turned back around and took advantage of the situation to remove herself from the bath and throw on a towel and robe. “I just...” She went over to the door and sat on the floor near Natasha. “I didn't want to do what was expected of me. I know a little magic, basic, simple spells that nearly everyone knows.” She let out a worn sigh. “Rather like tying one's shoes.” She shook her head. “I have come to the conclusion that you act almost exactly like your father, Natasha – and Joshua looks like him.”

“He acts like Papochka too, sometimes.” Sif saw her hug her knees. “It's why Uncle Thor sometimes forgets that Joshua isn't Papochka.”

She nudged the door open further and pulled the girl to her for a hug. “You know what I think?”

Natasha shook her head. “What?”

“That you act so old sometimes, I forget that you are still a young lady and not a grown up.” She grinned to the girl's hair. “Us girls have to stick together, you know that?”

“Uh huh.” She rubbed her nose and pulled away. “I'll go back to my harp so you can get dressed.” Somewhere in the room, a clock tolled the hour. “It will not be long before the handmaidens come in and want to fuss with our hair.”

Sif shook her head. “Now that's something I've only had done a handful of times.” She sighed. “Usually with some snide remarks about the color of my tresses.”

“I like your dark hair.” Natasha stood. “At least yours is straight. I've had mine referred to a bilgesnipe's nest more times than I care to remember.”

She snorted in reply. “I doubt any of the handmaidens in this place have even seen a bilgesnipe, much less a nest.”

*

It was amazing, how comfortable a wall could be. Lorelei rested absently against the rear wall of her cell, stuck in some corner of the dungeons, the rest of the cells were empty and dark, making her bright corner of the dankest place seem over-lit. She glowered at the glowing wall directly in front of her, the whole space of the cell was ten by ten, and she knew that she could be far worse off.

I should have killed those little brats of Loki's. How many times had that thought crossed her mind these past three centuries? The half-jotun freaks. It was common knowledge that mixing blood made for stronger bloodlines in terms of sorcery, and given how powerful their father was, the second born prince's children would have been forces to be reckoned with. She could still remember seeing the eldest, looking all frost giant and almost nothing else. It would have been fitting had she handed the boy over to King Laufey, giving him a weapon he could raise against Asgard.

Absently, she reached up to the binding along her jaw, wincing as she tugged on the thread, the way she had for days now, not caring about the pain, the broken skin or even an infection. Glancing out into the hall, she saw the guard give her a look and turned, heading back up the corridor towards other occupied cells and his fellow guards. Keeping her expression passive, she gritted her teeth and then flinched as she finally, after days of trying, undid the knot that was right next to her earlobe. Before she continued, she swept her free hand in front of her, creating the illusion that she was still sitting calmly in her cell.

The first tug of thread through flesh was agonizing, and her entire body tensed in reflex as she slipped the catgut free of her skin. She pressed her cheek flesh between her fingers, moving quickly until she reached the start of her lips before uncurling and letting the tension and pain ebb before she continued. The thread dangled down towards her neck as she brushed her fingers against her prison trousers, the sharp scent of rust almost sent her stomach into revolt and she had to swallow back bile.

I should have killed Loki as well. Killed the younger boy and girl, killed Loki and left the eldest with the king of Jotunheim. When the prince had shown up to be trained in magic, Lorelei had been among the skeptics. Boys didn't practice magic, especially not princes. Despite the taunts, he'd persevered and promptly started showing everyone up, whether intentionally or accidentally. It made her livid. When he'd left to be taken under private tutelage, she'd been relieved – that was, until he shed his coltish appearance and had the nerve to become good-looking.

Well, now Loki was dead and once she got out of here, she was going to get rid of that little red-headed brat and her brother.

She pressed one hand against her mouth and took the thread in the other, twisted the end around her fingers. Steeling herself, Lorelei closed her eyes and gave the string a hard yank, causing it snap and blood gushed from her mouth. She fell forward, leaving two crimson hand-prints on the floor of her cell as she panted and gasped through the pain. Once the sting was bearable, she straightened up and unwound the thread, pausing halfway through her lips, wiping away the blood with the sleeve of her shirt.

Quickly, she worked the last of the thread out from between her lips, ignoring the pain the best she could. What a sight she must be at the moment. Her clothes were streaked with drying blood and she didn't want to think about the state the rest of her face might be in. She wound the thread around her fingers again and snapped it in two, she would worry about the rest of the stitches still in her cheek later, when she found some hot water and soap.

But, first things first.

She rose to her feet and went to the glowing wall of her cell. She might look like a nightmare, but she still had her greatest weapon, even with her magic mostly bound. The silly queen thought that stitching her mouth and jaw shut would be enough. “Oh guard...” She called out, grinning as not just one, but two armor clad members of Asgard's finest appeared outside. “I seem to have trapped myself in here. Let me out.”

A moment later, the force-field came down and she sauntered out of her cell. She would have to hurry if she wanted to leave Asgard before Heimdall decided to check on things in the prisons. Still, just to be certain, she waved the illusion back into place before the guards closed the cell.

*

“What was I thinking?” Thor pulled absently at the laces of his vambraces, pacing in his room. “This was a terrible idea!” He wheeled around to look at Joshua. “Why did you suggest this?!”

“It's dinner, uncle, not a wedding.” Joshua folded his arms, his focus on the floor. “You are behaving as if you and Lady Sif do not know each other at all.”

“This is...” He shook his head. “Oh, it's different, and...” He paused, letting out a laugh. “I fear our friends will be teasing us for weeks to come.”

“Beg your pardon, Prince Thor, but I believe your friends are going to be saying 'it's about damn time'.” He coughed.

“Oh, shut up, Loki.” He took a step, catching himself. “Joshua, I'm sorry.”

“It's fine.” His nephew rolled his eyes and turned his gaze to the ceiling. “You're not the only one who makes the error.”

Thor rubbed his face. “It has been a trying year, has it not?”

“I've only been here six months, but I will concur with that.” The younger man sounded tired. “and as I said, it is just dinner.”

He let out a breath. When he'd asked Sif to dinner, he'd actually been surprised when she said yes. He had long thought his friend wasn't one for formal meals and the like. She'd always been rough and tumble Sif, whom he'd been friends with forever, since the day she'd shown up on the training grounds when they were roughly Natasha's age, her eyes daring anyone to say anything about her being there. And oh, the comments started on the first day and they didn't cease. They still hadn't ceased, not completely. “I fear my parents will not see it as 'just dinner', Joshua.”

Joshua came over and clamped him on his shoulder. “Every journey must begin with a first step. It may just be dinner, it may become something more than dinner. Lady Sif has been your friend for centuries and you have asked her to join you and your family for a meal. This is nothing new, it just happens to be just your family present this time.” He took a breath. “Now, I will go and collect Natasha, so you'll at least be spared her grinning at you when you go down my sister's chambers to escort Sif to the dining room.”

He nodded in reply. “Thank you.” He watched as his nephew left the room, his nervousness abating slightly. It was just one meal; it was shameful that he was so worried about something as simple as having Sif to dinner. He'd faced far greater challenges than this. He walked over and checked his appearance in the mirror, absently wondering how Fandral spent so much time in front of them and was snapped from his musings by Natasha's giggle in the corridor. “I must be mad.” He went to the door and opened it, catching sight of the dinning room's door shutting just as he went into the hall. Thor straightened his shoulders and went down to his niece's room, remembering to knock lightly, rather than in his usual, brash manner.

When the door opened, his jaw nearly dropped. So accustomed to seeing Sif in leather and armor was he that seeing her in a gown of lace and some type of floaty fabric, he almost didn't recognize her. “Good evening, Sif.” He managed to say and he saw the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

“Good evening, Thor.” The uncertain look she gave him was nearly as unsettling as her dress.

“You should wear dresses more often, Sif.” He blurted out and she responded by smacking him on the nose. The tension between them broke and he straightened up, though his face was still rather red. “May I escort you to dinner?” He held out his arm, feeling the blush seeping up to his ears.

“Yes, thank you.” She took the offered arm and they headed up the corridor. “I feel like an idiot in this gown.”

“You look stunning.” Thor replied, perfectly honest. “Then again, you always look beautiful.” He winced. What was the matter with him? He glanced at Sif out of the corner of his eye and caught the slightest hint of a blush on her cheeks.

“Who are you and what have you done with Prince Thor?” She quipped, a playful grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“I'm holding him prisoner in his own laundry hamper, along with a mountain of dirty socks.” He answered as a servant opened the door of the dining room, his head bowed as they passed.

“Well, I hope you left him a method in which to breathe. I imagine the stench is almost lethal.” She countered and Thor resisted the urge to laugh.

“Good evening, Lady Sif, uncle.” Natasha was standing next to her chair, and then Thor noticed that everyone seemed to be waiting for them to sit.

“Apologies.” Thor cleared his throat and led Sif around to his side of the table, remembering to pull out her chair and waited until she was seated before sitting down himself. The hard part, he judged, was most likely over. He just hoped he could eat his meal without getting it all over himself.

**
“I do not know about you, Hela, but I for one, am relieved that despite recent developments and that now many know of our relation to King Laufey, their treatment of us has not changed.” Fenrir frowned. “Not that royalty means a damn thing in the Spears.” They were heading back from the market, having left their grandparents napping at home.

“Not exactly.” Hela leaned against his shoulder, letting out a sigh. “When it's summer and school starts again, I suspect my friends are going to want to know all about the capital and court and all that foolish nonsense.”

Fenrir sighed. “We both will. Although if anything, I now have a ready made excuse to keep the boys away from you.”

“Please, all the boys still have cooties.” His sister snorted “Yourself included, brother dear. I'm just immune to yours.”

“Ha!” Fenrir shook his head. “A likely story.” He frowned at the sight of small platoon of soldiers who passed on the road in front of them. It was a sight he had grown used to in recent weeks, but hadn't brought up in front of his sister. “Apparently there's some worry that the mainland rebels may not all be gone.”

“I don't know why the rebels just didn't leave the mainland and come live peacefully in the Spears.” she chuckled. “Maybe they're too attached to patches of ground.”

“Perhaps, but then...” Fenrir was cut off as there was a loud bang and something shook the ground, throwing him to his knees. He felt Hela grab his hair as she swung in the harness, and he let out a hiss of pain, fighting back the urge to curse.

“Sorry.” She whimpered as he stood up, feeling her grip loosening and he quickly looked for a possible source of the noise and then saw the thick black smoke pouring into the sky from the block where their family lived.

“No. Hold on.” Forgetting their food, he took off at a run, heading for home, praying that his worst fears were for naught. When they reached their house, however, his heart turned to lead in his chest and he and Hela could only stare in abject horror at the smoldering ruin that, only an hour ago, had been a well built house where they had grown up.

In the yard, attached to a long pike was a bleached white and red banner, the flag of the rebellion. He felt his sister's grasp on his shoulders tighten, almost to the point of drawing blood as he fell to his knees. There was no way their grandparents could have survived this. The rebels had just murdered the only family they had on Cendal, the only family they had on the Spears.

There was activity around them, but the pair remained oblivious as the fire was extinguished, soldiers started questioning people and he felt someone haul him to his feet and lead the two of them away, and Fenrir paused and removed Hela from the harness. Then, just as he had centuries ago, cradled his sobbing sister to his chest and walked, head down, into the unknown.

**

Part of Natasha's routine was to eat lunch with Joshua every day after their lessons were done for the morning with Mr. Siry. Afterward, she would leave for her seidr training, and her brother would spend his afternoon doing his library work, or taking additional lessons in his own chambers until tea time. Following tea, which they sometimes shared, they would always go out for a ride when the weather was fair, then return to prepare for dinner.

Today, however, Natasha wasn't that hungry. When the servant brought in the tray, loaded down with more food than seemed right for two people, she had nearly asked him to take her portion back to the kitchens. But then, Joshua was known to eat Uncle Volstagg under the table, so it was a good bet that if she didn't eat it, he would. Sighing, she took a thick slice of bread from her plate and nibbled at it.

“Not hungry?” Joshua asked as he lifted two silver domes, revealing two steaming bowls of soup. “Oh, it's my favorite.” He grinned as he set the lids down.

“No.” She shifted in her seat. “I just haven't felt well lately. I ate my breakfast, but I...” She set the bread down. “I think I may be coming down with something.”

Joshua gave her a concerned look. “You don't feel feverish, do you?”

She shook her head. “It's not a sick-sick feeling, it's... I don't know how to describe it, exactly.”

He folded his arms and rested his chin on his hand. “Perhaps it's stress.” He reached over with his other hand and lifted her chin. “I know what it is. You'd rather be running around duty be damned with Hela than doing all this schooling and serious stuff.”

She managed a weak giggle. “Maybe.”

“Well, if that's the case then...” He was cut off as the door of her chambers were opened and quickly shut. A very impish and out-of-breath Uncle Thor stood there, leaning back against the door, looking much as he did years ago, back when he was still shirking duties and was more focused on having fun than behaving himself.

The three of them had not really spoken since dinner, two days ago. When Grandfather went into the Odin-sleep, her uncle had to resume the duties of keeping the realm running. Grandmother was worried, as Grandfather had put off his yearly slumber for longer than he was supposed to, meaning he would sleep much longer than the normal handful of days. Possibly as much as a week.

Joshua tore off part of a loaf of bread, nonplussed. “Someone's playing hide and go seek with the privy council again.”

Uncle Thor snorted. “I am not. I am merely looking for a quiet place to have lunch.”

“If you wanted to have lunch with us, you should have let us know.” Natasha waved him over. “I don't know if we have enough food.” Now it was a good thing she didn't feel like eating. Between the two of them, she could wager her brother and uncle could eat a whole skilgar.

“I'm not entirely hungry.” He sat down at the table, frowning at the assortment of food in front of him. “But I would rather not hear about taxes and trade for one hour out of my day. I should just declare a recess unless something demands urgent attention.”

“Knowing those old geezers, they'd declare it a crisis if there was a shortage of armor polish.” Joshua retorted. “Has no one in the whole bloody army of Asgard heard of camouflage?”

“You can have my soup, uncle Thor.” Natasha nudged the bowl towards him. “I think the cook forgot that I don't care for this kind.” She had tried her best to never refuse food, knowing how many hungry people there were in the realms, but the spicy soup with prawns never agreed with her.

“Thank you.” Her uncle took up the bowl and spoon. “It smells delicious.”

“And here I was hoping I'd get a double serving.” Joshua said, picking up his spoon and setting down the bread.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “No doubt there's more in the kitchens. Just because uncle realized this is the one place where the privy council won't come looking for him doesn't mean that the kitchen staff won't bring you another helping.” She took a small bite of bread, wishing the uneasy feeling that had been plaguing her for a few days would go away.

“This tastes strange.” Uncle Thor said, eating another mouthful. “Perhaps it's the spice.”

Joshua took a large spoonful, then frowned. “You're right...” He ate some more. “Wait...” He spluttered and the spoon fell to the floor, and he grasped the table. “It's...”

Natasha jumped up from the table just as her brother fell from his chair and her uncle slumped over his food, sending soup everywhere. Both of them were pale faced and Joshua was making a wretched gagging noise. She ran to the door and flung it open. “Help! I need help!” She screamed.

A guard appeared instantly. “What is it, Princess Natasha?”

“It's my uncle and brother! I think they've been poisoned!”

*

“You have no other family here in the Spears?” The magistrate looked solemnly over his folded hands at Fenrir and Hela, his expression stern, but kind.

“No sir.” Fenrir answered. “We have family in Utgard and Asgard, nowhere else.”

“Hm.” He lowered his hands. “With the reemergence of the rebels, travel to Utgard is perilous.” He took a breath. “The search has already begun for the criminals here on Cendal, and the other islands have been notified of the situation. We will do our utmost to bring the jotun who did this to justice.”

“I don't care what happens to me.” He interjected. “I want Hela to be taken care of.”

“Brother.” His sister whispered from next to him. “Don't...”

“No, Hela. It's my job to take care of you and I can't do that here. I couldn't do it on Utgard.” He turned back to the magistrate. “Is it possible for Hela to seek asylum in Asgard?”

“I'm not going to Asgard!” Hela jumped up in her seat. “They'll kill me!”

“No, they won't.” He tried to remain calm. “You'll be safer there than you would be on Jotunheim.”

“I... I don't want to go to Asgard!” She tried to fight back tears. “I want to stay here with you!”

“We don't have a place to stay, Hela.” He turned away from the magistrate and took both of her hands in one of his, and set his other on her back. “Getting back to Utgard is too dangerous, considering the rebels aren't identified. They'd kill you in a heartbeat, death would be kind to what they could do.” He pressed his forehead to hers, painfully aware of just how different in size they were. “This is for the best, Hela. You don't have to go to Asgard forever, just – just for a little while.”

“What about you?” She blubbered. “What are you doing to do? The rebels will kill you too.”

“No, they won't.” He took a breath and turned to the magistrate. “Is it possible to appeal to the watchman of Asgard to seek Hela's passage there? Granted, King Laufey might be rather perturbed if he receives report of the Bifrost activating on the Spears, but I think, given the circumstances, he will dismiss it.” Fenrir wasn't fooled. He knew full well that the jotun sitting across from him was aware of the whole situation of how he and Hela came to live on Cendal and who their family was. “I am certain that word can be sent from Asgard to the palace in Utgard before a messenger from here can reach him.”

The magistrate nodded. “That can all be arranged. It is possible that the guardian of Asgard already knows what has happened.” He cleared his throat. “With your sister going off-world, what do you intend to do, Fenrir?” His tone was kind, but serious.

“I will go to Qnther.” He replied, trying not to react to his sister's sharp gasp. “I know I am younger than most who enlist in the Spears' army, but I can no more go to Utgard than my sister can.” He swallowed hard. “There is a ship leaving at the end of this week, yes?”

“A week?” Hela interjected, and he could tell that his sister was close to tears. “That's not...”

He squeezed her hands again. “Hela, I am sorry, but I cannot think of any other way for things to go. Staying here on Cendal or going to Utgard together is not an option. I don't like this any more than you do.” He gave her a smile. “You won't be alone on Asgard. You'll have our brother and sister. You can be brave like Joshua was, alone on Midgard all those years.”

“Don't talk to me like I am an infant!” She spat, half-sobbing.

“Oh good, my fireball sister is still there.” He grinned, catching her at smiling. “This will not be forever, Hela. It's just for a while.”

Slowly, she nodded. “I'll miss you.”

“I'm going to miss you too, sister. You always wanted to go to Asgard, remember?” Fenrir's smile became more certain.

“Not like this.” She pulled her hands free and flung her arms around his neck. “Not this soon.”

“I know.” He hugged her and he saw the magistrate nod and leave the room, understanding their need to be alone. “It will all work out, you will see.” He closed his eyes as tears spilled down his cheeks.

**

“It was in the soup, my queen.” Eir said softly to Frigga, who was trying her best to remain perfectly calm. “Fortunately, neither of the princes consumed enough of it to be fatal. The recovery sleep will hasten the healing, but it will take time.”

“How long?” She stepped between the two beds, looking from her son to her grandson.

“Two weeks at maximum.” The woman let out a breath. “Prince Joshua consumed a larger portion of the poison, as he ate more of the soup. No doubt the dosage that was in Prince Thor's had been intended for Princess Natasha. Had she consumed the same amount he did, it would have killed her.”

“Norns.” Frigga cursed. “Who could have done this? And why?”

“The servants are being questioned.” Eir clasped her hands, looking uncertain. “I understand that both the cook who made the soup as well as the footman who prepared and delivered the trays are both in custody at the moment.”

Frigga straightened her shoulders, her heart torn. While she knew she should be sitting with Odin, guarding him while he slept, her mother's instinct insisted that she stay here, with her child and her grandchild. Then there was Natasha, who was currently sitting with her grandfather, along with Volstagg, who was more than capable of warding off any attack. “It doesn't make any sense. Why attack Loki's children?” The sound of hurrying footsteps caused both her and the healer to turn and two guards came in, both of them looking horrified, but bowing instantly. “What is it?” Damn this stupid protocol, she wanted answers, not manners.

“The sorceress Lorelei has escaped, my queen.” The taller of the two replied. “We estimate that she has been gone several days.”

“Damn.” Frigga swore and then looked back down at the two sleeping men. “I believe that answers who did this.” She straightened her shoulders. “Go out to Heimdall, tell him to do his best to find that vile woman.”

“Yes, my queen.” the two guards bowed and left the healing chambers.

“I should have seen this coming.” She muttered under her breath and then sat down between the two beds. “I won't stay here long, just...”

Eir gave Frigga a warm smile. “Take as long as you need, majesty.” She bowed and walked away, leaving the queen alone.

*

Loki barely managed to duck before Gamora's staff swept over his head. “What's the matter with you?” He grabbed the weapon as she swung it again, holding it steady as she tried to jerk it from his grasp.

“It's nothing!” The girl spat. “Let go!”

“No.” He gave the wooden stave a sharp tug, yanking it out of her grasp. “This is about the little girl that Thanos brought here this morning, isn't it?”

Gamora fumed. “I don't give a shit about Nebula!”

“Language.” Loki shook his head. “I suppose you're worried that Thanos will insist I tutor her as well and it will cut in our time together.” He leaned against the staff, looking down into her heaving face. “It will be some time before he does that, if he ever does.”

“That's not it!” She folded her arms, glowering. “I just...” Her shoulders slumped. “I don't know what it is.”

“Thanos has a new baby and you're jealous.” He held up a hand to silence her. “You are also working too hard.” He gave her an amused smile. “Enough physical activities for today. Shall we play the Lying Game?”

A faint smile came to her face. “What's the point? You always win.”

“It's because I have had more practice. I can also eat half my weight in meat, drink any man on Midgard under the table, swim for six hours straight and charm any wild animal to do my will.”

Gamora snorted. “You couldn't swim for six hours straight if you tried.”

“Oh, someone's been paying attention!” He grinned. “I also don't think I'd want to eat half my weight in meat. Just because I can doesn't mean I should.”

She grinned. “All meat and no sweets makes for a poor meal indeed.”

“That it does!” He sat down on the floor. “Come come, it's your turn.”

She flopped down on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, not looking at him. “I don't trust the Other, I believe the Kree should quit while they're ahead, I think the chitauri are a plague and I don't want Nebula for a little sister.”

“You forgot to lie, Gamora.” Loki chuckled as she gave him a disgusted look. “Although, you might change your mind about Nebula.”

“I highly doubt it.” She retorted. “At least I don't have to baby-sit her.”

“See, there's one good thing.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Would you like the rest of the afternoon off?”

Gamora sat up, frowning at him. “Is something wrong?”

“Merely asking.” He didn't want to let her know that he'd had the feeling that something was wrong, somewhere. It was too risky for him to try and contact Natasha or even his mother, there was too much of a risk of Thanos finding out, Asgard was too far away for him to attack it at this point. It would take him forty Midgard years to reach the realm. Howard Stark had no doubt locked the Tesseract back up for the time being, and until it was in an open area, it could not be activated and cut the travel time down to hours. In fact, the nearest realm was Svartalfheim, it would only take ten years... “Take the afternoon off, do whatever you do for fun.”

“Why?” She gave him an odd look. “What is it?”

“I am going to speak with Thanos.” He didn't smile, he didn't dare. He had to keep up the charade for a little longer. “If he agrees, we will be going on a long trip and you will not have to worry about Nebula upstaging you. Ever.” He rose to his feet, heading for the door. Behind him, he heard Gamora get up and follow.

*

“It's sort of scary to see Grandfather like this.” Natasha whispered to Uncle Fandral, who had relieved Uncle Volstagg for the night.

“That's understandable.” He looked over at her from where he was sitting, sharpening his sword. “How are you doing?”

“I'm... I don't know.” She heaved a sigh. “I'm worried about Joshua and Uncle Thor.”

“They'll be fine.” He replied. “It's a good thing that one of you didn't eat the soup, and that all three of you were together – there was one of you to sound the alarm.”

“I guess.” She hugged herself and was about to speak again when the door of the room was opened and the captain of the guard came in, took three steps and dropped to one knee.

“Your majesty.” He said, not looking up.

Natasha gave Fandral a confused look. “Grandfather's asleep.”

“I don't think it's the king he's talking to, Natasha.” The man had a stunned look on his face, and then his eyes widened, looking from the guard to her and then, bowed his head.

Realization washed over her in a second. Grandfather was in Odin-sleep, her brother and Uncle were both incapacitated in the healing halls. That left only her in the line of succession to the throne. Taking a deep breath, she left her stool next to the bed and went over to the guard, hoping she could keep her tone level as she drew near the still kneeling guard. “Rise.”

The man stood, and she could see that he looked as if he was trying to maintain his composure as well. “Please come with us.”

She nodded, straightening her shoulders as they left the room and she was escorted by a phalanx of Einherjar through the palace, already knowing their destination. Never in her life did she expect for this to actually happen; especially not when she was still a child by Asgardian standards. Thankful for the long sleeves of her dress, she clasped her hands tightly together, keeping her emotions in check. They were taking her to the great hall because Asgard needed a ruler; even if they were just a figurehead for a short while, like Grandmother had been during past Odin-sleeps and Uncle Thor had not been ready to be king.

Oddly, Natasha hoped that some well meaning guard or steward had set a footstool at the base of the throne, so she could be spared the indignity of literally having to climb into the seat.

Chapter Text

Loki remained perfectly passive as Thanos turned around to face him, not letting any emotion show on his face, knowing that it was paramount that to keep his composure. He even managed a half-bow, a fraction deeper than the ones he had given while he was an ambassador. “Good afternoon, Lord Thanos.”

“Hmm.” The titan frowned. “What is it?”

“I believe I have an idea of how to retrieve the Tesseract from where it is locked up on Midgard.” He saw the slight change in the larger man's face. “Although, I do not know if you would approve.”

“Tell me.” He took a step forward, but Loki did not step back. “I'm listening.”

“The trouble, my lord, is not getting the Tesseract from the humans. Their security is laughable, their intelligence more so. Those with the knowledge or foresight to use that particular Infinity Gem are hampered by less worthy beings.” He shrugged. “Or spend what time they could use in a worthy pursuit destroying themselves.”

“But getting to Midgard, or Terra, as it is also called, would take you too long. Seven hundred years, I believe is the estimate, without using any temporal gates.” He frowned. “So what do you suggest?”

“I can get to Midgard in ten years, if I were to go there via Svartalfheim. There are passageways between the Nine Realms, and that is the nearest place with a passageway to Midgard.” He shrugged, rather absently, as if everything was trivial and mere afterthought. “There aren't enough dark-elves left to put up much of a fight, if any. Furthermore, the path is on the opposite side of the realm from their largest population.”

Thanos turned around. “And is there way to Asgard from Svartalfheim?”

“No.” Loki answered. “The passageway between those two realms was destroyed in an earthquake over two hundred years ago.” He frowned. “Not that it couldn't be cleared with heavy labor, but that is ill advised.”

“And why is that?” The titan glared at him.

“The opening into Asgard is near the bottom of a reservoir.” He tapped his fingers together. “It is merely an idea, my lord.”

“And the Bi-Frost, does it not connect to that realm?” His voice deepened.

“The Bi-Frost can connect to anywhere, but as we are shielded here and I will keep myself cloaked from the gatekeeper, I do not think that it matters.” Loki kept his voice even. He knew full well that Thanos wasn't stupid, but he also knew that the titan would rather take the risk to get his hands on one of the Infinity Stones than to just dismiss this idea completely.

“Ten years to Svartalfheim.” He started to pace. “How long would you estimate it would take you to travel to Terra and retrieve the Tesseract?”

He thought for a moment, trying to come up with a logical estimate, nothing too long and nothing too short. “Two of their months, perhaps three.” He straightened his shoulders. “I know it seems like a great deal of time, my lord, but it may be even longer before the humans bring it out into the open. The time it will take them to develop the technology to even scratch the surface? Another century, at least.”

“They have used it already, have they not?” Thanos's voice deepened and for the first time, Loki almost broke his focus.

“Barely. In their typical manner, all they did was manufacture weapons.” He shook his head. “And even those were lost. They did create a serum that was administered to a handful of beings, but both the exact formula remains unknown. Not to mention the side-effects were horrendous.”

“Hm.” He came over and stood right next to him and it took all of Loki's will not to break the titan's gaze. “The trouble, little jotun, is that it would take you another ten to return. Unless you take a portal device with you.”

“What do you suggest, my lord?” He lowered his shoulders, properly cowed.

“To send you to Svartalfheim, with a portal device. Once there, you will assemble and activate it. You will go to Terra and retrieve the Tesseract. I will arrange for a distraction.” He chuckled. “Perhaps we shall shake Malekith from his sleep and he can join us here.” He smirked. “You will be taking Gamora with you, of course.”

“She's just a child.” Loki spread his hands outward, feigning upset. “I do not think she is ready.”

“You'll need two distractions. If you cannot disguise her as a Terran and have her play a helpless silly girl, then what the devil has she been learning all these hours?” Thanos sneered.

He bowed, reflexively. “An excellent point, my lord.”

“Yes.” He turned and stalked away. “Be ready to leave in twelve hours.”

“Of course, my lord.” Loki answered, bowing again. He already knew he wasn't going to tell Gamora what was really going on until right before the two of them went into suspended animation for their ten year trek across the stars.

*

Natasha could not honestly fathom why the guards had come to take her to the throne room when Grandmother was still perfectly capable. Now that she'd had the better part of the morning to think it over, she was no closer to an answer as to why she was sitting here, in the massive room, alone, save for a handful of guards and the occasional passing servant. The only thing she had done in capacity as Asgard's ruler was send court into recess, and that unless the problem was urgent, it could wait a few days. Certainly it would only be a a short time before Grandfather woke up and was ready to resume his duties. If the situation with her brother and uncle wasn't so serious, she would almost think Grandfather had planned on sleeping through the boring talk of taxes and trade, trusting that he would be spared the petty squabbling of the privy council and other nobles.

Well, all right, perhaps the looks on the faces of the council and arrogant lords when she sent them all away from the throne room almost made her current situation worth it. She straightened up as a page came towards the throne, his expression apprehensive.

“Your grace.” He bowed, and then glanced upwards. “I beg your pardon, but Lord Ketheson wishes to speak with you.”

Natasha felt her eyebrows lift. She had not seen Lord Ketheson since Papochka's funeral. He was a relatively minor member of the court, and spent more time actually tending to his duties as a lord, rather than here in the capitol. “Did he state his business?”

“Only that he originally had an appointment to speak with the Allfather, your grace.” The page still looked as if she was going to order him to clean chamberpots or muck out horse stalls. “I tried to explain that you had dismissed court, but...”

“Just tell me...” She suddenly recalled the man's name. “Just tell me what he said, Haran.”

“He stated that he has been trying to talk to the Allfather for several years over something, but his appointment has been dismissed and rescheduled over a dozen times in the past ten years.” He remained cowed.

“Would that we could all be so patient.” Natasha was floored by the idea of someone having to wait ten years just to talk to Grandfather for thirty minutes. “I will see Lord Ketheson.”

As the page headed back up to the doors, she smoothed out the skirt of her dress, resolved that she would at least hear what the man had to say; waiting as long as he had, it was bound to be something he felt wholly passionate about. She clasped her hands in her lap as the Haran returned, along with a conservatively dressed man who reminded her of Howard Stark in age.

Lord Ketheson bowed. “Good morning, your grace.”

“Good morning, Lord Ketheson. I am deeply sorry that you have had to wait so long to speak with the Allfather, and now that the date is here, I must take his place.” It seemed only logical to her to apologize to him; Norns knew, he deserved that at least.

The man stood, smiling faintly. “Thank you, your grace.”

“What is it that you wish to discuss?” She saw two more pages approach, carrying scrolls and folios, both of them looking rather nervous.

“I am certain you are aware that on my estates, I started a school for the peasants some time ago.” She nodded and he went on. “It has been a success, and I believe it has been more beneficial to the well-being of the people of Asgard who live in the area and, for the whole of the realm as well.” He took a breath. “I would like to expand what I have done to the rest of the peasants of Asgard, including those who live here in the capitol.”

Natasha thought for a moment and took a breath. “I take it that not many of the other lords agree with this idea.”

“No.” He made a face. “Many have told me that educating the lower classes is something they couldn't possibly appreciate and they do not wish to waste the funds that it would take to educate the people who work on their land and houses.”

She bit back the retort that was on the edge of her tongue that the other lords were being stupid. “Do they feel it will distract from their work, I was of the understanding that while your school is open year round, the schedule was such that it allowed workers and their children to attend so it corresponded with seasons and did not interfere with their work.”

“Yes.” He took a scroll had handed it one of the guards, who brought it up to her. She opened it and scanned the words quickly. “I have considered a worthy investment, as those under my care have become more productive and live happier lives than previously.”

“What did you have in mind of pushing your proposal through?” She came down onto the stairs and handed the scroll back to one of the pages.

“My wife, Lady Ketheson, believes that the best idea to put this through is to go indirectly, rather than straightforward.”

She smiled faintly. “You wish to start a charity to circumvent the objections the other lords have?”

“Yes.” There was a slight smile on his face. “I know it is rather presumptive of me, as in rankings, I'm barely a lord, if...”

Natasha held up her hand. “I believe your idea is admirable and an excellent one. I do not have any objections to your starting a charity, but how...” She suddenly caught what sort of help he needed. “You are in need of more people to back your idea.”

He nodded. “It is quite difficult to raise funds when the majority of people in court barely acknowledge you past common courtesy.”

“Quite true.” She picked at her hand, her mind racing. “It is currently a rather – inopportune time.” She turned towards Haran, who was still standing between the other two pages. “I want to see Lady Tyr tomorrow, Haran. See that the message is delivered to her. I also want the tentative schedule for the Harvest Festival.” She turned back to the lord. “Is Lady Ketheson here with you in the capitol?”

“Yes, your grace.” He had a small smile on his face.

“I would like for her to join me and if possible, Lady Tyr, later this week. I will send a message when it has been scheduled. Is there any time that is not convenient?”

“Your grace, our days are completely open at your discretion.” He inclined his head. “And thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” She gave him a warm smile. “And again, I am sorry that it has taken this long for your appointment to take place.”

He bowed again in response and he and his two pages headed back up to the entrance of the throne room, stepping aside as Heimdall entered it and moved quickly down towards her.

“Damn.” Natasha said under her breath. The guardian would not have left his post unless it was an emergency. “Good morning, Heimdall.”

“Good morning, Princess Natasha.” His expression remained as stoic as ever. “Magistrate Issacar of Cendal is requesting political asylum for your sister, Hela Lokadottir.”

She blinked at him. “For Hela? Just Hela?” She frowned. “What of Fenrir?”

“He was not mentioned. The rebellion on Jotunheim has reignited in the Spears. There has already been and attack that has left their maternal grandparents dead and the journey to Utgard is too risky.” He glanced sideways at one of the guards, who suddenly stiffened. “As such, both the Magistrate and Fenrir Lokason feel that the only safe place for your sister is here.”

It was a hard thing to process; her sister, coming here to live in Asgard? With the rest of their family? It's not that she had any problem with the idea; but at the same time, it was almost hard to comprehend. Natasha rubbed her temple. “I believe we need to inform the Allmother before we can send a reply to Cendal.”

**

Fenrir watched as the coast of Cendal vanished behind him, wishing he could have at least stayed with Hela until she left for Asgard. But time and tide waited for no jotun, and the journey to Qnther would take nearly a month. The island on the the other side of Jotunheim was home to the training ground of the Spears' army, and while he was still viewed as a boy, he wasn't alone in his journey. The boat would stop at the other islands, picking up more volunteers. He knew that life in the army would be hard and it would be at least ten years before he saw his sister again, but somehow, knowing that she was going to be somewhere safe was already a great burden lifted off of his shoulders.

He leaned against the railing, shifting his gaze to the rolling sea, the white-caps breaking against the blue gray. He sighed as another jotun, one he didn't know came to stand next to him. “Good morning.”

“Morning.” He replied, frowning. “You're rather young, aren't you?”

“I feel about three times my age on a regular basis.” He retorted. “But yes, I know I am young.”

“Nothing wrong with that.” He chuckled. “Not that I'm one to talk, I'm barely five hundred.” He held out his hand. “Eljka Paarason, I'm from Myrlyr.”

He shook the jotun's hand. “Fenrir Lokason, Cendal.” He let his hand fall. “What sends you to the army?”

“I have three elder brothers. I'm one less mouth to feed.” He sighed. “I'm also tired of my brothers' bullying.”

“I can't imagine, I don't have an older brother.” Fenrir kept his gaze on the sea. “I have a younger brother and two younger sisters, although they don't live on Cendal, they live off-realm.”

“Just you here on Jotunheim then?” Eljka blinked. “That must be difficult.”

“Well, I couldn't go with my sister... where I'm normal sized here, she's far too small. Like my brother and other sister.” He shook his head. “Recessive genes.” He didn't feel like sharing his whole life story with a total stranger at the moment.

“I'm going to miss my mom's cooking.” The older jotun said, absently. “And I suppose I'll miss my brothers and my da.”

“My parents are dead.” He answered. “As are my grandparents.”

“I'm sorry.” Eljka leaned against the railing. “Did you know that on Midgard, all their oceans and the majority of their seas are all salt water?”

Fenrir blinked. “I did not.” He frowned. “Norns, where do they get fresh water from?”

“They have freshwater rivers, lakes and glaciers.” He coughed. “Although I must admit, I believe all of our Midgard geography must be woefully lacking.”

“I can't imagine how history has changed there as well.” Fenrir absently thought of Natasha. “They most likely live in much better homes than wooden halls by now. I suspect they now live in homes of stone and glass, similar to the Vanir.”

“Have you ever met a Midgardian?” The two of them started away from the rail, heading for the hold.

“No, although I have some Midgardian ancestry, and one of my sisters is half-Midgardian.” He sighed. “Although I have yet to meet her. My family is – rather complicated.”

“Isn't everyone's?” Eljka laughed. “Cendal, that's where they grow grain, yes?”

“Yes, the bread-basket of Jotunheim. But like all the Spears, we have those that work the seas.” He sighed. “I've never been to Myrlyr.”

“You're not missing much, factories and fisher-folk.” He sighed. “I'd have liked to have tried farming that goes beyond the backyard.”

Fenrir nodded and they went below, and he glanced once more towards the bow of the ship, where the sight of his childhood home vanished on the horizon.

**
Ten years in suspended animation?” Gamora glared at Loki, indignantly. “That's forever!” It wasn't the idea of leaving Thanos's stronghold that bothered her, it was being out of touch for so long. It was training she would miss, growing up some, just – how was she supposed to come back here after all that time like nothing had happened?

“It is not as bad as you fear.” Loki squeezed her chin, an affectionate gesture that she both detested and loved at the same time. She wasn't a baby – but.. “Think of how you'll move up in Thanos's eyes when we return. All you have to do is take a long nap, help me put a machine together and then act like a lost little girl. Nebula will be spitting nails for the next century over this.”

She jerked free of him. Of course he'd bring up Nebula. “I still don't like it.”

“Well, we can do this and bring Thanos that much closer to his ultimate goal, or we can wait around for the Terrans to start playing with the Tesseract again, which most likely won't be for another twenty years or so. We can also wait the thirty years for the convergence, if you like.”

She huffed and folded her arms, following him down the corridor. “What if the residents of Svartalfheim stop us? They are Malekith's people.”

“They are not all like him, Gamora.” Loki sighed and they came into the hangar where their ship, a light-weight freighter that had been stolen from Xandar, part of a small fleet that the Kree had recently gifted to Thanos. “What's left of the dark elves armed forces is just about enough to win a bar brawl, but nothing more.”

She stopped and watched him walk away, heading for the ship. Something was off about that. While she knew that the planet in question was mostly a wasteland, what he said didn't make sense. How could he know such things when the dark-elves were notoriously anti-social and hated outsiders. She ran to catch up with him. “There's something you're not telling me.”

“Well, I'm going to have to glamour you when we go to Midgard, but I assumed you would have known that.” He shrugged, almost dismissively. “Or could it be that the little assassin in training is scared?”

“I am no coward!” She shot back at him. How dare he say something like that? He was the one acting strangely, not her! “I am not afraid!”

Loki took a deep breath as they came to the entrance ramp of their vessel. “I know you are not. You're just nervous. Do not worry, this is just the point where the mission seems impossible. Things will be clearer once we actually get there, and start to work.”

“I suppose.” She sighed and glanced up over her shoulder, looking at the catwalks, rather surprised when she did not see Thanos there. Certainly he would be seeing her off, wouldn't he? She almost snorted at her own foolishness. He was probably off doting on Nebula.

She went into the ship and skirted around the crates that held the portal machine that she and Loki would assemble at their destination. It would allow them to move the chitauri from here to Midgard with minimal difficulty. Although once they had the Tesseract there was little reason to stay there. Perhaps they would search for the Aether as well. Gamora slid into the co-pilot seat, glancing over at Loki, who was busy checking systems and flipping switches. “Are you worried?”

“Terrified.” He answered, almost instantly. “Although I'm more afraid of getting there than what we'll find when we do.”

She frowned and started fastening herself into her seat, the sound of the cargo doors shutting and locking behind them had a sense of finality to them; perhaps she would never come back here again. Oddly, she was fine with that. “How long to we travel before we go into suspended animation?”

“Roughly two hours. We'll eat some of the rations before we go under, otherwise we'll wake up hungry enough to eat the ship.” He took a breath and then turned a few switches, and the engines began to start. “We might not have even have to kill anyone once we get to Midgard, I hope you weren't counting on doing that.”

“What, you think that Stark fellow is just going to hand it over?” Gamora folded her arms as Loki fastened the buckles of his own harness.

“It's possible. I told him to lock it up.” He shook his head. “Then again, I don't entirely trust that defense organization he's a part of.”

“Why not?” She frowned. “You said they were all brilliant, or something along those lines.”

“I don't trust anyone who says they have the best of intentions for the majority. That often comes at the expense of the minority.” He gave her an odd look. “Years ago, when they were first recruiting, several of the founding members were from a group called Hydra, who claimed that they had seen the errors of their ways and wanted to atone for their mistakes.”

“You don't believe that's true?” She shook her head and sat back. “How unlike you.”

“You can always say you're sorry, or you didn't know any better, or that you were threatened when you're on the side that loses.” He held up his hand, palm up and as she watched, a small ball of flame flickered to life over it, changing colors as it spun. He tossed it into the air and caught it, and kept his gaze out the front screen. “Understand?”

She folded her arms and shook her head. “Not really.”

“If you're going to form a group dedicated to protect, you don't start your recruiting with liars and killers.” He gave her a sideways look. “That is how you start a group to take over the world, not save it.” He took a breath. “All right, Gamora, let's get out of here.”

“Right.” She nodded and started scanning the read-outs on the board in front of her. “All the bulkheads are locked and secured.”

“Excellent.” He set his hand on the controls and the ship lifted slightly, and they glided over the hangar, his face stoic. “Here we go, sailing off into the wild blue yonder.”

“Space isn't blue and we're not sailing.” She rolled her eyes. “Honestly.” The ship went past the exit of the base and they slowly circled the planetoid.

He snickered. “Maybe a ten year nap is just the thing you need to get rid of that attitude of yours.” A crackle of static and a moment later, a voice filled the cabin.

“Are you two settled and ready?” It was Thanos.

“Ready and nearly settled, my lord.” Loki started pushing buttons on the console. “We'll need to get some distance between us and here before we head into suspended animation.”

“Excellent. I will be keeping the Kree off your tail, they are better kept occupied and I do not want them tracking you.” The titan chuckled. “If by some means you can also acquire the gauntlet from Asgard, my gratitude would be beyond comprehension."

Gamora risked a sideways look at Loki, who to her great surprise, was grinning.

“I'll see if that's possible. If Gamora is a good girl on this mission, I was going to let her pick out something from Midgard to bring home. Within reason.” How he could sound so calm and level with that expression, she had no idea.

“No animals.” Thanos stated, flatly.

“I want a gun.” She interjected, throwing in a girlish giggle and hating herself for it. “Something dangerous but not too big.”

“You do as your told and I'm certain you will get a lovely reward, Gamora.” The transmission ended.

“I don't really want a gun.” She sank back into her seat as the engines roared and they shot away from the base, moving close to the speed of sound.

“Didn't think so.” Loki chuckled and leaned down, opening a small crate next to his chair, reached in and drew out a flat container. “Lunch time.”

She took it from him, giving him a wan smile. “All right, what's the joke?”

“Joke?” He grinned. “There's no joke.” He gave her a wink. “Well, maybe there is – but the punchline isn't ready to be dropped yet.”

“You're infuriating.” She shook her head and opened the box that contained her last meal for the next ten years.

*
Odin wrapped his hands around his mug, focusing on the brown liquid within as he sat at his desk, waiting for Natasha to arrive and brief him on what had happened while he was sleeping. He had been made aware of the assassination attempt almost as soon as he was properly dressed. He had been in Odin-sleep for five days, his son and grandson in the healing halls for four and still had not awoken, and his granddaughter had spent three full days as a figurehead for the family. He did not fault Frigga for leaving the Natasha in the situation. Not entirely. Her motherly instincts had overridden her sense of duty; it was summer and most of the court was away, avoiding the heat of the city. There was a soft knock on the door and he lifted his head. “Come in.”

Natasha's face appeared and she slipped into the room, coming to stand before the desk, hands held behind her back. “Good afternoon, All-Father.” The girl looked exhausted and he completely understood why.

“Good afternoon, Princess Natasha.” He gave her an encouraging smile. “How fares Asgard and the rest of the Nine Realms?”

“Court is in recess.” She bit her lip. “The lords were informed that unless it was an emergency, it could wait. I studied the proposed tax levy that several lords wish to put forth on the people, and I feel it is a bad idea.”

“And why is that?” Odin gave her a half smile.

“A sixty-percent tax increase on eighty percent of the people of Asgard to pay for a program that will only benefit two percent of the population is ridiculous.” In that moment, the girl sounded so much like her father that it was hard to believe that they weren't related by blood.

“I quite agree.” He frowned. “Then why did you not abolish the proposal?”

Her arms came around to her front and she crossed them over her chest. “Because the lords were already angry I'd told them court was in recess and they had issues taking order from a child.”

“Indeed.” Odin sighed. “What else has occurred?”

“I approved Lord Ketheson's education proposal.” Here, she smiled. “Lady Tyr and Lady Ketheson are to join myself, Grandmother and Lady Sif next week for tea to discuss plans for an event during the Harvest Festival to begin raising funds to educate the people of Asgard who are in need of it.”

He frowned. “And why do you think it is a good idea to educate the peasantry?”

Her arms were behind her back again. “We cannot maintain the belief or present ourselves as a shining example of civilization in the Nine Realms and the rest of the universe if we keep part of our population illiterate and burdened. Content and happy people do not start revolutions.”

He chuckled. “True. I understand that Lorelei has escaped and is behind the assassination attempt?”

“Yes. She still has not been apprehended.” She bit her lip for a moment before speaking. “The rebels on Jotunheim have become active again. They murdered Hela, Joshua, and Fenrir's maternal grandparents.”

“Norns.” He cursed under his breath. “Are your brother and sister safe?”

“Fenrir has joined the Spears' army. Hela is arriving here this evening. She will be carrying a letter from my older brother formally relinquishing his title as a prince and from his place in the line of succession.” She frowned. “I don't know if he actually had one, but he did so as a formality.”

Odin shook his head. “I imagine that the rebellion will keep both the government of the Spears and King Laufey occupied. It is sad that a tragedy had to befall your siblings for Jotunheim to learn that their troubles they believed gone with the past winter were not, but at the same time, it is better to know that the danger is real then to continue to wait for it to strike.” He took a drink of tea and then lowered his mug. “You have done splendidly, Natasha. Far better than most would have in your situation.”

“Thank you, Grandfather.” She replied, blinking a few times.

“Go and rest until dinner. After your evening meal, go and relieve your grandmother in the healing halls. She is in need of sleep as well.”

“Yes, Grandfather.” She answered, smiling tiredly. “I would like permission to tell Hela the truth about our father before the week is out.”

“Permission granted.” He nodded. “I will see you after dinner.”

“Yes, sir. And thank you.” She curtseyed and then left the room, covering a yawn.

Odin shook his head and went back to drinking his tea as he pulled a small stack of proposals towards him and began to read.

*

Hela couldn't sleep. The room she'd been given wasn't a room; it was bigger than the house she had grown up in. She sat solemnly on her bed, her focus out the window, trying to process all that had happened since she arrived on Asgard. First, her blue skin had been covered with a glamour spell, so now she looked Æsir, something she was still indignant about, even though she knew it was for her own protection. Then she'd been taken to the healing halls and had her feet covered in some foul-smelling salve and wrapped in bandages. It came from a lifetime of not wearing shoes, or rather, not wearing closed shoes. It was to treat her skin so she could wear said shoes comfortably.

When she had been told that her brother and uncle were both recovering from an assassination attempt, she'd been stunned. The fact that the killer was still on the loose was unsettling – and the fact that it was the same vile woman who'd destroyed her family in the first place? Hela was livid.

