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Two Sons

Chapter Text

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TO

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On a bright morning in early summer the Realm Eternal was in an unusually festive mood; it was decked in flowers and banners, filled with noises and smells of a banquet, as if to celebrate the victorious end of a long war. Everywhere people talked excitedly, dressed in their finest fabrics, trying their hardest to catch a glimpse of the royal family. And in a shadowy hall only one door away from the throne room stood the Mighty Thor, Prince of Asgard, nervously tapping his feet.

This was it. The great day. His day.

No more wretched waiting, no more lessons in statesmanship, no more decisions made over his head. From this day on he would be the one to decide, to rule.

Since his early boyhood when he - with rapt attention - had listened to his father tell of glorious battles fought against cruel enemies, Thor had dreamed of becoming just like him, to lead his people to victory, to make his realm prosper. There was no honour greater than this.

So why could he not calm his racing heart?

"'Tis alright to be nervous, Brother."

Startled Thor looked to his right, not having noticed anyone enter the hall after him.

Smiling young Baldr motioned with one hand to the still tapping feet, which at that gesture immediately stopped in their movement.

With as much dignity as he could muster the older prince turned around to the other, fully prepared to deny any weakness, but then thought better of it. As often as he had tried he had never succeeded in deceiving his brother. More than once Thor had wondered if Baldr possessed a magical ability which allowed him to sense peoples' emotions, but their mother had assured him just as often that the boy was simply very perceptive.

He could not ever be fully convinced of that but it made no matter because Baldr had too good a heart to ever use a gift like this for ill. Maybe it could even come as a blessing in battle when he was of an age to join the ranks of the realm's finest warriors.

"It is not the ceremony that has me nervous, Brother," Thor finally answered after he had put his thoughts in order again. "It is the waiting. We were told to be here at the break of day. I could have walked the entire palace grounds in the time that I have been left standing here. Why is this taking so long?"

He was trying his hardest to rein in his anger at the thought that he was treated like a mere peasant seeking audience with the king. As always, it would only lead to a lecture that his brother had remembered word for word from one of his tutors - old foolish men who had taught him the very same lessons centuries ago. Baldr had the uncanny ability to make these lectures sound reasonable, however, and make Thor look like a fool in turn, so he did his best to behave like a proper prince.

"I am sure Father will call for it to begin very soon. You cannot fault him for making certain everything is in order first, can you? We all want this to be the perfect day, you know that."

At that Thor could not help but smile. People had always remarked that he wore his feelings freely on his face, but there was no one more open-hearted than his little brother. The look in Baldr's eyes was pure happiness, and he had to remind himself that the younger prince had been looking forward to this day almost as much as the older one had. Since the coronation's announcement half a year past he had heard assurances of loyalty and fealty from all sides, but none had come as welcome as his brother's insistence that once he was of age he would wield Mjölnir and with her fight at his king's side. He should thank the Norns every day for a brother like this, who was a true support and the very best of friends. 

Soon Baldr would be old enough for his first battle training and to wear his own armour, but for now he wore the simple garments of a noble. Though even in his cream white tunic and with his long blond hair falling over his shoulders the young prince looked a proper warrior: determined, proud and as always confident. If there was one thing Thor had a reason to envy his brother for it was his unwavering optimism.

To him there were thousands of little things that could go wrong today: enemies could choose this day to attack, the crowd could refuse to cheer him on, the Allfather could change his mind. For Baldr it would all go as planned because he believed his brother had not done anything to deserve otherwise. There was no point in trying to change his mind so Thor did nothing of the sort, and not only for the sake of amity, but because he wholeheartedly agreed with the thought.

He did deserve this.

All the quests he - often together with the Lady Sif and the Warriors Three - had undertaken, the foes he had vanquished, it had all been for this. There was no worthier fighter than him, no better man who could follow in the great king's footsteps, everyone agreed.

Thus bolstered he smiled back at the younger prince whose own smile had not faltered, surely knowing exactly how his brother's mood had changed. This was what talking to Baldr did, it strengthened everybody's confidence with only a few well placed words.

He will make a fine general one day, Thor thought with pride, just before the signal was given for both of Odin's sons to enter the throne room.

.........

On bended knee Thor looked up at Hlidskjalf where the Allfather sat giving what was surely a grand speech about kingship and honour of the Golden Realm, but the first born prince could hear none of it. His ears were still ringing with the cheers of the crowd in the hall, which was filled for once with everyone of import in Asgard. All these people had welcomed his coronation, had applauded his ascension to the throne. It had not truly come as a surprise but it was an ecstatic feeling, nonetheless, this certainty they all had in his ability to lead them.

Just a few quick words now and it would be final; he would hold Gungnir in his hands and...

"Thor. Odinson." The quiet in the hall after that address was almost deafening and it banished all other thoughts from his mind. His eyes met Odin's equally blue one, which was now filled with unchecked pride, and the prince was waiting eagerly for what would follow.

"Do you swear to guard the Nine Realms?"

There was nothing he would rather do.

"I swear."

"Do you swear to preserve the peace?"

His eyes for a moment strayed to Mjölnir before they snapped back to his father on the throne. He would preserve the peace, yes, with everything he possessed.

"I swear."

"Do you swear to cast aside all selfish ambition and pledge yourself only to the good of all the realms?"

This was the hardest part of the oath, loath as he was to admit to such. Becoming king itself was selfish because it was all he had ever wanted but in doing it he would benefit his people, so surely it could not be judged a lie.

"I swear."

"Then on this day, I, Odin Allfather, proclaim you..."

Before the king could utter another word, Thor already knew what had him fall silent all of a sudden. A biting cold had swept through the hall, ice was beginning to cover the doors like greedy blue-white vines, and he saw the hard grip with which his father was holding the golden spear.

"Frost Giants," Odin announced.

Loki! Thor thought.

For this he would kill the wretch, even if it meant he had to go to Jötunheimr to do it.

.........

LL

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"Come now, do not lag behind! I cannot conceal you at too great a distance."

The command was clear in Loki's voice but he might as well have talked of the latest snow fall for all the attention he was given by his companions. Since they had taken the first step on Asgardian soil the two young warriors had walked at a snail's pace; too busy admiring the wonders of the foreign realm to concentrate on the task at hand.

He could understand them to a point; this world - especially its royal palace - had a certain, strange beauty. To him it was nothing new anymore; he had been here a thousand times, hidden just as he was now. The soldiers, though, they had never been allowed to enter their enemies' abode and they were treating this quest as if they were children on their first hunt. It was amusing in a way yet also a big hindrance to his cause. Maybe he should have asked Frár along; he at least would have lent the necessary seriousness to this outing.

"Do you suppose it always looks this grand or does it have to do with the ceremony?"

Oh, and they just would not stop babbling. Maybe he should have gone alone.

"Well, who knows? What I am wondering is why everything here seems to be made of gold. What use could it be to anyone, covering the walls as it is? We could buy years worth of food for an entire village with the doors alone."

Seriousness would have been welcome now, Loki thought glumly. Though Velmir had the right of it, of course - there was far too much gold in Asgard. The Aesir treated the precious metal as if it were mere rain that fell from the sky every morning. It had angered him each time he had set a foot on this wretched place, the sheer opulence in which his enemies lived while his own people had to make do with the little hardy plants and beasts that could withstand the eternal cold.

Still, there was no time for such ponderings now, not when they were so close to achieving their goal. So he tried again to bring discipline to his companions; this time stopping and turning toward them with an expression on his face that boded ill for anyone impertinent enough to interrupt him now.

"The Aesir have no need to purchase food with gold when they oppress all the other realms around them, have they? People just give them what they demand in order to keep the peace in their towns and villages for a little while longer. This...", he said while gesturing with his hands at the walls around them that were gleaming blindingly in the sun. "This is not used for bargaining; it is there to impress, to show others how mighty the gods are."

Fury was churning in his guts, making his words sound more like a snarl. The other two Jötnar were clever enough to back away a few steps, too infamous was his anger and what could follow it. And sure enough, the ends of his fingers were crackling with unused magic that wished to vanquish anything capable of making him feel so strong an emotion.

"My... my prince? Should we not hurry? Surely even you cannot hide us from their view forever." Hagir, the braver of the two, had a hand carefully hovering over Loki's shoulder; not quite daring to shake him out of his thoughts but clearly wishing he could. The words, however, proved sufficient to remind him of the urgency of their plan, so without giving any reply he turned toward the palace and the three invaders were on their way again.

Still, as soon as they were through a set of smaller, not-golden doors which led to one of the servants entrances of the palace, and stepped on a path all too familiar to him, he allowed his thoughts to drift back to the Aesir and, in particular, to their golden prince Thor.

A king they would make him, the pitiful fools. Bah. Perhaps it would have been amusing to watch the spectacle the lout was bound to bring about, if it were not for the consequences to his own home. Thor King - a frightful idea. One Loki was doing his best to not let become reality.

Even if it meant he had to lure his fellow prince to Jötunheimr.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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TO

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Thor had followed the Allfather out of the royal hall at as quick a pace as possible, but when they reached the Vault the battle had already come to an end. The two guards who had valiantly defended the many treasures were lying frozen on the ground, close to a blue square-shaped object on a pedestal. There was no sign of any Frost Giants, though it would not have surprised the prince if they had simply fled the moment their activities had been noticed.

"He wanted the Casket," Thor said in an angry growl while pointing to the device that still emitted its icy-blue glow despite the warmth in the room. "Typical of him, to leave once he was outnumbered." Anger turned to fury at the thought of such cowardice; there were few things more dishonourable in his opinion.

"Of whom are you speaking Thor? Do you know who has done this?" In contrast to his son, Odin spoke calmly while his one eye swept the room for any sign of the attackers.

The question caught the prince off guard. Surely his father must have guessed at the culprit the moment he had sensed the freezing presence. Of course, none had had as many dealings with that particular fiend as Thor and his companions, so it was understandable not to immediately think of him, infamous as his actions might be.

"I am speaking of Loki Laufeyson, Father. Only he could sneak into Asgard, breach all our defences and leave as if he had never been here."

It was the most logical explanation, yet Odin did not look convinced. How could he doubt what was so obviously the right conclusion? Had he seen otherwise through his throne or the ravens? But no, the king of Asgard would not stand here, searching for evidence, if he already knew what had happened.

"He wanted the Casket of Ancient Winters," Thor repeated, as to him that was the most damning of proofs. Too often had he heard Loki rage about the loss of it, and he was shuddering even now at the thought of that powerful weapon in the hands of these monsters. "Father, we must go to Laufey and demand retribution. We must..."

"We will not!" the king interjected loudly, in a tone that had never failed to make Thor or any other warrior in the realm stand a little straighter, accompanied by a stare hard enough to burn a hole in his armour. Were it not for the rage inside him the prince might have decided to abandon this argument in favour of apologising, but he would not. Not today.

And neither, it seemed, would his father.

"You cannot simply accuse a prince of Jötunheimr of breaking our treaty on mere suspicion. This could have been the act of a handful of rebels. We cannot put our people at risk for something like that."

Risk? Any day that Loki was allowed to freely roam Asgard was a risk to the people. Not to mention the damage the fiend had already caused.

"And what of the guards? Is their death a mere triviality? There must be vengeance for this!"

"You do not know of what you speak! Vengeance, you say. You would endanger our realm for something as petty as vengeance?"

The two Aesir stood now at opposite ends of the Vault, starring at each other with uncontrolled anger.

Thor could not for the life of him believe what he was hearing: The great Odin was hesitating, trying to avoid any and all confrontation with the Frost Giants when he had once driven them to near extinction. It was not cowardice, he knew, for even at his high age the Allfather had lost none of his might as a warrior. Nor was it a newfound love for the monsters for he, like many people of his generation, still remembered the horrors they could unleash with absolute clarity.

Though when he looked at his father in front of the golden doors, leaning on Gungnir, it was easy to see what troubled him so. The great king was weary, tired of the powers he had to channel, of the responsibilities he had carried for millennia. It was the reason for the coronation, which had been so rudely interrupted today. Thor himself was still quite young and might have otherwise had to wait for a few more centuries to take on Asgard's highest office but Odin Borson, victor of endless battles and most beloved king, was growing old. Even Aesir did not live forever, no matter that they were called 'immortal' or 'gods' by the more primitive races. The thought pained Thor and he was not prepared to lose his father yet, but he knew it would not be long.

So he understood Odin's hesitancy, which did not mean that he could not take the proper action himself. For the moment he would have to act calm, however; it would not do to advertise his plans to someone who would not welcome them.

"You are right, Father, but we must do something. We cannot let this go unanswered."

The idea galled him; it screamed to all the Nine Realms that Asgard was not prepared for battle, not even with enemies who had dared to breach their walls. And when he imagined Loki bragging of this, telling all who would listen that he had entered unnoticed even by the mighty Odin, he wanted to scream himself.

Yet his father was calm again, all justified fury vanished as the damnable Frost Giant had moments ago.

"I will speak to Laufey, never fear. Even if he is not responsible for this, he will have to hear about his people's actions. For now, though, I will need to put our guests' worries to rest. The way we both stormed out of the hall they must have thought war had broken out." And with a last strong grip of his calloused hand on his son's shoulder he turned around and left Thor alone in the Vault.

There was no question on what he had to do now; he only hoped that his friends were as eager for an adventure as he was.

.........

LL

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"What in the Nine were you thinking?" The shouted question came from behind him, accompanied by loud, stomping footsteps, but it did not have the obviously desired effect to alarm or even startle him for Loki had expected something like it the moment he had returned home. After all, soldiers loved nothing better than to brag about a victorious battle, even when said battle was merely against two surprised guards and the victory only assured by invisibility.

Hiding a smirk on his face he put down the strip of leather he had been about to braid into his slightly tussled hair, stood up from the low, fur covered bed and walked towards the room's entrance to face his visitor. This would be interesting.

"You have to be a bit more specific, dear brother. There are, after all, many things I am thinking about on any given day," he said flippantly, halting a few paces before the other man so that he would not have to crane his neck in order to look at him. Though a master of deception, he could not quite succeed in masking the giggles that wanted to burst out when he saw the sour expression Helblindi greeted him with.

Were he anyone else he might have been frightened by the look on the Jötunn captain's face, especially given the unfortunate fact that he was more than half again Loki's height, but he simply knew the other too well. To him it was a hilarious combination of their father's disappointed frown and a pout that was reminiscent of childhood days when the both of them were not invited to mock fights among older Jötnar.

The suppressed giggles only made the other prince more visibly angry, but at least he had not armed himself, yet. A fight was the last thing Loki needed at this moment when he had already had to use so much of his powers today. Which he would have to use again later, if everything went according to plan.

Better to tread lightly now.

"You know exactly of what I speak. What were you doing in Asgard?"

One of the more admirable traits of the Jötnar was their directness, on and off the battlefield. No elaborate prose, no hidden meanings; their words were as blunt as their weapons were sharp. Loki himself was, of course, the exception as he was to so many other things, as well. Naturally, he could be direct if he wished to, but the accusatory tone in Helblindi's voice did not really make him deserving of such special treatment.

"Oh, it was just a bit of fun. A quest to try out your new recruits," he answered with a shrug and a true yet wry smile on his lips.

Sadly, like a beast with a particularly stringy piece of meat, the captain could be terribly persistent in his inquiries. Especially when he knew himself to be in the right. Therefore, it was not surprising when he reacted not to the smile nor to the poor excuse.

"You never do anything just for the sake of amusement and you certainly do not care about my soldiers. What are you planning, Brother?"

For a moment the younger prince reconsidered honesty, but from experience he knew it was rarely appreciated when it came from him and even less so when it involved one of his more complex schemes. Not that he thought the other Jötunn too dim-witted to understand them, merely too stubborn to agree with him.

There was no other course, then, but to divert the conversation.

"We only went to Asgard and back again; we did not even stay long enough for anyone to miss us here. 'Twas a way to pass the time, nothing more. What makes you so sure I'm planning anything?"

"Because you always do, and before anyone has found out your first plan, you have already strung up three more."

Somehow this made him angry to a degree nothing else today had managed. There were few things he hated more than the assumptions made about him by people who barely knew him: that he was a liar, a thief, a trickster, evil incarnate. It was even more offensive when his own family believed the same about him, thought him so simple, so one-dimensional.

So, with fists balled at his sides he looked up at the older Jötunn, trying to suppress the magic that was pooling at his fingertips.

"Since when are you an expert on my personality? You, who says I am as changeable as the wind."

It was something he had been accused of from a very young age and an assessment Loki had always been quite fond of but added to everything else it just helped to enrage him. He had not expected Helblindi of all people to applaud his actions, but part of him had hoped the ensuring debate would have, at least, not strayed too far from troop assessments and battle tactics.

Unfortunately, the soldier - who had not moved one step into the room and towards him but still seemed to loom over him - had other ideas. "Even wind can be predictable when you study it long enough. I will not pretend that I ever know what it is that you will do, but I know for sure you can never stay idle for too long. I also know that you always have a reason and pure entertainment is not enough."

In obvious irritation he ran a hand over his bald head that, for once, was not covered by the metal half helm of his chosen occupation. Not on duty today, then. Excellent, he thought. Yet the smile that wanted to ghost over Loki's lips at discovering another piece of his plan having successfully fallen into place was quickly aborted when he heard the change of tone, from angry to worried, in the other man's voice. "Please, little brother, if you got yourself into trouble, I would rather know it now."

Even stranger than the unconvincing angry frown was the rare pleading, sad gleam in the oldest prince's eyes, only reserved for requests to the general to lead the army to the next skirmish or asking Býleistr for forgiveness. And apparently also for demanding that so precious honesty from Loki.

It was almost enough to make him confess but now more than ever he was sure that would be a very bad idea. Any interference could ruin the plan he had been working on for the past half year and it was not worth it just to make the big oaf happy. Walking backwards a few steps he reached his bed and then set down on it again with easy grace while Helblindi still stood in the entrance of the spacious sleeping chamber, trying to guilt him into a truthful answer.

There was a lightness, a casualness in Loki's voice he did not truly feel as he replied, and he fiddled absent-mindedly with the black and green leather cords he had laid out earlier, so as not to have to look into the other's earnest face.

"I am sorry, but you will just have to wait and see. If it lightens your heart, I will promise that I am not in any kind of trouble-" At least not yet. "-and I will not be in the future." If everything goes according to plan. "Satisfied?"

He knew the answer when he saw Helblindi's hands tighten into fists and mentally readied himself for combat, but all the older Jötunn did was sigh heavily, his breath visible in the warm air of the room.

"By the ancestors, I wish that I could believe you. I truly do. It is just that, speaking from experience..."

Another heavy sigh, another puff of frosty air and then the red eyes that locked with Loki's were no longer filled with anger but more with a mischievous twinkle the older brother himself had been at the receiving end of far more often.

"I do hope I will not have to lead an army to Asgard to save you from an angry mob, this time." And then he had the nerve to laugh, a sound deep yet smooth like a melodious battle drum.

Loki dearly wanted to hit him.

"That was only once, and I had too much mead. I can save myself quite well, Captain."

Loki's serious tone was belied by an unusually heartfelt smile. It infuriated him sometimes that his two brothers were so overly protective of him when, after all, he was the only one of the princes capable of working magic. And yet a not so small part of him liked the idea of Helblindi marshalling his troops just for him, especially if it happened behind their father's back. Not that it would be necessary, this time, and not only because he had not the slightest inclination to return to their enemies' realm.

No, the foolish Ás and his merry band would come to him, he knew, and he had never been better prepared.

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TO

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There was hardly a better sign of true friendship than the willingness to venture into unknown danger together. To Thor it had been clear that he had chosen the right companions when, centuries ago, he had gotten it into his head to visit Muspellsheimr in secret and the only questions he had received had been about the size of the provisions, beautiful fiery ladies and whether they would be allowed to raid the armoury. So he had no doubt at all that the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif would go on this quest to the Frost Giants' realm with him, even if this time it seemed to take a little more convincing than usual. 

The five of them had assembled around the remains of the feast which he, in his rage, had flung around the hall. Aside from Volstagg, who walked along the upturned tables to collect a plate full of salvageable food, they were gathered at the steps leading to the balcony, though neither of his friends seemed willing to come near him and rouse his temper further. Thor could hardly fault them, for he knew he was not the best of companies at the moment. Still, the others had attentively listened to his plan from beginning to end without saying a word of dissent. When he was done it was the oldest of them who finally spoke up.

"Look Thor, I know you believe that Loki is behind this and I agree with you, but this is even more risky than the time we snuck into Freyr's wine cellar while the palace was full of drunk Álfar. Jötunheimr is nought but ice and stone; not even a stalk of grass to eat..."

"I think we would freeze to death long before we became hungry, Volstagg. Not that I do not love the idea of an eternal ice sculpture in my own image," Fandral commented, his smile close to wistful.

The light-hearted protests made the blond prince almost sure that he would not need to go alone. After all, if these jests were the sum of their complaints, then they were already halfway on the road.

"This is no joking matter!"

But, of course, he could not disregard Sif, by far the most reasonable of their group. She glowered down at Thor where he sat on the steps, arms crossed in front of her chest and expression as unhappy as if he had just suggested he would like to lead them all to Hel.

"The Allfather has forbidden any travel to Laufey's kingdom. We could endanger the truce; we could all die..."

"Since when do you fear death?" The very idea confused him because he had never had a reason to doubt the shield maiden's bravery.

"I am more than willing to lay down my life for the good of the realm, Thor, but this... this wretch is not worth it."

Among his friends the sole Ásynja was the one who hated the Trickster Prince the most, for his untrustworthy nature, his lying tongue and, of course, there was that incident with her hair... Still, she was also constantly trying to avoid any confrontation with the Frost Giant because she assumed a trap behind his every action. And she was almost always right.

Her suspicions were what could be helpful this time, however; not least of all because, for once, Thor shared them wholeheartedly. "Maybe he is not, but we cannot let today's actions go unpunished! We must find Loki and I will make him tell me why he attacked the Vault. If he had been after the Casket..."

As clear as glass he saw the moment all his friends were won over by his words, despite their earlier complaints.

Fandral stopped inspecting the cut of his beard in the blunt of his sword and now had both arms crossed in front of his chest as if cold. Volstagg had dropped a leg of ham in the middle of a bite and honestly looked like he had lost his appetite. Hogun, who had been leaning against one of the marble columns while sharpening a small dagger, had stood up as soon as the word "Casket" was mentioned, a hand lightly hovering over the mace at his belt, his mouth set in his typical grim line.

And Sif, well... She still seemed hesitant, but now that the others were visibly convinced she would not stay behind. "Fine, I will go with you, Thor. But, mark my words, we are going to regret this."

.........

It was a well known fact that anyone, be they noble or peasant, who wanted to leave Asgard had to pass the gatekeeper, which presented a problem when one wished to leave in secret. It was not possible to lie about where it was he wanted to go but in many of his journeys Thor had not been entirely truthful when it came to the reason why.

He had attempted the same strategy this time, although, of course, Heimdallr saw through his words like he did through walls and worlds and the space between. This should have ended any plans for vengeance, were it not for the fact that the older Ás himself had been enraged by the giant's invasion.

It just so happened that all-seeing beings did not really enjoy it when someone managed to hide from them. Thor almost laughed at that and at the image of Loki having to fend off Heimdallr's attack, if the latter should ever find out who had deceived his eyes. Maybe he should let the name slip at their return to Asgard; it might pay to have someone on his side of the argument with the Allfather that was sure to follow.

Well, in any case, the band of friends managed to use the Bifröst just as planned, with the added benefit of being able to wear their warmer garments openly.

And then, in the blink of an eye they had landed on Jötunheimr, the home of their bitterest enemies and a place that, according to Heimdallr, they might not be able to return from should it endanger Asgard's safety.

The first thing that was immediately apparent was the almost complete darkness. Only a small sliver of moonlight could be seen in the sky now, indicating that it was either close to nightfall - though they had left Asgard around midday - or that they had unwittingly arrived at the coldest season of this realm.

Which led him to the second thing easily noticeable upon landing - that even his warmest fabrics could not have prepared him for the piercing cold. It seeped through every pore of his body, almost freezing even the smallest amount of exposed skin. Looking around at his four friends he saw that they were not faring much better; with the exception of Hogun, who as always hid his discomfort behind a stony expression, all were looking worriedly at their surroundings. The harsh conditions set them shivering and forced them to walk at an unusually slow pace.

Thor knew they should hurry and not just to battle the cold. The Bifröst's landing site was much too exposed; they were open to attack from every angle, especially from above. It was hard going, however, with stiff limbs and the snow storm throwing sharp pieces of ice in his face with every step.

How could an entire race live like this? He felt old disgust inflame anew when he remembered that this was what the Frost Giants had planned for Midgard and possibly the other realms, as well.

If that was what Loki had in mind, then Thor was only too happy to disappoint him.

Despite their many unpleasant meetings in the past the two princes had never actually fought one another without interruptions, but this time the Liesmith would not escape through one of his seidr tricks as he had before.

No, this time Loki would pay for his crimes, even if Thor would have to go through a horde of other monsters to get to him.

 

 

Chapter Text

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LL

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When he had made his great plans to lure Thor to Jötunheimr Loki had not actually counted on the Asgardian to be so moronic as to arrive at one of the realm's most important gathering places. True, the hidden paths between the Nine were closed to all but the few learned in the most ancient arts, but even without special training a warrior should know how to invade a territory unseen.

This idiocy could have ruined all, if Loki had expected anything as novel as strategy from his enemy. Or if he had forgotten that the activation of Asgard's Rainbow Bridge could be seen by anyone starring at the sky at the right moment.

So the young giant watched from atop a small rise in the natural ice formations as the four Aesir and their trusted Vanr travelled ever deeper into unknown terrain while being slowly but surely surrounded by the bravest and best of Helblindi's new recruits, who had mysteriously all drawn watch duty this day. Maybe his older brother would even thank him for giving the soldiers such a wonderful opportunity to train their skills, though it might not be in so many words.

He was looking for a way to separate the golden-haired lout from his little band while he casually walked beside but high above them, yet the nearer they came to the temple the less likely that was to succeed. Not that he imagined any trouble, should he decide to fight all five at once. But why be greedy? Býleistr would surely appreciate the chance to give the fat one a lesson in the evil of gluttony, in his own unique blend of harsh words and even harsher blows.

It was not such a bad idea, in any case, to let the group wander further to where the king's old seat was located, and it could prove critical even to let Laufey see who had started the battle before it began in earnest. He had hoped it, actually, hoped for the usual throwing of the mighty hammer before any words were exchanged. Although, of course, it was impossible to keep Loki's actions in Asgard from his father forever. There was no reason to fear Helblindi giving him away - the three brothers had never stooped so low as to tattle on each other - but the soldiers would, any of the hundred who most likely knew about the incident by now.

What mattered was not keeping it a secret but the right timing. If Thor would be seen as the aggressor before he could paint Loki himself as one, then he might even finish this day without receiving punishment. Which was an added boon, however, and not vital to the plan's success.

The most important part, the one that must not fail, was engaging the Thunderer in a fight, one on one, without his friends interrupting. The Followers Four were the main reason he and Thor had never been allowed to try out their skills against one another, they and - on one memorable occasion - a very disgruntled Jötunn captain.

Just this once he would like to show the arrogant fool that he was not merely a Trickster, a Liesmith, a Silvertongue. No, he was all that, but a warrior, as well. He was equal in strength, could easily hold out against the self-styled hero, and his seidr was not a coward's weapon; it could cut as deep as any sword and deal a blow comparable to the famous Mjölnir.

But how to part the ever present shadows from their leader?

"What is your business here, Asgardian?"

Well, that might do it.

The Jötunn who had spoken was one of the temple guards, a tall, broad-shouldered veteran named Bodimir. Not one who possessed a large tolerance for rule breaking, as far as Loki could recall.

"I speak only to your king. Not to his foot soldiers."

A very diplomatic answer for a future king, Loki thought, rolling his eyes at the stupidity. He just hoped he would have the chance to see Thor's first official interaction with the Dvergar. That is, if the fool survived this day.

"Then speak."

Ah, there was no mistaking that angry snarl. So much for impeccable timing.

The Aesir group stood still quite far from the throne; the distance would have allowed them to flee, which they would have done if any of them had even a lick of sense.

Just seeing Laufey in front of the crumbling, but still imposing temple - a giant among giants, the warrior who had stolen Odin's eye - it made him feel like a helpless youngling and he did not have to fear death at the king's hands. Or so he hoped.

"I am Laufey, king of this realm."

Thor, the fool, paid this introduction no mind; instead, he immediately stepped forward to speak, as if he were standing in his own court. 

"And I am..."

Even knowing who stood before him changed nothing in the blond prince's attitude. This blatant impudence almost made Loki's blood boil. Though probably not just his own.

"We know who you are, Odinson. Why have you brought the stench of your blood into my world?"

"I demand answers."

If his first interaction with a Jötunn had been impolite, then this one was downright suicidal. No one demanded anything from Laufey King, not even his family. This universal law was clearly written on his father's every movement when he stood up and stared down at Thor as if he had just been spat in the face.

"You demand?"

"I do. How did your son get into Asgard? Has he tried to steal the Casket on your orders?"

Damn. Maybe he should have let Helblindi tell their father of his exploits; at least then the king would have been prepared for these questions. Instead, he looked quite shocked, as if he were unsure whether to believe the accusation or take it for deliberate slander. The problem was that, no matter his decision, he at least knew which of his three sons Thor was speaking of. Loki could already see his name on the older Jötunn's lips, but then he seemed to change his mind.

"You dare accuse a prince of Jötunheimr of breaking the law? You, whose own father stole the very same relic in the first place. Even if my son had tried to take the Casket, he would have been fully in the right to do so. What foolish notion makes you think you can keep it from us forever?"

"It is my responsibility as Asgard's future king to keep it safe and thus to stop you from making war with the other realms."

At this Laufey laughed harshly; a sound similar to breaking ice that made Loki shiver despite the mild autumn temperatures.

"Is that so? Hmm. Then why have you come here? To make peace? No, I think not. I know of your constant squabbles with my son; I know that you involve yourself in matters not of your concern only to heroically prevent his imagined wrongdoings. You are nothing but a boy, trying to prove himself superior to the others on the training ground."

These words felt like a balm to Loki's soul but they plainly did nothing to deter the blond simpleton from his mad quest to get himself killed. Wonderful.

"This boy has grown tired of your mockery."

Now was the time for Loki to ready himself, as Thor took another step towards the throne and the guards started to surround him and his friends. In a moment all five would be engaged by separate opponents and it would be child's play to stand face to face with his enemy. Sure enough, the Ás threw his hammer forward, hitting the first brave Jötunn squarely in the chest, and then chaos broke loose. He was strangely proud that his people did not back away from the visible power of the magical weapon, though none of them had ever seen it in action before. The Four Shadows seemed to hesitate at first but they, too, were soon fully immersed in the battle. Swords clanged against ice-shields, shards left holes in the Asgardians' cloth, while the Jötnar were hit by lighting again and again.

Loki saw all of this from above as he made his way from one hovering bridge to the other, occasionally creating icy paths under his feet where the circle of brittle stones around the throne was interrupted. His enemies had the lucky disadvantage to be easily spotted, with their vibrant coloured fabrics and golden skin, but they were also much faster and agile on account of their small size. A good thing, then, that he himself had never been called tall.

Between long leaps over thin air - which to any observer would make him seem to appear and disappear repeatedly - he continued to watch the five warriors fight below, each with their own special weapon and in their own style. It was magnificent, he had to admit, and not for the first time he contemplated the unique composition of this band compared to the more conservative method of grouping together soldiers by seniority. Maybe after this was over he could have that conversation about strategy with the captain he had hoped for earlier.

When he had finally reached the other side of the throne and stood close enough so that he could clearly make out every hair on the arrogant prince's head, he folded the magic around himself so that he could not be seen and then dropped from a pillar to the invitingly solid ground.

The sole Ásynja was twirling her two-bladed sword around, missing his shoulder by a hair's breadth but piercing the stomach of a short soldier, a scout by the look of it. There was a loud thud and the Jötunn lay dead at his feet. For a moment Loki just stood there as if glued to the ground, staring at Sif who was stooped over her kill breathing heavily. Then she tore her weapon out of the body, her eyes already searching for another opponent, and the spell was broken.

The scout would not be the last to die today and it was not as if Loki had never seen death up close before; still, he felt a bit disconcerted by this, not to mention disheartened.

Why had his people not overwhelmed the five enemy warriors yet? They were not superior in strength or skill, though they had one advantage he well knew of: experience. Welcome or not, over the many years of their acquaintance, Thor and his merry band of do-gooders had gotten involved in any little skirmish or fight between feuding villages that was brought to their attention. If a maiden needed rescuing, a troll needed slaying, the Aesir would be there in a heartbeat. No problem was too small as long as it could be solved with the mighty swing of a hammer.

And Loki should know, given that many of his own schemes had been stopped in the very same manner.

Jötunheimr's people, on the other hand, had had no occasion to try themselves at battle, except for disagreements amongst each other, in more than two thousand years. He knew that as well, had known it while hatching his plans, but it was not a particularly nice experience to see the evidence with his own eyes. There was not a chance that these five would defeat the entire army; however, the loss on his side might be great, which meant he had to finish this quickly.

The sound of Thor's voice was not hard to make out; caught in battle-lust, the blond was laughing deeply as he flung his weapon in a wide circle and thereby created a small ice-storm around himself. Before the lout could fell another Jötunn Loki concentrated on a weak spot of his target's armour and threw searing green flames from his palm at it. Fire, he thought, would be the last thing anyone would be prepared for here. He had mastered that particular element in all its forms at a very young age and was forever forbidden from using it against his own kinsmen, but it seemed quite fitting now. Sure enough, the red fabric was burning fast, halting Thor's wild attacks and luckily also forcing the Jötnar to back away from him.

"Loki!" The sheer contempt with which his name was spoken was music to his ears. It meant he had successfully annoyed his old nemesis and the fun could begin.

Lazily he strolled the remaining steps toward the ring of ice shards, lifting the invisibility and readying, in his mind, the first few knives. It was hard not to laugh at the angry scowl, the clenched fists, the magic vibrating from the hammer as a reaction to its owner's emotions. The fool was so utterly predictable.

"Good evening to you, Thor. I must say, I was a little disappointed that you forgot to invite me to your coronation. Such a shame not to see all the devoted subjects hailing their glorious leader."

Ooh, that had hit a nerve. The magic in the air rose to an almost intoxicating level.

"Your invasion has interrupted the ceremony, as you very well know. But I will make you pay for that and for killing two of my father's guards." Sometimes he wondered if the Asgardian prince was even capable of any other volume of speech but 'shout', which he used now, to the effect that it drowned out even the closest clangour of battle.

The words, though, they only proved to Loki what a rotten would-be king stood before him: pompous, selfish and more foolish than ought to be possible.

Why would he assume that Loki had come to Asgard alone, that it had been him who dealt with the Einherjar? In truth Loki had not even entered the heart of the Vault himself, too busy had he been with concealing his companions and making sure that they would not be incinerated by the treasury's silent, metallic guardian. Of course, he would not divulge the details of his little plot to the dimwit in front of him and it was quite unlikely that any of it would quell the other prince's rage. Not that he was aiming for that, in the first place.

"Two guards? And how many Jötnar have you killed today, Thor? A handful, a dozen? Not that you would care, of course, as we are no more than beasts to you, to be hunted down whenever the fancy strikes you."

"This is no mere fancy; you attacked my home!" The response was almost petulant, like that of a child complaining to another about a broken toy. It was also such a hypocritical thing to say, given the situation they were currently in; Loki almost laughed out loud. And the next moment he did exactly that when the other continued in his rant, "You invaded Asgard, just to take possession of that abhorrent artefact."

When thrown at the king, the accusation of thievery had sounded like nothing more than an excuse, a justification for entering Jötunheimr uninvited, but now it seemed Thor truly believed that it had all been about the Casket. How could anyone, let alone a future ruler, be so blind?

Admittedly, it had been tempting as he had stood there at the Vault's doors, closer to the source of his realm's power than ever before in conscious memory. In truth, the desire to touch it, to use it, had been almost overwhelming for the mage, for he had felt the call of the True Cold in every fibre of his being even amongst all the other ancient, stolen relics. In the end, though, common sense was what had held him back, that and simple experience. What Asgard took, it never willingly let go of again. And what was the point in taking the Casket, if he could never hope to keep it?

So laugh he did, at the other prince's ignorance, but he saw no reason to correct the blond. As long as the Aesir thought the Jötnar harmless without the aid of a magical artefact it could only benefit his people, no matter how much the insult rankled him.

Of course, Loki would never let himself be seen this way, as weak and defenceless, especially not by that disgusting lout. For that reason venom entered his voice as he replied, "I invaded Asgard more times than I could care to count, so you should feel lucky that I am not even near the magpie your father is."

Again, the magic permeated the space between the two princes, a heady feeling of charged air and the smell of rain. The promise of a storm.

Suddenly it became impossible to wait just a moment more. He wanted, needed to fight.

"Enough talk now. If you want to make me pay, then do it!" With that he summoned a dagger into each hand, encased both in a thick sheet of ice and threw them at the Thunderer's head. As expected, they hit their target right on, each opening a small gash in Thor's cheeks; minimal wounds that were easily dismissed. However, they gave him enough time to make ready one of his more potent workings.

Both opponents circled one another now, completely oblivious to the world around them, focused as they were on each other's every little movement. 

That was why he saw the telltale tightening of the grip on the hammer - which signalled lightning being hurled in his direction - one heartbeat before he felt the increased charge in the air, making it possible for him to move out of the way in time. Not to be outdone he countered with a flurry of conjured stones that almost forced the Ás to drop his weapon in order to shield himself.

This went on for an unknown amount of time; metal met magic in ever new forms, lightning collided with invisible force fields, neither warrior backing down a step though both collected an ever growing number of bruises and scratches and, in Thor's case, marks from a rather irate snake that had bitten right through his leather boot.

It was an altogether exhilarating experience for Jötunheimr's second prince, yet at the same time his thoughts had never before been so crystal clear, his senses never this sharp. He felt powerful as magic flowed over and through him as if there were no limit to what he could do. There would come a point when exhaustion was sure to set in, which happened faster with seidr then it did with purely physical exercise. For now, however, Loki had no doubt he could hold his own against his enemy.

The two princes had not spoken a word since the first blood was shed, but after a confusing attack by several Lokis at once Thor broke the silence with a shout of indignation.

"Stop your tricks, ergi! If you cannot fight honestly, then do not fight at all!"

The insult did not hurt or shame him as it would have any other mage; for one of his people being called "unmanly" was rather ridiculous, after all. It galled him, though, to be accused of deceit when all he did was use the skills with which he had been born. Not that he was limited to them.

"You wanted a fair fight? Why did you not just say so?"

Finally a challenge! With a flick of a wrist the various duplicates were banished, a dark metallic spear materialised in Loki's hands and without a moment's thought he swung it at the unprotected back of the Asgardian's knees.

This, he decided after more blows of metal against metal were exchanged, was even better than the fight had been before. For now Thor looked taken aback, as if he had miscalculated in the assessment of his opponent, which was not surprising when even his gluttonous friend outshone him in the display of intelligence.

He was not yet taken by berserker lust, but he did have fun beating the mighty Thor over the head with his favourite weapon and hearing the sizzling of magic against magic as both let their emotions free rein. It was better than any battle on the training grounds because here neither of them held back and both were filled with the determination to make the other bleed.

He would have gladly continued this glorious fight until the morning, if his concentration had not been disrupted by an enormous roar. Damn.

.........

TO

.........

The beast which suddenly burst from the icy wall beside the throne was massive in size, uglier than any other inhabitant of this world and terribly fast. One moment only its deep guttural growling could be heard, the next it was already storming toward the centre of the ongoing battle.

If Loki had summoned this monstrosity just to finally beat him, then the Frost Giant was much more of a coward than even he had assumed. The look on his nemesis' face was not triumphant, however; no, he seemed genuinely surprised. That impression was confirmed when Loki dropped his spear, which immediately vanished into thin air, and started cursing rather colourfully.

"Damn you, Father, not now!" was what he said, when he had finally calmed his temper enough to form whole sentences again. So it was the king who had called the beast and for whatever reason his son was not at all happy about that decision, given the heavy sigh and the disdainful words which followed it. "You should better leave, Thor. A Vanardýr can feel body heat, so you and your loyal friends will be the first ones it eats."

Despite this open threat, Loki sounded neither gleeful nor arrogant, merely annoyed. Were they both equally reluctant to end their fight now, without a clear victory? Thor, for his part, could not think of anything less appealing at the moment, even if there was a risk of ending up in the stomach of a moving mountain.

As though by unspoken accord, the two warriors began to circle each other anew and the spear reappeared in the sorcerer's hands. Yet the battle had continued for only a brief moment when they were interrupted again, this time by Volstagg's shout. 

"Thor, we must go!" The corpulent warrior stood at the beginning of the path toward the Bifröst site, one arm slung around Fandral's waist in order to support him. Both Aesir were covered in blood, most likely form a wound in the fair-haired swordsman's stomach that looked to be awfully deep, though Volstagg himself held his free right arm in a strange, crooked angle.

For a moment Thor hesitated, thinking of how vulnerable his friends were in this state, and then he turned back to Loki who simply shrugged, as if of the opinion that the decision to run was his own to make. An Odinson did not run, however, not when faced with such a monster as the prince before him. So he simply told his friends to leave without him and went back to what he had come all this way to Jötunheimr for.

"A fine friend you are, Thunderer. Do you believe the Warriors Four will still follow you if one of them dies today? I think not," Loki said while leaning casually on his spear, a twisted smile on his face.

"I will not run from you!" he could not help but reply, although the mockery had cut deep. Would he lose all of them if he lost but the one? Could he risk their lives when the power to defeat the beast was undoubtedly in his hands?

In a heartbeat he made his decision, the only one his conscience allowed. With a huff he twirled Mjölnir in the air above his head, generating enough speed to let him be carried toward the other Asgardians.

"This fight is not over," he warned his fellow prince one last time and a moment later he travelled through icy winds at the heels of the terrible animal.

With the hammer's help Thor was fast, but the Vanardýr was leaping over the white-blue ground almost at too great a speed form him to see it fully. The only chance to hunt this creature down was if he could make it stop, even for just a moment.

As Loki had predicted, however, his friends were clearly its target, and like any animal hunting prey it moved as long as the warriors did. If only he could lure the beast away from them, give it something else to direct its attention to... And then the idea struck him and he felt suddenly quite foolish for not considering it before. It meant he himself had to land and stay put for a moment, but he was experienced enough in this that it would not slow him down for too long.

He touched the ground with a loud thud, far enough away from the actual battle to not be attacked by Frost Giants but so close to his target that he could see the high bony ridges on its back not unlike a dragon's and the deep blue colour of its skin that all beings on Jötunheimr seemed to share.

It took barely any concentration to summon the power granted to him by his father and king, and pull it into Mjölnir, a feat he had learned centuries ago. If it was heat the monster wanted, then heat was what he would give to it, more than the bodies of a band of Asgardians could give off.

He saw the lighting strike mere two strides in front of him followed by the familiar sound of thunder and then, as he had hoped, the blue monstrosity halted in its chase. It might have simply been startled by the sound, though more likely the plan had worked and the thing believed to have found a feast at its back. That theory was confirmed when, with a deafening roar, the Vanardýr turned around toward him, showing a row of yellow teeth with which it could likely crush metal.

Now there was only one thing to do. So, Thor gripped his hammer a little tighter and took to the air again, flying right in the direction of the ugly, deformed head and into its mouth. Fortunately, his speed was great enough to also carry him through, so the monster had no time to swallow him. Instead the hammer punched through flesh and bone before he landed safely on the other side.

Having defeated his target, which crumbled to the ground with a sickening squelch, he finally had a chance to look for his friends. Two of them he found right away; Leaning on a boulder breathing heavily Sif was smiling at him a bit strained but with obvious relief while Fandral lay at her side, deathly pale.

Again, he heard the oldest of his companions before catching sight of him; this time Volstagg was not shouting at him but more toward the sky. "Thank the Norns! A moment there I thought we were done for."  At that the red-haired Asgardian chuckled and lightly punched Hogun, who stood next to him close to the edge of a cliff, on the shoulder. The solemn Vanr raised one eyebrow, a gesture that could mean anything from annoyance to amusement but just as likely both.

And then the second brow came up as well and that Thor recognised as a rare sign of fear. Had the beast not been dead, after all? Were there more than the one he had chased? None of his friends would give him any indication of what the sudden danger entailed, though all of them looked shocked. Slowly he turned around, tightly gripping Mjölnir in anticipation of another fight, but when he saw what had happened he froze in place as if by magic.

Scores, maybe hundreds of Frost Giants were walking out of a thick mist toward the Asgardians, all of them armed with icy weapons, all of them looking hungry for blood. And what was even worse than discovering so many enemies at his back, in the first place, was that their number seemed to increase endlessly; every time the white cover closed behind a group it opened up again for another within the blink of an eye.

Thor was aware that he and his friends were hopelessly surrounded and that the only clear escape route was a jump from the cliff, which even with Mjölnir's powers they might not survive. Norns be good.

A long, deep breath was all he allowed himself then he turned back to the others, gave each a short nod and readied his last reserves. If they would die here today, so be it, but they would not go down easily.

He heard swords being drawn from scabbards, heard Fandral groan heavily as he was picked up from the ground so he could die on his feet as a warrior should, and then the only sound noticeable to him was the deep thumping of his heart. There were no regrets now as he stood side by side with the finest warriors the Nine Realms had to offer to fight overwhelming odds. This was what they had all been born for. If only he could have taken Loki with them to their doom...

The dark thoughts and any wish for vengeance were washed away suddenly by a blinding light, more welcome than the sight of the lightning with which he had defeated his enemies. Had Heimdallr come to their rescue? But no, instead of taking them away from danger, the Bifröst spat out a shape: tall and magnificent, sitting on an eight-legged horse, radiating might and authority.

"Let us finish them together, Father!" Thor said jubilant and suddenly full of renewed energy.

The Allfather seemed anything but pleased. "Silence!" he yelled, and not only the Frost Giants took a few steps away from the edge.

What has made Father so angry? he wondered, but before he could ask he noticed movement from behind him.

On a hovering platform of ice Laufey made his way toward the other king and raised himself to the same height. All around the blue monsters looked uneasy, obviously unsure of what would follow this confrontation but unwilling to leave lest the battle should continue.

He could see neither very clearly and he had to strain his ears to hear what was being said yet after the first few sentences were exchanged he wished he had not tried.

"Laufey, end this." It was a command but spoken warily, as if he did not expect to be obeyed.

"Your boy sought this out."

"As did yours. But you are right; these are the actions of boys. Treat them as such and so will I. We can stop this without further bloodshed."

"Too much of my people's blood has been shed today. I will not be swayed by mere diplomacy, Allfather." The title was spat out like the worst of insults and considering who was speaking that was probably the intent.

Odin seemed not angered by the offence, yet his words were harsh, challenging. "I will not justify Thor's misconduct but if your son had not killed my guards, we would not be standing here today."

Laufey seemed taken aback by that, as if Loki's action had honestly not been known to him. The giant king growled deeply, his red eyes directed at a point behind the mist where the blue-skinned prince most likely stood. In any other situation this would have been amusing, and might still be later if they should survive today, but for now Thor could only think of his own father's anger.

"Both need to be punished, Laufey, but our people should not suffer for it," Odin said, his words recapturing the attention of the other monarch, who now had his arms crossed over his massive chest.

"What are you suggesting?"

"A lesson, a lesson our two sons greatly need. Come to Asgard on the morrow and I will explain. In private," Odin said, obviously only now aware of the crowd that had gathered around them. "For now, I have to take my son and his companions back home."

"Very well, but do not try to deceive me or I will have to devise a punishment of my own." The warning was clear, even though it was spoken almost too low for Thor to hear.

Without a reply Odin raised his hand holding Gungnir, and a hole in the sky opened to envelope the Asgardians, yanking them off the ground and along the branches of Yggdrasil. The familiar feeling of the Bifröst around him left him without the usual excitement of going home after a glorious battle; instead, Thor felt worried and unsure of what punishment he would receive.

Maybe he would have been better off had he stayed to fight every last Frost Giant on the realm or died trying.

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

LL

.........

 

Nyrborg, 'the new palace', had been built over two thousand years ago a half day's march away from Ríkrborg, 'the great palace', and while most every other dwelling on Jötunheimr was erected with either ice or carved into the sheer rock faces of the surrounding hills - signalling the ever changeable, adaptive nature of the land and its people - it was one of only a handful of buildings in this realm made entirely of stone. The underlying message behind this, that the might of Jötunheimr and that of its royal lines was steadfast and enduring, fell rather flat when one considered the complete destruction of the first and the comparatively young history of the second palace. Still, it was the pride and joy of the troop of skilled and experienced craftsmen who had been honoured to build it and the few lucky individuals allowed to reside therein. It was a massive grey structure, in looks closer to a polished mountain than a place meant to accommodate the royal family, and yet Loki still preferred it to the monstrosity that was the golden hall of Asgard.

He stood here in front of two moss covered doors - the only ones in all of Nyrborg - as always uncomfortable so far from the cold winds and without the view of the moon above. Here he felt caged in by the solid walls around him and too warm, even though the palace was not completely devoid of ice. It was, in fact, almost everywhere the eye could see - though only in small patches as if added there by the touch of a hand - proof that even stone which had come out of the boiling core of this world could not fully keep out the cold all around it.

Except for a few hours of sleep every morning Loki spent very little time here, much to his family's disapproval, for he preferred to further his studies in the wilderness of this and other realms. For today's occasion he would have loved to be outside, as well; surrounded by people and wide open space.

Alas, the king had other ideas and had as usual ordered his wayward son to the privacy of the throne room. Contrary to the Jötnar's casual openness with even the most intimate topics, Laufey always kept arguments amongst the family behind closed doors. It was, of course, preferable to a public scolding but it also robbed the Silvertongue of an audience vulnerable to manipulation, leaving him with the only person on Yggdrasil he knew to be fully immune to it.

There were several strategies for dealing with an enraged king he had learned over the years, the most successful of which was to simply keep quiet unless directly commanded to speak for Laufey had no love for long winded excuses. This time that method might prove useless, however, with a punishment already decided upon beforehand and the crime being more severe than insulting a foreign dignitary. No, there was virtually no possibility to better his situation now, so Loki planned to do the exact opposite. If he was going to be punished no matter what he would say, then he could just as well say what he wished.

That simple plan was what had him rooted to the spot in front of the doors, not indecisive about his actions but gripped with a healthy dose of anxiety. Despite his earlier worries he knew full well that his father would not kill him for anything short of treason; still, he could not deny even to himself that he was not looking forward to the reaction his words would bring forth. Maybe, for once, he ought to be grateful for the privacy; an audience would probably have felt more suffocating in this situation than the damnable walls. Walls that he wanted to leave behind as soon as possible; so, with a deep breath he stepped forward and pushed the mossy doors open with both hands, freezing the black plants to a nice shade of light blue.

What greeted him on the other side almost made him stumble, but long practice prevented that little show of weakness from actually being seen. Instead, Loki walked toward the ancient white granite throne with easy grace and a polite smile, then halted at the proper three steps before it and bowed lightly to his father. And mother.

If he had thought it would do him any good he might have fallen to one knee, though the gesture was not practised in so informal a setting, but with both his parents here he could not expect that to help much.

"My king. My lord," he said, luckily without faltering, despite the nagging question in his mind that had almost slipped out instead: Why is my mother here as well, so close after his departure to Norðri?

Sometimes he wondered whether, in one of his many journeys, he had unwittingly angered a particularly vicious sprite and ended up being cursed with centuries of bad luck. There were not many factors, after all, which could have made this impending conversation any more unpleasant and Fárbauti's presence was definitely one of those. Come to think of it, Fárbauti was capable of making many things unpleasant.

With his usual neutral mask in place he stood there and waited to be addressed, all the while trying not to feel like a cross between a small child and a criminal shortly before his execution.

"So, my son, what do you have to say for yourself?" By the Norns, that calm, collected tone boded ill. The question was also not particularly helpful in slowing down the insistent thumping in his chest, and he could not be sure that he had successfully managed to hide the small shiver that went through his entire body. Damn, when had he last been in such a state of nerves?

Still, the initial plan must not be forgotten; he had, after all, decided to be blunt for once, for lies would not be of any use here. "I can say I successfully prevented Thor from becoming king of Asgard, so I will not pretend that I regret today's actions."

The expected shout did not make an appearance nor did angry words or gestures; there was only the arch of one eyebrow that showed the king was intrigued, as if he had not been privy to Loki's intentions all along. Had Helblindi been right; were his plans truly so hard to see through?

"That was your motivation then? I must say, I am surprised." If only he could be so lucky and count that as praise. "Even taking into account all your previous follies, I would never have envisioned how utterly irresponsible you could be!" Ah, there was the shouting; good to know he could still correctly predict Laufey's reactions. "You bring a group of Aesir here for the sole purpose of disrupting their realm's line of succession and you have the gall to be proud of yourself!"

"Why not? You cannot tell me the idea of that lout on a throne is appealing in any way. Maybe we will have more luck with the little one, he seemed pleasant when last I met him." He was not being facetious; as far as these people went, Baldr Prince had been unusually polite and good natured, if a bit weakly.

Beside his father Fárbauti snarled dangerously, which was a sharp reminder to not make light of the matter nor to speak positively of one of their enemies, even if said enemy was a mere child. His mother's hatred for the Golden Realm was rather infamous and it was therefore not surprising that he had not accompanied his partner in confronting Odin.

There would be no words leaving the consort's lips, however; not here in the throne room and when the king had so obviously not finished his lecture. Not that Fárbauti spoke much in other settings. Even at times when their relationship was what one might call amiable - meaning during short lulls between a spot of mischief and another - the words Loki usually heard his mother utter on any given day could be counted on one hand. The general was much more known for quick action and very effective smouldering stares, one of which was directed at the unlucky second prince this very moment. In fact, the only reason the very stones of the palace were not melting from the fire of his anger was that, like all the other members of Loki's family, his mother was incapable of performing seidr.

And truly when he looked at the figure standing like a carved statue beside the throne - taller than average, slender but definitely muscular; long grey hair crowned by the half helm of a soldier and tied in a stern braid that reached the small of his back; one hand, as always, curled around the handle of the wickedly sharp sword that had been in his family's possession for generations - he wondered why he had been so afraid of being ripped to pieces by the wrong parent all along.

A loud, wordless shout pulled him out of his thoughts and reminded him of exactly why.

"Is everything a jest to you? You provoke our enemies and threaten a two thousand year old truce because you dislike the future king. What made you think you had the right to put our people, our realm in danger for your petty little squabbles?"

"Petty? Have you not seen what Thor is like, Father? He is pretentious, self-centred and hateful beyond reason. If he were ever granted the power of a king, he would kill us all without a second thought." Of that he was convinced with all his heart, and he wished that, for once, his words were not doubted so very easily like those of an uneducated peasant. He did lie, often and unapologetically, but not about something which would affect the Fate of all of Jötunheimr.

"And why do you believe it is for you to judge who would be an adequate leader? Do you think yourself so much wiser than the Allfather or myself?" The grip the king had on both sides of the throne was almost strong enough to break the stone, and rather whimsically Loki wondered how many fissures in it were natural and how many had been added there by the hand of his father over the many centuries of his reign. How many are there because of me?

He replied, for once without any trace of anger in his voice; instead, his words came out more like a tired, sad admission because he wanted so much to be believed, "No, but I am the only one daring to do what has to be done."

That was the heart of the matter, was it not? Even he - a scholar of all forms of magic the Nine Realms had to offer in addition to their cultures and languages - was not so full of himself to think that he alone had perceived the Asgardian prince's faults. No one acted on that knowledge, however; they were all either too fearful of the wrath of someone who could summon lightning faster than the word itself could slip from his lips or too blinded by the apparent 'good' and 'honourable' qualities he possessed. If he had not acted, no one else would have.

The last thing that statement should have elicited was loud, buoyant laughter, which now echoed eerily throughout the vast throne room. When had he last heard his father so amused? Of course it was not true amusement, far closer to bitter mockery, as if Loki were still a child trying his first few useless swings at a larger opponent on the training grounds.

Mockery that was also apparent in the king's voice.

"You speak of arrogance and selfishness; attributes which you yourself do not have to worry about. No, you do all of this, your plots against the Aesir, the Dvergar and the Vanir, only for the good of your people. And, of course, you have no other choice, with a king too cowardly to do his duty."

"What? That is not, I would never say..." Suddenly it became hard for him to breath.

"And naturally you do not have to consider the consequences of failing; after all, it is a sheer impossibility that your plans will not turn out as you wished."

Once the air found its way back into his lungs all Loki wanted to do was shout his denial, but even though his usual stoic composure had already slipped, he would not allow it do so any further. Instead, he clenched his hands into fists, concentrating on the pain of sharp black nails driving into his flesh so that he could successfully ignore the deep ache behind his ribs.

"It is not like that. I know there are too many variables to predict the outcome perfectly. I know there is a chance that I might fail. But at least I'm doing something, instead of resigning myself to the doom of our people."

"So you accuse me of complacency on top of cowardice?"

Burning dread flooded his very being. Never in his whole life had he dared to insult the king; such disloyalty and disrespect would not even have crossed his mind. How could his father, who knew him so well, warp his intent in such a way?

"No! No, I would never... Why are you twisting my words?"

"There, you see," Laufey said, pointing at him with one long finger, "You never consider failure, in any way or form, not even when it comes to words. It is only the fault of others if they misunderstand your well-intentioned allegations."

After these words the king rose from his throne and stepped toward his son. His strong, calloused hand landed on Loki's right shoulder, who had to do his utmost not to flinch.

"Which is why you are in need of a lesson or two. Maybe you have been for quite some time. I cannot let you risk the lives of our people just because you believe yourself to be always right. I can only hope Odin will keep his word and think up something fitting."

And I can only hope that I have not just dug my own grave, Loki thought, for the first time contemplating that he might have made a mistake.

.........

TO

.........

"But you are not king!"

The words kept ringing painfully in his head like clumsy footsteps in a dragon's lair, as he sat in one of the chambers adjacent to the healing rooms waiting for his friends to re-emerge. It was unfathomable that anything could be more hurtful, more brutal than this declaration and the things that had been left unsaid but were clear as day.

He was not Asgard's king and now might never be.

Deep inside he wanted to scream, to wreck the walls around him in his rage. This was supposed to be his day of triumph, the beginning of a new era; instead, all of it was ruined by one miserable little Frost Giant who had taken it upon himself to be the bane of Thor's existence.

In the past the chaos Loki had brought about wherever he went had been entertaining, his magic tricks and clever twist of words a welcome challenge to overcome. Now, though, it only infuriated him that he had let pass so many opportunities to end the fiend's life, had listened to reasoning again and again on why it would be a mistake to endanger the truce in such fashion.

It mattered not, however, that damnable truce, not when both sides were so adamant about spilling each other's blood to the last drop. When Thor would be king - and he had to believe it was still when and not if - he was sure to end this nonsense once and for all. The truce had always been on shaky ground, agreed upon not because either king had wished for peace or for reconciliation, but because of the sheer exhaustion of their armies and their realms.

In his youth Thor had believed the war would someday flare up again, similar to the glimmering ambers of a hearth fire which merely needed a fresh log of wood to be rekindled. Surely the Allfather could not leave it at this, with so many of their enemies still alive, with the threat of another attack on their allies looming over them. It had not been fear of the beasts which had gripped him then, for even at that early age the promise of a fight had elicited only happy excitement in him. No, what the young prince had felt was disappointment; after all, the tales of mighty heroes in battle with horrible monsters were each and everyone meant to end with the foes vanquished and the hero going home victorious.

He had asked Odin after the king, for the first time, had recounted the history of the Asgard-Jötunheimr War to his first born son in a tone so very different from the usual boisterous accounts of battle heard in the feast hall.

"Why do they still live, Father?"

"Because we forged a truce, Thor, you know that."

"But why? If it had been me, I would have hunted them down and slayed them all."

"Sometimes, my son, it is important to show mercy. You are too young to understand that now but some day you will."

But he could not, even now, could not make sense of letting an enemy continue to exist when it would only lead to future wars and deaths. The Frost Giants were evil savages who had to be stopped, Loki most of all. Which was what he had attempted this very day, in answer to an unprovoked attack on the palace, on the realm he had sworn to protect.

How could his actions, not so different from any other hero's, earn him such disapproval form the Allfather, lead to shouted accusations of being arrogant, cruel, unworthy?

"There you are! Well, all of your limbs are still in evidence nor are you missing an eye. The talk cannot have been as bad as you feared, then."

Fandral came striding out of the healing rooms, dressed in the forest-green tunic he usually wore on hunting trips, with no hint of the gaping wound that had not wanted to close all the way from the Observatory to the palace.

At the cheerful entrance Thor pushed himself away from the long bench encircling a lit fire pit, and walked forward to grip his friend's arm in greeting. He was more relived to see the fellow warrior hale than he cared to admit; Aesir were not so easily killed, but there could have been permanent damage if the healing had not been performed in time.

"I see you have charmed the ladies into giving you proper attire," he said with a rather forced smile.

"Now, you could not expect me to walk around with one of these white, formless things, could you? Not even I am capable of making that look flattering." Fandral's ensuing laugh was cut short by the arrival of the rest of their band of friends, all of whom seemed perfectly fine, but obviously tired.

"Only you would care about how you are dressed when people can clearly see your innards spilling out," came Sif's playfully annoyed remark, as she made her way around the previously wounded blond to sit down on the edge of the bench. Then she seemed to suddenly notice her prince's presence and she jumped up again and addressed him, "Oh, Thor, you are back! How was your talk with the..."

Heaving a sigh he stepped toward the middle of the circle, arms crossed over his chest, eyes directed at the fire. "Please sit, my friends. I would rather recall that particular conversation only once."

He was painfully aware how grave his voice sounded, as if he were about to announce his own execution. And it might come to it, who knew? To him at least his father's words could hardly have been a harsher sentence.

"The Allfather thinks me unfit to be king now; he has postponed the coronation for I know not how long." That part had hurt the most, that he could not even have been granted a foreseeable end to his punishment. Around him his friends seemed equally dismayed.

Volstagg was shaking his head back and forth in disbelief. "You must have misunderstood him then. Unfit? Because of one little skirmish?" The redhead was too loyal to question his king’s words openly but this was quite close to it.

Thor turned toward the older Ás and smiled grimly. "No, my friend, I heard him clearly. I was not disowned nor did he promise the throne to my brother, but he might do so still."

The grim news elicited a series of shouts form the other four occupants of the room; Hogun looked almost angry enough to throw his mace against the opposite wall, so harshly was he starring at it.

"This is not right. Only this morning were we prepared to pledge our swords to you and now we are told you will not rule? I do not think this just," the earnest Vanr said, voice full of disappointment.

Of course, Thor could hardly agree more, but what was he to do? Any further arguments would be of little use when Odin had so readily dismissed all of his son's explanations and had shown no understanding for his actions. This was a final judgement, he feared, and whatever punishment would follow, it was bound to be far worse than a month of studying in the library.

"Do you think, if we spoke to the Allfather, maybe we could..." Fandral's question was interrupted, again by Sif, who laid a hand on the swordsman's upper arm to gain his attention.

"No, that will not help. What can we say but that we agreed to knowingly break the law? We should offer to share in Thor's punishment, however, that is only fair."

The Warriors Three did not seem to like the proposal very much but none of them spoke up in disagreement. It was gratifying, this display of loyalty and friendship, but he could not let it happen. Not only was Odin less likely to be lenient with someone not of his blood, it would also have been dishonourable of Thor to let anyone else claim responsibility for his actions. Instead, he sighed heavily and sat down between the four, on the place of the bench they had left for him with two of them on either side, and carded the fingers of his right hand through his untidy hair.

"It is kind of you to offer, but not necessary. Whatever punishment my father has in mind, I am sure it will be specially designed only for me."

"And for Loki,"  Sif said, with obvious glee in her voice.

Well, yes, there was that.

He had said, "A lesson our two sons greatly need". It could not be simply the loss of the throne for Loki as the second born prince was not due to inherit. Or was he? To be honest with himself, he had never tried to find out which of the three brothers was to be king after Laufey, and even here in Asgard it was not necessarily the oldest who was first in line; such a thing was determined by the current king alone. But he was quite sure he would have heard of the possibility, at least from the Trickster himself who had never tired of mocking him about what an awful ruler he was destined to become. It had to be something else, then; something that would punish the both of them equally.

Not knowing the Fate that would befall him in only a few short hours was doing wonders for his imagination; with every passing moment he was thinking up ever more horrible monsters he would be ordered to slay, impossible tasks he would have to fulfil, pain he would have to endure. His father was not cruel by nature, but in this Thor would face the king and in that role Odin was anything but forgiving. Of course, it was not fear of the impending task that had him so uneasy but the chance that he might lose his father's approval for good.

Thankfully, he could count on his friends to interrupt these unhelpful thoughts with their typical banter, which had never been more welcome.

"Well, no matter this sad business. I say, when all this is behind us we ought to go hunting. There is that nasty pack of boars which haunts the outer woods..."

"How can you think of food on such an occasion, Volstagg? Have you no shame?"

"I have you know, my mind had not strayed to the feast afterwards for even a moment," the red-headed warrior explained, though after Sif's sarcastic "Naturally" he relented. "Fine, I cannot say the idea of roasted boar is not an appealing reward; that is, however, not the reason I speak of it. The children play in these woods from time to time and it is close to the river where washer women go to clean their garments. Now, it is not as glorious a quest as we are used to..."

"No, you are right, we ought to lend a hand. These poor women must be so frightened."

"And the children, Fandral. You remember, the ones who are actually defenceless."

"Of course, my lady, how could I forget..."

With lightened heart Thor let the four argue on without truly listening, merely taking in the camaraderie and trying to see this day as nothing more than another challenge he needed to overcome. Afterwards he would go hunting and then drink his fill of mead until he forgot how much he wished to wring the Silvertongue's neck.

.........

LL

.........

In front of the old, crumbling temple stood a tall figure on a pedestal, arms outstretched to the sky, speaking in a low rumbling hum that could be heard even from the floating platform Loki stood on.

"Noble ancestors I beseech you, welcome this valiant warrior into your company. Honour him for the deeds he carried out for the good of his people and the realm he had sworn to protect. Give him strength and courage so he may one day return to us."

The words were an old familiar prayer he had heard a hundred times before and so, when the young novices gave the expected cry of "May he return to us", he spoke along with them without meaning to. He had not come here to watch the proceedings but as he saw his brother at the head of the fallen soldier who was about to be buried he had decided to stay a while, after all.

Just as his fellow priests the young prince was dressed in a light brown leather kjilt and a thin white tunic that made it look as if snow had fallen on his broad shoulders and he had not bothered to wipe it away. It contrasted harshly with his black hair which he, unlike Loki, had cropped short so that the curling ends were barely long enough to be tucked behind his ears.

He held a metal bowl in both his hands, filled with hot water from the steaming springs farther south, which he emptied over the body at a nod from his superior - once from head to feet and back again. The steam that rose up at the contact of water and ice obscured both the body on the ground and the priest walking around it, making it seem as if they had vanished into dense fog.

Without needing to search his memory Loki knew how the ritual would continue and again he found his lips silently forming the words which the Godi directed at the sky.

"Let him become one with the mists which birthed us, from which you watch us, so that he too can watch over us. Give him guidance and direction so he may one day return to us."

"May he return to us!" The answering prayer was sung even more enthusiastic now and this time Loki could hear his brother's high melodic voice chiming in.

He had been very young, barely tall enough to reach Helblindi's knees, when he had first witnessed this holy rite. The adults had explained to him that his uncle had died and that now he would be laid to rest with his family, but the ideas of death and loss had not truly registered with him then and he had watched with a smile on his face how the man was encased in ice by a priest's hands; longing with childish fascination for the power he himself had not yet mastered.

Now it was more a mixture of pride and admiration with which he beheld his little brother, knowing how hard it was to form ice around something without touching it and that he must have done this half a dozen times today, considering the already encased corpses beside him. All in all there were eleven of them, lined up in a row, all facing the temple and the High Priest standing in front of it.

"Let him join you in the ice which is our cradle and shield, our home and battleground. Give him love and protection, so he may one day return to us."

"May he return to us! May you all return to us!"

With that final verse that echoed loudly like a battle cry the ceremony was at an end and all assembled priests together with their young students moved to the next fallen soldier. All except for one.

He was tall, though that height was rather diminished by his stooped posture, which indicated either a wound obtained in battle or more likely old age. Even before seeing the instruments this particular priest carried with him Loki easily discerned his function in the procedure by the little whisper of magic palpable in his very being.

When the whole ritual was finished for good all of the dead would be returned to their families who, as tradition decreed, were supposed to bury the fallen near their home village under many, many layers of ice. In the ice the bodies would stay just as they were now, forever part of the realm and never forgotten. Generations from now, though, the families would be gone as well and so would their names, if it were not for the engravings on the ice.

Over the heart the wizened scribe carved the name of the soldier and his rank followed by the father's and mother's name and finally by the words "Son of Ymir who breathed us into live", words that had decorated every Jötunn's corpse for thousands upon thousands of years. After he was done the old Jötunn laid one hand over the carvings, lighting them up with a beautiful violet glow. While not much magic was used, not even enough for the prince to feel it high up on the floating platform, it was sufficient to mark the runes in clear contrast to the ice they were written in. And they would stay that way, he knew, as long as they were rejuvenated every few centuries.

Sighing loudly Loki resigned himself to watching the sombre procedure another four times but as luck would have it, the third-born prince, visibly exhausted now, passed his bowl of water on to another priest beside him and walked over to a boulder far off from the group of praying people, where he simply slumped down in an undignified heap.

Swiftly the Trickster made his way over to his brother, not bothering to hide his approach or muffling his steps; startling a warrior - even one who fought on his side - was, after all, not a terribly good idea.

"Brother, 'tis so good to see you this fine morning," he said cheerfully and not entirely devoid of sincerity.

Býleistr raised his head by way of greeting, the expression on his face was as always polite but stern. Only very rarely did he smile, even rarer were the occasions on which anyone had heard him laugh, though he was not aloof or heartless. Serious, altogether much too serious for one so young, but still kind in his own way. This kindness was visible now in his eyes as he looked at Loki standing in front of him and one could hear it in his voice, if one knew the prince well enough.

"What can I do for you, Brother?"

"Why do you believe I want anything? Maybe I simply wished to see you?"

Other people might have smirked in answer to this laughable question; the only thing the young priest did was cock his head to the side a little, which for him amounted to the same thing. 

"The sun has not yet risen and you yourself never rise before it has sunk again, except when you wish to flee the palace."

When had his brothers become so wise to his habits? He had certainly not encouraged that kind of curiosity in his private life in them. Not that he had tried to hide from them, either, but his comings and goings were his own affair and not something he wished anyone to spy on.

"If you must know, I have not gone to bed yet; my current predicament does not really lead to a very restful sleep."

In truth he had not even tried to sleep; with a head full of worrisome thoughts and a gut full of rage there seemed to be no point. So he had walked all the way from the palace with no clear destination in mind until he had arrived here, intend on recapping in his head the battle that had taken place only hours ago. Instead, he had come at the right time to see what said battle had cost his people.

That wicked sprite was surely cackling with glee over his misfortune.

"I am afraid I cannot help you with that. If your conscience plagues you, that is how it should be." The words were harsh as usual, though not meant that way, he knew. Býleistr spoke only the truth as he saw it, in stark contrast to his older brother. Still, being honest did not mean his assumptions were correct.

"Then it is a good thing I am not filled with guilt, is it not?" At the unhappy set of his brother's mouth he felt anger churning in his chest, though he did his best not to let it bleed into his next words. "No, I will not have you lecturing me on this, not today. Father has made his displeasure known already; I am not interested in hearing how the ancestors are likely to react or how badly I have shamed myself."

There were countless lessons flooding Loki's mind now, called forth by his own words, lessons that told of how to bring honour and respect to the family, how to behave in order to please the ones who came before, those who were forever watching over their people. He was not even sure it was possible to live after all of these guidelines and if it was, then it was doubtlessly a very dull life.

"I was not about to say any of that, Brother." Now Býleistr sounded almost miffed, as if he had felt unjustly scolded. He had risen from his seat but otherwise stayed where he was, arms folded in front of his chest. "It is merely... I just hoped that you had come to regret you actions, after all. Father might change his mind about your punishment were you to tell him you had."

Sometimes, mostly because of his position as a priest and his always proper demeanour, Loki forgot how very young the third prince truly was. It had only been two decades past that he had reached full manhood and even though he was usually the most mature in any given group, there were moments when his youth was still apparent.

Moments as the one right here, when he stood there in his priestly robes, head slightly bowed so that several of the neatly combed back locks of black hair fell into his face, looking so utterly lost that it took all of Loki's willpower to not immediately embrace him. Instead, he stepped closer, leaving only a foot of space between them, put a hand on his brother's shoulder and looked deep into his eyes.

"I will say this but once so that you understand me: I do not regret anything." This time he did not even attempt to rein in his anger and annoyance. "What happened today was exactly what I wished to happen. It matters not if Father or you judge me a disappointment because of it. I did what I had to, to protect this realm."

Under his hand Býleistr's shoulder slumped, making the Jötunn who was already a head shorter than him, appear even smaller and perfecting the look of a sad little child. People had often commented how much the two brothers looked alike, but Loki highly doubted he had ever appeared so very innocent.

"I... I did not mean to judge; it is not my place to do so." The wavering in the priest's voice was disconcerting; it was as if he expected to be struck down for his insolence. By whom, either the ancestors above or himself only a step away, Loki could not say. "Maybe your actions were necessary, maybe not. But could you not say... Could you not simply ask Father's pardon? You do not have to mean it."

Was Býleistr - one of the most devout people in all the Nine Realms, the one who admonished anyone no matter their age or station when they dared to curse in his presence - suggesting he lie to their king? If he had not known better he would have laughed at a jest well told, but humour was not something the third born prince possessed in abundance. And there was also the fact that even a stranger would have seen the sheer sadness in the young Jötunn's face. This unusual emotional reaction could not have stemmed from religious belief alone, which would have more likely driven him to rage and lecture. No, this was different, personal.

To lighten the gloomy mood Loki chuckled rather unconvincingly, slapping the shoulder he had before been gripping, in overly cheerful manner. "Well, that would surely be an accomplishment to boast of to my children. 'I once lied to the great Laufey's face!' Hah! Would you advice me to lie to Mother, as well? I could try if you wish; surely there is no need to have all of my teeth for chewing moss."

The litany was stopped by a hand on his own shoulder, and when he directed his gaze back to the man in front of him instead of over his head, he immediately regretted the mocking tone.

Sudden as a lightning strike the sadness drained from his brother's eyes only to be replaced by unbridled fury, and his hand was pushed away so forcefully that he stumbled backward and almost fell onto the snowy ground. Experienced with this kind of violent outbursts at one of his unpopular witticisms Loki prepared himself for combat, grateful that there would be no need for either a weapon or a spell as this particular opponent favoured to fight only with his hands. Not that he planned to hurt one of his own family in any case; he would simply have to take the defensive role for once.

With clenched fists Býleistr stood there, breathing heavily, mouth opening and closing as if he were unsure of what to say or maybe considering whether he ought to shout, instead. The tension was tangible in the air, and the Trickster's resolve to wait out the first few hits before he himself struck was slowly wearing thin. He was not the aggressor here - to be honest, he was not even a little bit interested in a fight - but if the other prince needed to vent his anger...

"Why must you always do this, Loki?" The voice was low as before but rough and strained, close to hysterical. "In a few hours you will go to Asgard to receive your punishment; you know not what will be done to you, what the Allfather will ask as payment for your crimes, and still you talk as if all of this were a game. Have you no care for your own life?"

That last question took him completely off guard. His life? Whatever might happen, surely his life was not hanging in the balance. But had he not thought so himself, after his talk with Father?

"Come now, you believe Odin will have me executed for killing two Einherjar? I have done far worse in the past, brother dear." And somehow he had always managed to escape punishment, through magic and lies or simply brute strength, and there was that one time with the dress...

"How should I know what these bloodthirsty savages have in mind for their enemies? It matters not! You will go and you will not come back the same, of that I am certain."

Was he worried that Loki might lose his tongue or a hand? His skin, maybe? It was preposterous; the Aesir were hateful, but he himself was a prince...

"Our father will not let any harm come to me," he said, voice strong and steady despite the doubts in his heart.

"Our father will do what he must to prevent another war," his brother answered so strangely gentle, as if he were delivering dire news.

And it was indeed dire but true, nonetheless. No matter his earlier denial of his king's cowardice, Laufey would not dare to defy the Allfather in this. He was not one to take risks, not any more.

Fear crept up on him so unanticipated and sudden, like a geyser breaking through ice in the pit of his stomach. Not even in his parents' presence had it affected him quite so strongly for there at least he had known what to expect, had shielded his heart against the pain of harsh, cruel words. Asgard's king was wholly unknown to him, though, an entity only present in tales of the war long past where the Ás had lead armies against Jötunheimr, slaughtered its people by the thousands and where he had attempted to...

Only when a hand gripped his upper arm to steady him did Loki notice how close he had come to falling backwards onto the ice, so hard had he been hit by the realisation of how much danger he was in. The fight with Thor was an experience he would not wish to ever forget, so exhilarating and intoxicating it had made his blood and magic sing. Against the prince's father, however, there was no weapon he could wield, no spell that could protect him.

"Brother?" Now there was worry in the priest's high voice, which should have lightened his heart but did the exact opposite.

"Will you pray for me, my friend?" he asked when what he had really wanted to say was 'Will you fight for me?' but that would have been childish and cruel and altogether not helpful. This was not something either of them could fight.

"You have never asked such a thing of me before. Why now?" the younger prince asked, sounding equally surprised and hopeful as he lightened his hold on Loki's arm. Yet he did not let go fully and neither did he avert his eyes from where they were starring intensely at his brother.

"Because I should make use of every bit of help which is available to me," he said, though the true answer was very different and would never leave his lips. Of course, there was really no need to say it when it was so obvious to them both. Because I am afraid.

If the ancestors would see him as a coward now, it was a price he was willing to pay, if only they were generous enough to grand him their protection. It was the only one he could count on now.

.........

TO

.........

A loud crack resounded in the small courtyard, wood splinters flew in all directions and Thor's heavy breathing could be heard by anyone brave enough to walk by. It had already proven to be an exceptionally warm day, though the sun had risen only a few hours ago over the hills of Asgard and despite the grey clouds hanging in the sky that were bathing half of the city in shadow. He could not with certainty say whether it was the heat or the exercise that had him so exhausted but, either way, he was leaning on his sword as he was observing his handiwork, pleased with the mess of straw on the ground and the crudely made head he had just separated from the ugly body.

For a short while he had succeeded in forgetting that today was any different from others spent in the summer sun, letting instinct and reflex take over to push out frustration and worry. Then he looked over his shoulder to receive Fandral's usual disproving frown for his show of brute strength against the straw man instead of the other's precise and artful swordsmanship, and was reminded that he was entirely alone on the training grounds. Of course, the five of them did not always train together, but it was very unusual to find not even one of his friends offering to spar on a fine morning such as this.

With a huff he lifted his weapon again and drove it through where the heart of a living opponent would have been, cleaving the wooden pole in the middle of the straw puppet in two. If only he were back on Jötunheimr, dealing this fatal blow to his enemy...

But this way lay trouble, and had he not come here to forget about the damnable red-eyed menace? Thoughts of Loki had already cost him a night of restless sleep and caused this foul mood which had driven his friends from his company after an uncomfortable meal filled with curt words and forced smiles on his part, pitying glances and equally forced cheerfulness from the other warriors.

Naturally, none of them had volunteered to go up against him even in a friendly bout with his anger so apparent that it was a wonder thunder had not followed him every step he took, which it would have done had he not left Mjölnir in his chambers for that very reason. Even without her, there was no dispelling the clouds that were testament to his swirling emotions.

Still, a living opponent would have been most welcome now; a true challenge to take his thoughts off too heavy matters.

"You ought to leave a few palls for the guards, at least," a voice remarked from behind, and for a moment the grip on his sword tightened before recognition made him reconsider.

The young boy who approached the courtyard was dressed in faded brown leathers, his weapon was made of light wood and visibly too large for him. Despite himself Thor smiled at the sight of his brother imitating a battle stance he must have learned from watching Sif.

"And you ought not be here, little one," the first born prince countered, voice much gentler than with any other person he had spoken to on this day, not betraying his dark thoughts. The words caused a wide grin on the other blond's face; as well as they should, given that they were a mere formality between the two brothers, a well known reminder that they both were breaking the rules before they proceeded.

Thor chuckled loudly and walked toward the younger Ás who had produced another practice sword from his belt, this one more suitable to his size compared to the first, which he now held out, hilt first, to his 'opponent'.

"Are you sure you wish to try me today, Brother?" he asked as he took the offered, longer sword from Baldr's hand. "More experienced warriors than you have chosen to seek the safety of the palace rather than face my anger." He could not fully hide the disappointment at his friends' disappearance, as if he were a wild animal who threatened to spew fire at anyone who came near it. Had he truly been so volatile in their eyes?

"I see no need to worry; you would never hurt me." This was said with such confidence that it made Thor's heart swell. Of course he would not harm his little brother, not even by accident. For this, though, he would need to concentrate, rein in his strength, slow his movements, calm his temper. However, as he watched Baldr, practically bouncing on his feet, anticipation in his light grey eyes, it suddenly seemed not such a complicated task to accomplish. He could forget his own worries for the moment and simply give his brother one of his secret lessons in swordsmanship.

In fact, it was astonishingly easy to revert back to the role of a teacher which he had taken on a hundred times before, to correct stance and grip, to let his weapon meet his opponents' without knocking it out of the other's hand, all the while relating stories in which this or that clever move had saved one of his friends' lives.

Thor had never thought himself a patient man and would have raised his cup in toast to the jest if anyone had told him he would ever teach a child the intricacies of battle. He was a warrior and knew everything there was to know about combat but that did not consequently qualify him as an instructor; in all honesty, that more than disqualified him for that role. Too often had he heard hushed comments from the guards and open reprisals from his companions on how he rushed into battle with no plan in mind, was caught too easily in the berserker-lust that made his blood boil and his movements a series of reflexes rather than a well thought-out technique.

They were right, of course, and he had said as much to his brother when he, a few years ago, had walked into the courtyard, dressed in the garments he must have apprehended from a stable boy, demanding that he be trained in the arts of war. At first all he had been able to do was laugh at the child before him, the seriousness in his voice, the wooded stick with which he had armed himself; it had simply been such a charming sight. Baldr, however, had not wavered in his conviction, stating that he needed to learn and that he would only do so from the best. No argument had changed the young prince's mind, not even the now familiar warning of their father's disapproval.

Odin had promised his youngest son his own tutor once he reached his nine hundredth year of life - at which point he would turn form a child into an adolescent in the eyes of Asgard - had allowed him to watch the other warriors practice, but he was forbidden from challenging any of them to a duel, especially ones like Thor, who were more than twice his age.

Baldr had answered these concerns with a smile and his ever present conviction. "Father does not need to know, as long as you do not break any of my bones." Somehow that had completely disarmed him as nothing else could have, for he knew with complete certainty that he would not deliver so much as a bruise to his brother and from the look of it so did the younger prince. He could do this and he wanted to, he had decided in that moment; wanted to prepare the other Ás so that they could one day fight side by side against anything that threatened their realm.

That very first lesson had been filled with many a broken stick, frustrated shouts whenever a move had seemed too tricky for the lad and Thor's repeated mumbling of "I am not cut out to be a tutor". But despite the rather shaky start, Baldr came back to the training grounds every time he saw it empty of any but his brother and their friends.

Now the leathers he wore were made specifically for him by Volstagg's wife, the sword he held with a much more practised grip a gift from Hogun after he had managed to block a swing from the Vanr for the first time, and Thor felt pride at every little improvement, at every hit his student managed to land on him. Even if he still held firm to the belief that he was not an adequate teacher, maybe for his own little brother he was the right one.

For what felt like hours he lost himself to this, focused all his attention on the little blond bundle of energy, laughing heartily at the sheer enthusiasm with which his thrusts were blocked as if he were a real monster for his brother to defeat.

"Thor, do you believe you might still have time for this once you are king?"

It was only a matter of time of course, that he was reminded of the world beyond the battlefield, though he had not excepted that particular reminder, which became apparent when the only answer he could give was an inarticulate "Eh..."

That momentary speechlessness did not seem to bother the younger prince in the slightest; in fact, he simply continued his enquiry as if he had not noticed Thor's confusion. "I understand if you do not, naturally. A king has so many matters to attend to and surely Fandral would be very happy to teach me, instead. Though maybe you would rather have him on your personal guard, which is understandable as well, so..."

If he had been confused before, now he felt practically blown away by the storm of words and the rapid speed at which they were hurled at him. What was his brother saying? Why would he still think of his future as Asgard's king? Had he not been told?

Slowly he stepped forward, practice sword now secured in his belt, crouched down in front of his brother so that he did not have to loom over him and reached out to grasp the nape of Baldr's neck; a gestured that immediately stopped the barrage of questions and made the boy look straight at him.

"Has no one informed you of Father's punishment, my friend? You know I am not to be made king now, do you not?"

"Of course you will be king." The conviction was heartening but it would not change the truth.

"No... no, it is... I am not worthy, he said," He stumbled over the words; they tasted like bile in his throat.

"But that is nonsense! I know you are worthy. Father will see it as well; you just have to show him," came the reply in a voice both angry and lecturing, as if the little prince were reminding him of a lesson he should have known by heart.

And truly, would it turn out to be such a hard task to prove his worth when all of Asgard had seen it in him before? That, however, was where the problem lay, he thought bitterly. How did one prove a thing that had never been doubted, a thing as certain as the colour of the sky, the honour of the Aesir, the wisdom of the Allfather? How could he regain what he had always possessed? But regain it he must, for though he believed Baldr would make an excellent king in his stead, the mere suggestion would only hurt his brother.

He shook himself out of his deep thoughts to look into the warm grey eyes again and asked, in a way that he knew was equally hopeful and sheepish, "May I count on your help with that then, Brother?"

There were myriad answers which might have come from the other prince; the one that finally did after what looked to Thor like extensive consideration, if he read the young face right, was nothing he could have possibly expected, though.

"No."

"No?" he repeated, utterly dumbfounded.

"No. I cannot help you. This is a quest you will have to master on your own. Or alone with Prince Loki, I suppose."

"With Loki?"

"Well, he is going to be punished as well, is he not? Whatever it is Father wishes you to do, it will have to be something the two of you can accomplish together, I think."

Now all his earlier worries seemed suddenly small and insignificant in the light of the horrible scenario of Loki and him needing to fight side by side, quite likely without killing one another. Was that even feasible? Surely Odin could not be so cruel? As soon as the idea had crossed his mind he dismissed it with a heartfelt laugh; even the simplest of fools had to know that this would only lead to disaster, and it would not give him a chance to demonstrate his fitness for kingship in any case.