They should have chopped Lorelei's head off after they captured her.

She tucked her knees up under her chin, hugging her legs. Somewhere on Jotunheim, Fenrir too, was headed into the unknown. It would be years before she saw him again; right now, all she wanted was some sort of comfort, for someone to tell her everything was going to be fine and for her to be able to believe it. How could anything ever be right again? Hela just wanted to find this had all been some horrible nightmare and any moment now, she was going to wake up on her sleeping shelf with her brother and grandfather snoring away. She would get up and make breakfast where the pots were too large for her small hands, where everything was too big for her; and she was hauled around on the backs of her family like she was still an infant so she wouldn't be harmed or cause a normal sized jotun to trip.

Now she was in a room where everything was her size or nearly just. The whole of Asgard was just about her size; the chairs, the tables, all of it. Her chambers, as they were called, were next to her brother's, and she knew that Natasha's was on the other side of the hall. The three of them were all together, in some fashion. Uncle Thor's was some distance towards the front entrance of the wing, and her – grandparents – their chambers were at this end of the hall, on the same side as Natasha.

Hela had seen the door of her father's room, glowing with a spell that kept anyone from entering; and she had to wonder if Joshua wanted to know what was on the other side as much as she did.

A bell tolled the hour; it was two in the morning.

“Hela?” A voice said from behind her and she turned, surprised to see Natasha; she'd not heard her sister's knock. “I had a feeling you weren't sleeping.”

She nodded. “Too much has happened in too short of a time.”

“I understand.” She adjusted her grip on the book she was holding. “I just came back to get this.” She held up the tome. “I thought I'd come and check on you, and ask if you wanted to join me during my vigil.”

Hela pushed herself off of the bed, coming around to face her sister. “I'm surprised you didn't ask a servant to get your book.” She didn't mean to sound haughty; but this place was worse than the palace in Utgard. There were five times the number of workers, and three times the number of guards.

“I'm protective of my books.” The girl replied, hugging herself. “I can run back here and get the book I want and be back in the healing halls much faster than any servant, and most of them are asleep anyway.”

She sighed. “Well, I suppose I can just as well sit in the healing halls as I can here. Perhaps I need something to distract myself.” She shrugged into her dressing gown and slippers and followed Natasha into the hall. They did not speak as they made their way down the corridors and passageways. There was almost no one about, save the guards and most of them only gave them a passing glance, and what had seemed to be hundreds of twists and turns earlier this evening seemed only half the distance.

“I've returned.” Natasha said to the healer who was half-asleep over a large book.

She nodded and went right back to her reading, barely giving the two of them a second look.

Hela had only glimpsed at her brother and uncle when she was here earlier. Now, coming into the small room, she stood at the foot of Joshua's bed to get a better look at them both. Thor was golden haired and powerfully built – but in his repose, he almost looked like a child; only the stubble of his beard told his age. Her brother was not as large as their uncle, his hair a mass of dark curls. In that moment Hela was instantly jealous that two of her siblings had been graced with ringlets, one of whom most likely detested them; she would have adored having curls that cascaded down her back, instead of the straight river that was currently bound into two braids. “When are they going to wake?”

Natasha was tucking herself into a large chair between the two beds. “Before the week is out. Eir says the healing stones have done their work, now it's a matter of their bodies and minds recovering enough to regain consciousness.”

She came over and sat down next to her sister, the chair was big enough for the both of them. “This day has been entirely too...” She thought for a moment. “It's just been too much of everything.” She looked down at the book in her sister's lap. “What are you reading?” She frowned at the words she didn't understand.

Ballet Shoes.” She ran her fingers over the worn cover. “It's my feel-better book.”

“Feel-better book?” She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“When the Fever came to Asgard the last time and I was sick, Papochka read this to me. I fell asleep dozens of times while he was, but we finally finished it. Now, whenever I'm feeling sad, worried or upset, I take it down from my shelf and read it.” She sighed, her hand stilling over the cover. “Somehow, it helps.” She suddenly lifted her chin. “He's going to come home.”

“Who's coming home?” Hela shook her head. “Who are you talking about?”

“Papochka. He's going to come home.” Natasha nearly smiled. “He promised he was going to come home and he is.”

Hela bit back the urge to call her sister stupid. “Father's dead.”

“No, he's not.” She shook her head. “He's being held prisoner by Thanos.”

Her eyes widened. “The mad titan?”

“Yes. But he's going to come home. He'll find a way home.” She sighed. “I just don't know when.”

She was too tired to be upset that she had originally been told her father was dead. Instead, she kicked off her slippers and tucked her feet under her, resting her head on her sister's shoulder. “What's ballet?”

“It's a type of dancing on Midgard.” Natasha replied and opened the book, flipping past a few pages before coming to the first chapter. “The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is furthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls' houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to "save the penny and walk.”

“Who are Victoria and Albert?” Hela interjected, already confused.

“Queen Victoria of England and her husband, Prince Albert. She was the current Queen of England's great-grandmother.” She made a face. “You can ask Joshua about her. He used to sail for her Navy. The Fossil sisters live in London, that's the capitol of England.”

She thought for a moment. “Have you been to England?”

“Only once.” Natasha closed the book. “It was years ago, though. It was long after this book took place and I doubt the London I saw was anything like it is today.” She moved the book aside. “Joshua was in London over a century ago.”

“Tell me about Midgard.” No doubt her sister knew some good stories about the realm of men. “I know almost nothing about the place.”

“Well...” There was something wistful about her sister's tone. “Okay.” She cleared her throat before she began to speak. “The last place I went on Midgard was called California. Papochka and I were staying with a man named Howard Stark, his wife Maria, and their son, Tony.”

**
Loki finished typing the coordinates into the computer, finally feeling relaxed now that they were some distance from Thanos's stronghold. He grimaced as he ate a piece of jerky, not certain what animal it was from. But it was protein and that was the key to a meal before stasis. “You almost ready, Gamora?”

“Ready as I'll ever be.” The girl sighed and came into sight next to him, frowning at her hand. “It's strange to see my skin like this. I'll probably panic when I wake up.”

“Don't worry about that. I'll set my chamber to open first – and it's not like you'll be aware while we're traveling. It will seem like no time has passed.” He brushed his fingers free of crumbs and gestured towards the two stasis chambers. “Yours is the one on the right.”

Gamora nodded and pressed her hand against the panel, taking a deep breath as the door slid back. “I just wish I wasn't so nervous.”

“Nothing to be nervous about.” Loki stated as she sat down and settled back, quickly putting on the harness. “Well, there is one bit of bad news.” He let out a soft chuckle.

“What?” Gamora snapped, sounding like the cocky girl who'd strode into his cell back in the citadel before she had started to control her emotions better.

“The bad news is Thanos is going to be furious when he learns we're not going to be returning with the Tesseract.” He grinned as her jaw dropped. “Even more so when he learns that his plans have been made known.”

“You...” She was shaking with rage. “You're betraying Thanos!?”

He chuckled and pinched her cheek. “Do not be silly Gamora, you cannot betray someone you were never loyal to in the first place.” He pressed the control on the panel of the door, shutting it with a snick. Through the glass, he could see her rage give way to shock and she looked as if she didn't know if she should laugh or scream. “Good night little one.” He swallowed and hit the sequence of buttons to activate the chamber and a moment later, he saw the girl's head lean to the side as she fell into stasis.

“We're going home.” He turned and headed back to the ship's controls to send it into the hyper-speed level it would need to travel at in order for them to reach Svartalfheim. “And to alert the universe of impending war.” He went back to eating his jerky.

Chapter Text

Loki flipped a switch on the control panel and the front-screen armor slid into place. All the calculations had been double checked and put into the computer, and shortly, the small craft would enter into faster-than-light speed. He turned on the auto-pilot and shoved the last of his bread into his mouth. Gamora had been in suspended-animation for just an hour, and he needed to hurry and get into his own chamber. He had done a cursory check of the rest of the craft, not surprised when he found the small tracking device clinging to the side of the stairs that led to the pilot's seating area.

He had checked for a listening device earlier, and had been rather unnerved by the lack one. Certainly Thanos didn't trust him that much; nor was the titan forgetful. Most likely, someone else had forgotten to place it; the one who had been given that task and their supervisor would, no doubt, be dead when Thanos learned of what had happened. He wasn't entirely sure if he felt sorrow for their death or not. Whomever they were, they had unknowingly given him and Gamora their freedom, and helped save the universe. The true shame was that he would never know whom it was and what their name had been. Perhaps someday he could find out.

Loki set his stasis chamber to the needed levels and then slid the door open, quickly fastening his harness as it shut behind him. The cold rushed in, and he watched as his hands went from cream to cerulean, he closed his eyes, resting his head against the seat, hyper-aware of his breathing, of the increasing cold, and then he felt the ship lurch as it started to race into the depths of space. Just before blackness of hibernation took him, he thought of just how soon he would be seeing his family again.

**

Consciousness was slow to return. Thor tried to remember when he had fallen asleep, but found he couldn't quite put too many thoughts together. He had gone to see Natasha and Joshua for lunch and his niece had given him her bowl of soup. The spicy prawn soup that he could eat by the bucketful at times, he never could understand why she did not care for it. It had not tasted right, something about the flavor had been off. He winced and coughed, turning slightly, wondering how his bed became so damn uncomfortable. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the familiar hangings of his room, and instead saw eggshell colored bed linens, and he caught the scent of lavender; the smell he always associated with the healing halls.

Looking across from him, he saw Joshua in another bed, his nephew's arm hung over the edge and he was snoring lightly, his dark curly hair falling into his face. As he watched, the younger man opened his eyes and caught sight of something that Thor couldn't see; there was something between their beds that would require him turning over to notice and right now, that sounded more exhausting than sitting up. Joshua's face contorted, as if he was confused and then, he smiled, rubbing his eyes.

Thor slowly stretched, aches suddenly making themselves known in his legs, arms and back. How long had he been lying down?

“Oh!” Natasha's voice sounded from behind him and a moment later, his niece's face appeared above him. “You're awake!”

He coughed. “Good morning.”

She covered a yawn. “Morning. I'll go get Eir.”

He nodded in thanks and he looked back to the other bed. “Joshua?”

“Augh.” The boy groaned. “What the bloody hell was in that soup?”

“A misplaced spice.” He rubbed his own eyes. “How long have we been sleeping?”

“Five days.” A girl's voice answered and a moment later, a dark haired girl with gray eyes appeared, looking down at him. “And it wasn't a misplaced spice, it was poison.”

Thor winced and closed his eyes. The girl probably knew full well what he had meant, but – he furrowed his brow and looked back at her. “Who are you?”

“Isn't it obvious, Uncle?” Joshua snorted from his bed. “It's your other niece, Hela.”

“What happened while we were out?” Thor grumbled, coughing.

“Plenty.” Eir's voice sounded and he turned to see the head healer standing on his other side. “Girls, go and inform your grandparents that these two are awake.”

“Yes, Lady Eir.” Natasha's voice came from the foot of the bed and then Hela vanished from his side.

“Well now...” Eir set a hand on his cheeks, her expression stoic. “How are you feeling, Prince Thor?”

“Empty.” He answered, just as his stomach rumbled.

“I should suspect so.” She chuckled softly. “I'm just going to check a few things, and then you can eat. Simple food for now.”

“As long as I don't have to go kill it, I'm good.” Joshua remarked from his bed and causing both of them to turn and look at him. He arched an eyebrow in reply. “Guess you never had to do that.” He smirked. “Nothing like working for fourteen hours then having to go catch, kill, skin and cook your supper.”

Eir shook her head. “Sass.” She went over to Joshua's bed and helped him sit up, then did the same with Thor. “Don't even think about getting out of bed until I tell you to.”

“Yes, ma'am.” The two of them replied at once.

Thor ran a hand through his hair, adjusting to the new position. He wasn't just hungry, he felt grubby and worn, and honestly, he didn't know if he wanted food or a bath first. A change of clothes would be wonderful too. He flexed his hands a few times, his fingers tingling as he did, starting to recover from their stagnant state. It had apparently been an eventful five days, if Hela was on Asgard. What was she doing here? Was Father out of Odin-sleep? He must be, if Eir had sent Natasha and her sister to retrieve both his mother and father. How long had he slept? Who had been running things while all this was going on? He grimaced and pinched the bridge of his nose. Too many questions for right now.

“Thank the Norns.” Mother's voice came from the doorway and she came over to the beds, hugging each of them in turn. Thor noticed that Joshua looked slightly uncomfortable at the contact. “You two had us worried.” She sat down in the chair between the beds, her expression a mixture of relief and sorrow. “It's been quite the week.”

“I cannot fathom what has transpired as of late.” Thor shook his head. “Hela is on Asgard?”

“Yes.” She took a breath as two servants came in with trays, setting them down over his and Joshua's laps, a simple bowl of almost clear broth and a mug of pale tea for each of them. “Eat. Slowly, I don't care how hungry you are.”

Joshua ducked his head and stared at his tray as Thor picked up his mug. “Tell us what has happened, Mother. Please.”

The Allmother smiled sadly and began to speak.

**
Thanos was livid. The torn bodies of a dozen chitauri warriors lay scattered on the floor behind him and as he threw the head of a thirteenth towards the wall and tossed the body to join the others, his rage had not cooled. When he had decided to send off Loki and Gamora, he had intended to send them off fully monitored and watched. He wasn't a fool, he knew that the Asgardian wasn't to be entirely trusted. The full regalia of instruments was supposed to be installed on the Xandarian vessel, from tracking to listening to video monitor – and only the homing beacon had been put in place.

The rest had either been forgotten or had not been properly installed.

He took several deep breaths, his anger barely contained; it had only been three hours, but there was no way for his warriors to catch the little ship before it shot out of this part of space, nor could afford to send anyone after them to join in the task they had undertaken. While he was about as intimidated by the dark elves as he was a gnat, he wouldn't put it past them to appeal to the armies of Asgard for help. No need to show his hand this early in the game.

Loki Odinson didn't care for Midgardians, he knew that. Terra, Midgard, whatever it was called, however, was a resource rich planet. The sort of place that the Kree would love to get their hands on. As if he would let them have it. He might let the Odinson have it; he'd put it to much better use than anyone else. The king of Asgard might not object to much if his adopted son was in charge of it, rather than that Kree fanatic... whatever his name was, Thanos wasn't bothering with names when it came to them.

The Other certainly couldn't have it. Besides, he needed the little sycophant here, in his citadel. Speaking of...

“Would you care for a few more warriors to tear apart, my lord?” The Other bowed his head, not looking at him.

“No.” Thanos resisted the urge to slap the man, as good as that might make him feel at the moment. “Send some in to clean the mess, however.”

“With pleasure, my lord.” He bowed again, backing away.

He turned and strode back to the window, glaring in the direction that Loki and Gamora had gone. The story that the little jotun had told about passageways he didn't doubt; but whether he would return with the Tesseract, however, he wasn't entirely certain. Hence the reason for the monitoring devices. Perhaps the infinity gem would become available before the man returned or reached his destination. If the dark elves shot him down, or someone else found and killed him beforehand, he hadn't lost much.

Gamora was weak willed, he knew that already.

The pair would either return here with the Tesseract, or they would die in the attempt.

For now, all Thanos could do was wait.

**

Hela was rather overwhelmed by the mountain of sketches and fabrics – and the strange joy that her grandmother seemed to be unable to contain. For herself, standing on a stool in the middle of the All-mother's chambers while a dressmaker kept taking measurement after measurement, honestly, why did she need to know the length of her arm from shoulder to the tip of her middle finger?, she was starting to think that there were things Natasha had left out about life on Asgard. Namely the dressing up all the time part. On Jotunheim, she had owned a total of five dresses, and now Queen Frigga seemed determined to outfit her with a wardrobe that was borderline excessive.

The trouble she was having was feeling torn between trying to tell her grandmother that she didn't need all these clothes – and the part of her that was actually enjoying all this, in a silly, overly girlish way.

“Chin up, please.” The dressmaker's assistant said as a tape measure came around her neck. What the Norns for?

She did as asked, glancing over at the sketch her grandmother was looking at. “That's too frilly.”

“Indeed it is.” The woman smiled and turned it over. “You would get lost in the layers.”

The assistant went back to her kit and Hela let herself relax a little, although her feet were starting to hurt. “Is it all right if I sit down?”

“Of course, dear.” Grandmother patted the couch next to her. “Come.”

Feeling rather like a dog, but remembering that Natasha had told her about things like this, she did as asked, studying the next sketch – a rather simple gown, with a skirt that would go just past her knees, with long sleeves, trimmed in lace. “That's pretty.”

“Yes.” The woman held the sketch up to her face, her expression serious. “In that pink jacquard print.”

“This one?” The assistant showed the two of them a fabric of pale pink, the feathery pattern was almost indistinct, which seemed a shame to Hela, as it was extremely intricate, some sort of bird, she supposed. It would be nicer if the pattern was a different color, so it could be seen.

Grandmother nodded. “That will look lovely.”

Hela rubbed the fabric in between her thumb and forefinger. “What is this?” She frowned. “This fabric?”

“It's a silk-cotton blend.” The dressmaker replied. “Made on Alfheim.”

“Oh.” She replied. “Thank you.” She half expected a snide remark about the jotun, but none came. “I've not seen such...” She tried to find the right word. “Variety for clothing before.” She ducked her head and looked at the next sketch, one she recognized. “Natasha has a dress like that.” She peered at it again. “I did not realize it was a sleeved tunic and pants.”

Grandmother chuckled. “That's one of the reasons she loves that garment.” She held the sketch up to her cheek. “Too much?”

Hela nodded. “Sorry.”

“Not at all.” The dressmaker replied. “Perhaps the same dress, with silver embellishments and green instead of red?”

That made her smile. “That would be...” She gave her grandmother an uncertain look. When they had started this, she hadn't mentioned things about what she could and couldn't have. “Please?”

The Allmother laughed. “Of course.” She then set the sketches down. “You'll need some everyday clothes as well.” She thought a moment. “Similar to what Natasha has, but different colors.”

“Including some of the uh...” The woman looked uncertain.

“Yes. A child needs clothes that they can wear without fear of getting dirty.” The queen cleared her throat. “Hela, are there any colors you do not wish to wear?”

“Red.” She replied, automatically. Red was the color she associated with the rebels, and while it didn't bother her to see other people wear it, she didn't want to be seen in it. Even if it was with another color.

“That should not be a problem.” Grandmother smiled. “Why don't you go find Natasha? I have a feeling you could use some fresh air.”

“Thank you.” She retrieved her slippers from under the stool. “How much longer do I have to wear these bandages?” She indicated her feet.

“Eir will check them this evening. Perhaps just until tomorrow morning.” She smiled encouragingly. “You'll most likely find your sister down in the stables.”

She nodded in thanks and headed out into the hall, leaning against the closed door. Hela was still so confused about the way things were in her life right now. She wanted to feel happy, but at the same time, she felt guilty about feeling that way; Fen was off in the army, Father was lost and her maternal grandparents were dead. Feeling happy felt wrong – but feeling miserable felt even worse. She sighed and went down the corridor, stopping short when she saw Natasha heading towards her. “Good afternoon.”

“Hi.” She replied, and she rubbed her hip. “Finished with frills for the day?”

“Uh huh.” She went down to her. “Are you hurt?”

“Only in my pride.” Natasha's hair was disheveled, her face and clothing were streaked with dirt and looked as if she had been having a grand time until – whatever had happened happened. “I came back to change clothes before I go riding.”

Hela arched an eyebrow. “What's wrong with what you're wearing now?”

Her sister looked down at her pants and shirt. “Normally, nothing. But I have change into proper attire to ride sidesaddle.” She rolled her eyes. “I have not been allowed to ride a horse astride since California. It doesn't matter that Lady Sif gets to ride in such a manner, I have to ride like a lady.”

“I've never ridden a horse.” She looked down at her skirt and blouse. “Do you think I can ride dressed like this?”

“I don't know.” They went into Natasha's room. “You can come with me and find out.”

Hela shut the door as her sister went into what she guessed was her dressing room. The room was similar in size to hers, but bore more of its occupant's personality. In an alcove, she could see a harp and there were books stacked on a chair next to it. “I didn't know you played an instrument.”

“Yes.” She called. “Do you want to learn?”

“I think I'll be fine.” She shook her head and went over to the mantle, frowning at the silver frames that lined it. “Is riding a horse hard?” She'd told her sister about the harness she used to have to ride in on Cendal.

“Depends on the horse.” Natasha answered. “You can ride Garnie, she likes everyone, well, everyone except Joshua. But I think that's because while he looks like Papochka, he doesn't smell like him and so she's unsettled around him.”

“That makes sense.” She replied and picked up the round frame that dominated the mantle, looking down into a painted sketch of a man with black hair, high cheek bones and green eyes. Someone who looked like Joshua, but wasn't.

Father.

She set it back in place, scanning the rest of the frames, trying to place who was missing and then realized who it was. “Natasha, do you not have a portrait of your mother?”

“No.” Her sister was leaning against the door-frame, her expression blank. “I don't. I can't...” She took a breath. “I just realized, Joshua knows but you don't.”

“Don't know what?” She frowned. “What does Joshua know?”

“Papochka adopted me. Well, sort of.” She came over to the mantle, hugging herself. “I'm not Æsir, I'm not jotun, and I'm not Vanir. I'm completely Midgardian.”

Hela gaped at her sister as if she'd grown another head. “You're joking! Everyone says you act just like Father!”

“And so I do, but a personality can be learned, and he was my frame of reference.” She looked at her feet for a moment. “Not many people know the truth, so...”

“Well, I'm not telling anyone.” She huffed. “You're my sister, it doesn't matter if we don't share blood. Father and Uncle Thor do not, and they are brothers.”

Natasha nodded. “Right.” She managed a smile. “Papochka saved me from the bad people.”

“Bad people, like the rebels?” She scrunched her nose. “This was in Russia, right?”

“Yes. I don't like talking about them.” She let out a breath, blowing a stray curl out of her face. “They're all dead now.”

Hela bit her lip, glancing back at the frames, then to her sister. “We were going to go see the horses, yes?” Getting off of this subject sounded almost as good as going outside.

The girl's face brightened. “Right.” She paused. “I think you'll need shoes. Wait here.” She ran into her dressing chamber and came back with a pair of boots that were too big to belong to her and some stockings. “Lady Sif forgot her boots when she was here, I don't think she'd mind if you wore them.”

Hela took the boots by their laces, frowning. “Do I have big feet or does Lady Sif have small feet?”

Natasha giggled. “Your feet aren't big, you're gangly. It's an unfortunate fact that one's anatomy can't grow in proportion to one another.” She gestured to the chair and Hela sat down, and Natasha deftly took off her slippers and put the stockings on. “Your feet decided to grow before you legs did.”

She watched as Natasha made short work of the laces, tying them off with a bow. “You don't think Lady Sif will mind that I'm wearing her boots?”

“She hasn't asked after them.” She pulled her to her feet. “Not too tight?”

“No. They're fine.” Hela took a few steps and turned. “I'll be careful.” She paused. “The horses don't bite, do they?”

Natasha shook her head. “The horses know better than to bite little girls. Wicked grooms and strangers, yes – well, the riding horses know not to bite us. We won't go near the war horses.”

She nodded in reply and they headed out of the room, Hela slightly worried about the term 'war horses' - how was she to know the difference between them and the others?

**

Lorelei could have cursed herself for being so forgetful. She had gotten her passageways confused and instead of arriving out of a cave on Vanaheim, she was looking down on a road in Jotunheim. She didn't dare go back the way she came; by now, the Vanir authorities would be alerted to her escape and would be looking for her. All right, so maybe this wasn't so much a mistake as it was an inconvenience. At least she had a warm cloak. Tossing her head back, she went down to the road, bold as brass.

Certainly the jotun would give her sanctuary, particularly if she gave them valuable information about Asgard, perhaps she could even show them the path. Well, she might not be able to convince women, but men were men, no matter what species they were and none of them were immune to her tongue. Oddly enough, the only man she had ever come across that would not bow to her will had been Prince Loki. Insufferable bastard that he was. Well, he was dead, by now his little brats were dead, and she was on a realm where Asgard would never find her.

“Halt!” A voice echoed towards her and she stopped, tensing as a jotun, clearly a guard, appeared out of a shadow. A rather impressive feat for someone who stood four and a half meters high.

“Good afternoon.” She replied, looking up at him.

“You are lost, little Asgardian.” He bent down, sniffing. “Or are you Vanir? Midgardian?”

She huffed, insulted. “I am Æsir.” She smiled. “I am called Lorelei. And you are right, I am quite lost.” She turned on her charm full force. “How far is it to Utgard?” She let out a shriek as the jotun suddenly seized her by the back of her cloak and lifted her to be level with his face. “Put me down this instant, you beast!”

“Your magic laced words will not work on me, little witch.” He smirked. “You should not have come here.” He cupped his hands and she did not have time to scream before she found herself trapped in a perfect sphere of ice, save for slit in the top, letting in air and allowing her to see out.

“You will not get away with this, monster!” She shouted, kicking the thick ice, only to be rewarded with a stab of pain in her foot. “King Odin will destroy you all!” She fell on her rear as the jotun shook her prison, and she had to brace herself to keep from crashing into the wall again. “I am the betrothed of their crown prince! Release me!”

“If you're going to be married to Prince Thor,” a deeper voice said and she looked up to see another jotun, this one with bright gems woven into his hair. “Then why are you here?”

“Ooof!” She cried as the ball was handed to the other jotun and she held her tongue as she listened to the exchange between the two.

“I found her in Jora Pass, your grace.” The one who had caught her said. “She is fortunate that she was not here on blasting day.”

Blasting day? What were the jotun doing?

“Indeed.” The second one answered. “She was alone?”

“Yes, but we shall patrol the area again, to be doubly sure.” The guard bowed and she saw him vanish from view.

“Good.” The one holding her replied and they started moving, and whomever it was who held the ball of ice started tossing it casually between his hands, the motion throwing her against the walls, making it impossible to concentrate on a spell to try and escape. “Foolish witch.”

“I am not a witch!” She grunted as she fell on her back. “You will all be destroyed for doing this!”

“I think not.” He held the ball up to his face and she could see his red eyes clearly, as well as his grin. “You are the woman who arranged the kidnapping of Prince Loptr's children.”

“What?” Lorelei shook her head. “Who is this Prince Loptr?” She was honestly confused. “I do not know of whom you are speaking!”

The jotun showed teeth in his next smile. “You knew him as Prince Loki. Loptr, my lost elder brother.”

“That's impossible!” She cried. “Loki was not... he was not...”

“I advise you to keep silent, little witch, before you dig your grave any deeper.” He smirked. “You should have stayed in Asgard, they would have shown you a merciful death. Death will be a blessing compared to justice here.”

Lorelei bit her lip as she felt the ball being lowered and kept herself braced the best she could, her body already starting to ache from being thrown around inside the sphere like a rag doll. Loki was a jotun? Of course he was, he would have to have mixed blood to have been so masterful in sorcery. How had he come to live on Asgard? Had he been a ward of Odin all this time and no one knew? She fumed and folded her arms, trying to figure out why her voice hadn't worked on either of these men. It had never worked on Loki either. Certainly she would know if jotun blood made one immune, or there would have been something about it not working on certain races in the books she had read on the subject.

Well, if there was one thing she could be satisfied with, it was the fact that Joshua and Natasha were dead by now. She could go to her own death knowing she had destroyed that asshole's bloodline and it was not as if these beasts knew what she had done to them anyway. She curled up, smirking as she tucked her cloak around her. She would rest now, so she could go down proudly – maybe she could melt a frost giant or two before this was over.

**
“Good morning, my prince.” Master Siry's voice was oddly clipped as he came into Joshua's study, his expression strained.

“Good morning.” He frowned. “Is something wrong?”

“Your grandfather, the king, has deiced that is best if you and I study without your sister from now on. I have been charged with getting you up to speed with your education.” He set down a pile of books, forcing a smile. “I assure you, this has nothing to do with your progress, which is remarkable.”

He worried his lip for a moment. “I believe I know what this is.” Joshua took a breath. “I am not certain what my grandfather expects from me. He knows that I have no desire for the life of a warrior, and I am not one for politics either. However, Grandfather has realized that my younger sister surpasses me in education and considering how the line of succession currently stands, that is unacceptable.”

The man's smile became a little more real. “I will neither confirm or deny that, my prince.” He started to arrange the books. “However, when it comes to other forms of governments, your knowledge is considerable.”

He straightened his shoulders. “So what are we learning about today, Master Siry?”

“Continuing on with mathematics and Vanir History.” He tapped a book. “Are you feeling better?”

“I am well, it has been a week since I left the healing halls.” Joshua opened his own book. “And I kept on top of my reading.”

“I know.” The man smiled. “Would you like to start with math or history?”

“Math.” He answered, “And I have a feeling science will shortly be added to my lessons.”

“Yes.” The tutor sat down opposite of him. “Once you have this multivariate analysis down, we will start with physics.” He cleared his throat. “Start on page fifty two, please.”

Joshua nodded in reply before he began to read out loud. “Chapter three, Factor Analysis.”

*
Down another corridor and in a small schoolroom, Hela and Natasha sat at desks, facing a larger, unoccupied one. A great black stone board was on the wall and there was plenty of open space behind them. The room smelled of floor polish and the shelves along the wall under the window were loaded with books, save for the top which was covered with medicinal plants and various space models.

When she'd been informed this morning that Master Siry was now solely Joshua's tutor, Natasha had been angry. She had been studying with the man almost as long as she'd been living on Asgard and he was, for all intents and purposes, her teacher. She hadn't minded having lessons with her brother, even if he had to catch up with her. Perhaps that was why she now had to have a different teacher, so Joshua could get the education he needed and not have to be bound by the limits of the other. Hela had gone to school on Jotunheim, and she knew how to read, write, do math and knew some history – this was rather like going back to square one, wasn't it?

The door opened and into the room came a woman with mousy blond hair that was falling out of its braid and she was carrying a satchel, looking as if she'd run the whole distance from wherever she had come. The guard smirked at her and Natasha returned the look with a glare that cut his expression off and he quickly shut the door as the woman went to the desk and set her things down. She caught sight of them and nearly tripped over the hem of her dress. “Oh, good morning, you're already here.”

Natasha glanced at her sister and then stood, waiting for Hela to rise as well. “Good morning, Miss Sigyn.” The two of them said at the same time.

“Sorry.” She held herself up on the edge of the desk, letting out a nervous chuckle. “Uh, you can sit, please, sit.”

They did as asked and Natasha copied her sister as she folded her hands, setting them on her desk.

Miss Sigyn took off her cloak and set it on the desk, then leaned against the front of it, facing them. “Again, I am extremely sorry, I overslept, I only was informed of this last night and I'm afraid I don't have much prepared for our lessons today.”

Hela raised her hand. “Miss Sigyn?”

“Yes, uh, Princess Hela?” The poor woman looked like she wanted to crawl under the floorboards she was so flustered.

“We were only told this morning you were coming. I'm certain that no one expects you to teach us everything today.”

Natasha smothered a giggle.

Miss Sigyn covered her face and took a few deep breaths. “All right, I am sorry.” She straightened up and came over towards them. “I was not informed of what exactly I was to teach you. Only that I was to give you, as I was told, a proper education for young ladies.” A small smile was apparent on the corners of her mouth. “However, if that means turning the two of you into vapid little ornaments, I'm afraid nothing could be further from the truth.”

The girls exchanged glances and Natasha raised her hand. “Is this going to involve seidr?”

“Indeed it will.” She held up her hand and for a moment, the air flickered and then, over her palm appeared a small illusion of couple. “As well as dancing.” She waved her hand and the vision changed to a loom. “Along with weaving...” the loom gave way to a book. “Not to mention history, reading, language...” She threw her hands out and the vision became flowers that rained down on them. “An all around education.” She tucked her hands behind her back and looked at the two of them, her smile finally certain. “Well, I've shown off, would you two like to do as well?”

Hela beat Natasha to speaking. “Watch!” She held her palm up and the air above her hand swirled and her skin went slightly blue as an apple made of solid ice sprang into being. “For you.” She held it out to Miss Sigyn.

The woman took it gingerly and set it on her desk. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” Hela smiled and then turned to Natasha. “Your turn.”

Natasha took a breath and held out her hand, feeling rather sheepish. “It's nothing major...” She concentrated and a moment later, a ball of flame was tumbling over her outstretched fingers. The memory of showing it to Tony Stark made her grin and she tossed the ball into the air and caught it, but when she threw her fingers out, small flowers fell instead of nothing. “Oh that wasn't...”

“No, no, that's fine.” Miss Sigyn replied. “Not burnt?”

She held out her unmarred hands. “No, Miss Sigyn.”

“Good.” She clasped her hands together, looking the two of them over. “Fire and ice.” She nearly grinned. “Now then, let's see what else you both know so I have an idea of where to begin.”

**

Laufey turned the ice ball over in his hands slowly, peering down at the slumbering woman within. “So this is the bitch who tried to destroy your brother's family.” He sneered. “I was expecting something a little more impressive.”

“As was I.” Helblindi answered. “She was caught in Jora Pass.”

“How fitting.” He sighed. “Now that we have her, what should we do with her?”

“Slow death.” The prince shrugged. “I was thinking we could let Kaj use her to test his frost seidr on.”

“Kaj would have to spend hours scrubbing his hands, that wouldn't do his skin any good.” Laufey set the ball on a shelf that rested over his desk. “I will send word to Asgard that we have her, however. She can face a trial here, then we shall return her to the Allfather to answer for her crimes there.”

“Is it not true that she can charm-speak Æsir males?” The prince shook his head. “She would be able to talk her way out of it.”

The king chuckled and tapped the ball with his finger. “Who said she would be able to speak when we were finished with her? Or walk, for that matter.” He smirked. “I received word this morning from Asgard that she attempted to murder Joshua and Natasha via poison. So she shall lose her feet for Loptr's sons, her hands for his daughters, and as Loptr bore his grief in silence... for him, I shall take her tongue.”

**

The air was heavy with the scent of roasted meats and decadent sauces, honeyed desserts with an undercurrent of flowers that stood on pedestals through the feasting hall. Tonight was the celebration to honor the two-thousandth anniversary of King Odin's ascension to the throne of Asgard, and throughout the city, people were gathering together to toast to the health of the royal family and to the continued peace between the Nine Realms.

Sif watched with her parents as the Allfather and Allmother came into the feasting hall first, the king looking impressive in his armor and the queen resplendent in a gown of green on his arm. Behind them came Thor, also in his armor, with Hela on his arm; in a floaty dress of pink, her eyes wide at the crowd. Then came Joshua, who, for some strange reason, was wearing a suit that was dark blue, with gold banding on the sleeves and gold buttons. Some sort of Midgardian military uniform, she supposed. It was rather nice in its own way – and if nothing else, she doubted anyone would mistake him for his father while wearing it. Natasha was next to him, her gown similar to Hela's, only instead of pink, it was lavender.

Once the royal family was seated at the high table – an empty chair between Queen Frigga and her grandson for the missing prince, the rest of the company took their seats. The room was full of conversation, most of which Sif wasn't paying any attention to; her mother had insisted that she wear a dress to this formal occasion, and she was more focused on eating without spilling food on said gown than anything else.

“My lady.” A page appeared at her side, holding a small white lily. “I was asked to give this to you.”

Sif took it, rather confused. “Thank you.” She nodded and the page left. She stared at the delicate blossom, trying to think of who would send her such a silly thing. She glanced up at the high table and made eye contact with Thor, who flushed slightly and turned towards Hela. She looked back down at the flower, feeling her own cheeks start to grow pink. A flower? Seriously? A foot nudged her leg and she jerked up, glowering at her assailant, that odd woman who was the princesses' governess, Lady Sigyn. “What?”

“You put it behind your ear.” She whispered. “Means you accept it.”

Still feeling abashed, she moved to tuck it behind her right ear when the woman kicked her again. “You said...”

“Left ear. Unmarried on the left, married or engaged on the right.” She turned her attention to her food.

Offhandedly wondering what exactly it was so important to put behind a certain ear, Sif tucked the bloom behind the 'correct' ear and then took up her goblet. As she did, she noticed that not just Thor, but his nieces and nephew were all watching her. Joshua said something to Natasha and she covered her mouth, Thor ducked his head again and Hela seemed to discover something fascinating on the tablecloth. “The four of them are incorrigible.” She took an unladylike gulp from her wine goblet.

“They like you, Sif.” Sigyn answered. “There are six princesses from Vanaheim behind you that are chewing their lips in anger at being so ignored.”

She looked down into her wine. “Well, I'm willing to wager quite a bit that a little bird knows exactly why they are all wrong for said bird's uncle.”

The woman smirked. “You should hear what she has to say about their brothers.”

Sif set down her glass and covered her mouth with her napkin to hide her mirth.

Chapter Text

Loki stepped out of his stasis chamber, rubbing the sleep from his face. He was certain he had only been in the small container a handful of minutes, but as he stretched and yawned, he knew nothing could be further from the truth. The little vessel was moving at a sub-light speed, slowing down as it entered into the part of the universe where Svartalfheim was located. Soon, they would be visible on the dark elves' long range telescopes, but they would most likely be dismissed as just another passing ship. He went over to Gamora's chamber, which would open in a few minutes. Apparently his attempt to ensure he woke a few hours before her had not worked; but if there was one thing that could have gone wrong, this was minor. He brushed his hand over the glass, checking to see that she was unharmed, and he had to shake his head for a moment when he noticed her change in appearance – the glamor still held. He concentrated on his own hands and a moment later, the jotun blue faded to cream.

“Ten years.” He shook his head and went up to the pilot's seats and settled into one of them, letting the screen that covered the front of the ship slide back. He yawned again and reached down into the small compartment next to his chair, taking up a container of rations. It was just something to tide his stomach over; the real hunger had not begun yet. He also took up a bottle of water and drained half of it in several gulps. “That's better.” He turned his attention to the monitors, checking the systems for any problems. Loki nearly laughed at the 'low fuel' read-out. Of course it was low, the craft had been charged with enough energy and supplemental fuel to get him and Gamora to their destination, no further.

During their ten years, they had encountered almost no problems, apart from a small collision with a meteorite, that had left a dent the size of a sugar cube in the hull. He sucked absently on the piece of jerky from his ration box, working on softening it to the point where he could try and bite it.

“What the?” Gamora cried behind him and he turned.

“Good morning.” He replied as the girl raced up to him, staring in horror at her hands. “Forget something?”

“I... I'm not supposed to be..” She shook her head and then pointed at him. “Traitor!”

He gave her a look. “What did I tell you about that, Gamora?”

She sat down in the other chair, shaking her head. “I don't... I can't believe you did this! Thanos is going to kill you!”

“He doesn't even know yet, Gamora.” He offered her a bottle of water. “Now tell me, which is worse, Thanos with the Tesseract or Thanos without the Tesseract?”

“It...” She yanked the bottle of water out of his hand. “Insufferable.”

“Thank you.” He sighed and went back to his jerky.

“Okay, maybe it's not that bad.” The girl let out a sigh. “So you've kidnapped me as well as betrayed Thanos.” She held up a hand. “I know, I know, you didn't betray him, but...”

“Who do you think told me to take you along?” He chuckled. “Granted, I would have suggested it, but I didn't want to appear forward. One must play a certain role when negotiating.”

She took a few swallows of water. “Aren't you worried about what will happen when Thanos discovers what has happened?”

Loki kept his focus on the screen in front of them. “Terrified. However, the rest of the universe must know what he is plotting. There are four other accessible Infinity Stones that he could gather up in a matter of years, if he was not trying to remain furtive about it. The only one that is completely hidden is the Aether, which will not be able to be obtained until the Convergence.”

“You said you didn't know where the Aether was!” She shot back, indignantly.

“I lied.” He gave her a half smirk and then shook his head. “And it was not a total falsehood, I do not know the precise whereabouts of that particular Gem. I only know that it was placed in a location only accessible every five thousand years, during the Convergence.” He handed her the container of rations. “Eat something. You need to fill some of the emptiness in your stomach before hibernation sickness sets in and all you can think of is sating your hunger.”

Gamora reluctantly took a piece of jerky. “Asgard, then?”

“Asgard.” He smiled. “Home.”

“You're not worried that the king's going to object to you bringing me with you?” She frowned. “I'm not ah.. a citizen of the Nine Realms.”

“Gamora, you are the last Zen Whoberi in the universe. Not to mention the last time I vanished, I came home with Natasha, so I suspect I would be in more trouble had I not brought you with me.” He gave her a sorrowful smile. “It will be fine, you'll see.”

The girl stuck a piece of jerky in her mouth and glowered, saying nothing more.

Loki set down his bottle of water and adjusted the controls, already trying to think on how he was going to explain what had happened to his parents. A small smile played on the corners of his mouth. In roughly seventy-two hours, he would be seeing them again. Thor would be there, the great oaf, no doubt wanting to know about any fights he had gotten into, if any. Then Natasha. His heart twisted – his little girl would have grown some while he was gone, a little taller, more mature and he had missed it. He wasn't going to miss anymore if he could help it. Did his little girls still spend time together? Was Hela still on Jotunheim? Had his parents found his sons? Were they safe?

“I don't want to be a little lady.” Gamora spoke softly, but seriously. “I want to be a warrior.”

“You can be both.” He grinned at the memory of Thor wanting to know why he had to know all the proper eating utensils for a formal meal. “No one ever expects to be gutted with a butter knife.”

“What's a butter knife?” She frowned. “You mean to tell me there's a specific knife just for butter?”

“Gamora, there's a different spoon for different types of soup.” He shook his head. “Don't worry about cutlery, that's minor in the grand scheme of things.”

She nodded and pulled one leg up into her chair, so she could rest her chin on her knee. “Thanos is going to be furious.

“I don't want you to worry about Thanos either.” He replied, with more conviction than he felt. “He cannot get to Asgard anytime soon, and we have a two month head start on him, at the very least. He does not have a single Infinity Gem, or didn't when we left. I'm willing to bet good money he's done nothing in the past ten years except build up an army and pick off a few brigades of Kree warriors.”

She frowned. “I cannot help but worry.” Then slowly, a mischievous smile spread across her face. “Nebula is going to be livid.”

Loki smirked. “Buckle up.” He fastened the belt over his chest and lap. “I can't promise an easy landing.”

She did as asked. “So where is our destination?”

“There.” He pointed to a small blue spot in the left corner of the screen. “Now look over here.” He moved his hand and pointed at the other side. “See the constellation that looks like a like an inverted water goblet?”

She nodded. “What about it?”

“The stars that are the start of the stem? Those are the suns of Asgard.” He grinned. “The light is seven hundred years away, yet, there it is.” He turned back to the front. “Almost home.”

“Home.” Gamora echoed and started to gnaw on a slice of jerky. “I like that word.”

“So do I.” He replied.

**

Joshua stood in the stable-yard, watching as his sisters came into view, a study in opposites, Hela on a red roan and Natasha on a black bay, moving at a slower than normal pace. Clearly, they were trying to get the most out of their riding time. “There's no point in delaying the inevitable!” He called, cupping his hands over his mouth. “You two are needed for your final fitting and are expected for tea!”

The two girls exchanged words and a moment later, kicked their horses into a trot and he stepped back as they came up to him.

“We know, Josh, we know.” Hela answered, dismounting. “But you can't blame us for trying.”

Natasha got down from her own horse. “It's our last free afternoon for a week, you can't blame us for enjoying the fresh air.”

He chuckled and plucked a leaf out of his baby sister's hair. “No, I don't, and I completely understand.” He took the horses' reigns from them. “Off you go, I'll take care of Garnie and Kipinä.”

“Thank you.” The two of them said in unison and then went past him, heading for the palace.

Joshua watched them go, shaking his head. “I wonder if they know how creepy that is.” He led the horses into the stable. “I imagine the pair of you haven't had that hard of an exercise.” He sent Kipinä into his stall and was about to do the same with Garnie when the animal reared and jerked away from him. “Still don't like me, do you?” He tightened his grip and rubbed the animal's neck. “Eleven years of this,” he sighed. “Feed you apples, carrots and all sorts of bribes and you still react as if I'm a snake.”

A groom appeared out of nowhere. “I'll take her, my prince.”

He handed the reigns over. “Wish I knew how to get this horse to like me. You'd think the others would tell her I'm not dangerous.”

“Garnie's always been a bit temperamental.” the groom gave the horse a sad smile. “Least she doesn't bite.”

“There is that.” He shook his head and went back to tend to Kipinä. “Then there's you.” He began unbuckling the saddle. “You'd think if there was a horse in this haras who wouldn't like me, it'd be you.” The animal in question ignored him in favor of a bucket of oats. “Although I suspect after seven months of being solely ignored save for a daily grooming and you were ready for some attention, even if I'm not the one you wanted.” He took off the saddle and set it on the door.

“Joshua, are you in here?” Thor's voice called down to him.

“Yes, uncle, and no, I'm not hiding my sisters.” He replied.

“I know you're not, I passed the two of them in the corridor.” Thor appeared outside the stall. “I don't suppose you could hide me?”

He smirked. “Is the mighty Thor afraid of going to dinner at Lady Sif's house after all this time?”

His uncle flushed. “You would have issues with going to dinner if one's betrothed's grandmother kept saying she wants to be a great grandmother.”

Joshua bit back a chuckle. “I imagine Lady Sif hears that far more often.”

Thor shook his head. “It's too late to elope, isn't it?”

“Your mother would have your hide.” He replied as he took up a curry-comb and began to brush the horse. “If you had wanted to do that, you and Lady Sif should have run off before you announced your engagement.”

“Point.” He sighed and folded his arms. “Well then, are you looking forward to your trip in a fortnight?”

Joshua smiled. “Jotunheim. I believe that the only one who is not ready is Natasha, who hates to be left behind each time Hela and I go.”

“Rules.” Thor shook his head. “She understands why she must remain here.”

“Doesn't mean she has to like it.” He grinned. “I would love to bring her along, as would Hela. Even if all the rebels are dead , one cannot count on old hatred being gone. Perhaps one day, Fenrir can come here for a visit.”

“Laws.” His uncle sighed. “He would have to gain permission from his superior officer, the governor council of the Spears, King Laufey and Father.” He frowned. “Although I suspect the council would be the most difficult to persuade.”

“I would say it would be more likely for the request to get lost in bureaucracy.” Joshua let out a breath. “By the time it was approved, his leave would be over.”

“Well, we do what we must.” Thor let out a breath. “One of these days, you and I are going to have to go Midgard together. I should see that realm for myself and see how far mankind has come.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Perhaps this dinner will not be as bad as I fear. After tomorrow, I am not allowed to see Sif until the wedding.”

“I don't know what's going to be more difficult for the pair of you, not seeing each other or not spending any time on the training grounds.” He quipped.

In response, Thor laughed.

**

Frigga looked over her teacup at her two granddaughters, both them still rather flushed from their time outdoors. Thor and Sif were getting married in four days, and there would be little free time for anyone for the next week. This was one of the last leisurely teas the three of them would have until after the event. She set her cup down. “You two aren't nervous, are you?”

“No, Grandmother.” Hela replied, poking at the lemon slice in her cup with her spoon. “I think it's the consecutive days of having to be on our better than best behavior without a break that's going to be difficult.”

Natasha took a sip of tea and said nothing.

“Oh, it won't be as bad as all that.” She smiled. “You are not expected to stay at the festivities any later than the tenth bell.”

“Yes, but by the ninth bell in the morning, we have to be awake and on duty again.” The dark haired girl sighed. “Maybe it won't be that bad.” She glanced over at her sister. “Is something wrong?”

“Huh?” Natasha looked up from her cup, blinking. “Sorry, what did you ask?”

Frigga cleared her throat. “Is something wrong, Natasha?”

She shook her head. “I'm fine. A little tired, that's all.”

“Oh, dear heart...” the Allmother opened her arms. “Come here.”

Natasha came over and sat down next to her and she wrapped her arms around her waist, her eyes full of unshed tears.

Frigga pressed a kiss into her youngest granddaughter's hair. “I should have suspected this.” She sighed. There had been times where the absence of Loki had been felt stronger than the normal day to day loss, and with Thor and Sif's impending wedding, it was no wonder that it would be one of those times. “It's been eleven years and now its one of those times that feels like it's only been eleven hours.” She shook her head. “I believe your uncle is doing a good job of hiding his feelings on the matter too.” Hela came over and settled on her other side, making it a three-way hug. She kissed the top of her head as well. “I do not know if it will be good for us that we shall be so busy the next few days or if it will be that much more of a burden.”

“At least we'll be so tired at the end of the day we won't lie awake at night.” Hela's voice was slightly muffled against her shoulder.

“There is that.” Natasha answered, a tiny giggle in her voice.

Frigga embraced the girls again. “Speaking of being busy, I have absolutely no idea what the two of you have been doing with Lady Sigyn in the past few days.” She hated to dismiss the subject of the girl's father so quickly, but sometimes, it was best to divert the conversation. “Still sketching flowers?”

“We haven't been allowed in the gardens in a week.” Hela pulled away, folding her arms. “So, instead, we've been reviewing dances in the school room.”

“It has been rather cathartic.” Natasha tucked herself into the corner of the couch. “Although I have a feeling we won't be using many of them at the feast.”

She chuckled. “You never know.” She smoothed down Hela's hair. “Once all this wedding nonsense is over, you'll be allowed back into the garden to sketch.”

“You would think we're causing harm, or that we were in the way.” Natasha answered. “Although, I haven't missed wearing those silly wide brimmed hats.”

“That's to protect your complexion.” She held out her hands and the girl's teacups floated over to them. “I know, you two have no issues with riding and running around outside.” She handed each of them their cups. “But staying in one place is rather like a cake in the oven.”

In response, both girls grinned.

**
“What happened here?” Gamora let out a gasp as they flew low over a vast empty plain of Svartalfheim, the ground appearing to be nothing more than ash. “I know Malekith was evil, but this was his home.”

“The Aether consumed whatever rational part of him there was.” Loki shook his head. “This used to be a city, if you can believe that.”

“A city?” She scanned the land again, trying to see if there were any remnants of buildings. “How... big?”

“Home to four hundred thousand, or thereabouts. All of them wiped out for one elf's madness.” He navigated them over a rise that seemed wholly out of place in this wasteland. “When we run out of fuel, all the systems will shut down, including the tracking device. It's one of the things that will let Thanos know we've reached our destination. Once that happens, we have exactly three months before the clock starts running.”

“Are we going to destroy the ship?” She asked, her manner serious. “Destroy the evidence, so to speak?”

“No. Once we are on Asgard, we'll send word to the proper authorities on this realm. They can come and collect it. The majority of this planet may lie in ruins, but in the one remaining city, they are only about two decades behind Xandar in terms of technology. Although they are more magic than science.” Loki smiled faintly. “How are you feeling?”

“Okay.” She looked at the last of her jerky. “How long do we have before hibernation sickness sets in?”

“Roughly four hours.” He gave her an encouraging look. “We might just arrive in Asgard in time for dinner. But remember, nothing heavy – our stomachs won't accept rich foods just yet.”

“I think I'll be happy with broth and bread.” She answered as the lights flickered and then she scanned the monitors, and systems started shorting out. “Here we go.”

“Hold on.” He answered and the vessel lowered, skirting the ground, kicking up ash around them. “Cut power to everything except the engines and life support.” His hands tightened on the controls. “Things are going to be a little bumpy.”

She quickly flipped the required switches, hoping her hands weren't shaking as an alarm sounded, letting them know the fuel was depleted. “How far can we go on the fumes?”

“Around twenty more yards.” Loki jerked on the brakes. “Brace yourself, this is going to be hard.”

She sank back into the seat and clutched the arm rests, gritting her teeth as the ship hit the ground and then started plowing through rock. “Are we still in that city?”

“No.” He was speaking through clenched teeth. “We just cleared it, this was most likely a park.” The ship shuddered and then stopped completely. A moment later, all the remaining monitors went blank and the engines whined to a halt. “Wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

Gamora let out a breath. “We made it.”

“That we did.” He started undoing his harness and she did the same. “Journey is almost done.” He stood. “Just need to get our bags and we'll be off.”

**
“Natasha, Heimdall needs to speak with you.” Grandfather's voice was serious as he addressed her. She and Hela were both headed to dinner when he had appeared at the head of the corridor. “Hurry along.”

Natasha glanced at Hela, wondering what the watchman wanted to see her for, since it was just her and not everyone. “Yes, Grandfather.” She paused. “I will try and return as soon as possible.”

“Do you want us to wait for you?” Hela looked worried.

“No, thank you. I shouldn't be gone too long.” She nodded to her grandfather and walked as fast as she could without actually running to the front entrance, where Kipinä was already saddled and waiting. If it was just her that Heimdall needed to see, something must have happened to the Starks, or one of them. That was the only thing that it could be. She swung herself into the saddle, and nodded her thanks to the groom as she took off, racing out of the courtyard and towards the Bifrost, becoming more and more concerned as she did. Did something happen to Tony? Was he hurt? Sick? Worse? Or was it not bad news at all, but good news? No, it couldn't be good news, if it was good news it wouldn't require her immediate presence.

The suns were low in the sky as the observatory came into view and she leaned down over her horse's neck and she had barely reigned him to a stop before she swung down from the saddle and stepped into the great gold room. Almost as soon as she did, she caught sight of one of Grandfather's crows alighting on the ground behind her. Of course he'd send one of those black birds after her. “Good evening, Heimdall.”

“Good evening.” He answered, turning around to look at her. “I am afraid I have tragic news.”

“It's the Starks, isn't it?” She stepped up onto the base of the dais.

He nodded, slowly. “Howard and his wife are dead.” His expression was odd. “It has been dismissed as an accident, but it was no accident.”

“They were murdered?” She shook her head, disbelieving. “Who would want to kill them? Why?”

“I cannot say, Natasha. I am sorry.” He let out a breath. “Your friend Anthony, however, was not with them. He is, for the time being, safe.”

“Norns, poor Tony.” She looked down at her hands. “What year is it on Midgard?”

“Nineteen ninety-two, as they measure things.” He paused. “Although your friend is no longer a little boy.”

“I know that.” She straightened her shoulders, looking up. “Thank you for letting me know, Heimdall.” She couldn't explain exactly how she felt at the moment. She was sorry that the Starks were dead, but she had not seen them in eleven years, fourteen for them. Her mind was shifting from sorrow to trying to figure out who would want them dead. “I just hope that whoever it is, they aren't after Tony as well.”

“Yes.” The watchman replied and then began to turn. “I am sorry to have to bring you...” He stopped speaking.

“What is it?” She frowned, looking in the same direction he was, but only saw golden wall. “Heimdall?”

“Stay where you are.” He said, his voice sounding strange and he turned and plunged his sword into the center of the Bifrost controls.

Natasha instantly covered her eyes as the light grew bright around her and there was nothing but the roar of the wind and her own heavy breathing. Now what had happened? Why had Heimdall stopped speaking and activated the Bifrost? What had he seen? Was Tony in danger? No, the guardian had been looking the wrong way for Midgard. She might not be able to see the worlds beyond the walls, but she knew that her home realm was off to the right and down, not directly behind her. The whirling stopped and the light faded, and then there were two thumps, rather like satchels being dropped on the ground. That didn't make any sense. Early guests for the wedding?

“Good evening, Heimdall.” A voice spoke behind her and her heart raced into her throat. She knew that voice, she had not heard it in nearly a dozen years, but she knew it. She spun around and nearly fell.

“Papochka!” She cried and a moment later, launched herself off of the dais and fell straight into her father's arms.

“Sasha!” He exclaimed, embracing her tightly, his face pressed into her hair.

“You're home!” Her words were muffled against his shoulder and she squeezed him tighter, scarcely able to believe this was real, and she couldn't keep herself from starting to cry.

“Let go, let go here...” He untangled her arms from his neck and held them out, looking her over, and he looked to be on the verge of tears as well. “You've gotten so big.” He hugged her again. “I'm home now, don't cry.” He brushed her cheeks with his hands.

There was the sound of someone clearing their throat and the two of them looked over at a girl, who looked close to Hela's age. Natasha instantly remembered her manners. “Hello.”

The girl looked at her warily. “Hi.” She bit her lip and looked at Heimdall nervously.

“Natasha, this is Gamora.” Papochka's voice was – well, it sounded strained. “Gamora, this is my daughter, Natasha.”

“Let me guess, there's a perfectly good story to explain all this?” She blinked at her father.

“I see someone has been spending time with their grandmother.” He chuckled and kissed the top of her head again. “Thank you, Heimdall.”

The guardian smiled. “It is good to have you home, Prince Loki.”

Papochka picked up two small traveling satchels that were near his feet. The three of them left the observatory and Natasha took Kipinä's reigns in her hand. In response, the horse let out a loud whiny and almost reared. “Now now...” He set a hand on the animal's neck and the stallion stilled and became docile. “Natasha...” He looked around, frowning. “What are you doing out here alone at night, and secondly, why are you riding my horse when I know you have one of your own?”

“Kipinä was tired of being left in the stables and Hela rides Garnie now.” She scrunched her nose. “In fact, Garnie is the only horse she'll ride.”

“Hela...” He gaped at her. “Your sister?”

Natasha nodded. “It's a really long story.”

Gamora frowned. “Loki, I thought you said Hela was on Jotunheim.”

Papochka shook his head. “She is, was...” He ran a hand through his hair. “Norns, what has happened since I've been gone?”

“Plenty.” Natasha answered and they continued walking. “Some good, some bad, some you'll probably need to hear from multiple sources to be believed.”

He laughed. “Perhaps. Now, don't tell me I've arrived home to find your uncle and Lady Sif are married.”

“Of course not.” She blew a lock of hair out of her face, acting as if her father had just asked the silliest question ever. She was still trying to comprehend that this was real, that she hadn't been thrown from her horse and was dreaming away in the healing halls.

“Well, at least that's not changed.” He sounded relieved.

“Hasn't changed yet.” She grinned and glanced over at Gamora, who was turning around in circles, trying to take everything in; almost exactly the same as Hela had done when she arrived.

“What's that supposed to mean?” Papochka asked, smirking.

“The wedding is in four days. You're home just in time.” She looked over at Gamora. “We're going to have to find you something to wear.”

“I've never been to a wedding.” She breathed, her face full of awe. “This is impossible...”

“Natasha, before we go any further, I just want to know one thing.” Papochka's voice was quavering. “Is there anyone else here who was not here when we left for California?” They reached the end of the Bifrost.

“Just one more, and that would be Joshua.” She paused, not exactly certain how to tell her father that he had left home with one child on Asgard and was coming home to find three. “He used to be called Jörmungandr.”

*
It was overwhelming. Loki had known that Hela had been found, but to return and discover all three of his lost children were accounted for, even if Fenrir was on Jotunheim? That was beyond his wildest hopes. Honestly, he had not thought he would come back to Asgard to find the changes that he did, not to these extremes. He had been expecting people to be a little older, perhaps a little wiser, but everything else he'd planned on being as constant as always. Well, some things were as expected; such as Mother crying the moment she saw him and Father doing his best not to show any emotion and nearly succeeding. The food, at the very least, had remained as he remembered it – the broth was thick, rich and filling.

He lowered the mug from his lips, rather relieved that they weren't all in the dining room; that would be daunting at this point. Gamora was still focused on her own cup, he knew he'd have to start explaining things soon. “I did not expect to cause this much interruption with my return.”

“Nonsense.” Mother shook her head, she appeared ready to cry again. “It's nothing.”

Thor nodded in agreement. “We are relieved that you have finally returned, brother.”

“What are you looking at?” Gamora interjected and Loki turned his gaze in time to see Hela and Natasha both look away at the same time.

“Cut it out you two.” Joshua spoke before he could ask what was going on.

“What did we do?” Hela asked, holding out her hands. “We weren't staring.”

“Just cut it out.” He shook his head. “There will be a time for questions later, now isn't the time.”

Father cleared his throat. “Indeed.” He looked from him to Gamora. “Although I suspect you and Miss Gamora will not feel like sleeping any time soon.”

Loki took another drink of broth. “No.” He turned slightly. “Natasha, you still have not answered my question. What were you doing out on the Bifrost at night?”

His youngest slowly raised her chin, swallowing. “Howard and Maria Stark are dead. Someone made their death look like an accident, but it wasn't an accident.”

He blinked in surprise. “Murdered?”

“Yes. I can't think of who'd want them dead.” She looked back down into her mug of tea. “Tony's okay, he wasn't with his parents, so for now he's safe.”

“Damn.” There went his contact at getting hold of the Tesseract. He hoped Howard had taken his advice and locked the Gem up. “Howard had to be well into his seventies.”

“Pile of questions and no shovel to help find the answers. That's the story of this family.”

“Loki!” Mother admonished and then went pink. “I mean, Joshua, I'm sorry...”

Loki turned to his son. “How often has that happened since you came to Asgard?” The resemblance was uncanny and a little unnerving.

“That was the four hundred and sixty ninth time.” He folded his arms and chuckled. “But I'm being nice and not counting the times it happened when the person was drunk.”

“Norns...” He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.

“Joshua, you mean to say you have keeping track?” Thor's voice was incredulous.

“Of course I have. You can tell Sir Fandral his total number, both drunk and sober, is five hundred and thirty eight. He has been, without any contest, the main offender.” He chuckled and Loki opened his eyes to see his own mischievous smile on the face of his son and Joshua turned to him. “It's why I hardly ever wear green.”

He smirked and took a sip of broth before speaking. “Now I'm intrigued, has anyone not made the error?”

“Two. One is Natasha and the other is Lady Sif.” He looked back down into his teacup.

“Hey!” Hela exclaimed. “I've never done it either!”

“Yes, but you've called me Fen several times.” He rolled his eyes.

Gamora suddenly started giggling. She had been silent for quite some time and now that she was making noise, it caused everyone to turn to look at her. “You are all so funny. I thought Asgardians were supposed to be arrogant and think you're better than any other life-form in the universe. But you all are... you're not... it's like you're normal.

Hela leaned forward, grinning. “I know exactly what you're talking about.”

Joshua covered his eyes. “Oh no, not three of them, I can't handle three of them.”

“What are you talking about Josh?” Natasha remarked. “You can't handle two of us.”

“Children!” Mother raised her voice. “Enough of this nonsense for one night. Hela, Sasha, it's time you were in bed, you have a busy day tomorrow. Joshua, please make sure they go to their own rooms and stay there.”

“Do as your grandmother says, girls.” Father's voice was weary. When had the Allfather started to look and sound so old?

Loki wasn't entirely certain he wanted to know the answer.

**
Tony Stark set the strong-box down on the ground, not even certain what was in it; he didn't even know if what he was about to do would work. Of all the requests his father had ever made of him, this had to be the strangest. Whatever was inside was supposed to go to Natasha. What the hell did Howard Stark want to send to her and why had he taken so long to get it back to her? The request wasn't even in his will – maybe it was something embarrassing, such as the complete collection of Captain America memorabilia or something equally stupid.

He took a few steps back and glanced at the sky, swearing he was too sober to be out here doing this. “Uh, Heimdell, or whatever your name is, if you can hear me, this is for Torch – er, Natasha.” He picked up his beer and took a long swig before speaking again. “Haven't seen her in forever, but guess she made a pretty big impact on my old man.” He cursed under his breath. “So fucking stupid, I bet you're not even really out there, it was all bullshit and...” He stopped speaking as a beam of light suddenly surrounded the box and then, in less time it took for him to lower the bottle, both light and box were gone. “I'm dreaming.” He turned away from the grass and headed back inside, ready to find something stronger than beer to drink.

Chapter Text

The night was short, at least that's how it seemed to Loki. Despite the time spent in hibernation, Gamora fell asleep in her chair shortly after Thor retired for the night. She was still dozing in said chair as he rose from his seat at the table, and he glanced over at her as she turned, mumbled something inaudible and then fell silent again. He had spent his time while the rest of the family slept writing down everything he knew about Thanos's plans to gain the Infinity Gems, wanting to get as many details out as he could, so nothing would be forgotten. Spending the last few hours alone had allowed his mind to take stock of all the changes and he was no longer in a state of being stunned.

He opened the door that led to the hallway in time to see Joshua slip into a room that was directly across from Natasha's. One thing he hadn't counted on was coming home and finding one of his children grown. Particularly not grown enough that the child had been called by his name hundreds of times. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the hallway and went up to where he had seen Joshua go in, knocking twice.

“You can come in.” Joshua's muffled voice replied.

Loki pushed the door open, not certain what he was expecting; the room was done in blue and bronze, he could recall that this was the room where he often hid in whilst playing hide-and-go seek with Thor as a child. One table was covered in haphazard stacks of papers, all of them topped with mismatched paperweights, and a Midgardian typewriter sat before one of the chairs. Another chair held a metal box that he could see held supplies for the machine, as well as a repair kit. Other tables had books on them, many with page markers in various locations. He shut the door, already feeling like an intruder.

“Good morning.” Joshua leaned out of the dressing room doorway and then came out, shirtless. “I'm sorry, I thought you were Sasha.”

“Do not tell me she's learned to get up before the suns have.” He tried to keep his tone light and failed.

“No. The only one around here who can do that and be sociable at such an ungodly hour is Hela.” He ran a hand through his hair. “She is one of the few people I've ever known who can be woken up at any hour and be chipper before she's tossed back the covers.”

Loki attempted to smile, uncertain if the boy was being sarcastic or not.

“That's funny.” Joshua stated. “You're supposed to laugh.” He shook his head, rubbing his face. “I'm normally not up this early myself, but I needed to clear my head.” He glanced around the room. “Sorry about the mess.”

“I don't see a mess.” He answered honestly. In truth, he had never thought of what would happen if he were to face his lost children again. He still thought of them as children, and by rights, all three of them should be. However, when it came to the young man in front of him, his time on Midgard had aged him rapidly. It wasn't just surviving that realm that was astonishing, it was the fact that no one noticed how slowly he aged. “Have you always been called Joshua?”

“For as long as I can remember.” He went back into the dressing room and Loki followed, but kept his distance. “Changed my last name about a dozen times though.” Joshua took down a shirt and that was when Loki noticed the scar tissue that ran from his ribcage down to his hip. “Just this past century I have used the surname Ambrose, Pickford, Gardner and Roosevelt.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Isn't Roosevelt a little...” He thought for a moment. “Noticeable?”

“Not when you live in Australia.” He tugged the shirt on and buttoned it up. “I was getting ready to change it again when Sir Fandral showed up on my doorstep.”

“To what, if I may ask?” The mood between them was only slightly better; the twelve feet of physical distance felt like twelve hundred miles.

“Tuck or Babbitt, I hadn't decided.” He chuckled. “Just like I hadn't deiced where I was going, only that I was leaving Australia. Have you ever been there?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Where were you thinking of going?”

“Canada. Thought about getting into logging, or deep-sea fishing.” Joshua took a breath and then turned to look at him. “You just want to clear the air between us or keep up this formality?”

A hundred words and apologies were on the tip of Loki's tongue, but he couldn't find it in himself to speak. What good were words? He had learned that Lorelei had thrown his youngest son onto Midgard without a care, when he'd been scarcely out of infancy, no older than Natasha was when he'd gathered her up and brought her to Asgard. His boy had gone through a sort of hell that no one should have; there had been war and famine, plague and, worst of all, he'd been alone. There was a modicum of comfort in knowing Hela and Fenrir had had each other, and their maternal grandparents, but Joshua – had no one. Instead of trying to find his voice, he closed the distance between them and pulled the young man into a tight hug, noting that his son's arms moved reluctantly around his shoulders, when at one time, he'd been a sweet boy who had adored affection at all hours of the day and would not settle into sleep without a goodnight kiss from both of his parents.

“I'm okay, you know.” Joshua sounded as if he were going to cry. “I got rid of my anger a long time ago. War's good for that.”

“I'm sorry.” The words sounded so weak, so – so small compared to the sorrow Loki felt for what had happened.

His son ended the hug, backing up a few paces. “I said I'm okay.” He shrugged absently. “I'm just glad I had the foresight not to ever get married, or have a serious relationship.”

“I could see where that would have been a problem.” He smiled, or at least, attempted to. “In all honesty, I find it hard to believe that you look so old.”

“I was what, three or four when the incident happened?” Joshua tugged on an over-shirt.

“Four.” His smile becoming more certain. “You and Fenrir are sixteen months apart in age.”

“We were all so little.” He shook his head and looked down as he worked the fastenings of his shirt. “Damn...”

“What?” He frowned. “Something wrong?”

“I just remembered – in about two weeks, Hela and I are supposed to go see Fenrir in Ruskajvar.” He ran his hand through his hair again.

“Ruskajvar?” Loki frowned at the name and then remembered. “The port city on Jotunheim?”

He nodded. “The Governor Council of the Spears won't allow him to go to Utgard. So when he has his yearly leave, we go to the one city on the mainland Fen's allowed to visit.”

“Natasha does not go with you?” He paused. “Wait, let me guess... she is not allowed to go because your Grandfather does not want all of his grandchildren gone from Asgard at the same time?”

“Exactly.” He walked towards him and the two of them went into the main part of the chambers. “Fen would like to come to Asgard, but that's a difficult process, not to mention the weather is a major factor.” He went over to the table and started checking the piles for something. “I'm going to guess you're feeling lost.”

“Lost doesn't even begin to cover it.” Loki walked over to the mantle, scanning the items there and frowning when he came across a piece of concrete the size of a teacup. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. “What is this?”

“That's a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Natasha has one too.” Joshua grinned at the look on his face. “Don't worry, if I can catch up to Sasha in terms of schooling in two years and then get a good distance away from where she is now in three, finding out what's happened shouldn't be too hard. All you need to know about me is never, ever call me boy.” He paused. “At least, not to my face.”

“I'll do my best.” He set the block back down and glanced at a few of the other items on the mantle; a square shadowbox that contained a gold coin, a triangular one that held a folded Australian flag, and a picture frame showing six young men, with Joshua obvious on the far right, all of them in identical clothing, grinning and looking ready to take on the world. On the bottom was scrawled the date 'December 7, 1941'. Loki pulled his hand back and turned to see that Joshua was focused on the papers on the table. “What is the title of your book?”

Joshua raised his head, grinning. “Sons of the Southern Cross.” He let out a breath and turned as there was a knock on the door. “Yes?”

Gamora stuck her head into the room, looking sheepish. “Is there anywhere around here I could get cleaned up? I haven't had a bath in forever and something tells me I shouldn't go around this place looking it.”

“Go down to the next door on this side of the hall and knock, Hela should be up. She'll let you use her bathing chamber.” Joshua answered.

“You have your bag?” Loki asked.

She held it up. “Right here, and thank you.” She shut the door behind her.

“Imagine you wouldn't mind getting cleaned up as well.” Joshua turned to him. “Although I think they're still cleaning your chambers, how it's gotten dirty when no one has been in it over a decade, I have no idea.”

“Sass.” Loki shook his head, chuckling.

*

Gamora rubbed her hair with a towel, sitting down on one of the stuffed chairs that were in Hela's room. It felt amazing to be clean, and she kept looking around the chamber, rather surprised by the fact that it wasn't messy and it wasn't full of dolls. “Thank you again for letting me use your bath.”

“It's not a problem.” Hela set down a cup of tea on the table next to her. “We'll go down to breakfast when you're ready.”

“What is for breakfast?” She frowned. “I am not used to eating all that much. Food was a... I was never fed more than necessary and there was little variety.” She took up the cup of tea. “Thank you.” She sipped at the brown liquid, almost flinching at the flavor; it tasted of flowers. “Usually it was bread, dried meat and tea.”

“No wonder you're so thin.” Hela took a drink from her own mug and then started to undo the braids her hair was in. “Typical breakfast, eggs, fruit, toast, sausage, roasted potatoes. There might be fish.” She picked up her hairbrush. “We used to have breakfast brought to our rooms, but it's easier on the servants to put all the breakfast dishes in the dining room and we eat in there. The meal is kept hot from the fifth bell until the ninth. They just bring us tea in the mornings now.”

Gamora was floored by the idea of having food delivered to one's room when they weren't locked in a cell. “How many meals do you eat on Asgard daily?”

“Four.” She re-braided her hair into a single plait and tossed it over her shoulder. “Breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner.” She scrunched her nose. “You want something different to wear?”

She looked down at her white shirt and navy pants. “What's wrong with this?” She frowned, thinking. “Are girls around here expected to wear dresses most of the time?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” She set down her brush, biting her lip for a moment. “Follow me.”

Gamora rose and went after her, leaving the towel on a rack in the bathing suite before going into a closet that held enough garments for a half a dozen girls, varying from almost plain to so formal looking, she would be afraid to just put it on. She reached out and slid her hand down the sleeve of a dark green tunic that had silver leaves embroidered at the shoulders and cuffs. The material felt curious, sturdy and soft, yet somehow, she knew that if she put it on, she would not be too hot while wearing it. “I don't have to get dressed up, do I?”

“No.” Hela took down another tunic, this one was a pale shade of blue, with a contrasting darker shade of blue embroidery worked into it. “Here. Put this on over what you're already wearing.” She set the hanger back as she handed her the garment.

The tunic was slightly long in the sleeves, but given that the top of her head was on the level with Hela's nose, it was a wonder that it wasn't too big elsewhere. She did up the closure at the waist, like Hela's tunic was, and grimaced at herself in the mirror. “I can't get used to seeing myself like this.”

“What do you mean?” She tilted her head to the side, frowning.

“My skin.” She looked at her hand and frowned. “It's not supposed to be... I don't know what to call this color, it should be green.”

“You're green?” Hela's voice sounded surprised, but not appalled.

“Yes.” She put her hands on her hips and glared at the taller girl. “Is that a problem?”

“Of course not. If it helps, I'm supposed to be blue.” She folded her arms, grinning. “I believe the color you currently are is called ecru.” She held out her hand, and in response, Gamora turned.“It took me a lot longer to get used to wearing closed shoes than it did to seeing my pale skin.”

“Guess those stories about the people of Asgard not liking people and beings who look different are true.” She folded her arms and the two of them walked back into the main part of the room.

“Unfortunately, yes, but steps are being taken to make changes.” Hela resumed her seat and picked up her mug of tea. “It's the fear of what one doesn't understand that makes others wary. I may be blue like a jotun, but I'm also small, like Joshua and well, Father. Fenrir is normal sized for that race.” She shook her head. “Midgard is even more messed up than Asgard in terms of acceptance. They're all humans, but they hate for so many reasons, most of them stupid. Joshua says that religion and history are a big part of it.” She sighed. “Natasha says its because no one takes the time to try to understand that there's more than one way of doing things and just because someone does something differently, that's no reason to say that they're wrong.” She rolled her eyes. “Sort of like I don't know how Sasha and Uncle Thor can eat parlst*, especially when they fry it, Joshua and I think it tastes terrible.”

“What's parlst?” She resumed her seat and took another drink of tea, the taste wasn't so bad now. “I've never heard of it.”

“It's a type of game bird. I can't describe the flavor accurately, since I don't care for it.” Her eyes suddenly lit up. “I just remembered something! Grandfather Laufey and the Council of the Spears sent a collective gift of three skilgars for the wedding feast!”

“What's a skilgar?” Gamora shook her head. “And I don't want to keep talking about food if we're not eating.”

“Let's go then.” She got to her feet. “Skilgar is only the best meat ever.” The two of them left the room and headed up the hallway. “Unfortunately, unless they've dug one recently, there's not a pit big enough to roast all three of them whole.”

She gaped at her. “How big are these skilgar?”

“Massive. A full grown one can weigh almost eight thousand kilograms.” She grinned and spun on her heel, walking backwards. “Oh Norns, if they start roasting them today, I'll have to smell it for the next three and I won't want to share any of it come feasting time!”

“Less talk, more walking.” Gamora's mouth was starting to water at the prospect of a huge meal. They went into a room that was near the head of the corridor and it was full of strange, savory and wonderful smells. Her jaw dropped at the sight of a long table on the far side of the room covered in dishes of all sorts; the one that caught her attention first was a deep silver salver that held thick slices of meat, and then a pot full of some sort of red fruits the size of her clenched fist. “I have never seen this much food in one place at one time before. I don't think I know what half of this is.”

Hela handed her a plate. “It's all good, I know that.” She took up one of her own. “Just don't stuff yourself and get sick.”

“I won't.” She took a slice of meat and one of the red fruits. “This is?”

“Ham and a stewed tomato.” She was putting an egg on her own plate and then added a slice of ham. “I have no idea what you'll be doing today. Sasha and I have a lesson this morning, then we have to come back to our rooms, change and go to a bridal tea at Aunt Sif's house, which will double as lunch, return home and have dinner with the ambassadors. Tomorrow and the day after we have to greet guests coming from off-world, so it's two full days in formal attire and then, time for the wedding.”

Gamora gazed at her, wide-eyed. “Which I'm guessing is even more formal attire.”

She nodded. “Then after the wedding, we have to see the guests off, so basically, there's barely time to catch a breath for the next six days.” The pair of them went over to the table in the center of the room that had ten chairs placed around it and sat down.

“It's tiring just hearing about it.” She was almost starting to wish that she was still back in suspended animation.

Almost.

The food was enough of a reason to be glad she wasn't.

*

The news that the second son of Odin was alive and home broke across Asgard faster than wildfire. There were dozens of speculations of where he had been, none of them even close to the truth. Few outside of the privy council and close friends of the royal family knew exactly where Loki had been all this time. The mood, on a whole, was mixed. Many of the nobles, whom had never thought much of the prince were silent on the manner, but showed manners none the less. The middle and lower class, were rejoicing, mostly in the guilds. How many appointments had been shoved back in the past ten years? Their strongest voice in the court had returned and they did not need to wait for his son, who was scornful of war, to grow into his majority. The Norns were blessing them, they were certain of it.

*

Thor had thought a thousand times of what he was going to say to Loki when he returned to Asgard. Ever since that terrible dinner when he had stormed out, refusing to believe that his brother was a jotun, wasn't his brother by blood, that he was – not what he thought. He had refused to believe his brother a monster, and he had been shamed long before Loki had vanished. He owed his brother more apologies than he could even begin to voice. When he arrived in the dining room,the only one there was Natasha, who was more focused on her food than anything. She did inform him, however, that Loki had already dined and was speaking with Father.

So it was a bit of a surprise to him when he stepped into the corridor and found his brother – not his nephew – heading towards him. “Good morrow, Loki.”

“Good morning, Thor.” Loki gave him a rather wry smile. “Dressed up at this hour of the morning?”

He chuckled in response. “Things have changed. I do not spend as much time on the training grounds as I once did.”

His brother reached him, still smiling. “You do not need to tell me things have changed. A blind man could see the differences in this place.” They started down the hallway together. “I did not expect to return and find you had become serious.”

Thor swallowed. “Brother, I am sorry.”

“Sorry?” Loki let out a small laugh. “Whatever do you have to be sorry for? You finally grew up, if I may be so bold to say, you needn't be sorry for that. I only wish the circumstances could have been different.”

“No, it is not that.” He set a hand on his arm. “I am sorry for a great many things, the fact that it took your disappearance to see my childish ways is the least of them. I should have been a better brother to you. I spurned you for your pursuits and did not defend you from others who did likewise.”

“Thor...” Loki held up his hand.

“No, pray, let me finish.” He took a breath. “The last meal we ate together I refused to believe you were a jotun and called you a monster. I have seen all the errors I have committed against you and I feel nothing but the deepest shame. How you could even begin to forgive me, I do not know.”

Loki stared at him. “Norns, Thor, have you been carrying that grief with you all this time?”

He nodded. “It began the morning after you and Natasha left.”

His brother stepped forward and hugged him. “Then we move forward from here, Thor. What is done is done, we are children no longer.”

He returned the hug, still feeling uncertain. “But all those times...”

Loki pulled away. “Children do foolish things without thinking. Adults do foolish things by walking into them when they know better.”

Thor thumped his arm. “Now you sound like Mother.”

“At least one of us does.” He grinned faintly and they continued on their journey. “Do you know where the girls went?”

“I believe Hela and Natasha took Gamora with them to the schoolroom, so she would at least be occupied. I have no idea what will happen this afternoon.” He sighed. “I keep thinking that Sif and I should have eloped.”

“Mother would never let you hear the end of it.” Loki countered, laughing. “I do not believe that it is the actual wedding and feast that has you in this tense mood, it is all the preparation beforehand.”

Thor chuckled, feeling settled. “These events were so much simpler and enjoyable when all one had to do was know what time they were expected to arrive.”

“Do not tell me you've learned how to be punctual while I was lost.” He quipped.

“Ha!” He gave his brother a one armed hug. “When it comes to food, I have always been on time.”

“Well, I will not argue with you there. Although when it comes to formal events...” He frowned. “Then again, if you are late for your own wedding, if Sif has not changed, you will hear about your tardiness every day until your last.”

In response, he laughed. “Now, we shall have to see you wed as well.”

“I do not believe so, Thor. I must first find where I belong on Asgard now, and settle into that role.” Loki gave him a worn smile. “And it is not as if I lack for heirs.”

*

Crown Prince Helblindi Laufeyson had to send his brother to Ruskajvar in his place when his son Kaj horns ruptured, an important day in any jotun's life. Unfortunately, the occurrence also brought on a fever and aches, leaving one bedridden for a few days. So it fell to him to travel down to the Bifrost site when a messenger from Asgard arrived. This was normally Byleistr's job, a mundane task that he actually enjoyed, but for himself, Helblindi never understood. It was something he needed to work on, as his father was fond of saying.

In truth, as he came to the Bifrost site, he was secretly hoping that it was one of his nieces who had brought whatever it was, most likely a thank you letter from the Allfather. He doubted Odin would send either of them, if he was anything like his own father. King Laufey had difficulty letting the pair out of his sight when they visited. So, instead of either of his nieces, there was a rather nondescript page, who was, quite bravely, trying not to show how much the cold was affecting him.

“Your grace.” The page bowed just low enough to be respectful and Helblindi did not take offense; things between Asgard and Jotunheim were tense, but not terrible. He returned to his former position and took out a scroll from under his cloak. “A message for his majesty, King Laufey of Jotunheim from Odin Allfather of Asgard.”

He took the parchment and kept his face passive as he opened and read it, barely believing the words. He looked at the man. “Thank you for bringing this.” He inclined his head slightly. “And I have a feeling you wish to be in warmer weather. Is a reply necessary?”

“No, your grace.” The man bowed again. “May the Norns smile upon you.”

“And you.” He smiled. “Do send our thanks to the House of Odin for bringing us this news.”

The man nodded and a moment later, the Bifrost took him away.

Helblindi backed away from the two guards, keeping his face calm. “If you will excuse me.”

“Certainly, your grace.” The taller of the two answered and they both bowed.

He turned and walked away from the site and as soon as he knew the guards could no longer see him, broke into a very undignified run. It was early enough that the streets of Utgard were mostly deserted and when he ran into the palace, he started to shout. “Father! Father, where are you?”

Laufey appeared out of a side-room, looking disgruntled. “Have you taken leave of your senses? You are acting as if you are Kaj's age!”

He didn't even flinch at the reprimand. His father was always grumpy when he first awoke in the morning. “We have received news from Asgard.” He held out the parchment. “It is not, however, the expected thank you for the gift.” The king frowned, taking the paper and unfolding it. Helblindi took two steps forward to catch his father as he collapsed, weeping in relief and joy.

Loptr had escaped Thanos and was back on Asgard.

Tonight, Jotunheim would celebrate.

*
Loki had forgotten how exhausting formal dinners could be. He did not tell anyone where he had been, per his Father's instructions. The last thing Asgard needed at the moment was a panic about Thanos. He and Gamora stuck to the same story of suffering from temporary memory loss due to hibernation sickness. It wasn't a common symptom of the illness, but it was enough to deter difficult questions. Asgard's newest resident was in her element, and if she kept forgetting people's names deliberately or accidentally, he couldn't tell. It was most likely the former, as she kept mixing up Sasha and Hela, and each time, his daughters went with it.

When he discovered that the girls now had Sigyn Arrosdottir for a tutor, he would bet good money that his former classmate had helped them hatch the plot during their lessons this morning. Insufferable woman that she was.

Today had been tiring and too much had happened, even before the ambassador's dinner. When he had gone to see his father to inform him about Thanos's plans, his own parents had told him that while was their son by raising, they were in truth, his aunt and uncle by blood. His natural mother was Mother's sister and the only one who knew how his mother, Jora, came to be on Jotunheim was his biological father, King Laufey.

Joshua had been quite correct last night when he'd mentioned that this family was nothing but a pile of questions and no shovels to find the answers.

They would have to dig with their hands then.

His chambers smelled strongly of polish and the massive vase of flowers in the center of a table was doing its best to hide the underlying musty, unused air. Apart from the smells, it was almost as if he had just left the room yesterday for California. He did note the few missing items; things that had been placed on a funeral boat when Asgard had assumed him dead. There was also the rather embarrassing fact that his mother had by now, read all of his journals and now knew things he certainly hadn't wanted her knowing. At least he could take some comfort in knowing that she wouldn't have shared such information with anyone.

Loki had re-hid the journals before dinner, feeling rather childish.

Lying on the table next to the flowers was Natasha's copy of A Wrinkle in Time, the cover battered and showing the stains of its journey to Thanos's citadel and back. He had mended the spine with magic, but he had not cleaned it; the book had been a companion to him since he was released from the chains. He had kept it, read it until he knew it word for word, and every night dreamed of handing the book back to its owner and seeing her smile in return. He gathered the book up and headed down the hall to Natasha's chambers.

He had not seen his little girl much today, and when he had, their time had been in the company of others. This morning she came into the dining room as he was getting ready to leave it. (He heartily approved of the new breakfast arrangements.) If he was going to get back to his life on Asgard, then he best start with something he knew didn't have to change. Checking in on his baby before she went to sleep.

Loki knocked once on her door before entering the room, rather surprised to find it mostly dark. A lamp was lit on the main table, and in the light he could see something bright standing next to it. He went over and picked it up – it was an egg made of quartz, with gemstones and platinum worked into the surface to create a snowflake motif. It was heavy and there was a tiny seam along the surface. He carefully pulled it open to reveal a basket made of diamonds and flowers made of semi-precious stones. Wherever this had come from, it had no doubt cost a small fortune. “Natasha?” He set it down, almost afraid it would shatter. He was completely dumbfounded by its appearance. He then noticed the sheet of paper it was resting on, an invoice from Christie's Auction House, New York City. He noticed that scrawled on the bottom, in Howard Stark's handwriting were the words Because of the Monument's Men. He cleared his throat. “Natasha?” He said again, placing the book with the egg.

There was a whimper from the bedchamber and he went to the door, where he could see another lamp lit and sitting on the floor, and in the circle of light, surrounded by black and white photographs and official looking papers, many of them with bold CLASSIFIED stamps clear on them, was Natasha, curled up into a ball, sobbing. “Sasha?” His voice cracked as he came over to her, pushing the papers together in a pile so he could sit on the floor next to her and not damage them. Loki put his arms around her. “What's wrong, Little Fox?” He hadn't called her that name in years; not since before the Fever.

Instead of answering, Natasha only wept.

He smoothed down her hair and noticed that at his daughter's feet was a photograph. He picked it up, trying to figure out what it was that had upset his baby so. There were three people pictured; a man, around forty some years of age. He was built like Thor, all muscle, but his face, dear Norns, his face was the look of a man on brink of losing everything. Next to him was a pretty young woman, perhaps thirty, with a riot of curls that fell around her shoulders. If it were not for the man holding her, she might not be able to sit. Her smile looked as forced as the man's. The third person was a tiny baby, held in the woman's arms. A little girl, judging from the bows, just big enough to hold her head up and unlike the adults, and was not looking at the camera, but up at the man who was holding her hand, the innocent smile of a baby trying to get their parent's attention.

A cold feeling settled over Loki and he tapped the picture once, the shades of black, white and gray vanished in a riot of color. The woman's hair was red and the man's eyes were green. The baby had her mother's hair and her father's eyes.

The baby was Natasha.

“Oh, little fox...” He set the picture down and hugged her tighter, pressing his face into her hair. “I'm sorry.”

Natasha uncurled and wrapped her arms around his middle, sobbing. “The bad people killed them. The bad people stole me and killed them.”

He rubbed her back in slow circles. “The bad people can't harm you anymore, Sasha. They are dead and gone.”

She shook her head. “The bad people are looking for me.” She pulled away and picked up one of the documents. “They know I'm still alive. I can't go back to Midgard, they've seen me. They saw me in Berlin with Joshua and they thought Joshua was you, they're looking for me and Joshua.” It took her a while to get the sentence out as she kept hiccuping. “The bad people want me back because whatever they did to me, it was before Mister Stark helped create Captain America. They used the Tesseract to create him. The bad people used something different on me.” Her bottom lip started to tremble. “Papochka, I'm scared.”

He pulled her back into his arms. “Don't be frightened, Natasha. I will not let anyone harm you. There are scores of people who will protect you.” He took up the picture again, doing his best to not see the terrified look in his daughter's natural parents' eyes. “Well, here we have been telling people for decades that you look like your mother, and we have not been lying.”

His daughter let out a blubbery giggle. “Her name was Yesfir.” She touched the picture, her finger trembling. “The bad people sent her to Siberia because she was Jewish.” Her finger moved to the man. “His name was Alexander.” Her voice cracked. “His older brother was the Tsar.”

Loki held her tighter, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. He knew full well what had happened to the monarch in question and his family. Madness. He looked back over his shoulder at the egg, twinkling in the lamplight and then back at her. “If the bad people hadn't sent them to Siberia, then they never would have met, and if they had not met, then you would not be here.” He tapped her nose, smiling, even though he was about ready to cry himself. “And I do not wish to know what your Papochka would be like without his Sasha.” He smiled. “What a sad place Asgard would be without you.” He set a finger on her lips before she could contradict him and caught something in her eyes. “What are you thinking?”

Natasha smiled. “We're all stolen, Papochka. You, me, Joshua, Hela, Fenrir, Phin and Gamora. One way or another, we were all taken from the person who had us first.”

He thought for a moment and then chuckled. “I had not realized that.” He shook his head. “And you are right.” He paused. “Since when has Slephnir been called Phin?”

“Since Joshua met him.” She yawned.

“I think it's time for someone to get into bed.” He leaned over and gathered up the scattered documents, noticing for the first time a strong box that held even more papers. He set them inside while Natasha gathered up the photographs and added them, save for the one of the couple and her, which she set on her bedside table. After all this wedding nonsense was over, he was going to examine the contents of the box thoroughly. He picked up the lamp as Natasha climbed into her bed and pulled the bedclothes up to her chin. “You try and get some sleep, all right?” He tucked the sheets around her and then found her stuffed dragon hiding under the bed. “Oh, here's someone else I've not seen in forever.” He handed the animal to her.

“I'm not a baby.” She took her dragon and put him in bed with her. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” He tapped the glass of the lamp and instantly, shadows of shooting stars danced across the walls. He tapped it a second time; the light would extinguish itself in an hour. “Good night, Sasha.”

“Good night, Papochka.” She smiled. “I love you.”

“I love you too, rebenok devochka.” He quietly went into the other room, enchanting the second lamp the same as the first before leaving her chambers and returned to his own.

Chapter Text

The morning of the wedding dawned clear and cool, the sort of deceitful weather Loki remembered from summers past that started off mild and warm, only to do an about face next week in and turn oppressively hot. The past two days had been so busy for everyone in the family that there had been little time to talk to anyone other than the usual greetings. Even at the dinners, everyone had seemed occupied with someone else. It was frustrating, but in his own way, he was grateful. There was still so much for him to absorb and adjust to – and it was becoming apparent just how many changes there had been.

Sometime last night, Sif and her parents were moved into the guest quarters of the palace for the events of today and tomorrow; mostly to prevent any logistical nightmares of navigating the city. He kept his focus clear as he strode down the corridor towards said rooms, performing the first of his many duties of the day. As he and Thor had no sisters, it fell to him to deliver the jewelry that their mother was accoutring to Sif for the wedding. It was going to be rather strange, this would be his first time seeing Sif since his return, from what Natasha had told him, of all the people in Asgard, the shield-maiden had changed the least of anyone else.

He came to a stop at the doors and knocked twice, and a moment a maid opened the door slightly. “Yes?”

“Good morrow.” He gave the girl a smile. “I have come to see the bride on behalf of the Allmother.”

“One moment.” She closed the door and a moment later, heard Sif's muffled voice, then hurrying footsteps and a moment later, the door flew open. She was dressed in a gown with a voluminous skirt that could have hidden all three of his daughters and still had room left over for a friend. Her hair, however, was twisted up in curling rags in a manner that looked painful.

“How do your girls do this every day?” She hissed through clenched teeth. “I feel like a complete imbecile.”

In response, he smiled. “You look beautiful.” He bowed slightly. “Might I come in?”

“Please. I could use someone with common sense right about now.” She rolled her eyes and held the door open. “Welcome home.”

He went in and shut the door, the maid, for some reason, had vanished. “Thank you.” He regarded her. “I am certain Hela will share your sympathies when it comes to the hair. Although I believe it is far easier for you and she to have your hair curled than it would be for Natasha and my mother's hair to be straightened.”

Sif smirked. “Point.” She shook her head. “It's this ridiculous gown that's the main problem. My mother caught sight of a dress that some Midgardian princess wore for her wedding and felt I needed to have one that rivaled it.”

“Sif, who is that?” A woman's voice barked and a moment later, Lady Tyr appeared, looking harried. “Oh, your grace, for a moment I thought...”

Loki gave her a smile. “It is all right, Lady Tyr, I believe Joshua is currently eating breakfast.”

“Indeed.” She replied. “Sif, don't tarry to long, we still have finish your hair.” She went back into the other room.

Sif smothered a chuckle. “This is all his fault, has anyone told you that?”

“Indeed he has.” He smirked. “And I am absolutely disgusted.”

“With him?” She folded her arms and arched her eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

He shook his head. “No Sif, I am disgusted with myself for not thinking of it first.” He replied with perfect honesty.

She rolled her eyes in response. “I wouldn't be surprised if those girls of yours had a hand in this as well. The pair of them could give you and Thor a run for your money.” She turned serious. “It is good that you have returned, Loki.” She took a few steps closer to him. “Is it true about Thanos? He's after the Infinity Stones?”

He nodded, solemnly. “Much as I wish it wasn't. But better to be just a few steps ahead of one's enemy than a moment behind.”

“True.” She took a breath. “I hate to send you off, but...”

“I understand.” He held the box out to her. “With the complements of the Allmother.”

She took it, her solemn expression betrayed by the amusement in her eyes. “Thank you for this gift and extend my gratitude to her majesty.” She paused. “I'm not going to curtsey, I don't trust myself not to trip over this skirt.”

“I wouldn't ask you too.” He gave her a grin. “And you do look beautiful Sif. I wish you and my brother a long and happy marriage.”

“Thank you.” She tilted her head to the side, frowning. “I think you look better with long hair.”

“I rather like it myself, thank you.” He gave her a slight incline of the head. “And have no fear, we have kept liquor away from Thor since before dinner last night.”

In response, Sif laughed again.

*
Gamora did not feel slighted when it came to the wedding arrangements. She and Loki had arrived at an awkward time and in truth, she really didn't mind that she would be sitting with friends of the royal family, rather than at the table with the wedding party; which was where the rest of Loki's family would be sitting. Her whole status was strange; she didn't see herself as Loki's daughter, but people addressed her as if she was. Well, she wasn't going to start calling him father, dad or that odd term Natasha used, papochka. She noted that Hela didn't use that term, it seemed to be a name exclusive to the red-head. She supposed that made sense; Natasha knew him best, had spent the most time around him, and thus, their relationship was different. She also found it very wrong that she herself had spent more time with Loki than Hela had. The chambers she had been given were temporary and were tiny compared to the other girl's rooms. Next week, Joshua would be moving into his uncle's empty chambers and she would be given his current room. At least they hadn't stuck her in the nursery.

She huffed and blew a stray curl out of her face, regarding herself in the mirror. Whereas Natasha seemed to avoid the color pink, Hela, judging from that closet of hers, seemed to adore the color. Since the elder Lokadottir wasn't wearing pink today, Gamora had chosen a rather floaty dress with a skirt that reached her ankles. She put her hands on her hips and frowned at her reflection; borrowing clothes wasn't an issue, it was the dressing up. How did those two girls stand dressing like this daily? Not only that, a woman had come in to her room this morning and fixed her hair, put make-up on her, treated her nails with polish and dressed her, and had spent the whole time talking at her, making comments that she wasn't sure if she was suppose to answer or not. Mostly it was about how her hair already had a wonderful natural curl to it, and that she had a lovely complexion.

She had to wonder what the woman would say if she had the power to drop the glamour and go about in her true green skin.

“Gamora?” Joshua's voice called and she stepped out of the small dressing room.

“Yes?” She wrinkled her nose, the powder on her face was starting to itch and she studied his outfit – it didn't match other Asgardian garments she had seen. “What are you wearing?”

He looked down at his dark blue suit with banding on the jacket. “This is what's called mess-dress on Midgard. It's a formal uniform.”

“You're allowed to wear that?” She folded her arms. “I'd have thought you would have had to dress like an Asgardian.”

He grinned. “If there's one thing Asgard understands about other cultures, it's military service. So, on such state and formal occasions such as a wedding or an important feast, instead of getting trussed up in clothing that are far more complicated than they should be, I don this uniform.” He sighed and smoothed down the lapels of the coat. “Actually, this was made for me here. I could never afford this sort of attire when I lived on Midgard.”

“I'm curious... what do people on Midgard – Terra – call their planet? Since they're mostly oblivious to life in the rest of the universe.” She tucked a loose curl behind her ear.