Fighting with Loki might not, but maybe fighting against him... If they were set a task, then the only thing Thor had to do was finish it faster, show more skill at it. Clearly a hero could not ask for a better way to best a monster after an honourable battle was denied to him.

Grinning Thor embraced the rather stunned second prince, already picturing the glorious quest and the pride that he would see returned to his father's eye. "You are right! Of course, you are right. I will make Father see reason and not even Loki Liesmith will be able to hinder me."

This was why he should always listen to his brother and even if the boy's shoulders slumped and his sigh sounded a tad unhappy, then Thor simply took that as a sign of fond exasperation. After all, his family's belief in him was something he could always count on.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

LL

.........

The road they travelled was as familiar as the back of his hand, the unpleasant warmth of the sun a known and expected annoyance, the smells of blooming flowers a happy reminder of better days; none of that could calm the incessant feeling of utter wrongness in his every vein.

Not once had he been in this realm as himself without so much as the aid of shadows to hide behind or a glamour to obscure his features. He had dreamed of this in some of his darker hours, when the idea of war was more appealing than the logical arguments against it; had dreamed of invading this place and fighting alongside his brothers to achieve what no one had before: to take over Asgard.

He walked not beside his brothers, however, but beside his father who seemed - as everything else today did to Loki - strangely wrong in this golden world. The king was, of course, completely at ease for he too had been here many a time, though in a much more official and less criminal capacity than his son.

Nonetheless, there was that nagging feeling of them simply not belonging here, which Loki had never experienced before in all his visits. Naturally, he could blame it on the people on either side of the road who were currently staring at the two Jötnar with either disgust or badly hidden fear. They were not wanted here, that much was understood, although they had been invited by the Allfather himself.

There were also the obvious physical aspects: Here in these bright gleaming halls their blue skin appeared much lighter, not unlike the clear ice over a shallow river. Likewise, there was the simple issue of size. Laufey, who towered over even the tallest of the Aesir, had upon their arrival on the Bifröst's Observatory made the gatekeeper look a child next to him. Surrounded by people of similar build and ancient walls which dwarfed all of them it had never been so apparent and neither had the fact that he towered over Loki himself, but here among their enemies it was unnatural, as was the idea that they had ever managed to defeat the king. There were nothing more than bugs underneath his feet.

Still, they had defeated him and that was, indeed, the heart of the matter, the cause of this bothersome emotion pressing on his chest.

They should not be here, not as they were now - a despised foe and his delinquent son on their way to the golden palace, summoned by the all-powerful Allfather to kneel at his feet. It was an act of humiliation, a slight to their standing and pride, and he wondered how his father could endure all of it with his head held high. Loki did the same, of course, and he also banished any treacherous sentiment from his face until it showed the usual blank mask he wore most of the day in front of everyone but a select few. 

Jötunheimr's sovereign, however, was not known to hide emotions in this fashion, so it was a surprise to see no trace of anger when he chanced to look up and into the other's so familiar eyes. Instead, the only thing he could find was a hard, unwavering kind of resolve, as if he were about to go into battle strong as ever but unarmed.

Had he looked like that when he had surrendered to Odin all those years ago?

Shaking that cruel, disloyal thought from his mind Loki directed his attention to their surroundings once again and noticed for the first time how utterly quiet it was despite the mass of people who milled to and fro the many halls in Asgard's capital town of Gladsheimr, apparently not bothered by the dark clouds that covered the usually starlit sky. Or simply too curious of the strangers to care. The Aesir were starring, pointing but none of them seemed courageous enough to raise their voice above a whisper, which was a clever decision considering the superior hearing of his kind. As it was, he could still hear nervous mutterings of "monsters" and "murderers", each of which he greeted with a pleasant smile in the direction of the speaker.

So they feared his kind still. Good. This he could cope with, could even relish in. After all, wasn't fear a form of respect? And it was something that gave him back a sliver of control, which he had, unfortunately, been lacking this entire day. From the rather hurried departure to their landing on the Rainbow Bridge - everything had been handled by others, through the magic of another realm, as if he had been dragged everywhere by a leash. It was not a situation he was used to, to have no say on his movements, but there had naturally been no other way than to follow his king, if he did not wish to worsen his punishment.

Had he been in a position to decide, he would have looked for Helblindi before he left, even though the encounter was bound to have led to a slew of curses being hurled his way; it would have been worth it just to see that assurance again, to know his big brother was prepared to lead an army to protect him.

Moreover, he would have given everything to avoid the chance of travelling via the Bifröst for the first time; an experience so unpleasant it made him wonder why the construct was still standing even a day after it had been build, let alone many millennia later. The energy had yanked and pulled, made his eyes water and his ears ring, and the sheer amount of magic involved had been much too overwhelming to comprehend. The most absurd aspect of it had been, however, that the entire journey had taken place within the blink of an eye. He knew, of course, that his own ways of traversing Yggdrasil were equally fast - be it leaping from one side of a battlefield to another or slipping between the pathways connecting the realms - but they had never felt quite so rushed. Always he needed to concentrate, to visualise the destination in his mind, to check his every step, but here he had definitely not been in control of any of it. The powerful forces could have just as well pushed him toward Muspellsheimr or Hel for all he knew and he could not have lifted a finger against it. The notion of that vulnerability twisted his stomach into knots, if he so much as thought of it.

Though it was strangely fitting, this loss of control, given what was about to happen once he was in the palace proper. Which would be all too soon, he realised as he saw the massive golden doors open at their approach, noticed the contingent of guards bow grudgingly, felt the change of cobblestone to metal under his feet.

Just for a moment he closed his eyes and breathed deeply in and out, remembering Býleistr's words mere hours before. "You will go and you will not come back the same." And he desperately wished to know whether that was a good omen or a bad one.

Then he took a step forward and another until he was standing beside his father within Valaskjalf, the palace of the gods, and even the loud bang of the doors closing behind them could not drown out the rushing sound in his ears.

No, he would not come back the same. Maybe he would not come back at all.

.........

TO

.........

Standing in front of Asgard's throne beside his bitterest enemy while they both awaited their fathers' punishment was surely one of the strangest situations Thor had ever found himself in.

Though he had heard the summons on Jötunheimr, it had still come as a surprise to see King Laufey and his son walk side by side into the palace and even more so that they had come alone. Being generous it could be interpreted as an act of trust in the safe conduct guaranteed to every member of a royal family visiting this realm during times of peace but, knowing the Frost Giants as well as he did, Thor saw it as a deliberate slight to his people's valour not to bring along even a single guard.

Unlike during the attack the day prior, no ice had coated the walls and floors as the two blue skinned warriors had made their way through Valaskjalf to greet Odin at the foot of the throne. It seemed they possessed much more control over their strange cold power than Thor had thought, which begged the question of why Loki had so blatantly announced his presence in the Vault.

Asgard's crown prince had mentioned neither issue, in fact he had barely said a word after the obligatory greeting, but while he stood and waited they still occupied his thoughts. Sif's usual warning of tricks and deceit would not leave him, and, naturally, it would not have been surprising to find that Laufey had only agreed to come here as part of some elaborate plot. Like father like son, after all.

Before he could consider the possible danger further, he was brought back to the present situation by the loud echo of footsteps on the marble floor which thankfully announced the return of the two kings. He could not quite suppress the sigh of relief when he saw them enter the hall from a side door that led to a small private study in which Odin and his 'guest' had been debating for what must have been hours. 

Now they stood next to each other before the throne in perfect imitation of their sons and, though it irked him to do so in front of the Frost Giants, Thor immediately fell to one knee and put a fist over his heart. A quick look to his right revealed Loki doing the same, in the strange fluid motion which seemed inherent to the Trickster's every action, both when performing intricate seidr rituals or heated battle manoeuvres. It was the first time he had seen the other prince move at all since his arrival. During the long wait he had stood still as a stature with his face betraying no emotion, just as it was refusing to do now.

A part of Thor wanted to ask the small Frost Giant what he was thinking, was hoping to find the same anticipation for the upcoming quest which was coursing through his own veins. For, though he had worried much about what his father might demand of him so that he could regain his trust, Baldr's words had given him new hope. Now his fingers itched to use Mjölnir and face an unknown foe as he had done so many times successfully. Surely Loki would welcome a challenge as well, and maybe if their quest took more than a day, they might even have the opportunity to finish the joyous battle they had started on Jötunheimr.

Unfortunately, all he could see on the other's face was stone cold indifference, as if whatever Fate would befall him today was of no consequence to him. It was hard to believe but then, who could guess the Trickster's feelings? Maybe he truly cared not, maybe he believed he could wriggle out of this punishment as he had out of many others in the past, like a fish through a net with too many holes. At that thought the wish to grip Mjölnir and fight became even stronger within Thor, but he had laid the hammer down beside him before the throne's first step, as custom decreed. Even here, so close to his enemies, he would not disrespect his father by carrying a weapon where the king spoke justice.

He ought not have worried so, in any case, for the loud clang of Gungnir on the golden floor of Hlidskjalf announced the formal beginning of the trial; there was no time left for the vile Liesmith to flee. The Allfather's voice was booming in the otherwise empty hall, his tone grave.

"Thor Odinson, Loki Laufeyson. You both stand here to face punishment for your crimes against Jötunheimr and Asgard. You broke what had been a peaceful coexistence between our realms, caused the death of thirteen loyal, valiant warriors who had been caught in your dispute, and you disobeyed your kings. All of this was done for the sole purpose of provoking each other, of challenging each other to a fight. It has started a long time ago and it has caused damage before, but despite that I believe neither Laufey nor I could have predicted the sheer amount of destruction you were willing to accept in the wake of your enmity."

At these words the Frost Giant king levelled an evil red-eyed stare at Mjölnir as if he wished her shattered in to a million pieces, just like the icy floor the day before had under Thor's mighty blows. Involuntarily he lifted a hand toward his weapon in order to call it to him and protect it from whatever plan Laufey had for it, though he thought better of it when he felt his own father's anger magically vibrate in the air. Said anger was also apparent in Odin's voice when he continued his speech, again addressing both princes in the name of both kings.

"We cannot expect this hatred between you to disappear at our command; you are clearly too headstrong for that. Nor can we trust that being confined to your respective homes and forbidden from entering that of the other would stall your disputes for long. So, after lengthily debate, we have found only this one solution..."

While he had not seen it himself, with his eyes being firmly directed toward where his own father stood, Loki must have shown some sign of disagreeing with the Allfather's words or perhaps the giant king simply knew his son very well, for Laufey quickly added, "And before you ask, my son, yes I did agree to this", which earned him an annoyed huff from said son.

This interaction lifted the mood in the room for a short moment or at least it did so for Thor, but it could not last, of course, not when he knew the sentencing was only a heartbeat away.

A quest. A monster. A fight. Simply give me something to fight, Father, Thor thought, both dreading what was to come and wishing it to happen now without further delay.

"Because we cannot trust you to keep the peace, we will banish you to where you cannot endanger it further and because we cannot let your battles continue even away from home, we will also take your powers and immortality until such time as you prove yourself worthy of them."

Though he, like Loki, had risen to his feet when he had been addressed, now Thor wished he were still kneeling, the easier to hide the blow this sentence had dealt him.

Banishment. It was too hard to even think beyond this cruel, hateful word, and while he knew the two blue beasts still held their unnatural powers in check, he felt an icy chill deep in his bones.

Banishment. And that to an as of yet unknown place. The possibilities seemed very narrow but all of them worrisome. Still, he could not see Odin sending him and Loki to Nilfheimr or Muspellsheimr, both of which were dangerous to them even now and in a powerless state would have killed them much faster than they could each other.

Different, friendlier places came to mind, but these presented other, subtler dangers. They were not supposed to fight each other, but Thor had helped many people all across the Nine Realms, had made friends in most of them who surely would assist him this once. Loki, too, ought to have at least some allies among the fiends that plagued Yggdrasil who would fight in his stead if given the right incentive. Would Odin think of that as well when considering their exile? Would it tarnish his honour to consider this himself, to think of another taking his place on the battlefield against the evil Trickster? Unfortunately, he could not hope that the Frost Giant would let the chance pass and so he would have to swallow that bitter poison, if it came to it. Maybe if he asked one who owned him a debt of life, then the loss of face would not be too sharp...

"Thor Odinson."

Of course being cast out of his realm was merely the first part of the sentencing; a fact which was fast driven home by the Allfather's next words.

"I hereby take from you Mjölnir, entrusted to you many centuries past, not to aid in blind destruction but to protect those who could not do so themselves. She will be yours again once you have regained those qualities which made you worthy of the responsibility."

Suddenly the mighty hammer flew through the air, a sight he had witnessed countless times. Now however she landed not in his own outstretched hand but in that of the older Ás before him. Perplexed he stared at the weapon, still feeling the hum of its energy but not the connection he had had with it for so many years, and he knew with sudden clarity that he would not be able to call it to him anymore nor cause the thunder for which he was so famous. The realisation almost made him scream in outrage and it caused a pain similar to being stabbed with a blunt knife, deep within his heart.

The weapon had been in the possession of Asgard's royal family for several generations, always being wielded by the one who's temperament and strength were best suited to the task. Before him his father's elder brother Vè had been responsible for it, slaying enemies with mighty blows and lightning alike, until his untimely death among the many valiant heroes who had fallen on Svartálfheimr. For centuries Mjölnir had lain surrounded by other treasures in the Vault below Valaskjalf where Thor had admired her from afar, always dreaming of the glory and power of wielding the hammer himself. On the day Odin had decided he was finally ready, he had almost given up hope on his chance; after all, his little brother had been born a mere few decades before and maybe, despite his rather fitting name, the Fates would determine Baldr to be a better Thunderer than him. He had told himself then, that he would bear this disappointment with good grace and no jealousy toward the other prince, something that he now, after such a long time as the weapon's owner, would readily admit to have been impossible.

It was not simply the power which flowed through him at his command - or unintentionally when provoked - nor the superior strength of the hammer compared to even the best dwarven made sword and spear. No, what made it truly special, and what had cheered him for months after the ceremony in which Odin had personally put it into his hands, was the trust of this responsibility, comparable to the that of naming him King of the Aesir. Both of which he had lost on this very day.

And still the punishment was not over.

"Thor Odinson, I take form you the title of Prince of Asgard and the powers which mark you as one of the royal family, until you prove yourself worthy of being both my son and heir again."

The first sign of a change this time was the disappearance of his armour, which showed to all the worlds his rank and origin. This alone was painful to endure, but then the physical changes became clear and he forgot about his other worries as if they, too, had vanished into smoke.

It crept up on him like poison, a bone deep exhaustion, worse than he had ever experienced even after day long battles. Again, he wished he had remained kneeling before the throne, for with every passing moment it became harder and harder to stand on his own to two feet. More so, he longed for privacy; it was embarrassing enough to become so weak so fast in his father's presence, but with Loki next to him it was downright mortifying. He did not even dare to look to his right, so sure was he of the smug grin on the often so inexpressive face.

With a deep, pained sigh Thor did his best to stand straight once more when he felt the spell ending, and then looked to the white haired king, waiting for further indignities, but his father directed his one blue eye away from him and toward his enemy, instead.

At least he would not have to suffer alone, he thought with bitter resentment. It was only a small comfort and, indeed, he could not find it in himself to feel gleeful of the prospect of seeing Loki's pain for once. However, if it was pity the two kings expected to instil by making both of them watch what was done to the other, they had certainly failed their cause with Thor. He was simply much too tired to feel anything at all or to think anything but 'let it be over, let me sleep'. He longed for his bed, for friendly words of comfort, for the belief that everything would be alright soon, despite knowing that he could not count on any of these things now or wherever it was he would have to go. Sleep then, he would settle for days and days of sleep.

.........

LL

.........

"I take from you Mjölnir." The sentence had boomed throughout the vast empty hall and, looking at the Thunderer's stricken face, it was a harsh blow, indeed. Loki, though, had no toy that could be taken away, no mighty weapon inherited from kings of the past. There was only one thing of equal, if not higher value, and the thought of losing it was overwhelmingly terrifying.

Without his father here he might have argued his way out of this punishment, found the fault in the sentencing by examining the exact wording and won this day by superior intellect alone. Laufey, though usually proud of his son's clever tricks whenever they were directed at their enemies, had, unfortunately, made it quite clear that he would not welcome an escape now, no matter how much it would have humiliated the Aesir.

Likewise, were it anyone else before him but Odin, he might have fought his way out or vanished through magical means, but the attempt alone was tantamount to suicide. He had not looked impressive, this old white-haired Ás, the way he sat on the farseeing throne of ancient history, clearly leaning tiredly on the spear which symbolised his authority. The moment he had stood close enough to him, head bowed in grudging respect, Loki had felt it, however. A power that permeated the very air around them, one unlike anything on Yggdrasil; it was enough to drive lesser beings to their knees in fear. No wonder the mortals had once worshipped this warrior as the God of gods.

Old children's stories went around and around in his head but while many of them had told of the mighty Allfather as a bloodthirsty fiend on the battlefield who had killed uncountable opponents on his quest to subjugate every last corner of the Nine Realms, the prince was sure none of them had ever warned the avid listener of the unnatural force that he possessed.

Loki's own ability at seidr was, of course, no shoddy thing and in any case it was not something which could be measured with the aid of scales like precious metals or tested like the sharp edge of a sword. Magic, after all, was an entity of its own, a constant presence throughout the realms; it was the control over this power that separated the dabbler from the true mage.

So while he knew of very few individuals who could come even close to beating him in the talent he had honed for centuries, it was out of the question that he would ever be able to master the energy currently coursing through the room. Which was probably for the better for, though he had been a prince his entire life, the king's responsibility was not something he would relish in.

Of course, power would have been the only thing to safe him now.

There was no need for the words, for elaborate explanations, as much as they were part of the formal trial. Loki was quite aware of what was about to be done to him, and the blunt, official sentencing seemed merely a cruel act to humble him, like beating a prisoner to a bloody pulp moments before his execution. So the young Jötunn did his best to drown out the voice of Asgard's king, strengthened his mask so that he would not visibly react when his honorific was flung at him again like an insult. It was a true test of character, however, because the instinct to flee still coursed through his every muscle, and while he had known what was to come from the beginning, there was this pesky little hope in him which told him, It will not be what you think. He cannot do this. Father will not let him.

Yet Father seemed not to object; in fact, it was he who spoke the words which would condemn the Trickster.

"Loki Laufeyson, I take form you the title of Prince of Jötunheimr and the rights that come with being one of my kin. You will regain both once you have proven yourself worthy of them."

Surprisingly, it was this that drove Loki nearly to tears, hearing again no anger but disappointment in the king's voice. Immediately he wanted to beg for forgiveness, to plead for the words to be taken back, but it would be of no avail here, aside from humiliating him further. Maybe he should have taken Býleistr's advice on showing regret at the first chance, even if at that point it would have been a lie.

His only comfort was that he had no armour aside from the silvery kjilt around his hips which Odin could take from him, so the removal of the title was only symbolic and not physical as it had been for Thor. Silently he thanked the ancestors that the patterns lining his body, which marked him as a son of Laufey, were not so easily erased for the loss of them would have been too much to bear.

The Jötunn without family markings was the central figure of an old myth, a horrible wild creature who had been unwanted by those who had sired him and now supposedly roamed the mountains in the far west. In one of the more dramatic versions of the tale, Ókunnigr, as he was called, had happened upon a small family of four lost in a snowstorm. The adults he had killed and hacked to pieces until their ornamentations were unrecognisable, the two little boys he had eaten whole, it was said, for not even their bones could be found among their parents' remains. Helblindi had loved to recite the old poems depicting the gruesome monster and had never failed to laugh gleefully when his little brother had hidden himself deeper and deeper under the furs the closer he came to the bloody ending. Now in Asgard's golden hall all Loki could feel was pity, and not for the children but the nameless one. He would certainly never take his markings for granted again.

Still, being no longer a prince of Jötunheimr was not the punishment he dreaded most nor the one their enemy had had in mind in the first place when they were 'invited' to Asgard.  

With a rapidly beating heart Loki looked up to his father, meeting his eyes, not to gain mercy or forgiveness but to steady himself. It would not do to show the true state of his mind here, to give the enemy the satisfaction of seeing him afraid. He kept his focus on the comforting red among all the blinding gold, even when the silence was, again, broken by a king's rough voice, that of the one-eyed monarch now.

Any other time it would likely have angered him to be punished by a leader not of his own realm - though of course Laufey could not have removed from him a gift he himself had never possessed - but given these particular cursed words that almost shattered his so precious composure, he was infinitely grateful not to hear this from a person he loved.

"Loki Laufeyson, I take from you the power of seidr, the ability to manipulate the magic of Yggdrasil, until you have proven yourself worthy of the responsibility once more."

In the dark corners of his mind, which had thought of this very Fate the moment he had stood before his own king's throne only a few short hours ago, he had imagined immeasurable pain, his blood pooling on the floor, his sanity shattering into pieces. Though he was only a conduit for it, magic was as much part of him as the ice in his veins and the memories in his head; surely losing his connection to this force of nature would be as if being parted from a limb or an eye.

So expectant was he of the agony to come, so determined not to show any reaction to it on his face when the ceremonial spear was levelled at his chest, that the surprise of what did happen forced a gasp out him against his will.

Nothing.

Though that was not true, exactly. There was no pain, except for where his nails bit into the palms of his hands, and to his relief he could still remember every single lesson on magic he had ever received, every spell he had performed in his lifetime. But there was a change. It was gradual, like a fog slowly moving over a previously clear field, but it was still almost overwhelming.

A dimming of his senses was the first thing Loki noticed; colours seemed less vibrant, some smells completely disappeared, it was suddenly much quieter around him as if there were unknown sounds he could no longer hear. In short, everything was much less alive to him now.

And then he concentrated on the other people close by and the change there was even harsher. Had he not known better he would have said they were the ones who had been parted with the ability to use magic instead of him; they appeared dull, unimpressive and in a way like strangers.

Even Laufey, though more passively than a mage would have, had always radiated a certain kind of magic - maybe linked to the Casket or because of their family's direct connection to Ymir - and now all the prince could feel when he looked at his father were his own emotions toward him and the comforting cold which accompanied every Jötunn wherever he walked.

And Odin's power, before so palpable in the air of the palace, was lost to him, as well. There was just...

Nothing.

Pain should not have been preferable to this and maybe later he would feel grateful for the lack of blood and broken bones but at the moment even a flogging seemed a welcome reprieve. Anything, anything to distract him from this emptiness inside...

How did others manage to live this way, so closed off from what was an essential part of nature? The loss of this sense, this connection with the World Tree, made him feel vulnerable as he had never been before; a clueless child surrounded by armed foes out for his blood. Even in his youth, however, he had not been so utterly helpless, so stranded in a known environment, and while he considered himself a scholar first, a warrior second, he had certainly never gone anywhere without a weapon.

If Thor decided to fight him now, would he be able to best him, without the hammer and his godly strength? Would he send for his loyal followers to do the deed, in case he could not? And there was also Odin to consider, the one who had brought so much misery on the Jötnar and who had most likely instilled the hatred for that particular race in his son's heart long before he and Loki had ever met. In the presence of Laufey King he would not suddenly change the punishment to execution but there were other possibilities, other methods with which to enact revenge for invading Asgardian territory.

Breathe. Just breathe. Do not let them see. These thoughts repeated over and over again in the dark haired prince's head as he tried and failed to banish the image of himself as a wounded animal in the woods with snarling, hungry wolves all around him. Do not let them see your fear. They will pounce once you show fear.

It was too much to endure quietly and though he did not whimper, did not cry, he was mortified by the hysterical gasps of air that seemed to echo loudly in the vast hall. Again, to regain a firm hold on his spiralling emotions, he focused on the familiar face of Jötunheimr's king and was relieved to find neither shame nor anger there. In fact, he looked strangely proud - in his son's endurance or composure maybe, it was hard to tell - and Loki did his very best to memorise this expression. It was better than any kind word or heartfelt gesture because the king had not yet caught his eye, was not putting up a mask for him to see and therefore this was sincere without question, and though he was not often overly emotional himself, this he treasured.

Still, there was this rage within, which had somehow filled the space magic usually occupied - at Thor for causing this situation, at Odin for taking what was rightfully his, at his father for allowing it to happen. It was the latter he could not believe even after hearing it with his own ears; such cruelty from Laufey, who had always supported him in his quest for knowledge and his training of seidr even when it meant he would neglect lessons with sword and spear.  

Of course, there had been no hope of them returning home without any kind of consequence to either Loki or his realm, but for the king to agree to the theft of one of their greatest assets; it was not simply foolish but also reckless. He had given up a weapon of highest value to his people once before and it had cost him dearly. Would he truly consent to lose the only mage in the family when they were on the brink of war?

But there had been that very stern reminder not to protest, as if the second prince had suddenly decided to forget all decorum and curtly manners.

For many centuries people had, among other rarely flattering names, styled him "Liesmith" and even Loki himself thought it a well earned title. It implied a certain fondness for twisting the truth on his part, but to the Jötunn in question this talent also held the additional benefit of seeing the falsehoods in others, just as a master craftsman could easily detect flaws in the work of those with less experience.

It was not something he ever had to spent much attention on, especially not with a person he knew well; so surely he would have spotted any insincerity in his father's voice. Naturally, it was beyond ridiculous to assume that the great Laufey King would simply speak words their enemy had dictated, but maybe there had be some kind of coercion. Maybe what he should concentrate on was not if but why his father had agreed to this punishment.

No matter the answer, there was no doubt now in his heart that Odin alone was to blame for this wretched situation, that his own father had not wanted this, and where before he had felt dread and fear this new understanding left room for nothing more than bitter hatred. The Aesir would pay for this once he had his powers back and this time Thor would not escape his deserved Fate.

.........

The walk back to the Bifröst Observatory was tense and visibly uncomfortable for all involved. Thor looked as if he could barely lift one foot in front of the other, though, of course his pride allowed him not to lag behind the much longer strides of the king of Jötunheimr. The Thunderer's father seemed weary as well, for even at full physical strength he was still only half as tall and more than a thousand years Laufey's senior. On any other day this pointless battle of stubbornness would have been cause for secret glee and open smirks, but even the Trickster could not find this amusing now.

It was, however, ironic that the Aesir had declined the horses offered to them by attentive servants and decided, instead, to walk the long path through Gladsheimr on foot, out of some misplaced consideration to the one in their strange party who was too tall to ride any creature aside maybe from Odin's own steed. This consideration was not returned in kind, which by them would surely be interpreted as the insult it was not.

Knowing his own father better than most other beings on Yggdrasil, it was quite obvious to Loki that this fast pace was more uneasiness than defiance, a need to have this whole debacle over with as soon as possible, a need to get away which echoed his own. From the moment they had arrived on Asgard it had been there, this feeling, and now without magic coursing through his veins it had grown worse, still. Now he could not answer the disgusted looks with wicked smiles, could not pretend the hissing voices were trembling in fear, for he was the one trembling inside.

They might as well have dragged him through the streets naked and in chains; it could hardly have made him more vulnerable.

What made this so hard to endure was that there were no distractions, no familiar smells and sounds, no magic he could analyse or simply feel and revel in. As if he were walking this place as a ghost with no senses left to it; existing but not living. Disconnected.

So he welcomed the hurried steps, not troubled by longer strides that centuries of practice had taught him to keep up with. In fact only iron will stopped him from running ahead and suppressed the anguished cries in is head of 'please, please, let this end'. Even if it were Muspellsheimr the princes were to be banished to, the arrival in that realm would be a relief after this journey.

Shortly before he could curse the fools for not taking the damnable horses, aloud instead of only in his mind, they finally halted in front of the hideous golden chamber that served as a crutch to those who could not travel the Tree through their own power. A group which, Loki had to concede disgustedly, he now belonged to. And he had already hated this transport when there at least had been the pretence of control.

A shudder ran unbidden trough his body and he took a step back, wishing to flee the monstrosity as speedily as he had run toward it.

 "Loki!" The name was spoken low, but the missing honorific was heard loud and clear in this small space. And it startled the young Jötunn out of dark thoughts, for it was not his own father who had addressed him, which would have been surprising, as well, but at least not as confusing.

What more could Odin want of him? What more could he take of a disowned, de-powered enemy?

Plenty, as it turned out.

"The place you and Thor will be sent to is not entirely suitable to your kind, so I suggest you change into a from which can withstand more heat."

Were it anyone else before him Loki might have assumed he was being mocked, but like most rulers he had met in his life the Allfather was not filled to the brim with humour, nor were his words truly a suggestion.

So he gave in to the veiled order gracefully and thought up a form, which took him all of one heartbeat. This particular disguise was one that had often times brought him trouble and one he had planed never to use again, but after a quick look to his right into his father's reassuring eyes he decided to ignore his nagging doubts for now.

Without much concentration and without one look at his current form he let the changes come over him.

From his chest outwards blue skin turned golden, the air lost some of the cold around him. Next his nails turned less sharp and translucent instead of black and he could feel the patterns on his hands disappear. Despite his earlier fear of their loss this did not bother the mage much, for this was neither permanent nor bone deep; he could always recall them at will. Cowardly, though, he folded his hands together as if to hide the change, whether from himself or the others he did not know. 

When the shift reached his face he could feel his teeth shrink and become less pointed and then, when red eyes turned emerald green, he could not quite suppress a sigh. This part he had always disliked, not out of vanity or attachment to their natural colour, but because these eyes robbed him of too much sight. He could no longer distinguish the different shades of blue and white, the night seemed too dark to pierce through. It was not even close to losing the sense for magic, but was inconvenient enough that he had searched many centuries for a method to avoid this, to hold onto a partial shift for any prolonged period of time. There was none, of course, and so his Aesir eyes remained, as always, inferior to the ones he had been born with. Which was his opinion on most of these people's physique.

Not that Loki represented the perfect Asgardian as he stood there before the two kings and his fellow former prince, dressed in the simple green tunic and dark brown breeches his bespelled kjilt had turned into. With his skin too pale, frame too slim, eyes a shade too poisonous and his natural raven black hair that was braided at the small of his back he was actually a mockery of a god, but then that had always been the intention. Why, after all, would he want to look like one of them?

For once on this day when he sensed two and a half sets of eyes staring at him he felt no trepidation but amusement. Both Thor and Laufey were, of course, familiar with his transformation and both hated it for very different reasons, which should not give him any kind of satisfaction and, knowing that, he was clever enough to keep this inappropriate emotion from his face. The king of Asgard was not as skilled at schooling his expressions or he was not even trying, for the disgust and anger were so palpable it was almost comical. Apparently, Odin Giant-Slayer did not appreciate it when his enemies shape shifted into one of his race and did it badly. Though in his defence the alternatives had been few, and he had never enjoyed pointed ears.

Still, he was momentarily glad he had lost the ability to sense magic, especially when - after a short wordless exchange between the two kings - a callused, golden-skinned hand landed on his left shoulder. For an instant Loki thought about shrugging it off or simply stepping to his right out of reach but it seemed a childish act when, after all, there was no threat behind it and he saw that the other hand was placed on Thor's right shoulder.  And although the contact made him feel slightly ill, it served to draw the attention of the two former princes and also rooted them to the spot, which was rather unnecessary when the appearance of another person in the small space would have been enough to do both.

Heimdallr.

So, it was finally time to leave. Again, the Trickster was unsure whether he would prefer to run away or toward his apparent Fate, so maybe the steadying hand was a strange blessing.

The Bifröst's gatekeeper wordlessly carried his golden, two-handed sword to the middle of the complex machinery and at a nod from his king plunged it into the console, his eyes open and roaming the curved walls, searching for the right coordinates.

Too soon and not soon enough the rift in Yggdrasil loomed before the assembled group, the weight on his shoulder lifted and there was only time for one last look into his father's eyes before he was swallowed up by power he could no longer feel to land in a place he did not know.

He would make them pay for this, was his only thought as he was hurled through time and space even less gently than the first time.

And he was not sure whom he meant: Thor, Odin, the Norns or even that damn wicked sprite. Probably all of them.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

JF

.........

In the late hours of the night there sat an SUV parked in the New Mexican desert. The car's owner, astrophysicist Jane Foster, positioned her cobbled together magnetometer on the roof, desperately trying to ready it before she missed her chance to record the phenomenon that had brought her to this place.

She only had one shot at this, at least when it came to proving her theory to her old friend Erik Selvig, who currently stood next to her in the back of the blue vehicle peering out of the open window at the starlit sky. Of course, she'd had been ready for this hours ago but she needed something to occupy her hands while they waited for it to happen. Patience was as always the hardest part of any scientific endeavor.

"Wait for it," she said to her colleague and herself, equal parts nervous and excited. He still seemed a bit unconvinced, especially when the minutes dragged by without results, but she knew it could not be much longer now.

"Can I turn on the radio?" Darcy called from the driver's seat, as always showing as much interest in the field of her internship as if it were a part-time job at a burger joint.

Her annoyed "No" only earned her a huff, but she couldn't afford the distraction of whatever the other woman thought of as music.

Sometimes she wished she had waited a while longer to find a better applicant, though she had to admit what the young brunette lacked in expertise she made up in helpfulness. For the last few weeks Darcy had stayed up every day way into the night, typing in data and brewing an endless supply of coffee with only a little bit of grumbling. And somehow the bubbly personality had just grown on Jane, so she doubted she would have fired her intern even if she'd found someone more suitable. Probably.

"Jane, you can't keep doing this," Erik told her as she dived back into the car, her hand fumbling under the seat for her notebook, his voice as always gentle but lecturing. She knew he wished for her to come back to university and teach or research in one of the labs, instead of going on these excursions that only left her disappointed, and sometimes she wanted that, too. Not this time, though; she was so close to success she could taste it.

"The last seventeen occurrences have been predictable to the second," she explained, shoving her notes at him and instead going for her laptop that showed the three dimensional representations of the latest auroras in this area.

"Jane, you're an astrophysicist, not some storm chaser," came the reply as her friend saw the graphs on the blue tinted screen.

"I'm telling you, there's a connection between these atmospheric disturbances and my research. Erik, I wouldn't have asked you to fly out here if I wasn't absolutely sure." Frustrated she looked at the screen again, typing in her coordinates, and then into her friend's eyes, as if he held all the answers, though she was the one who was supposed to come up with proof for him. Of course, this had to happen now, when she had finally convinced her former teacher to travel all the way to New Mexico for her after dozens of e-mails and phone calls. The problem was that Erik had always been a skeptic when it came to theories of other inhabited worlds and intergalactic wormholes, but he had still agreed to come here as a favor to her.

If she'd somehow miscalculated then that would be it. Naturally, he would still support her and encourage her to try again, but he would do it in that sweet grandfatherly way that people used when they knew you were wrong but didn't want to hurt your feelings. The last thing she needed after all this hard work was to feel like a little girl who didn't want to stop believing in Santa Claus.

No, her readings were correct; she just knew it.

Occupied as she was with her equipment she completely missed the brewing storm on the horizon, at least until Darcy nervously pointed at the windshield.     

"Jane? I think you want to see this."

And there in the sky almost exactly where she had predicted appeared clouds of brilliant, rainbow-colored light. Somehow they were bigger and much more blinding than they should be. And louder. Loud enough to drown out the beeps of her machinery.

Hurriedly she climbed out to the roof again; Erik right beside her.

"What is that?" she asked, though she expected no answer.

The other scientist seemed just as confused as she felt because neither of them had ever seen something like this.

"I thought you said it was a subtle aurora," he said and well, that was definitely not what it looked like. Most of all not subtle. In the short span of what could only have been seconds the clouds had become even brighter and the sound of thunder was almost deafening.

"Go!" was all Jane could get out; her mind full of equations and scenarios. She had barely managed to duck back into the car and get a hand on her digital camera when Darcy slammed on the gas, and then the car sped forward like an old, clanking rocket.

When she had finally gotten into the passenger seat while the SUV continued to drunkenly drive through the desert, she pointed the camera in the direction of the phenomenon, filming not only the normal, visual light but also infrared readings thanks to a few modifications.

"Get closer," she shouted, though Darcy was right beside her.

Her assistant didn't take her seriously of course. "Right. Good one," she answered but Jane had no time to discuss this, so all she yelled again was "Go!" and to her relief the car took up more speed.

Suddenly the noise was overwhelming; it was as if something stupidly heavy had hit the ground. The air around them was filled with a dense and dusty fog from the disturbed sand, and the rational part of her wanted to tell the other woman to stop the car because they couldn't even see the sky anymore, but they were so close...

"What are you doing?" she asked therefore when Darcy tried to turn around and away from the storm.

"I'm not dying for six college credits!"

Gripped with an obsessive need to go further, to see what was behind these clouds, Jane took over the steering wheel, only to hear Darcy scream and have her slam her foot down on the break because there was something ahead of them. No, someone, she saw, as the right side of the car bumped into him with a sickening bang. All three passengers were flung around inside as the SUV took an unwanted U-turn and then came to a sudden halt.

Mind blank on what to do Jane hopped from her seat and ran toward the guy she had probably just killed. She almost didn't hear the snarky "I think that was legally your fault" but then she registered the words and she regained enough common sense to ask for a first aid kit because that would help, at least a little bit. If he hadn't broken his neck. Then she crouched over the fallen man, and she wasn't sure he was still breathing, couldn't see enough to check if he was bleeding and damn, she was panicking.

"Do me a favor and don't be dead. Please," she whispered, close to tears.

"Well, he will be shortly if he does not get his heavy bulk off of me soon," came the angry reply, and only then did she register the second person on the ground.

He was sitting up and trying with obvious difficulty to get his legs out from under the first man all the while yelling in some strange language that sounded a lot like gibberish. She would have helped him but just then she heard a deep, pained sigh and saw how the man she had hit with a car opened his eyes, and again leaned over him. It seemed the right thing to do, to look after him first, and safer, given that the trapped man was at this point almost red in the face with anger.

So she leaned over and somehow they locked eyes and damn, if that weren't stunning eyes. Were she like Darcy she might have blurted out some snarky comment that would have made everyone equal parts uncomfortable and forced them to hide a smile, but all Jane could do was stare. It was like seeing a set of two distant blue stars, and for a moment she completely forgot why she was here and that she had almost killed him.

By this point both her friends had arrived at the scene; she could hear them talking quietly behind her - Erik was saying something about hospitals - but that didn't matter. She was captivated and to her luck so was he. That is, until he was unceremoniously rolled over like a sack of potatoes.

"I said, move, you clumsy son of a pig!" That at least drew everyone's attention, including hers, away from man #1 to man #2 who now stood, shoulders heaving in rage, hands curled into fists as if he were going to punch someone.

That someone was most likely her unfortunate victim, who simply looked groggy.

"Where... am I?" he asked in a voice that sounded way too slurred.

Damn, here's to hoping she hadn't given him a concussion.

Angry Guy still seemed angry but he at least answered the question, albeit with an annoyed huff. "What tongue are we currently speaking?" He rolled his eyes, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Which it probably was, to anyone without a head injury. "This is Midgard, you witless lunk."

OK, what? Where they both concussed? It wouldn't have been surprising; they had fallen on top of one another, after all.

The reaction to that last comment, though, finally shook her blue eyed buddy out of his confused state and he shot to his feet as quick as lightning. "Loki!"

"Ah, good to know you can still growl my name; I would hate to think that this lovely stranger had beaten the last shred of sense out of you."

With that 'Loki' cocked his head in her direction, and only then did the other man seem to realize that he had an audience of three very curious people, two of whom now stepped closer next to Jane.

"Hi, eh, do you need an ambulance? I really think we should call an ambulance," Darcy asked, waving her cell phone in the air.

The tall guy, and wow was he tall and blond and way too muscular... Anyway. The tall guy looked a bit dumbfounded at the intern, then at the black device in her right hand, then he suddenly looked completely pissed off.

"You dare threaten the mighty Thor with so puny a weapon." And with that he advanced on Darcy as if he were planning on punching her.

Behind him Loki, who had been brushing sand from his strange clothes absentmindedly, snorted loudly as if he thought the outburst just as stupid as Jane did. Seriously, "the mighty Thor"? Well, at least she knew his name now, as long as that actually was his name and not some confusion brought on by brain damage.

A second later she forgot why she'd thought any of this funny when 'Thor's' whole body twitched violently and he fell to the ground with a loud thud. Eyes wide in panic the physicist looked up at the sky because that sure had looked like a lightning strike, and then she heard a loud whoop and saw her intern pump her fist into the air.

"Darcy!" she admonished the other women who held a taser in her left hand.

"What? He was freaking me out!"

In Jane's head the thoughts 'deep breath, take a deep breath' warred with 'must find a new applicant', and then she saw something sleek and metallic whizz by and imbed itself in the taser, and the only sound she actually got out was a shrill squeak.

"My apologies, but though I make no claim to being mighty and superior in any sense, I do not like to be threatened, either."

Darcy who had dropped the broken weapon - which now sparked feebly in the sand - was for once speechless, but the look on her face was filled with amazement instead of the more appropriate fear.

At least one of their little group had the right idea, though, and the wherewithal to act on it; before anything worse could happen Erik dragged the stunned intern towards the car, voice carefully placating as if he were speaking to a spooked animal, "Why don't we step away from the nice guy with the knife?" and then quickly amended that to, "Eh, knives," when the younger man drew a second blade from his belt, this one white and small, like an ivory letter opener. He didn't throw it, thank God, just fiddled with it while starring between Jane's former teacher and the women he still tried to guide toward safety.

"Aye, perhaps that is the wisest course of action, old man. Furthermore, I believe 'the mighty Thor' is in need of a healer. Whatever it is you have done to him was quite impressive, I have to admit," Loki said looking as if he were about to giggle madly, and did he just wink at Darcy?

Great, she had always wanted to meet a psychopath; time to cross that off her bucket list.

The worst thing was that with his part said he simply turned around and started to walk away from them, like an actor going off stage after his scene.

Finally Jane couldn't take this absurdity anymore, and she shouted after him, not carrying that he still held the knife in his hand or that he apparently thought it was fun watching other people get tased. "Hey, don't you want to help us with your friend?"

With a flourish he turned around, this time completely livid, and his eyes were boring into hers. Right, psychopath. Why had she opened her mouth? She had definitely spent too much time with Darcy, that had to be it. Again, he didn't gut her with his weapon but if looks could kill, she would be deader even than the guy who had been hit with a car and thousands of volts of electricity in the span of five minutes.

"I assure you, good citizen, he and I are anything but friends and I have not the least interest in aiding him. Do what you will with the useless lout." He had made the first step away from them again when he stopped and added, "Oh, an advice: He is horribly arrogant, so do not expect any word of thanks should you decide to help him. He has disappointed many a maiden, or so I have heard." And then he really walked off and none of them, not even her taser swinging assistant, dared to call him back.

That was how Jane found herself dragging a ridiculously heavy, unconscious man through the desert into her car.

And she still had no idea what had caused that storm.

.........

LL

.........

Sand. There was sand everywhere. Sand and stones and heat. This current form could bear it for much longer, that was true, but it was still uncomfortable because he was not used to feeling this way anymore. Sweat was dripping from Loki's forehead before he had even reached the first settlement which he had spied in the distance when he had landed. He was only glad that the sun had not yet risen; there was a high probability that he would not have managed even this far had it been day rather than night time.

The landing itself had left him bruised and battered which was worrisome; after all, during this long march any injury he had sustained should have already healed. Should have but would not, he knew, because the Allfather had been thorough in his punishment. Not only was he short his powers but also his superior health was denied to him. He was not much stronger than a mortal now, though not fully mortal, he thought. No, not that.

The Allspeak, for one, remained which had surprised him when he had first heard the woman's plea. Surely being unable to communicate with the Midgardians would have made it much harder for both him and Thor to find companions who could aid them in furthering their enmity, though maybe too hard for the Thunderer. Loki might have managed even without it, with an admittedly limited vocabulary. It had been several centuries ago when he had last studied the tongues of the Nine Realms and they changed fast here, he knew.

And so did their manners.

Truly, the last thing the former prince had expected to see was his enemy's ungraceful defeat at the hand of a young mortal mere moments after their arrival. It made him chuckle to think of it and he did not try to suppress this open display of his mood as he usually might have, here with no one around to see but insects and stones and sand.

Oh, he needed shelter and fast, but he was not prepared to hasten his pace. It would feel too much like fleeing in fear and it was not that which had made him leave the strange group of mortals behind. No, it was simply that he had learned over the years how foolish and dangerous it was to stay near those who had resolved to side with his enemies; a decision which had been obvious from the first words these peculiar people had voiced and whom they had first spoken to.

Yes, the little one had attacked Thor but only when she had felt threatened and the other brunette, well, she was clearly a lost cause. It was far from the first time, but most likely the fastest, Loki had ever seen a maiden fall for the brute's charms. He had been disgusted enough by it that he might have thrown his dagger even had the child not held a weapon in his direction.

More sweat dripped down his chest as he walked on, making the green tunic cling uncomfortably to his skin. Damn, this journey was taking too long; he should just transform into a bird and fly toward the village, but he knew not enough about this place. With his current luck he might have been shot down as someone's evening meal the moment he took to the sky.

Which led him to the actual cause for the anger that fuelled his every step.

Of course, he would be banished to a realm he had only minimal knowledge of, the place he had never been allowed to visit, the site of his father's defeat. Yes, he would have laughed at the bitter irony if he had the breath left, though Odin was surely doing the laughing for him.

These thoughts did him no good, of course, but here in this emptiness it felt right to let them free rein, for there was no need to hide the emotions or the bitter lines they drew on his face.

And then he finally reached the first square shack and blankness settled over his features once more.

With minimal effort he lifted himself up on the wooden wall, glad that at least climbing was not a skill that required a warrior's strength or a mage's powers.

Soon his body would need sustenance, he knew; maybe he could relieve a tradesman of some of his wares once the marked opened in the morning. It was strange for one who had lived his whole life as a prince of one of the Nine Realms to be at all adept in the art of theft, yes, but Loki had often spent long periods of time in other forms, and even foxes and eagles needed to eat at some point. For now, though, he would observe, would study the little settlement and the people therein as best as possible. He might be ignorant of this realm, but he would not stay that way for long.

Loki was nothing if not adaptable.

.........

DL

.........

There was something really relaxing about the hum of the printer and the click, clack of keys, Darcy thought; not as good as the latest playlist on her iPod but it was still nice. Or maybe she just found it relaxing because they'd spent some very crazy weeks in these four walls and this was the closest she'd come to actual mundane office work after several all-nighters with too much caffeine and weird science babble that went completely over her head.

At least Erik had managed to convince her boss to sleep a few hours when they'd come back from dumping their collision victim at the hospital, which was close to a miracle because there had been Science and she'd almost feared that would keep them up until next Tuesday. Not that she minded, really; it was like being in her own little sci-fi movie with nerdy professors and midnight light shows, and now they even had two guys who talked Shakespeare and threw knives at unsuspecting people. It was kind of awesome, even if it was more B-movie than Hollywood quality.

The knife was great, anyway, not some cheap prop but an actual heavy, metal thing with carvings all over. Darcy studied it for what must have been the hundredth time while she waited for the old printer to spit out the next few pictures of the twister last night. It had to have cost a fortune. She knew that one guy in her International Relations class who bragged about owning the entire collection of Lord of the Rings swords and he had sold his car for that. Maybe she could auction the thing on eBay, though it would be a shame to see it go; it was kind of pretty with these complicated patterns and what she was sure had to be genuine rubies. Maybe a jeweler would give her more money. She wasn't that low on cash, aside from the ever looming student loans, but somehow she doubted Culver University would let her enter campus with a knife, even if it was only used as a paper weight, and she couldn't just throw it away. Plus her taser was dead.

"You don't think this was just a magnetic storm, do you?"

Oh, the mad scientists were at it again; she had better pay attention. She only understood about one in every five words but it was still fun to listen to these two; they were so adorable in their dorkyness.

So she picked up a handful of pics and walked over to the cork-board where she had already pinned a dozen others, all showing either bright rainbow colored clouds or the orange-red of the storm that had followed after. It looked at the moment like the stuff you would see after you'd eaten too many muffins of uncertain origin at a frat party. Not that Darcy had ever done that. More than once.

"I think the lensing around the edges is characteristic of an Einstein-Rosen Bridge."

Only Jane could say a sentence like this - that sounded like she was doing some serious Star Trek LARPing - with so much enthusiasm. Jane was cool like that.

It was clear she was going to regret this and still the intern asked "What?", fully prepared for the barrage of words and complicated diagrams being shoved in her direction.

Instead Dr. Selvig wanted to know why she wasn't in on the latest physics vocabulary, and her dear boss had to explain that she wasn't that kind of science intern. Well, yeah, she had been the only applicant but she liked to believe that wasn't the reason she'd been picked or, at least, the reason she was allowed to stay. Jane liked her, she knew, and she liked Jane, even if the other woman lived only on coffee and star charts and woke up most mornings with an imprint of a keyboard on her cheek because she had fallen asleep in front of her laptop again.

"An Einstein-Rosen Bridge is a theoretical connection between two different points of space-time," Erik was saying, as if that answered her question.

"A wormhole," came the quick translation, which was nice of her boss, but Darcy still had to stop herself from giggling. Seriously, she had to find a way to get the other woman to Comic-Con or something; it would be glorious.

Suddenly, though, her eyes were caught by something in one of the printouts she had just pinned on the wall and she temporarily ignored whatever the other two were discussing. This couldn't be right, could it? Because she was pretty sure the shadows in this one looked like people, two very tall people. Huh. On any other day she would have excused this with sleep deprivation but she had managed more than eight hours today, so...

"... those are someone else's constellations."

"Hey, check it out!" She interrupted what was probably some pretty great science talk by pointing at the picture of the two men.

Both Jane and Erik looked confused at first, but eventually the whole weirdness sunk in and all either of them got out was an amazed "Is that...?" and then they were off to the hospital, again, to meet one of the guys who had apparently ridden a storm.

This was going to be so much fun. She wished she could bring her taser.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

ES

.........

It had taken a very embarrassing and exhausting conversation with the hospital receptionist to get access to the room of the man Jane was sure held all the answers, only for them to discover said room empty. For Erik it would have ended there because, if the guy could wriggle out of restrains and then flee undetected, maybe it was not a good idea to hunt him down for a conversation about astronomic phenomena.

Of course, there was no talking his former student out of her quest for knowledge once she had a clear goal in mind and he usually supported this, but here he could only shake his head in frustration. He was pretty sure this man was playing them at best or was high on drugs, and he probably wouldn't even understand what any of them were talking about, let alone come up with a reasonable explanation. Hell, he had proclaimed to be "the mighty Thor", that alone should convince any decent person to stay away from him. And the company he kept didn't help either.

'Loki' and 'Thor'.  Damn, the whole thing was too absurd for words, really.

If only Jane hadn't pinned all her hopes of finding proof for her theories on the spectacle last night. Erik loved this woman like a daughter and it hurt him to see her disappointed so often but, as he'd told her many times before, she was simply on the wrong track here. It wasn't that her calculations weren't sound or even that the idea itself was too outlandish; there was, however, no practical application for it. An Einstein-Rosen-Bridge was pure theory and there was nothing wrong with that in his opinion but his old friend's little girl had to see it for herself, talked even about predicting it, of using it to communicate with other planets.

Of course, despite his doubts, he would help her; he always did.

Which was why he sat in the car with her and the unconventional assistant Darcy when they ran down 'Thor' for the second time in 12 hours. By this point Erik was starting to believe that maybe the young man was more a danger to himself than to others.

The ride back to what amounted to their lab was awkward and strained; no one said a word which wasn't surprising with a driver who was still embarrassed about hitting the man she'd been looking for, who in turn seemed slightly dazed and confused but not enough that it warranted a return trip to the hospital. Only the intern hummed merrily in the back seat, a pleased smile on her face that made him glad that he had forbidden her to bring the knife along.

And then they were back at the former Smith Motors and it somehow got even worse because, yes, 'Loki' had been right about 'Thor'. He was strutting through the rooms as if he owned the place and asking for "more suitable garments" and "sustenance", and all of this nonsense was just giving Erik a headache. Only the promise of a proper breakfast convinced him to put up with this for at least an hour longer, even though he wished he could take an ice-pack with him. He could get through this and then he would convince his fellow scientist to stay away from the weird guy, he thought.

And then they ran into 'Loki'. 

At least this time 'ran into' didn't involve appalling driving skills; in fact, it didn't even involve a car. He was just suddenly there, a street away from Izzy's diner, stealing an apple from a fruit stand. Wonderful.

Their new blond friend was immediately on alert, striding toward the other man with fast, sure steps, and he yelled at him loud enough to entertain the whole town.

"Loki, what is it you are doing?"

The dark haired man just smiled at this, took a second and third apple from the display and then started to expertly juggle the fruit in the air.

"What does it look like to you?" he answered, eyes neither on 'Thor' nor on the apples but on Erik and the two women who were standing close enough to the strangers to hear their heated conversation but, he estimated, out of knife range.

Someone had to teach the blond about rhetorical questions because he answered, "You were robbing a poor merchant of his wares," which was more than obvious. Though it made Erik nervously look for the missing "merchant" who had, he could only hope, not become a victim of the manic thief.

The look on the brunet's face had seemed murderous the night before but now he appeared honestly close to snapping. For a moment Erik worried he might throw his stolen goods at the other man's head, but then he just lopped them back onto the pile of similar fruit and instead took out a knife, which was not exactly an improvement.

Startled the physicist tried to shove his younger friends behind him and was about to tell them to get into the car, when with his other hand 'Loki' drew out another apple out of his pocket and then started to cut slices of off it with his weapon. A different weapon; this one small, almost triangular and black. Just how many knives did this guy have?

After happily munching his second slice he finally seemed to remember that he had an audience, at which point the anger was back on his face. "You are aware of the fact that I, too, need to eat, are you not, Thunderer? And unfortunately your father did not provide us with a bag of gold before dumping us here. What would you have me do? Beg for scraps?"

Before anyone could stop her, before they could even think about it, Darcy stepped forward next to the burly blond man and cheerfully declared, "You could join us; we're headed to get a nice greasy breakfast, anyway" and there was just no way of getting out of this mess anymore because the knife-wielding menace sketched a small bow toward the intern and in the same happy manner replied "I thank you for the invitation, dear child; it would be my pleasure."

Which was how he found himself sharing a meal with his erstwhile student, her high-spirited assistant and two men who clearly wanted to see each other dead. Erik wondered, while he watched one of them inhale mountains of food like a vacuum cleaner made by Stark Industries and the other cut a slice of toast with the precision of a butcher turned serial killer, if maybe he'd suffered some head trauma in the car crash as well. His life, after all, couldn't possibly have become this weird in just one day; even inter-dimensional portals made more sense than this freak show.

Why had he let himself be dragged into this?

.........

TO

.........

Say what you will about the mortals, but Midgardian food was clearly excellent. First there had been these sublime Pop Tarts at the abode of the lady Jane and now here they were tasting a variety of marvels to break their fast. After his banishment was at an end he would have to return here with Volstagg in tow; his dear friend would certainly enjoy the bread-like pastry they called pancakes even more than he did.

The only thing marring the wonderful morn was the presence of Loki at the table, who seemed unable to be cheered by even the best of foodstuffs or the pleasant company of the ladies and their fatherly protector. In fact, the small Frost Giant sat stiff and proper, cutting his piece of buttered bread excessively slow and precise as though they were at a formal feast of royal dignitaries, and again Thor wished he knew what went through the other's head.

He had been so enraged before to see his fellow prince steal like a lowly peasant but his words had been a painful reminder of their current situation. It had struck him, then, that he might have been forced to commit similar crimes had he not met this group of good, honest people and so he could not begrudge the Trickster this meal, even if it meant they had to share it.

It was an altogether novel experience for he could not remember having sat at the same table as his enemy within the last millennium and with neither of them brandishing a weapon, no less. Though Loki, of course, was not unarmed, and he was wondering when the fiend would decide to plunge a dagger into his side. This concern was the reason he and the old mortal sat on either side of Jötunheimr's wicked prince; neither of them willing to let him near the two lovely ladies. Fortunately, Thor was quite sure that he could intercept any attempt to harm them with just one hand, even with most of his attention on the pancakes before him. No matter what quest he would have to undertake in this realm, he now was properly fortified, at least.

"How'd you get inside that cloud?" Jane Foster asked, followed by young Darcy's astonished "Also, how could you eat an entire box of Pop Tarts and still be that hungry?" and he decided he rather preferred the latter question to the first so he continued eating, trying to ignore the unpleasant feeling in his stomach when he thought of what had transpired the day before.

He washed the remainder of the delicacy down with the bitter and refreshing beverage known as "coffee" and threw the cup to the ground to bid the serving woman for another one. Beside him a hand shot out and, with a speed that he would have prescribed to seidr had he not known better, Loki caught the cup in mid air.

"What was that?" the lady Jane asked, her tone appalled.

The Thunderer was unsure which of them she had addressed so he looked at her, confusion clearly written on his face.

"That-"  said the disgusted voice of the Frost Giant, who replaced the ceramic vessel before him with a loud clang as if it had offended him, "-was the usual display of wastefulness of one who has never needed to craft anything on his own."

Over the centuries he had become so used to being insulted by the Silvertongue that this should not have bothered him, but the words were laughable and not to mention hypocritical given their similar station.

"And I am sure you would know all about the hardship of crafting drinking horns, poor as you are," he said in mock understanding.

As always, there was no reasoning with this fiend, who was an expert in using his own words and twisting them to his liking. "The fortunate circumstance of me not having to do it does not mean I do not know how to, and neither would I be so disrespectful to the one who had to spent many hours at the art."

"I'm pretty sure these are factory made." The strange interjection by the young mortal went ignored by Loki; his anger seemed to increase as his lecture continued.

"Nor does the bountiful presence of food mean that you have to eat like a starved hog," he said scathingly, waving a hand at the three empty plates in front of them.

Speaking from experience Thor knew this, like any other encounter with this particular Frost Giant, would lead to violence if he reacted to the taunt, and a tavern brawl might not reflect very well on his generous hosts. Despite that, it was hard to restrain himself, especially when he saw the gleam of metal in his enemy's hands.

Fortunately, the loud arrival of three new patrons drew all attention away from their table and even Loki seemed suddenly disinterest in their argument. "You missed all the excitement out at the crater," one of the burly men proclaimed to the innkeeper after he received his plate of food.

The short, stout lady put a drink in front of each man and then asked, "What crater?"

"They're saying some kind of satellite landed out in the desert."

Now both Erik Selvig and Jane Foster seemed captivated by the conversation; the third mortal however just requested that he smile while she held a strange device in front of him, and though he knew not why, it was an easy thing to do for her. She was very energetic and disarmingly friendly; he could not even hold it against her that she had attacked him with lightning.

The patrons continued to speak about their exploits, most of which Thor could not make heads or tail of. There was talk of "satellites" and "Feds", who, by their description, sounded like distasteful villains terrorising the poor townsfolk. Though slightly embarrassed by it he looked questioningly at Loki but the scholar only shrugged, equally confused it seemed.

The old man in their company, however, was obviously fascinated by whatever the others had discovered; the curiosity was clear in his voice when he asked, "What did it look like, the satellite?"

"I don't know anything about satellites, but it was heavy. I mean, nobody could lift it."

And then it dawned on Thor and suddenly he could not leave this inn fast enough, could barely hold in his own excitement. He shot up from his seat, strode over to the two mortals and - gripping the arm of the one who had spoken - he asked for directions.

"About twelve miles east of here."

The reply was hesitant and not very precise but it would do. He hurried out of the door with purpose and light at heart; ready for the quest to defeat these "Feds" and retrieve Mjölnir.

Norns be good, he would be home early enough for the evening meal and it seemed he was not even required to battle his enemy to accomplish this. In fact, Loki might be forced to stay behind on Midgard with his own quest left unfinished.

Life, he decided this very moment, was good.

.........

LL

.........

Life, he decided this very moment, was not fair.

Well, he supposed it was Odin he had to blame for this, but that the Allfather would give his son an advantage over his enemy was only natural. No, this was simply the Norns playing their little game and not even attempting to hide who was their favourite.

The day itself had not started out too poorly, in hindsight.

At the top of one building or another Loki had observed the comings and goings of the village, seen the people travel in their strange modes of transport and begun to familiarise himself with the little roads that snaked between stone structures of unknown use. With the break of day and the appearance of the sun on the horizon it had become much warmer, as predicted, and though he had been thoroughly uncomfortable it was not too hard to bear given his many journeys to other, sunnier realms.

Still, the rather stifling air coupled with the exhaustion in his bones from the harsh landing and the sleepless night had made it necessary to search for a source of water and sustenance; something easier procured in the secrecy of darkness, though unfortunately he had not spied any trees bearing fruit or a well in the village centre. So Loki had been forced to leave the safety of his high perch to walk along the almost deserted alleys hoping to find a tavern or a market, both of which he had not spotted yet from above.

The little stall at the side of a building painted in a faded yellow had come as a delightful surprise, especially when he could see no merchant there to sell his wares and he knew even if such a person should have approached him at some point, the Trickster's reflexes were fast enough to grab at least a handful of the little fruits before he had to make a hasty retreat.

With sure steps he approached the small wooden crates and was about to take hold of a round, green item when from somewhere close he heard the loud bark of an animal. Looking around and behind him yielded no results, and he was prepared to prescribe the sound as belonging to one of the various transports along the road, but then he spotted the beast tied to a pole not far from where he stood. In looks it seemed similar to a wolf pup or a forest cat, though it was much too short in size for either species. Loki wondered why anyone would leave the poor thing outside in this heat all by itself; as a guardian for the wares it left much to be desired, after all. Although what it lacked in height it more than made up in noise.

Before the continued barking could betray his intent the former prince took out a slender bone knife from a pocket in his breeches and hurled it at the pole, cutting the rope that kept the animal in its place. Immediately, without looking back toward him or its owner, the little creature took off at an impressive speed along the road, which unfortunately drew the attention of the person within the building. The rotund man Loki assumed to be of middling age stormed out of the door of his establishment, luckily not even glancing in the Jötunn's direction, and shouted some rather rude curses while he chased after his beast.

This should have made it easy to steal food at his heart's content, but naturally there had merely been enough time to retrieve his weapon from the sandy ground and savour one delightfully fresh peach that had taken the bite of both the thirst and hunger, before his sworn enemy appeared to make his life miserable once more.

And now after an actual meal that had been much too tense and awkward to be called enjoyable he stood outside the tavern and silently cursed Odin and the Aesir in general.

The damnable hammer was here, which was not a surprising twist, but that Thor had heard about its location merely one day after starting his banishment seemed almost laughably cruel. It was times like these that made Loki seriously worry about whatever kind of person he had been in his previous life that deemed him deserving of such constant misfortune.

Still, there was a chance that the Ás was wrong or that the weapon was no more than a trick, a way to test character. And he should not discard these "Feds", who were apparently guarding the landing site, either. The idea of mortals as anything close to adequate foes was too laughable to consider, but the Thunderer was rash and had the strategic prowess of a bull in rut. A young Midgardian had taken him out with an unknown contraption, after all, simply because he had charged at her without thought.

Maybe it had been his own flaw all along, that he preferred long drawn out battles where a single well-placed blade through the back would have sufficed. He could do it now, of course, while the golden-haired would-be hero stood some few paces away, engrossed in a conversation with Jane Foster, but even in light of the inevitable recovery of Mjölnir by its rightful owner the sheer cowardice of attacking an unarmed opponent was too detestable. No, this fight would have to wait until both of them had regained their powers, he decided, which was why he stood beside the peasant known only as "Darcy" before the door of the inn and listened to inane babble, his weapons for once safely stowed away.

The ears of Asgardians had nothing on those of his own kinsmen but still he could hear every word the two smitten fools said to each other and the claim of "If you take me there now, I'll tell you everything you wish to know" made it quite hard to keep his composure.

Truly, what exactly did the dimwit think he could teach these unusual, yet helpful people? He was unsure about the usefulness of the strange child, but after watching them for not more than a few hours it had become apparent that both the elderly mortal and his protégée, who could not keep her eyes off Thor, were scholars. And though the inhabitants of Midgard had a rather limited understanding of the forces of Yggdrasil, it had to be better that whatever went for thought in the brutish prince's addled mind.

Fortunately, his theory proved true only a moment later when Erik Selvig drew his charge aside to tell her what a very bad idea it was to aid that strange man she had been fawning over.

"Please don't do this," he said pleadingly, most likely knowing full well that his request would fall on deaf ears. Why he had not just commanded her to stay away from Thor was mystifying; if he was really her protector, he seemed not a particularly stern one. Possibly an elderly, soft hearted relative, then.

"You know what we saw last night. This can't be a coincidence. I want to know what's in that crater."

"I'm not talking about the crater; I'm talking about him," at these words he pointed at Thor, and Loki's mask almost crumbled in favour of a full out laugh because this was glorious. For once it was not him who was mistrusted but the burly blond who wished to whisk away a maiden into adventure.

"He's promised us answers."

"He's delusional! They both are." Well, at least he was not the only villain. "Did you listen to what they said? They claim to be 'Thor' and 'Loki', on the quest to find the mighty hammer 'Mjölnir'. These are the stories I grew up with as a child! They think they are gods, Jane!"

The growl that escaped the Jötunn's lips at the mention of "gods" went fortunately unheard and was entirely unhelpful in quelling his anger. Never in his life had he made the claim to be a god nor had he any interest in this supposed quest. The old man's words were nothing but confusing, especially the idea that there were stories told on Midgard regarding him, when he had never been to this realm before. This was outrageous!

Some of his anger must have slipped by his control or it was the knife that had found its way from his belt to his hand, but suddenly the child drew his attention by waving her fingers in front of his face. A strange gesture, though at least it showed she herself was unarmed.

"You alright? You look like you wanna stab something small and fluffy. Can you not do that, please? People in this town already think we're kinda weird; it's not good for the work atmosphere. They might start spitting in our coffee."

He did not even try to puzzle out her jumble of sounds, which was probably better for his sanity; instead, he turned fully toward the little mortal to inquire about these "stories", hoping against his better judgement for a clear, understandable answer.

"What was Erik Selvig speaking of when he mentioned the gods?"

"No idea, you gotta ask him. But you have to admit he's right, about the delusional part, at least. I mean, who in their right mind would name their kid Thor or Loki? That's just like painting a target on your back for bullies all over the world."

Two desires warred within him then: One was to somehow punish the mortal for insulting his name, the other was to laugh at the absurdity of the entire situation. Apparently, they knew enough about him to find his presence on Midgard unusual but they lacked the belief that it truly was him, even though for once he had not made any attempt to hide his identity. He might have preferred to remain inconspicuous, yet it had seemed a pointless endeavour, with Thor blurting out who he was the moment they had arrived. Still, despite his own people's dark history with this realm, he liked to believe it was not an inevitable conclusion that this group would side with the Thunderer, when the mortals had stopped worshipping the gods centuries ago and had probably long forgotten about the war.

There were sagas still told, however, and according to the old mortal some of them pertained to Loki himself.

Curiosity was what had him follow the strange group after Thor had made his grand farewell to his chosen admirer, though wariness kept him a few paces behind, uncertain as he was of his welcome. Which, as it turned out, was the right choice given that - when they arrived at the rather unique abode made of glass and metal - they stumbled on a band of thieves who were in the middle of stealing crates of goods.

Jane Foster immediately accosted one of them, a balding man of short stature and polite demeanour, introduced as Agent Coulson. He seemed much too cheerful for one who had been caught in the act of a crime which, according to him, was entirely within his rights to commit.

Loki pondered the possibilities while he watched the young mortal argue for her possessions. These men looked not to be soldiers for all that they carried weapons at their hips similar to that of young Darcy - black and too dull in the harsh light to be metallic. This Coulson spoke with friendly authority, not unlike a councillor, though in his experience people of that rank never dirtied their own hands with appropriating wares. The name "Shield" made it sound as if they were guarding something, but what?  And why would they require the research of a scholar for that?

It was a mystery he very much wished to unravel, and for this and other reasons he would need to stay. At least without Thor that did not have to be an altogether unpleasant experience.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

ES

.........

SHIELD.

Well, of course. Just when Erik thought that life couldn't possibly become stranger, the agency showed up and cleaned out the old car dealership of every little bit of technology and sheave of paper, like a bunch of overeager debt collectors. It was maddening and terrifying, considering that the last person he knew of who had gone through this had completely disappeared afterwards. Some people in the scientific community still believed the man was alive and in hiding somewhere, but he wouldn't have put it past the shady organization to have Banner locked up in a bunker in Siberia or buried in a back yard. The guys simply gave him the creeps, in the way that they operated with too much power and no accountability.

And now they had their sights set on Jane, which to him made no sense at all. What could they possibly want with the research on wormholes and electromagnetic storms? There was, of course, the whole nonsense with the "satellite", which apparently wasn't a satellite but a mythical hammer that could summon lightning.

God, he could really use a drink.

To think that he'd been relieved to see 'Thor' go and actually thought that now he and his former student could go back to conducting serious science again. That would have been complicated anyway, though, because the blond man had unfortunately not taken his aggressive buddy along to reclaim what he thought of as his property.

Truth be told, it wasn't that surprising; 'Loki', after all, seemed to really, really hate him and storming a SHIELD facility was hard enough without someone at your back who desperately wanted to kill you.

At the moment the strange brunet sat next to Darcy on the roof where the whole group had relocated to in favor of the depressingly empty lab. Though 'sat' was probably not the right word; he looked more like an eagle who perched on a tree in search of unsuspecting prey scurrying on the ground. It was not exactly a comforting image, especially because the man was so quiet and seemed to not even register the conversation going on around him. Not that Erik could blame him; an argument about the importance of iPods wasn't his idea of thrilling, either.

Of course, then Jane had to start asking about SHIELD and he knew just from the tone of her voice that she was going to get herself into serious trouble in order to get her research back, and his mind instantly came up with horrible images of interrogation cells and government-sanctioned assassinations, so he suggested the only thing that seemed rational at the moment.

"Come on, please. Let me contact one of my colleagues. He has had some dealings with these people before. I'll e-mail him and maybe he can help." Hank had at least survived all of the interactions he'd had with the agency, so hopefully he could offer some advice on how to deal with the "appropriation" of their property.

And then Darcy chose that moment to state the fact that should have been obvious, "They took your laptop, too." Which made him sigh in annoyance and crave a good beer even more. Damn, this was just fantastic. Next time Jane asked for his help, he swore to himself, he would handle the whole thing via video chat.

The frustration must have been evident on his face because Jane patted his arm and said with forced cheerfulness, "There is Wi-Fi at the library."

Which was when 'Loki's' head suddenly whipped around to look at her and for a blink-and-you-miss-it moment he seemed to smile. "A library?" he asked in a tone that, for once, held no anger, just very intense interest.

Who, knew that knife-wielding maniacs could be so enthusiastic about books?

.........

To call the small one-room facility that was housing nine or ten shelves filled with a haphazardly ordered collection of maybe a few hundred books a "library" might have been an exaggeration, but as it also offered a steady internet connection and a desk with rather modern computers, which was fortunately all he needed at the moment, Erik really had nothing to complain about. At least here it was rather unlikely they would encounter another agent.

On the short ride from the lab he had tried to formulate his message to his colleague, not sure how to properly convey his worries and not sound like a panicked freshman who'd been caught with a bag of marijuana. The problem was, of course, that SHIELD most likely watched him and Jane quite closely, which also included their phone calls and e-mail accounts. It would have probably been saver to write in code or mention no one by name, but these spy methods weren't really his thing. He was a physics professor, after all, not James Bond. And honestly, there shouldn't be a need for this secrecy; he hadn't broken any laws as far as he knew, hadn't even seen that damn satellite that had the whole town, and apparently the government, abuzz.

So he sat down in front of the monitor and described, in as few details as possible, what had happened, making clear that all he wanted from the other scientist was a bit of advice on how to handle the situation. Even if all Dr. Pym would write in reply was "Get your ass out of town ASAP", it would at least be better than biting his nails in worry.

That done, he looked around the few stacks of books for the two young people who had accompanied him here, not comfortable at all with leaving Darcy alone too long with the strange man. Though when he spotted them it was immediately clear that he'd been concerned over nothing.

The intern sat near the window on a an old, cushy armchair and fiddled with her cell phone; the happy grin on her face showing that she had already gotten over the loss of her beloved iPod.

And 'Loki', well; he seemed completely in his element. Standing between two shelves he was brushing a finger along the spines carefully, as if he were afraid of damaging the books, occasionally taking one volume out and replacing it almost as fast. Erik, who stood only a few feet away, was tempted to ask him what he was looking for but somehow he didn't want to disturb the man and the image of the intent student he presented. It was strange to see him this way, not raging and threatening but calm, for once, and looking somehow much younger.

He was about to walk over and collect both of his companions when he heard clapping and high pitched laughter; sounds that drew his attention to the other side of the room where a group of kids sat on the floor before a grey-haired woman close to his own age, who he presumed was the librarian. She held a brightly colored book in one hand, and laid the finger of the other on her lips to shush the children, who more or less complied; some still giggling in apparent excitement. Seeing her read to the little group brought memories of his own childhood to his mind, of bedtime stories his mother used to tell him, complete with different voices for every character and dramatic pauses when the hero found himself in life or death situations. It was nice, he thought, that people still did this, even in times of internet and video games.

The kids, at least, seemed to love this particular story; they were all quite now and listening intently, bodies leaning toward the librarian as if afraid to miss even a single word.

"And though they're large, giants can be quiet," she read, voice hushed to emphasize the text. "You have to listen carefully for the sound of their footsteps because they may be closer than you think."�

Giants. That again reminded him of the books he'd read in his youth, books of powerful gods and ancient wars and the people who lived in a world of ice. It was ludicrous, and still he couldn't shake the feeling that he was on to something, that he should not dismiss this immediately.

So he walked back to the entrance of the library, indenting to sit in front of the computer again and google the old sagas, but then he saw the book that had drawn the children's attention on a small case and right next to it Myths and legends from around the world. Hesitatingly he picked up the compendium, almost afraid of what he would find. He flipped through the European section, searching for familiar names of places and people.

And there it was, in bolt black letters: Loki.

"Frost Giant. Son of Laufey and Fárbauti or Nál. God of Mischief and Lies. Mother of monsters. A shapeshifter who could turn into anything he wished. He was spiteful and cunning and an enemy to all the Gods in Asgard..."

On the page beside the description was the black-and-white drawing of a tall person with long wavy hair, dressed in a tunic more Greek than Norse looking that was covered mostly by a black cape, and at his belt hung an intricately styled dagger. In truth, he was a far cry from the person he had met last night except for the rather nasty smile that promised mischief, like a dead mouse in your shoe or a dead body under your bed. The letter option was nicely supported by the human heart the figure in the book was squishing between the fingers of his left hand.

Again, Erik looked for the young man who'd been studying the meager supply of books with such intensity and this time to his shock 'Loki' looked right back at him from where he leaned lazily against a wall.

"They may be closer than you think."  Right. And also apparently deadlier, if the wicked grin on the man's face was any indication.

God, he just hoped Thor got his hammer back because if this really was Loki Laufeyson, then they were all in deep, deep trouble.

.........

DL

.........

In lieu of her precious iPod Darcy had been trying to recreate her playlists on the less than stellar smart phone while sitting in a comfy library chair. It wasn't perfect, but it would satisfy her need for awesome background music to ease the boredom of data input until the shady government people decided that her second-hand Apple product didn't actually endanger national security or some such bullshit. The whole thing still made her nervous, but not as much as the guy who currently walked beside her to the lab.

It had been an unpleasant surprise to step out of the tiny book haven and find the car - along with the scientist who had sat in it - gone, but apparently not so surprising to Loki who just said, "Typical" in that long suffering tone her father usually used when she told him she'd lost her keys, again. It was a bit strange, given that he'd only known either of them for about a day, that he would say this as if Jane disappeared on him on a regular basis, like Darcy's keys did. Or her scarves. Or her ID.

Point was, it made no sense. So she asked him to explain or in her own words, "What, girls run away from you all the time?" which had earned her such a creepy, intense look, that she was momentarily afraid he was going to peel her face off. But then he just rolled his eyes, head resting on folded hands while he was leaning with his back against the wall, a posture that should have looked casual but somehow still gave off a distinctly threatening vibe, and said, "No, but they run after him constantly, especially when he is about to accomplish some heroic deed. I know not why he permits it; it must be doubly hard to fight an opponent and protect his horde of admirers from it at the same time."

Huh.

For a moment the intern wanted to point out that he'd sounded a bit jealous but luckily self-preservation won out and all she actually said was, "So, she's off with Thor?" and mentally patted herself on the back for not laughing at the weird name.

"Obviously," was the only response, and God, if that accent and the deep voice didn't bring forth very unhelpful images of the guy in a black robes hackling students in Hogwarts. Maybe she should suggest it to him as a Halloween costume.

Fortunately, before her missing brain-to-voice filter could force her to make said suggestion,  Erik decided to join them again from the other side of the street where he had tried, but clearly failed, to reach Jane over the phone. He looked frazzled and terribly unhappy when he announced that he hadn't managed to contact his former student and that they would have to trudge home on foot.

The good thing about being holed up in a tiny backwater town like Puente Antiguo was that having to walk all the way to the rusty little glass house they called home would be a task of ten whole minutes. The three of them spent most of it in silence, except for Darcy mumbling glumly at her phone whenever she lost a level of Angry Birds only a few points short of her high score.

When they arrived at their work place and stopped in front of it as if glued to the spot, apparently all of them uncertain of what to do now, it suddenly dawned on her how damn bizarre the situation was. Here she stood with a grumpy old physics teacher without her boss but with the addition of man who was either the lead singer of an Emo boy band or a wanted ax-murderer or both. When she'd applied for the position of a lab assistant, this was differently not what she'd had in mind.

She was just glad that Erik, at least, seemed to remember the manners his mum had probably drilled in to him, which fortunately her own had given up on when she was about twelve, so they didn't continue to stand around like confused statures for too long but instead walked inside after he had properly invited their 'guest'. He seemed a bit nervous about it and oddly formal, as if he suddenly thought playing along with the whole Shakespeare charade was a good idea.

Fine with her, as long as she wasn't required to speak only in iambic pentameter.

She was still occupied with destroying buildings via animal cruelty, because that was way more comfortable than to talk to anyone in the room, when she heard a loud sigh and then saw the gleam of metal in her peripheral vision. Carefully she put the phone down and looked up at the man sitting across from her who at this moment was polishing a long, grey dagger with a really dirty rag. Ok, not creepy at all.

But actually it wasn't because for some reason Loki didn't look murderous just kinda sad. Or tired. Which made sense, when she thought about it for a minute. Had he actually slept since they'd found him and his blond buddy in the storm? And he still wore the same dusty clothes from yesterday. Not good.

"Um, would you like a shower? Not that you reek or anything, but you have sand in your hair. And probably everywhere else." Damn, bad mental image.

Like a wet dog, he promptly shook himself and rained a bucketful of sand all over the floor. "I hate sand," he said and he sounded so put out as if the stuff had personally offended him. It was so cute she wanted to ruffle his hair for it, but well, it was dirty and he would probably cut off her hand if she tried.

Instead she offered the shower again and that was when things turned from weird to 'am-I-being-punked?' because he honestly asked her what a shower was.

After she explained the concept to him and showed how the knobs for hot and cold worked she sat back down at the table with her head in hands, wondering if maybe they hadn't picked up a couple of fantasy freaks but actual real-life hippies who had grown up in a cave. Because Thor had asked the same damn questions and no one would take role playing so far as to ask a stranger for shower instructions. At least she hoped so.

She really wished Jane would come home soon; maybe the other woman could make all of this seem rational, with the help of a flip-chart and 3-D images, because she sure as hell felt like she'd landed in the Twilight Zone. Or better, as if the Twilight Zone had landed on them.

.........

An hour later the three of them sat at the central table with mugs of steaming strawberry-mint tea before them while the rain outside drummed loudly against the glass walls. Darcy looked over the top of her phone from Erik who was completely engrossed in the book he'd brought with him from the library, to Loki who was braiding his still damp hair.

And the guy seriously had a hell of a lot of hair; it was so long she was sure he would accidentally sit on it if he ever wore it lose. The braiding should have looked girly but somehow failed to be so; it seemed complicated and had a clear pattern to it like he was trying to earn a merit badge for knots from the Boy Scouts. Though if he had ever been something so harmless as a Scout, she would eat her knitted hat.

Also there were the knives. Of course, there were. In addition to the ones he had stashed away in his clothes he apparently hid some in his braids, as well; most of them very small and black, like army cameo for hair. It was creepy as fuck, but kinda soothing to watch because he seemed zoned out and wasn't sporting the serial killer stare, for once. Maybe she could persuade him to give her a few styling tips on this or even better, a makeover. It would be awesome if the guy knew a way to hide a taser form airport security.

Still, the calm couldn't last for long, and with the worsening weather the mood in the room had grown more and more tense. It was pouring buckets now and while the professor just sank deeper into his chair, one eye on the book and the other on the notes he was scribbling on a legal pad, Loki furiously scrapped at a piece of what Darcy had at first assumed to be white plastic but on second glance actually seemed to be - most likely illegally obtained - ivory.

And the intern herself was simply confused. Had she missed something while she'd been occupied with her playlist, some kind of argument that had resulted in this very awkward silence? She could speak up herself, of course, but what was she supposed to say that wouldn't make this worse? And where the hell was Jane?

Sure, tall, dark and crazy had said she'd followed tall, blond and muscular, but in a town too small for even one Starbucks nothing they could have done would have taken this long. Except for that one thing, but she knew her boss wasn't that kinda girl and way too much into science to let herself get distracted by good looking men. Which was a shame, really; a girls' night out could be just what the busy scientist needed to relax a bit. Thor, for his part, seemed so ridiculously polite with his old fashioned speech and little half bows that he probably had to put an engagement ring on a woman before he made a move on her, or at least would insist on ten over-romantic dates beforehand. So no steamy make out session in the car. Though examining a not-satellite shouldn't have taken hours, either, especially when it was guarded by the Men in Black, and they couldn't even get to it.

As if the other woman had heard her thoughts, there was a loud ringing from Erik's phone and a moment later Jane's voice could be heard from the tiny speakers.

"Erik, okay, first of all, don't worry. I'm perfectly fine, really. But you might want to come out to the crater site and look for me. I kind of did what you said I shouldn't do. "

The sound quality was awful; part of that might be the fault of the outdated cell phone but the weather wasn't helping, either. The physicist was clearly nervous and didn't seem to want to explain what had actually happened. All they could do was to reassure her that they would pick her up and that they would figure this out somehow. And bring nice warm blankets because apparently Jane was right in the middle of the thunder storm.

When a particularly harsh lightning strike hitting the crater site could be heard over the speakers, a loud clatter suddenly drew all eyes away from the phone to Loki, who had just dropped his knife on the floor. For a moment the guy actually looked like a wanted to bolt from the room.

"What's up buddy, scared of a little lightning?" Darcy asked sarcastically.

"No, I'm just not overly fond of what follows," he answered and then proceeded to stare nervously through the large window front.

Yep, Twilight Zone.

.........

LL

.........

Battles were not always loud and fast and predictable or, at least, they did not usually start out that way. Very rarely was there someone blowing a horn or giving a war cry to announce the following bloodbath. Instead, for the most part, the violence just snuck up on you, like an avalanche.

It had been that way with the enmity which had brought both Loki and Thor to Midgard. They had been mere children exchanging barbs and insults when it began, not knowing that this would one day lead to hatred so heated it could melt the entirety of Nilfheimr.

It was also that way with the battle which was surely about to start today, where a simple lightning strike heralded his doom. He knew, of course, that thunder was not primarily caused by a magical hammer and an enraged god, but he also did not believe in coincidence. No, this was Thor's doing and Loki's first and very demanding instinct was to flee. For once, he was almost prepared to let it take over, to run before it was too late, even though it would bring shame upon him and his family and even though it was a painful concession to his own newfound vulnerability.

As much as he hated to admit it even to himself, there was simply no doubt that if the Thunderer appeared here with Mjölnir in hand, Loki would not survive this day.

What held him back, what kept him seated in the flimsy metal chair surrounded by strange mortals worrying about one of their own, was that he had no idea where to go. He had ever been talented at hiding in plain sight but that was in an environment with which he was familiar, with people and rules he understood and with powers that set him apart from those who might look for him. Here on Midgard he was a stranger to all, which should have made it easier, if it were not for the fact that everything was strange to him as well.

And there was that awful hammer. It would be child's play to find him while flying over that small village, no matter where he fled to.

So he stayed; stayed and listened to the scurrying of the nervous man and strange talking youth, who readied themselves to save their friend from whatever threat she had encountered. None of their words made the slightest sense and for a moment he worried that the Allspeak had failed him at last, though on closer inspection it had probably more to do with the pounding of his heart in his ears that let him hear only one word in every three.

"Loki?" The tentative call of his name was what finally drew the former prince back from his spiralling thoughts to the problem at hand, and he was absurdly grateful to the little mortal who stood before him with a look on her face that spoke of genuine worry. "Are you okay? We were both going to fetch Jane, but if you're not feeling well, I could stay."

Oh. That was... well, unexpected was most likely the right word. Unexpected and kind. Oh.

With unusual effort the mage shook himself, packed his emotions away, behind the solid barrier in his mind they occupied when he was with anyone but his family, and steeled his features into something resembling stoic.

"While the offer is very gracious, I believe I will be fine on my own, little Darcy."

"You're sure? Only you looked a bit spooked."

She was truly concerned and by Yggdrasil he could not understand why, when only a day earlier he had thrown a seax at her. And her people had thrown in their lot with Thor which, as his enemy, should have earned him nothing but their scorn, though maybe the youth had not understood the circumstances yet. Still, young Darcy was obviously worried about his reaction to the lightning, which left him strangely touched. Thor had found a band of truly good people, as was the fool's wont, he knew.

Smiling slightly he took the mortal's hand and was gladdened that she did not immediately flinch away at the contact. "I thank you for your concern, but I am well. You should better see to your friend."

And he meant it; at this moment the fear that had gripped him upon hearing the telltale sound of the hammer's power had diminished to the slight tension that he always felt when his enemy was near.

Maybe he was not wholly alone here, after all.

A few moments later he was alone, however, while the scholar and his friendly companion travelled to wherever Thor had led Jane Foster. He used that time to properly examine the chamber he was in, to see what place these mortals called home. It was strange, utterly different from anything in the Nine - metallic, austere, filled with unfamiliar smells and sounds, and somehow Loki felt more stranded here than he had on the roof the night before. How was he supposed to live here, in this realm that made no sense to him, left confused like a child before it took its first steps?

In an attempt to quench his misery he kept wandering around the room, opening cupboards and doors, not really interested in the contents just to occupy his mind. One such cupboard that was slightly larger than the others hummed lowly when he stood near it and so he was wary of opening it, but curiosity won out and then suddenly...

Cold. True, wonderful cold.

A sigh escaped Loki's lips as he stood there, taking in the chilling air, the smell of snow. Oh, this was glorious. Despite the knowledge tucked away in his mind of Midgard's seasons and different climes, he had almost feared he was doomed to the heat in this particular village, that he would not be allowed to feel the comfort of the ice again.

Ignoring any kind of decorum the former prince slummed to the ground before the wondrous box and just enjoyed the familiar briskness. It was not close even to Jötunheimr's hottest days, but so much better than anything he had dared hope for.