“They call it Earth, with an affectionate name being the Blue Planet.” He chuckled.

“Blue Planet?” She chuckled. “Does it look blue?”

“Three fourths of its surface is covered in water, what do you think?” He shook his head. “Are you ready to go? I'm supposed to escort you down to join Volstagg and his family.”

She nodded, absently picking at her hand. It was harder to get used to being this color than it was anything. “How long is this going to be? I've never been to a wedding before.”

“The actual ceremony is an hour long. The feast will last well into the night.” He sighed. “I suspect you girls will be sent off to bed following the fireworks. That will be around the tenth bell. I suspect my grandparents will leave then as well.” He waved her over to the small table he was standing next to and opened a wooden box. “One last thing, hold up your hair.”

“What?” She frowned as he turned her around and then fastened a necklace of pink pearls around her neck. “I don't...” She let her hair fall and turned to face him.

“Grandmother has requested that you wear these, and apologizes for not allowing for there to be time for you to come and select something from the collection personally.” He gave her a half grin. “Let me guess, you feel absolutely ridiculous right now.”

“I've never been this dressed up.” She admitted. “That I can remember.”

“I know the feeling.” The two of them left her room and started down the corridor. “and don't worry about protocol too much, once it's time for dessert, no one will say a thing if you and the girls want to sit together.”

“I'm not sure what's harder to get used to, the clothing or all the food.” She grinned. “Although I like the food more.”

*

Thor stood at the base of the dais in the great hall, wondering if his jaw was resting next to his feet. It wasn't that he hadn't seen Sif formally dressed before, it was that he had never seen her dressed like – well, like she had always been wearing gowns of lace and silk instead of leather armor. Although the skirt of the dress she was currently wearing had to weigh more than his own battle armor. He covertly bit at his bottom lip, if only to assure himself that his mouth wasn't hanging open. When she finally came to were he was standing and took her hand in his, he felt the small callus on her palm between her thumb and index finger, worn there by the pommel of her glaive. Something familiar and something that was simply – Sif. He have her hand a slight squeeze, which she returned.

“Today, before this assembly, these two have come to enter into the bonds of marriage.” The voice of the officiant called Thor back to the ceremony.

He turned to look at the man, who was smiling, but he did not take his hand from Sif's – they were expected to keep their hands clasped for the entire proceedings.

“Have you, Thor, son of Odin and Frigga, come of your own free will to join your life with Sif, daughter of Tyr and Ingrid?”

“I have.” He replied, his voice echoing in the now quiet great hall.

He turned to Sif. “And have you, Sif, daughter of Tyr and Ingrid, come of your own free will to join your life with Thor, son of Odin and Frigga?”

“I have.” She answered, her voice as clear and strong, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see that she was fighting back a smile. Still his Sif; not wanting to let her emotions show.

“By their own consent have they come, and all here assembled have borne witness to this declaration.” The man's voice changed slightly in pitch; and in that moment, Thor realized he had no idea what the officiant's name was. He drew out a length of red, green and blue silk, knowing that the fabric had been specially made by his mother and Sif's. He turned so that he was facing Sif again, and he could see the tears in the corners of her eyes. “Do you, Thor, swear before this assembly, before all of the realms, and before the Norns that you take this woman, Sif, to be your wife from this day forward until your last?”

“I do swear.” He answered, blinking back his own tears. Why was he crying? “I swear once, twice and a third time, I again swear that I take Sif to be my wife from this day forward until my last.”

He felt the cloth wrapped around his wrist and then another hand-squeeze from Sif.

“Do you, Sif, swear before this assembly, before all of the realms, and before the Norns that you take this man, Thor, to be your husband from this day forward until your last?”

“I do swear.” She answered, and he saw her give up trying to hide her smile and let it spread across her face. I swear once, twice and a third time, I again swear that I take Thor to be my husband from this day forward until my last.”

“By your own words you are bound.” The officiant tied the cloth around Sif's wrist. “Words fall from lips and thus, before this assembly, you must bind your words with a kiss.”

Thor leaned forward and he and Sif's lips touched, the two of them had already agreed to keep this rather short and sweet. Trying to kiss with your hands tied together was rather awkward as well. As they kissed, the gathered crowd began to cheer and clap.

*

Hela had never seen the feasting hall so full before. Or perhaps it was the fact that the long unoccupied chair that often sat next to her at such events was no longer vacant. However, that also made this whole event seem twice as odd; never in all her dreams of having her family together (as much of it as there could be) did she ever plan on how she would react to it. Loki had always been Father to her, the one whom she and her brothers had been stolen from. Sometimes, she had heard Fenrir call him Papa, but to her, he had always been Father. But now, now she found the word heavy in her mouth, too formal; especially when she saw with her own eyes the close-knit relationship there was between him and Natasha.

Her sister, however, was seated on the other side of the table, between their grandfather and brother.

She glanced sideways to watch as her father set a serving of fried parlst on his plate, and then took a small slice of skilgar as well, looking uncertain. “So this is skilgar?”

Hela nodded and took the service fork after he laid it down, helping herself to a much larger slice. “You're going to want more than that. Believe me.” She cut a piece off of her helping and ate it, then grinned. “It's front-belly meat, that's one of the best parts.”

Father ate part of his own slice, his expression changing as he chewed. “It is good.” He gave her a rather strange smile; the sort that Fenrir gave when he was uncertain. “Are you able to tell if I have a slice of belly meat as well?”

She looked over at the cut and then at the serving platter. “It should be, it's also called brisket.” She gave him an odd grin. “I know they only smoked one of these animals whole, the other two were dressed and prepared to cattle.” She gave the plate a winsome look. “It's almost as good as grandmother's.” She handed the platter to Lord Tyr, who was siting next to her. “You should try some.”

The man gave her a smile. “It's like brisket, you said?” He took a medium sized slice. “It looks excellent.”

Hela pushed the dish of parlst down the table as well, glad that she didn't have to eat any. Her plate was full and she was determined to enjoy her meal, even if it was one of the most awkward since she came to Asgard. That first dinner with Grandmother and Grandfather wasn't this uncomfortable. There hadn't really been a time when she'd been seated next to her father in the few days he'd been back. This was more difficult than last night when she'd been seated with half the royal house of Alfheim. What were they supposed to talk about?

“So what is the best part?” Father's voice interjected into her thoughts.

“Pardon me?” She turned, frowning.

He was looking at her, still with that uncertain smile on his face. “What is the best part of the skilgar?”

She returned his smile, feeling sheepish. “The tenderloin.” She bit at her lip and looked around the feasting hall, even though she couldn't see the platters on the other tables at all. “I wonder who got them.”

“I didn't think to ask, nor have I paid a visit to the kitchens. How big are these skilgar?” He sounded genuinely interested – or else he was having just as much trouble talking as she was.

“They're about as long as this table is.” Hela picked up her bread and deftly buttered it. “I wonder if they made sausage for later in the year.” She set down her knife and took a bite.

“I wouldn't be surprised.” Father replied, letting out a breath. “There wouldn't have been time to properly treat them from when the meat arrived until now.” He speared a few vegetables on his fork. “So what do you like to do, Hela? I know your brother and sister like to read, but what do you enjoy doing?”

She set down her bread and took up her wine glass, taking a tentative sip of the red liquid, almost laughing when she realized that she'd been given cordial, rather than actual wine. Natasha no doubt had the same in her goblet. “I enjoy weaving, Grandmother thinks that's wonderful. But I also like to be outdoors. It was hard for me to enjoy the outside in Jotunheim; it wasn't the weather, it was more of me being half the size of all the children my age.”

“I can see where that would be a problem.” He took a drink from his own glass. “Although I suspect that would make you the expert at hide and seek.”

She almost snorted into her glass. “I am still a champion at that game, although Sasha's not bad either. She's far better at the game indoors.” She picked up her fork. “Of course, I think that's because she can find even smaller places than I to hide in.” She turned her attention back to her food. It would probably be a lot easier to talk once they weren't surrounded by people.

*

Natasha watched the swirling mass of dancers in the center of the feasting hall, feeling oddly detached, as if she wasn't even in the room and this was all happening on a movie screen. She had not felt right since she opened up the box that Tony had sent her. She had known, of course, that her natural parents were dead and had most likely been dead for decades. But getting the confirmation made it seem like it happened only last week. She didn't want to be here, she didn't want to smile and laugh, to be the perfect little princess that the nobles and visiting monarchs exclaimed over and complemented, all while she kept silent save for thank yous and other, civil remarks.

Working her way through a Skyscraper Sundae at Winstead's with Tony and having a good cry is what she wanted to do. Well, maybe she didn't need the sundae. A butterscotch milkshake and fries would be good. The two of them could cry and grieve and just... well, not do this. She wasn't even allowed to wear the charm bracelet her friend had given her because it was deemed to 'plain' for the event. At least she had been able to eat; if she hadn't, people would have known something was wrong and it wouldn't do to create gossip among the courts. Both here and elsewhere in the nine realms.

Everyone who wasn't family still thought that she was Papochka's natural child; none of them knew that she was full Midgardian.

However, the lack of food in front of her now meant she didn't have something to distract her. Well, if she wanted to, she could try and figure out how they bustled Aunt Sif's gown so now she could walk and dance without looking as if she was going to trip over the hem.

“You are not dancing, Natasha?” Grandfather's voice cut into her thoughts and she turned.

“I'm rather tired, Grandfather.” She looked back at the swirling couples. “I also don't think it would be proper of me to take part in this dance, I think I am a little too young.” She added with a slight laugh.

“The past few days have been stressful.” He answered and then smiled. “As much as these events bring joy, they also tend to wear one out.” He took a drink from his wine goblet. “Your father informed me of what was in the box the son of Stark sent you.” Her face fell. Great, now he was going to know she was pretending. “I am not angry, Sasha. So do not worry, but I would like to see the entire contents as well.”

“Yes, Grandfather.” She bit at the corner of her lip. “You're not dancing.” She pointed out.

He chuckled. “Sass.” He inclined his head and then his expression changed back to the stoic one he had during public events. “Prince Rejin.”

“Good evening, your majesty.” The dark-elf bowed slightly and then turned to Natasha. “Your grace.”

“Good evening, your grace.” She replied in kind, her mind quickly going through the royal houses of other realms and then remembered that Rejin was the second son of King Kalsjen of Svartalfheim. As elves lived twice as long as Asgardians, it was hard to know exactly what age he was, but in appearance, he looked only a few years older than herself.

“I came to inquire if Princess Natasha would like to dance.” There was a tiny flush to his cheeks and he glanced off to a side table, where she could see the delegation from their realm, with two of Rejin's sisters and their husbands. “Unless, her grace is otherwise engaged.”

Natasha didn't need to wait for her grandfather's reply, she knew the protocol for this and she stood up, a calm smile on her face. “I would love to dance, thank you.” She came around the table and took the elf's hand, and he led her out to the dance floor.

“I know how this game works as well as you do, your grace.” Rejin's voice was just loud enough for her to hear. “I'd rather sit and watch as well, but duty is duty.” The music had thankfully gone from a slow paced tune to a reel. He took her hands and she spun out slightly. “Besides, it would not do to waste the hours one has spent learning dances.”

She managed a slight giggle as they began to move across the floor. “A valid point. Particularly since my dance instructor is actually here.”

“As are mine.” He nodded towards his sisters. “Or rather, they are the ones who made sure I knew how to do them in my sleep.”

Natasha caught sight of Hela sweeping past with Joshua. “I must be a novice at this then.”

“Not at all.” He smiled, showing a tiny hint of teeth. “You dance quite well.”

“Thank you.” She replied, feeling her cheeks flush slightly. “Although I have a feeling I'll never hear the end of this until sometime next century.”

He chuckled. “Believe me, it will be entirely mutual.”

They dodged past papochka, who was dancing with Lady Sigyn, and she caught sight of his face; she was clearly telling him something amusing. Another turn and she saw Uncle Thor and Aunt Sif, and then there was Gamora, doing her best to keep up with Uncle Hogun, who was clearly trying to remember the steps to the dance. “Well, might as well give all the nobles a good dish of gossip to feast on for a few weeks. It'll give them something to do until the next gathering.”

“Why is the fueling of gossip never covered in lessons?” Rejin laughed. “It seems like an important subject.”

“I believe it's inadvertently covered when we learn manners and duty. Not everyone has a talent for creating gossip.” She let go of one of her partner's hands as he twirled her under his other arm and then their hands came together again. “This is much easier to do when your partner isn't over a foot taller.”

“And when someone isn't telling you that your doing it wrong.” He shook his head. “I remain convinced that the only reason I know this whole reel so well, even though it's Vanir, is through endless repetition of the first six steps until moving on to the next and repeating the process.”

Natasha nodded, rather glad that Lady Sigyn wasn't so fanatical about such things; then again, perhaps she and Hela took up dancing better than the prince for the fact that they were girls; it was one of those things that they didn't mind learning as much. Or something along those lines. “I have never been to Svartalfheim, only read about it.”

“We aren't exactly on the list of places where people want to go.” Rejin shook his head. “My father would like to change people's opinions of our realm, but that's the trouble when all but one realm is inhabited by people who live thousands of years.” He looked abashed. “Not that I have an issue with Midgard.” He said hastily.

“It's all right, I'm used to the remarks about my mother's realm.” They spun towards the far end of the room as part of the dance and then began the journey down to the other end afresh. “I'm guessing you've never been there.”

“No, but I wouldn't mind a visit.” He cleared his throat. “I hear you have also been to Jotunheim.”

“Yes.” She answered. “Although not recently.”

“I have wanted to visit that realm as well. Unfortunately, I worry about the weather. Even their summers aren't exactly warm.”

“It's no colder there in summer than it s here on Asgard in the spring. Hot on Jotunheim is twenty-one degrees. To us, that's pleasant.” Natasha had to move quickly to avoid being sideswiped by an over-enthusiastic noble couple she didn't recognize.

“What's the climate like on Midgard?” Rejin asked as the music drew to a close and they and the crowd clapped politely for the musicians.

“It depends on where you go. They have serious weather there, it's one of the reasons that life is so difficult there.” She took a breath. “Thank you, for the dance.”

“You're welcome.” Rejin gave her a slight bow and a smile.

**

Fenrir stepped onto the dock, letting out a worn sigh. He had never been fond of traveling, no matter what kind it was; even with the ships with newer steam-powered engines that reduced travel time from Cendal from six days to three – under plain sail, the journey would take two weeks. He would have much rather have flown, but hover-ships were currently banned on the mainland of Jotunheim. How Joshua lasted for years on boats on Midgard, he had no idea, other than his brother must have a stronger stomach than he, or that when he'd been sailing the great oceans of that realm, he'd actually been working. Joshua had been a sailor and had spent his time in the rigging and workings of his vessels; for himself, he was little more than a passenger, his only work was being assigned a watch during the journey.

He tossed his bag over his shoulder, scanning the wharves for a familiar face. Every time he arrived here in Ruskajvar, whichever of his uncles had made the journey from Utgard asked him to return to the capitol with him. They asked at the beginning of the trip and at the end. Each time. Fenrir had refused. Until now. The eleven years in the army here on Jotunheim were enough for him, and in truth, he had wanted to give in to his uncle's requests years ago. His time away from Hela had taught him that he needed family, and that he was entirely too young to be on his own. True, going to Utgard meant giving up his free-jotun status, but this was family. Hela, Joshua and Natasha were together on Asgard and he needed family. He had gone into the army because he hadn't known what else to do and the journey to the heart of the mainland had been to dangerous.

The rebels were gone and there was nothing really keeping him in the Spears. He would got to Utgard and find his place among the royal family. His time in the army had been uneventful and it had not been too difficult, other than knowing that he was alone.

How had Joshua done it on Midgard? How could he stand to be alone for so long? He'd never been a part of a family there, no one had ever taken him in, no one had shown him the sort of love growing up that he and their sister had been privileged to. They had each other and Joshua had had no one.

The sight of two royal guards with a slightly shorter jotun standing between them made him smile. Fenrir almost stopped short; it was Uncle Byleistr – it should have been the crown prince, it was his year, so to speak. No matter, it was the first family member he'd seen in months.

“Fenrir!” His uncle cried and closed the distance between them, clamping him on the shoulder when they met. “You've grown!” He chuckled, “I know, you hate to hear that.”

“It has been a year.” He shrugged, smiling awkwardly. “I may have changed a little.”

“Come, come.” Byleistr led him away, not taking his hand from his shoulder, the guards following. “I received some news from Utgard this morning that you must hear.”

“Oh?” Fenrir smiled. “Do not tell me that Odin Allfather has granted my baby sister Natasha permission to visit me here along with Joshua and Hela this year.”

His uncle let out an amused chuckle. “I do not foresee that happening for some years.” He took a breath and then stopped, setting his hands on Fenrir's arms. “Your father has escaped Thanos and has returned to Asgard.”

“What?” He gasped. That couldn't be possible, he had to be dreaming this. “He's alive?” It sounded so foolish when he spoke; he had known his father wasn't dead, he'd known since Joshua and Hela told him years ago, but he'd never once believed that the man could escape the mad titan and live.

“Yes.” He pulled him into a hug. “Details are not plentiful, but the important thing is that he has escaped.”

He nodded against his uncle's chest, knowing that soon they would have to draw apart, those ridiculous protocol rules demanded that they must. Decorum be damned at this point. “May I please go back to Utgard with you, uncle?” Fenrir barely recognized his own voice.

Byleistr pulled away, but did not let him go. He was smiling. “Of course you may, nephew. We can leave as early as tomorrow morning. We will send word to Asgard where you have gone. Your brother and sister are not expected for another week and a half.”

“It will take me two days to file my discharge request.” He gulped, suddenly aware that he was crying. “I'm not a coward, I just...”

“You are young.” His uncle set a hand on his cheek, brushing a tear away. “And when you joined the army, you had few options available. You are also quite brave.” They started walking down the street, already knowing they were headed for the same familiar in they stayed in every year. “But you know our people, Fenrir. We place great value on family and without it, we are not complete. How your brother Joshua did it, I do not know.”

“Midgardians live such short lives, he couldn't find a family, not a permanent one.” He paused. “Perhaps he made the land and sea his family.”

“Joshua has a different sort of strength, Fenrir. One that we cannot understand because of the concepts and beliefs we are raised with. You have not met her, but Natasha and Joshua do act similar in some regards. It's the Midgardian in them, and if there's one thing Midgardian are, it's resilient.”

“They have to be, have you heard what their environment's like?” He laughed. “If there's a habitable place on their realm, someone or something lives on it. Hela told me they have birds that live in an area called Antarctica that has a climate similar to Jotunheim in the late fall and early winter.”

His uncle grinned. “I bet they taste delicious.” He thumped him on the back. “Come, there's roasted skilgar tenderloin awaiting us!”

In response, Fenrir grinned and at the same time, his stomach rumbled, causing both of them to laugh.

Chapter Text

Loki pushed the curtains back from his balcony and opened the doors, folding his arms as the warm breeze blew against him. It was early, barely past the first sun's rising and the second sun was only a rim on the horizon. There were things on Asgard that had not changed, and the constants here were grounding him into this new world he now found himself in; whereas once the comings and goings of the city and the realm were as common and well known to him as the palm of his hand, it had changed more than the rest of the family realized. Their experience had been gradual, his sudden. He leaned against the threshold, sounds rising as the guards in the courtyard below him, just out of his line of sight, changed from the pre-dawn watch to the early morning watch.

Today he would resume his duties as a prince of Asgard, taking up some of Thor's responsibilities until he and Sif returned from their honeymoon on Alfheim. With the onset of summer, most of the court was leaving the city for their estates, seeking a cooler climate. He was keeping track of how much 'give' time he had before Thanos realized that he and Gamora wouldn't be opening the portal back to his citadel, that he wouldn't be getting his hands on the Tesseract; and that the titan's wrath would be terrible.

Svartalfheim reported that they had no signs of approaching crafts in sight of their telescopes and satellites, but they were on alert. Loki hadn't really meant to inconvenience the dark-elves, but, as King Kalsjen had stated, his people were not afraid of Thanos and were more than ready to defend both their home and the rest of the Nine Realms. He knew that the remark about not being afraid of the titan was at least half-true. After what Malekith had done to their home, all other dictators became minor in comparison, despite the havoc they caused. When he made this observation to Joshua, his son remarked that it was a common thought among Midgardians as well when comparing mass-murderers. He also stated that they were more likely to ignore the ones who killed their own people, as opposed to ones in other countries.

There was a soft thump behind him and he turned to see a maid leaving a tea-tray in the other room. “Good morning.”

She bobbed a curtsey. “Good morning, your grace.” She paused. “Is there anything you need?”

He shook his head. “No, thank you.”

She curtsied again and left his room.

“Wonder if anyone else is up.” He went over to the table and fixed his tea, noting that a sheet of paper had been left on the tray as well, and he nearly laughed. Centuries ago, when he and Thor first taking up duties, Mother had issued them schedules, so they could keep track of their day. It'd been forever since he'd been issued one, but he was rather grateful for it's presence now. From the looks of things, he would have to eat breakfast early, as he was expected at a budget meeting at the ninth bell. His afternoon was just as busy; he was to have lunch with his father, followed by more meetings.

He took up his cup and stepped out onto the balcony, resting against the balustrade. Once things were settled, Loki knew the first thing he had to do was retrieve the Tesseract from Midgard. With Howard dead, who knew how long it would be before some idiot brought it out in the open. He'd warned the man to make sure it was locked up by the end of that fateful summer, something Stark had agreed with; there was no reason to believe it had turned out otherwise. Having one of your chief researchers sucked into the cosmic cube should have put the Midgardians on high alert, and in their typical fashion, tried to get rid of it. Quite honestly, he felt they should have let the damned thing remain at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Infinity Gems, unfortunately, were exactly what most scholars called them; necessary evils. Thank the Norns that the Midgardians had only ever had the Tesseract, and not one of the others – given their desire some of them had for immortality, who knew what they would do with the Time Gem. He took a sip of tea and then nearly dropped the cup. What if they had had that gem, if only for a fraction of time? That realm was so masterful at deception, it was a damned good thing they couldn't wield magic as a whole, because that would just turn out frightening. Someone could have visited Midgard and, while Heimdall may be all seeing, things could slip past him.

They had used the Tesseract to create Captain America. If the documents Stark had gathered for Natasha were correct, another 'stone' had been used to slow his daughter's aging. He took a sip from his cup, remembering back when he first brought Natasha to Asgard. Eir had said that her DNA had been manipulated by a chemical, but she was unable to determine what it was. He turned and headed back into his room, his mind already racing; his daughter had been sick, he knew that, the Fever alone had been proof of that, but injuries – she healed from them remarkably faster than she should without the benefit of magic. Even when he first picked her up in Russia, all those years ago – the wounds from her beating started fading before he ever applied a salve.

“This is insane.” He shook his head and turned his attention back out to the skyline.

“Good morning!” A voice called and he looked down towards the direction it came from.

“Good morning, Joshua.” He managed a smile. “Couldn't sleep?”

“I needed to go for another run.” His son backed away so he wasn't looking straight up. “I don't trust these sorts of mornings. It can start off mild and pleasant, but before you know it, the temperature's such, all you want to do is find shade and come tea time, it's storming.”

“True.” He tapped his fingers against his cup after taking a sip.

Joshua ran a hand through his hair, and then looked around him. “Do you mind if I come up?”

“Pardon?” He frowned. “Of course you may join me, although how you're going to get up here without your grandmother...” He stopped speaking as his son jogged to the wall and began climbing the stonework with minimal effort. “Show off.” He muttered as the young man hauled himself over the balcony railing. “Don't go teaching your sisters that.”

His son snorted. “It'd be a handy thing for them to know. Let's just put it down to not letting them do it without supervision.” He brushed his forehead with his sleeve. “It's not like climbing the rigging of a ship in a hurricane.”

Loki blanched. “I don't even want to think about that.”

Joshua chuckled. “Neither do I.” He shook his head, leaning back against the balustrade. “How long do you think it will be before these conversations stop being so damn awkward?”

“A while.” He raised his cup. “Would you care for some tea?”

“No, thank you.” He let out a breath. “Of course, it can't be as strange as the conversations Fen and I have.”

“Fen.” Loki smiled. “I should like to see your brother sometime soon.”

“I'm certain it can all be arranged, somehow.” He sighed. “Sasha told me that we can't go back to Midgard, at least for a while.” He shook his head. “I don't know who the bad people are she talks about, but there are some people walking around Midgard I don't even want to share a time-zone with.” He shuddered. “Possibly not even a hemisphere.” He looked back over his shoulder, towards the city. “Reminds me, anyone tell you what happened to Lorelei?”

“I know the bitch is dead, and that's all that matters to me.” He glowered over the rim of his cup. “Though I would have liked to have been the one who wielded the axe.”

“So my sisters and I were told.” He let out a snickering chuckle. “Which is why we didn't object to it being Grandmother instead.”

His cup fell from his fingers, but he barely registered the delicate china shattering on the stonework. “My mother was the one who ended her life?”

Joshua gave him a steady look. “Well, her sister wasn't here. Besides, on her behalf, and his, I suppose, Grandfather Laufey took her hands, feet and tongue.” He paused. “Actually, the feet were for Fen and I, the hands were for Sasha and Hela, the tongue was for you.” He shrugged dismissively. “There was some speech made when Lorelei was returned to Asgard, but I don't think I heard more than a few words. I was a little too floored by the sight of a being that was fifteen feet tall.”

“And there is someone else I need to meet.” Loki managed a smile. “Laufey. I suspect on that day I will feel much the way you do around me.” He swept his hand over the broken fragments and the cup reformed and settled on the balcony. “I must admit, I never exactly planned on finding so many changes when I returned home. I suppose that since things so rarely change here, I counted on that, and if there were things that were different, they would be minor enough that I could adjust quickly.”

“That is perfectly understandable.” He rubbed his face, grimacing. “I better go get cleaned up before breakfast.” He stretched and Loki heard several of his joints pop. “One of these days I'm going to sleep past the dawn.” He glanced down into the courtyard.

“Don't even think about it.” He answered, tight lipped. His son couldn't possibly...

“Yes anum yem ayn, inch’ yes uzum, Hayrik.” Joshua grinned and then launched himself over the barrier, landing in the courtyard thirty feet below him.

“You are insane!” He shouted down at him.

“Like you've never done it, Hayrik.” He bowed slightly and then took off in a run, no doubt planning on climbing up the side of the palace again into his own room.

He shook his head. “You have me there, young man.” He turned and went into his room, chuckling as he realized exactly what Joshua had said to him. I do what I want, Papa. “Hope he remembers to climb into the right room.”

*

Gamora decided that she wouldn't mention anything about the lingering smell in Joshua's old room. It wasn't a horrible sort of scent, but it reminded her of garlic. She knew that some things had been changed within the room – such as the mattress and the pillows, but there was still something left behind of its former occupant. She sprawled back over the bed, hanging over the edge, her gaze towards the door. She was positive that Loki hadn't planned on what he was going to do with her when they got back to Asgard, and quite honestly, she didn't know how she was going to fit in with the other two girls; her new sisters – both of them older, even though Natasha appeared younger. Well, they weren't Nebula, so there was that.

The wedding nonsense was over five days ago; in that time Joshua had moved into Thor's old room, she'd been fitted for a wardrobe of clothes that went from practical to perfectly ridiculous, and she had come to see that much like in Thanos's citadel, life on Asgard was built on routine. The strange thing was, Loki seemed to slip back into his former life here with minimal difficulty, or at least, it appeared that way. She, on the other hand, was left floundering. She didn't go to lessons with Sasha and Hela, well, more like she elected not to go as she had no interest in doing what they did. That and she had no aptitude or magical abilities. The fact that she wouldn't age the same as everyone else around here was already apparent; her species aged similar to humans, and while she knew there had to be someway for the healers or whatever they were to slow it down, Gamora wasn't certain if she wanted them to.

A sharp knock caused her to sit up and turn towards the balcony, where Joshua was standing. “What the?” She got up and opened the door, frowning. “Forget which room was yours?”

He gave her a sheepish smile. “Sorry about that.” He chuckled. “I should really learn to use doors, or come back into the palace the same way I left it.”

She rolled her eyes and held her arm out towards the far end of the room. “I think you know where that door is. You want me to check for people in the corridor before you leave?”

He shook his head. “No, thank you.”

Gamora snorted and fell back on her bed. “Everyone around here is so damn proper.”

“More like polite.” He answered, crossing the room. “Your tea's here, along with your schedule.” He called back.

“Schedule?” She sat up again. “What the devil do I need one of those for?” She got out of bed and went into the main room of her chamber where a tray was waiting on a table. “I don't...” She looked down at the sheet of paper as she heard the door open and shut. “I haven't had one before.” She picked up the document. “Maybe I should have agreed to go to lessons with the others.”

Gamora quickly read it and then grinned. “Guess this won't be so bad after all.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Breakfast and then to the training grounds.” She set down the paper and then headed to get dressed for her day.

**

Fenrir was not prepared for Utgard. While he had seen cities in the Spears, they were nothing like the capitol. It was settled in a valley, tucked against the heart of the Jynkraphau mountain range. It was a natural defense, making invasion by land all but impossible from any direction except the south. But even that was perilous. If it hasn't been for the Bifrost, the Asgardian army most likely would have been wiped out in one of the treacherous passes that led up the capitol, either in an avalanche or even a simple wrong turn that would have led them straight off a cliff. The walls outside the city were carved out from the two mountains that flanked it.

“Nothing like Cendal, is it?” His uncle's voice called him from his thoughts.

“No.” He shook his head. “The buildings are taller, for one.”

Byleistr laughed. “I believe it's the different raw materials used that allows for that. The only copious source of rocks on most of the Spears is from the coastline or the ocean floor.”

“True.” He also would have remarked that Utgard was close in, not spread out the way the rest of the cities on Jotunheim were, but that was due to the geography. There was also the fact that the city still bore scars from the war against Asgard, over a thousand years ago. “Well, there's a decent share of boulders on land, but it's easier and more efficient to turn them into concrete than it is to carve.”

His uncle nodded in reply and the caravan made its way down the main road, and he saw that many heads turned towards them as they passed, giving Fenrir the urge to hide his face. He had never enjoyed being gaped at. He had borne no resemblance to his grandparents, nor his mother; that was Hela's distinction. Joshua was a near perfect copy of their father and he – he and his uncle Helblindi, however, they were copies too: of King Laufey. “I sometimes wonder how the people of Midgard can build their shelters out of something as fragile as wood.”

“All due respect, uncle, the Midgardians have better trees than us, and a wider variety.” He shrugged. “They also build out of stone, as well as steel and glass.”

“Resilient, magnificent creatures, Midgardians.” He chuckled as the coach lurched around a corner. “You have to admire a species that adapts to nearly every single climate on their own realm. Given how much of it your brother has seen, he would know that place better than any of us, including my father.”

Fenrir felt like pointing out that the last time King Laufey was on Midgard, he was in northern Finland in the tenth century, and at that time, mankind as a whole hadn't figured out that regular bathing was a good idea, which made Grandfather as knowledgeable of Midgard as the average Asgardian was. “I suppose Joshua and Hela will have to visit me here, from now on.”

“Indeed. Perhaps you will finally be able to meet your sister Natasha.” A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Little owl that she is.”

“Owl?” He frowned. “What's that?”

“A type of bird indigenous to Vanaheim and Midgard. They're nocturnal, and there's a species on Vanaheim that has feathers the same color as your sister's hair.” The coach lurched to a stop, and somewhere in their caravan, a horn was blown, followed by an answering horn a moment later. “Here we are.”

Fenrir could only imagine how small his baby sister was, as neither Hela nor Joshua seemed to accurately describe her size. The palace in front of him, however, was massive. There were traces of a former state of grandness, now it was simply imposing; four towers, one on each corner, and a fifth, in the center. To his left, down a narrow path, he could see the path that led to the ruins of the temple, where the Casket of Ancient Winters had once been housed; the place where his father had been left for his safety and where Odin Allfather had stolen him. It was confusing at times. “I fear I will get lost in days to come.”

“It's not as confusing as you might think.” They started up the stairs, and to the front doors, which were opening. “Father!”

“Well, Byleistr, you have done it again. I once sent you to the Spears and you came back with your niece. Now you return from the port city with your nephew!” The king of Jotunheim didn't look as intimidating to Fenrir for some reason. He came down to them and clapped his son on the shoulder. “Something wrong?” This was addressed directly at him.

“No, sir.” Fenrir felt his spine stiffen. He didn't even know what he was supposed to call the king. He'd just been 'sir' to him for so long, that was all that seemed to fit.

“It's been a long journey, Father.” His uncle answered, reliving some of the tension. “Is Kaj feeling better?”

“He is.” The three of them started up the stairs and into the palace, and Fenrir glanced back at the servants unloading the cart that had been a part of their caravan, carrying their luggage. He had the strong urge to go back and get his bag. Hela had told him how strange it was for her to go to Asgard and suddenly find herself almost completely chore-free. His sister, whom had been cooking for the family and worked hard since she turned seventy-five, not working. He didn't know what, exactly, he'd be expected to do now... and Joshua...

“Are my brother and sister still coming to visit?” He interjected, wondering if his siblings even knew he'd come to Utgard.

“Asgard was informed in your change of living arrangements this morning. We're waiting to hear when they will be arriving.” Grandfather made a face. “I doubt that Odin will ever allow all of them to visit at the same time.”

Fenrir knew what it would take; but with his father being back on Asgard, that most likely had changed. He wouldn't put it past Odin to let everyone in the family go; save Natasha. Then again, he doubted that his sisters and brother had yet to inform their father that the only one who was still in line for the Asgardian throne was the one who technically, had zero claim to it. Joshua and Hela had their titles, but had removed themselves for different reasons; Hela didn't want to completely relinquish her ties to their home realm; and Joshua had more contempt than he showed for the Asgardian way of thinking. Of course, knowing the Allfather, all three of his siblings would have their marriages arranged and that was that.

He followed his uncle and grandfather inside, glancing back over his shoulder as two servants shut the door behind them, their heads bowed and then went – somewhere. The entrance hall was huge, with the ceiling far above him – and he could see the patches made in the plaster and stonework; he'd noticed during the ride through Utgard that the city was undergoing renovations, he just hadn't thought that it extended to the palace as well. There was a scaffolding down the left-hand corridor, and the air was heavy with the scent of lye.

“Not used the indoors, are you, Fenrir?” Grandfather's voice was surprisingly gentle.

He turned around, feeling abashed. “No. I uh...”

He chuckled. “I understand, this is all new to you.”

He nodded in reply. “I – I don't even know what I'm supposed to do here.”

“First things first – you rest from your journey, eat dinner with the family tonight, and start to adjust. I can inform you that there are no events until the solstice that will require your presence.” Laufey smiled widened as he caught sight of something behind him. “Good afternoon, Kaj.”

A jotun, around two hundred years of age skittered into the hallway and almost crashed into Fenrir. “Good afternoon, Grandfather.” He stiffed up. “Good afternoon, uncle,” he turned to Fenrir. “You're my cousin!”

“Yes.” Fenrir looked the shorter boy over – he was about the same height as Joshua – but unlike his brother, Kaj had a very coltish build, his limbs seemed too big for the rest of his body. Poking out of the top of his head, he could make out the start of his horns, wrapped in bandages to protect the currently tender skin and unhardened keratin.

Uncle Byleistr grinned. “Kaj, why don't you show Fenrir where his room is.”

“Okay!” He tugged Fenrir's hand. “Come on!”

He gave a half wave to the two adults and then let the younger jotun lead him up the stairs. “See you at dinner.” He called back.

Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad.

*

Natasha kept her focus on the knife she was using to sharpen her pencil, only halfway listening to her sister and Sigyn working on the other side of the classroom. The past few days had been strange to her; she had kept up the notion that when Papochka came home, things would somehow go back to the way they had been before he left; or it'd be similar. There was just... she hated to admit it, but she didn't like having to share him. It was fine to share some things; toys, art supplies, a horse – but Papochka? That was somehow... different. Maybe it was the fact that of her and her siblings, she was the only one who had spent a significant time with him (through no fault of anyone's but Lorelei). She'd go talk to Phin, thinking that he might understand what she was going through; but it was just...

They should all be happy and whatnot, and instead, all she felt was a hot, horrible, jealous feeling in her stomach.

Natasha really wished Uncle Thor was home so she could talk to him; he'd had to face a similar problem when she'd showed up and he suddenly had to share Papochka in a way too.

“Blast!” She cried when the knife slipped from her hand and cut open her palm. She dropped the blade and pressed a handkerchief to the wound.

“Sasha?” Sigyn was instantly next to her. “What happened?”

“It's nothing, I'll be all right.” She replied, through clenched teeth. “I wasn't paying attention.”

“Let me see it.” Her teacher took her hands and then Hela was there too, holding her knife in her hand.

“That's not nothing.” Hela sounded worried.

“Please! I'll be fine!” Natasha just wanted to be left alone.

“None of that.” Sigyn pried uninjured hand away and gasped. “Natasha!”

“What?” She looked down at the wound that went from the base of her index finger to the other side of her palm. “It's not that bad.” Her own voice seemed strange to her. “I just need some soap and water.” A moment later, her hand was being held over her head. “There's nothing to fuss over.”

“Hush.” Her teacher admonished. “Sit still.”

“Really, I don't want to be a bother.” She blinked at Hela. “It doesn't even hurt that much.”

“Sigyn, what's wrong with my sister?” Hela's expression was scary. “Is she in shock?”

“Possibly.” She was poking at the wound with seidr, Natasha was aware of it pushing against her skin. “Go and pour your sister a glass of water from the pitcher.”

“All right.” Natasha's gaze shifted to watch her sister run across the room and then back. “Here you go.”

“Thank you.” She stated, automatically. Why were they so worried? She said the injury was nothing, why didn't they just leave it at that? Her injuries were almost always nothing. She'd been injured worse than this before and she'd healed, she hadn't even had to go to Eir and there wasn't even a scar to prove it had been there. Sigyn deftly wrapped her hand and then lowered it. In response, Natasha took a sip of water. “And thank you, too.” She pulled a smile, deciding maybe if she played along, they'd leave her well enough alone.

“Do you need to go lie down for a while?” Hela touched her cheek. “You don't look well, Sasha.”

“I... I think I'll just sit.” She kept her expression the same. “I don't want to worry you.” She looked down at her sketchbook and cursed softly at the massive blood stain marring the snowy white paper and her nearly complete drawing of the city skyline, as seen from her window. “Now I'll have to start over.”

“I can fix it.” Her sister sat down and pulled the book towards her. “It's not ruined.”

“You don't have to...” Maybe something was wrong. Previous injuries hadn't been like this. She took another drink of water. “I feel funny.” There was a deep ache in her lower back, a sort of dull throbbing, similar to when she landed in piles of hay when she and Hela went swinging on ropes in the hayloft of the stables.

“Funny how?” Sigyn asked as Hela held a hand over her sketchbook, and it glowed faintly as the blood started to dissipate from the paper.

“Just...” She set the glass down, blinking again, and a faint memory, long buried, swept to the surface. The Red Room. That reedy man – the one she was always terrified of, more than anyone else, taking a hold of her leg, one hand above her ankle, the other below her knee. He snapped the bone – and then... She shook her head to clear it, unable to remember what happened next – and for that matter, how did she get on the floor of the schoolroom? “What happened?”

Sigyn's face was ashen. “Hela, run and get your father. Tell him to come here, no questions. Then go and get Eir.”

“Yes, Sigyn.” Her voice cracked and Natasha heard the door open with a bang.

“What's wrong?” She took hold of her desk and pulled herself to her feet, nearly tripping over the hem of her dress, and the sleeves of her tunic suddenly seemed too large. In fact, everything seemed to be bigger than it had been a few moments ago.

“Hey, either of you care to tell me why Hela tore out of here...” Joshua's voice was cut off. “Holy shit, Sasha, you've shrunk!”

“Language!” Sigyn admonished.

“Well, one of us needed to say it, since you are obviously thinking it.” Her brother came into the room. “That's just...”

“What do you mean, I've shrunk?” She folded her arms, giving her brother her best offended look.

“I mean you've...” Joshua studied her and then grimaced. “You're not just short, Sasha, I'd say your body just went back thirty years.”

She rolled her eyes. “That's ridiculous, how could that happen?”

“Natasha, let me see your hand.” Sigyn's voice was gentle, but apprehensive.

She held out her arm obediently and her teacher gently removed the bandage she'd placed on it not five minutes ago. The wound was completely gone; the only trace it had ever been there were the spots of blood on the cloth that had been wrapped around it. “I don't understand.”

“Neither do I.” Sigyn answered, then sat down in the chair, holding both of Natasha's hands in hers. “Now, apart from falling out of your seat, is there anything else you have trouble remembering?”

She shook her head. “Do you mean can I tell you what I had for breakfast two weeks ago memory or do I still know how to conjugate high-Vanir verbs memory?”

Joshua chuckled. “Sassy Sasha, I'd say mentally, she's fine.”

Natasha giggled as she heard footsteps racing towards them and then she turned as Papochka appeared in the doorway, his face white. “I don't know what happened.”

Her father swallowed and came into the room, and she recognized the movement; he was far more worried than he was showing. “You weren't messing around with an untried spell, were you, young lady?”

“She was working on a sketch, your grace.” Sigyn answered before she could. “Natasha knows better than that.”

“I know she does.” Father glared at her. “Not to mention most people of her age would try to make themselves older, not younger.”

Joshua sat down in Hela's chair. “Sasha, has something like this ever happened before?”

“I...” She swallowed, the memory was fuzzy, and she unconsciously rubbed her leg – the one the reedy man had broken. “I think it has.”

Papochka brushed her hair out of her face. “I think it's more than that. When we went to California, you looked to be around what, eight or nine?”

“A small nine.” Joshua answered. “That's how she looked when I got here. She should look eleven.” He frowned. “Just a little younger than Hela.”

“Two years in twelve is a little much.” Sigyn offered. “She should still look nine. The only difference from when you went to Vanaheim, your graces, and when you came back, was that her hair was longer.”

“Something no one would question.” Papochka frowned and lifted her chin. “Now she looks much the same.” He paused. “You haven't eaten one of Idunn's apples recently, have you, Natasha?”

She shook her head. “I've only had the one I had right after the Fever.”

Joshua stood. “I'm still fairly new to the whole concept, but can one of those Infinity Gems manipulate time?”

“Yes.” Papochka have her brother an odd glance. “There's a specific one, and I had a theory on Natasha's aging this morning, but that doesn't explain this. Eir said it was a chemical that manipulated her DNA, but she didn't know what it was.”

“What if she actually has the stone?” Sigyn interjected. “That might explain how this happened.”

“But I've been injured worse than this.” Natasha held out her hand. “I've been sick, hurt and all that, but I've never gotten smaller!”

“Not to mention that Eir would have found the stone when she first checked Natasha over.” Papochka added.

“Unless it's in a place you wouldn't think to check on a four year old girl.” Joshua remarked and her father and Sigyn both stared at him. “What, you forget how far Midgardian medicine has progressed again?”

Papochka pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “That is simultaneously brilliant and barbaric.” He frowned. “Still doesn't explain why she de-aged herself.”

“It could be tied to emotions.” Eir's voice cut into the conversation as she came into the room. “Things have been stressful in the past few weeks.”

Natasha let out a sigh. “I guess I'm off to the healing halls?” She managed a sheepish smile and then frowned. “Where's Hela?”

“I sent her off to join Gamora.” Eir replied. “She needed some fresh air.”

“Come on.” Papochka tapped her shoulder and her garments shrank to fit her now smaller body. “Up you get.”

Nodding, she obediently stood and let her father and Eir lead her from the room, hoping that whatever had happened, they could reverse it back and return her to her proper size.

Chapter Text

Joshua had been surprised how easily he fell into the role of big brother when he came to Asgard. It hadn't even fazed him when he went from one little sister to two; as a whole, Sasha and Hela were rather like the perfect combination of all his favorite literary heroines, although in true irony, the red head was more Scout Finch and the raven haired one was more Anne Shirley. They all got along for the most part – they teased each other, but that was usually in good fun, never deliberately cruel. He also felt that looking after them was his responsibility; more than it was Grandmother's or Uncle Thor's. With their father's return, however...

“Run off and play, Joshua.” He muttered under his breath as he strode down the corridor, heading for the stables where he knew he would find Hela. “The grown ups will look after Sasha.” He reached the foot of the stairs, still glowering. “I know I'm not the parent here, but damn it all.” He shook his head. “I don't even...”

“Ooof!” Someone cried as he walked into them.

“Sorry.” He snapped out of his thoughts. “Gamora?” He pulled the girl to her feet. “You okay?”

“I'm fine.” She huffed, blowing a stray curl out of her face. “I got lost trying to get back to my room.”

He chuckled. “I completely understand.” He looked her over. “I knew you went to the training grounds this morning, but where have you been this afternoon?”

“Exploring.” She answered, rather innocently. “Apparently, that's frowned on.”

“Sure you were.” He grinned. “I'm going to collect Hela from the stables, care to join?”

She shrugged. “That's how I got lost in the first place. I was supposed to be there for a riding lesson, but after lunch, I guess I took a wrong turn and the next thing I knew, I was in the library and...” Her eyes grew wide. “That place... I'm not one for reading, but...”

“I understand.” He grinned, remembering the first time Natasha had led him into that part of the palace. “Things have been so busy as of late, no one has had time to give you a proper tour.”

“I know the basics.” Gamora tossed her braid over her shoulder. “I think I just got turned around.” She paused. “I thought you also had lessons in the afternoon.”

Joshua chuckled. “My lessons are done for a while, even though I fear my vacation plans have been altered, Master Siry's have not. He'll leave for Vanaheim this evening.”

She nodded and they went outside into the early afternoon sunshine. “Aren't the girls were in lessons until the second afternoon bell? Why's Hela in the stables?”

“Things change.” He answered, not really certain of how to describe what had happened in the girl's schoolroom, because honestly? He didn't know and what he wanted to do was march back onto the palace and into the healing halls to learn some answers. He grinned. “You're one of the girls too, you know.”

“It doesn't feel like it.” She sighed. “Then again, I could have gone to the schoolroom – but what do I need to know all that princess stuff for?”

“And what, exactly, is princess stuff?” He retorted, folding his arms.

“You know, princess stuff.” She waved her arms around, and he could tell she was floundering. “How to walk like one, curtsey, act silly...” she stopped talking at the look he was giving her. “What?”

“You've read too many fairy stories.” He remarked. “Last time I went over their lessons with them, Hela was learning astrophysics and Sasha was studying the marine life of Alfheim.”

“That's...” She shook her head. “I don't... what good does any of that do?”

He tapped her nose. “The average life span for someone of myself and Hela's genetic make up is well over seven thousand years. That's plenty of time to learn whatever you want to know about, and if you get bored, no one is going to say a thing if you switch topics.” They started across the stable-yard. “Now, if you want to know how to fight, that's perfectly acceptable. You can learn all of it.”

She looked down at her feet. “I just – I'm not familiar with that. Having a choice.”

“Believe it or not, I understand.” Joshua paused, already knowing where his sister most likely was. “Before we go in here, keep one thing in mind; this is where the war horses are kept. They're dangerous, so no matter how pretty or handsome you think they are, they aren't pets. If they don't know you, they can cause some serious harm.”

Gamora nodded. “Understood.”

They went into the semi-dark stable, and almost instantly, the warm smell of hay and horse greeted them, causing him to sigh. “Much better.” He let his newest sister past the stalls, heading for the place he was certain he'd find Hela. “A little shade makes a lot of difference.”

“It looked like it was clouding up in the west, when I came in for lunch.” She offered. “But I...” She stopped speaking. “Uh, this horse has eight legs.”

“Indeed he does.” Joshua grinned and leaned against the door. “Good afternoon, Phin.” He looked down into the corner. “Found you!” He grinned at Hela. “You want to share with the rest of the family, or are you two invoking your 'oldest of the gender' privilege?”

Hela rolled her eyes at him. “Not funny.” She climbed up onto the stall door and rubbed Phin between his ears. “Let me guess, you've been told to run along and not worry the grown ups too.”

He grinned. “How'd you guess?”

“I recognize the look.” She looked down at Gamora. “You can come up here. Phin won't harm you.”

“Uh...” She frowned. “I'm a little confused.”

“Oh, allow me to introduce you.” His sister grinned. “Gamora, this is Slephnir, the oldest of our father's children. Although technically, papa is Phin's mother.” She held up a hand before the other girl could speak. “It's a long story.”

“I bet.” She pulled herself up to sit and Phin sniffed at her for a moment. “What exactly happened that sent you two out of doors?”

“We don't know, other than one minute, Sasha cut her hand and the next, she's de-aged herself a few dozen years.” Hela sighed. “It was a pretty bad cut, Josh. She practically sliced her palm in half.”

“I've seen worse.” He retorted. “This whole situation as of late has been a bit of a mess.”

Hela nodded. “I thought when Papa finally came home, things would, I don't know, I knew they would change, but it's just...”

“It's understandable.” Joshua sighed. “I somehow got so used to looking after you girls, and now it seems I've been replaced.” He paused. “Well, I think it was watching out for you that helped my adjustment, Sasha was able to ease us into living here and once you got a loom shuttle in your hand, hello, grandmother-granddaughter bonding time.”

Gamora frowned. “I don't even know where to start.”

Phin let out a whiny and tossed his head, stepping back from the stall door.

“Oh, and I suppose you'd like to come and live inside with us?” Joshua remarked, causing his elder brother to snort. “Didn't think so.”

“I'm starting to think Fen's the lucky one, still on Jotunheim, away from all this drama.” Hela leaned back against the wood. “Although having to get used to life in the Jontar court...”

“At least he's not going to have as much of an issue as I do being treated like a child.” Joshua interjected. “He can spend time with our cousin Kaj, do whatever it is they do for fun, since they don't ride horses, or what have you.”

“I think it's not too different from court here.” His sister added. “Fen's needed something to fuss over since I came to Asgard, and Kaj has needed a friend.”

“Well, first he has to adjust to civilian life again, it's been what, ten years on Jotunheim? A decade of military service will need recovery, even as long as we live.” He shook his head.

“I think he spent his time learning to throw ice spears and building roads.” Hela remarked. “On the bright side, at least there's no meddling member of the privy council or some vapid princess trying to convince Papa that we need a mother.”

“Amen to that.” Joshua sighed, deciding not to remark that in the five minutes he observed them, watching their father and Lady Sigyn was a little like watching Uncle Thor and Aunt Sif.

Gamora bit her lip. “Um... could I come to lessons with you tomorrow, Hela?”

“I don't see why not.” She shrugged. “We'll just have a servant add another desk.”

“Hopefully, they don't have to get Sasha a smaller chair.” Joshua let out a breath. “at least her memory is in tact.”

“Some good.” Hela leaned towards him and he wrapped an arm around her waist in a hug. “I should have waited for her in the healing halls.”

“They'd have run you off the same as they did me.” He answered and then did his best to give them both a smile. “More than twice as fast.”

She chuckled. “If she's still down there come dinner time, I say we invade and declare we're having the meal there, together.”

Gamora grinned. “I volunteer to raid the kitchens.”

“Bring nothing but dessert!” Hela cried, grinning.

Phin let out a snort.

“I guess that means you don't want us sneaking you down there too?” Joshua quipped, causing the horse to toss his head in answer. “You're right, she'll get lost trying to find the kitchens.”

*
Natasha knew that Papochka and Eir didn't mean to treat her like a baby; but that's exactly how she felt now, lying on a bed in the healing halls, hating the fact that she was lying on her front, giving her a view of the floor and not of what was happening above her. Even worse, they were talking almost as if she couldn't hear them. She adjusted her arms so she could rest her chin on them.

“Natasha, on those papers that Mister Stark sent you, did one of them have your actual birthday on them?” Eir asked, finally addressing her.

“Yes. My birthday is May seventeenth, nineteen twenty eight.” She answered. “I think I look pretty good for sixty-six.”

Papochka let out a soft chuckle. “On all accounts.”

“Now, I'm going to need you to hold perfectly still while I run this scan, Sasha. All right?” Eir's voice sounded strained. “you said that right before you changed, you felt something in your lower back?”

“I think that's where it was, it was lower than my belly.” She replied as she felt her father's hand settle in her hair.

“What's going on in here?” Grandmother's voice was sharp. “I was informed that something happened in the schoolroom and... what's happened to Natasha?”

“That is what we are trying to find out, Mother.” Papochka answered and a moment later, Natasha saw her grandmother's shoes.

She felt a faint tingle along her back and she gritted her teeth, struggling to stay still.

“Ssh.” Her father stroked her hair. “It'll be over in a minute.”

The heat grew worse and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep her focus on anything but the pain. She thought of snow, of laughing with her sister, riding with her brother, the cool hand of her father comforting her. Then the burning feeling began to abate and it was silent in the chamber. The horrible sort of silence that never meant good news. She felt Papochka's thumb right next to her ear. “What is it?”

“I don't know what's more disturbing.” Eir's voice sounded distant. “The fact that one of the six most powerful gems in all of Creation is inside this girl, or the fact that we never noticed.”

“Tell me that's not what I think it is.” Grandmother's response was soft, if she hadn't been so close, Natasha never would have heard her.

“Unfortunately, I believe it is.” Papochka went back to stroking her hair. “Eir?” There was a whirring noise and the heat returned to her back, causing Natasha to whimper. “Ssh, it's almost over, Sasha.”

“Infinity stone.” Eir sounded distressed. “The trouble is, I don't think we can remove it without serious consequences.”

“There's something else wrong with that picture.” Grandmother seemed to have found her voice. “Look.”

“Bastards.” Papochka's thumb was on her forehead. “That's not something that should be done to a prepubescent girl.”

“The method was crude, but it can be undone.” Eir sighed. “The gem is currently a larger problem, I cannot apply a healing stone without risk of interference from the gem.” She squeezed Natasha's hand. “I don't think you're worried about having babies just yet, are you Sasha?”

“Boys have cooties.” She snorted. “I'm just immune to the ones carried by my family members.”

“Clever girl.” Papochka let out a breath. “Is it possible for us to get Natasha back to how she was earlier today?”

“I don't see why we can't, but if the gem is tied to her emotions, then we'll have to wait until things are a little calmer.” Eir touched her shoulder. “You can sit up now, Sasha.”

She nodded and pushed herself up to sit on the bed, tucking her feet under her. “I'm not going to go to sleep and find myself four years old, am I?”

Papochka and Grandmother exchanged glances. “You shouldn't.” He sat down next to her and hugged her. “What you need to do right now is just relax and try not to worry.”

She gave him a look. “Don't talk to me like I'm a baby.”

Grandmother cleared her throat. “Natasha.”

She took a breath. “Sorry.”

“It's been a stressful few weeks.” Grandmother replied and then gave Papochka a stern look. “What I think you and your family needs is serious together time, without outside distractions.” She frowned. “Unfortunately, that might delay the trip to Jotunheim.”

“I think given the circumstances, Grandfather Laufey will understand.” Natasha answered.

Papochka shook his head. “Everything around here is so damn different.”

“Language.” Grandmother intoned.

“I've heard worse.” Sasha replied, rolling her eyes and folding her arms.

“Natasha...” Eir came over to her, frowning. “Open your mouth for a moment.” She complied, wondering what the woman was looking for. “When was the last time you lost a tooth?”

She thought for a moment. “A few years ago. It came out in a toffee apple.”

“I remember that.” Grandmother shook her head. “It was during the Yule.”

Eir nodded. “For some reason, her teeth haven't changed. The rest of her reverted to the size she was around fifteen years ago, but her mouth has stayed the same.” She smoothed down her hair. “I want you to stay here tonight. No excitement, just rest, understood?”

“Understood.” She replied, letting out a breath.

“I will discuss things with your Father, Loki.” Grandmother gave them both a worn smile. “Eir, you won't object if there's a small dinner party here this evening, would you?”

“Party?” The woman frowned. “I don't think...”

“That Hela's going to stay in her room while her sister's here?” She looked thoroughly amused. “And that her brother won't be along shortly thereafter? A controlled, planned gathering will be less rowdy than a covert one.”

Papochka took a breath. “Dinner for...”

“Five.” Grandmother answered. “I believe you don't need the stress of having myself and the Allfather here.” She came over and kissed him on the forehead, before doing the same to her granddaughter. “And do what Eir says.”

“Yes, Grandmother.” She replied, tucking her feet under her. Spending the night in the healing halls wouldn't be so bad. She didn't pay much attention to the rest of the exchange between her father and grandmother, instead, she focused on the hand she had cut, the wound completely gone, but there was still the ghost of pain in her memory; and the absolutely horrified look on Hela's face. There was a thump next to her and then, she felt Papochka's arm hug her against him.

“You want to talk about what happened back in the schoolroom?” He kept his arm around her.

“What's there to talk about? I don't even know how I did this to myself.” She didn't look up.

“Hmm.” He lifted her chin with his finger, his face had that unreadable expression he often wore at court. “That doesn't sound like the Sasha I know.”

“I'm not that Sasha anymore, Papochka.” She bit her lip. “That's just it...” She shook her head and looked away again. “I just... I don't know how this family thing is suppose to work now. It was different when it was just me and my siblings, and Uncle Thor and our grandparents, it was... I dunno, we just... sort of came together and now, it...”

“Seems rather forced.” He sighed and kissed the top of her head. “I completely understand. I didn't expect to come back and find that instead of one child waiting, there were three. I'm certain you weren't expecting me to bring you another one.” He rested his head against hers, chuckling. “It was so much simpler when it was just you, me, and your brother in the barn.”

“You were suffering, Papochka, because we were missing three people.” She let out a breath. “Suffering and you didn't have to.”

“I know. I should have realized that something had been wrong when the soldiers came for me and your siblings all those years ago, but I wasn't thinking straight.” He pulled away. “And then I think that if I had, I wouldn't have gone walking, I wouldn't have found you, and who knows what would have happened.” He rubbed her back. “Judging from Joshua's reaction, he didn't like being chased out of here earlier.”

Natasha gave him a look. “You think? Uncle Thor made it clear to him; he was the big brother, it was his job to look after and protect me and Hela. Why shouldn't he have been here? And don't say it's because he's not an adult, because he is. He grew up too fast and while his birth-date says he's technically a teenager by Æsir standards, he's not.”

“My sister the dingo pup. Cute, cuddly and ready to rip your leg right off.” Joshua's voice called from the doorway.

“Mess with one, be ready to fight the pack.” She answered.

“And there it is!” Papochka raised his arms in surrender. “This whole new language in my own family that I don't understand!”

“You didn't tell us he was melodramatic, Sasha.” Her brother picked up a chair and came over to join them. “Hela and Gamora went in search of our tea trays, they'll be here shortly.”

Their father gave them both a mock look of sternness. “No excitement.”

“Yes, sir!” Joshua gave a salute. “No excitement here, nothing of interest at all...” He was cut off as beanbag hit him in the face.

Natasha giggled. “That's better.”

“You two.” Papochka shook his head. “Natasha, don't conjure things to throw at your brother unless you're prepared for retali...” He stopped speaking as a snowball smashed against his temple. He brushed the cold, wet material from his eyes as the two of them started chuckling. “I thought I said no excitement.”

“Fine, fine, we'll stop. I make no promises on Hela's behalf, however.” Joshua tossed the beanbag to his sister. “That was pretty good.”

“Thanks. I've been practicing.” She grinned. “So have you.”

“Well, I don't have as good of a teacher for that as you do.” Joshua shrugged. “But Hela enjoys being bossy, so...”

“I am not bossy!” Hela's voice cried. “You'd just rather read all the time!”

“Don't get to loud over there!” Eir shouted from the room across the hall.

Gamora folded her arms and dodged out of the way as two servants came in with enough food for a small army and kettle of tea. “This meal keeps confusing me. Am I supposed to leave room for dinner, or is this dinner?”

“It's not dinner.” Papochka answered. “Dinner you have to change clothes for.”

Everyone laughed in response.

**

Death had such a lovely smell. It wasn't the stench of blood, waste, and the acrid lingering of burning flesh, but death, actual death – it was almost sweet. A fine wine, left to age for a century, made from grapes that received just the right amount of sun and rain, manufactured in a press that drew forth an excellent vintage, leaving no trace of any of the batches that preceded it. The taste was perfect on the tongue, savored and enjoyed.

Death was glorious.

Thanos barely registered the carnage around him; if it could be considered carnage. It was death and death was beautiful.

Ten years had swiftly passed since Loki and Gamora had left, and somehow, he already knew they wouldn't be returning. Soon, he would give the Kree a project – since their war with Xandar was at a stalemate and it was rather boring. Their leader tended to whine a great deal, wanting to just judge the people of Xandar and be done with it. He would seek his revenge on Loki for his treason, but not immediately. He would draw out the worthless jotun's suffering. Ten years from now, he would send the first message, then in ten more, send a second – certainly in the next twenty years the Terrans would start playing around with the Tesseract again.

The titan stepped into the small chamber, kicking away the body of one of the slain, and he smiled as he heard a muffled explosion, knowing that the place where these foolish warriors, whomever they had been, had hidden their defenseless ones, was now a smoldering pile of more tributes to Death.

Lying in the center of the room, on a pedestal, was a large gem – a harness for the smaller, more powerful stone inside.

Thanos picked up the stone, so small and fragile in his hands, and the power from it thrummed through him; and he smiled. “One down, five to go.”

He turned and strode away, his mind already moving on to the next Infinity stone. If the one he had just pocketed was the one he believed it was, he would have no trouble locating the rest.

**

“This is stupid, you know that, right?” Jane Foster hissed to her friend Amber as they walked into the small woods that bordered the backyards of this part of the neighborhood. “One, it's an old superstition, and second, legends say you're supposed to do it on May Day, tonight's the summer solstice.”

Amber rolled her eyes. “It's for a lark, Jane, I know it's nothing, but seriously, considering the sort of trouble we could be causing, sneaking off into the woods looking for yarrow. It's better than breaking out that stupid Ouija board and trying to contact the spirit of River Phoenix. Again. ”

“Still, if you're going to do something, you should do it right.” She muttered and she and the rest of the party scattered, and she adjusted her grip on the small Maglite Flashlight, wondering how she got herself talked into this. “We're fourteen, the last thing we need to be thinking about boyfriends.” She grumbled and found a large clump of the sought for plant. “I can't believe I'm doing this.” She set down her light and pulled out the knife that her friend Brenda had given her and the rest of the slumber party guests. “I should keep track of what everyone says and use it against them when they get married.”

“Quiet!” Someone hissed from a few yards away.

“Brenda, there aren't any snakes out here, are there?” Amber called.

“Here goes nothing.” Jane snorted and gripped the plant taut in her hand and sliced through the stem with a satisfying snap. “Good-morrow, good-morrow, fair yarrow, a thrice good-morrow to thee; come tell me before tomorrow who my true love will be.” She stood up and stuck the plant behind her ear (she wasn't wearing socks) and took up her light, heading back towards the house. When she got to the porch, she found that she was the last to return.

“Come on, let's get inside before my mother checks on us.” Brenda whispered as they went inside the basement, where their sleeping bags were arranged in a long row between the stairs and the television. “Don't forget to put your yarrow in your pillowcases.” She giggled and there was some snickering.

Jane sighed, stuffed the plant into her pillow, pressing her face into the fabric. As she drifted off, she fell into a dream; she was racing through a hedge maze, and she could hear other girls laughing; it sounded like there were three of them, calling to each other in an unfamiliar language. She burst into a clearing and looked up into the sky – a sky that was a shade of blue she had only seen in the ocean in pictures of tropical islands. It wasn't the color that disturbed her; it was the two brilliant suns that shone down on her, and when she turned, just over the horizon, was a moon – so close she could make out where its valleys ended and its mountains began.

Chapter Text

The healing halls seemed twice as quiet at night, they always had. Even with the handful of times he'd been a patient here for such time, Loki felt that the silence was double edged; it was peaceful and isolating. Currently, however, he found himself uncertain as to what to do with the fact that Joshua refused to leave, even though they'd sent Gamora and Hela back to their rooms for the night. Loki wasn't fooled; he knew that both girls were in one of the rooms, staying up late or they'd fallen asleep talking. He knew better than to try and convince his son to do the same; the mulish look told him that such a conversation would go nowhere. Odds were, Joshua was in the exact same situation.

“Good book?” He couldn't see the title of the slim, yellow book that his son was reading.

“Yes.” Joshua glanced up. “You forget to bring something to read?”

Loki held up the sheaf of papers he was looking over. “Catching up.”

“I understand that.” He shook his head. “Not exactly easy, coming to a new place and having people look at you like you're an idiot because you've never been to school.” He turned a page of his book. “It's why the girls never complain to me about schoolwork. They can't remember what it was like not to be able to read. I can.”

“Norns.” Loki muttered under his breath. “That's terrible.” It was on the tip of his tongue to apologize, yet again, for the whole incident that led him to that life on Midgard, but chose not to. “Who taught you how to read?”

“A missionary named Father Francis Jameson. Having brought his faith to the people of South Africa, he elected to leave that part of the British Empire and set out for Australia. He made an arrangement with the captain of the ship of which I was a crew member.” He set the book down and closed his eyes. “That was in eighteen twenty. Storms come, and the wicked are blown away, but honest people are always safe.” He chuckled and opened his eyes. “Book of Proverbs. First book I ever read from was The Bible. I've never been able to grasp faith, not the way other Midgardians could. Even if I have been baptized nine times.”

Loki blinked at him. “Why on earth did you agree to do such at thing?”

“Well, the first few times I was still a kid. They weren't all in the same faith. Besides, on Midgard I was just about two steps up from dirt, so I wasn't in a position to object.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Just like I'll never collect the five guineas from Admiral Vancouver.”

He smirked. “What does he owe you that for?”

“Ties back to the voyage we were on.” Joshua glanced at Natasha, who was still sleeping. “It's one of her favorite stories of mine. We'd gone to map the western part of Canada and find the Northwest Passage. One afternoon, we were off the coast of where the city of Vancouver now lies. Quiet sort of day, I was repairing a sail and the Admiral was just walking about on deck. He was starting to believe there was no Northwest Passage, which there isn't. He asked me what I thought. I stated either mankind would have to learn how to fly, or we'd have to start to get along with Spain and build a canal in the little strip of land between North and South America. He laughed and proclaimed that man would fly first.”

“Pity you couldn't get it writing.” He sighed. “You've seen more of Midgard than I have.”

“I've seen a lot of ocean, and a great deal of the British Empire. Hela's favorite story is the time myself and another sailor named Gregory Coulson freed nine slaves in California with three sacks of flour, a shovel, and two kilograms of tea.” He grinned. “That was during the Gold Rush. Half the crew had deserted. Captain told us to go round up a new crew. Apparently the man who owned said slaves forgot to check the laws of the territory before coming out there.” He coughed and took a drink of water. “Didn't matter that those nine men knew nothing about sailing. By the time we'd reached Peru, they knew plenty and by the time we sailed into London, they knew enough to know they wanted to keep doing it. That was when my name was Joshua Larson. Last voyage I made with Gregory. He immigrated to America and I never saw him again.”

“I imagine his descendants still talk about the same story, and wonder what ever became of their great-great grandfather's friend.” Loki smiled absently. “Such is the burden of having mortal friends.”

Joshua nodded. “I learned not to get attached relatively quickly.” He folded his arms and sat back in his chair. “I've just been trying to think why the Commies would hide an Infinity Stone in a scrawny kid.”

He frowned at the terminology. “Given what I saw at the Red Room, it couldn't have been good.” He paused. “Natasha did mention that her uncle, that his, her biological one, was the tzar. But even that makes... “ He caught something in his son's face. “What is it?”

“I'm going to bet that putting the stone in Natasha wasn't part of the plan whenever they started out with their little program. There's always one or two detractors in every group, people whose hearts aren't quite in it.” He leaned forward. “The world was about ready to explode into war when you found her, right?”

He nodded. “It was well begun, it was nineteen forty.”

“Right. So think of this, they knew the war was coming, and even back then, communism wasn't working. It was doing a good job of making the rest of the world frown, and that's being polite. Fast forward to the end of the war. All the detractors get together, declare hey, we just found a missing member of the royal family, we're going to be a constitutional monarchy. Since Sasha would still be pretty young, they get a regent, or what have you. Only there isn't any change, they just now have an adorable little figurehead to show the world, slap on the money and the postage stamp and the world says 'oh how precious' and that ends worrying about what the rest of the world says about them.”

Loki folded his arms, smirking. “And you think that Sasha would have gone along with this, how?”

“Brainwashing.” He shrugged. “I'm just speculating here, but it's not entirely unreasonable. They need her to become young again, they some how get the stone to work. Pass her off as her former self's daughter, cousin, something.”

“It's a mess.” He rubbed his eyes. “Like you've stated, a pile of questions and no shovels.”

“There has to be something in the library on the Infinity Stones.” Joshua covered a yawn. “I don't think it really matters what they were planning. All that matters now is not letting the 'bad people' get a hold of Sasha, and getting her back to her proper size.”

“I believe the first part is the easy one.” He tapped his finger on the arm of the chair. “I'm just thankful she went back to the size she was when we went to California the last time, and not all the way back to four years of age.”

“That and she still remembers everything.” His son's eyebrows knitted together. “Did you teach her English?”

“No.” He sat up, “I did not. She already knew how to speak it. She was quite the eloquent child when I found her.”

“This – might not be the first time this has happened to her.” He shrugged. “Most four year old kids still have issues speaking clearly and it's a major accomplishment if they can dress themselves, getting everything on correctly. I wasn't here, but if she already knew English, as well as Russian, and spoke them both fluently...” His voice trailed off.

“Damn.” Loki muttered. “I just wish we could get the stone out of her.”

“Is the gem protecting itself somehow? Because it seems to me that removing something the size of cherry tomato shouldn't be that difficult.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Yes. All of the Infinity Gems bind themselves to whatever contains them. That's one of the reasons the Aether was locked in another dimension.” He set down the sheaf of papers and brushed the top of Natasha's hand. “It's not that we can't remove the stone, it's that we don't know what removing the stone will do to her.”

“So in other words, the gem has to stay so she doesn't accidentally become a middle-aged woman upon removal.” He shook his head. “Going through puberty in a matter of minutes is reason enough to leave it alone. The imbalance of chemicals could kill her.”

“Exactly.” He sighed. “She also needs to have her ah...” He wasn't certain how to put the matter delicately. “The Red Room, well – they have made it rather impossible for your sister to have children. Eir can correct it, of course, but the fact that it was done will have some – repercussions for her development in that area.”

Joshua snorted. “Hayrik, if you want to a grandfather that badly, I'll let grandmother know, so she can tell the princesses from other realms that I'm officially on the market. There's no need to involve the girls before they're a thousand... at least.”

He gave his son a stern look, trying his hardest to remain disapproving, and failing terribly. “You are impossible.”

“I know.” He grinned and took up his book again. “Grandmother says I get that from you.”

**

Fenrir pushed open the shutters of his room and leaned against the frame, taking a deep breath of the summer air. It was not nearly as warm as it was in Cendal, but it was still pleasant. He brushed the small pile of snow that had gathered on the sill and smiled, feeling oddly relaxed. He had been here in Utgard for less than a week, and it was starting to feel like home. Granted, he would much rather have Hela here with him, but she needed to stay on Asgard. That was her home, whether she wanted to admit it or not. Neither of them could ever return to the Spears forever, too much had happened, they had both changed too much.

“Fen?” A small voice whispered from behind him and he turned. His cousin stood in the doorway, his arms full of scrolled parchment and a battered looking book.

“Good morning Kaj.” He tilted his head slightly. “What are you working on?”

“I'm suppose to write that essay for Master Phalsh, but I'm confused.” He came more into the room. “I don't understand why the current dynasties are all called the Reigns of the Second Sons when Grandfather isn't a second son, and neither is King Frejaon.”

“It can be daunting.” He went over to his work table and waved his cousin over. “It's called what it is because of how it came about. When your father becomes king, he will be counted as part of the dynasty, because he is a second son.”

Kaj spread out his papers and set the book down. “Explain it to me, please.”

“It has to do with the battle on Svartalfheim around five thousand years ago. When Malekith almost destroyed his entire realm.” He took a breath. “With the Aether.”

“Right. Jotunheim was not there because it was winter. Grandfather was only two thousand at the time.” He took a breath. “However, before that hibernation time, we were not allied with Malekith, but with his cousin, the late Queen Elise.”

“Exactly. At the Battle of the Princes, where the armies of Asgard, Alfheim and Vanaheim were all amassed, the crown princes and, in some cases, their brothers, were all killed.” He paused. “Do you know who they were?”

“I can only remember Ve and Val of Asgard.” He rubbed a spot below his left horn. “Poor King Odin, he never knew his brothers.”

“I suppose.” In truth, Fenrir had little sympathy for the king of Asgard. “The other princes were Lururen and Dimkin of Vanaheim and Jaresk and Ulsk of Alfheim.” He took the book that Kaj had brought and flipped through it. “Frejaon is the oldest grandson of King Dimkin. Do you remember what his nickname is?”

“Decade-long Dimkin, he was only king for ten years before the battle.” He bit at his lip. “Frejaon's father, Elikar, was a second son, the older one, I can't remember his name, died of Fever.” He tapped his finger on the desk. “Elikar is responsible for starting the Vanir Renaissance, which has continued into the reign of his son.”

“See, you do know this.” He grinned. “Be thankful you don't have to learn the all monarchs and dynasties of Midgard. The countries there seem to change governmental forms more often than Hela and Sasha change gowns.”

Kaj gave him an annoyed look. “You don't know how often they change clothes.”

“Believe me, I know. Hela's written me letters of how she wears one outfit to classes, changes for afternoon lessons if needed, then changes for tea, and then again for dinner before getting back into nightclothes.” He rolled his eyes. “I don't understand it, I don't know if I should chalk it up to a girl thing or an Asgard thing.”

His cousin giggled. “Or both.” He let out a breath. “Okay. So all these princes, and some kings, died in Svartalfheim. Wouldn't that make Odin a third son?”

“Technical term.” He waved his hand. “Do you need to write anything about the Vanir Renaissance?”

“A little, just some of the finer points.” He frowned. “If they're so progressive why don't they wear pants?”

“Kaj, we don't wear pants.” He stated, flatly. “Not in the same terms as those on Asgard and such. And the Vanir do wear pants, they're just rather wide trousers.” He thought of the short garments worn by many male jotun that reached their knees, which Joshua called 'knickerbockers' after garments of a similar type on Midgard.

“Cheeky.” He fell back and folded his arms. “I want to go to Vanaheim one day.”

“I'm certain you'll get your chance.” He flipped a few pages in the book. “Unfortunately, I think the only ones of us who can visit Midgard and Joshua and Hela. That's the place I want to see.”

“I hear it's terrible there. Some places are horrifically hot, and their oceans are made of salt water.” He shuddered. “All that water and they can't drink it.”

“They do have fresh water sources.” He closed the book with a soft slap. “Our knowledge of Midgard is woefully inadequate. All of our knowledge outside of here is poor.” He pushed the book away and folded his arms. “It's not fair. What we know about Alfheim is small, Vanaheim and Nidavellir is not much better. We know about as much about Svartalfheim as we do about Midgard, and Asgard.” He huffed. “Next to nothing.”

“It's all with that stupid treaty from the war.” Kaj wrinkled his nose. “That was over a thousand years ago and our image hasn't improved much.” He sighed. “I have to wonder how the residents of Musphelheim handle it.”

“I believe our fiery cousins fare slightly better than us. They do communicate with the other planets in their area of space.” Fenrir grinned. “It's sort of hard to keep one planet in a system of five out of the fold.” He rubbed his nose. “And we do trade with other realms. It's not exactly our fault that in our part of the universe the nearest inhabited planet is Veloxx and there's a rather nasty asteroid belt between us and them.”

“Do they know we're here?” He lifted his chin. “The Veloxxians. We know they're there, but do they know about us?”

“I couldn't say, we have no idea where they are in their technology. I imagine if they have telescopes, they can see us. For all we know, a satellite drifted past us during a winter.” He shook his head. “I wonder what they say.”

“If we had a satellite pass by, wouldn't our own have detected it?” Kaj rubbed his nose.

“Possibly, but if it was winter, no one would have known until the information was checked.” He chuckled. “Imagine what would happen if they did land here on Jotunheim. If they do, I hope they remember to bring coats.”

*

Hela tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before she went into the dining room, and stopped short when she saw that the only other occupant in the room was her grandfather. It was strange, even after twelve years on Asgard, she was still uncomfortable being alone in a room with him. She steeled herself up and shut the door, heading for the sideboard. “Good morning, Grandfather.”

“Good morning, Hela.” He didn't look up from his food. “How are you this morning?”

“I am fine, thank you.” She took up a plate and scanned the dishes, swallowing as she served herself fish and toast. “Has anyone else been in?”

“No, it seems we are the early risers, once again.” There was a clink of china and she glanced over at him, uncertain. “Your father and brother spent the night in the healing halls with your sister.”

“I know.” She added a serving of porridge. “Has Fenrir sent any letters?”

“Yes, one arrived this morning.” Odin's voice changed. “He has resigned from the army and has moved to Utgard, with your Grandfather Laufey.” He didn't sound angry or surprised, he just sounded – uncertain.

“He's with family now. That's good.” She went to the table and sat down. “Isn't it?”

“Yes.” He shook his head. “This whole arrangement was never going to be easy. Laufey has asked for all of you, your father included, to visit him and Fenrir in the capital of Jotunheim at the earliest convenience.”

“All of us?” She asked, incredulous. “That's... that's not possible, is it?”

“No.” He sighed. “While I do not have the authority to keep you, your brother and father here, I do have some authority to keep Natasha and Gamora here.”

She felt her jaw drop. “You wouldn't do that, would you?”

He looked up at her and gave her a sad smile. “No. No I wouldn't.” He picked up his teacup. “There is nothing that can be arranged until your uncle and aunt return to Asgard.”

“I understand that.” She took up her fork. “But we still cannot all go, can we?”

“Your grandmother feels that you, your siblings and father need some time together, without any of your grandparents.” He gave a small chuckle. “I will be sending a letter to Laufey of the suggestion, and while it will pain both of us, I believe your grandfather on Jotunheim will understand. He may not like it, but then, what is there to do?”

She looked down at her plate, taking up her toast and spreading it with marmalade. The idea of all her siblings and – Papa – going somewhere together? That was hard to imagine. They couldn't go to Midgard, she knew that. “Did Grandmother have a suggestion of where we could go?”

“One of the estates. It will be secluded, plenty of fresh air and sunshine.” He gave her a rather amused grin. “Do not tell me that you and your sisters would not adore several weeks of being able to wear riding clothes and not finery.”

“Finery has its time and place.” She answered dutifully, repressing a grin. “I don't think Gamora's had much time to play in her life.”

“No, I suspect not.” He went back to his documents as the door opened and Papa came in. “Good morning, Loki.”

“Good morning Father, Hela.” He smiled, rather tiredly and went over to the sideboard. “Gamora not up yet?”

“I think she's discovered the joy of sleeping in.” She answered. “How's Sasha?”

“She's awake, she shooed me and your brother out of the healing halls before Eir could.” He chuckled. “I don't remember her being so bossy.”

“She's been spending time with your mother.” Grandfather remarked. “I was just talking with Hela about you and your children taking a vacation together.”

“Mother suggested that.” Papa came over to the table and sat down across from her. “Though she didn't suggest where.”

“One of the estates, perhaps.” Grandfather had that tone he always did when he was only half invested in something. He looked up. “Hela, I can never remember, is that auction you and Natasha organize part of the harvest or the winter festival?”

Hela resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Winter, Grandfather.”

“Auction?” Papa gave her an odd look. “What's this?” He picked up his knife and fork and cut into a sausage.

“A long story.” She answered, spearing a piece of fish.

“Which you have plenty of time to tell.” Grandfather stood up, gathering his documents. “Good day, Loki. Hela.” He nodded at each of them before leaving the room.

“Don't say anything.” Papa held his spoon out towards her. “Don't.”

“What?” She questioned, indignant. She knew better than to give a sarcastic comment to when her Grandfather treated her and her siblings in a rather cast-off manner.

“I know that look, and I know what you're thinking. Just don't say it.” He went back to his food. “So what is this auction he mentioned?”

She took up a slice of toast. “It's an auction to benefit the Ketheson Education Fund.” She bit off the corner of the bread, watching as he frowned, thinking.

“Lord Ketheson?” His face lit up in recognition. “I recall he was trying to start a charity to teach the peasantry to read. The proposal kept getting set back. He's spoken to me several times on the matter, and it was due for reevaluation the summer I vanished.” He ate a slice of fruit. “I'm surprised my father approved it.” He popped a berry into his mouth.

“Grandfather didn't approve it. Natasha did.” She quipped and Papa had to grab his napkin to keep from spitting his food out.

What?" He gasped, " How?” He hastily chewed the rest of his food, his face stunned.

“It was around the same time the rebels killed my grandparents.” She offered, rather surprised that they had left out this story when they had tried to inform her father of all that had happened while he was gone. “Lorelei tried to poison Sasha and Josh, but ended up poisoning Uncle Thor and Josh instead. Grandfather was in Odin-sleep and since you were missing and Grandmother was distraught, the council put Natasha on the throne.”

He dropped his fork, and looked up the ceiling. “This place has gone insane.

“It was only for three days.” She studied the pattern on the rim of her plate. “The first thing she did was put court into recess.” She glanced over at him, then back at her plate. “Anyway, Natasha and I came up with the idea on how all the girls in the noble class can help. We have a dress auction. Everyone donates one, we have a dinner, and we all bid on the dresses. The only rule is, you can only buy one dress. That way, everyone donates, everyone gets a new gown.”

“And the boys?” He questioned with a smirk.

“They build a school together – and all that goes in it. One group does desks, another book shelves, that sort of thing.” She poked at her fish. “Joshua helps some of the merchant class children put on a play every spring.”

“Norns.” He rubbed his forehead. “I think we need to take that vacation as soon as possible.”

“I propose we pack our bags and we leave the morning after Uncle Thor and Aunt Sif return home.” She grinned. “And as for getting Fenrir here, leave that to me and Sasha. He may be in the dictionary next to the word curmudgeon, but if she and I ask Grandfather Laufey, we could have our big brother here as soon as he could pack a satchel.”

“Since when does your brother live in Utgard?” He frowned and picked up his tea.

“Since sometime in the last fortnight.” She quipped and went back to eating.

**

Frigga stroked Natasha's hair as Eir scanned the notes she had made the night before. When she had been told that there had been some sort of accident in the girls' schoolroom, she'd expected a twisted ankle or a spell-backfire that would be easy to fix. The discovery that one of the missing Infinity Stones was in her granddaughter and she'd somehow de-aged herself was one of the last things she would have thought of. She would have wagered money on one of the girls turning themselves into a boy before she would have thought that.

“Sasha, I'm going to ask you a few questions, and you can think about your answer as long as you need to, all right?” Eir's usual no-nonsense voice was slightly gentler, perhaps she feared triggering another regression.

“Okay.” The girl blinked a few times, hugging her stuffed dragon.

“Has this ever happened before? Have you ever made yourself smaller?” She set a hand on Sasha's back, checking something, Frigga couldn't exactly tell what.

She closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths. “The commandant broke my leg.”

“The commandant?” Eir frowned. “Why did he do such a thing?”

“It was a test.” There was a crack in her voice and she whimpered. “I just remember it was a test. To... to see if I could stand pain.” Tears appeared in the corners of her eyes.

“This upsetting her.” Frigga stated, and she sat down on the bed, pulling Natasha into her arms and holding her, readings be damned.

“I'm sorry, Sasha.” Eir's face shifted and softened. “The man broke your leg and then you were little again?” Her tone was kind.

“I... I think that's what happened, because I think I passed out and when I woke up, my leg wasn't broken anymore, but I knew it was broken, I didn't dream it. I saw the bone sticking out of my shin.” She hiccuped and hugged Frigga around the waist with one arm. “I'm not a baby.”

“No, sweetie, you're not.” She answered, brushing her cheek, rather wishing this commandant was still alive so she could rip the bones from his legs and feed his femurs to the dogs. “You're being very brave.”

Eir hummed and made a note on her tablet. “I think the best thing for you right now would be to go back to your chambers.” She smiled. “Goodness knows, it's easier to recover in a more familiar environment than here, when you're not actually injured or sick.”

Frigga nodded in agreement. She would much rather have her granddaughter upstairs. “No lessons today.”

“I know.” Sasha gave her a wan smile. “May I walk myself there?”

“Of course, dear heart.” She kissed her granddaughter's forehead. “But you are to rest, understood?”

“Understood.” She questioned and lowered herself to the floor. “Thank you, Eir.”

“You're welcome.” She smoothed her hair down. “And no running off to the stables for a ride, just because you're without classes.”

“I won't.” Natasha intoned and, taking her stuffed dragon up, walked out of the healing hall.

Frigga watched her retreating form and as soon as she was out of sight, she turned to her friend. “There's something you've thought of. What is it?”

The healer blanched and then sat down next to her. “I do not know what will happen if we completely remove the stone from Natasha. I do know we cannot keep it where it is. I believe that may have been a factor in what happened yesterday. A release of hormones, in this case, ones directly tied to her maturing, reacted with the Gem and instead of treating them as it would others, it reacted the way it would have to anything else that it believed didn't belong.”

“So it acted as if the hormone were a virus.” Frigga thought for a moment. “What do you suggest?”

“We perform a surgery and move the Gem to another part of Natasha's body. Someplace where it won't react like that again.” She took a breath. “The safest place for both your granddaughter and the Gem is to put it behind her sternum.”

Frigga gasped. “That would put it right next to her heart!”

“I know, but it cannot remain where it is. It would not be permanent. A few centuries, no more.” The healer rubbed her eyes. “I recommend that we do this before she and the rest of her family leave on their vacation. However, I will not perform it until after I have talked with Loki.”

The Allmother stood up. “I will also be discussing this with Odin.” The ramifications of having a member of the royal house walking around Asgard with an Infinity Stone inside them didn't just affect this family, it affected all of the Nine Realms. Hopefully, he wouldn't suggest something insanely stupid, such as putting their granddaughter in an enchanted sleep and locking her up in the weapons vault until the threat of Thanos had passed.

“Of course.” Eir inclined her head.

Frigga turned and headed out of the healing halls, willing the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach away.

Chapter Text

The sand was cool under his hands as Tony settled onto a blanket on the beach. The air was heavy with the scent of salt and barbecue pits, and off in the distance, he could see the lights from boats and the faint sound of music drifted towards him, making him feel twice as isolated and alone. This summer, for the most part, had been a blur of condolences and legal discussions, most of which he went through in a state of fog. The house was all but closed up, and tomorrow, he would return to university and try and move on with his life. The police kept telling him that the car crash that killed his parents and the chauffeur was an accident, a nagging feeling kept telling him that something wasn't right. It was a single car crash on a dry night and the only one who'd been drinking in that car hadn't been driving. He just wanted a better answer than loss of control, lack of attention to the road – one of those things that happened, like a heart attack.

“Another summer gone and you didn't return, Torch.” He sighed. “Guess I can't blame you, considering my dad lost your dad.” He turned his gaze up to the stars. “Still don't know what that project was, can't find a scrap of information on it. Guess it was just swept under the rug as an accident too. Surprised your granddad didn't send an army down here.” He chuckled, wondering what sort of soldiers that Asgard place would send – something like stormtroopers, only they'd be able to shoot. “Still, wish you would come back. It'd be nice to see you again.” He snorted. “What am I saying, they've probably got you trusted up in a wedding gown marrying some idiot by now.”

“Not likely.” An accented voice that he would know anywhere, despite not hearing it for over a decade, caused him to jerk to his left and he gaped.

“Torch?” He stood up, stunned. She didn't look much older than the last time he'd seen her. She had an oddly thin appearance, as if she'd recently grown a great deal in a short time, or had been sick.

“I can't stay, I have about two minutes and that's it. It's a long story.” She grinned, rather sheepishly. “You've changed.”

“See you haven't. Not by much.” He came over to her, feeling unnerved. How had she just appeared like that? Maybe her civilization had machines similar to the ones on Star Trek. “Look, I uh...”

“I'm sorry about your parents, Tony.” She took another breath and drew something out of her pocket. “Here.” She held it out.

He took it from her, frowning. It was a silver plated cigarette case. “I don't smoke.”

“It's not for that.” Her eyes sparkled faintly. “Open it.”

He did, and found that the bands inside were engraved with runes, but clearly in the corner of one side he could see the letter 'A' and on the other 'N'. “What's this for then?”

“We can't see each other, but we can write letters.” She grinned. “You do know how to write, correct?”

“Sass.” He reached out and ruffled her hair, grinning. “How's it work?”

“Just leave any messages on the side with the 'N' engraved on it, close the case and it'll get to me. I'm not entirely certain how the whole enchantment works, my grandmother helped me with it.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out an identical case. “Don't lose it.”

“I won't.” He gave her a weak grin. “I wish you could stay longer, I'd introduce you to Dum-E.”

“Who's Dummy?” She frowned. “You have a dog?”

“No.” He laughed. “Since you weren't coming back, I build a robot to help me with my projects.”

She folded her arms, giving him a look. “And you gave him an insulting name?”

“It's a machine, Torch. It's not like it has feelings.” He blinked once or twice, trying to clear his head.

“Well, you be careful. You might accidentally build something that bites back. I mean, how many bad movies did we see that summer that started off with people underestimating technology?” She grinned.

“Point.” He sighed. “Take care of yourself, Torch.” He wished she would stay. “Come back and visit when you can, okay?”

“I'll try.” She stepped back and a light started to glow around her. “And be careful of who you trust.”

“Yeah.” He gave an absent wave. “Watch out for aliens.” As the light faded and she was gone, he sighed and slumped back down on the blanket. “Wish I could have come along, Torch.” He flipped the case open and was surprised to see a folded piece of paper inside that hadn't been there a few moments ago. “What?” He pulled it out and read the short note within.

I'm going to work on my grandparents on letting you come visit on my name-day (birthday). It might take a few years, but keep every May 18 open, just in case I finally manage to do it. - Sasha

He grinned and glanced up at the stars, a calming feeling settling over him. “I'll keep that whole week open, Torch.” He tucked the case into his pocket, gathered up the blanket and headed back to the house. “My birthday is eleven days later. We should work something out.”

*

Fenrir blinked several times as the light of the Bifrost faded and he became aware of his surroundings. The fact that he had been allowed to leave Jotunheim for the remainder of the Asgardian summer was something he wasn't going to question. It was the conclusion of his grandparents and his father that what the family needed was serious time alone, away from outside influences. So this trip was arranged, but now that it was here, he was feeling rather uncertain. As the golden room of the Observatory became clearer, he also became aware of how warm it was. He took a few hesitant steps forward, unused to the smaller size he had been temporarily magicked into, combined with a glamor that hid his blue skin. On the far side of the room, he could see the road leading to the city, and the glittering lights of the Æsir capitol at night.

“Welcome to Asgard.” Came a deep voice to his left and he looked to see the tall watchman, Heimdall, his focus shifting for a moment towards him and then back to the infinity beyond the walls.

“Thank you.” He replied, taking up his satchel, still feeling uncertain.

“Fen!” A familiar voice called and then he found himself being embraced and lifted off the ground. “You've shrunk.” An arm thumped him on the back.

“Still older than you, little brother.” He shoved the taller man playfully, grinning. “Joshua Jörmungandr Lokason, what have you done to your hair?” It was almost shocking to see, even more than his own appearance. Instead of the coal blue-black hair that all three of his blood siblings had, his brother now sported locks of blond. “Are you insane?”

“Possibly.” He threw an arm around his shoulders and led him out into the night. “I should have thought of this solution years ago, it might have stopped people from calling me by Father's name. But I figured it was unfair of Sasha to be the only one with a different hair color and I'll have you know, I didn't do this. Hela did.” He grinned. “It's strange seeing you this short.”

“You think it's strange?” He shook his head. “There's this whole world down here that I was completely unaware of. I can't even remember when I was this size originally.” He drew up short as they reached the end of the Bifrost where a coach was waiting. “Is everyone already in there?”

“Yes.” He grinned. “Straight into the frying pan for you, Fenrir Lokason, just like the rest of us.”

“Fen!” Hela's voice shouted and a moment later, he found himself flat on his back as his sister threw herself at him. “I knew they were going to make you our size, but you look... funny.”

“So do you, with that skin.” He quipped, pushing her off of him and they both got to their feet and they went over to the coach, Hela going in first. He looked inside and suddenly felt five years old again. Sitting on side of the carriage was Papa – with two sleeping girls on either side of him. “Hello.”

Papa looked up, his eyes shining. “Good evening, Fenrir.”

“Come on, come on.” Joshua all but pushed him inside and a moment later, he found himself on one side of the opposite bench, facing the other dark haired girl; Gamora. Hela wedged herself between him and his brother and, after the door was shut, there was a small lurch, and the carriage started off. “I can't believe those two are already asleep.” He chuckled. “Well, Sasha I can.”

“Gamora underestimated the weather. Again.” Hela remarked, sighing. “And I'm still surprised Eir let Sasha out of the Healing Halls so soon.”

“She'll be fine.” Papa ruffled his sister's red hair. “This trip is a long time coming.”

Fenrir glanced over at Joshua, who shrugged and pulled a book from the gap between the seat and the side of the coach and opened it, his focus shifted to his reading. Hela, in response, leaned against their brother, peering at the book, and Josh moved the book so they could both read it at the same time. He swallowed and glanced over at Papa, who was doing his best not to make eye-contact. A gesture Fen recognized from Grandfather Laufey. He always did that when he was trying to break the tension in a meeting, be it with his council or his own family.

He leaned against his hand, shifting his gaze to the window. They were skirting the city from what he could tell, the lights of the capitol were bright, but not enough to give him a view of the buildings themselves. There was a low light centered somewhere above him in the coach, and that might have contributed to the obstruction. He was glad he'd seen his own reflection before leaving Jotunheim, or the scrawny faced boy he saw in the glass might have startled him.

“If you need to sleep, it's perfectly fine.” Papa's voice was quiet and he turned.

“I'm not that sleepy, it's still midday in Utgard.” He smiled, or tried to. He glanced over at Natasha, who did not look as hale as his brother and sister had often described her. “Is Sasha sick?”

“No, not anymore.” The man offered. “Sunshine and good food is all she really needs.”

He nodded, not certain how to respond to that. “How far from the capitol are we going? We aren't going... there are we?”

Papa shook his head, understanding somehow that by there he meant the estate where he and his siblings had been stolen. “No, that place was given to your Aunt Sif when she married your uncle. That estate is a two week drive from the capitol. We are going to the estate called Lengi Himinn. We should arrive there the day after tomorrow.”

He chewed at his bottom lip. “It doesn't seem that great of a distance.”

“No. It's a comfortable distance. Certain rules keep us from going too far into Asgard proper.” He sighed, smiling tiredly. “Not hungry?”

“I'm fine.” He answered, feeling stiff. Truth was, he could eat a little something, but he was terrified that if he did eat, he might just throw everything right back up.

“Will you two stop skirting around each other?” Joshua interjected, not even looking up from his book.

“If you three can't behave, you'll have to walk.” Hela remarked. “Turn that page back, I wasn't finished.”

Fenrir covered his mouth as he chuckled and saw Papa roll his eyes, looking rather amused. “Still bossy.”

“I am not bossy!” Hela cried.

“Yes you are.” Sasha mumbled, yawning and turning so she was now resting her head on Papa's shoulder.

“Children!” Papa scolded. “No fighting!”

“I wasn't fighting.” Gamora retorted, with a yawn of her own. “I was behaving.”

“You're no angel, Ora.” Joshua remarked and then glanced over at Fen. “You still certain you want to go on this trip? There's still time to back out and return to Jotunheim.”

“No. I did not get shrunk and glamored just so I could go home two hours after having it done.” He lifted his chin. “And Papa is right. We should not fight.”

“Kiss up.” Joshua muttered and then yelped. “What was that for, Hela?”

“You know why.” She sighed, yawning. “Come on, I want to finish this chapter before I fall asleep.”

Fenrir gave their father a look. “This isn't good. I send my sweet tempered little sister to Asgard and in twelve years, she turns into a sassy-pants.”

In response, Papa's eyebrows lifted and he shook his head. “I'm as confounded as you are. She was such a quiet baby.”

He chuckled, grinning when Hela turned and made a face at him. “Yes, she was. Norns only know what happened to her.”

**

Sasha let out a yawn and stretched, blinking the dark confines of the carriage. She wasn't certain how long she'd slept, and she instantly thought of Tony, and she shot a look down at her satchel, where her case was located; she wanted to check it, but had promised that she wouldn't get it out until she was in her room at the estate. The few minutes she'd seen her friend had been hard; if she hadn't had this trip in front of her, she'd have begged to be allowed to stay for at least an hour.

She turned and peered out the window, but the passing countryside revealed nothing about where they currently were. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear the sleep away as she looked around at the rest of her family, guessing that all of them asleep, until she heard Gamora make an odd noise from the other side of Papochka. “You're awake too?”

“Uh huh.” Her sister yawned. “I think it's close to dawn.”

“What makes you say that?” She responded, then realized that there was another sound in the carriage, a rather odd, droning sound that was different from a snore, one she hadn't heard in decades. “They're purring.

“All of them?” She giggled. “I thought jotun purring was a myth!”

“They don't do it often. I've only heard Papochka do it a few times, and as for Hela, never.” She rubbed her eyes again. “I don't think I can sleep anymore.”