He only wished the thing were big enough for him to sleep in.

Although he had not felt overly tired, the stress of the last two days must have somehow caught up with him because he did, in fact, fall asleep right there on the floor and was only awakened by the arrival of the three mortals who were, to his immense relief, not trailed by the furious God of Thunder.  Which, unfortunately, did not mean that someone else was not furious with him.

"What the hell are you doing there? Your.. .your friend is in trouble and you take a nap in front of the freezer? And why would you just leave it open? Were the puddles outside not enough for you, so you...  you thought you'd flood the kitchen?"

He was beyond sick of hearing the term "friend" being used in conjunction with Asgard's golden prince. Would he need to kill the lout in front of their very eyes to prove his hatred for him? And the little water that had trickled out of the cold cupboard was hardly enough to flood a room, merely a minor inconvenience compared to the mass of rain that had clearly drenched her to the bone.

Apparently, he was not the only one who thought the young scholar was overreacting, for her grey-haired tutor stepped in at the moment and tried to quell her rage with a hand upon her wet shoulder and a placating gentle voice. "Jane, calm down. No need to take your anger out on him; it's hardly his fault that Thor got arrested."

Arrested? Meaning captured? Now that was intriguing.

"May I enquire what happened, good man?" he asked, deliberately not addressing Jane Foster who, judging by the grim lines of her face, still seemed to wish him ill for unknown reasons.

The mortal - Erik Selvig, if he remembered correctly - looked at him with a mixture of embarrassment and trepidation, not unlike a messenger forced to bear bad news to the king. "Well, it looks as if Thor got himself in trouble with Shield," he replied and then helpfully added, "the people who were in the lab this morning." Which answered at least some of Loki's questions. 

It appeared these mortals, led by the man Coulson, were guarding the hammer. But for what reason? So that Thor could not reach it? So that no one but Thor could? As if the latter were even possible. The weapon was not currently in the possession of the banished Ás but that did not mean anyone else here could hope to lift it. Such a powerful artefact would never be wielded by mortals, who had neither the physical strength nor the spark of magical talent necessary to claim the star forged hammer. Curious.

"He stormed the facility and just beat up everyone who got near him," Jane Foster continued the tale for her companion, in a slightly hysterical voice. "But then he...  they...; the agents they all ran to the place he'd disappeared into with guns drawn. He was in over his head, I think. He... he didn't come back out."

Suddenly, without being able to stop himself, Loki started giggling which shortly turned into full out laughter. Praise the ancestors, he had not been so amused for a very long time. "The fool let himself be captured by a bunch of mortals," he sputtered out between peals of laughter. "Oh this, this is wonderful." He should really ask the Norns for forgiveness for thinking they did not favour him, clearly he had been wrong about that.

It seemed, however, that he was the only one able to see the humour in the situation. "You are an ass. How can you think this is funny? Who knows what they're going to do to him? We have to get him out of there."

Now she was definitely glowering down at him, which brought to mind that he was still sitting on the floor, so he quickly surged to his feet and childishly enjoyed the feeling of being able to look down on her.

"Why? He got himself into a spot of trouble; he will have to get himself out of it as well. What is it to you?"

He understood loyalty, but loyalty given so fast and without question was hardly reasonable, nor very useful. It was what made the Warriors Four so maddening - this unwillingness to see fault in Thor or speak of it to his face. Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone was like that around the Asgardian prince no matter how short their acquaintance, so he abandoned any hope to dissuade the mortals and just walked back over to the table the old man and the child now sat at, and slummed down upon a chair.

After a loud huff and another angry glower Jane Foster joined her companions and together they discussed the plan to rescue the mighty Thor form a band of thieves. The thought brought on snickers again but this time he was wise enough to suppress them; instead, he did his best to ignore the ramblings altogether and took up again the carving he had dropped earlier. Maybe a bear this time, or a fish. No! Smiling slightly to himself he tried to imagine the little creature he had freed this morning, unassuming in stature but frightfully loud. Býleistr would have been delighted to see it.

What the mortals decided on in the end he could not have said, but when he looked up from the finished craft in his hands he noticed he was alone in the building once more, or alone except for the female scholar who sat across from him with a blanket slung around her shoulders.

Wonderful, now she had the chance to rage at him anew and appeal to the supposed friendship between him and her blond hero.

"What did you make there?" she asked, as if she had not just shouted at him moments ago. There was definitely no real interest there, more likely an awkward attempt at civility because they were alone together and he was visibly armed. As if he needed a weapon in order to rid himself of the insignificant Midgardian.

Still, he was now truly tired and wished for no more conflict this night, so he held up the carved figure and received a rather charming giggle in return. Well, fine, he was not much of an artisan, but there was no reason be impolite. Though maybe she was simply surprised, which was supported by her next words, "You whittled a dog?"

"Is that what it was? I saw it on the road earlier; strange little animal."

It was obviously not the right thing to say, for now Jane Foster looked at him in confusion and something close to irritation. "You're kidding me, right? You... you don't know what a dog is?"

As a mage challenges to his strength or competence on the battlefield were not unheard of, especially when issued by his enemies; his intelligence, though, was so rarely questioned that Loki honestly felt taken aback. "Well, of course I know what a dog is," he answered tersely, without any real heat to his voice for he could not even take this absurd idea seriously. "I have merely never seen one so small. I would have assumed it to be a whelp, but then even those usually reach my knees."

"It's called a terrier and it's supposed to be so small." In open frustration she raked her fingers through the still damp hair. "I swear, you and Thor are going to drive me crazy. I mean, he told me he would explain everything but he didn't really get the chance...and now you don't even know... Argh!" The force with which she griped her brown locks now was bound to be painful; he almost laughed when she lifted her head to stare at him again.

Oh, the thirst for knowledge was so obvious in her tone and her fierce eyes, something that Loki understood like few others. The two of them presented a puzzle to her, one he probably should let her unravel by herself but it was not as if her knowing would endanger him further. In fact, he was pretty certain her protector already knew enough, if he had interpreted the man's suddenly nervous demeanour toward him correctly.

"You should not count on him to explain anything; he has the wit of a child which has fallen off its horse once too often."

And at that her eyes darkened again, which after all these centuries should not have been so surprising but it still stung - the sign of this incomprehensible admiration of the great fool. Somehow he had hoped that the Thunderer's magnetic charm was a power he had lost with all the others as a consequence of his banishment, but even here on Midgard and behaving like a raging boar it seemed he could still draw people in as if by magic. A magic Loki himself had never mastered.

He was far too tired to defend his words and knew that whatever else would come out of his mouth now would just make her angrier; so he simply kept quiet, waiting for the mortal to yell once more or leave the room, the latter of which would have been preferable.

Instead, she sighed and asked in a gentle, wary voice, "What is it with you and him? Why do you always have to insult each other?"

"That is a very lengthy tale, unfortunately, and not on you will believe, I fear." Not that something as trivial as mistrust usually kept him from telling tales, but it seemed pointless to try when she could not even believe who he was.

"I've got time," she answered brashly and it was this that might have changed his mind and convinced him to reveal at least part of the truth, if in that moment he had not heard a commotion from outside and a voice that unmistakably promised trouble.

"Loki!" the Thunderer bellowed and before the Jötunn could properly react to the hate filled shout of his name, he was bodily lifted from his seat and slammed against the nearest wall.

"Thor, what are you doing? Let him go!" someone yelled, but he could not discern which of the three mortals had come to his defence nor see anything beyond the enraged face of his enemy.

"You will pay for this!" Only after heaving a pained breath did he register that the other former prince was speaking to him in Aesirmál, though whether he did this in order to keep their conversation secret or simply out of habit, he could not have said. He would have asked about this and the meaning of the oaf's words but the hand on his throat stole the last of his breath away and, in any case, it was easy to guess. The hammer - he had not reclaimed his hammer. Despite the precarious situation, relief washed over Loki like the fresh spray of the "shower" hours before.

Not to be outdone by the fortunately still powerless Ás he reached for one of the dragon bone daggers in his hair and held it to his enemies' exposed neck. "I am... already paying, we both... are, you misbegotten son of a diseased boar," he replied in the same tongue when the pressure of the other's arm finally lessened enough to allow him to draw breath. "Why do you think we are here?"

"We are here because you could not leave your greedy hands off the Casket, Trickster." To give his words emphasis and his opponent more bruises to worry about later, the blond pushed Loki forcefully against the wall, once more. The impact was hard enough to make his teeth rattle, but he kept a steady hold on his weapon. 

Nonetheless, his voice sounded strained and raspy, was interrupted by painful gasps for air, when he answered the accusation. "Oh yes... because you... you are thoroughly... innocent... of it all. I did not force you to... to invade my home."

"Stop it! Just stop this! Drop the knife," the old man behind them demanded, which luckily caught the blond's attention.

Ducking under the still outstretched arm Loki slipped to the side, not in retreat but so that he could properly prepare for battle; stance sure and offensive, the blade griped tightly in his right hand.

He saw the fear in the mortals' eyes, the way they stepped further into the room, into the bright light of the peculiar lamp above, and he wished he could join them. It was a surprise, really, that it had taken so long to come to blows between them, though he could have done without it. After only an hour of sleep in the last two days he was weary and would not last long against the berserker-trance that was visibly shimmering in the Asgardian's eyes.

Again, a mortal came to the rescue and usually the Trickster would have been mortified by this, if he were not so grateful for the diversion. "Can you two please stop with the foreign-dub Fight Club shtick? This is really freaking me out, on too many levels." Whatever nonsense the child had said, she was clearly shaken; she looked from one of them to the other and in the end settled on the Jötunn still crowded against a wall. "You' alright?"

And he would have answered her gladly but all he could give her was a small smile and then Thor seemed to have enough of the interruptions and simply, without further warning, slammed a fist into his face.

There was more shouting after that, an attempt by Erik Selvig to drag Asgard's prince away from him, but Loki could not have recalled any of it, had he been questioned about it later. All he knew in that moment was that he needed to leave, needed to keep away from his enemy. If he killed the wretch - and the wish to do so was now stronger than it had ever been - he would never go back home. It had been utter folly from the start, to take shelter with those who had allied themselves with the god, and it was not a mistake he would make again.

No one stopped him when he vacated the strange abode, and he saw no one roaming the roads, so he simply walked the village until he found his previous perch again.

He climbed the wall easily and sat on the roof of the building, intent on watching the place from above, once more, to study its people but he could barely keep his eyes open and once he lay down it was only a matter of moments before he fell into fitful sleep under the unfamiliar, cloudy sky.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

HL

.........

"Now, remember, protect your knees and your chests! The last time we fought them they attacked mainly with spears and swords, though, of course, we will still have to account for archers. You!" he pointed at a row of smaller warriors to his left who stood at full attention in answer to his call. "You scouts will stay on high ground and take care of anyone carrying a bow!" Solemn nods followed that command.

He turned away from the group and addressed the army in general, once more, "Most of us tower over them but we should not count on that alone to win us the battle. They are faster, more agile; they can easily run between our legs and stab us in the back."

A few of the scouts could be heard snickering, clearly enjoying the idea of their own demure size being praised, for once. It was rather a childish response but he let it go on for a moment, knowing that his next command would be enough to subdue their good mood.

"For today I want each of you to spar with a partner of different stature. The shorter of every pair will fight only with a metal weapon; no ice allowed." Now most of the soldiers were groaning loudly, which was expected but not exactly the sign of the respect their captain deserved.

He wished desperately that they would take this with more than the merest hint of seriousness. This training was important, could save countless of lives, although Helblindi knew not everyone in the realm thought so. His youngest brother, for one, believed it ill luck to prepare for a war that might never come, as if merely acknowledging the possibility of it would make it happen. The king saw it as an insult to his prowess in diplomacy. After all, had he not already prevented the war by acquiescing to the Allfather's wishes? There was, however, only one opinion the captain thought relevant in this situation and that was the general's, who trusted neither in the Aesir's promise of a truce nor in the fortunate possibility that Loki would not make everything much, much worse by killing Thor. 

It was very hard to disagree with that logic, so Helblindi had begun to drill his soldiers in the fine art of fighting Asgardians, drawing on the experience of veterans of the last war between the two realms and the very deplorable performance of the temple guards in the battle three days ago. It had been utterly embarrassing to discover that almost a dozen of his people had perished without even one dead Ás to their name, when Loki alone with the help of seidr and a pair of very untrained recruits had managed to kill two palace wardens. He could not give his men the ability to use magic, of course, but it was obvious they needed a better strategy, one of which even his clever little brother would approve.

So the eldest prince continued to shout orders, watched as, one after another, the various soldiers paired off with those twice their height, all the while running the different scenarios through his mind. A battle in the open field of Jötunheimr, a siege of Asgard's palace, a fight on neutral ground... He was so deep in thought that he failed to hear Frár repeatedly addressing him until the lieutenant apparently had enough and simply grabbed his shoulder roughly to turn him around.

"Captain, the Bifröst!" the other Jötunn said, while he pointed excitedly at the sky.

Here we go, Helblindi thought, both annoyed and concerned. This could not possibly turn out well; diplomacy was not exactly one of his strong points, especially not if it concerned interacting with the damnable golden-skinned fools. He wished Loki were here to take care of this matter for him but then again, if he were, they would not be caught in this mess.

When next he suspected the Trickster of constructing an elaborate plan that was sure to have consequences for his realm, he would simply hit the little mage over the head until he forgot about it. Or send him to Býleistr for confession, which might work even better.

He really, really hated his brother's plans.

.........

The day Laufey King had returned from their enemies' realm without his second son would forever be remembered by the inhabitants of Jötunheimr as the day Fárbauti General almost shouted down the walls of the palace.

Maybe in a few years time he would find the whole experience amusing; preferably with both his brothers at his side and with a cask of fine wine at their disposal. Now, though, as he wandered down the twisting paths from the training grounds toward the Bifröst site, it still filled him with dread.

He had been shocked himself to see no evidence of his brother in the throne room, but that was nothing compared to the general's reaction. For a moment it had seemed as if he might cry, for his voice wavered and his whole body trembled when he said "Loki"; a single word that somehow encompassed hundreds of possible meanings.

Laufey, on his throne, shook his head but then immediately realised that the gesture alone would not be enough to eliminate the fear in his consort's eyes. "He is banished. To Midgard. He and the Odinson both." The answer came haltingly in a voice that sounded so very tired, as if the king already knew what these words would bring forth. Though surely no one could have predicted the inarticulate growl that suddenly erupted from Fárbauti's throat.

"You banished my son?" he yelled and suddenly he was only a step away from the throne, close enough to hit the Jötunn sitting on it.

Helblindi, who still stood before the doors of the hall - though he and the other soldier had arrived together - wondered churlishly if his own banishment would have elicited even half the anger displayed here. He, after all, was not the general's son. It was not something he dwelled on often for he was proud to be born of Nál, his father's first consort. In times like these, however, he could not help being envious of the fierce love and protectiveness of his brothers' mother and he wished he could say with certainty that his own would have felt the same for him.

The king, for his part, was not particularly pleased by his partner's words, either. He stood up from his seat, forcing the other Jötunn to take a few steps back, but still they were so close to each other that they could have continued the argument in a whisper. Though they both seemed to prefer shouting.

"Our son needs to understand the consequences of his actions and neither of us has ever been successful in teaching that to him. So I believe the Allfather's idea..."

"You listened to that vicious old murderer? He would send any of our children to the depths of Hel, if you let him." Again Fárbauti's entire body trembled, though now it was clearly because he was doing his best to restrain himself so as not to lash out at the king. Not that the two older Jötnar had never fought - actually that was far more common than a battle of words - but apparently the consort craved an explanation much more than a few good blows at his spouse.

Carefully Laufey laid a hand on the other's shoulder; his voice was placating when he said, "What would you suggest, I ought to have done, instead? Loki broke the truce, there needed to be a punishment befitting his crime. Banishment was the only thing Odin and I could agree on that would not have done him physical harm."

Viciously the hand was shoved away and the reply came in what could only be described as the feral snarl of a beast before it bit off a hunters limb. "No harm? You honestly believe he and that brute Thor will not immediately continue where they started here? He could die there and we would not even be allowed to go and retrieve his corpse."

A deep shiver ran through the prince's every nerve at these words; the mere idea of his little brother's lifeless, broken body was a painfully vivid image in his mind. He wanted to leave, wanted to escape this harsh vocal fight that was somehow worse than witnessing a savage brawl, but he was suddenly fearful of making even a single step in the direction of the doors, lest he draw attention to himself. He should not be here, listening to a conversation so very personal and he would have given anything not to see his father so crushed by the weight of his own decision.

"No, it will not come to that. Both Asgard's prince and our son have been divested of their powers; they are not more of a danger to each other than two mortals would be. Listen, my dear, I understand your..." And whatever else the king had wanted to say was lost in the sickening crunch of bone when a fist connected with his nose.

The sudden violence startled Helblindi so much that he stumbled backwards into the doors, and he thanked the ancestors in silent prayer that the two rulers were much too occupied with each other to have heard or paid attention to the loud bang that accompanied his clumsiness. Damn, now he should truly leave; if it came to an outright battle they would surely want no audience. Still, he was rooted to the spot, one hand balled over his racing heart. And under the worry of what would transpire between the king and his consort was his own anger, his outrage at what he had heard. "Divested of their powers" - did that mean they had taken Loki's magic?

The mage's mother seemed to have come to the same conclusion and that was probably what had lost him the hold on his renowned temper. "That vile bastard dared to rob my son of his birthright?"

And there was the possessiveness again, though the captain could not blame him for it; he could not believe that anyone had done something so horrible to his brother, either. Loki was the only one of his family who could perform seidr, but it was a talent bestowed to him by the ancestors, a sign that he was a true descendent of Ymir. Losing it, he knew, was as if he himself had lost his sword hand. It took an immeasurable amount of restrain for him to not shout his anger at his father, to not help in dealing out punishing blows. As it was, he stood there, leaning on the cool metal doors and trying to dispel the image of the anguish Loki must have felt when he had been stripped of the powers he was so very proud of.

In the quiet of the vast hall the king's sigh was terribly loud as were the steps he took toward his partner. Again, he lightly grabbed one shoulder of the slightly taller Jötunn before him, the other hand was held over his probably broken nose. "Please calm yourself, Fárbauti. Only his access to it was blocked; he will be able to reclaim it once he has learned his lesson. 'Tis not as if I have maimed him." But it was and they all knew it; worse even, for the mage was now alone and powerless in the presence of his enemy on a strange realm.

The general's own voice was low now, but not anything close to calm. He sounded sad when he shook his head from side to side and spoke more to the wall behind than to the person in front of him, "He will not forgive you for this. I will not forgive you. If anything happens to Loki while he is on Midgard, I will strangle you with your own innards." And with that he turned around and walked with sure steps toward the doors.

Helblindi wanted to make way for him but he did not get the chance because one hand painfully clamped down on his upper arm and he was dragged outside by the enraged consort.

"You heard what happened." It was not a question but the prince still nodded nervously, trying to ignore the pain in his arm where fingers pressed deep into his muscles. "I do not trust your father to make the right decision here. So, if we hear Loki is in danger, you will take a few of your best men and bring him home. Is that clear?" The idea alone bordered on treason, it could endanger the fragile truce even more and the captain had never received an order he was so grateful for.

"Aye, my lord. Gladly."

It was obviously the right thing to say for now Fárbauti smiled, a true, proud smile. "I knew I could rely on you," he said gently, then he gave a short nod and walked away in the direction of the palace grounds.

He did not envy the poor sods who were ordered to spar with the general today, but he did envy his brothers their mother, just a little bit.

.........

When he arrived at his destination, after taking the swiftest way possible, his view of the visitors was completely obscured by guards who stood in a ring around the jagged edge of the cliff, which marked the border of Vagga. Fortunately for them, the furious reprimand the day before regarding their rather lax interpretation of their duties seemed to have borne fruit; someone must have actually watched the sky for the tell tale light of their enemies' approach, for once, and they had managed to guard the site properly. Wonderful; at least he would not need to make true on the promised floggings today.

Still, the captain was a bit irritated that not one of the soldiers had heard him walk up behind them; the distraction of the 'guests' was hardly enough of an excuse when they had been warned before hand of this event. So he strode toward the middle of the ring and spoke in a tone filled with humour he did not feel, "Next time you ignore your surrounding like this, I will send all of you to work in the mines."

As one every single guard turned around, visibly startled, but ingrained reflexes had them recover shortly and they all slammed their fists over their hearts in salute. It was hard not to smirk at this and he could almost hear the sarcastic remark his brother would make, along the lines of 'Well, now you notice me,' that lifted his black mood a little.

The sea of people parted before him, all eyes directed straight ahead, and he could finally identify whom Asgard had sent as a messenger. What he saw, then, was not at all what he had expected.

When first the king had announced to the family that they would receive regular reports on Loki's well being while in exile - which was a belated concession he must have wrung out of Odin sometime between the Day of Much Shouting and the morn after - Helblindi had thought maybe they would simply deliver a piece of parchment with a few scribbled sentences via their Rainbow Bridge or that a poor little herald would have to stand in the throne room every other day to stammer a message to the king.

What he had not predicted was that the Allfather would send his son.

And it was the young prince unmistakably, with his golden hair and pale eyes that showed his relation to the house of Odin; fine woven white garments and a confidence in his very bearing that spoke of royalty. He had never come face to face with the boy before but he resembled his elder brother too perfectly to be anyone else.

The prince was guarded by his own troop of nine burly warriors; their armour gleaming in the bright midday moonlight, spears gripped in white-knuckled hands in a sign of open aggression. It would have been insulting if they were not so hopelessly outnumbered by the Jötnar and, without their ridiculous helmets, likely shorter than either of his own brothers. 

So, not feeling threatened at all by the display, he walked closer and halted exactly two steps away from the young Ás. "Baldr Prince," he said, bowing slightly in respect, "I am Helblindi, Son of Laufey. I welcome you to Jötunheimr."

His own surprise at the arrival of the boy was nothing compared to the startled looks he could read on the Asgardian soldiers' faces. What had they expected, that he would try and kill the child at the first opportunity? More fools they; now he really would do his utmost to show them every cutesy, just to keep them on their toes.

When Baldr bowed back it almost made the captain laugh aloud, not out of mockery but because the lad was so very earnest about it while his guards continued to glower ahead at the Jötnar. The whole situation was akin to a parley of two leaders while the people around them kept spilling each other's blood.

"I thank you for your hospitality, Prince Helblindi," Baldr said in a very friendly, polite tone which made Jötunheimr's first prince temporarily ignore the warriors on either side and really look at the Ás before him. He was maybe half Býleistr's height, though what that said about his age was hard to guess; surely he was past his first half and maybe close to his first full millennium. What was truly strange about the boy, however, was the smile. It was sincere, from what Helblindi could tell, and by the Nine he could not understand it. Was he actually happy to be here? And for that matter, why was he here?

Because he had no interest in puzzling it out and saw no way it could possibly be interpreted as impolite, he simply asked, "Why are you here?" and hoped it would not lead to any more embarrassing attempts of the Einherjar trying to threaten him.

"Oh, I thought your father had requested that the report on Prince Loki's well being be made to you?"

Well, that was not entirely correct. The "request" - that Helblindi should hear what transpired on Midgard instead of the king or his consort - had actually come from Fárbauti, who neither trusted his husband not to make light of any danger Loki might face nor himself when in proximity to any kind of Aesir. It had not been well received by his father but when he had finally acquiesced, the captain could hardly have said that he very much did not want to do this.

None of that was of concern to the little 'messenger', however, so the only answer he gave was, "Aye, he did, but I had not thought that Odin King would then send his youngest son here."

The boy looked a tad sheepish at that, as if he had been caught doing something forbidden, a look he had seen much too often on a certain Trickster. If it were not for the imposing entourage, Helblindi might have worried that the guest was here unlawfully.

"Um, well, that idea was my own, to be honest."

It was not proper behaviour for one prince to look at another with his mouth hanging open like a fish and he did, indeed, restrain himself from such an action, but only just. The tiny Ás looked hardly old enough to have received his first sword lesson and should therefore still fear the big, bloodthirsty Frost Giants but apparently he was either very brave or terminally foolish.

Despite not imitating a sea creature, the confusion must still have been evident on his face for Baldr thankfully continued in his explanation, "I believed it would be only right for me to be the one to tell you about what transpires on Midgard, given that we both have a brother in exile there." Which was sound reasoning and remarkably considerate.  

He would have continued to question not only the prince's motivation but that of the Allfather for allowing a child in to such danger merely for courtesy's sake, but then he noticed said child rubbing his hands together forcefully and realised Baldr was shivering.

Right, the cold, a thing other beings could actually feel.

"Well, I am looking forward to these tales, but I believe it is time for us to go inside for some refreshments. I would offer to lead the way to the palace, but that is more than half a day's march from here. So if you excuse the rather modest accommodations, we could head to the guards' barracks, instead." He pointed to a large cave in the east that had been carved into the ice mountains, fortunately only a few yards away.

It was worth all the horrible, grovelling politeness just to see the angry lines appear on the adult Aesir's faces. They were probably appalled at the suggestion, as if it were an insult to house a prince of the Realm Eternal anywhere but in the finest rooms, and one even had the gall to step forward from his protective circle and whisper in to the boy's ear. Which, of course, Helblindi and his people could hear clear as any shout. "My prince, this is dangerous. We should insist to see the king."

The young Odinson simply shook his head at this, however, and then looked up at the Jötunn captain with an unwavering smile. "That is very kind of you, Prince Helblindi," he said and promptly motioned with one hand for his soldiers to follow him.

No, Helblindi thought, as he walked toward the barracks housing the temple guards alongside the second prince of Asgard, that is certainly not what I expected.

.........

After they had both settled down opposite each other at a large table in the middle of the guards' house and the little god was furnished with a warm pelt as well as a cup of spiced, watered-down wine, Helblindi sent away the few soldiers who had been mingling here during a lull in their duties. The order seemed to confuse Baldr who, though too polite to question him on it, still looked to him as if waiting for an explanation.

"Loki is a very private person and, according to him, my men talk too much," he said, a fond smile on his face. This wish for secrecy was a quirk both his father and brother shared and though he understood not the reason for it, he nonetheless respected it, most of the time.

The Asgardian for his part visibly mulled this idea over, then his eyes swept from the nine Einherjar behind him and back to his fellow prince, before he came to a decision. "Leave us," he said to his escort in a remarkably commanding tone for one so young. It was not enough to impress the warriors, however, most of whom looked actually insulted by the very suggestion of abandoning their post. One of them - their commander it seemed for he was the same who had spoken up earlier -  took a step forward and tried to placate the boy.

"My prince, we cannot possibly leave you alone with the Frost-" At the rather hard stare from Helblindi he stopped and hastily amended, "-the Jötunn." Which was not the epitome of politeness either, but better that the slur before.

Truly, and these people thought his kind savage.

To the captain's utter amusement it looked as if the rude behaviour had just affirmed Baldr's decision; he now turned fully around in his chair and declared, in a voice as enraged as someone so friendly could likely get, "The Jötunn is a prince of this realm and you ought to treat him with respect. Leave now or my father will hear of it!"

That at least did the trick and one by one the chastened warriors shuffled out of the room until only the brown-haired spokesman remained. Helblindi could not fault the Ás his loyalty and the concern for his charge was not exactly unfounded, which was why he settled the matter as peacefully as he knew how. A small, sharp dagger formed in his hand, the ice gleaming brightly in the moonlit chamber. Before the soldier could react and step in to protect his little prince from possible danger, Helblindi sliced the blade with practised precision over the palm of his hand, drawing a thin bright line of blood. "No harm will come to Baldr Prince on this day, you have my word," he vowed, hand over heart, his eyes never leaving those of the commander.

The Aesir seemed surprised by this action and rightly so, as pacts of this kind between individuals of their two races were almost unheard of, though considering the truce it should not have been necessary at all. Unfortunately, a truce did not equal trust, he knew.

Still, it was enough to quell the Einherji's worry and to finally convince him to leave, bowing first to his own prince and then to the one he had come close to insulting moments before. It was that small courtesy that drove Helblindi to again consider the Aesir's frailty and suggest in a tone less scathing than it usually would have been, "You and your men may wait in the armoury close by. It even has a metal door, so you will not freeze to death."

His words clearly startled the commander for he stood before the entrance of the barracks as if immobilised mid-step, probably debating whether to be insulted by the slight against his people or simply leave as ordered. In the end the Ás mumbled out a grudging "My thanks" and left the room in loud, hurried strides.

A small, high pitched laugh was what drew his attention back to his guest who, when their eyes met, smiled at him in a rather wicked fashion. "That was a nice gesture, both the oath and offer of shelter, though I think you have shocked poor Atli more than if you had actually drawn a weapon on him. And I did notice you specified today in your vow."

Well, isn't he a smart lad? No wonder Loki likes him, Helblindi thought impressed.

Despite that his answer was serious, "I do not make promises I cannot keep" and it encompassed everything that stood between them: the possible war, his brother's exile, thousands of years of hatred. But none of that seemed to matter to the little prince before him. No, Baldr, in fact, only continued to smile, somehow conveying a puzzling calm in these, for him, hostile surroundings.

Clever, yes, but far too trusting.

Nevertheless, the boy was pleasant company and a fine story teller, emphasising his words with expressive gestures, describing the people involved as well as the landscape in so much detail, as if he had seen the events play out before his own eyes. So Helblindi learned of the mortals his brother had met, the strange food he had eaten, the discovery of Asgard's treasured hammer and the fight between the two banished princes.

It was the last part of the tale that had the boy stammer and he looked suddenly even smaller than before, despite the height of the icy chair Helblindi had elevated for him that kept the both of them on a more or less even level. He was, it seemed, terribly nervous about his brother having attacked Loki apparently without reason. Not that their enmity was not enough of one, but not so to Odin's youngest son, who valiantly tried to defend the Thunderer's actions.

"He was angry that he could not lift Mjölnir," he said, continuously rubbing the by now empty wine cup between his hands, as if seeking warmth or distraction. "It is... it is not wholly your brother's fault, of course, but he must have, in his rage, blamed Prince Loki for losing her and his powers."

Well yes, of course he did, but that was hardly an excuse. Loki had lost much more in this banishment and he had not lashed out at his foe. Though the comparison was unfair, he knew, for the two rivals were very different in character. Blunt violence had never been to the mage's liking and he was far too calculating to make the first move in a fight.

"It was ill done," Baldr continued, sounding disappointed in his elder sibling. 

"It was to be expected. When you consider what they have done to each other in their long rivalry, it will be a wonder if both return with all their limbs intact." Or alive, he thought, but he would not voice such cruelty to the child and his tone was light, not altogether serious. "No matter. They are both hale, are they not?" the captain asked, to draw the attention back to the conclusion of the report.

It earned him a grateful little smirk for the obvious change of subject and the opportunity to delay happier news. "Aye, they are well. At least I think they are. Your brother has left the mortals for now, but Heimdallr said he carries no injuries from the... altercation that he could see."

Which probably meant the Trickster was off alone and brooding somewhere, as was his wont. At least that way he could not cause any more trouble.

Before that thought had even fully formed Helblindi cursed himself for a fool; there was no possible way Loki would not cause trouble in the near future, powerless and friendless as he might be on Midgard. Which, despite his usual annoyance with his brother's antics, was strangely comforting.

Chuckling softly he inquired after the banished Ás' health which, though a simple gesture of courtesy, seemed to delight Baldr.

"Oh, it is very kind of you to ask, Prince Helblindi. My brother is well, thank you. Though I believe his new friends were not particularly impressed with what he has done. Heimdallr says, the Midgardians are far more peaceful than they were centuries ago, which means they will be a good influence on him, I hope."

And oh, criticism of the mighty Thor, that was new. Though if a brother could not point out a person's flaws to him, who could? 

He did not say it at the time and the conversation soon drifted to more general matters but, when the captain escorted the little prince back to the Bifröst landing point alongside his guards half an hour later, he thought that maybe the boy was right. Maybe the mortals could be a good influence, even on Loki.

Or at least prevent the sworn enemies from killing each other.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

TO

.........

"My thanks," Thor said when the plate of food was placed in front of him, but the only reply was a rather forced smile. He tried not to let it bother him overmuch, although it had become harder every time. They were all so quiet now, almost sombre, and he knew only he himself could do anything to change that. What would lift their spirits and put an end to these suspicious glances, shared between them whenever they believed his attention elsewhere, was to answer their questions.

Questions about the Bifröst, himself, the argument the night before with Loki...

It was that very argument that had seemingly soured their regard for him and though they had asked him more than once to explain his actions, he had remained silent, not knowing what and how much to reveal. In the past the revelation of his own name or that of his father would have been enough to be revered by them, to gain him whatever he wished, but now he no longer knew how to convince even this little group of mortals. It had, after all, been several centuries ago that his people, let alone the prince himself, had travelled to this realm with any kind of frequency, and the days that the Midgardians thought of them as gods were long over.

Still, secrecy was not his forte and telling lies simply left a bitter taste in his mouth, not to mention that he was far from proficient at it. And had the three not done enough for him - giving him shelter, aiding him in the quest to reclaim Mjölnir, freeing him from the clutches of bandits - to earn his full honesty? Only a few hours ago he had started a fight in their home, one that had clearly left them shaken, and yet here they were, offering to break their fast with him as if he were an honoured guest. The least Asgard's firstborn prince could do was to repay their kindness with the respect it deserved, which meant he had to tell them what they wished to know.

How to start, though?

"Do you like it? I know it's not much; neither of us is all that great at cooking, but..."

The question brought his attention out of the labyrinth of his own mind back to the room at large and the three people sitting around the metal table beside him. For a moment he was confused as to what Jane Foster had spoken of, but then she helpfully cocked her head in the direction of the plate and to his shame he realised that he had not even tasted a bit of the carefully prepared food yet, so deep in thought had he been.

The fare was rather meagre 'twas true, scrambled eggs and what seemed to be strips of charred ham, but it smelled wonderful and he had not eaten since the morning before, so he took a hearty forkful and then another until he heard the clearing of a throat and remembered that he had not answered yet. Truly, the fall from the Bifröst might have just knocked all the manners out of him or maybe the repeated collisions with that strange conveyance had seen to that.

"It is very good, do not worry. You think too little of your talents," he said, smiling in both appreciation of a tasty meal and at her rather flustered look. The compliment made the lady Jane blush, which was far more becoming on her face than the nervousness and fear he had seen earlier on her and his other two hosts.

It was the fear that had confused him. Surely these good mortals must have known he would not do them harm? But they had acted as if they had never seen battle, as if the mere display of violence was enough to drive terror into their hearts. Yet had not that group which now held Mjölnir in its grasp consisted of many skilled warriors? Midgard was different now than it had been in the past, back when he had last visited, Thor knew, but this squeamishness was absurd. Neither of the princes had even drawn blood during their short scuffle.

Well, no matter the reason for this strange fear, an apology was likely in order and maybe it would give him an opening to explain some of the more important matters.

"I must say, I am sorry for what happened the other day. I think now that it would have been better had Loki and I fought out our differences in private."

Now all three pairs of eyes were on him, which was good for he had not meant his words sorely for the dark haired maiden's benefit, though neither mortal reacted in very promising manner. They had all ceased eating and it seemed they eagerly waited for him to elaborate but he could not see what else there was to say.

"Why'd you do it then? Hit him, I mean," Jane Foster inquired sharply. "He didn't even have a chance to defend himself; you just grabbed him and then bam!" She slammed a fist into the palm of her right hand to emphasise her point. "What was that? What is wrong with you two?"

"That is a rather lengthy tale." And a very twisted, bloody one at that.

"No, don't you give me that. Not you, too." Before he had the chance to ask what she meant by that, she continued in a tone that, he at least thought, was quite unnecessarily angry, "Loki said the same thing and then you assaulted him, so you better come up with something less vague or I'm going to lose the last shred of my patience."

There was little she could have done to him even in his weakened state and still Thor found himself quite unwilling to vex the lady further, maybe because she had been the first to show any sign of believing him and had risked her own safety on a quest not meant for her. She was an impressive woman, especially as she sat before him no - short and unmistakably fragile and yet so full of fire and determination.

The old protector Erik Selvig tried to placate her, telling his charge to stay calm, all the while looking nervously between the two of them as if worried that the Thunderer might react badly to her heated words. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however, for he knew all she wished was to understand everything that had transpired in the last few days. He could only hope that wish would keep her from doubting him, when he would tell her of things her people had long forgotten the existence of.

As if readying himself for a bout of sparring, the warrior took a deep breath, then looked into Jane Foster's brown eyes and began to explain, "'Tis true, it is a very long tale but to make it short: Loki and I have been sworn enemies for almost all of our lives. He is a vicious, dangerous creature and the reason the two of us were sent here so very far from home and into that storm you saw."

Suddenly a short peal of laughter could be heard, and now Thor's attention was drawn to the young Midgardian sitting across from him who grinned in amusement as she said, "People don't have sworn enemies, in real life," and then continued to giggle as if in response to a private jest.

He was about to ask what the girl meant with her peculiar comment, but then he noticed the others' eyes on him as if they had not even heard Darcy speak and only cared for his earlier words.

"Is that what you were arguing about, that he somehow caused you to be stranded in New Mexico?" Erik Selvig inquired and again he seemed to be wary of Thor, speaking in a voice so low and careful like one fearing to be struck for his insolence by his betters. For a moment everything the Ás felt was confusion for surely they must have heard the heated words exchanged between Loki and him, must have heard the wrongs of which they had accused each other. "You weren't exactly speaking English, my friend," the mortal said softly, as though explaining a simple matter to a child. And suddenly it all made sense.

"I had not realised," he mumbled, more to himself than the others. He had not realised that he had used the Asgardian tongue; not on purpose, more likely out of habit. Had not realised that he had locked them out of the conversation completely by switching to words which felt more familiar, which he usually used when faced with Loki because wherever it was that he encountered the Frost Giant, Aesirmál was easily understood.

They had not understood, however, neither of them; had merely heard what must have sounded like made up babble to them. And suddenly the confusion and fear seemed merited, for not only had they witnessed a bout of violence clearly startling and alarming, they had also heard shouts and bellows so foreign to them that it must have seemed like they had been invaded by howling beasts. It was such an outlandish concept to him, who had never been troubled by not understanding any tongue no matter how old or seldom used, but the thought alone worried him greatly.

If he had landed here on this realm, without being able to communicate with anyone, with his words landing on baffled ears....

"I am truly sorry; I had not intended to be rude."

"So you just spoke Old Norse by accident?" the grey-haired scholar asked in disbelief.

The whole matter made Thor feel utterly foolish so he just nodded sheepishly, as if he had somehow failed for the hundredth time at a seemingly easy lesson his tutors had tried to instil in him. What made it exceedingly worse was that he could be sure the Trickster had been aware the entire time of the fact that they had not spoken the Midgardian language and had most likely enjoyed their hosts' bewilderment.

Damn, could he do nothing right here?

There was, after all, a reason the royals were blessed with Allspeak, so that this could not happen, so that no one could hide their secrets behind their own native tongue. It was a glaring insult to converse in a way others could not comprehend, a way to make underhanded deals and lie without anyone being the wiser.

And Loki was to blame for this, surely; the wicked little Frost Giant had always managed to bring out the worst in Thor.

Before the anger could overtake him and make him break the fork, which he was still clutching in his right hand, a loud clang interrupted the swirling thoughts as a small glass was put before him on the table.

"I could use a drink, how about you?" the old man inquired, suddenly much less nervous and more in a tone likely intended to cheer his guest. Only then did he become fully aware of his surroundings again and noticed that the two women had left the room. Had he somehow chased them away with his ramblings? Had they given up on their questions in favour of getting away from the dangerous, foolish stranger?

It must have been quite obvious what he wished to know even without giving voice to it because the mortal chuckled lightly and then said, "Don't worry, they'll come back. Jane is just going over her calculations again with Darcy's help. And you looked a little forlorn here so I offered to stay with you."

Forlorn, yes, maybe that was the right word. Ever since he had failed to retrieve Mjölnir and been so easily overpowered by warriors who should have been so far beneath him, he had felt adrift. Lost. If he could not even fight properly anymore, then what was he? How could he regain his father's trust if he could not accomplish even such a simple task? And why, oh why, had his faithful weapon not listened to his call anymore?

What was he supposed to do?

He said none of this to Erik Selvig; instead, he drank the offered cup of bronze, very weak spirits and then demanded another and another, all the while remembering not to smash the cup no matter how satisfying it would have been at the moment. The little warmth from the drink helped to quell his anguish, but it did not quieten the questions in his head.

What was he supposed to do? What lesson did his father intended to teach him? Whatever it was it seemed too complicated for the blond prince to unravel. If it was not a feat of strength and bravery, then what else could he possibly prove? How else was he supposed to show his worth?

.........

Judging by the position of the sun it was midday when he woke up, once more, on the lounge, half covered by a too short blanket. He had not intended to fall asleep at all, could not even recall how he had gotten here, all the way from the table on the other side of the large room. The liquor Erik Selvig had shared with him must have been more potent than he had first realised, or the exhaustion of the mind, caused by all these miserable thoughts, had somehow translated to physical tiredness.

He could not go on like this, he knew. It was childish and cowardly to brood on his pain and not do anything about it. He ought to talk again to the old mortal; he seemed a good, honest man and maybe he could advice him on how to proceed. Or the lady Jane, who surely still had questions for him. Oh, and there was that book he had taken.

With confident, determined steps Thor walked toward the entrance door of the strange abode and, when there, rummaged in the tangle of garments and personal belongings of the three inhabitants until he found the item he had carelessly dropped here the night before. He flipped through the pages once, twice, to make sure he had the right book and then stood there, trying to listen to noises that would indicate where the mortals were to be found. Earlier the man Erik had said his charge had left to calculate something, though what that was and how that translated to a location he could not say.

So he simply set out to look into any of the little chambers adjacent to this bigger, glass covered one, but to his dismay there was no one to be found. Had they just left him here alone, so as not to wake him? It was quite considerate yet much too trusting, given that he was a stranger all alone in their home. And the lady Jane had said that they had been robbed before, so why would they trust their guest with their last meagre possessions?

No matter the reasons, he had to see whether he truly was alone, so he went back to the entrance door and opened it, concluding that, should all three of them have gone, they would probably have taken the metal transport as well.

The air that hit him as he stepped outside was warm and dry, and for a moment he wondered how Loki would fare in a weather so hostile to his kind but then he felt absurd for thinking about his enemy with worry or at least consideration and he shook the thoughts off as if ridding himself of something foul.

In the end he discovered the chariot gone and the outside just as deserted as the rest of the dwelling.

He huffed loudly in frustration and tried vehemently not to let this darken his mood even more as he walked back towards the door, but shortly before he had made up his mind to give up his search he saw another building on the very edge of the premises, only a few yards to the right of the main residence. Its whitish metal walls were gleaming in the bright sunlight, two rickety, mismatched chairs had been placed before it. As small as it was and with the rather odd, round shape, only the door and two windows marked it as living quarters and not just a place in which to store tools.

Still, maybe this odd cabin could offer some signs as to where the others had left, which was why the prince walked toward it, all the while feeling rather unsure of himself. His first impulse was to simply yank the door open; after all, should this small space turn out to be as abandoned as the rest of the mortals' abode, he would hardly cause offence and surely, even if he had the fortitude to find one of them here, his company would not be unwelcome. Something, though, held him back; either the court manners so painstakingly drilled in to him over the centuries or simply worry of further missteps, he was not sure which. And so halting one step before it, he contemplated whether to knock or not. To his utter relief the door was opened from within before he could come to a decision.

And there stood Jane Foster, appearing just as confused as he felt.

So was this where she spent her days? From behind the woman he could see furnishings similar to those in the other house; to her left where a row of low hanging cupboards cluttered with dirty dishes, to her right a low mattress tucked into a narrow niche. The lady herself was dressed in simple garments, as if he had just rudely roused her from sleep.