“Me neither.” Gamora peered around their father, looking over at her. “Why is it that for a culture so advanced, the preferred method is still horse and carriage?”

“What would happen to all the horses if we all started driving gliders? Not to mention that the stable-hands would all be jobless, and so forth. Transitioning to a more, modern shall we say, form of transportation would be an economic disaster.” She shifted in her seat as she heard Fenrir cough and then fall back into slumber. “Besides, a horse will get even the drunkest person home safe.”

“I guess that makes sense.” She cleared her throat. “Don't tell him I said this, but Josh looks about twenty years younger with his hair that color.”

“I think that might of been part of the idea.” She grinned. “It makes him look more boyish.”

“That's funny, considering he hates to be called boy.” Gamora snickered and the carriage slowed for a moment, and she coughed. “Looks like we're going through a town.”

“We're in Eltkaupstaður.” Natasha answered, recognizing a few buildings from pictures she'd seen. “This is where Lady Tyr is from. It's in this valley where the majority of Asgard's orchards are located.”

“I thought Asgard imported almost all of its food.” She looked around Papochka at her. “Don't they?”

“Not food, exactly, more like the accouterments of food, things like spices. As well as teas, herbs and long grains.” She stretched her arms over her head as Joshua coughed and opened his eyes. “Good morning.”

“Where?” He blinked, looking around and then in the semi-darkness, Sasha could tell he went pink. “Tell me I wasn't purring too.”

“You might have been.” Gamora giggled.

“You'd think Hela would have told me about this. Or I'd have read something.” He shifted in his seat and leaned over, squeezing his sister's knee. “How you feeling this morning, Sasha?”

“My joints hurt.” She intoned, sighing. “But everything else is fine.” After two days rest, with the help of Grandmother, she'd managed to get herself back to the right size, but the cost was constantly feeling sore. Three days ago, Eir had removed the Time Gem from her uterus and it was now firmly lodged under her sternum. When they returned home, she'd be undergoing treatment to fix the damage done by the Red Room to certain areas of her body, but for now, she was supposed to stick to a diet of hearty, nourishing food and get plenty of fresh air and sunshine.

“Bouncing around in this crate for hours on end is going to give us all sores.” He yawned and then grimaced as his stomach rumbled. “It's too early for breakfast, isn't it?”

“You didn't have midnight snack.” Sasha answered him.

“Food?” Fenrir sat up, blinking. “Wait a minute... where...” He grumbled and then went back to his prone position. “It's too early.”

Gamora snickered. “Someone else doesn't like mornings.”

The coach drew to a stop and a moment later, there was the noise of the horses being unhitched. Natasha looked out the window to see the driver talking with a stable-hand and six fresh horses were led out of a barn. “You think we can get out and stretch our legs?”

“Sounds good to me.” Joshua stood and undid the door. “Is it all right if we step out for a few moments?”

“Of course, your grace.” A voice answered him. “We should be on our way again in ten minutes.”

“Thank you.” He replied and stepped out. “Gamora, you think you can get out without tripping over Papa and Fen?”

“Sure, can't promise I won't wake them up.” She commented as she and Sasha stepped out into the early morning. “It's so still.”

“It's around four thirty in the morning, it should be.” Joshua offered. “I smell apples.”

“Orchards.” Sasha remarked as they started around the stable yard and winced as her knees creaked. “I think it's going to rain.”

“No doubt of that.” Her brother replied, rubbing his wrist. “That's the other thing I can smell.”

“Shouldn't we wake the others so they can get some fresh air too?” Gamora questioned, her voice a little uncertain. “We've been in that box for nearly eight hours.”

“I don't know how late Hela and Fen stayed up talking, I fell asleep before either of them.” Josh shrugged. “Then again, Fen might have realm-lag, or whatever you want to call it.”

Both of the girls giggled in response.

*

The rain started shortly before midday. Even with the rain, Loki wasn't too surprised when Joshua went out to sit with the driver as they reached the half-way point of their journey. His youngest son seemed to view the weather as negligible, and given the confines of the carriage, he couldn't fault him. The girls sat in a row on one seat, sketchbooks in their laps, along with pouches of colored pencils, and Fenrir, sitting next to him, seemed content to keep his gaze out the window.

“Getting used to the green, Fen?” Hela asked, not looking up from her work.

“I don't think I could.” He answered, his voice far off. “I think it's the trees that get me.”

“You don't have trees on Jotunheim?” Gamora sounded horrified. “At all?”

“Oh, we have trees, just not like these.” He shook his head. “Incredible.”

Loki smiled. “Don't tease, Ora. You haven't seen snow.”

“I'm only fourteen!” She cried, indignant. “Well, twenty four if you count the travel time.”

“You've never seen snow?” Fenrir sounded aghast. “I can't believe that!”

“I'm from a tropical planet and I was living in deep space after that, and I've only been on Asgard two months. There's plenty of time to see snow before I'm old and gray.” She retorted.

“Does it even snow on Asgard?” His son quipped.

“Yes.” Loki answered at the same time Sasha did.

“That's creepy.” Hela shook her head. “And it doesn't snow a great deal. Well, not in the city at least.”

Loki settled back into his seat as he watched the four of them discuss something as trivial as the weather and things that they had seen and things they wanted to see; he hadn't known that Joshua had taken his sisters to Australia to see motion pictures, but he wasn't surprised. Well, the fact that they had gotten out of Asgard and back home again without anyone raising a huge fuss did. He was glad that his children, for the most part, seemed to get along. The notion that Slephnir was, in fact, waiting for them at the estate already, having traveled there ahead of them with other riding horses, made this all the more enjoyable.

All of his children together, for the first time.

*

“We have a Pemberely?” Hela exclaimed as the carriage came to a stop and she peered out the window at the massive house in front of them. “Why do we live in the city when we have this huge house that sits out here, with more than enough room for all of us?”

“It has to do with the fact that by Asgardian law, I'm barely into my majority.” Her father muttered as the door opened and he stepped outside. “All right, oldest to youngest.” He sounded exhausted. “And for the record, I would rather stay out here too.”

“It is big.” Fenrir answered as he climbed out, followed by Joshua. “We might get lost inside.”

“Guess you're not up for hide and seek after dinner.” His youngest son quipped as he helped Hela down. “And it's not quite Pemberely, it's a little too Vanir style for it to be Pemberely.”

“I can't believe you know what that house is.” Hela retorted. “I thought you wouldn't read something so... feminine.”

“Never judge a person by the books they've read.” Sasha interjected as she stood next to her sister. “I think this is a little more Misselthwaite Manor than Pemberely.”

“I have no idea what either of those things are.” Gamora shook her head.

“We'll make you a reading list.” Hela said as they fell into a line and followed their father into the house, the footman who stood watch at the door looking them over, his expression surprised. Of course he would be; here was a man with five children and there was no mother with them. Then again, if he was employed by the family, he would know that there was no mother. It was confusing, she supposed.

“We will get settled and rested before dinner.” Papa stated as they gathered in the front hall, and he looked them over, a small smile playing on his lips. “I rather like Joshua's idea of playing hide and seek after we dine.”

“No seidr.” Joshua interjected. “It'd give you, Sasha and Hela an unfair advantage.”

“In this place, who'd need it?” Fenrir stated. “I could be my normal size and I'd have plenty of places to hide around here.”

“True.” Hela frowned and then caught something in her father's expression. “What is it?”

“Now that we're here...” He touched her forehead and she felt the shift in her skin. “One.” He did the same to Gamora, and her glamour faded as well. “Two.” He turned to Fenrir. “You?”

He held up his hands and shook his head. “I'm fine, I don't think there are any chairs or beds around here that would accommodate my normal size.”

Papa nodded and smiled, looking the five of them over, his eyes were shining. “Girls, up the stairs to your right, boys, upstairs to your left. You should be able to tell which rooms are yours.”

*

Gamora smoothed down her skirt, grinning at herself in the mirror. She hadn't known that coming out here meant that she was going to be allowed to go around without her glamour. She folded her arms and lifted her chin, deciding that the she already liked it here better. Spinning on the ball of her foot, she went to the door of her room and swung it open, coming face to face with Hela, who was across the hall. “I can't believe we still have to dress for dinner.”

“It's not so bad.” She grinned and they two of them started towards the stairs. “For the record, I think you look better green.”

“And you look better blue.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Sort of feel bad for Natasha, she's plain.”

“Her hair isn't.” Hela remarked. “That's her unique trait.”

“Point.” They made their way down, and she looked up at the tapestry that ran the length of the hall, the top of it was three stories above them. It was some sort of forest scene, with dragons and unicorns, and she didn't even want to know how long it had taken the weaver. “Why, exactly, did we get separated from the boys?”

“Another stupid rule. Even though they're our brothers, and Asgard has some liberal ideas, if we were seen by our brothers or any other man in a state of undress, it would be considered improper.” Hela cleared her throat. “I don't see why it matters, given that we share a corridor at home. I, for one, find it amusing that the rules on propriety are stricter out of the city, rather than within it.”

“Didn't that rule get broken by Father and Josh when they saw Sasha in the healing halls?” She retorted as they came to the foot of the stairs.

“That's different. This is – it's just how things are done. If they had come with us, Master Siry would have to stay in the same wing as our brothers and Lady Sigyn would have to stay on ours.” She shook her head. “I don't understand it myself. Master Siry isn't family, but Josh and Fen are.”

Gamora rolled her eyes. “This from a culture where couples make out in alcoves at feasts. But I guess since that's out in the public, it's considered acceptable.”

“Something like that.” Hela huffed, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. “And since when do you call Papa Father?”

“I...” She stopped, realizing what she had said a few moments ago. “I don't know. I guess it'd be far to strange if I kept calling him Loki.”

“It's fine.” The older girl grinned. “I'm just glad we didn't have to get too dressed up. That way, we don't have to change after.”

“I can't believe we're going to play hide and go seek tonight. All of us.” She was having trouble taking in a lot of things as of late. The fact that they were all going to play a game together, a child's game at that, was incredible. Particularly given some of the training games she and Loki had engaged in at Thanos's citadel. It was strange to see him so – well, non-threatening.“We're going to have to set up rules. Keep it to just a few floors, or claim bedchambers are out of bounds.”

“Good idea.” Hela tilted her head back and looked up at the stairs, and Gamora followed her gaze. “I still can't believe there's this big house and we have to live in the city.”

“Maybe we can move out here.” She remarked thoughtfully. “I mean, I know there's things that have to be done in the capitol, but I also know that there are teleportation spells that could be used to get back and forth. What's the point of being a master of magic if you don't use it?”

The older girl gaped at her, a grin slowly spreading across her face. “Gamora, you are a genius!”

“Why's Baby a genius?” Joshua came down the stairs, adjusting the cuffs of his shirt.

“I'm not a baby!” She whipped around, growling.

“I didn't say you were a baby, I called you Baby. You're the youngest, therefore, you're Baby.” He grinned. “What's going on?”

“Ora here just pointed out that with the use of seidr to travel to the capitol, we could live out here.” Hela exchanged glances with her sister. “I mean, it's an idea.”

“A fairly decent one.” Their brother shook his head. “I, for one, already like the wide open spaces a lot more than the city. I've never been fond of them.”

“You like Sydney.” Hela remarked. “Or is that just because you helped build parts of it?”

“Possibly. I am rather fond of that opera house and a certain bridge.” He shrugged. “Let's wait at least two weeks before we share Gamora's idea with the others, okay?”

“Understood.” Hela answered, but she was grinning.

“Sure.” Gamora replied, with a grin of her own.

“Come on, let's find the dining room.” He took a breath. “Place this big, it's bound to have a table than can seat sixty.”

Chapter Text

Well this was just bloody wonderful. Loki wasn't sure what was making him more angry; Amora for giving him the book on transforming oneself into an animal, or himself for not checking to make sure that more complex animals, like the horse he currently was, had to be gender specific. When he got back to Asgard, he was going to do – something to her. He would have to think about it. Right now, he was two hundred miles from home, hidden from Heimdall and stuck as a mare until for one turning of the moon.

Shit.

Five hundred and nine years old and he'd made the mistake of not checking the fundamentals of a spell.

At least Thor didn't know what he had done. His brother would never let him hear the end of it. Huffing, Loki loped carefully through the woods, wondering what had possessed him to aim for horse, of all things. Couldn't he have done a predatory animal, something that could at least defend itself? No, he had to choose something familiar, something he knew well. At least he had the foresight to not try for boar, deer or some sort of large bird. The next time he learned his, he was going to aim for a magpie. Or a wolf. Something better than a bloody mare.

He wasn't going to cry, that was for damn sure.

All right then, he was stuck in this form for a while, time to take necessary measures. First things first, find water, shelter and food. Preferably in that order.

*

The snap of twig underfoot caused Loki's head to jerk up. Crouched in the thicket, he could see through the leaves, focused on the direction from which the noise came. Ears flicked back and nostrils flared, he wasn't certain what was coming, and in another minute, he did. He knew that smell, even though he'd never been able to discern it when in his usual form.

Horse.

Stallion.

Loki couldn't control his trembling. This was worse than a wolf, worse than a hunter, this was the worst possible thing to encounter.

The other horse stepped into view and he could not believe the sight of it. He had to be close to thirty hands high, a deep black that seemed on the verge of blue, and thickly muscled. His head turned and looked directly at Loki, and he wuffed.

Fuck. Loki knew he couldn't outrun the animal, and fear was keeping him rooted to his spot. He was terrified and he wanted nothing more than to wake up at any moment and find this had been one wretched dream. He closed his eyes, bent his head and let out a shrill whinny, hoping that whatever was about to happen, happened quickly.

I will not harm you. The voice was gravely, and right next to his ear. A moment later, he felt a soft nudge against his neck. Do not be afraid, little filly.

Loki opened his eyes and looked. The stallion was almost nose to nose with him and its next touch was equally gentle. Do not hurt me, please.

Have I not said I will not harm you? The stallion was gazing at him, and then tilted its head to the side. You can understand me?

Yes. He didn't dare stand up, he didn't trust himself to try and walk. Or for the stallion not to give chase.

No other horse has ever understood me before. In that split second, Loki realized that the other horse was speaking All-speak. I was cursed with an intelligence like that of a man. Were you cursed as such?

No. Loki decided that honesty would work best at the moment. My name is Loki, of Asgard. I made an error with a spell. He watched as the stallion crouched down in the thicket with him, his eyes bright. What is your name?

Svadilfari. He tossed his head, It is very nice to meet you, Loki of Asgard. He nudged him again. Are you able to change back?

Not for one turn of the moon. He let out a sigh, or as best as he could, being a horse.

Then I will protect you until you can return to your normal form. I only ask that you take me with you when you return to Asgard. Svadilfari's expression was hopeful. Stables and labor do not worry me, but to have someone to talk to, at least once a week... his voice trailed off, and his tail swished as he flicked a fly away.

Loki regarded the stallion, trying to imagine what his father would say if he returned home with him. Thor would go ballistic that his scrawny little brother had found such a steed, there would be ranting, raving and most likely rain for a week. You'll be broken to the saddle.

I do not care. I'll pull carts just to have someone to speak with regularly.

He would have liked to have the ability to laugh. Very well then. It was not going to be so terrible then. Loki did not feel shame for gaining protection. Only a fool turns down an ally when they are in a situation in which any little bit of help could be welcomed. If there were any other horses about, Svadilfari would keep them away. It was just for a month, that was all.

A month wasn't that long.

*

Exactly one week later, Loki cursed the Norns for their sick sense of humor.

*

The hunger was the worst part of it. After six months, the need to eat had gotten worse, not better. Loki tore up handfuls of grass with his mouth, long past caring what he was eating, thinking only of sating his hunger and nourishing the foal growing in his belly. Svadilfari stood next to him, keeping watch. Stupid base instincts and who knew what else were to blame. The stallion had shown nothing but regret over what had happened, bemoaning what had happened, how he had never mated with another mare for fear of his curse carrying on to the next generation.

Loki thought as the 'female' in the relationship, he was the one who was supposed to be edgy and weepy.

He didn't know if it was a blessing or not that no one from Asgard had come looking for him yet. He was rather insulted that he could go missing for seven months from home and no one voiced worry. Well, perhaps Mother had and was trying to make Father take note.

Thor was most likely complaining that he wasn't along for the adventure.

Thor could go stuff himself.

Loki wanted his mother.

I am sorry. Svadilfari said for the four hundred and sixteenth time.

Swallowing back the last of the clover, he raised his head. It is not so bad. He lied. The way the foal kicked him at times, he was certain he was carrying more than one. Of course he could have ended this months ago; he could have changed back to his normal form and be done with everything. But he hadn't. He hadn't because none of this was the fault of the colt; he was fairly certain it had to be a colt he was carrying; either that or the most foul mannered filly in the Nine Realms. Either way, not the foal at fault here.

This was going to require quite possibly the most embarrassing explanation in the life of Loki Odinson.

*

The foal had eight legs.

Loki didn't quite know what to think of the shaky, awkward little colt who was trying his hardest to stand and walk, but kept tripping over his own feet.

He's beautiful. Svadilfari nudged his tiny son, then him.

Are you blind? Have you seen his legs? What had gone wrong? Was it stress, should there have been two of them and they didn't separate? Or was this his magic acting strangely since he wasn't really a horse and wasn't a female either.

He's beautiful. Svadilfari said again and flicked his ears back, his guard instantly up. He'd been doing that for days now. Something was following them; and it was not warriors from Asgard. A far more dangerous predator was seeking them out.

More than ever, Loki wanted to go home. He nuzzled his foal. Slephnir. His name is Slephnir.

*

The attack was sudden. They had been walking, the three of them, heading for a meadow when the large wildcat sprang from its hiding spot and straight onto Svadilfari's back. The smell of blood flooded Loki's senses just as the stallion's shrill cry rent the air. One second he had been on four legs, and the next he fell down on both, disoriented. “Fuck.” His eyes darted around as the cat wiped around from his larger prey and towards him and the colt.

The animal growled low and prepared to pounce.

He rose to his feet and stood between the cat and his foal, his body thrumming with seidr. He let it gather in his hands, and he made eye-contact with creature, refusing to back down. The rational part of him that said to pick up Slephnir and run was starting to grow silent and he hurled energy from his hands, throwing all of his might at the beast.

The cat let out a howl and fell back, staggering.

The world shifted into nothing but red and Loki started throwing everything he could at his foe. Magic. Summoned daggers, rocks, dirt. He could swear he threw ice at some point, but that made no sense. When his head finally cleared, he was staring down at a mutilated wildcat and was completely soaked in its blood. He took a few breaths, blinking.

What the hell had he just done?

He crouched down next to Svadilfari, already knowing that the stallion was gone. The cat had ripped him in half – and he wasn't recognizable as a stallion any longer.

Slephnir let out a distressed sound and he turned to see the foal watching him, his eyes full of confusion.

“Don't cry.” He replied, dragging himself back to where his colt was. He was exhausted and sank down in the dirt, using what little strength he had to clean himself up enough to where he didn't feel like he'd bathed in wildcat blood and wrapped his arms around the foal, pressing his face against his. Do not cry, little one. We will be fine.

Mama. Slephnir nudged him, his cries becoming more plaintive and distressed. Mama, where is papa?

Loki raised his head at the sound of rustling, and nearly cried as his brother and father came out of the woods, along with several other nobles.

“I am telling you Father, there is a large cat...” Thor's voice trailed off. “What is this?”

“Loki!” Father dismounted and came over to him, his face ashen. “Where...” He looked around the clearing, at the decimated body of the cat, the parts of what used to be Svadilfari, and lastly, at him and the foal. “It seems your brother has defeated the beast for us, Thor.”

“Damn it!” His brother swore. “Loki, you've destroyed the animal's pelt!”

He was too tired to issue a retort. “I believe the foal is hungry.”

Father crouched down and ran his hand along Sleipnir's neck and Loki saw the fleeting look he gave him; that little look that he knew that his Father knew he was lying, but was remaining silent. “Your mother has been worried, Loki.”

“Norns brother, what is that?” Thor had come over and was looking at Sleipnir like he was something foul. “That colt has eight legs.”

“And?” Loki retorted. “How is that the colt's fault?”

“Boys!” Odin shook his head. “Now is not the time. We will return home.”

That was the best thing that Loki had heard in forever.

*
If there was one good thing about not being as adored as Thor it was that no one seemed to give a damn where he had been for nearly a year. It made him wonder what would happen if he vanished for five years. Perhaps some day, Loki would try it. He curled up in his bed, clean and well dressed, his stomach full for the first time in months, but he could find no comfort in the familiar scents and sights of his home.

Loki refused to cry.

Sleipnir was in the stables, with another mare, one who had also recently given birth. The great bay seemed to accept the colt, but in his heart, Loki knew that the mare would never be his mother. He would always be his mother. He swallowed hard, biting back tears.

“Loki?” There was a shift on the bed as he felt his mother sit down and then stroke his hair. “Loki?”

He sat up and turned, instantly hugging her and burying his face against her shoulder. He couldn't stop the tears now. “Mama...” He hated how childish he sounded.

“Sssh.” Her voice soothed and stroked his hair. “It is all right. You are safe now.” She pressed a kiss on the top of his head.

“I feel... it wasn't...” He couldn't find the words to explain how he felt, how ashamed, how dirty, and at the same time, couldn't quite explain that in spite of how wrong what had happened, he wouldn't change it.

“You put a life ahead of yours.” Mother's voice was a whisper against his ear. “You could have ended it and pretended this never happened. But you did not. That is what a parent does.” Her hand went down his cheek and he shuddered at the contact. “You have been exceptionally brave, even if only a few know it. It does not change what you have done.”

“Brave people don't cry.” He sniffled. “Warriors do not...”

“Hush.” His mother admonished softly. “Even the bravest cry sometimes. Warrior or not.” She kissed his forehead. “Now you must move forward, Loki. The past is done.”

He let out a breath. “I feel...I feel horrible. Like something is...”

“I know, dearest.” She hugged him again, rubbing his back. “I know. I am relieved that you have returned home.”

He nodded, still feeling utterly defeated. Mother knew the truth of Sleipnir, as did Father. But Thor did not. If Thor didn't, he wouldn't tell his friends and he would have to leave in disgrace. No one else did... or have reason to suspect. Loki closed his eyes and let his mother soothe him to sleep.

*
Amora knew.

It had been a joke on her part, she hadn't shared it with anyone, thinking that she'd have a good laugh when Loki got back home after a month. Then two months went by, then three – by the time six months went by, she started to panic.

When she saw the odd eight legged colt in the pen with the other foals, she knew exactly what had happened.

And she said nothing.

All she knew was that she owed Prince Loki a debt.

He could have outed her for her prank and who knew what would have happened to her then.

Exactly one-hundred and seven years and sixteen days after Loki returned to Asgard with Sleipnir, she would repay that debt.

Chapter Text

“Loki has requested to move his family permanently to the estate.” Frigga did not turn her face from the letter she had received this morning. She wished she could say that she was surprised, but she wasn't. It made some sense to her, after all. Loki was a grown man with children – no wife – but after being gone three whole weeks from the capitol, it was no wonder that he had gotten used to the flow of things there and the freedom it offered.

“He's needed here.” Odin barked from the other end of the breakfast table. “He cannot stay.”

“He's ahead of you on that regard.” She glanced down at her husband, who looked more pensive than angry. “He will simply use seidr to travel back and forth from there to here. As he puts it, what's the use of having the capabilities if you don't use them?” She set the note down and looked down at her husband. “He can't stay here forever, he will leave sooner or later.”

“I do not like it.” He shifted in his seat, moving several things on his plate with his fork before spearing a slice of pear. “He must know that Fenrir cannot stay there.”

Frigga gave him a look. “Well aware. I imagine It might be hard for him, but Fenrir knows that he is unable to stay on Asgard anymore than Natasha could stay on Jotunheim.” She took up her fork. “It is not as if the move has to be done right this instant, it can be done gradually. Norns know, that estate will need more staff if they are to remain and things here would need to be packed.” She dug into the pile of roasted vegetables on her plate. “I estimate that they couldn't settle into that house fully until after Yule.”

“Five months from now.” Odin said, more to his plate than to her. “It would be strange, having all the children gone.”

“Ah ha!” She grinned as the door opened and Thor and Sif came into the dining room. “That is why you do not wish them to leave!”

The king shot a glance at her, his expression alone confirming that she was right. “Frigga...”

“What is going on?” Thor interjected. “Has something happened with Loki?”

“Your brother wishes to live with his children on the estate.” Odin answered before she could. “Your mother thinks this is a good thing.”

Sif went over to the sideboard and took up a plate. “Almost a fortnight of fresh air and lack of duty has no doubt turned those three girls into the most fearsome little trio on Asgard.” She wheeled around, shaking a fork at Thor. “And don't go saying that's not possible because Sasha and Hela are innocent, sweet things. Those two could cause more trouble than you and your brother on your best days, and by adding Gamora, they now have another accomplice.” She paused. “Loki must be mad to think he can run after all them, especially if he thinks Joshua is going to help.”

Thor spluttered while Frigga managed to repress a chuckle. She wasn't going to dispute the woman's words, not when there was a great deal of truth in them. She rather envied her son, who wanted to take more of an active role in raising his children than she had been allowed to. Who could blame him, considering four of the six had all been taken from him when they are young? Slephnir might be seen as the exception, as his whole story was just one complicated mess, but if Loki was even half as attached to Gamora as he was Natasha, it wasn't any wonder he wanted to take care of all of them on his own. Instead, she did what she had always done at times like these. She changed the subject. “How are you this morning, Sif?”

“I am well, Mother Frigga, thank you.” She turned back to the sideboard and the food. “I am glad to be back in Asgard. I'll never understand how the light-elves can stand the rapid fire weather on Alfheim.”

“The weather wasn't that bad,” Thor offered, joining his wife. “I think it was the rain keeping the more boisterous gatherings confined indoors, offering little escape from the sheer noise.”

Frigga nodded in agreement. “That's understandable. I'm never fond of it myself.” She glanced back at her son's letter, trying not to show her own dismay at the idea of that much of her family leaving; she was rather attached to her grandchildren, and didn't want to give up any more time with them than she had to. Shaking her head, she turned her focus to her food, trying not to think about Loki and the children all being gone. Her youngest had only returned from the dark side of the universe two months ago and she was reluctant to have him leave again. It'd been hard enough letting go so he could spend time way with his children.

Odin cleared his throat. “Perhaps Loki and the children could spend their summers at the estate to start with, and progress from there.”

Thor came over to the table, setting down his plate with a slight clatter. “My brother should not have done the asking and expected a yes. He should have had Natasha and Hela do it.”

Frigga chuckled. “I doubt that would make any difference.”

Her son smirked at her. “I think it would. And I've been meaning to ask, what on Midgard did Josh change his hair color for?”

“To stop being confused with his father, obviously.” Sif rolled her eyes as she sat. “I still don't know how anyone got the two of them confused. Joshua has broader shoulders than his father, he's taller, has a sturdier build to him and his eyes are blue. I'm just rather surprised it took him so long to come to that solution.”

The Allmother laughed. “I'm sorry Sif, but have you met the men in this family? Each of them more stubborn than the last.” She looked back at her food. “Joshua is also still rather hesitant around the family and offering suggestions, unless it has to do with his sisters.”

*

Loki kept still in his hiding place behind the tapestry, deciding that it wasn't exactly cheating by using his seidr to keep him hovering off the ground just enough that his feet wouldn't be seen. In the hallway below, he could hear Sasha counting to one hundred in Danish, a language he didn't even know she could speak until a few days ago. In the year before Hela came to live on Asgard, apparently his youngest son and his youngest daughter (at the time) decided they would learn every language on Midgard, and they had started by teaching each other the ones they already knew.

“Ottohalvfjerds Copenhagen, nihalvfjerds Copenhagen, firs Copenhagen, etfirs Copenhagen, tofirs Copenhagen.” There was a pause as she sneezed and then resumed counting, and Loki could only assume that the use of the Danish capitol after each number was meant to be an even pause between numbers, as he'd heard Joshua using 'Moscow' between the numbers the last time he was it.

A slight movement out of the corner of his eye caused him to peer out of the line between the tapestry and the wall and he saw the young man settling onto a beam on the floor above, looking as unconcerned about being four stories above the ground as he would be standing next to Sasha. “I'm going to have to have a word with him about that.” He shook his head just as his daughter cried -

“Hundrede Copenhagen! Ready or not, here I come!” There was a sound of a door opening below them. ”I know you're in here, Fen!” Then the door shut.

Loki leaned out of his hiding space, knowing it would take Sasha a few minutes to search the joined drawning room and library downstairs. “Joshua! What are you doing up there?” He hissed.

“Sssh.” His son replied, grinning, placing a finger over his lips. “I won't let the girls do it.”

He shook his head in reply and slipped back out of view as Natasha started up the stairs, followed by Fenrir. “I can't believe you knew where I was.”

“You keep going to the spot where Joshua last hid. I just can't believe no one else has caught on.” She retorted. “It's Gamora that's hard to find.”

“I think that's because she can blend into half the drapes in this place.” He retorted and Loki had to bite his lip to keep from chuckling.

“What was that?” Sasha's voice was right on the other side of the tapestry.

“What?” Her brother answered, then paused, and sniffed. “I know that smell.”

The tapestry flew back and Loki found himself facing his second eldest and second youngest, both of them looking rather annoyed. “You're cheating.” His daughter exclaimed, pointing to his feet. “That automatically makes you it.”

“Oh, does it?” He stepped down, folding his arms and stepping into the corridor with them. “I believe that was not an established rule.”

“An established rule was no seidr.” Joshua's voice echoed down to them. “I'm in agreement with Fen and Sasha.”

“Get down here and help us find your sisters.” Loki wheeled on his other son. “And don't even think of hiding up there.”

“I wouldn't dare.” He swallowed and watched as Joshua shuffled across the beam and then swung himself effortlessly onto the floor above. “I don't even think I could get from bannister to beam.”

“Guess that means I can't hide up there either.” Sasha interjected.

“No.” Loki pressed his hand against his chest, not wanting to think about anyone hiding where Josh had been. “What were you thinking?” He demanded of his son when he reached them. “What if you'd fallen and broken your neck?”

“I...” He started to speak and before he could stop himself, Loki slapped him, the sharp sound echoing in the still corridor.

He stared at his son in horror, his hand still hovering in the air, the imprint of his palm bright on Joshua's cheek.

“Papochka?” Sasha's voice was quiet and frightened behind him and he heard Fenrir clear his throat.

“Come on, how about the two of us go find Hela and Ora?” The boy's tone was that of someone clearly trying to process what he had just seen, and steer the subject away from it at the same time.

“All right.” His sister replied and Loki sensed the two of them heading up the corridor behind them. “I think I heard Gamora run down this way.”

“Joshua...” Loki began, his arm falling limply to his side, a wretched feeling of shame building in his stomach. He had sworn to himself, years ago, when Fenrir was in his cradle that he would never strike any of his children, no matter how angry or upset he was. “I...”

His son straightened his shoulders, a rather ill-hidden way of shrugging what just happened off, running a hand through his hair. “Let's go join the others.” He stepped past him and Loki grabbed his arm. “What?”

“I didn't mean to do that.” He took a breath. “I was angry and I wasn't thinking.”

“It's fine. I've been struck harder than that.” He pulled free of his grasp. “I've done worse.” He looked away for a moment then back at him. “Much worse.” He started jogging down the hall. “Hey you two, wait up. I know where Ora is!”

Loki stood there, watching him go, simultaneously wondering what Joshua had done; and what had been done to him.

*

Natasha and her brothers agreed not to tell the others about what had happened in the corridor. They had been thoroughly upset when they found out Papochka had been caught using seidr, a rule that had been established from the beginning, and had agreed he had to be 'it' next, as well as first this evening. He had taken his 'punishment' rather gracefully, but she knew this behavior; she'd seen him act this way dozens of times when he was trying to avoid something painful. The same sort of look he used to get when Grandfather praised Uncle Thor and ignored her father's accomplishments. She could remember when she had asked him why Grandfather could treat him like he was nothing, and he merely stated that he was used to being overshadowed, and to just let it go.

To this day, she was certain that Grandfather never found out about her helping her uncle with his reading. If he had, Uncle Thor would have been in more trouble than she could imagine.

She flipped open her small case and grinned at the sight of a lined piece of paper on one side of it. “Finally!” She took the letter out, already excited to hear from her friend.

Torch -

I'm sitting in the back of a lecture hall, bored out of my mind. Well, of course I am, the professor is going over our first test and seeing how I got a hundred percent, why am I even here? Oh yes, he said it was just going to take fifteen minutes and then he'd let us go for the afternoon. That was thirty minutes ago.

Sometimes I think this double doctorate plan wasn't the best, but, what am I going to do? Since when do I quit?

I'm doing better, mentally, that is. Is it bad that I miss my mom more than my dad, even when I only saw them both for about ten days a year?

I rather envy the idea of getting to play hide-and-go seek in a ginormous house after dinner every night. Just don't hide in any place dangerous. I don't want you getting hurt.

Natasha let out a sigh. She wasn't going to tell him about Joshua hiding up on that beam.

I'm still trying to contemplate the fact that your dad came back from wherever he went. My dad never told me what happened. Do you even know what happened? I know that he felt guilty about it ever since, and I think the universe has a fucking sick sense of humor to have your father return the same day mine died.

In an effort to be more sociable, I agreed to go out with a few guys from my organic chemistry class for pizza tonight. Yesterday they announced that the World Series was canceled because of the baseball strike. Everyone knows the Yankees were going to win it anyway. I'm in Red Sox country here at MIT. Some asshole told me he'd kick my ass if he caught me in my Dodgers shirt again. I told him he'd never have a job at Stark Industries if he so much as looked at me weird. He said to me 'Oh yeah, pretty boy? How you going to swing that?' the look on his place when he said 'I am Tony Stark' asshole' was PRICELESS.

Do you ever get to do shit like that? Wait, you probably have two dozen body guards to keep the assholes away.

The professor has finally shut up. Class is over.

Write soon!

Tony.

She sighed and set the letter down, not really shocked by her friend's crude language. It was just hard to imagine her friend, Tony Stark, whom she had last spent time with when he was five years old being bigger than her now; so much older. She closed her case, then folded the letter up, rather envious of the pizza her friend was having. She'd not had it since that summer, but she could still remember it was among the best food she ate while on Midgard.

Josh had fed her and Hela meat pies and fried potatoes with cheese curds and gravy when they'd gone to Australia to see the rest of the Star Wars movies. Apparently you couldn't get good pizza in that part of Midgard, or at least, that's what he said. She decided that the next time she got to spend more than an hour with Tony, they would have pizza. She'd even mention it in her next letter.

“Sasha?” Hela's voice from the other side of the door. “It's time for dinner.”

She jumped down from the bed, pulling on her slippers. “Coming.”

**

Joshua leaned back against the stone pillar, listening to the sounds of the night. Owls hooted off and on, and bats swooped down for their dinner, and he decided that this was his favorite time of day on Asgard. It finally seemed calm and peaceful. In three days, they would all be returning to the capitol. Father's request of being allowed to stay here had not been accepted; but it was to be put under consideration. He knew what that meant; it wouldn't be approved for another decade, at least. This really had been a wonderful summer, even with it's occasional difficult points. He knew that his father had not meant to strike him two weeks ago; he'd been more frightened than anything – but it really would be nice if the man would stop tiptoeing around him.

“Now, are you going to tell me how many hours you sleep on average, or am I going to have to go ask Natasha, because if anyone knows, it will be her.” Papa's voice cut into his thoughts and he stepped out of the shadows.

“Three or four.” He shrugged. “It's not a constant thing, I just have... bad spells.” He watched as the man came over to the other side of the steps and sat down across from him. “I'm fine.”

“I wasn't going to suggest you weren't.” He looked away. “I also know that when your sister tells me that, it's a flat out lie.”

“Well to be fair, if any female tells you that she's fine, she's lying.” He snorted. “It was actually rather amusing the day Uncle Thor discovered that.”

Papa snickered. “I can imagine.” He let out a breath. “I was just checking on Phin, and he's the one who informed me that you've been spending several nights a week talking to him, rather than sleeping.” He paused. “Has Sasha been staying up with you?”

“We've played chess a few times. That's all. And I know I wasn't out there last night, because that's where you were.” He turned and rubbed the back of his neck, not looking at his father. He wasn't going to mention he'd heard his father crying in the stables last night and had left before he could be seen by either of them. “That girl worries too much.”

“I know that.” He shook his head. “Joshua...”

“If this about two weeks ago, just drop it.” He had the overwhelming urge to get up and walk away. “I know you didn't mean to do it, I'm not harmed, so can we just leave it at that?”

“I don't want to leave it at that.” Papa sighed. “I know you're a lot older than you seem, and the fact that everyone, including myself, tends to forget that, doesn't help.”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “You've only known me about three months and the last time you saw me before that, I was toddler. I'd say if anyone's allowed to do it, it'd be you.”

“That is not a valid excuse for... things.” The man swallowed then straightened up. “I also know there is something that happened to you that Natasha knows but no one else in this family does.” He turned and gave him a hard look and Joshua suddenly felt very much like the child he was often treated as. “You do not have to tell your sisters or your brothers what it is, but you are going to have to tell me.”

Joshua looked away, his focus shifting towards the line of trees on the far side of the yard. He swallowed, closing his eyes, remembering. “When I first arrived on Midgard, I came across a family who were being forced to move to another country because of their religion. The how and what happened with them isn't important, but they did leave me with a monastery, and they do have a later part in this, I'll get to that. I think they were worried that whomever I was running from would come after them and it was a safety thing, so that's why they didn't keep me. I don't know, I don't care. There was a language barrier, but that didn't matter, because I picked up German and Latin fairly quickly.”

“You're hiding the fact that you lived with a religious order?” Papa sounded skeptical. “This is hardly...”

“Shut up and let me finish.” He growled. “It didn't take the monks long to notice I wasn't aging like a normal little boy. They taught me how to read Latin, but that wasn't exactly helpful in the scheme of things. I scrubbed a lot of floors, copied a lot of books – and worked the fields. Germany wasn't Germany then, it was a bunch of little kingdoms. One day, the local, well, I guess he was a prince, decided that it was wholly unfair that he lived in a home that was not as well maintained as our monastery or he didn't have the funds to build a new castle, I don't know what it was exactly. So he declared the religion illegal or something like that and sent his soldiers to come and take the monastery for him to live in.” He clenched his fists. “I'd been there maybe, seventy years by that point, and I was about Natasha's size.”

“Damn.” His father muttered. “No one outside of the monks noticed your lack of aging?”

“No – and no one ever spoke of it.” He swallowed. “Anyway, the uh, the abbot woke me up the morning the soldiers were coming, gave me a satchel with some clothes, some food, and a handful of coins and took me out to one of the far walls and told me to run and not look back. It was really kind of strange, because I could remember when he was a kid himself, and we'd known each other forever. Why he was sending me away, I didn't know. But I did as he asked, climbed the wall and left. I had no idea where I was going, I hadn't been more than three miles from the place since I came there. I just knew that I had to get away, but at the same time, I was scared and wondered why they had sent me and not anyone else. Or if they had and not wanted us together.” He rubbed his face. “I'm rambling, I'm sorry.”

“Take all the time you need.” Papa's voice was oddly quiet, gentle. It didn't make this any easier on him, but he knew he had to get this out.

“After about a week, I decided that I'd head to Michaelsberg where there was a port and go somewhere else, anywhere else, in case they came looking for me. I got to the city and wandered the streets for a few days, and one day I saw this soldier that I recognized. I followed him around and he went into a jeweler's. I watched through the glass as he pulled this thick silver chain with an inlaid crucifix on it.” He turned to look at his father, “and I knew exactly where he'd gotten it. Because I'd seen it every day for seventy years around the neck of a statue of Saint Otto.” He swallowed again. “Well, I waited until he'd sold it, for how much I don't know, but I knew what he would have had to have done to gotten it. I was so angry.” He squeezed his eyes shut, willing the memory away, but he couldn't. “I didn't mean to kill him. I just wanted to know why.” He swallowed. “I just grabbed his arm and the next thing I knew, he was screaming. His sleeve froze and shattered and then his arm went black. He fell down on his knees and I grabbed his neck. That was when I noticed my hands were blue. As soon as he fell silent, I ran. If anyone saw us in that alley, I will never know. I took a job as a cabin boy the next day, sailed out of that part of Europe, vowing not to return. And I never did.” He shook his head. “But I never escaped the nightmares of what must have happened to the monks and the look on that soldier's face when I burned the life out of him.” He nearly jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “What?”

“Norns.” Father's arm came around him. “Joshua...”

“Don't say you're sorry, we've had this talk already.” He let out a weak chuckle. “Remember?”

“I do.” His grip tightened. “So how did that first family come into the story again?”

“Oh, you'll love this part.” He managed a grin. “You see, I hadn't thought about that family in centuries before I came to Asgard. I'd nearly forgotten them. Then on the first morning here I left my room and looked into a face I hadn't seen in centuries.”

Papa was quiet for a moment and Joshua could see him putting two and two together. “The first family you met on Midgard were the ancestors of your sister's mother.”

“It's like a damn Dickens novel.” He shook his head. “That's the only reason I told her the story. I don't want the others knowing because well...”

“I understand.” He squeezed his shoulder again and then pulled away. “Apologies for that, I know you are not fond of affection.”

Joshua swallowed, rather lamenting the loss of touch. He took another breath and then shifted, setting his head on his father's shoulder, almost wanting to cry when his arm came around his waist. “You'd have come and gotten me from that monastery if you had known where I was, wouldn't you Papa?”

“In a heartbeat.” His father's arms embraced him, his fingers threading through his hair and Joshua could hear the sob in his voice. “I'd have come for you wherever you were had I known where you were. If anything separates us in such a fashion again, I'll tear the universe apart to find you. ”

He gulped and pressed his face more into the man's shoulder and finally let himself weep.

*

Tony didn't register the rain lashing against the windows of his apartment, the thunderstorm without connected to some hurricane that was skirting up the Eastern Seaboard, on a collusion course with the island of Newfoundland. He doesn't hear the hail and he doesn't notice the power is dead, because its early enough in the day he wouldn't have the lights on anyway.

All he can do is stare at the short note he's just pulled out from his gold case in shock and he doesn't know if he should be angry or not.

Tony -

I lied when I said I didn't know what The Project was. I've known since my dad first started working with yours. I was just forbidden to tell you. The next time I see you I will tell you everything I know.

Natasha

P.S. - Remember to be careful who you trust

He let the letter fall, in complete and total shock. How long had he wanted to know what his father had been up to and the accident that caused 'the project' to end? Here, his friend had known and never said a word.

“Dammit Torch.” He took the case and shoved it into his sock drawer.

He would deal with this later.

Tony walked over to his fridge and pulled out a beer just as the phone rang. “Now what?” He picked it up. “Stark.”

“Hey, Tony.” The slightly amused voice of Obadiah Stane answered him. “Bad time?”

He chuckled, setting the can down and closing the fridge. “No, not at all. Something wrong with the company?”

“No, I'm here in Boston for a few days and wanted to know if you'd care to join me and some others for dinner tonight at Deuxave.” He coughed. “Pardon me, allergies. There's some people you should meet that will be there.”

“Sounds great.” Tony checked his watch. “What time?”

“Seven-thirty. The reservation will be under my name.” He said something Tony couldn't quite make out. “You don't have to wear a tie.”

“Wasn't planning on it. I'll see you in a few.” He hung up and headed to his room to change out of his sweats. “Good to know I still have some real friends.”

*

Odin supervised the grooms as they tended to the horses that had been sent back via portal from the estate. Loki and his children were already on their way home, still having to travel by coach, instead of portal themselves, mostly due to the fact that such portals were known to undo glamors and the last thing Asgard needed was for a nine-foot tall jotun to appear in the middle of the courtyard. It could start a panic and well, he would rather keep his grandson alive then accidentally slaughtered.

A shrill whinny cut the air and he turned to see Slephnir kicking at one of the grooms in protest.

“Here.” He went over and took the horse's reins. “I'll take care of him.”

The groom opened his mouth to protest and then quickly shut it at the sight of him. He bowed and scurried away.

“Now what's got you all in a fluster?” He rubbed the horse's neck affectionately. “Feeling rather left out?”

The horse gave him an look, then tossed his head.

“I see.” He took up a currycomb and began to brush his back. “They'll all be back soon, except Fen. They'll drop him off at the Bifrost before they come home.”

Slephnir snorted, pawing at the ground.

“I quite agree, he should have been allowed to at least come for one dinner.” He sighed, remembering how hard it had been to write to Laufey and state what Loki wanted. It wasn't that he worried that the king would say no, he knew that the yes would come with stipulations and the first one had been Fenrir was not allowed to enter the palace. He knew it wouldn't be long before Laufey requested Loki and his family come and visit him on Jotunheim. “What are we to do then?”

The time, he jerked away, pawing at the ground with his two of his front legs, and kicking with two of his rear.

“Come now...” Odin reached for the horse, only to have the animal rise up on his back legs. He hastily stepped out of the stall as Slephnir rolled over onto his back, tossing his head several times, and then a loud crack echoed through the stable, causing several other horses to rear in their own stalls and the place became alive with grooms rushing to subdue animals and shouting for others to help. “What was that about...” He turned back towards Sleipnir's stall and his throat went dry.

Sitting in the hay where the horse had been a moment ago was a scrawny teenage boy with long black hair, his brown eyes bright with fear.

Chapter Text

The vacation had been exactly what Loki and his family had needed. While it was no where near long enough, Loki no longer felt as lost as he had at the beginning of the summer, and while he noted that Gamora and Hela seemed to spend more time together alone than with the rest of them, he decided that was an age thing he might mention to his mother, in case it wasn't that. His talk with Joshua had revealed a great deal about his son, and greatly explained why he kept everyone at a distance. The carriage rocked slightly as the road went from paved to cobbled and Loki straightened up, peering around the dark compartment. Everyone else, save for Fenrir, was asleep. His second eldest was gazing out the window, looking rather miserable.

“Are you all right, Fen?” He glanced down at Sasha, who was using his shoulder for a pillow.

“I'm at the point where I both want to stay here and at the same time, can't wait to get home.” He sighed. “I'm not in trouble for thinking of Jotunheim as my home, am I?”

“It is your home.” He stated. “Granted, I'd rather us all be together somewhere, but we do what we must. I suspect your grandfather would rather have us all there with him, not just you.”

“Grandfather's not that bad.” His son smiled. “He can be a bit... stiff at times, but he's over seven thousand years old. I'd say he's earned the right to be that way.” He glanced around at the others. “I don't think we'll ever be allowed to be all together on Jotunheim.” He paused. “Well, maybe.”

“I believe that in order for that to happen, your uncle Thor is going to have to make me an uncle. Most likely twice over.” He smirked and saw Fen chuckle. “What?”

“That's what Sasha said.” He laughed. “It's rather scary, how alike the two of you are.”

“I suspect that's because of the six of you, she's spent the most time with me.” He sighed. “Such is the story of this family.”

“It's fine, papa. I may not like it, but we cannot change the past.” He rubbed his eyes, covering a yawn.
“I believe the important thing is now we're all safe and accounted for.” He shot a glance at Joshua. “Still want to know how someone who's three-fourths jotun survived in a desert for as long as he did.”

“Given that he never lived on the plateaus of Jotunheim, he was able to adapt.” Loki sighed. “I've never been to Jotunheim or Australia.”

“You're not missing much.” Joshua muttered sleepily. “Unless you want to go camping in forty-five degree heat surrounded by deadly flora and fauna.” He coughed. “Although kangaroo is quite tasty, if grilled correctly.”

Fenrir shook his head. “Go back to sleep, little brother.”

“Not little.” He yawned, then began to snore.

“You'll always be my little brother.” Fenrir sighed. “Even if you look older than me.” He glanced back over at Loki. “Are you certain that the two of you aren't twins?”

“Positive.” Loki shook his head. “I'm certain that both of your grandfathers, old as they may be, would remember how many babies they brought back to Asgard and how many they had stolen.” The carriage lurched to a stop and he glanced out. They were at the start of the Bifrost. He moved to wake up the girls, but Fen set a hand on his arm.

“Let them sleep, papa. We've said our goodbyes, and if we wake Hela up, she'll start bawling.” He opened the door of the coach and went out, with Loki following him. They started down the bridge together. “I don't suppose you have another set of cases like Natasha and her friend Tony has, do you?”

“I could make a set, but that, unfortunately, is a treaty violation.” He made a disgusted sound. “Though after a thousand years, I believe things need to be reevaluated.”

“Agreed.” He stopped and looked back towards Asgard. “It would be nice if we could all live on a realm where none of us have to hide the way we really are.”

“If you find such a place, please, tell me where it is,” Loki sighed, “and we'll move there post haste.”

“You're more likely to find it than I, the libraries are better here.” They came into the observatory. “Good evening, Heimdall.”

The watchman turned slightly, and nodded in acknowledgment. “Good evening Prince Loki, Prince Fenrir.” He headed for the dais in the center of the room.

His son set down his bag. “Papa, do you think you could undo my glamor before I head back to Jotunheim?”

He nodded, rather ashamed that he had grown so used to the dark haired youth's face that he had forgotten that the face he'd seen every day wasn't his son's true one. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” He paused and quickly took off his shoes and shirt, stuffing them into his bag. “I'm ready.”

Loki nodded and set a hand on his son's forehead, feeling for the lock on the enchantment with his seidr and removed it with a single thought. Under his palm, Fenrir's skin went from cream to blue-gray and he withdrew it slowly as his son's face ceased to be level with his chin and rose above him, causing him to step back and look up.

Fenrir stood three feet taller than he, his hair was short, and the start of two horns, blacker than his hair, grew just above his temples, the tips already starting to curve backwards. His skin was covered with swirling marks, almost identical to the ones on Hela's face. Just like his smaller, Æsir form, he had a coltish build. He blinked once or twice, looking down at him and Heimdall. “Good bye, papa.” He held out his hand and Loki dropped the satchel in it, trying to think of how dwarfed the bag was in the boy's palm.

The walls of the Bifrost began to spin and a moment later, his second eldest was gone.

“Papa!” A voice called and Loki turned to see Hela racing up to the observatory, nearly falling at the doorway, breathing hard.

“What is it?” He went over and supported her. “Is something wrong with your brother or sisters?”

“I don't know what it is, we'd all just woken up and were waiting for you and the guards came and said there's some sort of emergency, and we need to get back to the palace.” She hiccuped. “They said we needed to hurry.”

Loki nodded, took her hand and they started back up the Bifrost.

*

Everything was confusing. Slephnir wasn't quite certain how he had done it, only that he had to do it; he'd been separated from Mother and his siblings long enough. He blinked absently at the healer-woman, Eir, he knew – scanned him over and over, her face drawn into a perfectly blank look. He sniffed a few times, then sneezed. His Æsir senses had changed in their strength. Things didn't smell as strong, neither was his hearing; his sight, however; the thing that Sasha always talked about, color, that was amazing. He wondered if his taste would be stronger in place of his smell. His stomach rumbled at the thought of food and Eir gave him an almost smile.

“We'll get you something to eat in just a few moments, all right?” She moved to touch his hair and he shirked away from her hand. No. He did not want her.

“Nnn.” He grunted and then turned his face away. He'd figure out the speaking thing as soon as Mother got here. Mother would understand. Mother could help.

“She's just trying to help, love.” A hand brushed the back of his hair and he glanced back. Mother's mother. Grand-dam. She was nice. “Loki will be here soon.” A shadow crossed her eyes and she shot a look at Eir he didn't entirely understood. The woman didn't come to the stables often, but she was kind. Mother's Father, the king, well – now that he thought on it, it hadn't been horrible to carry the man around on his back when he was a horse. He never used a whip or spurs. The other horses hated both and he'd been spared. The king would have to find a new horse; he had scores of them. The light above him faded and Grand-dam helped him sit up, adjusting his shirt, her expression pensive. “There now. All done.”

He glanced up at her and sniffed, then coughed again. “Waa...”

“Oh, yes, of course.” She moved away and was back in a moment with a glass of water. She held it up to his lips and he slowly drank, odd as it was. He had to remind himself that this was what he wanted; he wanted to live with the rest of his family. Well, he couldn't go live with Fenrir; that would never stand.

“What's going on?” Mother's voice came from across the room and he turned towards him, suddenly feeling sheepish. What was he going to say? He came over to where he and Grand-dam were, frowning. “What...” Mother set a hand on his cheek and in a moment, he knew. “Slephnir.” He pulled him into a tight hug, pressing his face into his hair. “It's going to be all right, don't worry.”

“Loki... we still don't know what happened, your father said he just... just shifted.” She took a breath. “And well, he...”

“Slephnir or Phin, Mother, he has a name.” There was a touch of ice in Mother's voice. So unlike him.

“Sorry. Phin just changed, your father is at a loss, I'm at a loss and he... well, your son doesn't seem to be able to talk.”

Mother drew away, ruffling his hair in an affectionate way. “Well, if your mouth completely changed shape, you might have difficulty speaking too.” He was smiling, looking perfectly delighted. “Was Eir able to determine if this was a permanent change or a temporary one?”

“Inconclusive. We don't even know how he shifted in the first place.” She sighed. “I'm leaning more towards the previous.”

Slephnir wrapped his arms around his mother's waist and lifted his chin, giving Grand-dam his best serious look. Of course it's permanent, this is what I want.

She blinked in surprise, then glanced at Mother. “Loki...”

“I know, Mother.” He sighed. “It's a complicated matter, that goes beyond this.”

“Isn't complicated standard in this family?” A voice said from the doorway and Phin found himself grinning. Baby brother.

“Joshua!” Grand-dam admonished. “What are you doing here?”

“I won the coin toss.” He shrugged and came over to join them. “You should be glad I did. I am the one who's the most level headed of the six stubborn scions of Loki Odinson.”

Phin snorted in an attempt to laugh. He would give Joshua that. His little brother could also get away with being sassy far more than their sisters could. He unwound his arms from Mother and then wrapped them around Joshua's waist instead, hugging him briefly before sitting back up straight: baby brother wasn't one for physical contact.

Grand-dam was frowning. “I still don't understand how you can look older than your brothers, Joshua. That is something I still wonder about.”

Joshua gave Grand-dam a look Phin was certain any other person might get slapped for for making at her. “I'm not going through puberty twice.”

Mother snorted. “Agreed. I really don't think that's relevant at this point.” He turned back to Eir. “Doe he need to stay here overnight?”

The woman shook her head. “No. There's nothing physically wrong with him.”

“Thank you, Eir.” Mother turned to Grand-dam. “Thank you, Mother.”

Joshua offered an arm and Phin stood, rather shakily – it was strange to balance on two legs instead of eight. He reminded himself that this was what he wanted; he would learn and he would not complain. “The girls are most likely waiting for us in Sasha's chambers.” Mother nodded and they started out of the healing halls, moving at a steady pace. Stairs were going to be an issue, he could tell. Well, he had four younger siblings to help him figure all of this out.

*

Joshua was aware that there was some tension between his sisters; he couldn't exactly say when it started, but it was clear that Hela and Gamora were spending more time as the two of them and less as three of them with Sasha. With his fellow Midgardian relegated to the middle sister status, this whole different age thing, despite their wonderful summer, was rather difficult. He was the youngest son, but looked the oldest. Natasha looked the youngest, yet acted like the oldest. Adding Phin into this was, well, it wasn't going to be so bad once he learned to talk and walk; manners were actually quite simple when it all boiled down to it; sit up straight, walk straight and don't bloody talk until you're asked a question. As predicted, the girls were all in Sasha's chambers, with a large kettle of tea and a tray loaded down with savory pies, sandwiches and tarts.

Explaining what happened to Phin didn't take as long as he expected it would. Then again, when Papa spoke in what he liked to call 'Prince of Asgard' voice, it was best to remain silent. There was little more sound than that of china on china, or fork on plate as things were put forward, and Joshua spent most of Papa's talk watching Phin watch the girls in how they ate their food. Sasha was best at eating and listening, and keeping her expression blank.

“Now, I expect the four of you to help your brother adjust.” He shook his head. “We are a family and we support each other. If you hear anyone saying something untoward about him, you are to inform me at once, understood?”

“Yes, Papa.” Natasha answered, followed by him and the other two girls.

“Tomorrow will be busy enough getting Phin settled into the palace.” Papa started to pace. “But you girls have lessons tomorrow, with Lady Sigyn. They've been neglected while we've been away.”

“Phin can stay with me, until he has a chamber of his own.” Joshua spoke up. “I've got more room than I need.”

“Good then.” Papa glanced over at the girls and then sat down on the couch next to Phin, setting a hand on his back. “Is that all right with you?”

His brother nodded. “Ine.” His voice was rough and he looked rather abashed. “Ine.” He said again.

“Slephnir?” Papa frowned.

“I think he means 'fine'” Gamora spoke up.

“Ine.” He said again, grinning.

Hela wrinkled her nose. “This is sort of like how Fenrir was. He kept ducking in doorways all summer, even though he was well under the threshold.”

Natasha was curled up in her chair, her focus more on the plate of foot perched on her knees than anyone in the room. Joshua had a feeling she wanted to throw the lot of them out of her chambers. She met his eyes and in response, he made a face at her. She snickered and picked up a sandwich. “It isn't, really, Hela. Fenrir was wearing a glamor. Phin's completely changed species.”

“You know what I mean.” She replied. “Honestly. I thought I was the practical one.”

“You? Practical?” Gamora snorted. “That's the funniest thing I've heard all day.” She stood, refilled her plate and mug. “I'm going to bed before something else happens.”

“Me too.” Hela put in, doing the same as her sister.

“Good night.” All them said to them as they left Natasha's chambers.

“I should turn in as well.” Papa stood. “Are you certain you and Phin will be all right, Joshua?”

“We'll be fine.” He answered. “I don't know if we'll sleep much, but I promise we will at least rest. Good night.”

“Good.” He ruffled both his and Phin's hair and gave Natasha a hug. “Good night.”

“Good night, Papochka.” Natasha answered.

“Nnnn.” Phin put in, his face contorting in the effort to speak.

Papa smiled and, after putting a few sandwiches on his plate and refilling his mug as well, left for his chambers.

“Damn and blast.” Joshua sighed and took a bite of his meat pastry. “This is just a mess.”

“It could be worse.” His sister slumped down in her chair, her gaze still on something other than him and Phin. “I'm sorry I'm not my usual sunny self.”

“Let me guess, Tony still isn't answering your letters?” He sighed as she nodded. “He'll come around, don't worry. You two are good friends, even if you haven't spent time together in years. He'll realize that at the time, he was five and smart as he was, he could have gotten into serious trouble or danger had he known about the Project.”

She gave him a half smile. “I guess. Although I still don't know why he doesn't make better use of his opportunities.”

“Some people don't see the blessings they have until they're taken away.” He glanced at Phin. “You want something more to eat?”

He shook his head and looked at Sasha. “Like saw slew.”

“Saw slew?” He frowned and looked at his sister. “What's he talking about?”

“I think... I know what he means, he's talking about how Mrs. Stark took me with her to the Belmont that summer. We watched Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown.”

“Saw Slew.” Phin grinned and nodded. “Slew.”

He frowned, wondering how Phin managed those two words, but only parts of others. “Natasha, do you know if there are any... ah, I suppose they would be alphabet books in the library?”

“You mean books for children just learning their letters?” She rubbed her nose. “I don't know if there are any in the library, but there are some in the nursery.”

He thought for a moment as Phin rose to his feet and walked, quite calmly and purposefully, into the bathing chamber, shutting the door behind him. “Well, there's something else he knows.”

“It's not so bad.” His sister offered. “I'll go get the books for you, I remember where they are.” She set her plate down on the table and rose to her feet. “It won't take me very long.” She slipped out of her room, leaving the door partially open.

Joshua got up as well, noting that very little had changed in Natasha's chambers since he first stepped inside of them, nearly thirteen years ago. The only thing to indicate that this room was inhabited by a young girl and not a grown woman was the large dollhouse that sat on a low table near the door to the study. He had been surprised when he'd first stepped into this room and found no dolls, other than the ones that occupied the house. There were a few plush animals, but other than that; none. Hela was the one with the dolls.

Phin shuffled back into the room, his focus on his feet, one hand held out in front of him to feel for furniture.

Natasha returned, her arms full of books with bright covers and her cheeks were smudged with dust and she sneezed as he took the books from her. “Excuse me.”

“It's fine.” He answered, giving her a one armed hug. “Thanks. Phin and I will get out of your hair, so you can get some sleep too.”

She gave him a grateful smile. “Fenrir's going to be upset he missed all the excitement.”

“Well, I'm certain he's used to it by now.” He held his arm out. “Come on Phin, let's let little sister have her room back to herself.”

Slephnir came over and hugged Natasha tightly, lifting her off the ground. “Sister.”

She giggled slightly as he put her down. “Good night, both of you.” She indicated the trays. “You want to take something with you?”

“Take what you want and I'll take the rest.” Once Phin felt like eating, he no doubt would eat everything he didn't.

**

Tony hated to admit being wrong. While he was still upset with Natasha for lying back when she told him she didn't know what the Project was, it wasn't really her fault. There was plenty his dad did that he had never been privy to; and the fact that she knew, well – she was the alien. She probably knew how the secret to faster-than-light travel but there was some weird law, like the Prime Directive on Star Trek that forbade her from speaking up.

In short, rules sucked.

He double checked the gift bag, making sure that he had in fact, put all six books inside, followed by the assortment of candy that he remembered his friend liked, as well as a bottle of wine. He had no doubt that she was allowed to drink the stuff; he'd seen enough stupid period drama where everyone was drinking wine. After adding an overlarge bow to the bag, he sighed. “Well, it worked with the box.”

Tony sighed and got out of his car, carrying the bag out across the dunes of the beach. It would be better to do this out here, in the open where there weren't a lot of people and if anyone saw anything, it would get dismissed as a weather balloon or whatever they were calling UFOs these days. He set the bag down in the sand, stepping back. “Uh, Heimdall.. this is for Torch – I suck at apologies, and...” He stopped speaking as a beam of light shot down from the sky and a moment later, he had to shield his face from the blowing sand. As it grew dark again, he straightened up, shaking his head. “Guess I should write as well.”

*

Natasha looked over the letter from Tony, her eyes darting to the bag, still rather surprised at its arrival, mainly because her friend remembered the candy she had liked, after more than a decade of having them, and the wine; well, she couldn't fault him for the wine. She'd spent enough time with the Starks that wine was something they sent along in any sort of gift. She hadn't examined the books yet, but the covers were bright and the top one had a mouse wielding a sword. She turned back to her letter.

Torch -

First off, sorry for not answering any of your last twelve letters. I did read them, but I was still pissed about the Project thing. That wasn't your fault. Besides, you said you'd tell me everything next time we see each other, so it's not as if I'll never know.

Uh, the books – I went to a place called Borders and tried to find something that wasn't stupid. I asked a guy working there what a good series for someone who likes fantasy adventures without romance put in. I went with this Redwall series because he said you didn't have to read them in order, and who knows how often I'll be able to send one?

ANYWAY -

Things are somewhat better, and I hate how everyone is telling me that the holidays are the worst. I never went home for the holidays in the first place. Okay, now I think I know what they mean – maybe I should have gone home... or been asked to come home. This whole thing sucks. My parents and I never did figure the family thing out.

That's why I'm not going to have one. Not going to get married, not going to have kids, none of that. I'll just make sure I leave Stark Enterprises in such a way that no one will lose their jobs when I kick the bucket. I don't suppose you'd want to run it, would you? Or your brother Joshua? He sounds like an awesome guy. By the way – totally jealous you got to see Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi on a drive-in screen.

We'll watch all three of the movies next time you come to visit on a big projector. Pizza Unos will be on the menu, of course.

It's late and I better get this off if I want it to arrive around the same time as the package.

Take care of yourself, and I know... I know... be careful who I trust.

Tony

Natasha sighed and folded the letter up, and then finished pulling her boots on, rather glad she was off to spend her afternoon on the training grounds getting a fencing lesson from Uncle Fandral instead of stuck inside.

She needed some fresh air and physical activity.

*
Fenrir pulled open the shutters of his window and leaned against the frame, letting the light snow shower wash over his face and arms, the comforting cold of Jotunhiem was wonderful, after the summer on Asgard. The whole of the vacation had been wonderful; and while he would have loved to have stayed, this was where he belonged. Papa had mentioned that he was going to work on the moving to the estate as a permanent arrangement, and quite honestly, he would love that; and going yearly to spend time with them?

Even better.

“All settled then?” Grandfather's voice caused him to turn.

“I suppose.” He looked away for a moment. “It's confusing. I want to be both here and there with them.”

Laufey held out an arm and he went over to him, giving him a hug. “I understand. It's only natural. Are you ready to go down yet?”

“Almost.” He went over to his small, Æsir sized satchel and drew out the thick manuscript that Joshua had given him. He then set it on the table and held his hand over it. A moment later, it glowed yellow and then grew to a size where it fit comfortably in his hand. “Now I am.” He went back to the doorway and they started down from his room and towards the center of the palace.

“I have read the letter your father sent home with you. It explains, in some detail, about your brother Slephnir and your two youngest sisters.” His face darkened. “I would like to know how Odin failed to notice that Loptr went missing for more than a year.” He glanced at Fenrir. “Then again, he vanished for five years a hundred years later.”

“I don't think that was a total disappearing act. I can remember him leaving for short periods of time, and then returning.” He shook his head. “I was so young then.”

“You're still young, Fenrir Lokason.” Laufey chuckled. “The only one who gets to use the old excuse is me.” They came to the bottom of the stairs and went into the large parlor where the rest of the family had gone after dinner. “All right, now we're all here.”

Fenrir went over to his chair and set the book on his lap, acknowledging the servant who left him a glass of water with a nod. He looked slowly around at the others; Grandfather Laufey and Grandmother Araja (she wasn't really his grandmother, but he called her that). Uncle Helblindi and Aunt Kallista, his cousin Kaj, who had taken a seat in Grandfather's lap, and Uncle Byleistr, who was keeping his focus on the cold fire. “It's only the first part, Joshua said he was still working on the rest.”

“That's fine,” Uncle Helblindi answered. “We told him we wanted to hear it when he first started.”

Fenrir nodded and opened the manuscript. “Sons of the Southern Cross by Joshua Lokason.” He cleared his throat. “Author's note. The Southern Cross refers to a constellation of stars used by sailors in the southern hemisphere of Midgard, in this book called Earth. The only other place in the nine realms this constellation is visible is on Jotunheim, where it is known as Ymir's knife.” He took a sip of water. “Prologue. It was three in the morning in Melbourne. At that hour, the pub would normally be closed, the chairs resting on the tables and the lights dark. Instead, the room was full, every seat occupied and pints of beer sat un-drunk before all the men. Behind the bar, a radio sat, the volume up in full. From it came a voice across the distance, the speaker was over ten-thousand miles away. The voice of King George VI, his tone calm and yet grave.” He took another sip of water. “Half that distance away, there was another king. An emperor who had unleashed his army into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to sweep up the islands and countries as far as they could reach, already beginning a plot against Pearl Harbor, as far from us as we were from Japan.”

“Is it full of pearls, that harbor?” Kaj interjected and then looked cowed. “Sorry.”

“It's okay.” Grandfather gave him a smile. “I do not believe it is a harbor full of pearls. Perhaps the sand there is as white as one.” He turned back to Fenrir. “Go on.”

He nodded and resumed reading, and could picture his brother perfectly in the words. “The emperor, whose name was Hirohito, ruled over what his people called the Land of the Rising Sun.” He smiled to himself. “We, the men gathered in that pub, with our beer and King speaking to us from across the globe, letting us know that we were now at war with Germany, did not know fear. For we were Australians, a part of Britannia. The Empire on which the Sun did not set.”

Chapter Text

Natasha set her schoolbag next to her chair before heading over to the sideboard and taking up a plate. She scanned the breakfast dishes, her mind not really on food, more on the idea that today, Papochka, Phin, Hela and Gamora were all headed to Jotunheim. It was their father's first trip there, and while every fiber of her being screamed that if anyone should be going with him, it should be her, she knew full well why she and Joshua were remaining behind. While the rest of the family was gone, they would finish up the packing of their belongings and oversee the move from the palace to the estate. Grandfather had finally relented to the move after twelve years – although she was more inclined to believe it was because she now had a toddler cousin who would soon be a big sister than any other reason.

“Good morning, Sasha.” Joshua came into the room, looking rather disheveled and he yawned. “I should know better than to sleep at my desk.”

“I think you lost track of time. Again.” She turned back to the dishes and selected some fruit, sausage and toast. “I don't know why I'm taking my bag to the schoolroom with me. Lady Sigyn and I are just packing up things we don't trust others to do.”

“Habit.” He came over and joined her. “I'm going to hazard a guess at Grandfather has once again refused your request to let Tony come for your name day, even if it's just for tea.”

She nodded and set her plate down before going back for a glass of orange juice. “It's not like I ask him constantly, just once a year about a month before the day.” She took her seat and laid her napkin in her lap. “It's not like I'll do it forever.”

Her brother sat down next to her. “I think Grandfather keeps forgetting how quickly time goes by on Midgard.” He shook his head. “I was talking to Heimdall a few days ago, it's two-thousand and ten. Norns, I feel old now, I remember when it was nineteen-ten.”

“And eighteen ten, and seventeen ten...” She replied and received the expected smack on the back of her head. “You walked into that.”

“So did you.” He grinned. “You look pretty spry for someone who's turning eighty-two next week.” He frowned. “You're not upset that it'll be just you, me, Lady Sigyn and that big house of ours for your special day, are you?”

She gave him a look. “No. Given how many ignored name days you've had, it's only fair that I take a turn.” She frowned. “I never asked, what day did you used to say was your birthday?”

“February twenty-ninth.” He paused. “They never really checked those things in the beginning. But I always kept track of the year, in case that they would notice.”

Natasha nodded. “How's your packing going?”

“I'm mostly done. I sort of feel bad for the others. They have to get into a carriage and ride for half a day when they return from Jotunhiem and we'll already be settled and eased into our new home.” He sighed. “I suppose we get to move and have our own bit of vacation. Since there's just the two of us, well, three with Miss Sigyn, we can't play hide and seek. We'll have to find something else to do.”

“We should go see the schools in the area.” She picked up her fork. “You know, see the little things that the reports don't tell us.”

“That could be fun.” He looked down at his plate. “How many European languages do we have left?”

“About four, unless you actually want to bother with Catalan and the differences between the two forms of Spanish and Portuguese.” She stuffed part of a peach into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

“No, but you know what would be fun to do?” He chuckled as she gave him a questioning look. “We should get permission to visit Midgard, go out to dinner with your friend Tony and just confuse the heck out of everyone by speaking English in three different accents.”

“And that would be snobbish, sharpish and sluggish?” Phin said from the doorway, grinning.

Natasha snickered. “I believe our brother means modern, classic and casual.”

“I don't even get how they can all be different.” Phin went over to the sideboard and took a seat across from Natasha. “They're all the same language.”

It's mostly cultural.” Joshua answered. “Fenrir and Hela have the same accent in All-speak, you and papa have the same, and Sasha and I have the same.”

“Which makes me the special one.” Gamora replied from the doorway, looking as if she hadn't slept all night. “And for the record, I would much rather stay here on Asgard than go to Jotunheim.”

“If it's the weather you're worried about, you'll be glad to know it's summer.” Phin started buttering his toast. “While still somewhat chilly, it's not cold.”

Gamora sat down on Joshua's other side. “That's easy for you to say.” She mumbled. “Space cold is different from planet cold and considering you've only been to Jotunheim once...”

Natasha zoned out the ensuing conversation, turning her focus on her breakfast and the rest of her day. The others would be gone for six Asgardian weeks; almost three months on Jotunheim. She and Joshua would leave for the estate before the end of this week, and somehow, the two of them would get the house running so the rest of the family could come home and not have to worry. The past several years had been a mixture of good and bad; although she still would like to know how, exactly, she and Hela stopped being such close friends. She put it down to the fact that her sisters were closer in age mentally, and since she looked younger, they treated her like she was younger. At least in most regards; when it came to her and Hela's yearly silent auction and tea, Gamora quickly realized that when it came to sheer authority in this family, hers was above her sisters'.

“Well, look at it this way, Ora, you'll finally get to see a decent amount of snow.” Joshua's voice cut into Sasha's thoughts.

“I suppose there is that.” She covered a yawn. “Although don't think I haven't noticed that the cloak and boots I've been given are twice as thick as Hela's.”

“Oh, I'm sorry if we don't want the nice young lady from the tropical planet getting sick.” Phin quipped.

“That's rich, coming from someone who used to have a fur coat.” Gamora retorted

“Stop it, both of you!” Joshua snapped. “Honestly, do you two forget your manners if Grandfather and Grandmother aren't here?”

“I'm finished.” Natasha pushed her mostly empty plate away, draining the last of her juice. “I'll see you all at luncheon.” She picked up her toast, shouldered her bag and went to the door, opening it just as Aunt Sif was about to do the same. “Good morning.” she said politely.

The woman narrowed her eyes at her and then glanced into the room. “I see it's been one of those mornings.”

“I don't know what you're talking about aunt,” Joshua started to say as Natasha went into the hallway, the rest of her brother's words cut off by the closed door.

“Fenrir has no idea how lucky he is.” She held her slice of toast in her mouth as she adjusted her dress and bag and started down the corridor, only to see the nursery door fly open and her small cousin, Marja, race out of it half dressed and laughing.

“Come back here!” Nanny Inga called, “You can't go out there like that!”

“No!” the girl cried. “I can so!”

“Caught ya!” Natasha cried as the girl almost made contact with her legs, holding her squirming cousin around the waist and carrying her back up the hallway. “If I have to go around here properly dressed, so do you!”

“Meanie!” Marja snapped, slapping her back, and Natasha felt a tiny jolt of electricity.

“You're lucky I caught you and not Hela. You'd have cold feet now.” She came up level to the nursery door and set her down. “If you're a good girl the rest of the morning, we'll go to the hayloft swing this afternoon before tea with grandmother.” She saw the girl's blue eyes go wide. “Promise. But you have to be good.”

The small girl beamed. “I promise to be good!” She wrinkled her nose. “I am sorry I shocked you.”

Sasha sighed. “I know you are. But remember what Grandmother told you about that. You have to be extremely careful, or you could seriously hurt someone.”

“I know.” She looked cowed and shuffled into the nursery.

“Thank you” Nanny Inga replied, looking worn. “I only turned my back for a moment.”

“I'm just glad I was here to help.” She chuckled. “It's not as bad as when she took her crib apart and crawled into the feasting hall.”

The woman covered her heart with her hand. “Do not remind me. Good day, your grace.”

“Good day,” she replied and headed towards the schoolroom.

*

“Come on, you need to get up.” A pair of hands shook Loki's arm and he grumbled, burying his face into his pillow. “Loki.” The voice insisted, the woman's tone exasperated. He grimaced and stretched, rolling over, sighing.

“I'm awake, Sigyn.” He covered a yawn and looked up into the woman's face. He never understood how one woman's hair, when it was as straight as an arrow, could always be so disheveled, no matter what she did to it; right now, said hair was pulled back in a braid that was already starting to fray. He gave her a half smile. “I'll be out of bed in a minute.”

“That's what you said ten minutes ago.” She frowned at him. “Honestly, it's a wonder you and I have kept up this charade as long as we have with you lazing in my bed every night you sleep in it.”

He smirked. “And do you not do the same in mine?”

In response, she grabbed a throw pillow and hit him with it. “I need to be in the palace and in the school room in fifteen minutes. You should already be dressed and having breakfast with your children.”

“Fine.” He sat up, rubbing his eyes. “It is not a complete secret what we are doing Sigyn. I know that Joshua knows – I'm willing to bet Sasha does as well.” He wasn't certain if the rest of his children knew that he and Sigyn were in a relationship; Hela and Gamora had, much to his chagrin, started noticing boys and as a result, themselves, a great deal more. Slephnir might have caught on, or Joshua told him – but his eldest was still playing catch-up in terms of schooling, and that kept him occupied. His own parents said nothing and if Thor and Sif knew, well, they would hardly be ones to talk.

“You're nervous about going to Utgard.” Sigyn came back over to the bed and took his hands. “I know you are.”

“It'll be the first time I've been to Jotunheim since I was taken. I have no idea how... how is this supposed to work? It was over a thousand years ago, how do I bridge all that time?” He sighed. “I suppose I should have talked to Joshua, he might understand.”

“Fen will.” She brushed his hair from his face and kissed his forehead. “And I know for certain that you are no coward. I'd ask you to imagine how King Laufey must feel, but I believe that could be considered unfair.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her shoulder. “I believe that this is one of those things that the fear is unfounded, but cannot be helped.”

“It'll be fine.” She kissed him again. “You'll spend six weeks on Jotunheim, then you'll come home to the estate.”

Loki squeezed her tighter, nuzzling her neck. “I still think I should have told the children about our engagement before I leave.”

“Norns.” She sighed. “If it matters that much, tell Josh and Sasha before you go and tell the others once you're there.”

He pulled away from her and rose from the bed, picking up his clothes from where he had discarded them last night, frowning as he tried to remember where he'd left his boots as he pulled on his pants. “I'm sorry, Sig, I believe I'm more stressed than I realize, and I shouldn't take it out on you.” He took the shirt she offered him; he recognized it as once he'd forgotten here last week as he pulled it on.

“It's fine.” She stood and came over to him, adjusting the collar of his shirt, smoothing out the garment with her hands. “And don't worry, you won't come home to find Sasha suddenly paying attention to boys.” She smirked. “I think she still believes they all have cooties, with the exception of those she's related to, and Tony Stark.”

He snorted. “I believe that day isn't too far off, but even I know it won't be at the end of this summer.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Are you certain you want to go to the estate with the others? Not wait a while longer?”

“Either I move now, or move later. It does not matter and there's nothing keeping me here in the city.” She sighed. “Perhaps we should have eloped last week.”

“A valid idea, except the girls would never have forgiven us denying them the chance to dress up.”
Loki chuckled. “And dance.”

“I better go.” Sigyn touched his cheek. “Sasha's most likely already in the schoolroom.”

He kissed her fingertips. “I don't suppose I could convince you to come to luncheon?”

“Not today.” She pulled away. “You need that time with your children before you leave. I'll make sure Sasha isn't late.” She gave him another smile and headed out of the room, leaving him alone.

Loki watched her go, then finally located his boots under the bed. He would change into more proper attire before leaving this afternoon. He concentrated for a moment and then opened a portal from Sigyn's apartments and into his own. He discarded his clothes into the laundry hamper in his dressing chamber, not certain if he wanted to go eat or not. In less than seven hours, he would be meeting his biological father for the first time and it was well; he couldn't believe the day was finally here. In the main part of his room, he found his tea tray waiting, the pot still hot and ready. He snorted and poured himself a cup, adding lemon and sugar, knowing that the servants wouldn't say a thing about his untouched bed. They never did.

He went out onto the balcony, leaning against the railing, taking a sip of tea. He knew that Joshua was responsible enough to get both Natasha and Sigyn safely to the estate, get everything settled and ready for his return; he swore that some times, his youngest son was the second parent in this family. Once they were married, Sigyn stated she had no issue continuing to teach the girls their studies, even though it wasn't something that was exactly done by people of their class. Loki stated that it was something they would have to discuss when he came back from Jotunheim.

This trip to Jotunheim had taken a great deal of planning, mostly in Father's reluctance to let him leave Asgard, but Loki knew that deep down, the Allfather knew that he had to let him go. Since his return from the Citadel, Fenrir had been allowed to visit Asgard three times, Joshua and Hela had been to Utgard three times as well, taking Phin with them once. Gamora had always remained behind more out of principle than anything, and well, Sasha had always stated behind because he had stayed behind. Now, all but two were going to Utgard with him. It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to go; he'd wanted to go to Jotunheim decades ago, when he and Sasha came back from Vanaheim, figuring he would just have to wait for winter to be done; but it was not to be. Just when that season was finally over, he was transported via the Tesseract.

Loki set down his cup, his mind going back to Sigyn.

Not once since he had returned from Midgard with Natasha had anyone told him that the girl needed a mother. That was one of the few things never spoken of. So many people were under the impression that his daughter was the result of his affair with a Midgardian woman who had died that it was assumed she had lived with the fictional woman until he came for her. Never had anyone who knew the truth denied these claims; and honestly, Loki never felt that his children needed a mother.

The truth was that he was lonely.

He had five children living with him and he was lonely. One grown, three of them rapidly catching up and one who seemed holding back, but he knew it wouldn't be long before she let go.

Sigyn had been his friend for centuries.

When he first returned, nearly a hundred years ago, the young woman was away from court, taking care of her mother until they both fell ill with the Fever and her brother had to leave his post to tend to the two of them. The Fever had killed their mother, and that complete bastard Sigyn had been betrothed to, Theoric, had promptly broken the betrothal when it was learned that the Fever had left her unable to have children. Her brother was killed in a raid shortly before that last trip to California. With no family and no spouse, the woman had taken up the governess job at the palace, where she had been for nearly twenty years.

The woman had spent more time with Hela than he had.

Loki took another sip of tea, deciding he would forgo breakfast and make sure his packing was complete.

*

“What am I supposed to do?” Hela addressed the porcelain doll she was holding. “I can no more get rid of you all than I can keep you.” She sighed. “I suppose I could take half of you with me and leave half here.” She lowered her the doll, feeling rather foolish. “Why couldn't I chose to collect something less babyish?” She absently hugged the one she was holding, looking her shelves over, the faces staring placidly back at her. “I didn't even like dolls when I was Marja's size.” She walked resolutely towards the shelves and returned the doll she was holding to it's place. “Or I could leave all of you here and if something happens...” She sighed. “Stop it, Hela Lokadottir, you know you can't do that.”

“It's not that bad.” Phin's voice came from the doorway.

“You're supposed to knock.” She rolled her eyes. “Remember?”

He appeared at her side, holding a plate of toast and fruit. “You were supposed to come and eat breakfast.”

She took the offered plate. “Thank you.”

Her brother walked over to one of the chairs and sat. “There's nothing wrong with what you collect.” Phin shrugged. “One might argue that Joshua's boats are toys.”

“Not with the amount of time he spends on them.” She came over and sat in another chair, tucking her feet up under her skirt. “I think I'm having one of those moments again.” She stuffed a piece of peach into her mouth.

“Manners, young lady.” He smirked at her. “I can't pretend I understand, but quite honestly, I don't think you'll suddenly become a pariah if it's discovered you have a doll collection. And Hela, it isn't like it's a secret. How many times have you been given a doll on your name day from some foreign noble? You write lovely thank you notes and there's always at least three dolls gifted to you on the Yule.”

She let out a sigh. “I think it's that when I first came to Asgard, I promised myself I wouldn't give into frivolity, that I wouldn't forget to be humble and that I used to cook dinner and was a free jotun, now I just...”

“Hela, you will never be as good at self-denial as Joshua is, so don't even bother.” He chuckled at the disgusted look she gave him. “You are far from a conceited brat. If you were complaining about how few dolls you had, or the quality of them, that would be bad.” He shook his head, folding his arms. “If you got rid of even one of them, you'll eventually regret it. If it bothers you so much, just bring your favorites with you to the estate and have the rest remain here. It's not like we won't ever return.”

She took up a slice of toast. “It's weird, how when we come home from Jotunheim, we'll leave for the estate, not even staying here for the night.”

“That's not weird, that's going to be exhausting.” He groaned. “Twelve hours in a carriage because of reasons...” He waved his hand. “What a stupid way to get used to a time difference, or whatever it is.”

“You, me, Papa and Gamora. It's not that bad. The first time we went...” She trailed off, remembering how her brother had gotten there.

“I assure you, it's fine. The coach ride is mainly done for safety reasons.” He frowned. “I believe it's to make it clear that we've all gone somewhere, I don't know, I'm not in charge of security.”

“I think it may have something to do with the magic needed for a long-range portal and the Bifrost interacting. Not to mention the security wards within the city itself.” She took a bite of toast. “Get settled and get some sleep. It's a shame Fen can't come back with us.”

“Fen doesn't need to come back to that kind of insanity. Norns only knows what Josh and Sasha will think up to have waiting for us when we get there.” He shook his head. “Those two could think up enough schemes in the six weeks we'll be gone that we won't even be halfway through them by Yule.”

She shook her head. “Oh, come on, with Miss Sigyn there to keep them in check? Not bloody likely.”

“No, having Miss Sigyn help them is more likely.” He smirked. “Norns, the only safe thing will be food, because they never mess with that.”

“Ha! Joshua could teach the cooks how to make Midgardian food and that's all we'd eat when we got back!” She huffed. “Although that might not be so bad, I hear some of the counties have amazing cuisine.” She paused. “Grandfather is probably going to badger you to try eating meat again.”

“I don't think so.” He offered her a wan smile. “Grand-papa will be too busy fussing over his son finally being back on Jotunheim to pay the slightest bit of attention to what any of us do.” He shrugged. “I'm not a total vegetarian. I do eat seafood.” He snickered. “I've survived over four dozen feasts here on Asgard, I think I can survive six weeks of a jotun diet.”

“Suppose you're right.” She set her plate aside. “I'm guessing you're already packed.”

Phin smiled. “I didn't have all that much. Would you care for some help?” He nodded towards the dolls.
“Or do you not trust your big oaf a brother not to break something?”

She chuckled. Her brother had gone from thin and lanky to thick and musclebound in the span of six years and now it was hard to believe he'd ever been thinner than Papa. “I could use someone to help me stay focused on the task at hand.” She stood and went back over to her collection. “I also think that Papa was quite right in telling us we needed to do our own packing.”

He came over and gave her a one armed hug. “See, now there's something no spoiled princess would say. They'd throw a colossal tantrum and refuse to do it.” He scanned the dolls. “Whichever you take, I think you're required to take the ones that Grandfather gave you.”

Hela made a slight grimace; the Allfather had given her a third of her collection. “I'm starting to think Natasha had the right idea with that dollhouse of hers.” She wrinkled her nose. “Norns, I wonder how she's packing that up.”

“Odd are, she's already done. I know that her harp was sent with the cargo that left yesterday.” He handed her a piece of tissue paper. “Come on, you've put this off long enough and we're leaving almost right after luncheon.”

*

“Tell me about the estate.” Sigyn asked Natasha as the two of them worked on packing up the books in the classroom. The girls had discussed their soon to be new home before, but they only offered so much information about the place. Much like their father, Loki's daughters never volunteered information. “I suppose we shall have a schoolroom to set up there come this time next week.”

Sasha nodded, carefully setting down a thick tome about Vanir herbs that had a cracked binding. “The north parlor on the second floor. It's the room that's an equal distance from all of our bedrooms.” She wrinkled her nose. “I still think it's weird that Josh and Phin have to sleep on the opposite side of the house from me and my sisters. We're siblings for Norns sake, we all have rooms in the same hallway here.”

“I don't understand it either, Sasha.” She already knew that it wouldn't be long before she departed her chamber in the estate to share the master bedroom with Loki. “However, I understand the house is quite large, so why waste that space?”

“The rooms we stayed in the first time were guest rooms, not meant for long-term.” She brightened somewhat. “I like my new chambers already. Although I have to leave my harp in the music room, but I think that's the better place for it.”

She nodded thoughtfully, setting several books into the trunk. “I keep hoping one of your sisters will also decide to take up an instrument, but I do not believe they will.”

“Hela's better with nature than I am, and Gamora's well... there's a reason why Aunt Sif and her get along.” Natasha's face faltered for a moment. “You're not sad we're leaving the city, are you, Lady Sigyn?”

She shook her head, giving the girl a smile. “There's not much reason for me to stay. Most of my friends are all married now, and they have precious little time for their spinster friend.”

“I don't think you're a spinster, Lady Sigyn.” Natasha looked up at her, her expression serious. “I think your friends have time management issues. Uncle Thor still finds time to go out once a week with his friends.” She shrugged. “Besides, spinsters don't have... ah...” she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Fine, I'll just say it. I know you and Papochka are...involved.”

Sigyn covered her face. “Norns, he was right about you knowing.” she lowered her hand. “How long have you known?”

She bit her lip, the same expression she always made when she was thinking hard. “For the last six years or so.” She went back to putting books in the trunk. “I didn't say anything, because it's not my business to share.”

“Are you almost eighty-two or eight thousand?” She shook her head. It was shocking that the girl had known about her and Loki's relationship almost since they started to see more of each other and hadn't said a damn thing.

“Well, eighty-two is really old for a Midgardian.” Sasha giggled. “Josh and I are supposed to get things running, so to speak when we get there. We decided we'd divide the task – he'll take outside and I'll take inside. The estate is located where the majority of Asgard's sheep population is raised, and that's something Joshua knows a lot about.” She frowned. “I'm just glad that I don't have to do a bunch of staff interviews. The staff's hired, I just need to work out the routine. What time meals are, what we eat...” She tilted her head to the side, frowning. “I guess that's not so bad. It'll just be strange sitting at that big dining room table when it's just the three of us.” She sighed. “It won't be as bad as it was when Papochka vanished though. I hated going into the dining hall and there was that massive table and four people sitting at it.” She shuddered. “It was even worse at feasts. Sitting up there, in front of all of Asgard, with that empty chair between me and Grandmother.”

“I remember that.” Sigyn closed her eyes, swallowing. She had been informed shortly after Hela's arrival on Asgard the truth about where Loki was at the time and had not slept for a month afterward, much as she had not slept when he first vanished. Loki had been her friend for centuries, but they had been unable to be more than that, owing to her betrothal; there was something utterly ironic that Theoric had brought it to an end a week before Loki would have returned from Midgard.

“It's all right, Miss Sigyn.” Natasha's hand fell on her shoulder. “I'm just surprised that you and Papochka haven't said anything.”

“Honestly, I don't know the answer to that myself.” She squeezed the girl's hand and stood up, shutting the lid the full trunk with her other hand. “It's not that we're hiding, Natasha. It's just...” She shook her head. “I won't insult you by saying you're too young to understand, but I will say this – most people would not think it proper. I'm essentially a palace employee, not a noblewoman. I have retained my title, but my family fortune was given to my cousin when my brother died, unfair as it may seem, that's the law.”

“That's a law that should be changed.” She lifted her chin. “You should have been allowed to inherit.”

“It would have gone to my cousin in the end anyway, Natasha. I cannot have children.” She looked around the now empty schoolroom. “I suppose...”

“Pardon me, Miss Sigyn, but if there's one thing I think Papochka has enough of, it's children.” She blinked at her. “I'm sorry....” She looked away.

“No, Sasha, it's fine.” She smoothed the girl's hair. “I suppose you have a point.” She sighed. “It's just that some people, particularly those of the upper class, feel that a woman's purpose is to have children.”

“Tell that to Lady Eir.” Natasha scoffed.

“Point.” She smiled. “Well, we can discuss this more in the carriage ride, I suppose.” She paused. “Your brother knows too, doesn't he?”

She nodded. “Joshua's known longer than I have. I don't know how much longer.” The girl gave her a smile. “How's your own packing coming along?”

She chuckled. “Mostly finished. I was able to send several trunks with the shipment yesterday. I just have the things I'll need for today and tonight left.”

“Would you like to come to dinner?” The way Natasha blurted it told Sigyn that the girl hadn't been planning on doing it until just now. “I mean...” She paused. “Dinner's a bit forward, I suppose... and we are leaving tomorrow...”

“I appreciate the thought, Sasha, but I am going to finish up my packing so I'll be all ready to go in the morning.” She smiled, touching the girl's cheek. “There will be plenty of dinners in the future. I also think that your grandparents would like to have you and Joshua's last dinner at the palace for a while to be just family.” She tucked a stray curl behind the girl's ear. “I think we're done here, you best run along and get ready for luncheon.”

She nodded and went to retrieve her satchel. “I will see you tomorrow, Miss Sigyn.”

She smiled in reply, pulling off her work gloves. “Have a good rest of the day, Sasha.” She watched the girl go, letting out a breath she didn't know she was holding as the door closed. “It's going to be one awkward carriage ride.”

*

Luncheon was a surprisingly silent meal. Joshua glanced across the table at his sisters, the only one eating with any relish was Ora. He could always count on his youngest sister to eat; having lived on next to nothing in Thanos's citadel, the girl never turned food down and constantly cleaned her plate. She might not be an Asgardian by blood, but she could eat like one. She also could work off nearly all of what she consumed. Hela, unfortunately, did not share that trait and had recently started eating like a bird. Sasha was not eating her usual portions; he expected that, when something was bothering her, it reflected more in her eating than anything.

“You're not sick, are you, Sasha?” Phin's voice broke the quiet.

“Huh?” She looked up from her plate. “I didn't get enough sleep.” She shrugged and made a deal of buttering a thick slice of bread. “I'm going to see if I can't convince Joshua that parlst is good while you're all gone.”

“Ha!” Joshua interjected. “Not bloody likely.” He glanced over at papa, who had barely touched his food either. He didn't blame him. “I'm afraid that you and Gamora are going to have to enjoy that meat all on your own.”

“How can you eat all that?” Hela muttered towards her younger sister. “Honestly.”

“I do hope you are leaving that attitude of yours here in Asgard young lady.” Papa's voice was sharp. “And that your brother and sister forget to pack it when they leave tomorrow.”

He looked across to his sister and saw that her face fell slightly, then she turned her attention to her plate. Joshua was thankful that this luncheon was just them, without their grandparents and aunt and uncle. “Everybody packed?”

“Yes, Grandmother.” Phin snorted. “Norns, you sound like...ow! Sasha!”

“Be nice.” She replied, “the subtle art of changing the subject isn't exactly something that's easy to master.”

Gamora tore a slice of bread in half. “Honestly, I'd like to know how Sasha managed to make contact with your leg from this side of the table.”

“So would I.” Phin retorted and then shook his head. “Wait, she's not that tall and she didn't slouch down...” His eyes widened. “Who taught you that spell young lady?”

Papa sighed. “Sasha, I thought I told you about not using that spell at certain times.”

“You said I couldn't use it on authority figures. Just because Phin's older than I am, doesn't mean he counts. You said you used it yourself on Uncle Thor.” Natasha's eyes were wide. “How is it any different?”

Phin started chuckling. “Well, she does have a point there, Maman.”

Joshua saw his father slump back and shake his head. “I suppose that all six of you each inherited a separate trait of mine is a good thing. I don't think I could survive if one of you was exactly like I am.”

“I don't think the nine realms could survive that either.” Gamora quipped, grinning.

*

Loki was almost disappointed at the complete lack of tears at the Bifrost. He had known there wouldn't be outright weeping, but he thought there might be a small sob, something. He slowly let go of his mother and then turned to Joshua, his face stern. “You be careful getting to the estate. I'm counting on you.”

His youngest son chuckled and shook his head. “I know you, Papa. Don't worry. We'll be fine.” He looked down at Natasha. “Won't we, Shorty?”

She nodded, a small smile on lips. Only her brothers got away with calling her Shorty. “You'll be home before you know it, Papochka.”

He gave her another hug. “I won't insult you by telling you to behave. Just don't go sneaking off to Midgard to see Tony.” He straightened and looked sternly at Joshua. “Even if your brother goes with you.”

“I think we'll be too busy, Papa.” He offered.

“You be careful.” Mother kissed his cheek, and maybe he was imagining it, but Loki thought her eyes looked a little wet.

“I will.” He stepped away from the three of them and joined the others in the Bifrost chamber. He waved once before stepping up next to Gamora, who was looking rather ill. “Are you all right?”

“I don't like this method of travel. I don't care how fast it is.” She shot a look back at Heimdall. “No offense.”

The guardian smiled, faintly. “None taken, princess.”

“Everyone have everything?” Loki tightened his grip on his own satchel, glancing to check that the girls and Phin had theirs. He took a breath. “Heimdall, I believe we're ready.” He swallowed once as he heard the familiar sound of the guardian's sword sliding into place in the dais and the whirl of metal on metal as the walls of the chamber began to swirl around them. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gamora and Phin grab each other's hands and then he felt the tug of the Bifrost and then the sensation of hurling forward.

It was always next to impossible to make out anything outside of the path, fleeting glimpses of stars and passing galaxies; and as much as he would like to close his eyes and let the feeling of travel wash over him and bring the calm it often did, he instead lifted his chin as what could only be described as an asteroid belt came into view and then was left behind.

Jotunheim hung before him and his children, a great round sphere, not too unlike Midgard, but where the realm of men was blue accented with green and brown, the one before him seemed to be a hundred different shades of white, augmented by wisps of blue. He tried to recall how big the planet was, but found his mind had gone blank as his feet came into the contact with the ground and the light faded.

Before he could see, Loki could smell. A strange, wonderful smell that he was certain he had never encountered before, and then, he found that he had; in the cold, bitter winds of Russia and the mountains of Vanaheim – snow. He straightened, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the darker world. He glanced to the sky and caught a glimpse of a distant sun, offering more light than warmth. The four of them were standing on a stone platform and there was a set of wide stairs directly in front of them, leading downward. Everything seemed to be made of stone, the nearest building was several dozen meters away, and as his eyes adjusted, he was able to make out a massive valley, ringed by mountains on the far end. A gust of wind blew past them, and that snow-scent made itself known again.

He felt a sharp tug on his sleeve and then realized that he was the only one of them facing the stairs and Gamora was right next to him. He turned and found himself facing another set of stairs and two tall figures; one of them was his nine-foot tall son Fenrir. Next to him was a fifteen foot tall jotun, bald, with horns that were close to his skull, wearing an expression that Loki was certain if the whole of Asgard could see, would erase every story of the inhabitants of Jotunheim being heartless killers.