"Thor! Oh, I didn't think you were up already; you seemed quite out of it earlier." The blush still suited her beautifully, though why his drunkenness should embarrass her he could not understand. Norns be good, he had not blurted out anything offensive or behaved too awfully while she had seen him in that state.

"I must apologise for my rude conduct these last few days. This, landing here, has not been easy, though that is hardly an excuse." Again he looked at a mortal with sheepishness, discomfited as if they were the nobles and he the peasant bowing before them in reverence. But he did not want to give them reason to think him a brutish lunk with no manners, when they had been so kind to him without asking for any sort of compensation. He would have been a beggar on the streets if it were not for them.

Once more his thoughts wandered unbidden to the image of the Frost Giant stealing food from a vendor and he wondered whether there was anything edible left in this small village, now that the Trickster had roamed it for a day.

"It's OK, really. I hit you with my car, twice, so we can just put the blame on that," the lady said with a chuckle and suddenly it seemed he had been forgiven or maybe she had never been angry to start with. It was a nice thought for, though he could not explain it, Thor really wished for her to like him.

"That is very gracious of you," he replied and smiled for the first time since seeing Mjölnir and consequently finding himself unable to lift her. Instead he lifted the book he had been holding like a banner and said, "I come bearing a gift, Jane Foster," in a tone so ridiculously cheerful as if he had finally found an excuse as to why he was even talking to her, which it was not, because he enjoyed this conversation immensely. It was simply a relief to know he could do something to repay her, even in a rather small way.

The broad grin on the lady's face was all he could have asked for and then she told him good-naturedly, "Please, just call me Jane", an invitation that made him hope he had repaired their easy camaraderie from the previous day when they had set out for a quest in her transport and she had been so passionately curious about the way he spoke.

"I guess I never asked you for your full name, so I'll just have to call you Thor," she continued and only then did it dawn on him that he had never properly introduced himself. They had known his name since Loki and he had landed at the Bifröst site and they had given him theirs when he had first been welcomed into their home, but until now it had completely slipped his mind that they knew not who he was. Usually an introduction was not necessary in any but the most formal of settings when, after all, most people recognised him on sight. It seemed he would have to remind himself again and again that things were different on Midgard.

Still, better late than never. "My apologies. I am Thor Odinson, of Asgard." That last part was not strictly true anymore, but he had to believe his current situation was only temporary and that the claim therefore was not a lie, merely a bending of the truth.

"Oh god," was the only response, which he would have found uplifting, even though no one had called him a god in anything but a mocking tone in centuries, if he had not noticed that Jane's eyes were not on him at all, but on the book still held aloft in his hand. "You have my notebook. Oh my god, how did you get this?"

"I took it from the people who held me captive. I know it is not as much as I had promised but..." Before he could say more, a small hand reached toward him and dragged him forward by the collar of his still dirty shift and into the little wheeled house. Even without his powers the Thunderer was not easily manhandled, but he was completely caught off guard by the woman's ministrations until he sat on what he assumed was a bed, unsure of what had earned him such harsh treatment. But then he saw Jane's beaming face as she held her possession in her hand, clutching it to her heart like a long lost child, and he suddenly cared very little about anything else.

Jane Foster was breathtaking when she smiled, as if she could melt glaciers with the warmth of it, her eyes sparkling merrily like the sun. "Thank you, thank you so much, Thor. Now I don't have to start from scratch."

Finally, it seemed, he had done something right.

.........

PC

.........

"Agent Gareth, report," he spoke tiredly into the radio and waited for the sizzle of static to be replaced by the always bored voice of the younger man on the other line.

A moment later Gareth responded, "Sir, still no change. Target has not moved from his location."

"What is he doing at the moment?" Coulson asked, though he thought it was unlikely that anything interesting could have happened in the last few hours. His mind was occupied with the heavily classified files on his computer which spoke of far more important matters, like Stark's latest brush with death or what the hell they should do about Banner apparently being back in the US and on General Ross' radar. Still, he could not exactly ignore the possible alien artefact in the desert, as ridiculous as the whole idea sounded even in the safety of his own mind.

"Target is taking a shower, sir. We'll keep you posted," came the reply and it was easy to hear the smirk in the other agent's voice.

Very helpful, indeed. But what had he expected anyway, that 'Blake' would just reveal all his secrets when he was back with Dr. Foster?

And it wasn't even certain that there were secrets to be unearthed, he thought frustrated as he riffled through print outs of even more reports,  though at least he knew for sure that the target was more than just a 'fitness nut on steroids'. There were several possibilities, of course, from foreign military to the Ten Rings to an unknown group of mercenaries who thought there was money in selling off the 'satellite' to the highest bidder, but none of them explained why the man was currently living with Foster and Selvig.

The actual Dr. Donald Blake, MD, had been no help either; the agent Coulson had sent there earlier this morning had reported the man had no idea how his ex-girlfriend had acquired his ID nor why she would use it to fake an identity for someone he had supposedly never met. The background checks he had requested last evening on both him and Jane Foster had not shown any connection to dubious organisations, and her research in the field of Einstein-Rosen Bridges flawlessly explained her presence in New Mexico.

The only anomaly was Erik Selvig who had made no secret of knowing about SHIELD and who had worked with Bruce Banner before the latter scientist's unfortunate accident. It would have been interesting to know whether the two were still in contact, especially with Banner out of hiding and seen close to his old university. There had been no mention of their shared colleague in the e-mail between Drs. Selvig and Pym, but the message alone made clear how nervous the professor was about SHIELD's presence.

With a sigh he stood up from the uncomfortable folding chair and went over to a sort of buffet table that displayed various sandwiches sealed in plastic wrap and the, as always, unappetising brown sludge that served for coffee in these makeshift headquarters.

The group was hiding something, and Coulson wished he had any reason to arrest the lot of them and get them talking. At the moment he was, again, regretting letting 'Donald' go, though he did trust Barton's instinct. After he'd beaten the crap out of a dozen very well trained agents and unsuccessfully tried his luck at playing Arthur to their hammer shaped Excalibur the target had simply stayed mum, and aside from torture there seemed to have been no way to get through to him. The assassin's suggestion, to let 'Blake' return to his friends, had come as a welcome alternative, especially when Selvig appeared with his rather flimsy excuse. If the old scientist went to such lengths as to fake an ID and lie to the organisation he had previously been so spooked by, then the target had to be important to him.

What made the whole thing even stranger was when, without even saying so much as "Hello" to his rescuer, the aforementioned target had just run off, leaving the doctor to chase after him. That was the first time Phil had regretted his decision, but the only thing the men he had sent after the pair had reported was that both had returned to the makeshift lab.

And then they had discovered the second target.

Only moments after the arrival of Selvig and 'Blake' the young black-haired man had stormed from the building while looking, as his agents had put it, "like a pissed off deer in the headlights". Clothes dirty and ripped in places, he had been running through the streets as if he'd been hunted by a pack of rabid dogs, although no one had followed him out. In fact, it had been rather difficult to find him afterwards, with him knowing seemingly every little ally and shortcut in Puente Antiguo and his very strange penchant for climbing the walls of buildings in favour of going around them. It was only thanks to Hawkeye's keen vision that they had finally spotted target #2 at the very edge of town on the roof of a rundown building next to a liquor shop two hours after he had first appeared on their radar.

Which reminded him. "Barton, report!"

.........

LL

.........

The Allspeak was anything but perfect, Loki noticed not for the first time, as he stood before the varied assortments of meat on display and tried to decide what to take. There was, for one, the small problem of the many differences in animal and plant life which made it almost impossible to give a perfect translation for everything under Yggdrasil's various skies. Like the little creature Jane Foster had called a "terrier" which had no equal in any of the other eight realms the Jötunn had visited and therefore had no name in his own or other tongues. When he searched his mind for it there was a blank space, like an unreadable smudge in an old book, so even if he were to speak in Álfarmál the only thing he could call it was "terrier".

It seemed the same was true for at least halve the foodstuff on Midgard, with their "pancakes", "toasts" and "turkeys". What, in the name of Ymir, was a ''turkey"? Cautiously he took the small strip of meat from the metal tray and held it to his nose. It smelled strange, rather unpleasant, and then he felt the meat's structure, the tendons and muscles and realised it was some species of bird which made him drop it on the floor in alarm. No, not that. No matter how desperate he might be, he would not eat a bird.

As he tried to control the shudders brought forth by ugly memories, he heard again the loud clang of the cleaver on stone and reminded himself that he was short on time. Maybe he should just take one of each and leave for the safety of his roof; but he needed to learn, did he not? And there was the possibility he might unintentionally eat something he would regret later, like that one time when he had dined with the Dvergar on Svartálfheimr where his hosts had offered him a supposed delicacy, which had later turned out to be a member of sentient race capable of holding very long grudges.

'Twas better to be careful than having to apologise to another talking bug.

With that in mind Loki once more perused the offered goods, concentrating now more on his senses than on the small, neat script on the papers behind the glass wall. "Steak", at least, was a simple choice, as was "spare ribs", so he stuffed two of each in the satchel he had found earlier in the unoccupied shack above which he slept.

Once he had slung the bag over his shoulder he noticed the sudden quiet that signalled the butcher's work was at an end; it seemed he had run out of time. Carefully he made his way to the door, eyes on the floor so that he would not slip on the meat he had discarded, and then he stood again in the dreaded heat of the desert. Well, at least that had not ended in disaster. Which it very nearly had, because of another, very nosy patron and a damn little bell that had signalled his first attempt at thievery. After an hour of observation and due to this realm's thankfully short doors he had managed to disarm the chime and entered when the merchant was busy in another, secluded room. And now he could finally eat. Though first he would have to return to his preferred resting place; a location that was likely not safer than the rest of this wretched village but at least higher up.

The crunch of leather boots on sand vexed the Jötunn more than was rational after three days here, but he simply ascribed his emotions on pangs of hunger and there was no one to contradict him, for once. As it was, he walked on with one hand on the strap of his satchel, the other on one of the daggers secured at his belt until he noticed something strange next to one of the buildings in the road ahead.

No, not something; it was a person. Short and blond haired, clad in black from head to foot, which in this bright, dusty environment seemed a very bad choice in garment if one wanted to stay hidden. And that the man wished to remain unseen was obvious; he was crouched low, back pressed closely to the white wall and he carried a bow. Damn, that could prove dangerous.

Loki took one long, calming breath and then walked on, as if he had seen nothing suspicious; heart racing, but steps unhurried. The worst thing one could do when followed by potential enemies was to alert them to the fact that they were spotted by their prey. At least there were no rustling leaves or hidden twigs here that could break loudly under his feet. Now, with all his senses on guard, he neared the place that specialised in terribly sweet pastries which was in line of sight of the archer, but fortunately the mortal seemed otherwise occupied. He was in conversation with someone unseen; at a closer look Loki noticed another of the black devices in the man's hand, similar to that with which Jane Foster had called out to her friends. So, only one threat then; that was a relief.

Still, while the former prince climbed up the dusty grey wall of his current resting place his eyes stayed firmly on the black garbed figure and only when his hands touched the hard, sleek roof did the tension leave his every nerve. Too close; this encounter had been far too close. Whoever it was that had found a sudden interest in him could not be friendly. The man's bearing was that of a soldier and that he was the first in this realm to carry a weapon Loki was familiar with was not as comforting as it should have been. Bow and arrow he understood and he also knew the damage they could wreak in the hands of a skilled marksman.

Was the archer one of those who had captured Thor? One of the men of "Shield"? Had the foolish Thunderer given them information in exchange for his release? The thought seemed absurd; not only was he quite sure the stubborn Ás was not that easy to break but there was also the matter of pride. As much as he might proclaim that the 'black hearted sorcerer' had to be stopped from his wicked ways, Thor would never have ceded the pleasure of taking him down to anyone else. A sentiment that was mutual, as far as Loki was concerned. If one of them had to die, it would only be at the hand of the other.

If he had not been betrayed, though, then that left only one conclusion: The two fallen princes had been watched from the start. The question was why?

Every well honed instinct in Loki said to take the archer by surprise, to dispose of him before the mortal himself could strike, and maybe then he would receive a few answers to the puzzles he tried to solve. For that he needed to prepare, however. He knew not his own strength at the moment, would not have been able to predict the outcome of a fight between him and the well muscled watcher. It was a shame that there was no one to spar with, to test his skills against. Maybe he should have drawn out the argument the night before just to see whether he still could hold his own against an Asgardian, with the both of them having to resort to purely physical prowess. Unconsciously, he rubbed his aching jaw that was marred with a rather ugly purple bruise. Or it was maybe better he had left while he still could.

Oh well. As long as he was not attacked, he had time to observe - not only his future opponent but also himself - for weaknesses and possible advantages. And if all else failed, he could still win this battle with cunning and trickery. His mind, thankfully, was something even the Allfather could never have robbed Loki of. 

Assured, at least for now, that he was safe when he saw the archer below walk away without a glance back at him, he took out one of the little packages of meat and bit into it with hearty appetite. Delicious, he thought as blood dripped from his chin. It had been many years that he had tasted the flesh of a similar animal and he found it just as satisfying now as the last time. So it seemed he would not have to worry about starvation; that was something to be glad about.

One problem down, about a hundred more to go.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

JF

.........

Asgard.

Her finger carefully traced every letter of the short word while she was admiring the beautiful, elaborate script, created with a cheap ballpoint pen, and desperately trying to make sense of all that it meant. On the one hand there was the rational, scientific argument that said, this could not possibly be true, that the idea would only appeal to crackpots who still thought the government hid a spaceship in Area 51 and had staged the moon landing. 

Still, there were all these strange things he had told her, even before this afternoon, mentions of a Rainbow bridge and his hammer Mjölnir with which he had planned to fly out of the SHIELD complex. It was nothing short of a fairy tale - albeit not one the Brothers Grimm would have ever thought of - and she had far outgrown the dreams of princes who had been turned into frogs or witches who ate little children. Jane was much too old and too level-headed to believe in any of this nonsense, though a not so small part of her wanted to, desperately. Because it validated all her theories, it would mean a scientific breakthrough and quite frankly she doubted that NASA would ever manage to make first contact, at least not in her life time.

Asgard though... Well it was tempting, especially because of the person who had told her about it.

God, and to think the only concern she'd had when Erik had left for grocery shopping a few hours before, was that he might have given their guest alcohol poisoning.

.........

"Thor Odinson, of Asgard."

It had completely slipped her attention the first time Jane had heard it, having been way too occupied with her notebook that had miraculously been given back to her by a strangely shy Thor. Like an overprotective mother looking her child over for scratches and bruises when it fell off the monkey bars, she flipped through the battered little book, afraid of having lost even one page to SHIELD's nosy agents. Only when she could be sure that everything was as it should be and that her memories matched the notes she had made, did she even register that the man was still in her trailer, still sitting awkwardly on her bed that seemed dwarfed by his bulk.

"Uh, did I say thank you? Doesn't matter; I'll just say it again. Thank you! So much. You have no idea what this means to me." She barely recognized her own voice, high pitched and excited like a kid in a candy store, but as embarrassing as it was, it was kind of worth it for the gentle smile she received from her blond guest.

"I admire your passion Lady Jane, though I must confess I do not understand it. To my knowledge scholars can be quite enamored with these old, dusty tomes they labor over, but yours does not seem to be particularly valuable. Though please forgive me, if I am wrong."

It was absolutely adorable, the way he tried to choose the right words so as not to offend her, when he could have just as easily asked "Why the hell do you care so much about that stupid book?". Why he went to such lengths was hard to figure out. He had been polite to all of them - except for Loki - but only with her did he become so wordy. Was it just because she was a woman and he was taught the manners of medieval knight together with his rather outdated diction? Whatever the reason, she was starting to like it, as well as the confused puppy dog look that he wore now.

Notes clutched between her hands she leaned against the kitchen counter and started to explain, this time with a little less hysteria in her tone, "Eh, no it's not valuable, not really. At least not to anyone but me... and Shield, it seems. It's just that... these are all my theories, my analysis, my data on the Einstein-Rosen-Bridges, the astronomical disturbances that I led me here... There is no way I could have replaced it, not even with the terabytes of files on the laptops and backups. And I know it's stupid to just put it all in one book and I should make a copy, but I never really got around to it and-"

When the confusion on Thor's face was replaced by concern she was momentarily worried that she might have done something wrong, like accidentally slipping into scientific jargon, that to an outsider always sounded like she was possessed by a nerdy ghost, at least according to Darcy. But then she mentally went over her words and couldn't help the flush rising on her cheeks.

"-and I should probably breath from time to time," she finished with an embarrassed grin.

The small chuckle she received for that was warm and cheerful and Jane didn't even for a moment doubt he was laughing with instead of at her. He just didn't seem to be that kind of guy and his next words proved that perfectly, "I must say, that was quite impressive. I have witnessed many debates in Asgard's forums, but no one there could speak even half as fast." And wow, that smile could probably turn a weaker woman's knees gooey, but not hers. Definitely not. "If I may ask though, what is it that you study, Jane?"

Oh great, her absolute favorite question. The problem with being a scientist, as compared to a baker or a florist, was that people usually didn't get what it was she was doing. Their reactions, when she explained it, ranged from "So, can you do my horoscope" to "So, what's the whole Big Bang thing about?"; the latter of which wouldn't have been that bad, if the person asking were actually interested in the subject matter. As it was, she either succumbed to a bout of science babble that bored everyone in the room to tears or she just laughed nervously before changing the topic. It was one reason Darcy had come as such a godsend; the other woman had no idea what either her boss or her boss's old teacher talked about half the time but she never complained about it and seemed to actually enjoy the show.

Jane could not have said in which category the man in front of her fell, though she doubted higher physics were his secret passion. But maybe if she kept it simple...

"Well, I'm an astrophysicist; I study the nature of the universe. You know, black holes, dark energy, wormholes..."

"Dark energy? That is a dangerous substance, indeed. I had not thought your people so advanced yet, to handle its power. And you have come to this place to use it?"

What the hell was he talking about? Did he actually think she was some kind of mad scientist who played around with the forces of the universe in the desert of New Mexico? But he looked completely serious and a little concerned, as if he thought she was in over her head... and what did he mean by "your people"?

Suddenly she had an epiphany and as crazy as it was, she just had to ask the question that had been burning under her skin since their little group had picked him up from the hospital. Hastily Jane flipped through her notes, turning pages back and forth, until she found the one printout of the anomaly she had managed to save from SHIELD's greedy hands because she'd luckily tucked it between all the other photos made through the Hubble telescope. Pushing the book toward him, close to his face, she asked him, with her heart beating too fast and a little out of breath, as if she had run a marathon, "Are these your stars?"

What she had expected was another warm laugh or maybe confusion on his handsome face because of course this was ludicrous. Sure, both Thor and Loki talked funny and they had been in that storm together and both had an unnatural penchant for violence and names that matched Viking gods, but that didn't mean they were aliens, right? In fact, every rational part of Jane's brain screamed at her to take the book back and make up some silly excuse before she died of embarrassment. Einstein-Rosen-Bridges were one thing, but aliens? Blond, charming, human looking aliens?

So it did come as a surprise when her new friend took the book out of her hand, intently looked at the picture, brows furrowed in concentration and then replied, "These are, indeed, Asgard's stars. How could you possibly see these from your realm?"

And with that her knees really turned to jelly and so she just took the last two steps toward the bed, sat down at the edge next to Thor and looked deep into his eyes. "You're not kidding. This is... these are... you are not from around here, are you?"

It was not really a question, even though the scientist had phrased it as one. Somehow he must have sensed that because the only answer the man gave was a quick shake of his head and then he suddenly grinned, flipped through the book and said, "Let me show you."

It would have made maybe a little more sense if he'd just searched for a better photograph that depicted a certain part of the sky or even if he had wanted an empty page to write on, but the part of the book his callused fingers stopped skimming at was a rather crude sketch of the solar system, that she'd completely forgotten about doodling between endless hours of fruitless data input.

"May I?" the blond asked, nodding toward the pen that was wedged between the pages and she must have agreed in some fashion - probably with nothing more eloquent that a "Mm-hmm" - because he turned the book sideways, laid it on the bed between them, took out the ballpoint pen and with it drew lines around the little circles, explaining all the way, "Your world is one of the Nine Realms of the Cosmos, linked to each other by the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree." The lines took on the shape of a tree, yes, but to the astrophysicist it looked much more like a many forked road. Or a river one needed a bridge to travel over.

One after another, clockwise, Thor pointed out the planets, "There is Nilfheimr, the realm of the dead... Nidavellir, the home of dwarves... Álfheimr, the realm of light elves and the kingdom governed by my uncle, King Freyr." His finger stilled a moment on the elf planet, his smile was fond. "And this-" he continued, voice full of pride as he indicated the planet at the very top of the tree, "-is Asgard, the Realm Eternal, my home."

Watching him at it was fascinating and not just because of the rush of information he provided in the tone of a teacher explaining an integral lesson. No, what became apparent quite fast was that for him this was important, that he loved to show her this, like a child reciting his favorite book which he knew by heart. Only once did his face turn grim, when his finger tapped a circle at the bottom of the page, and his voice turned icy when he mentioned the by now familiar name, "This is Jötunheimr, Loki's home." And though he had given every other planet some kind of description or at least explained about the beings living on it, "Loki's home" was all he had to say about it before he went on to Svartálfheimr, apparently another elf residence.

In a way Jane really wanted to interrupt him, to again ask for a reason why he hated the other man so much, because this just didn't seem rational. Well fine, they were enemies and apparently from two different planets - an idea still so mind-boggling, she really tried not to think about it too much - but couldn't they even manage to mention each other's name without raising the tension in the air to a point where it was so thick you would have been hard pressed to cut it with a saw? If it was always like this between them, how in hell had they not killed each other over the years?

As the events from the night before replayed in her head she realized that maybe they had tried and just not succeeded, yet. And for how long had they tried? "Enemies for almost all our lives," he'd said. Hell.

"Jane?"

A heavy, warm hand on one of her own brought her back to the here and now; the way Thor said her name, concerned and a bit irritated, made it clear that he had done so more than once. When exactly had he stopped talking? Damn, here she was getting a detailed geography lesson of the universe and she had completely zoned out wondering about his personal life.

Before she could ask him to repeat the last ten minutes of his fascinating story, there was a short knock, and then Erik stood in the door with a rather grumpy expression on his face.

Like the cliché of naughty teenagers caught kissing passionately in the girl's room by an angry parent, that bad family dramas seemed so fond of, Jane and Thor jumped apart, away from the bed, and if the whole thing hadn't been so absolutely ridiculous she might have felt worse for the blond hitting his head on the low ceiling or the way he seemed to stumble over his own feet as he tried to get as much space between them as possible in the little trailer. As it was, the physicist could barely stop herself from laughing out loud, especially when she caught the deep blush on her guest's face. Apparently she'd been right about his chivalrous manners.

"Um, is this a bad moment? We can come back later, you know?" came the cheeky comment from outside. Great, now Darcy was here, as well. This was becoming just a little bit embarrassing.

The look the older man was giving the younger one was positively murderous, which neatly went with the soap opera scenario, as did the blue puppy dog eyes that were slowly burning a hole in the linoleum and her intern's quite dirty laugh when she craned her head over Erik's shoulder to view the debacle.

After one deep breath, that seemed both too loud and too drawn out, Jane decided 'To hell with all this awkwardness!', and just asked the first rational question that came to mind, "So Erik, did Dr. Pym write back to you?" which didn't exactly decrease the level of weird tension in the room but at least stopped everyone else from making it even worse.

God, what exactly had her life turned into, that she had to divert her mentor's attention away from the strange man in her room at the age of 28? The problem was, of course, that he still thought Thor to be a crazy homeless person who was going to rob them or kill them in their sleep. A valid theory, to be sure, but she far preferred her own, wherein they had apparently found two aliens in the desert. She was just not really looking forward to telling him that.

.........

It was not until the evening that Jane actually had the chance to speak in private to her former teacher. Somehow Darcy had managed to recruit their blond guest for kitchen duty and, if she'd interpreted it correctly from the few snippets of conversation audible from the other side of the makeshift laboratory, the intern was currently trying to explain the functions of an electric stove.

The strange team-up left the two physicists alone in the little niche they called an office, for the first time in days. Both of them sat at the larger of various tables cluttered with books and printouts that Erik had brought from the library, none of which had anything to do with their current work and neither had the page Jane held between the fingers of her left hand while the other was outlining the letters of one word over and over again.

She had not seen the writing underneath the planets he had mapped out for her until later, when Thor beat a hasty retreat from the mistrustful scrutiny of her mentor in order to, as he put it, 'avail himself of this most practical shower once more'. Jane had only managed to escape another lecture about dangerous, delirious strangers by claiming she was close to a breakthrough and needed the quiet of the roof to concentrate. When he'd offered his help she'd simply pointed out that Erik himself could use a hot shower, given that he had still looked like he'd been run over by a truck. Honestly, how could he think it was a good idea, trying to drink the other man under the table at 10 o'clock in the morning? And he still had bags under his eyes even now, as if he hadn't slept well in days.

What she had to say to her friend wouldn't exactly help his haggard condition, but like in her earlier school days, when she'd raised her hand about a dozen times each lesson to alert her rather shoddy math teacher of the mistakes he'd made in his equations on the blackboard, the scientist just couldn't keep this information to herself for much longer. Maybe she was wrong, maybe it was all nonsense, but the excitement bubbling up in her meant she simply had to share this with someone.

The questions was: How to bring it up? Well, just blurting it out had worked in her favor once today, so...

"Um, Erik-" she said hesitantly and both of them dragged their eyes away from their own book; his was some kind of leather-bound novel in what looked like Finish or Icelandic, "-what do you know about Asgard?"

When she'd hit Thor with her car the second time and he had lain there on unforgiving asphalt of the parking lot in ugly blue hospital scrubs, he hadn't looked nearly as dazed as her fellow physicist did when he heard that question. It would have been more comforting if she could believe that the man had simply no idea what she was talking about, like her intern whenever asked to hand over a certain piece of equipment, but she wasn't completely oblivious. Though she couldn't read a word of any of the heavy volumes her friend had recently acquired, she still knew what it was he was so obsessively studying. Even without it, he had made it quite clear that he knew about Thor and Loki or at least the legends build around the two men - or gods or aliens, or whatever the hell they really were- when he'd stopped her from helping the blond storm SHIELD's facility. Or had tried to.

About to ask again in more detail, she almost jumped up from her chair when she heard a loud thump, but then noticed that it had been only Erik, who had slammed another old tome on the table a bit too forcefully. Where had he gotten that thing from? It couldn't possibly have come from the small town library that housed more children's literature than text books. Had he ordered this on eBay?

"Jane?" And damn, she was really too easily distracted today. It reminded her painfully of a kid on sugar rush or a certain poli-sci student on more than three cups of coffee. Luckily, Erik was not exactly at his best, either; he just leaned back in his chair with a huff, eyes full of concern and something close to nervousness. "What is this about? Why do you want to know about... Asgard? Is this because of Thor? You know he is a nut job, right?"

Well, that sounded promising. Still, she wouldn't give up before she had even started. "Just look at this," was all Jane said and, with a little reluctance, pushed her notebook over to the other side of the table where it came to a halt at the outstretched hand of her former teacher.  

It was a similar feeling to watching someone unpack a present you had spent weeks choosing just for them; a strange mix of hope in seeing the other person's happiness and dread of having given them the worst gift imaginable. She had often felt this way when she'd been much younger and her dad had tried to explain the universe to her. She had spent so many nights at his side, as he looked over her calculations, math and physics much too advanced for her age, hoping she'd got it right and that he would be proud of her. By the time Erik had taken over, with his folders full of exams he had let her fact check, she had become much more sure of herself, though that night in the desert when she had to wait for the event that was to be the key to most of her theories had come quite close to these early days in terms of tense, unsure excitement.

Unfortunately, it became clear very fast that, if this notebook were a gift Jane had given to him on Christmas Morning, the professor would have politely asked she return it to the idiot who'd sold it to her. 

"Who wrote this?" came the weary, slightly annoyed question followed by another huff as he drew his hand over half closed eyes. "Did Thor do this?" And it was like she could see the quotation marks in the air as he said the other man's name, like a teacher mocking you for claiming a 'dog' ate your homework. He was really hung up about the two stranger's identities, which was both hypocritical given that he had helped fake an ID for the blond and silly because, at least to her, being named Thor was not the weirdest thing about the guy.

There was no point in denying the truth and really, he had to get over his aversion anyway if he wanted to hear the whole story, so all Jane did was nod and then proceeded to tell her old friend everything she'd been taught about the universe a few hours earlier. When she was finished they both looked at each other like they so often did: She out of breath and high on adrenaline that came from revealing a new theory she felt passionate about. He skeptic and careful as he analyzed it. Before he could say anything to burst her bubble, before he could throw the same rational arguments at her that she had fought with all day, the younger scientist pointed a finger at the book in the other's hand and asked, "How could he know all this? In so much detail; it's like he lived it."

"He could have read it in a book. Hell, any of these" - he waved his free hand around himself and the piles of leather bound volumes - "could tell you about Asgard and the gods and the other worlds. I admit, it sounds impressive, the way he told it, but..."

"But why?" That was the million dollar question, wasn't it? "What's the point of this? It's not like he claimed to be a god and asked us to worship him. Or said that he was an alien here to conquer our planet. Why would he say he was Thor Odinson, if he wasn't? What would he gain from that?"

He could be a very dedicated actor, a conman or an escapee from a mental institution, but none of that made sense. He had never asked for money, never threatened them in any way and yesterday, after Loki had fled, he had looked so incredibly heartbroken, as if only just realizing that he would not be flying out of here any time soon.

"I don't know, but I wish you wouldn't get involved in all of this, especially with Shield on our radar."

"But that's just it; if Shield is interested in him, then we have to be on to something. Or do you believe they came all the way here only for a 'crashed satellite'? They must have monitored the same anomaly I did, probably from the beginning. Maybe they already know what Thor is..."

"Janie." Oh. She could almost see her father before her when he said her name that way, in this long suffering, but gentle tone, because she was demanding one more hour at the planetarium or one more chapter of their favorite science fiction book. Erik, on the other hand, only ever called her that when he was about to deliver bad news and wanted to comfort his old friend's little daughter.

It didn't sound comforting, however, more like he was chiding her for still believing she could actually find a way to communicate with beings from outer space and suddenly she couldn't keep in her temper anymore. "Don't. Just don't. I know how all of this looks, but I'm not talking about little green men from Mars, Erik. You have seen the satellite pictures and you can't tell me that you're not at least considering this. Why else have you brought a whole library full of Norse mythology here? We're on to something and-"

"-and what then? What if it's true? What do we do with a god in the house, on top of the government stealing your research and another, really angry god lurking around town? This is not Star Trek or something, these people are dangerous." The reply was so unexpected and he sounded so damn tired, and now she finally understood what had motivated the other physicist to speak so vehemently against her theories. It wasn't skepticism but fear. Here she'd been thinking that it would be hard to convince the eternal critic Erik Selvig that they had found a couple of aliens and he had been worried about the fictional heroes from his childhood coming to life the whole time.

And really, what did you do with a god you've met in the desert?

"Hey guy's, dinner is ready!" Apparently eat spaghetti and meatballs, at least today.

From the kitchen she could hear deep, warm laughter as Darcy exclaimed loudly and cheerfully that Thor was "secretly an awesome cook" and she could see a smirk on her grey-haired friend's face before she too started laughing hysterically. This was just too absurd. But they would figure this out somehow and she wasn't going to let that damn organization of spies and thieves stop her.

Maybe she should take a look at Erik's collection. Jane had none of her machines or recordings, but she could still do research, even if this was more about the ancient past than the future of space travel.

.........

TO

.........

"...now you only need to pour the batter in slowly and viola! Pancakes!" True to her words, Darcy let the pan fill with the very thin, doughy mixture and then smiled up at him as if she had performed an astonishing trick. Maybe she had, for a few moments later he could see the sweetbread turning golden and smell the heady aroma that he had already become familiar with. Verily, this meal was fit for the feasts in Valhalla!

Just as he had been shown before, Thor lifted the pan and with a slight movement of his wrist, that reminded him of a sword thrust, flipped the perfectly round cake on to its other side. "Not bad, Big Guy," the young woman commented, the compliment supported by a pat on his back as she walked by to the end of the counter in order to make coffee. The gesture made him smile in return and so did the proud tone of the other's voice, as if she were a mother finally having taught her son how to walk. Though she had taught him a lot, that he had to admit, and she had shown admirable patience with him the entire time.

How it had happened he could honestly not have said, but somehow around the third morning of his stay here Darcy Lewis had appointed herself his guide, bound to educate the prince in all things Midgard. As the mortal had discovered very early on, he was at least adequate in terms of cooking, which had spurned her on to share all kinds of delicious recipes with him and to stand by his side in front of the oven as they prepared her favourite foodstuffs in the mornings and evenings. In between these duties which Thor - glad to be able to repay his hosts' kindness - had taken on without argument, the brunette had lectured him on the use of the many machines in the house, beginning with the coffee maker which she employed at least ten times a day and followed by, but not ending with, the "teevee" that often provided the evenings' entertainment.

His very first introduction to this particular device had been the result of a quite heated - and in hindsight highly embarrassing - argument between the prince and his usually so good natured tutor.

It had been right after they had finished preparing supper for that day - a fare consisting of various vegetables and a bread shaped blend of eggs and beef called "meatloaf" - when his cheerful companion had tried to call the other occupants to the table. Not for the first time, however, it appeared the two scholars were sunk too far into their work to notice either the alluring smell of the meal or the loud yell of "Guys, dinner's ready!" and just continued the debate that must have started around four hours earlier. What the topic of conversation consisted of Thor could not have guessed, though he had heard mentions of "portals" and "energy requirements" which showed it differed not much from previous days' discussions.

Ever since he had shared the make up of Yggdrasil with Jane there was hardly anything else she and her mentor would talk about and even though the Asgardian had been happy to answer their enthusiastic questions, the information they sought after grew ever in complexity and he soon had to concede that he himself was not a scholar by nature and could not, for instance, explain the inner workings of the Bifröst to their satisfaction. After that their inquiries grew more and more infrequent, until it was the two mortals on their own trying to solve the puzzles of the universe from morning well into the night.

Thor would have been content to leave them at it, seeing as they still had a pot of freshly brewed coffee on the table, which it seemed was all they required to keep up their strength, but young Darcy insisted on "three square meals a day for the brain brigade" and so she kept on nagging the others until she finally received an annoyed "Five more minutes" from the other side of the room. With a shake of her head the woman carried a tray of potatoes from the counter to the small metal table and wryly commented, "That's nerds for you. Ready to starve if it means they can do one more fantasy trip through a black hole. Though we're all a bit nerdy here, I guess."

What had enraged him so in that statement he could not have said afterwards; maybe it was the mocking tone of voice or the way she rolled her eyes, but somehow his mind had immediately decided that the unfamiliar word "nerd", that even the Alltounge could not give a translation for, had to be meant as an insult and what followed was a vast amount of yelling on both parts; Thor trying valiantly to defend his hosts' and his own honour and Darcy giving him ever more convoluted explanations as to what a "nerd" actually was. In the end, sighing heavily and with hands on her hips like an unhappy mother with her stubborn child, the mortal had pushed the prince not so gently in the direction of the settee in front of a black rectangular object and declared it "Time for Earth Slang 101".  

The strange, colourful projections - which reminded him of those in Asgard's council chamber, albeit more primitive - about four studious men and their failed attempt at wooing maidens had not really helped him understand the earlier comment, but what he learned on this day, and was reminded of every following day after, was that he knew almost nothing about Midgard and its people. Naturally, he had not believed things to be the same as they had been centuries ago, aware as he was through experience that time somehow moved faster here and changes therefore came more readily, but there was a vast difference between expecting a slight progress and the truly astonishing advances they had made since he had last visited.

Though the changes in behaviour were what baffled Thor the most.

For one, there was the way people seemed to depend on technology for almost everything even if it was just to wash a garment or to make fire, as if every action had to go faster, more efficient. His little guide had giggled shrilly when he had explained to her that on Asgard their main transport, aside from the Bifröst, was horses and they had spent many hours debating the usefulness of "cars". The thought of introducing these metal boxes to the twisting, cobbled streets of his home still made Thor smile days later.

What had also surprised him was that they had apparently done away with royalty almost everywhere only to replace it with groups of elders who were elected into their offices by the citizens; a concept he had only ever encountered on Vanaheimr where every one of the system's three planets send out a member to the High Council. Some kingdoms still remained, but the high pitched squeal Darcy had sounded when he revealed his own title showed that at least "New Mexico" was not one of them and that the concept of "a genuine, god damn prince" had been even more astonishing to her than the fact that he hailed from another realm.

The strangest thing of all, however, was that they treated violence as something reprehensible when it happened before their own eyes, only to delight in it when it was replayed in their projections. Of course, it had been explained to the confused Asgardian that these "movies" only depicted entirely fabricated tales, there to entertain and not always to teach a lesson of valour or morals as those in his youth had. Still, it was disconcerting for the warrior to see blood spilled so easily on the black, rectangular machine, when he himself had received only scorn for daring to hit his enemy. Could they not make up their minds?

And yet, after a few days the Ás had warmed up to this curious way to pass the time, which was mostly the result of the wonderful company Darcy provided, with her constant sarcastic commentary, gruff, rather unladylike behaviour, a general disregard for manners, and an unending cheerfulness. Spending an evening with the little mortal on the settee, armed with a bowl of popped corn, while she explained the intricacies of the "ninja" orders, was surprisingly similar to an outing at a tavern with his friends where a retelling of an adventure could be made entertaining even after the hundredth time by virtue of strong ale and the pleasure of getting to share it with good people.

And Darcy Lewis was certainly a good person, though vastly different from any woman the prince had ever met. She was undoubtedly young, even by mortal standards, but reacted quite harshly to being called a child. Her position in this group of scholars was hard to grasp, for as a student of Midgard's politics she was not exactly fit to help Lady Jane understand the secrets of the cosmos, but the mortal seemed not at all bothered by her lack of knowledge. In fact, from what Thor had been able to observe in the short time they had spend together, the brunet was bothered by very little, if anything; she seemed to be going about her day with a carefree and light hearted demeanour that reminded the Asgardian of his younger brother.

"That one's yours, buddy," came the mocking comment and it was easy to hear the humour in her voice, as Darcy pointed at the sizzling pan on the oven. The pancake inside looked almost completely blackened and he realised that he, while deep in contemplation, had abandoned his post a bit too long.

A tad embarrassed now, he grabbed the pan, shoved the charred item onto a plate on the counter and turned to his companion with a light shrug. "Do we have more of that batter?"

"Sure thing, Hot Stuff, and if not, we can always make more," she answered with a bright, slightly taunting smile, as she looked from the still steaming, burned mess up to him.

Yes, he still had a lot to learn, but somehow he did not mind that at all.

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

CB

.........

 

"Why are ya looking for him anyway? He your long lost brother or something?" the young peroxide blonde asked rather disinterestedly and again looked at her phone as if she was expecting an urgent message. Both mannerisms were as fake as her hair color and the long blue nails she used to tap at the touch screen, a way to pretend that she couldn't care less for what was going on around her while fishing for some juicy piece of gossip. In a small town like this a missing person was probably the talk of the year. She could make a decent spy, he thought as he looked her over once more, if she actually managed to act a bit less obvious. Though half the things the job required would probably make her pass out from fear.

He let his frown deepen a notch to show just the right amount of concern and then answered, "Well, something like it. Might not be so happy to see me, but what can you do?" A little shrug, a crooked smirk, to seem casual but not overly flirtations. Under her heavy make-up he guessed she was probably not much more than twenty, and he felt old just looking at her. "So, you've seen him around here today?" He fiddled with a candy bar that he had used as an excuse to approach the girl at the counter; not that this place had any other customers she had to worry about. That she hadn't shown any of the usual tells of recognition when he'd rattled off the description didn't really give him much hope for a positive response, but there were always those people who loved to make themselves seem more important by drawing out the whole process, as if pretending to think about their answer for a minute would help them look smarter or better informed.

Leaning her elbow on the wooden booth, her chin on her hand, she unfortunately said what he'd know she would, "No, sorry, can't say I have. Sounds like an interesting fellow though." And she really sounded apologetic, most likely because now she would have to return to her mundane work and wouldn't get to hear more about his 'missing brother'. Well, he didn't envy the woman, though his own job was getting boring, as well.

All around town Clint had tried to locate the target and in the end stooped to just asking for a person with long black hair in ragged clothes and leather boots. That had gone swimmingly of course and been made even more difficult by the sorry fact that he had no picture of the guy, and annoying because of the residences' assumptions that ranged from 'a cop looking for a drug dealer' to 'angry stalker hunting his scared ex.' Even stranger than the idea of a SHIELD agent on the lookout for his or her boyfriend was the complete lack of recognition of the person he had tried to find. Not only had no one seen him in town today but, if you believed these people, he had never been here at all. It made no fucking sense, given that the archer himself had spotted Target #2 several times over the week and not only when he lounged around various roofs. At least once a day one of the shops was robbed of packets of food and water - and once even art supplies - and apparently the man was an expert in this, if he had never been caught by either the shopkeepers or a security camera. 

And to think Clint had worried that this would be one of the most boring missions in his long career when it had been assigned to him, mainly because he wasn't allowed to catch the guy, no matter how much stuff he stole or how creepy he acted. He had stood in alleyways and observed the tall brunet as he jumped from building to building or occasionally climbed the walls like an overgrown gecko. And if he got really lucky he'd had the chance to watch the man sleep like the dead, usually from early morning until the less early morning, but never more than five hours and never during the night. Which just made him even more of a bastard in the tired agent's eyes.

What had made this one of his weirdest missions, however, were the things the target did on his favorite roof; an uncomfortable flat metal and concrete slab above an abandoned building where he seemed to have made his nest. The hours upon hours of what looked at the distance like either writing or drawing were harmless, of course, as were the times he just gazed into space, though it was a little eerie, and Clint had worried he had been spotted more than once when the guy seemed to scrutinize a place the agent had been standing in just moments before.

The habits that did make the assassin's hackles rise, even now, were when the various knives came into play, even if they had never been used for more than cutting food or, weirdly enough, whittling. These knives weren't simple cutlery nor were they similar to the sleek, silver weapons 'Tasha carried around sometimes. They varied from long silver colored daggers that could probably cut a person's arm off, to a tiny white thing, that the archer hoped was made out of plastic, often used to slice apples.

And the less he thought about the food the better. The first time he'd spied the figure on his gleaming perch with a bloody steak in hand, his stomach had almost rebelled. There was just something about raw meat and that satisfied smile that had lit up the man's face as he took a large bite, that creeped the hardened soldier out beyond measure. The idea that the target might be an alien hadn't helped, either. Who knew what else seemed edible to someone like this?

Despite the boredom and the frankly disturbing sights Clint had dutifully kept watch day and night.

Until the target disappeared.

Like the previous ten days he had returned from a short break at SHIELD's temporary headquarters - which had included a mediocre doughnut, an even worse cup of coffee and a frustrating briefing with Coulson - to start his night shift of 'spy on the possible alien/mutant/science experiment' only to find the guy's usual spot empty. Though the mark wasn't always lazing around on the roof, it was way too late in the evening for him to be out to pilfer more bloody meat or another batch of pencils.

Still, the agent had decided to visit both the butcher and grocer and afterward every other shop that could be of interest to this particular thief. As expected, he had been greeted only by 'Sorry, we're closed' signs, and the streets, while not entirely empty of life, proofed equally to be a dead end. To find one man in this small place shouldn't have been a hard task at all, but as the hours ticked by the spy had become increasingly frustrated.  