“Good afternoon.” King Laufey's voice was deep, and Loki had a feeling he was on the verge of crying. He could now see other jotun filing behind his eldest son. A female with dark hair bound in a thick braid, Queen Araja, and beside her was another male jotun, one he recognized; his brother, Byleistr. Next to him was a jotun who clearly resembled Laufey and strangely, Fenrir. This had to be his other brother, the next king of Jotunheim, Helblindi. “Welcome to Utgard.”

Chapter Text

Natasha was half asleep when she heard the door of her chamber open and shut, not quiet enough to be a servant bringing her morning tea. She rolled over in bed, peering out under the covers towards the balcony; it was early, first sun at the horizon early, leaving out the possibility of it being a new servant who hadn't mastered the art of walking silently. There was a soft shuffling in her chamber, small feet and she instantly knew who it was. She sat up, peering into the semi-darkness. “Stop creeping, Marja, you can join me.” She fell back into her pillows and a moment later, the girl had wriggled into bed with her.

“Can't sleep.” She mumbled and then snuggled against her. “Don't want you to go.”

“I'm certain grandmother feels the same.” She tightened her grip on her stuffed dragon, smothering a yawn. “You're not supposed to leave the nursery.”

“I don't like being in there all alone.” She huffed, then yawned. “Your bed is nicer than mine.”

“I used to sleep in your bed.” Natasha replied, turning over and pulling the covers over both of their heads. “When I was your size. I didn't like staying in that big nursery all alone.”

“Weren't Hela and Ora with you?” Marja made a face. “And Joshua and Phin?”

“No, they were all somewhere else then.” She tapped her cousin's nose. “It's an rather long story and...”

“I'm too young to hear it.” She pouted. “I hate that phrase.”

“So do I.” Natasha replied and Marja's eyes widened, “yes, the adults still tell me it too. Maybe not as often as you hear it, but enough to annoy me when I'm told.”

The girl pouted slightly. “When will you be back?”

“For Yule.” From the expression her cousin gave her, you would think she had told her never. “At least, for an overnight. I'll be back here and there between now and then. Have to plan the auction.” She sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “I know Yule seems far away, but really, it'll be here before you know it.”

The little girl sat up as well, rubbing her nose. “Thank you for taking me to the swing, yesterday. It was worth having to take two baths. Nanny just doesn't like going into the hayloft because it's dirty and she doesn't think princesses should be dirty.

Natasha repressed a snort. “My nanny didn't object to dirt, but she did have an issue with me wearing pants.” She sighed; she hadn't thought of Nanny Aja in a long time, the nanny had left the palace shortly after she and Papochka returned from Vanaheim. “Just be glad you don't have to wear half your weight in small-clothes, like the Vanir princesses.”

Marja giggled. “Do they even wear all that when they come here?”

“Yes they do, because Norns forbid they ever act improper.” She grinned. “We are lucky.” She waggled her finger at her cousin. “Because not only are we allowed to get dirty, we are allowed to ride astride, rather than solely sidesaddle.”

“I'm not allowed to ride alone yet.” She huffed. “I'm too little – and mama isn't allowed to ride until the baby comes.”

“You're not allowed to ride alone because you refuse to ride the ponies.” She retorted, jutting her chin out. “There's nothing wrong with ponies.”

“I don't want to ride a pony. I want to ride a proper horse.” She folded her arms, pouting again.

“All horses are ponies to begin with.” She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I'm willing to bet that you'd be allowed to ride ponies alone in the training ring, I was, and I was smaller than you at your age.”

“Nanny says you're so small because your mama was a Midgardian. Is that true?” She wrinkled her nose.

Natasha wasn't angry at the comment. “I don't remember my mama. But I suppose that could be true. Papochka's smaller than his brothers on Jotunheim because his mama was Vanir, and not jotun.” She shifted her hold on her dragon. “And I might still grow. Gamora was only slightly shorter than Hela before you were born, and now she's nearly as tall as Phin.”

“Phin's funny.” She giggled. “Josh is so...” She frowned. “He's not funny.”

She shook her head. “No, he's funny – he's just... well, Joshua's more of a grown-up than a kid.” Her brother had a tendency to act like a child at times, but mostly, Joshua was the serious one of the family; a role she'd been granted several times as well, and neither of them objected. “It's all quite easy, actually. Joshua's serious, I'm sensible, Phin is funny, Hela's pretty, Ora's the fighter.” She folded her arms, grinning.

“What about Fenrir?” Marja lifted her chin.

“He's tall.” she quipped before falling into giggles; truth was, she'd spent such little time with her second eldest brother, she hardly knew him. She looked up as she heard the door of her chamber open and heavy footsteps sounded in the other room. “Yes, Uncle Thor, Marja is in here.”

Her uncle appeared in the doorway, frowning. “I thought you were told not to go sneaking out of the nursery, young lady.” He frowned at his daughter, arms folded. “Several times.”

“Daddy...” the little girl whined as her father stepped into the room. “Sasha used to run off and sleep in the stables. I'm only going down the hall!”

“Your cousin was older than you when she did that.” He plucked her out of the bed, shaking his head. “You need to sleep where you're supposed to. Sasha and her sisters won't be here to keep an eye on you anymore if you go exploring. What if you got hurt?”

“Daddy.” She pouted again.

“No, no, that does not work with me.” He nodded at Natasha and then walked out of the room. “You can't go scaring your nannies like this, it's not...” the rest of his sentence was cut off as he shut the door.

Natasha let out a sigh and fell back into her pillows, groaning. “I could have done with a few more hours of sleep.” she yawned as she heard the bells outside ring five times; the end of the night watch and the start of the morning one. It was rather strange; she could remember the first time she heard those bells, in the dead of the night when Papochka had brought her here, to Asgard. It was rather strange; although she'd heard the bells countless times, she'd never seen the bells themselves.

When they moved to the estate, there would be only a fifth of the guards there were here in the palace, and they would almost all be out on the grounds, not inside. The bells would be distant, in the village that was several kilometers away from their home. There were clocks in the house with chimes that would toll the hours, but it wouldn't be the same.

There was a slight clatter of china as she heard her tea-tray being put down; then the footsteps retreated, her door shutting with a soft snick. “May as well get up.” She tossed back the covers and stuffed her feet into her slippers as she left her bed, going into the main part of her chambers.

*

Frigga was doing her best not to show her tears as she came into the dining room, trying not to see the empty chairs that, per her request, were not to be removed. True, it would be rather awkward to have dinners with a half a dozen empty seats, but it would be worse, in her mind, to have the chairs removed. Chair removal seemed so, so final to her. The way it had when she'd made the mistake of having Loki's seat removed after he'd been captured by Thanos. It had been nothing short of heartbreaking to see Sasha sitting on her left side, alone.

“Good morning, Grandmother.” Joshua's voice called from the sideboard. “How are you?”

“I am well, Joshua, thank you.” She gave him a look. “You get some sleep in the carriage if you can, understood?”

“Yes, ma'am.” He gave her a salute as he set his plate down. “And if I don't, I'll go to bed early tonight.”

“I'll make sure of that.” Natasha remarked from her seat.

“That may be difficult considering we're on opposite sides of the house.” He replied.

Frigga chuckled and went over to the sideboard, quickly filling her plate and taking her seat. “I wouldn't put it past your sister to find a way to drug you and ensure you fall asleep on the couch in a parlor, which she can ensure you get plenty of sleep.”

Joshua chuckled. “Provided I don't wake up in a puddle of my own drool, I won't object.”

“Ah, here you all are.” Odin sounded tired as he came into the room, looking around. “Where's Thor?”

“I think he's having a breakfast tea party with Marja.” Natasha interjected. “Either that or she's doing his hair.”

Frigga sat down at the table, smiling. “Did she come down to your room again, Sasha?”

The girl nodded in reply, her mouth full of egg.

“Well, that all ends today, I'm afraid.” She sighed. “I'm afraid your aunt is a touch under the weather this morning, so it looks to be just the four of us.”

Joshua cleared his throat. “Grandmother, you don't have to talk to Sasha and I like we're Marja's size.”

Sasha shot a look across to her brother and then cleared her throat. “He has a point, Grandmother.”

Odin sat down heavily in his chair. Frigga had known her husband long enough to know the tale-tell signs of an approaching Odin-sleep. “I apologize, Sasha, for denying your request for your friend Tony to come for your name day. Nearly as much as I regret you not being here for it.” He let out a breath. “However, I shall allow him to come for your father and Sigyn's wedding, when the time comes.”

“Honestly?” The girl's face lit up. “Truly?”

Frigga cleared her throat. “Now, Natasha Alexandra, since when does your Grandfather make jokes over breakfast?”

“Oh, thank you!” Sasha fairly jumped from her chair and went and hugged Odin. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Now now, no emotion at the table.” The Allfather returned her hug and then the girl resumed her seat. “You may write to your friend and tell him the good news. But make certain he understand that he must follow the standard rules for a visitor from another realm.”

The girl nodded. “I will, Grandfather. I promise.”

“Norns, that's the biggest smile I've seen on your face since your father came home.” Frigga remarked. “Perhaps we should have let Anthony Stark visit sooner.”

“Apologies.” Thor said from the door, looking rather sheepish. “Marja insisted I stay for eggs and toast.” He went over to the sideboard and loaded his plate with meat and fruit then looked back at the table. “And good morning.”

Frigga took a sip from her glass of juice, smiling to herself. Sad it may be that Loki and his children were going away; it was not forever, and even if there were no children, she would have had to say good bye eventually. At least now it was happening on terms she could accept and it would not be forever.

*

Sigyn looked around her small apartment one last time, taking in the furniture covered in dust cloths, remembering the day she had come to live in it; some twenty years ago. She tightened her grip on her carpetbag, lifting her chin slightly. She had been exiled to this part of Asgard with the death of her brother; the townhouses that were tucked away in a part of the city that were occupied by spinsters and maiden aunts with no family; sons with so many older brothers they had a better chance of being sent to the Kiln for bad manners than they did of inheriting their father's fortunes, and dowager houses. So many old women who loved to rail against the younger generation's behavior. She turned slowly on the ball of her foot as she heard a rattle of a carriage coming to a stop and someone knocked on her door. She tugged the door open and came face to face with Joshua Lokason.

“Good morning, Lady Sigyn.” He inclined his head and she could tell he was doing his best to repress a grin.

“Good morning your grace.” She replied stiffly – they had to keep up the formalities until she and Loki were officially wed; or at least until they were out of the city.

“Would you like me to carry that?” He indicated her bag.

“Thank you.” She held it out for him and he took it, the two of them walking down the steps. He gave the bag to the driver, who added it to the small collection on top of the carriage and then she climbed inside, realizing her mistake in sitting opposite of Natasha, for when Joshua climbed inside, she found herself facing both of them. “Good morning, Sasha.”

“Good morning, Miss Sigyn.” She replied, doing a very poor job of repressing a grin.

She straightened up, lifting her chin. “I want to know the truth; did your father tell all of you about the wedding, or just you and your grandparents?”

“Just us and our grandparents.” Joshua answered as the carriage started away. “Although I suspect our aunt and uncle know by now as well.” He shot his sister a look. “Sasha's just in this dazed mood because her Midgardian boyfriend is already...” He let out a yowl as Natasha poked him hard in the side.

“Manners!” Sigyn barked, and the two of them looked abashed. “You two...” she pointed at them and tsked. “Worse than your father and uncle.”

“Thank you.” Sasha replied, then ducked her head. “Sorry.”

“Don't be sorry.” She folded her arms, lifting her chin. “Your sister doesn't have a Midgardian boyfriend, Joshua.” She repressed a smile. “She has one on Svartalfheim, however.”

Natasha went bright pink and covered her face as Joshua began to laugh, she then lowered them, struggling to compose herself. “At least I have an admirer.” She put her nose in the air. “You'll have to dance old biddies who will make remarks about how you'll be the next one to be getting married. Most likely against your will to the most vapid of the Vanir princesses who...” She was stopped by Joshua poking her in the ribs. “Ow!”

“I'd run back to Midgard first.” Joshua retorted. “Although not back to Australia.” He let out a sigh. “I don't think I could go back to that way of life. And I don't mean the working the land, putting up with assholes, I couldn't leave family.” He settled back in his seat, shifting out of Natasha's immediate reach.

“That's enough of that.” Sigyn smirked. “No more fighting.” She cleared her throat, doing her best to look authoritative, the attempt completely ruined when a lock of hair fell in her face. She huffed, blowing the strands clear. “We have exactly six weeks to plan, prepare, and execute a trick on your father, sisters and brother upon their arrival at the estate. I'm ready to hear your suggestions.”

*

Loki set a hand on the windowsill, feeling slightly unnerved by the sight of his blue skin; he and Hela had both dropped their glamors on their arrival here, only Gamora chose to keep hers; the magical alteration helped keep her warmer than her normal skin would, much the way his Æsir skin protected him from Asgard's heat. Utgard wasn't the ruin he always pictured; it was far from a gleaming city, but the stones of the realm had made fine towers and other structures. The unsettling thing,he supposed, was the lack of green. There were precious little plants in this area of Jotunheim, Hela had told them that the Spears had vegetation in abundance.

He folded his arms and leaned out, the snow brushing against his cheeks. It was fine and powdery, not the heavy, wet mess that fell on Vanaheim and on rare occasion in the outer parts of Asgard. It was delicate in a realm that seemed to suffer from a lack of fragile things. From his vantage point, he could see just past the walls of the keep and far below him he could see a group of young warriors sparing, one of them his brother, Helblindi, who seemed more observer rather than participant. Fenrir was down there as well, standing with a different group, he and his companions were throwing ice spears.

A sharp knock on the door caused him to straighten and turn. “Yes?”

The door swung open and a servant, who stood only a few feet taller than him bowed. “His majesty wishes to speak with you, your grace.”

Loki nodded in acknowledgment and stepped down from the bench he had been standing on. He checked his clothing before following the page out of the room and down the stairs – this realm seemed to be full of more stairs than Midgard could possibly hold. Unlike on Asgard, instead of tapestries, the walls of the palace were covered in paintings. Some of them were elaborate works of art; covering the entire length of a corridor. Here, coming down from the west tower, the walls were covered in the works of children; rune names marked the artist. He saw his brothers' names, as well as Sasha's and Hela's – if not for the Fate's plans, his art would be here, and his daughters' would not. It was an unsettling image in his mind.

The page came to a stop next to a large door and bowed again. “His majesty is waiting for you within.” He opened the door, his head never rising.

He gave a glance in thanks; here on Jotunheim, one of his rank did not speak words of gratitude to a servant. It was no different than it was on Vanaheim or Alfheim, and there were areas of Asgard where it was the same. He stepped into the room, finding that it was a study of some kind. Here, the walls were covered in painted maps; the only areas he recognized at once was the island of Australia and Russia. Laufey sat at a desk, reading a missive of some kind. The king looked up for a moment and then shifted his eyes to one of the chairs in front of him. Another direction Loki recognized. He went over to the chair, noting that a footstool had been placed in front of it to help him gain access to the seat. Rather than sitting, he remained standing, his hands clasped behind his back, waiting.

Laufey put the letter down. “Good morning.” He studied him for a moment. “How are you this morning?”

“I am well, thank you.” He replied, not letting the tension leave his body. “And you?”

The king chuckled. “Flummoxed.”

“I suppose that's a natural reaction for any parent who finds themselves speaking to a child they have not seen for a thousand years. That was my reaction when I encountered my own children, and I hadn't seen them for little over three hundred.” Loki resisted the urge to shrug. “I hate to inform you, but it doesn't go away quickly. I still tread lightly between Fenrir and Joshua.”

“Joshua has seen horrors no one should endure.” Laufey closed his eyes and shuddered. “Midgardians. So simple in their lives, so brutal in their wars.” He let out a breath and looked back at him. “As have you, Loptr.”

“If you're referring to my time with Thanos, I assure you, compared to other things, it was not terrible. The scaldings were the worst.” He swallowed hard, trying to shut the memory away. “I'm better now.”

“Thank you for not insulting me by telling me that you are fine.” He smiled.

“I have three daughters, I know better than to use that word.” He smirked. “Perhaps we should start with something simpler. My favorite food is curried prawn soup, my favorite subject in school, apart from seidr, was history, my favorite color is green and I still don't know why, if the Vanir are so damn progressive, they still feel the need to wear ten pounds of small clothes.”

Laufey burst out laughing. It was a deep, rolling sound that reminded Loki of an avalanche. He watched the king in his mirth as his head fell back, the rumble echoing around the room and then it abruptly went into coughs, and he covered his mouth as he hacked several times, trying to find his breath. “Sarcastic. Like your mother.” He coughed again. “Byleistr made the same remark about the Vanir as you have. What is it Hela says about them again...” he frowned, thinking.

“Progressive in everything but fashion.” Loki offered. “Just as she often wants to know why Asgard uses horses for all the advanced technology.”

“That girl seems to be nothing but questions.” He sighed. “I have not spoken with Gamora much, but she seems rather... reserved. Like Sasha.”

He moved his hands so he could lean against the desk. “I do not think you have asked me to speak with you about my children.”

The king's face changed; hardened. “How astute of you.” He settled back in his chair, one hand on the desk, the other on the arm of his seat. “I am correct in thinking that you know now that Odin stole you from Jotunheim; even if he was mistaken about why you were in the temple, it does not change the single truth that he took you and murdered your nurse.” There was a flicker of emotion. “But I suppose that is better than you dying under the boot-heel of a random Asgardian warrior.”

Loki blanched and then cleared his throat. “I also know that you were not in a position to demand my return.”

Laufey's face remained blank. “Yes.” His eyes lingered on him for a moment, then he looked down at his fingertips, only to bring his gaze back to Loki's. “Who is the most wronged, in this, Loptr? Myself, or that murderer-thief you call father?”

He kept his temper. Either this was a test of some sort, or the king of Jotunheim was an asshole. Since his children had assured him that their other grandfather was just a gruff old jotun only in appearance, and as none of his six children had ever successfully lied to him, he decided it must be the former. “The most wronged, your majesty, is myself. I have been denied the home of my heritage, of my blood father, and I spent centuries under the lies of another. You, unable to protest and Odin unwilling to speak the truth. I have been denied my brothers, and they me.” He moved to sit on the desk, noting Laufey's eyebrow moving when he did. “However, they had each other and I had Thor.”

“You were denied your mother.” He blurted it out. “The war saw to that.”

“I may not have had the mother who bore me, but Queen Frigga has loved me as dearly as if she had carried and birthed me.” He frowned. “You do know about my mothers, yes?”

Laufey finally smiled. “I do. I have known that since... well, since your mother told me. I suppose your aunt has told you of Jora.”

He shook his head. “Mother does not like to speak of her sister... it – it makes her sad. She has told me precious little about her. I know little more than her name, the fact that I resemble her, and that she liked to explore.”

“Hm.” He tapped his fingers again. “She is the one who named you Loptr. I suppose now you shall be called Loki Loptr.” He frowned. “I never understood the purpose of two names, considering only two of your children have them, I find the practice...odd. I suppose it must be a Midgardian custom.”

“Not in all cultures.” Loki remarked. “Although given that Sasha and Joshua are the ones with them, it is an easy mistake. My son informs me that the purpose of two names, three, if the surname is included, is for the child to know how much trouble they are in by how many of them their parents use to call them.”

He chuckled. “And what does Natasha say on the subject?”

“Her middle name is cultural. They use middle names to denote parentage, rather than the last.” He sighed. “Her natural father's name was Alexander. Hence, her middle name is Alexandra. Although she does agree with her brother of the number of names being used to determine the level of trouble.”

“It would have been nice if all of you could have come to visit.” Laufey sighed. “Perhaps next time.”

Loki studied the king for a moment; noting that the lack of hair and the house lines on his face hid his age; but not completely. It was prevalent around his eyes mostly, the lines spread from the corners like a river delta. The jotun in front of him was over seven thousand years old; strange that he had married and fathered children so late in his life. Had there been another family, a queen before his mother, other siblings? Considering that his brother Helblindi was married and had a son, and he was a mere sixty years his junior... “There is much of this family that I do not know. Much I would like to know.”

“I believe neither of us are expected anywhere until dinner.” He replied and rose to his feet, going to over to a sideboard and returning a moment later with a bottle, and two goblets, the second of which looked tiny in his large hands, but when he passed it to his son, Loki found he had to use both hands to hold it comfortably. “Where would you like to begin?”

Loki took a drink from his cup; it wasn't wine, it wasn't mead – it was closer to syrup in texture, but the flavor was delicate for its consistency. Ice-fire cordial; Fenrir had told him about it. “I would like to hear about my mother.”

*

Tony finished writing his birthday message to Sasha rather hurriedly, adding the flower charm he'd picked up at Tiffany's yesterday. After he sent his friend theRedwall books, he realized that it wouldn't take NASA or anyone else with satellite access to start noticing that Bifrost thing. He remembered the charm bracelet he'd given his friend, all those years ago – and decided that instead of books, he would send her a new charm for her birthday. He always received back a drawing of some kind from Torch; and he'd always send it off for custom framing. Well, he sent his driver off to have it framed, always under Happy's name so as not to attract attention.

He normally relished in the limelight, the front page, the headlines.

Not when it came to Torch and Asgard.

That was something that was exclusively his. Something that belonged to him, his dad, Torch and Mr Odinson – Loki. A bit of a secret that he might eventually share with Pepper. Some day.

He closed the silver case with a snap and set it down on his work table and picked up an engine part, trying to see if he could visually find the problem. It would have mattered if Torch had invited him to come for her birthday; he had a trip to Afghanistan that couldn't have been rearranged. When was he supposed to leave again? Oh well, Pepper would come and get him when he was time to go.

“Sir, I believe you have a reply.” Jarvis's voice cut through the music and he set the part down.

“Already?” He wiped his hands on a towel and opened the case, pulling out the folded parchment and a heavy object fell into his hands; a silver colored tie-bar with an emerald the size of a pea and in the shape of an octagon at each end. “Damn, Torch.” He set the bar down and unfolded the letter.

Tony -

Happy Birthday! I know, I'm probably a few days early, the time difference between here and Midgard seems to change constantly. Sometimes it's a two month difference, sometimes it's as much as six. I blame Asgard's thirty-six hour days.

Thank you for the lovely charm, I've added it to my bracelet and have received my yearly teasing about it from my brother. By the way, did you remember to get Pepper a present too? Her birthday is the same as mine,you told me a while ago and asked me to remind you.

Josh and I are at the estate now, with Miss Sigyn. We're working on putting rune portals on all the non-bedroom wardrobes, so when everyone else gets here from Jotunheim, the spells will transport anyone who hides in them to another wardrobe in the estate. They only work about five times each without a renewal, but that should be enough to make for a few interesting games of hide-and-seek.

Anyway – sorry again that you couldn't come for my name day, but as it was just me, Josh and Miss Sigyn, it wasn't a big deal. But guess what! Papochka and Miss Sigyn are getting married, and Grandfather says that you're already on the guest list for the wedding! I don't know when it's going to be, but I'll write you as soon as I know so you can clear your schedule. That is, if you want to come. The best time conversion I can work out is that a day here is never more than four on Midgard. The only real rule is that you can't bring anything organic with you – no pets, fruits, vegetables. I'd add tobacco, but I know you don't smoke.

Have an awesome birthday – go eat some pizza, have some fun!

Sasha

“Looks like I'm going to need a new suit.” He chuckled and picked up the clip, turning it over in his fingers. “Jarvis, what ya got on this?”

“The stones are emeralds, five point two carats. The metal is a composite of platinum, silver, vibranium and two elements which I cannot identify.” The AI's voice almost sounded surprised, if that was possible. “Estimated value...”

“Priceless, Jarv.” He set the clip back down as the door of his lab swung open.

“You're supposed to be halfway across the world, Tony.” Pepper's voice chided him, sounding far more annoyed than really was necessary. He made a note to himself not to ever let her and Torch meet. The two of them might drive him to responsibility.

*

“Good morning, Joshua.” Natasha half-yawned as she came into the dining room. “You sleep?”

“Yes.” He replied with a half-smile. “Today's the day we're going to visit the local school, I better be well rested.” He turned back to a letter he was reading. “Miss Sigyn up yet?”

“No, I think she's having a bit of a lie in, since she's not expected to go with us.” She loaded her plate up with eggs and fruit. “Did Papochka write?”

“Not since yesterday.” He chuckled. “We've only been here a week, it's hard to write everyday.”

“They should really lift the ban on letter-devices. Or at least just let them be used provided they're all registered.” She sighed and slid into her seat. “Is something wrong?”

“I'm afraid I don't know what Grandfather is talking about in this letter. Who's Imir? I've never heard that name.” He frowned. “Do you know who that is?”

“Sort of. Imir is the son of great-uncle Ve's mistress. Since they were never officially married and considering Prince Ve died before Imir was born, he's technically not a member of the family. It's stupid and complicated but considering he inherited his grandfather's estate... he's sort of not talked about in the way that Papochka and Uncle Thor may or may not have other children on other planes that they don't know about and never see.” She sighed. “It's Recognition Law. Since Uncle Ve couldn't recognize him as his son, his maternal grandfather made him his heir and why is Grandfather writing about that man anyway?”

“He's somehow slipped Heimdall's gaze.” Joshua scanned the letter. “And we're supposed to be on the look-out for him.” He looked up at her. “How the hell are we supposed to find a missing lord when we have no idea what he looks like? Not to mention he's supposed to be on Vanaheim.”

“If he's traveling by portal, he can go pretty much anywhere.” She poked at her eggs. “All roads eventually lead to the center of Yggdrasil, so he'll show up either on Jotunheim, Midgard or Svartalfheim. That is if he doesn't go to Nidavellir.”

“Why would he go there? From what I've heard, it's like England in the Nineteenth century, but with magic involved.” He set the letter down and flipped through some other envelopes in the morning mail.

“Well, if I was going to go on a journey through the cosmos, I'd make sure I had a decent weapon.” She shrugged. “Imir's been to a few feasts, I remember he was at Uncle Thor's wedding.”

“Well, it's probably nothing for us to worry about.” He frowned as he opened a letter and scanned it, his face slowly draining over color. “Sasha, when was the last time you heard from Tony?”

“About four days ago.” She set her fork down, an uneasy feeling settling over her. “Why, has something happened?”

Joshua let out a deep breath. “Come here.” He pushed back his chair and stood and she rose and went and hugged him around his middle, feeling his arms embrace her. “Your friend Tony's been kidnapped. By a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Heimdall says he's alive.” He hugged her tighter. “I won't insult you by saying it's going to be all right.”

“Thank you.” She muffled against his chest as she felt the tears start.

*

Pepper went into Tony's lab, not certain why she was here, although it was a bit of a welcome distraction from the nightmare of the past two weeks. “All right, Jarvis, I'm in here, what is it that's so damn important you woke me up to come into the lab?”

“You were not sleeping, Miss Potts.” Jarvis quipped, and she rolled her eyes. “The item Mister Stark instructed for me to give to you, should anything happen to him, is lying on the work bench.”

She went over and scanned the area, finding mostly spark plugs, and then she noticed the expensive tie clip lying on a letter, and next to that, a silver cigarette case. “This?” She picked the case up. “Tony doesn't smoke. He never has.” She frowned, then recalled how many times she'd seen this case stuck into an inside pocket of her boss's overcoats, or lying on his dresser next to his keys. “Jarvis, what is this about?”

“This is about File SoWWSS.” The AI replied. “Which stands for Summer of Star Wars and Seattle Slew.

“Nineteen seventy-seven.” She answered, automatically. “I'm not in the mood for any of Tony's games.” Although there was a touch of humor in her voice; but really, she just wanted answers. “Wait..” she opened the case and found a piece of parchment tucked inside. “What is this, Tony, Harry Potter?” She took out the paper and unfolded it.

Tony -

If you are still in possession of this case, send me something to let me know that it is you and not the people who are holding you.

If this is being read by Anthony Stark's kidnappers – please issue your ransom demands.

If this is anyone else – please reply with your name, location and connection to either of the two listed above.

Sincerely yours,

Natasha Alexandra Lokadottir
Princess of Asgard and Jotunheim

The handwriting was elegant; and the message was repeated in three more languages below the English; it was also there in Russian, Spanish and what she suspected was Hebrew or Arabic.

“Jarvis...” Pepper's voice cracked. “Is this Natasha the same person as Torch?” She had heard that name mentioned a few times by Tony, usually when he chose to get drunk on beer, rather than hard liquor, which wasn't often.

“Yes, Miss Potts.” He sounded amused, if such a thing was possible for a computer.

“Torch is real.” She looked at the parchment in one hand and the case in the other. “And here I though she was Tony's imaginary friend from childhood.”

“I believe it would be best if you replied, Miss Potts. Miss Natasha has more answers about her and Mister Stark's relationship than I do.” Jarvis stated. “Leave your message on the side engraved with an N.”

“This is insane.” She grabbed a piece of paper off the work desk and began to write, already deciding that she was dreaming. This was some vivid hallucination brought on by stress over her missing boss and having to keep her composure in public. That's all this was; it wasn't real. “Where the hell are Asgard and Jotunheim anyway?”

“Asgard's exact distance is unknown, although Jotunheim is believed to be closer. That planet and ours can both view the constellation Crux. However, the inhabitants of Jotunheim do not see a cross, but a knife, according to the book Sons of the Southern Cross by Joshua Lokason.” The AI offered. “A copy of which can be found in the bottom drawer of the work desk.”

“Crazy, I'm going crazy.” Pepper muttered and glanced at her note, rather surprised she'd maintained a steady hand.

This is Pepper Potts, personal assistant to Tony Stark. I am in his house on Malibu Beach, California. I don't know who has Tony or why. No ransom demands have been made as of yet, and it's been two weeks.

She folded the note and stuck it in the case, closing it and then went over to the sofa, falling down on it. “I'm going mad. Honestly.” She was asleep when Dum-E covered her with a blanket. Nine hours later, Pepper woke up, feeling rested for the first time since she last saw Tony. She glanced around the room, confused for a few moments and then recalled last night's events. She flipped open the case, ready to have a good laugh at herself for her vivid dream and then go have a gallon of strong coffee. Inside, she found another piece of parchment with only one sentence written on it in bold, calligraphic letters.

BE CAREFUL WHO YOU TRUST, MISS PEPPER.

Chapter Text

Pepper Potts wasn't certain what to think when Torch, or rather Sasha, informed her that she was coming to help. What the girl was going to do when she got here, she had no idea, but deep down, what she really needed was someone to stay with her so she didn't have a total breakdown. It was crazy that there had been almost no ransom demands made for Tony, and that, more than anything, made her worry. The only trace of her employer and friend that had been found since the attack was his cell phone, located a few yards from where the armored vehicle he had been riding in was a burned-out husk.

She sat tapping her fingers against her coffee mug, not certain how much of the brew she had consumed in the past day, her gaze on a swirl of dark in the marble counter-top in Tony's kitchen. She didn't even know why he had such a large, state of the art kitchen when the man couldn't make anything more complicated than scrambled eggs and even that was debatable.

“Miss Potts, Miss Natasha is approaching the door.” Jarvis's voice cut into her musings and she let out a relieved breath.

“Thank you.” She stood and left the kitchen, realizing halfway there she had no idea what Sasha looked like; other than the old photo she'd seen in the lab. She was a friend from Tony's childhood, so she must be close to his age, at least. That was going to be a first for her; meeting a woman from her employer's past who hadn't slept with him. “Jarvis, is she alone?”

“No, madam. She accompanied by a man I cannot identify, who I am guessing is a bodyguard.” The AI almost sounded amused.

“Well, of course she has a bodyguard.” She rolled her eyes. “A princess from another planet, I'd be surprised if she didn't.” She snickered. “This is going to be amusing.” She muttered as the doorbell rang. “When Tony gets home, I'm not even going to let him go to the bathroom unsupervised.” She swung the door open and nearly slammed it shut. Thankfully, she caught herself before she did. “You're shorter than I expected.”

The young woman – Pepper felt she looked around twelve – gave her a very forced smile. “I get that a lot.” She held out her hand. “Natasha Lokadottir. You can call me Sasha.”

She took the offered hand and shook it. “Pepper Potts.” She stepped aside. “Come in.” She frowned at the tall man who dressed like an extra from Return of the King. “And you, sir?”

“Jösur Larsson.” He inclined his head. “Do not mind me, Miss Potts. I am strictly here as protection.”

Rather than remark on how it was highly unlikely that anything would happen here in Tony's house, she offered the pair of them a smile. “I'm just glad someone else is here.” She led the way into the living room. “I don't know if I'm disgusted or relieved that no one, other than James Rhodes has been here.”

“I'd go with the later.” Sasha stated, “I don't exactly think the sort of people Tony sees socially are the kind of people you want in a crisis.” She made a face. “I mean, unless his favorite cashier at the local liquor store counts.”

Pepper almost laughed. “I don't think Tony knows where the nearest liquor store is.”

“That doesn't surprise me.” She looked over at Jösur, who looked rather confused. “Why don't you go take a rest? I should be fine.”

The man looked relieved. “You do not mind, madam?” He addressed her politely.

“Not at all.” She waved towards the couch. “Sasha and I will be in the kitchen.”

He nodded and went to the seat near the window, clearly fascinated by something on the other side of the glass.

Pepper led Sasha into the kitchen, and she resumed her seat, rubbing her temples. “Is it bad that I think this would be easier if there had been ransom demands?”

“No.” The girl answered, rather flatly. “I'm sort of surprised that they haven't. How long has it been again? The time shift between here and Asgard is never constant.”

“Three weeks.” She took a sip of coffee. “I'm sorry, would you like something to drink?”

“No, thank you.” Natasha looked slowly around the room, frowning. “Something about that doesn't add up. Tony's what, one of the fifty richest people on Midgard, excuse me, Earth, and no one's issuing a price for his release?”

She set her mug down. “The press has been having a field day.” She shook her head. “But now that you mention it, it seems like there should be something in way of a message.”

“Maybe they're worried about their own people getting hurt in regards to rescuing Tony.” The girl leaned against the counter, her focus on the granite, not her. “I told that big dumb idiot to be careful who he trusted.”

Pepper barely covered her snort. “He can be quite the idiot. Downright infuriating at times.” She cleared her throat. “And you can tell him I said so when he gets home, Jarvis.”

“Yes, madam.” The AI's voice replied, “I am looking forward to it. And may I also inform Miss Sasha that I quite admire her artwork.”

Natasha went pink. “I thought Tony was kidding when he said he had those framed.”

“He keeps them in a private collection, Miss Sasha. I do not believe Miss Pepper has even seen them.” Jarvis answered.

She gave the girl a wary look. “I'm starting to think the universe was wise to keep the two of you apart. Something tells me the two of you together would be dangerous.”

In response, Sasha grinned. “That's what Katherine said.”

“Katherine?” Pepper frowned at the name. “Who's that?”

“Tony hasn't told you about his childhood nanny?” The look on the girl's face went from straight mischievous to downright wicked. “He hasn't told you anything?”

She arched an eyebrow. “Exactly how much dirt do you have on Mister Stark, Miss Lokadottir?”

“Enough that if I sold it, I could purchase indoor pluming for half the slums in Bombay, India.” She replied.

“Mumbai, Miss Natasha. The city of Bombay is now formally known as Mumbai.” Jarvis interjected.

Natasha slumped down in her seat and hid her face in her arms. “He would have given you sarcasm, Jarvis. All we originally planned was a vacuum cleaner that would do the stairs.”

For the first time since Tony vanished, Pepper laughed.

**
Loki had almost burned his recent letter from Joshua the previous night. Just the mere mention of the Allfather's cousin, Imir, was enough to set him on edge. He never trusted the man, whenever he visited, he always seemed to be measuring things with his eyes, and you could almost see how he wanted to alter things. The whole idea of the man had slipped Heimdall's watch; he wanted to go back to Asgard and help keep the situation under control, before it got out of control. More unsettling was the fact that Natasha was on Midgard with only one solider to guard her. Not that his little girl was defenseless, but many of the Einherjar knew next to nothing about Midgard. He was actually stunned that his father had allowed his daughter to leave with so little protection, but with his worry over Imir, he no doubt had enough to worry about.

“Papa?” Phin's voice cut into his thoughts and he looked up from his mug of tea. His eldest was giving him a rather hard look. “Is something wrong?” His eyes narrowed. “And don't lie to me and say nothing.”

“Don't play that game with me young man, I taught it to you.” He chuckled and took a drink. The two of them were up before the rest of the family, enjoying their breakfast in relative peace and quiet. After several weeks on Jotunheim, Loki had learned if he wanted to eat his morning meal and think, it was best to get to the dining hall before either of his brothers, or his nephew Raj. “I'm just being my usual worried self, more than normal, that's all.”

His son didn't bother to even attempt to cover his snort. “The only time you're not is when we're all sitting down together for a meal, or you have all of your children in sight.” He pulled his serving of bread apart and stuffed the larger half into his mouth.

“Point.” He shook his head, deciding not to say anything about manners, at least his son was chewing with his mouth closed. “Sasha's friend Tony Stark has been abducted. She's gone to Midgard to ah, aide one of his coworkers in his retrieval.”

Sleipnir's expression darkened as he swallowed. “Alone?”

“Norns, no. She has a guard.” He smiled weakly. “I don't like the idea of her on Midgard without me, unless she was with Joshua. Your brother, however, is still on the estate.”

“Odds are Miss Sigyn had to drug him so he wouldn't leave too.” The boy quipped. “Finn and I agree that of the three of us, he's the most protective of the girls.” There was something in his tone that told Loki that his eldest knew Joshua's reason that he wasn't about to let on. Of course there was – Phin, Josh and Sasha were as thick as thieves. He ate the other part of his bread the same as the first.

“I'm certain your sister will be just fine.” He drained the last of his tea. “I could do with some fresh air. Where are your sisters?”

“Sleeping in, for a change.” He stood and the two of them rose and left the dining hall, “you don't need to pretend you're not worried about Sasha. I'm worried too.”

“I shouldn't have told you.” Loki muttered under his breath.

“Ahem.” Phin gave him another one of those stern looks. “I'm the oldest. I think I'm supposed to be kept informed of everything.”

“Don't try that argument with me, young man. Your uncle taught you that and it never worked for him either.” He grinned. “Then again, you're far more observant than your uncle is at times.” So many of the corridors here in the citadel reminded him of other hallways, the ones on Asgard, that towered above him, giving him the feeling that he was twice as small as he really was.

“Centuries of practice.” He hugged his elbows as they came down the stairs, going down in the narrow gulley that ran opposite the banister. If it wasn't for these little paths, it would take half the day just to walk anywhere. “I don't think anyone, including you, is quite aware of how much dirt I have on every groom and at least two thirds of the Einherjar.”

As they reached the entrance hall, a footman appeared and handed Phin a cloak and another opened the large front door for them before they went out into the crisp morning. The sky was a bright blue, the sort of deceptive shade that at first glance, could trick you into thinking it was warm and pleasant, instead of chilly. “Snow's gone for now.”

“It's supposed to be clear for a few days.” He kicked at a stone and it skittered down the path. “You know I'm not good at small talk.” He pulled the cloak tighter around him and looked around the courtyard, which was mostly empty, save for patrol of guards and a few apprentices who were delivering goods to the palace.

Loki gave him a smile. “We don't have to talk. We can merely enjoy the fresh air.” He stopped short as he heard something over the light bustle of Utgard in the early morning; a dull, roaring sound that took him a minute to place. “Phin, remind me, how long is it until the Convergence?”

“It's not for another four years.” He frowned and turned his head. “What's that sound?”

“It sounds like an airplane.” He scanned the area and saw that most jotuns in the area were also looking up, trying to find the source of the noise. “But that's impossible. We're also too far north for a skiff or a transport ship. Not unless there's been a problem with a portal device.”

“There!” Someone in the courtyard cried out and everyone turned to look at him, then in the direction he was pointing.

Flying low over the city of Utgard was a strange looking craft; it did remind Loki of an Midgardian rocket, if only in basic shape. The vessel was more compact, and it was dark in color and wobbled slightly in the crosswinds as it came down lower, and if he didn't know better, he could swear it was trying to find a place to land.

“What is that?” Someone gasped. “Who...”

“It's the Veeloxians.” Loki answered; already knowing that's who it had to be. It couldn't be anyone else. He turned to the nearest jotun. “Where is the nearest clear area where they could possibly land?”

The guard looked at him for a moment, flabbergasted. “I...” He seemed to shake himself and then straightened up. “The Iringa Valley, your grace.”

“Assemble a platoon. Odds are, there aren't many people on that vessel, and it's better if we meet them than any of the animals in the area.” He took a breath and turned to another guard. “Run and tell his majesty that Jotunheim has company. Of the peaceful kind.” The guard stared at him for a moment.

“Are you bloody deaf?” Phin cried. “Go and do what he says instead of standing there like a wide mouthed bullfrog!”

“Ye...yes your graces!” The guard raced back towards the palace.

Loki frowned at his son. “Wide mouthed bullfrog? Do you think anyone here knows what that is?”

“You think any Veeloxians know this planet is inhabited by giants?” He replied, with a poor attempt at looking innocent on his face.

“Leave the sarcasm to Joshua, young man.” He said as they joined the platoon readying themselves to depart. Neither he nor Phin raised any objections as they were lifted onto two jotun's backs and were carried out of the citadel, heading for the valley that was just outside of Utgard.

**

Tony remained stone faced as the car went back to his house in Malibu, completely blocking out Pepper's tirade about how he couldn't just close down the weapons industry at Stark Enterprises without consulting the board, or anyone. Hello, it was his company and someone had been selling arms to terrorists under the table. He'd shut down the whole damn company if that's what it took to root out the traitors. He was even having second thoughts on leaving Obadiah on damage control. During his imprisonment, how many times had Torch's message to remember to be careful who he trusted gone over and over in his mind? Right now, he trusted exactly five people in the entire universe – Jarvis, Happy, Rhodey, Pepper – and Torch.

“Are you even listening to a word that I'm saying?” Pepper's voice reached him and he glanced over at her, shifting in his seat. “Tony.”

“Listening, yes. Paying attention, no.” He shook his head. “Something's up, Pep, and I need to find out what it is.”

“Do you even know how many people work in the weapons manufacturing department?” He really hated that nagging tone in her voice. “You just fired...”

“I am not going to deprive someone of their job, Pep. We'll get it sorted. It's not permanent, it's a suspension.” Honestly, this was details.

“You can't just shut down...” She started again and he held his hand up. “What?”

“I told you Pep, something's not right. Unless you know who's been selling Stark Ammunition to terrorist groups.” He shot at her, deciding that he'd take a page out of Torch's book and go straight for the throat, as she called it.

Pepper went white. “What?”

“Someone's dealing under the table, Pepper. We need to find out who it is before more innocent people get killed.” He frowned. “Did you bring my silver case with you?”

“No.” She replied, giving him a sideways look. “I forgot it.”

“Pepper Potts, forgetting something? I'm shocked.” He absently rubbed at the arm in the sling as the car turned into the drive and he felt his whole body relax; home at last. “Do you remember where you left it, at least?”

“It's on the kitchen counter, or it was when I left the house.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Do you have any of the idea of the mess you've made, Tony?”

“I haven't made one in months, Pepper.” He replied, smiling faintly. “Admit it, you missed cleaning up after me.”

“Not like this.” She muttered, her attention on her phone.

The car came to a stop and he didn't wait for Happy to open his door, he merely stepped out and took a deep breath of warm air; the comforting smell of sea and sand, and that feeling of being home was better than any high-dose pain killing drug could ever do to make him feel better. He fairly skipped up the steps to the front door and punched in his entrance code. “I'm home, Jarvis.”

The door swung open and the AI answered him. “It is good to see you again, sir.”

“Tony!” A voice cried and a moment later he was nearly knocked off his feet as a short person with red hair embraced him tightly around the middle. “You're finally here!”

“Whoa whoa...” He untangled himself from the hug monster and then stopped short when he realized who it was. “Torch!” He returned the hug and grinned. “How long have you been here?”

“Long enough to give me enough blackmail material for the next decade.” Pepper answered as she shut the door. “Where's Jösur? On the Wii again?”

“He's discovered rugby.” Torch replied, still grinning. “As soon as he gets back to Asgard, odds are he and Joshua will form a league and play will begin before Yule.”

Tony frowned. “You bring your boyfriend with you?”

“No, he's my bodyguard.” She chuckled. “I saw the press conference.”

“Good!” Pepper gave the girl the exasperated look Tony was used to getting from her. “Then perhaps you can help me convince Tony of the mistake he's made.”

“I know how to kill a man with a butter knife.” She deadpanned, lifting her chin. “I have also been telling Tony for the past fifteen years to be careful of who he trusted. And if the events of the past summer aren't the perfect example of how damn right I was about that, I don't know what is!”

“She can also burn the corpse to get rid of it, Pep.” He ruffled his friend's hair. “We need pizza. I promised Torch pizza.”

“I have a PR disaster to clean up.” Pepper stated and then walked out of the room, pausing in the doorway. “Medium vegetarian, pan crust,” then, shifting her attention back to her cell-phone, she disappeared down the hall. “Jarvis, I need a few reports....”

Tony watched her go and then rounded back on Natasha. “Go find out what kind of pizza your buddy wants,” he paused as she opened her mouth, “if he's never had it, he's having what we are.” He took a breath. “After pizza, I'm going to need your help with something in the lab.” He frowned. “I hope you've been learning something besides how to draw and turn silverware into lethal weapons these past thirty years.”

**
Nico Alagran let go of the controls, taking several shaky breaths as the engines of the Explorer 7 powered down. He glanced over at his commander, Rickard Westbrooke who lay slumped in his seat, the makeshift bandage around his head had a spot of red coming through it. Then he looked back behind him to Gren Jaslo, mission specialist, who was flipping switches on his own control panel, muttering under his breath. “Two hundred and fifty million rells from home, that's how far we've come.”

How they had gotten the craft through the asteroids, Nico couldn't say. The number four engine had failed and what was supposed to be the second mission to Veelox's moon looked fated to end in tragedy. He scanned the instruments; the oxygen supply was nearly gone, and the radio wasn't strong enough to send a call back to Veelox. What good would that do anyway? “At least we're on a planet with an atmosphere and oxygen.”

“Report.” Rickard coughed as he came to. “What's our status?”

“Alive. We've landed on Nix.” He unfastened her harness and peered out the windows. “In some kind of valley.” He looked up. “That is a seriously blue sky.”

“Good to know the sky is the same shade as it is at home.” He groaned and unhooked his own harness. “Do we have a current temperature for outside?”

“Twelve degrees above freezing.” Gren answered and came up to the front part of the cabin, looking out the front screen. “At least we didn't land near the ocean.” He went white and nearly lost his footing. “And we're not alone.”

“What?” Nico looked in the same direction as Gren. “I thought this planet was supposed to be uninhabited, except for marine life.” He was barely able to keep the panic from his voice.

“It's been thirty years since the last satellite went by Nix.” The commander answered and the three of them watched the tall beings walking towards them, with dark blue skin and wearing some kind of armor. On the backs of two of them, they could see smaller people, closer to their own size.

“Uh, sir?” Gren cleared his throat. “What exactly is the protocol for this kind of situation?”

“There isn't one.” Rickard answered as the beings drew level with the Explorer and fell back in his seat just as a sound echoed from behind them, where the hatch was located. The sound repeated itself and they turned towards it. “Are they knocking?” He fell back in his seat, coughing. “Damn.” He looked at Nico. “Answer it.”

“Hope we can get by on sign language.” Gren interjected as Nico went to the first interior door and opened it, then shut it behind him as the knocking sound echoed in the hold as he set his hand on the exterior door, then jerked hard on the latch, the locks around it disengaging with a hiss. A rush of cold wind swept in, and the fresh scent of snow. On the other side of the door were the two shorter beings, both with black hair, but while the older one had blue skin, the younger had color similar to his own, a shade darker than olive – but the pair had some shared physical traits – were they brothers? He swallowed and blinked several times, scanning the giants who were behind them. Like the man, they were blue, with red eyes, however, all of the giants were bald, many of them with horns.

“Hello.” The blue man spoke clearly, with an odd accent to his voice. How did the man know the language of Veelox? “Does anyone on your ship need a healer?”

“Neighbor.” He stepped out into the cold air, the fact that he was the first person from Veelox to set foot on another planet barely registering in his mind. “My planet calls this place Nix. What do you call it?”

“Jotunheim.” The man replied, smiling. A low, long horn sounded in the distance and they both turned in that direction. “And that would be his majesty, King Laufey.”

“You still have monarchs?” He shook his head. Veelox hadn't had any form of monarchy in centuries.

“A great many planets still have them, although not all of them have the same level of power.” The man replied.

“You mean there's more than just... us?” Gren's voice came from behind him.

The boy whispered something to the man, and Nico could only make out the words papa, Yggdrasil, and Midgard.

“We do need a healer.” Nico decided to stick with what he knew for now. “Our commander is injured.” He watched as the man said something to the boy and then to the taller beings behind them, their language, from what he could tell, seemed to be complex, wit