Even asking the other two SHIELD agents, who'd been assigned to watch He-Man and his science buddies, for an update had yielded no results, apart from lewd comments about Darcy Lewis's assets - that he hoped for their sake neither Nat nor Maria Hill would ever get to hear - and the interesting mental image of a blond bodybuilder in a pink apron.

By now it was morning and he must have interviewed every single resident of Puente Antiguo at least once, and he honestly started to consider that ET's bigger, meaner cousin had simply been beamed home. How else had he managed to just up and vanish, when Clint had abandoned his watch for only an hour?

But he could hardly write something so harebrained into his report, not if he still wanted to have his job by the end of this day. Or his head on his shoulders. Damn. Nat would laugh her ass of when she found out he had lost a target, especially one who stuck out in this town like a pink poodle in a herd of Siamese cats. This was even more embarrassing than the time he had been kicked in the shin by a boy half his height because he'd tried to 'borrow' the kid's bike to chase down a mark. It was one of only a handful of times he was actually glad to be alone on an assignment and he was even gladder not be anywhere near the Triskelion. At least Coulson was straightforward in his disapproval; one look and he would know he was about to enjoy the hospitality of the Arctic Division for the next three months. Better than Fury and one of his long winded rants and threats of reassignment to a desk job.

Sighing heavily because that was less dramatic than hitting his face against a wall - which would have relieved part of his anger at himself but probably drawn too much attention from the girl behind the counter - he paid for his candy bar and walked out off the shop. Despite his long experience with chasing criminals around and having therefore learned that they rarely came back to a place they had been spotted at, he went back to the closed-up store in a rather listless stroll. Not that he was really hoping for a miracle at this point, but it was one last, ditch attempt to save his ass before he had to confess to his SO that he had royally fucked up his mission. 

Why on earth had he given himself away? Maybe it had simply been the sheer boredom, or because the thought that there was no way in hell that he hadn't been seen in these open streets anyway, but immediately afterwards he'd known it had been a mistake. As far as SHIELD could tell the man wasn't violent, but that could quickly change, and even if he was only a strange loner that was hardly enough reason to more or less say "Hi" to him from across the street. He could just hear the slightly accented "Cocky idiot" and almost feel the slap to the back of his head because, yeah,  stupid move.

Of course, even pessimism didn't prepare him for the disappointment of seeing the roof completely empty of life once he'd climbed up there. It was immediately clear that the weirdo wasn't just gone for the day; there was no stack of food, no plastic bottles of water, not even a crumbled piece of paper or a discarded pencil stub. Say what you will about the guy, but he really knew how to clean up after himself. Which was another check in the column of 'professional', though in which area Clint couldn't guess.

The ease with which he handled his knives, the way he moved, his talent for stealing under people's noses - all of it spoke of years of training and reminded him eerily of a certain Russian assassin. He wondered, not for the first time, whether the two targets were a team of some sort, like he and Nat. But then why had they separated and why hadn't #2 shown up at SHIELD to have a go at the weird weapon? Had they scared him off by arresting his buddy? It made no sense, but then what did, when it came to these two?

Again, the archer just sighed, resigned to his fate, and made his way down the wall and toward certain doom. He was still in the process of climbing down, both hands on the paneling in front of him, neither of his feet touching the ground, when he felt an arm around his waist pressing him close to another body. In the bright sunlight he could see a knife, awfully sharp and long enough to be almost considered a sword, threateningly held to his throat. Awesome, he thought as he tried to move his neck as far away from the blade as possible in the tight hold, now he'll make me alien food.

How had he not heard the approach? How had his attacker reacted so fast? How would he ever life this down?

"Were you looking for me?" Aw, shit.

.........

LL

.........

By the first night he had mapped out the village in its entirety, by the first day he knew most of its inhabitants; for instance, the merchant with his little beast who it seemed liked to leave his wares unattended every few hours and thought a simple lock on the metal door could keep out intruders; or the butcher farther along the road who failed to watch over his meats while - cleaver in hand - he occupied himself with work in his backroom. Most of all he knew that he was pathetic, stealing from lowly peasants like a starved vagrant. Knew that he should have simply charmed a few people of his own to give him shelter and food, and usually that would not have proved much of a challenge, but everything was different here. Loki was different here.

The only sensible thing to do would have been to simply return to the people he did know, to forget his already damaged pride and accept their unusual hospitality. For he was sure they would welcome him back even if it was merely to satisfy their own curiosity. And there was so much he could teach these particular mortals, enough to guarantee he would never have to go hungry again if he decided to barter for his knowledge. It would be easy and yet the thought alone was distasteful. Not because they were beneath him, which had never really concerned him over much in other scholars, nor even because of Thor whose unprovoked attack had left a rather ugly, now yellowing bruise on the Jötunn's jaw and imprints of five meaty fingers around his neck.

No, the true reason for staying on this dusty, metallic roof was that he preferred solitude whenever it was granted him. Of course the many journeys through Yggdrasil had been mainly for the benefit of his studies and for furthering his talents in seidr, but he had always enjoyed his time away from court as just that: a chance to be on his own. Except for a few short years on Asgard, he had never seen the need to travel with a companion, and even though everything here was different, confusing, frustrating, he preferred to suffer without another holding his hand.

And he was suffering; even though whenever he woke it took him a moment to remember his current predicament. Only one moment, however, until he opened his eyes and noticed the light that was too bright, the air that was too warm, the magic that was absent...

It was the missing magic that still left him reeling every morning; like a hole in his chest it betimes pained him so badly he forgot how to breath. He longed to feel it, to truly feel the earth underneath his feet again, the hum of every little life, the particles that made up the air; all that would have been enough. He did not mind solitude, but this kind of disconnect he could hardly bear. He feared it might drive him mad if he was forced to stay here much longer.

For that reason alone he was often tempted to change his shape, just to reclaim a little bit of normalcy, to feel a little less mortal. In spite of that, he had not tried it even once; held back by a sense of unease he could not have explained even to his own satisfaction. The Jötunn's natural form would have been out of the question, certainly, in a climate so very hostile, and anything too small might have been equally dangerous without proper knowledge of possible predators in the vicinity. It should not have stopped him from transforming altogether and it would never have been enough to prevent him before, but here every misstep could prove fatal and his every action was watched. It was the latter problem that was the true deterrent. 

In these last few days the little blond mortal had appeared in the streets again and again; never attacking or in any way engaging Loki, but clearly not giving up his vigilant surveillance. What the man hoped to see was hard to tell, but turning into a bird and flying around the village would most likely catch his attention. And there was the threat of that bow that was always slung over one black clad shoulder reminding him of Asgard's hunters who had once chased him through the woods for two days and nights.

His concern in regards to his incessant shadow grew when, one day, he saw that the man was not alone. At least two others, similarly attired and both not even trying to blend into their surroundings, were haunting the small settlement, although these mortals seemed peculiarly disinterested in him. In fact, they stayed at the other side of the village at all times, close to the strange glass house. Close to Thor.

He had not seen the Thunderer himself since their rather undignified, short scuffle, but his companions were often visiting one establishment or the other to acquire food or, in the grey-haired scholar's case, more and more books. And always the eyes of the silent watchers focused on them, like a predator smelling wounded prey.

Confused Loki observed how, ever time the two women and their old protector walked the streets, the black devises came into play and communication was established with whomever it was these people were commanded by. Like scouts in a battlefield they seemed to give report about the comings and goings of the strange little group of mortals, and not for the first time he cursed the inferiority of his hearing in this form that stopped him from finding out what exactly they could see of interest here.

He wished that he had had the forethought to ask Jane Foster what her stolen research had entailed as he had the rather uncomfortable feeling it somehow pertained to both him and his enemy. She had been quite inquisitive about the Bifröst activity, without truly comprehending what it was she had seen. If this was, indeed, what she had been studying all along, then it could hardly be a coincidence this Agent Coulson would appear only a day later to take what she had written down. Was there a chance that these Shield men knew who walked amongst them? They had to be more than just simple guards ordered to protect the citizenry for then at least one of them should have prevented him from stealing, nor could this only be about Mjölnir, which was still safely embedded in the dusty earth somewhere, as far as he could tell.

No, scouts, after all, seemed the more apt description. And where there were scouts, soldiers ready to attack at a moment's notice were oft not far behind.

The danger of this situation spurned him on to a change of plans. Too long now had he just sat around on his perch akin to a bird that had lost its flock; occasionally daring to fly close the ground to look for scarps but never leaving the safety of its known environment.

No, this would not do at all.

Staying in hiding was surprisingly hard to accomplish without the aid of glamours or spells to cast him in shadow, though of course he had never let himself be sorely reliant on seidr. Especially for when he needed to engage with people similarly gifted he had learned other methods of concealment and subterfuge for, even if they could not see through his invisibility, the magic applied for the spell was easily felt by all beings with even a mediocre grasp of these powers.

Fortunately, there were other, perfectly mundane ways to blend in. So, around the fifth day of his involuntary stay on this wretched realm the Trickster decided to take his observations a little further by spending hours upon hours watching the mortals. He did this not sorely for the sake of finding sources of food and drink anymore, but also to study the people themselves; to learn how they walked and talked and dressed; how they behaved around friends and strangers; how they bartered and worked. Whether he could successfully pretend to be one of them was hard to predict, yet he had ever been talented at imitation.

In one of the many marts he had watched goods being exchanged for coins and little crumbled pieces of paper, which closer examination revealed to be emblazoned with the faces of several different men, most likely this realm's leaders. It was a custom Asgard employed with its pieces of gold as well, and he very much dreaded the day they would have to mint a new badge. Before he willingly paid anywhere with a coin bearing Thor's head, he would rather choose to starve.

In any case, he did now possess several of these "dollars" along with the little leather case they had been stored in, easily procured while 'accidentally' running into a man on the road too busy humming to himself to even register Loki's insincere apology. It was further means to help along his pretence for now he could honestly purchase some of the items he needed while stuffing his pockets with more of them behind the merchant's back. It was a simple arrangement but - just like the pieces of meat he took to feeding the little dog so that the creature would not alert its owner whenever he approached the fruit stand - it worked all the same.

And, although he had felt as if he were losing part of himself along with them, he had exchanged the dirty, slightly ripped tunic for a grey, long sleeved garment advertised as a "sweatshirt", and his breeches had been replaced with dark blue "Jeans" that, with the holes at the knees, looked like they had been dragged through the desert one too many times. The only items of his own still on his person were his belt that held most of his daggers and the leather boots which he usually disliked to wear. Walking around these sandy, stony paths on bare feet as his people were wont to do, however, was too unpleasant to even think about.

Dressed this way, with his long braid hidden in the hood of the shirt, he looked like any other Midgardian, and still he took pains to only use this particular disguise when he knew his watcher to be otherwise engaged. As his discovery by Thor so many years ago had shown him, there was hardly a point in playing at being one of the citizenry when your enemy knew to spot you even under a false face.

Admittedly, it was not exactly a glorious form of existence but it was one the former prince would have been able to endure, at least until he developed a plan on how to return home.

But, as always, the Norns had other ideas.

It was on the morning of the twelfth day after landing on Midgard while reading a dissertation on the workings of "cars", which he had found abandoned on a bench, that Loki again spied the archer at the other side of the road. The sight alone was, of course, not surprising; in fact, by now he had begun to expect the always silent but persistent presence, but what turned the situation from merely annoying to troublesome was when the blond mortal leaned against the wall of the building opposite and very slowly nodded at the Jötunn on his perch as if in greeting. It was the first time the other had ever acknowledged that he knew he was watched in turn, though neither of them had been particularly subtle. The garments he wore, the fact that he was armed at all times and never bothered to hide in shadows; it all showed that this archer had wanted to be seen.

Still, this bold gesture was something else, something that twisted Loki's stomach with worry. Was it a threat? Would that bow come into use now? Was he expected to flee once more, lest he be attacked? He could not say he liked the idea of falling victim to this archer, and yet outright charging the man in his current state seemed not to be a much better option. Action, though, was what was needed here, for he could not simply wait and see anymore. He needed answers and who better to give them but the one who so vigilantly watched over him? 

The scholar in him had never been very good at denying his curiosity and the warrior truly detested the idea of sitting idly by while another scrutinized him as though he had found the right beast for his next meal. And in all honesty, to be so passive for so long was not in the Trickster's nature.

If there was to be a hunt, then he refused to be the prey. At last, he thought, it was time to strike.

.........

CB

.........

It really showed how utterly bizarre his life was that, after the initial two seconds of shock at having a knife at his throat had come and gone, Clint's first thought was, Well, it could be worse, and for that to actually be true. At least he still had two functioning arms and legs; there was no open wound to worry about and, as far as he could tell, no bomb that had to be defused in the next minute or two. Still better than half of his missions.

Like one of Coulson's over detailed briefing packets his brain helpfully listed all the weapons in his arsenal, and the likelihood of him getting his hands on one before the possible cannibal could slice himself a piece of agent steak. There was the bow, of course, which was unfortunately stowed in a case now sandwiched between him and his attacker; a gun in a hip holster equally inaccessible because of the arm that reached around his waist; a second gun at the ankle for which the assassin would have to crouch down, so that was out as well.

The first order of business therefore was to get out off the other man's grip, which was easier said than done. The rookie mistake would have been to just push away from the wall and fall backwards; that might help to get free but it could just as easily make his attacker drive the blade further into him, even if just by accident. Instead, it might be safer to fall sideways, onto the target's arm and  so dislodge the nice little sword from its owner's hold. It wasn't perfect and still counted on the moment of surprise but at least this way he might not end up without vocal cords or something equally nasty.

And the guy who'd sprung him was definitely capable of dealing him a serious injury or two. He was tall, even more so than he'd seemed from afar; well muscled, though not as bulging as his blond buddy; and he was most likely insane enough, given the rather creepy, over the top laugh he let lose now.

"Oh, have I truly managed to surprise you, little archer? Had you not expected that I would accept your challenge?"

Ok, what? A challenge? All he could remember was nodding at the guy from a across the street, though maybe that had been enough. But the rest...

"How do you know I'm a..." Clint tried to ask, but the snake-like arm around him intensified its hold, almost knocking the wind out of him.

"Now, if you had intended to keep that a secret you ought not walk around with your pretty little bow at your side as though you were planning to shoot yourself a nice pheasant."

Was that guy actually making fun of him? And when could he have seen him openly carrying a weapon, except for the first day... Damn. Well, nice to know that he hadn't totally screwed up. Or even more so, if he'd been spotted from the start. At least the man wasn't without his own flaws; in the time it took him to gloat any serious killer could have done the deed about five times over. Or maybe murder wasn't on the agenda here.

"If you'd seen that, then why wait until now to jump me?"

"Would you have liked me to act sooner? All you had to do was ask." He could hear the dirty smile in the other's voice, made even dirtier by the accent that bordered on British, at least if they were still in the sixteenth century. Great, a Bond Villain. This should be fun.

He readied himself to kick the target's left leg out from under him but couldn't honestly stop from answering first, "Maybe I would've, but you were playing hard to get." And then he rammed his SHIELD issued army boots into the guy's knee, who then dropped him on the desert ground like a hot potato. Unfortunately, that hadn't been enough to also make him drop the dagger, which Clint saw when he got up and turned around to the smirking face of his attacker.

"Ooh, you fight dirty; I like that," the brunet said cheerfully, and then he took out a second knife. Fortunately, Clint had also been given enough time to get to his trusty sidearm, filled with a round of well tested tranquilizers.

Before he could properly aim at his opponent, though, the weapon was already sailing past him into the dirt, almost sliced in half by one of the blades. "What I do not like are those ugly things; no elegance, much too fragile."

Huh, a villain who had a problem with guns, how very Batman of him. Though he did have a point.

"Well, I would prefer my bow, too. But needs must, you know," he quipped while he stepped away from the wall and closer to his target. In the other's eyes the agent could read a strange kind of tranquility, but the hand that held the now sole knife was flexing around the weapon in anticipation of an immediate attack. Looked like the banter was almost over.

"You are right; as much as I would love to see the extent of your talents, I approached you with a purpose, so..."

And then things got serious pretty fast.

With surprising gracefulness for a man so tall the brunet stalked toward him and, not exactly unexpected, threw his second dagger at Clint's head. Well honed instincts took over, let him duck out of the way of the deadly projectile that might have otherwise taken out his left eye; and that was really the end of any playfulness on either part.

For a short moment they circled each other, both waiting for their opponent to act and - though he could see that the brunet had several more blades at his belt - it was Clint who moved closer first to slam his fist into a prominent jaw that was already bruised yellow, probably from a previous fight. Almost too fast to see a hand shot out to stop him, and while the grip on his wrist wasn't exactly crushing, it was still firm enough to prove a serious problem. Or it would have, if he weren't ambidextrous. As it was, he simply took a swing with his left hand and this time he could feel his knuckles colliding with a sharp chin.

There was a loud, anguished cry, his hand was released and he could see his target staggering back a few steps. "I am truly beginning to detest blonds," the man said, working his jaw in obvious pain, and then spat onto the sand. "Always so crude."

Not waiting for him to recover the archer walked forward again, eyes on one long fingered hand that hovered above a thin, red blade tied at the other's hip. A well aimed front kick to the chest discouraged his opponent from arming himself, though this time he stood his ground.

What followed was an exchange of blows and kicks, neither of them ever getting a hand on their weapons. Clint himself didn't even try for the gun at his ankle; because it held life ammunition it was a last resort.

Most of the guy's punches were easily blocked, despite their height difference, but the few that landed were not as bruising as he'd thought at first. Maybe it was the fact that Scissors here had to sleep out in the open for over a week, which wasn't that pleasant even in a desert town, or that he hadn't eaten his fill of bleeding animal carcasses lately, but he seemed a bit out of sorts. The moves were there but there wasn't enough strength behind them to beat a SHIELD agent of Clint's caliber. Nat would have had him flat in under two minutes.

It seemed the target noticed his deficiencies, too, because now he wasn't smiling anymore; instead, he looked pissed off, as if things were not turning out as he'd hoped. He certainly wouldn't be the first idiot who overestimated his chances against someone short and unassuming, though there was no outplaying Coulson in that role. Not that the lack in strength was enough to stop this particular idiot from trying nor were all his blows completely harmless. He liked to go for the kidneys with an unnerving precision and there was a painful cut above Clint's eye where a bony elbow had almost done the job of the throwing knife earlier. There were about evenly matched in skill, though he thought he would be able to just tire the other out if this fight could be drawn out for at least another ten minutes.

Luck, it seemed, was not on his side today, however, because suddenly he felt a piercing pain between his ribs on the left and breathing became about twice as hard. Fuck, were had that come from? But before he could catalogue the injury, he felt another, much worse ache between his legs that made him see stars for a moment and then he lay face first in the desert sand. Fuck. Talk about playing dirty.

It would not have been a complete disaster if his opponent hadn't decided to kneel on his back before he even had a chance to get on his feet again. In that moment the examples of missions that had gone worse dwindled to perhaps three and a half, and only because there still wasn't a bomb. Or a foreign minister he had to keep safe.

"Now, little archer, let us come to the reason why we are here." Killing me wasn't it? he thought, unsure whether that should come as a relief or not. "I would like some answers from you, and I am prepared to ask nicely. Once."

The advantage of being an archer and therefore the one who fought from a distance was that Clint had only very rarely fallen into enemy hands. And even in the event that he'd been discovered perching in a tree or on the pipes of an old warehouse, baddies usually chose the petite yet beautiful redhead instead of the gruff, well muscled soldier when it came to decide whom to beat the information out of. Not that it meant he was a stranger to interrogation - he'd been trained in this pretty early on actually - and if this guy thought he would give up government secrets because of the threat of another stab wound, he was even more crazy than the previous week had made him look like. It also helped that the other man's not inconsiderable weight on his spine would make it seriously hard to answer, anyway.

With a sudden hand in his hair his head was yanked up and the knife was back at his throat. "I have once decapitated a troll with this, so I would advise you not to make me angry, mortal," the weirdo said without further delay. And well, as threats went, this was at least original.

"Tell me, why are you following us? What is it you think to gain from that? Why are you guarding the hammer?" So he was after the thing, too. Probably just smarter than his companion when planning how to go about acquiring it, then. Fine, this at least was a safe subject to talk about, until he got the ballast off his back.

"Why, you'd like a try at it? I'd guess if Herc couldn't move it an inch, you'll not do any better."

Ow. If his face hadn't already been so close to the ground, that little push in the same direction might have broken his nose. As it was, the stars made a short reappearance and he would probably have to pick sand out between his teeth for the next couple of days.

"Had I not warned you against angering me? Let us try this again, shall we?" The grip in his hair tightened momentarily, as if he expected an answer, but he didn't wait for one. "For what reason are you here, and why are you observing our every move?" Now the voice took on a more growl like quality which showed this man had a very short fuse. Could be helpful, he knew, if he could push him enough to make mistakes.

"Maybe I just like the view," he joked, though it came out in a rather pitiful wheeze. Damn, if this got any worse he would have to waste at least twenty four hours in medical.

"Well, if you can still jest in this situation then perhaps I have not made myself clear enough." At hearing these ominous words he prepared himself for a lot of pain, but before the villain could make true on his threat there was a loud bang close to his right ear that had Clint sigh heavily in relief.

Thank Coulson for backup.

And, indeed, after the gunshot there came the muffled voice of Agent Simon Cale who was not exactly a great sniper, but better than nothing. "Hey, Agent Barton, like a bit of help?" There was the burning desire to tell the other spy where to shove it but his radio was squished beneath him in the sand, and well, he really did need help. Fortunately, no one seemed to expect him to answer, anyway, because shortly after the first he could hear more gunshots close by.

Given his earlier behavior he would have expected more threats from his erstwhile target, but the sudden addition of more agents had apparently not been part of the plan. He finally got up from his Clint-shaped rug and took a few steps to stand at the head of his felled opponent.

"We will meet again, soldier, but remember: I can see you just as well as you see me," he said, and then his boots left the agent's field of view.

Careful of a trap he pushed himself up from the ground, wincing slightly at the still bleeding cut between his ribs, only to find he was suddenly alone. Even looking around the street in all directions showed no attacker lurking in the shadows, though he could hardly believe someone like this was so easily scared off when outnumbered three to one. He'd almost resigned himself to another hour long search when he got the brilliant idea to look up, and easily spotted the target on the roof two buildings down the street. At least he was predictable.

"Barton, Agent Coulson said to take Target #2 into custody." The unmistakable bored voice of James Gareth came through the radio; the man in question stood under the shade of a closed-up 7-Eleven, reloading his gun.

Well, he wanted to see my talents, Clint thought and then just prepared himself to do what he did best: chase and shoot.

Climbing onto the shop's roof again was a bit harder this time but, as often as he'd had to do this in his years at SHIELD, it didn't require much thinking. By now it was simple muscle memory to find footholds, to draw himself up with his arms in as few moves as possible, to land on the flat surface with both feet on the ground.

Once up he looked around for only a few seconds until he saw that the mark had not made any headway, still standing on the same roof as before. Though 'standing' would have been an exaggeration; he looked more like he was doubled over, probably out of breath or in pain, but in either case he didn't seem about to move.

With the ease that came from both decades of practice and a passion for this particular weapon Clint drew the bow from its case at his back, along with one of the tranq arrows and he took about a second to aim; more was really not necessary as he knew the projectile would hit exactly what his fingers told it to.

Maybe the noise below of the weapons being reloaded or simple coincidence had alerted the mark to his position as, before the arrow left his hand, he saw the other straighten and look right at him. Though he fully expected his target to duck or step out of the way in time, Clint let lose without any further hesitation. Instead of protecting himself, however, the guy threw something of his own. At this distance he couldn't possibly hit anything so the agent didn't bother to duck either, which was why, the moment the guy finally dropped to the ground in an unconscious heap, the archer suddenly found himself with a cut on his left hand and without a bow.

That bastard had actually managed to disarm him. With a damned fruit knife.

Aw, shit.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

PC

.........

The small interrogation room with its one-way mirror and bright overhead lighting was a standard feature in all SHIELD facilities bigger than a tent, though that it would have to be used not once but twice within a month in this specific place, where all they had been sent to do was to watch pretty rainbow lights flicker in the sky, was unusual even in Phil Coulson's very messed up book.

The two people who'd gotten to enjoy the questionable hospitality of an ugly plastic chair and monochrome walls could not have been more different if they'd tried. The first, whom all official reports still called 'Donald Blake' for lack of a better name, had been blond, blue eyed, and broad shouldered enough to sell the 'steroids' excuse Dr. Selvig later delivered to get him out.

The man who sat there now, still slightly dazed from the sedatives but unmistakably awake, had long black hair tied in a braid that almost swept the floor and eyes so green that they seemed more like colored contacts in the harsh light. His overall thin frame dressed in baggy, ripped clothes and the angular face covered in bruises made him look like a gangly homeless kid after a pub brawl.

In attitude the targets were as night and day, as well. Blake had simply barreled his way into the facility, beaten up a bunch of agents as if they were nothing more than bothersome hurdles in his path and ripped half of the plastic walls to shreds in order to get to the mysterious hammer. All of it done with the confidence of one who knew he would succeed, only to then kneel there in the mud like a kicked puppy when it turned out said confidence was misplaced.

The approach of the still nameless individual had been far more calculated, but also worryingly direct. As Barton had reported, he'd apparently waited for the right moment to get one of them alone to "play twenty questions with deadly weapons". And even now, drugged and tied to the chair with a pair of handcuffs around his wrists, the target looked not defeated in the least but simply curious. The poisonous eyes perused the four walls again and again, craning his neck almost to the limit to look behind himself, as if searching for an escape route - of which there was none - or hidden cameras - of which there were many.

At least with this one there was hope of a conversation and not just the frustrating starring contest Coulson had endured with Blake. Aside from "fought like a pro, but as if he had to do it left handed" Barton's description of him had been that of a "chatty, snobbish Brit with anger management issues"; it should not be hard, then, to make him talk. A little provocation, a few thinly veiled threats of his own... well, that and time. Maybe the latter would be enough in itself.

For an hour the agent let the brunet stranger stew in his cell and as the minutes ticked by he became visibly restless; not that he was struggling and screaming, but he had lost all interest in the four walls, had in fact closed his eyes half an hour in and was continually fiddling at the cuffs behind his back. If he had not been tied down, Phil was sure the man would be pacing now; as it was, he had to make do with tapping his feet in some rhythm probably only known to him.

Precisely at the one hour mark he decided to take pity and walked through the sliding door that was part of the mirror, fully prepared to hear either hissed threats or ridiculous excuses as to why he had attacked an agent of SHIELD, and was therefore a bit taken aback by the cultured voice and polite greeting.

"Agent Coulson, 'tis so good to see you once more." The pleased little smile that accompanied the words would have looked genuine if the eyes that now stared at him were not so utterly devoid of emotion. He'd seen wax figures with more of an expression. And yes, Clint had been right, the accent was strange; sounding both put on for show but too smooth to be so.

As far as he was able to the young man had straightened in his chair the moment the door had opened, and even seated he was definitely tall, the only thing so far he had in common with his possible partner in crime. A partner he had abandoned in favor of shoplifting and camping on roof tops more than a week ago.

"Well, you would've met me earlier if you hadn't left Foster's company. What was it; the bed too soft for your liking?" he asked, just to see how the target would react to the name. It was not mentioning the doctor, though, that had him look please all of a sudden, but the question itself, it seemed.

"Oh, so you do remember me. That is a relief; I so hate to be ignored." This time the smile showed a row of pearly white teeth, but the eyes were still not giving anything away. Somewhat morbidly the agent wondered what would be necessary to change that.

"You're certainly hard to forget," he quipped, though Phil had to admit, he'd almost done so. Only after reading the report on him by Barton had it dawned on him that he'd actually met the man before, on the day he had acquired Foster's research. Despite his arrogant words he had clearly done everything he could to not draw attention to himself then; standing in the back of the group, eyes never meeting any of the agents', not uttering one word the whole time, he had appeared as nothing more than another intern. A useful skill if one needed to disappear in a crowd or a small town where everybody knew everybody. Though that wasn't the guy's sole talent.

"I'm not the only one you left an impression on, that's for sure," he said therefore, deciding a little flattery couldn't go amiss. "The agent I sent after you was banged up pretty badly; two broken ribs, a cut above his eye that needed three stitches and a stab wound that was only millimeters away from his lung. There are not many men who could get the better of him, believe me. Where did you learn to fight like that?"

Even the most experienced liars couldn't often help but to brag, which was what Coulson was counting on here and, indeed, the brunet seemed to like what he heard. He sighed loudly and his expression, as much as there was one, turned from friendly to dreamy. Fond memories of his training, maybe?

"Ah yes, the little archer was fun to play with, and his aim is just marvelous. I have honestly never seen better. Do you think he might agree to teach me?"

Great, another failed comedian, and he'd been so glad that his babysitting gig with Stark was finally over after the man had created an element that wouldn't slowly poison him by decaying inside his chest.

"Do you think you're in the position to make jokes?" he asked, head lightly cocked and both hands in his pants pockets to give off an air of casualness that would, he hoped, cover how annoyed he already was by the person in front of him. The pile of paperwork for an injured agent alone had wasted precious hours better spent keeping track of a certain green problem.

"Oh, but I am being perfectly sincere," the cause of that paperwork replied, and now his voice held a touch of very unconvincing hurt, as if he'd actually felt offended. "I have only the highest regard for Agent Barton's talents; he has truly not promised me too much," he said and then wiggled one black eyebrow in the unmistakable gesture of 'you know what I mean'.

Wonderful; snark and innuendo, now the only thing missing was a possessed robot-suit and he could just as well have stayed in Malibu.

"I'll pass that along; he'll be touched. But can we please get to the point of why we are here?"

"By all means. Tell me then, why are you here? Your charming soldier was disinclined to talk about it. Not that I could not have found a way to persuade him had I been given more time."

What made Phil Coulson different from the average agent, and what had earned him a rather sinister reputation among SHIELD, was that he could easily overcome an armed opponent with nothing more than a paperclip - or a bag of flour as he'd recently had to prove - but always did so with a polite smile. He was proud of that, proud that he wasn't prone to dramatic flares of temper or as the director liked to put it "could look like a damn insurance salesman haggling about a life insurance while holding a loaded gun to a guy's head". He had, however, never realized how utterly disconcerting it could be to be at the receiving end of such complete placidity, until he stood there in front of a young man who just kept smiling at him no matter what he said.

And it wasn't even malicious or taunting; no, this guy seemed to actually enjoy himself, as if there were here chatting amicably with cups of coffee and homemade cake. In addition to that he still sat in the chair he was cuffed to straight as an arrow, both feet on the ground, knees locked together, head held high, like a guest at a White House dinner. Or a soldier at attention. Was that likely, though? He didn't really look the part, but Phil would be the first to admit that appearances could be deceiving. Blake was definitely not a civilian, and if the two of them were a team, then...

"Well, will you enlighten me as to your motivations or am I supposed to puzzle them out for myself?" Caught in contemplation the question had actually managed to surprise him, despite the fact that he was looking at the one who had asked it; so much so that it took his mind a moment to register the words fully. When they did, though, he had a hard time not rolling his eyes in annoyance. Was this only a game for the other man?

Taking a few steps forward, he swept one hand out to gesture at his surroundings and then said, "You do understand that you're in Shield's custody at the moment, don't you? This isn't a social call. Whatever we'll be discussing in here won't be about me but about you."

"But I already know why I am here."  

What a damn smart-ass. Where did they breed those people, and why did they always have to cross Coulson's paths?

"That's very nice; care to share with the class?"

He should have called it a victory that he'd finally succeeded in wiping that continuous smile off the young man's face but it couldn't really count when he'd not intended it at all. What exactly had done that he couldn't guess, but the deep frown and down-turned mouth spoke for once of confusion and not amusement, which was supported by the clipped "Pardon?".

"Are you just playing dumb now?" Coulson asked in turn because that was the only reasonable explanation. He was sure the tranquilizers didn't affect someone's hearing nor had his earlier question been particularly complicated.  

"I assure you I do not make a habit of belittling my own intelligence, Agent-" There was not just confusion but real anger behind the words; for a moment he could have sworn even the otherwise empty eyes blazed with fury. Now at least, he understood Barton's comment on the target's easily roused temper. Though he did seem to have a remarkable rein on it, which he proved when he took one long breath and then continued in a less heated and more belligerent manner "-but you were hardly making sense. What class were you speaking of?"

Huh, so this was a simple matter of language barriers, which shouldn't have been a problem given that the man spoke perfect, overly eloquent English. Not his mother tongue, then, he thought, and was reminded of Romanoff, who could so easily cover her Russian roots but sometimes stumbled on metaphors or unusual figures of speech. At least that explained the strange accent.

"Sorry, I hadn't meant to offend you," he said, because politeness would probably get him better results here. "Let's just start this over, OK? Why don't you give me a name?"

"A name? If you wish. There are so many, though, however shall I choose?"

Would anyone fault him for tasing the guy after that? There was only so much smugness one could take in a week, he found, before one decided to either hit a bottle of expensive whiskey or the next person who basked in his own cleverness, and Coulson had never been fond of excessive drinking. Hiding the steadily growing annoyance, that would most likely manifest into a headache as soon as he had a minute to himself, was becoming harder with every word the other said, but he'd be damned if this little misfit broke his composure.   

"Your name would be nice." There, that had been perfectly calm, and he'd even managed a smile that was promptly returned.

"Would it, really? I never thought so. It is frightfully ominous or perhaps just pessimistic, but then my mother chose it and times were bleak. I do rather prefer the names others gave me; not that they are more positive, but at least rightfully earned."

An organization like SHIELD that dealt with all manner of opposition, from petty criminals to high ranking terrorists, knew how to condition its agents against torture, just like it knew how to train them to break people out of said conditioning. Like soldiers in the military some just rattled off their rank and serial number, but Coulson knew of others who recited poems or sang old folk songs. He had even once met a woman who said she'd tried to enumerate pi to the fiftieth digit, but had lost count halfway through and then had to start all over again. Was that what he was witnessing now; was this ludicrous babbling just a well practiced method of distraction, so that the prisoner wouldn't accidentally spill the beans to his captor? Or, and that seemed more likely when he thought of Blake's silence followed by the visit of a rather flustered physicist, was he just playing for time?

"How long will you keep this up, eh? Until Selvig comes rescuing you with a fake ID and a stupid excuse?" Not that he'd believed it the first time around nor would the same action save this man from a thorough interrogation. Possible alien origin aside, he was much too volatile to be released into the general, unsuspecting public so soon.

"I cannot say I understand fully. Whyever should that man come for me?" Either this was not a soldier but a really talented actor or the brunet really had no idea. In any case, he again looked at a loss, though it couldn't be because of the words themselves. Maybe the two hadn't planned their means of escape ahead of time.

"He did so for Blake."

If there had been any doubt about the blond's false identity then the slight hesitation at the name before his possible partner answered was enough to make short work of it. Still, it wasn't a long pause which showed that the equally unanimous second target was quick on the uptake, at least.

"He did, did he not? Ooh, that must have stung. No wonder he was so very livid when last we met," the young man said with more than a hint of glee.

"You don't approve of the method, then?"

"Well, it is a tad embarrassing, for one such as him at least. To think, that he, the valiant, honorable warrior, had to be saved by an old scholar with a bag full of lies. How fast the mighty have fallen." 

Was it a nervous mannerism that made SHIELD's current prisoner sound more and more like a character in a period drama or was he overdoing the purple prose on purpose? In any case, it was no wonder Barton had made note of it in his usually so sparsely written paperwork. One thing was for sure, the longer he stood here listening to this fake Brit blustering his way out of an interrogation the more he felt like the butt of a shoddy joke. So he would put an end to this, at least for today.

"You shouldn't be so hard on your partner; I bet after a few days with us you'll be glad for the rescue, even if it's done by an old man telling us your his cousin Barry."

By this point Coulson was well aware that he couldn't hope for much of a visible reaction from the young brunet, no matter what he said, except for condescending amusement, maybe. The laughter was new, though, and just as disconcerting as the smile.

"Was that a threat?" he asked, in between childish giggles that, paired with the vacant eyes, made him the picture perfect for a manic serial killer close to snapping. A moment later, though, he seemed to calm down again and, shaking his head slightly from side to side, spoke up once more in a voice so low and deep it was almost a growl, "Please, do try your best. I am looking forward to learn what tortures you could possibly concoct that I have not encountered yet."

When he looked up his eyes, for once, were not empty but filled with old, remembered pain and, while this man was maybe the best actor Phil had ever seen, this was no pretense nor was it done without purpose. No, it was clearly a message, one that said 'there is nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done before.' It was startling to see such a tactic used by a man who couldn't be more than twenty five, but then, in some places the soldiers started young. Too young for his liking.

Fortunately, there were other, more humane ways in getting even the most stubborn people to spill their secrets, though the one he had in mind would take a bit of time to organize and a bit of haggling on his part. Still, he had a feeling it would be worth the effort.

So, after pressing a button on the phone in his pocket to alert Sitwell that the session was over, he took a few steps toward the door before he gave his own, casual answer. "Actually, I thought I'd just leave you to sit here for a while longer. Maybe, when you're finished with counting all the wall panels twice over, you will be more inclined to talk." As if on cue the door opened before him and in the mirror he caught a glimpse of the other man grinding his teeth in anger before he, with a cheerful "See you tomorrow",  walked out of the white cell into the hustle and bustle of the SHIELD command center.

Now all he needed was a strong cup of coffee and a phone call.

Maybe this peculiar soldier was familiar with pain, but there was no doubt Natasha Romanoff would manage to surprise him, even without lifting a finger. Or breaking one.

.........

LL

.........

Enchanted chains and a hard, jagged rock at his back; a tight knit net with hooks sharp enough to cut through his bones; a cage over a fire pit too small to allow him to lie down; all that had been hard to endure, much harder than the clean, white cell Loki awoke in on this day.

So he was not scared, merely uncomfortable.

The flimsy little chains around his writs restricted his movement and they had begun to chaff at his skin after what he assumed to be an hour, but they were not exactly a hurdle to his escape. Had he his usual strength the thin metal bands would have snapped the moment he had opened his eyes and struggled against his confinement, yet that was out of the question. Even without brute force, however, freeing himself should have been an easy feat; ice, after all, made brittle all but the finest material.

Alas, whatever it was that the little archer had poisoned him with, that had resulted in an undignified collapse and an unknown period of forced sleep, was apparently also blocking his ability to change shape. Or, and that was equally possible, there was something in the room itself that stopped him from taking on his true form. He sensed no magic here, but of course that no longer said much about the safety of the environment, since Thor's hammer was surely nearby and he could not feel that thrice damned chunk of uru, either. Still, like the bruises and abrasions he had collected over the last few days, poisoning would most likely take longer to recover from than he was used to.

He was not scared, no, merely a little worried.

At least for a short while he had been distracted by the charming Agent Coulson and a ridiculously tame attempt at questioning that had felt too much like a bout of flyting to truly have disquieted him. In the end Loki could pride himself on finding out much more about his captors than the paltry crumbs he had offered of his own person.

He knew now for certain that the little mortal chancellor led the people who were scattered over the village watching him; knew that these "agents" - which he assumed were a specific sect of soldiers in this realm - had shown interest in him even as early as his first few days of banishment, enough of it at least to recognise him on sight; knew that, despite what the Thunderer himself might later boast of to his compatriots, they had let Thor leave without a fight. And most important of all, he knew that in all these days of vigilant observation neither he nor his enemy had given enough of themselves away to betray their identity. 

As clever as this Coulson might be, his questions had shown clearly that he would not easily discern the truth, and it would stay that way no matter how long this captivity was fated to last. Or how painful it was about to become.

Yes, the idea of torture was hardly pleasant but even in this weakened state it held no real dread for him. Enduring pain, after all, was far more a matter of the mind than the body, which Loki had proven time and time again. Still, if it took so many hours for a dab of poison to leave his veins, how long would he be incapacitated by shattered bones and spilt guts? These men would not kill him, he knew, for only he and his fellow former prince could provide them with the information they sought. Yet would he ultimately regret his stubbornness when the victory of mind left his body broken and useless?  

The mere thought of being rendered so defenceless with Thor so very near made involuntary shivers run down his spine; regardless of them both being unarmed, there was no question of who would win the inevitable fight, with him unable to even stand on his own two feet before the first blow was dealt. It was the only reasonable step, then, to escape now, when he was still as close to hale as he could possibly be, given the circumstances.

He was not scared, no, merely thinking ahead.

How to go about it, though?

There were no iron bars to break or loosen, no window to crawl through, not even a torch with which to burn down the damned cell. All he could see was the door by which the son of Coul had entered and left the room, and that was hardly an option, considering the assembly of people he had seen in the hall behind it. There was a second door right ahead of him which, unfortunately, seemed to be his only escape route, but that brought on its own difficulties.

He could not guess what lay beyond it nor how to open it, and his instincts told him he had only one try at this. Instincts that insisted he was being watched, despite a lack of openings in the walls or of fires with which a mage could have scryed for him. One side of the cell was covered in mirrors and, while seeing his own bloodied and beaten figure was surely an effective method to enhance the coming torture, this might be what the craftsmen of Svartálfheimr called "false glass" - a polished surface on one side, a translucent material on the other. The Dvergar used it to protect their treasures from spying eyes, but it could just as well be used to spy on someone instead, when applied the other way around. One try, then, and he had to be fast. 

The chains, at least, would not provide much of a problem, for all that he lacked both magic and ice at the moment. Thorough examination of them - as thorough as it could be when they were used to bind his hands behind his back - had given him a clear image of the locking mechanism, an opening that required a small key. Or a very thin knife.

For the first time he was grateful for the experience that had convinced him to study how to mundanely pick locks when not fully himself, though the memory of these horrible days still made him nauseous.  

All it would take now was to untangle one of his many braids and catch the blade hidden in it, but that, too, had to wait for the right moment. Should the Shield men see him armed with the little black weapon they would surely confiscate it and most likely search him more closely afterwards. It had not come as a surprise, at any rate, that he had awoken with the familiar weight of the dragon bone shards in his hair, while all of his other, more visible daggers had been taken. How he loved it when people underestimated him and his propensity for caring a large verity of very sharp objects.

Nevertheless, being free to move around the room and regaining the use of his hands was not as comforting a prospect as it should have been because it still left him with pitiful shreds of a plan that went as follows: Somehow force the door open and run.

A strategy that would make both his elder brother and mother shake their heads in disappointment and one for which he would require many blows to his skull in order to forget the embarrassment. Admittedly Loki had, in the past, done things even more undignified but that had been in response to threats of true significance and not simply because a mild mannered, middle aged mortal had chained him to a chair and hinted at unpleasantness to come. He had to think up a better route of escape, not least of all to save his own pride.

After all, he was not scared, merely cautious.

Sighing loudly, he again looked around himself from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, hoping against any common sense that his previous dozen inspections had missed something that could be of use, and wishing, as he looked up, that he at least had a rock to damage the white, unnatural lighting which was continuously shining down on him. Why, by the Nine, did Midgard have to be so terribly bright?  

It was tempting to forgo careful planning and just throw one of the dragon knives upward and give his tired eyes some much needed relief, but before he could contemplated that foolery in earnest the air was suddenly filled with the noise of several indistinguishable voices, and to his right the open door showed the adjacent hall once more. It remained open only for a short moment, not enough to betray any useful secrets of the people beyond it, and when it closed again he was suddenly not alone anymore.

The man now gracing Loki with his company was similarly dressed as the son of Coul, equally short of stature, but with even less hair atop his head. His body language could be read as non-threatening; in fact, he appeared rather bland and uninteresting, though the Trickster was far too experienced in deception to take this impression as anything but deliberate. There were no visual weapons, which was an advantage in the Jötunn's favour, and he was carrying a tray of food.

Yes, this will do nicely, Loki thought, suppressing a laugh and thanking the Norns for their kindness.

There was definitely no fear now, merely a giddy kind of anticipation.

It was so much easier to escape confinement, after all, when one had help. However unwillingly it might be given.

"Hello there, I hope you're hungry. The sandwich tastes like airport fare, I'm sorry to say, but the Jell-O really isn't bad," the mortal said in lieu of an introduction, a per functionary smile on his lips.

He was hungry, yes, as there had been no chance to visit his usual merchants before he had to confront Barton, yet there would unfortunately not be any time to enjoy whatever sustenance his captors deemed to provide him with. Not to mention that he did not trust them not to poison both the glass of water or the food. But the longer he could keep the still unnamed stranger talking the better.

"Such generous hosts you are. I am surprised you did not plan to starve me into submission." A tactic that, he thought spitefully, would work far better on Thor than on him.

The question seemed to have honestly offended the Midgardian; the neutral expression of a moment before was marred by a deep frown and the man was no longer smiling. "This is Shield not the Gulag; we at least try to follow the Geneva Convention."

Even with the help of the Allspeak that sentence made very little sense; the tone of voice alone was enough, however, to gather that these people saw themselves above such petty tactics as mistreating their captives. At least, until they proved too resilient to questioning, he assumed.

"'Tis good to know you posses a shred of decency and I thank you for the offer," Loki said, showing a pleasant smile of his own and inclining his head in mock gratitude. Then he asked, not entirely without sincerity, "How do you suggest I partake in it, though? Will you feed it to me?" It would be, as much of his stay here seemed to be, quite degrading, on the other hand it would bring the man close to a striking distance.

"Well, I hope we can avoid that. If you cooperate"- and here the soldier rummaged in the pocket of his breeches for what turned out to be a set of keys-"I will get you out off those cuffs."

Hah, this escape seemed almost too easy now, nearly suspiciously so, were he held by anyone other than these clueless mortals.

"I will be on my best behaviour," he replied, baring his neck in surrender; a gesture that neatly hid the light pull on his hair needed to let one of his little blades fall into his cupped hands. Quickly he made a fist around the black, triangular weapon with the right one before it could be spotted. His words only earned him a disbelieving eye roll; nevertheless the agent stepped closer, put the tray on the floor and then walked behind him to unlock the restrains. 

The moment he heard the light click of the chains' mechanism Loki stood up, reached behind with his left hand to grab the backrest of the chair, turned it around with a swift flick of his wrist and then in one fluid motion lifted the ugly, grey furnishing and smashed it into his the captor's head. He was neither as fast nor as strong as he wished to be, yet he had obviously caught his opponent off guard and, either because of the force of the blow or through sheer clumsiness, the man staggered backwards - head first - into the nearest wall.

This time the Trickster did not bother to stop the giggles from bursting out; it was childish and inappropriate in circumstances as serious as these, but he was a firm believer of taking enjoyment in any form and wherever it presented itself. He was, however, not so short-sighted to let it become a distraction, nor would he wait until the situation became less enjoyable to make his next move. In fact, he immediately stepped closer to his felled captor before the other man had a chance to rise from the crumbled position on the floor, and firmly planted his foot on one outstretched hand ere it could reach for the weapon now visible under the dark grey coat.

Crouching down he pushed said coat aside, tugged the offending item from the belt and threw it into the opposite corner of the room. "We will not need that." With his left hand he grabbed the garment's lapels and drew the agent up to his eye level. "Now, I would be most obliged if you showed me the way out of this cage," he said in a tone that was stern enough to convey this was not a request, yet with a touch of politeness that showed violence was not imminent. He was not out for the man's blood, after all, only for his compliance.

To his credit the mortal did not struggle nor did he shove Loki off of him; he just stared back with eyes that were slightly out of focus and replied, in a voice as bland as his appearance, "You do realise that there are dozens of armed men in this facility and that you're just one guy with a chair."

That elicited another laugh from the Jötunn; threats like these were truly amusing when one knew to have the upper hand. "That would be worrisome, yes, were a chair all I had," he replied, then he opened his right hand to show the thin shard of black bone hidden there earlier, threw it lightly into the air and caught it between two fingers. "Fortunately, I always come prepared."

Unfortunately, it seemed, so did the mortals.

Before he could utter another mocking word the room was suddenly filled with a loud, high pitched howl, followed by a female voice that warned of a "security breach in the interrogation cell".

Well, there was only one way out of this mess now, inelegant as it might be.  

Smoothly Loki rose to his feet and with one quick tuck at the coat he hoisted the agent up with him. Then, with a fist still clutching the grey material, he turned the man around so that they were no longer face to face and pressed him, non to gently, against his own body.

"Open that door! Now!" he shouted into his captor-turned-captive's ear, in order to be heard over the incessant wailing that still issued from all corners of the ceiling, and pointed at the pathway to their left. Not giving the Midgardian an opportunity to deny his order Loki held his knife slightly below the man's left eye and forcefully pushed him toward the desired direction. "Move!"

Of course, as his usual luck would have it, at this moment the other door opened and in poured five soldiers and a smugly smiling Coulson.

Still, he was not scared, merely unnerved. And angry.

Turning toward the elder man and looking directly into his eyes he pushed the knife into his captive's skin until a bead of blood sprang forth, running down like a tear over his cheek.

"Let me go, or I will kill this fool!" he yelled, now more out of fury than to drown out the noise, and slightly more hysterical than he had intended. He knew, his only hope was that the agent in his grasp was not some insignificant lackey, but one actually worth saving in the eyes of Shield's leader. It was a colossal gamble and nevertheless the only chance at freedom he had left. Again, he attempted to change his form for he knew he would appear far more threatening as a Jötunn than as what they must think him to be - a young, fragile man of their own race. But again, he could not feel the cold that usually ran through his veins, and he could no longer believe it was a consequence of the hit he had taken from the archer. The room, then. He just had to get out of this cursed room.

While he had been composed and level headed before, the mortal now struggled against Loki's grip, trying with both his hands to free himself from the arm slung around his upper chest that kept him pressed to the other body. It was a futile effort for, though the warrior was hardly at his best, the rage supplemented his mediocre strength as it had always done. He would not let go of his living shield now, not until he was safe. "Cease this squirming, or I will find a better place to stick my knife into!" he told the infernal little halfwit and promptly demonstrated it by drawing the blade along the exposed neck. "This may not look like much, but believe me, it can cut through bone as easily as fire through snow." That, at least, seemed to have penetrated the thick, bald skull, which was fortunate as his arm was already bruised and scratched enough to make him feel as if he had fought a wolf.

"OK, OK, you've made your point. Now just calm down; this does not have to become ugly." The mild, placating voice brought his attention back from his captive to the soldiers, and of course it was their commander who had spoken. For once Coulson seemed less assertive and there was a hardness to his eyes that said he, too, was angry.

"Ugly? You threaten me with torture and expect me to believe it will not become ugly?" His words were followed by a laugh that even to his own ears sounded harsh, more like a growl than a sign of amusement.

"Now wait here; I never actually talked of torture and you are the one holding a knife at Agent Sitwell's throat," Shield's leader replied, in a tone so disgustingly reproachful and lecturing, as if he were a father speaking to an unruly child. Loki was equally tempted to point out his comparatively  high age and to drop the no longer nameless agent in order to punch the other one in the face. Luckily, he had much better control over his impulses than most people believed.

Looking again into the man's eyes to convey sincerity and modulating his voice so that he at least seemed less aggressive, if not exactly friendly, the former prince addressed the commander with an air of formality, "I had never the intention to harm one of your people, and I will not harm this one, if you agree to let me go out of that door." Here he pointed at the wall to his left with the hand holding the dragon shard before he put the blade back under the other's eye. "You have my word."

"Well, that's nice, really. I'm glad you don't want to turn this into a bloodbath. Unfortunately, I can't let you go there. It took us long enough to repair that area after Blake stormed through it. Once was enough."

Oh. So that was where the door led to, interesting. Or it would have been, had he even the slightest chance of lifting the mighty Mjölnir, magic-less and weak as he was.

"You think I wish to take the foul, cumbersome hammer? Bah! Keep it, for all the good it will do you." At these words Coulson's eyes slightly widened; he was clearly surprised, maybe by Loki's casual dismissal of the weapon or, and that was more likely, by him even knowing of its existence. The mortal did not ask, however, and he himself was glad not to speak of the hateful item, the thought of which would just increase his already formidable fury. The only thing he wanted was to leave this place. "Step away from the other door, then, and let me leave that way. All I wish is to be gone from here!" he said or rather shouted, and the agent in his arms whimpered slightly as the knife cut a bit too deeply into his skin. Yes, he had control of his temper, but in these circumstances even that was beginning to fray.

At his shout the soldiers behind their leader strengthened their hold on the long black weapons, which he assumed would do more than put him to sleep this time. Coulson, though, seemed to sense the increased tension in his men; with one hand raised he commanded them to "Stand down" and then walked closer into the room. "Now, gentlemen, let's not lose our nerves here. I think we can handle this without anyone getting shot. Or stabbed." Here he cocked his head and stared at Loki until he saw the knife being drawn out of reach of the other agent's eye. "Thank you. Now, how about you tell me what you know about that 'foul hammer', hm?"

"Why would I do that?"

"Oh, I'm sure we can come to an agreement. You do want to get out of here very badly, don't you?"

A bargain. Well, that was a welcome turn of events. Knowledge in exchange for freedom, not the first time someone had offered that to him. Now, though, he might actually agree to it. The conditions had to be favourable, of course.

In an exaggerated show of disbelief he raised both eyebrows and put a the smile on his lips that was part mocking and part true amusement. "So this one," he said, shaking the by now quite rattled captive lightly in his grip, "is so very important to you that you would barter with me for him?"

"Maybe. Or maybe you just piqued my curiosity. It's not every day that we get the chance to speak to a real expert on immovable carpentry tools."

Oh, this mortal had the cheek to challenge him. How delightful!

"That is certainly true, and usually I would not miss a chance to educate the oblivious. However, you will understand if I hesitate to trust any bargain you suggest after you had me followed, poisoned and then put in a cell not unlike a common criminal."

He had committed crimes, yes, on most of the realms and too many to count, but so far he had always managed to stay out of royal dungeon cells or torture chambers. That it was this little, insignificant world with its unremarkable inhabitants who had finally bested him was embarrassing but also rather fascinating. Still, he could not be sure that it was wise to treat with a man who had already proven to be a threat and in possession of a sound mind that could not easily be tricked.

Shield's commander merely scoffed at this. "And I'm sure trustworthiness is your middle name."

"I will have you know, not once in my life have I broken my word," he replied, a tad insulted. Honestly, the nerve of this man! While he had rightly earned the moniker of Liesmith, he had in all of the centuries never been forsworn. In fact he kept any promise he made exactly to the letter. It was hardly his fault when people chose not to pay attention to details. Maybe that negligence could help here as well. "Should I agree to tell you all you wish to know about the hammer, I will do so to the best of my abilities." 

"And will you? Agree to it, that is?" his opponent asked, sounding doubtful. Well, that made two of them, though Loki knew there was nought he could do but to accept.

Solemnly the former prince nodded his head, "Aye, I will, if you in turn promise me my freedom."

His demand had a visible effect on the people in the little cell - the armed soldiers were looking either bemused, as if sure that their leader would never consent to this, or askance at the idea of freeing their captive; his unwilling safeguard actually had the gall to protest loudly that "the madman shouldn't be unleashed on the unsuspecting public".

And Coulson, well, he smiled that infuriatingly placating smile of his and said, "OK."  

That, in turn, brought on more dissent, but again the unimpressive mortal showed his impressive authority over the others by raising one hand, clearing his throat loudly and calling for calm in a tone that brook no argument. When the noise had died down once more he continued in the same tone of voice and with the smile still in place, "OK, we have a deal. But first you'll release Agent Sitwell. The poor man really doesn't deserve to lose an eye or any other important body part just because he drew the short straw when it was decided who would feed the lions."

Well, of course this stipulation had been predictable; it was, however, not a risk Loki was willing to take. "Unacceptable. How can I be sure you will not simply have me killed the very moment I let your precious agent take a step away from me? I am rather at a disadvantage here, in terms of numbers." And in other matters as well, though, there was no need to point that out. At least against Coulson and Sitwell alone he thought his chances in a fight were not too poor, even if both Midgardians were armed. He was unsure whether he could say the same for the other five agents, though, who looked both able bodied and aggressive enough to become a problem.

Fortunately, it seemed that whatever information this strange warrior faction hoped to gain from Mjölnir was important enough to them to allow him such leeway. Or maybe Coulson was just that confidant in his abilities as a negotiator. In any case, his own suggestion was actually reasonable. "Well, I understand that you feel a bit threatened here, with all these guns in the room. We can have this conversation in private, if that helps."

"It might, if you hand over the weapon at your belt to one of your soldiers before you dismiss the lot of them." He had not seen said weapon but he was certain of its existence as all other agents in the room carried the very same under their similar grey coats. Uniformity had its disadvantages.

The expression on the mortal's face was neither angry nor offended, but he appeared slightly wary at hearing Loki's demand, and his voice held a touch of belligerence as he said, "That hardly seems fair, given your impressive, bone cutting knife."

What he would not give to prove the quality of his blade to this little, impudent man...

But the time for violence was over; now all he could do was win this fight with words alone. So the Silvertongue's tone was equally mocking when he answered, "And I would not consider it so, either, if I were naive enough to believe one weapon is all you have. I will content myself with the removal of the most offensive one, however. Just to be fair." And because any other offensive tool would not be as easy to reach for nor as covertly as one hidden close to his dominant hand.

"How generous," came the sarcastic reply, and still the mortal complied by reaching for the black item in its sheath at his waist and passing it to a man at his right. "Now, let go of Sitwell and sit down, then I'll call off my agents and we can have a little chat."

"You ask for a lot of trust from me." Much more than Loki was usually willing to give and more than he could most likely afford. He was quite reluctant to give up the protection of his living shield; not out of fear, but because it would lose him his last advantage.

However, Coulson's next words reminded him of how useless any kind of protest would have been. "I don't see were you have a choice here. Either you'll trust that I won't kill you and I will do the same or you go on arguing and we'll just have to tranq you again. Now, sit!" At these last words he pointed at the chair that lay in the corner of the room, still intact and doubtless still as uncomfortable.

"Charming," was all Loki could think to say to this but inside he was seething. It was so unlike him to allow himself to be commandeered this way nor would he ever have thought to give in so fast in any negotiation, but the growing urge to leave his confines was stronger than any foolish notion of pride. So, with a heavy sigh and more force than strictly necessary, he pushed his captive away from him and toward the soldiers, who caught the man before he could again fall to the floor in an undignified heap. In order to forestall any more threats he then walked over to the chair, picked it up from the ground and sat down.

Now he could only hope that Midgard held honour in the same regard as the other realms and that he had not just condemned himself to be, at the very best, put to sleep and chained, again.

As it turned out he need not have worried; one by one the six agents walked, or in Sitwell's case limped, out of the cell at nothing more of a command as a decisive "Out" from their leader, before he too left through the still open door. A heartbeat later, however, Coulson returned bearing a second, equally ugly furnishing and put it right opposite the first, occupied one at a distance of about two paces. 

With both of them seated Loki, for the first time, noticed how much shorter the other man was in stature, though that knowledge did not ease his worry. This is a mistake, his insistent instincts told him; this is the only way, his rational mind told them; all his heart did was beat loudly and painfully in his chest. How he wished he could just turn invisible or at least blue.

"So, how do you want to do this?" The question broke the stifling silence like a heavy foot stepping on a too thin sheet of ice. It was both a relief and a shock that came close to making him shiver. Maybe Odin's curse had affected more than just his body; he had certainly never felt so weak in mind. Of course, it could also be a fault of this geas put on the cell, which was all the more reason to hurry this along.

"You will ask and I will answer; how else?" he replied flippantly, while aware he appeared as anything but.

As dubious as the mortal's grasp of honour might be, he had at least the decency not to gloat over a defeated foe; instead, he went ahead and did just as suggested and asked the first of what would likely be myriad of questions, "Alright, let's start then. That hammer, whom does it belong to?"

Huh, that was direct. But nought a Trickster could not find his way around, with honesty, no less.

"I know not. No one, I assume." Technically, it was Asgard's, but his interrogator had asked for a person not a place. Odin would be his guess in that case, naturally, although if the king had thrown it down to Midgard, had he not given up any claim to it? The answer, either way, did not seem to please Coulson; the smile grew more strained, the hands he had held cupped in his lap were curled around each other now. Well, if anything, he might at least succeed in breaking the man's composure.

"OK, moving on. Why is it here?"

Again, the amusement threatening to burst forth was hardly fitting the perilous circumstances, but Loki could not help it. This was just too easy.

"I do not know that, either. To taunt you, maybe." Or, more likely, to taunt Thor with what he could no longer have. It seemed an awfully cruel thing for a father to do to his son, but then the Ás was hardly renowned for his kindness. And your own father let your seidr be taken away, said a small, mean spirited voice that sounded like himself on the rare occasions when he was in his cups. He shut that thought away quickly, ere it could be seen through his mask, and firmly placed a smile on his lips. Better to give the impression of being inappropriately cheerful than melancholy.

Shield's commander, at least, was adequately bothered by the unhelpful reply. A few more bouts of this and he might be released out of sheer annoyance.

"You don't seem to know much."

"I know more than you." Vastly, endlessly more, and he would speak of none of it. A foolish comfort, yes, but he hardly had the chance to be picky. Yet it was hollow as well, when he thought that here was a man he might have, under different conditions, enjoyed conversing with. But this - antagonising people, even those he respected - was hardly new to him.

And it might cost him dearly, considering the thin line Coulson's lips had turned into, or the hands that were balled into fists. Would he find out what other weapons the soldier had on his person, after all? Still, despite his visible agitation the voice that spoke now was even and clear; not a hint of anger in evidence. "Lovely, but you might want to start sharing a bit of that knowledge or I will think you're holding out on me."

The threat was not veiled or subtle. 'Speak now, or I will call off this bargain.' Very well, then, he would comply; yet there was no reason to make this easy for the other man.

"And you ought to ask the right questions."

"Fine. I'll do my best." Leaning forward, his interwoven fingers held loosely between slightly splayed knees, the agent looked directly into Loki's eyes, as if to put emphasis on his earlier warning or to unnerve him. Both of which worked perfectly.

"What does the inscription on it mean?"

An inscription? Well, well, well. It seemed Odin had not just carelessly thrown the damn thing to Midgard; he must have put an enchantment on it or a curse, either to ward off meddlesome mortals from tempering with it or to prevent the Thunderer from summoning it. Whatever that spell-work was meant to accomplish, he knew with certainty that it had not adorned the hammer prior to landing in this desert. He had, after all, seen the horrid weapon up-close far too often, mostly when used against him.

"Hm, you would have to show it to me first before I can make a guess as to its meaning," he answered with an impish smirk, knowing full well his request had no chance of being granted. Not that he cared over much.

"I don't think that's a good idea, sorry. But if you could be so kind and tell me: What is it? And don't say 'a hammer' because I've figured that out all on my own, if you can believe it."

That cheeky comment made both of them smile; though whether that was sincere on either part he could not tell. At the very least it did earn the interrogator a more useful answer. "'Tis a very old hammer. Easy to wield and profoundly powerful, in the right hands."

"Your hands?"

A giggle escaped his lips while he imagined himself holding Thor's precious possession. It was a tempting idea but so very unpractical. "Certainly not," he said, voice still laced with mirth. "Not sharp enough for my tastes." Neither the weapon nor the owner. No, stepping into his enemy's footsteps held no true appeal.

"Funny. And strangely reassuring. So, if it's not yours, do you know how we can lift it?"

They had not managed it, then. While not surprising, it was a tad disappointing that these ingenuous people had not found a way around their deficiencies. What was the point of inventing devices that could outpace a horse when they could not mimic the physical prowess of one measly Asgardian?

As it happened, all he could say was, "You do not. I doubt anyone here can." Though it would have been marvellous to see a little mortal such as Coulson holding one of the Nine's most dangerous artefacts. If at all possible, right in front of the former Thunderer's stricken face.

"Why not, what's so special about it?" And, oh, now that was the core of the matter, was it not? What did one need to claim Mjölnir? Certainly neither wisdom nor a sense of justice, which left very little of worth.

Sighing Loki considered this question for a moment before he spoke; the displeasure in his voice and the wry smile on his lips softening what would otherwise have been quite disparaging words, "Well, it is... oh, how to say this in a way you will understand? It is simply not made for the likes of you."

There was disbelieve in the other's eyes but no anger; it was more as if he had said something awfully comical. The elderly brunet's head was cocked slightly; his eyes widened in mock surprise. "Really? What do I need, a decoder ring? A password?"

What Loki thought he needed, should he be forced to remain here longer, was a guide. Midgardians were so very strange, especially their language. He wondered, while he tried to puzzle out what he had been asked, whether it was because no one had visited this realm in centuries or because these people tended to change so much faster than any other that resulted in so many of their words not to make sense to him. Even a troll's guttural growling did not prove to be such hindrance to the Allspeak.

What he could gather, however, was that neither of the strange possibilities of fitness had been suggested in earnest, although the humour went over his head. Not that it stopped him from laughing at the ridiculousness of a ring or mere words to give one the power over Asgard's mighty battle tool.

"No, nothing so complicated. Just more muscles and the right familial ties." The latter was not strictly true, though no one had ever possessed Mjölnir outside of Thor and his ancestors. Not for long, at least.

"You really enjoy being enigmatic, don't you?" Was he? Aside from not mentioning names he was actually quite blunt in his responses, but without the proper context they were maybe not as helpful as Coulson had hoped.

"I only give as much as you ask for." And he would be a shoddy Trickster if he gave any more.

In order to remind his interrogator that he was not here for a friendly exchange of knowledge and himself that he still held some kind of power, even if it was thin as an elf's hair, he let his little dragon blade dance between his fingers while his eyes remained focused on the mortal's body language. There was definite annoyance here and yet a fair amount of restrain, too, as though this leader were determined to end this conversation on his terms and no others, no matter how much he wished to hit the one he spoke to. Admirable, really, such control.

"So," Coulson continued after heaving a harsh sigh, "to ask more directly: What is this thing, aside from a very heavy, prettily decorated tool?"

"An ancient lump of uru, imbued with the ability to influence charged particles in the air to create tremulous clamour and blinding light." Ah, such sweet amusement one could gain from rolled eyes and angry huffs, but only when the former display of emotion was not followed by violence, so Loki quickly added, "It causes thunder and lightning" before he had to make use of his knife once more.

Again, his captor seemed unhappy; his drawn out, two syllable question of "Really?" said it just as well as the hardening of his eyes or the way he leaned back in his chair with both arms crossed before his chest.

Wonderful. Why was it that he was always accused of a lie when he spoke the bluntest of truths?

One deep breath and then another was needed to settle the fury deep in his guts that was near to bubbling to the surface, and he reminded himself that he held no reputation in this realm, that the man sitting across from him had not the slightest idea who he even was and that this very fact was the reason for his mistrust. To Coulson all he appeared to be was a petty criminal who had threatened one of his subordinates, and not any of his titles, any of his past actions. A mere Midgardian, not a Jötunn. A thought that was equal parts comforting and distasteful.  

But what this mortal believed of him mattered not, and a violent outburst would do more harm than good. "You doubt my words?" he said finally, opting to sound hurt by the scepticism, rather than angry.

"I doubt your sources," came the swift reply. And was that not hilarious? The laughter, however, died on his lips before it could fully emerge when he heard the next line of inquiry. "I mean, how could you possibly know any of this, hm? From all we can tell this thing wasn't even on Earth two weeks ago and you speak about as if you've seen it in action. Who are you, really?"

"I agreed to speak of the hammer, not myself."

It felt as though they had come full circle; once more the mortal attempted to discover his identity and again he would refuse to answer. Now, though, he inexplicably felt more trapped than when he had been chained and unarmed for then he had still hoped to escape this ordeal mostly unscathed. He was no longer so sure of that possibility.

Coulson, too, seemed less and less friendly as the conversation went on; there was not even the attempt to hide his annoyance anymore. With arms crossed tightly before his chest and a piercing stare directed at the room's only other occupant he asked, "Then how can I know that you're not just making all of this up?"

"You do not." What else was there to say? What did the man expect, proof? For that he definitely held the wrong prince captive. And the one he did hold was becoming sick unto death of this whole farce of an interrogation. "But whether you trust me or not, I have upheld my part of the bargain; now it is time for you to do the same," he said with a vehemence in his voice that turned it into a command rather than a suggestion. Not that he felt at all commanding, sitting here in this cell, protected by a weak promise of freedom and a blade that could cut through his opponent's arm but not through the walls surrounding him.

Against any expectation Shield's leader did not protest this matter, nor did he try to argue for more information, instead he once more voiced his assent with a clipped "OK" which, again, was followed by stipulations. "You want to leave?  Fine, I won't stop you, but only if you agree not to attack any of my agents again. Filing incident reports and hiring replacements means a ton of paperwork for me that I would prefer to avoid, you know?"

"I will not have to if you order them to cease spying on me." Though he might decide to pay the little archer a visit at a later time, if only to compliment him on his formidable skills in person.

"Well, that's their job," Coulson commented, smile back in place.

Again, he wished he could puzzle out the goal of these strange soldiers. If all of this curiosity only pertained to Mjölnir, then why was the revelation that he was unable to lift it not enough to rid himself of their pursuit?

 "Why?" he asked, therefore, though he did not hope for an honest answer. "I am really not that interesting."

"Come on, even you don't believe that."

Personally, Loki could not understand the appeal. He had no magic, no strength and was adaptive enough to appear more or less like a native. What could they possibly hope to see? It would have been folly to argue the point, of course. Baring that, he tried to steer the conversation back to its original topic. "Will you release me, if I swear not to fight your agents without prior provocation?"

It was a heavy concession to make, and by now he must sound truly desperate with his continued pleas for freedom. Alas, that quite accurately described his present state of mind. He had never liked confinement and paired with his current vulnerability it was beginning to chaff at him not unlike the chains he had born earlier.

To his luck, it seemed this suggestion was enough to satisfy his captor, or he was simply just as tired of this continued back and forth between them. "Yes, I think that would help," he said and then rose from his chair. "That is, if we both go by the same definition of 'provocation'. It's not enough if they just look at you funny."

Standing up as well and choosing to ignore that last quip, Loki placed his right hand over his heart and, with his eyes directed at the other's surprised face, he inclined his head in a formal show of respect. "Then you have my word, son of Coul, that I will not do harm to any of your people, except in defence of my own person or those I am allied with." Not that he had allies in this realm, but that was not something he should advertise.

Laughter was definitely not the right response to such an oath, and, despite his own often inappropriate humour, the former prince felt quite irritated by the mortal's sudden outburst. Though it was a rather nice laugh, one that entirely transformed the man's face and showed that his smiles before had all been put on to hide his true emotions, like one of the Trickster's own masks.

To his relief it was not the words that had amused Coulson, merely the formality. "Wow, when you said you'll 'swear' you really meant it, didn't you? But I'm glad that's settled. Now, if you'd follow me"-and here he motioned with one hand to the door at the side of the mirrored wall before he walked toward and then through it when it suddenly opened before him without a touch-"I think you mentioned something about leaving."

Heart racing Loki took a few careful steps in the mortal's direction, all the while worrying that this was a trap, that behind this door were armed soldiers, that he had not received a promise not to be harmed in turn. But he had to get out of here or he would slowly lose his sanity, so he tried not to think too hard about the consequences and just followed the shorter man through the noisy hall. 

To his surprise, the group of people that greeted him was small and apparently busy pushing buttons on various machines before which they were seated; only one or two heads turned when he walked by them behind their leader. He could, however, not attribute this disinterest to a lack of hostility; no, the tension in this room was far too palpable for that.  

At one table he spotted the bald head of Agent Sitwell, already covered in bruises by his unfortunate collision with both a wall and a chair. And promptly, as though he had felt the Jötunn's eyes on him, the little mortal turned in his seat and stared at him with what could only be described as utter contempt.  "Sir," he said to the back of the commander, who had already reached the other end of the small room, "do you really think this is a good idea?"

There was no need to ask what "this" entailed; it was obvious that the agent did not agree with his departure and, judging from the stifling atmosphere, neither did his fellow soldiers.  A good thing, then, that - as in any well conducted army - only one opinion counted. "Don't worry, he gave me his word," Coulson answered without turning around. And that seemed to be the end of any discussion.

Well, if he had known it would be so easy...

But before he could mentally chastise himself for stooping to violence when words apparently would have sufficed Loki suddenly stood outside. It was still warm despite the darkened sky, which signalled evening had fallen. There was still sand everywhere the eye could see. The grounds they walked across were cluttered with metallic vehicles, and before him snaked an ugly white semi circle of a tunnel that led to the damned hammer. Or he assumed it did, given the large, raised crater in the middle.

None of that truly mattered for all he could think of was escape. It was as if the faster his heart beat in his chest the faster his feet wanted to go. But he remained where he was, two paces behind Coulson, waiting with bated breath for any further provisions the other might add to this bargain.

And, of course, the mortal did not disappoint. "Before you go-," he spoke up, voice once more calm and friendly, eyes on the strange complex of white, reflective walls, "-one last question."

What more could he possibly want? If this was another attempt to ask for his name he was not sure he could keep to his vow of non-violence. Still, he might as well hear the other out first.

"Very well," he said, therefore, none too pleased and not striving to hide it.

"You never tried to go for the hammer because you knew you couldn't lift it, right?" When this only received a short nod he continued, "So, why did Blake try it?"

Oh, that was an interesting conundrum. Why had Thor thought he could just go and reclaim what his father had taken as a punishment for his actions? Had he truly imagined that regaining his powers would require nothing more than a short scuffle and a little pull on Mjölnir's handle?

Well, most likely that was exactly what had gone through the oaf's mind. And that was all he could give as an answer. "Because he is a fool and he never listens."

Which did not seem to be enough of an explanation to please the mortal. "What does that mean?" he asked, obviously confused.

"He thought he was worthy when he most decidedly is not," Loki clarified, though he knew that was not any more helpful than his previous remark. But before further enquiries could follow he simply inclined his head one more time in lieu of a farewell and left Coulson and his army behind him.

With every further step he took from captivity toward freedom his strides became longer until he was all but running. Away from danger, away from too insightful questions, away from matters that had nothing to do with Midgard at all.

And the longer the distance grew between himself and his erstwhile cell, the more the uneasiness in his heart grew with it. Not halting in his pace he could still feel it, could still draw the right conclusions.

The warmth stayed, as did the white skin. There was no denying it anymore: Something was very, very wrong and he had never been more afraid.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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LL

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The first time that Loki had consciously changed into the form of an Ás he had been nought but a child. It had not been - as many of his action in later life would be - done with the intent to trick or cheat, but an act born of desperation.

At this point in time, shapeshifting had become as easy as breathing, though perhaps not yet as instinctual. Transforming into an animal, even one that did not reside on Jötunheimr, no longer provided any trouble to the little mage, and he had spent many an idle hour drifting through the fluffy white clouds, swimming through half frozen rivers or scuttling through the narrowest of caves for the pure enjoyment of wearing a different skin. There was, however, one thing he had not tried thus far, had not even considered to try in all honesty, and that was to appear as a member of one of the other two-legged races.

One reason for this reluctance was that Loki quite liked himself the way he was. He liked the colour of his skin which could effortlessly help him blend in with the surroundings of his home, especially away from the palace, away from stone and artfully dugout caves; in the wilderness where everything was white on blue, snow on ice. He liked his black hair which, in an environment of bald headed, metal helmeted soldiers, was so very rare and which clearly marked him as a son of the renowned Fárbauti General. And he liked, most of all, his markings that he knew for certain none of the other peoples possessed and with the help of which he, and everyone else who had a lick of sense, could so easily trace the line of his ancestors.  

Another, and even more important, reason was that he saw no benefit to be anyone instead of anything else. A bird's wings allowed one who was usually bound to the earth to fly into the lofty heights of the heavens; an elk's long, steady legs brought one safely over traitorous terrain of snow covered mountains; a wolf's superior sense of smell could aid in a hunt better even than a giant's keen eyes. What, though, could he possibly gain from an elf's body or a dwarf's? A slightly different height, a lighter complexion, bigger feet, shorter teeth - none of that qualified as useful or particularly appealing; it seemed a waste of his talents and all in all too much effort.

So, the prince had never made the attempt to be of any other race but Jötunn, despite the many opportunities he received over the years to study the other men, women and children on one of those ever increasing diplomatic visits to which his father dragged Helblindi along and sometimes invited Loki to. And, indeed, he used these short stays in other realms to study, but - as he was yet too young to care much for statecraft or inter-realm relations - far more than the people milling around the towns and villages the new, exciting sights and sounds and smells were what caught most of the giant's attention. And, of course, the magic.

Magic, too, was what drove him to return to these foreign lands again and again for - as ancient and well stocked the palace library might have been and as wise and powerful his tutor - there was only so much one could learn of the force that governed Yggdrasil while confined to one little, isolated rock. It was not long until the journeys with his family were not enough anymore to sate his curiosity, this ever growing need to know even the most obscure spell or potion.

Soon, before he had even reached his first millennium, he began to plead with his father to be allowed visits to the other realms on his own. The universe was a dangerous place, however, and he had not yet the strength nor the experience to defend himself from those who could wish him harm, or so the king declared. Fárbauti, on the one instance he had taken all his courage to ask the general, had just looked him up and down and then simply said "No", which more or less amounted to the same. So, for years his requests fell on deaf ears, and a wiser supplicant would have given up after the first decade, at least. Loki would never make a claim to being wise, though, but he was stubborn.

Ever the wordsmith, even at such a tender age, he decided to change tactics when he discovered that no form of pleading, no matter how pitiful or heartbreaking, would help to gain him what he wanted If his parents refused to succumb to sentiment then maybe they would, at least, listen to reason. Every other month, therefore, the royal couple was presented with a new compelling argument as to why their son should, nay, needed to leave the safety of home. Ranging from the benefit for Jötunheimr to have a well educated mage at court to the lowered burden on the treasury due to far fewer damages to the palace when he was no longer limited to practising seidr in his own chambers - these well thought out reasons were a challenge not only to the ever more annoyed listeners but to the industrious prince himself. In the end he succeeded, though in truth it was more the result of sheer, almost manic persistence - which was likely cause for many a crack in the ancestral throne - than any one thing he had said.

Nevertheless, when he stood in the entrance of the Hall of Wisdom on Vanaheimr, for the very first time without a member of his family present and with only two guards in attendance, he felt immensely proud. Nowhere else would he be able to learn as much and as intensive as here, where knowledge was valued far higher than gold and the dissertations of a scholar praised more than even the bravest deeds of a warrior. It was not, in fact, Loki's first nor even tenth lone journey - as places like Álfheimr and Svartálfheimr, with which his home held tacit alliances, had been deemed safer for such tests - but this here was what he had fought for so hard from the beginning.

So now here he was, 914 years old, a dagger of dwarven make at his hip, two silent protectors at his back, and he could have cried for joy.

Spekiháll was an enormous, glittering complex in the midst of a forest; its paths paved with ancient white marble, its walls build from a material too bright in the sunlight to be copper, too dark to be gold. It was divided into several buildings of diverse purposes and sizes, some small and shrouded by tall trees that required an invitation to enter them, most likely used for private reflection or discussions among elite circles of the academics; others large and roofless, in order to provide better lighting for those studying within, always noisy and open to the public.

It was like stepping into a dream.

And the people... Oh, just to think that all of them shared the prince's love for knowledge, would understand the yearning he felt to grasp the entirety of the universe - it almost stole his breath away.

Eagerly and with barely a touch of restrain Loki joined his fellow students on this day and on many days thereafter, pestered learned men and women for lessons in lore, history and, of course, magic. But here, in his most beloved subject, he soon discovered the disadvantage of being Jötunn. And the advantage of being someone else.

The Vanir themselves were by nature a welcoming people and in deference to his title, or maybe because of the imposing guards, everyone around him was polite to a fault, yet there was always something off about their smiles and the sweetly worded assurances that soon he would receive answers to all of his myriad questions. On no occasion had they refused to teach him, but Loki was observant enough - though at that time that observance stemmed from simple curiosity and not yet from suspicion - to realise that they kept secrets from him, left out lessons he had heard them teach others without reluctance. Lessons on spells and potions obviously too dangerous in the hands of their enemy. The longer he stayed the more he must have appeared as a threat to them, judging from the amount of knowledge that was withheld. After a while this situation had become so utterly frustrating that he had almost resigned himself to giving up and searching elsewhere for a full education. But then, on a whim, he decided on a very different course of action.

Loki had, on many of his visits, noticed how very freely the Vanir conversed with those guests hailing from other realms but that of his own. Especially those of Asgard. It was not surprising, of course, for since the war millennia ago between them these two races had been closely allied. Or better - as a more cynical onlooker might have put it - Vanaheimr was very much under Odin King's thumb. In any case, the Aesir could go where they pleased, read the texts that were so old and unique even the Alltounge could not fully translate them, and were invited to every discussion that held their interest. And the little blue skinned scholar wanted this with every fibre of his enthusiastic young heart.

So, for once in his life he decided to not be Jötunn, to not be Loki at all.

The difficulty with shapeshifting into a sentient being was not only the sheer complexity of the body - though it was decidedly harder to concentrate on all these details than if he had transformed into a mouse - but the intelligence of the company. People usually paid much more attention to the flaws in their fellows than to a possible wrong patch of fur on an animal, which meant that this new form had to be perfect before he dared to show himself in it. Therefore, he studied the Aesir in the form of a cat strolling around underfoot, in the form of a falcon watching them from above and sometimes simply sitting with them while cloaked in invisibility. By the time he was sure that no one could spot him as a stranger in their midst seven months had passed.

Right from the start he had determined that the look of the Aesir was not much to his liking: skin too sun kissed, eyes usually the light blue of a child's markings or dark brown of fresh mud and the hair either too bright or too dull. None of it came even close to how Loki saw himself, so he had decided not to accommodate all of their usual features. The result hinted at a partial Vanir ancestry but was not too far from the norm that they would become suspicious. Or so he hoped.

And, indeed, it worked perfectly, especially when he learned to evade his guards without making them aware of it.

In the beginning he simply took to following any Asgardian delegation he could find in order to pass as one of their children. Later, he would fashion a name for himself and an ancestry that was so detailed no one questioned its legitimacy.

In the beginning he had been proud of this accomplishment, of the simple way in which he tricked those who would not trust him otherwise into giving him what he wanted. Later this, in addition to many other slights, would turn him bitter, even against those he had admired as the wisest people of Yggdrasil. It was, however, not a skill he had ever regretted to learn.

Not until a thousand years later.

.........

He ran, though no one was following him; he kept running, though he had no clear direction or destination in mind, all the while feeling like a coward yet at the same time fearing he might fall apart once he stopped.

He ran, counting his steps, the number of paces between him and his captors, would have counted the very grains of sand under his feet were his vision clear enough at this speed to even see them.

He ran, trying his utmost not to think and as always failing brilliantly at this specific task. Thinking, however, proved useless, when the only two words occupying his mind seemed to be 'How' and 'Why'.

How had this happened to him and why had he not seen it coming? How could he reverse it and why of all the things in the universe was this something he had not already learned to shield himself against? How could he raze Asgard to the ground and why had he not done so a thousand years ago?

How could I have been so blind? Why does my chest hurt so much?

It was all Odin's fault, of course, with his twisted sense of justice and a power that rivalled all others, most likely stolen as all the pretty little items in his dark and tempting Vault. Not satisfied with taking his enemy's access to magic he had also taken the prince's true face and forced him to wear that of his own kind - a feat that would probably entertain the mead halls for generations to come; a cruelty that would fuel the fire of hatred between their people for an equally long time.

But how and why?  

As far as Loki knew, and he knew quite a lot about these matters, there was no spell or potion that could permanently prevent a person from changing their form, and even if there were such magics he knew he had not heard the king speak anything but a greeting and a sentencing nor had he himself imbibed water or food during his short stay in Asgard that could have contained a secret concoction.  

In his pompous, empty speech beforehand the Allfather had proclaimed he would take both princes' powers and he had indeed taken Loki's seidr ability, but shapeshifting was not mage craft. It was, in essence, a natural talent of his kinsmen just like the mastery over water in all its aspects. To take it was more than to simply block him from the connection to Yggdrasil; it was akin to breaking a horse's legs, stabbing out a cat's eyes, ripping off a bird's wings. And just the thought that he might never be allowed to fly again nearly drove him to tears.

Aside from the method there was the nagging question of a purpose for this despicable act. Was he not weak enough without magic at his fingertips? Was he not helpless enough with only his blades to defend himself against that fell hammer? Was the heat, the hunger, the shoddy healing not punishment enough?

But wait! Why was he so weak at all? "I take form you the title of Prince of Asgard and the powers which mark you as one of the royal family" -  that had been enough to transform Thor into a feeble mortal, a change he had both seen and felt in his enemy, but this formal disownment had not done the same to him, could not have done for his father possessed no powers to make it so. Was that why? To punish both princes equally? But when could that have happened? He had still been able to shift on the Bifröst's Observatory...

Oh.

The sudden realisation almost drove him to halt his steps, was adequately shocking to make him stumble over even ground - as though pushed from behind by a gust of wind - for a good ten paces until he actually looked down at his feet to make them obey his commands once more.

Oh. That sneaky, insidious cur!

The trick, admittedly, had worked perfectly: First, take away the enemy prince's magical talents and then use a wordless spell which at that point could no longer be felt or counteracted. Brilliant, really, especially as Loki had been so embroiled in his own worries and anger that he might not even have noticed the deceit had he had reason to suspect it. Alas, he was a complete fool who had jumped headlong into his own damnation. "Change into a from which can withstand more heat." Ha! As though the king of Asgard harboured any concern for his well-being.

Why had he not refused this absurd command from a king who was not even of his realm to change into a shape that ultimately made him weaker? And it was so clear now that this had been the intent for, by trapping him in the form of an Ás, Odin could take from him abilities the loss of which would otherwise have killed any Jötunn. The ice, the strength, the shapeshifting - all of it gone in one fell swoop.

Or with one touch of a hand on his shoulder.

Nausea was threatening to overpower him; the village's wooden buildings on the horizon were swimming before his eyes like a mirage.  

By the ancestors, this was a disaster. The yearning for magic had been near overwhelming in these last few days, but now he could not even change his shape, could not even be himself. 

His chest constricted at the thought of having to live looking like his bitterest enemies for an unknown amount of time, possibly for the rest of his diminished lifespan; yesterday's supper was churning uncomfortably in his gut. And yet, for all that his legs were beginning to tire and the desert air was burning his throat, he did not stop running, was in fact running even faster than before as though he could escape this Fate, as though salvation lay only yards away in the tiny village whose name could not have been more ironic if Odin had named it himself.

When he finally reached his destination there was no relief; indeed, he felt even worse for now that he slowed his steps to a walk, it took all his meagre strength not to just drop down in the sand, exhausted as he was from both physical exertion and the poisonous thoughts on his mind.

He had only meant to return here for a moment to snatch his satchel, which he had hidden away in an abandoned building before he had confronted Barton, yet now he listlessly shuffled through the street in the opposite direction, not out of fear of being caught where the Shield man had spotted him, but because returning to his perch meant to stop, and he could not do so or the thoughts would overwhelm him.

So, he continued walking - or better, putting one foot in front of the other - uncaring of the people who might see him in his bedraggled state or the dangers of Coulson's army, who might not be far behind. The level of inattentiveness was so complete that only when he had already lost his footing and landed face first in the dirt did he realise he had stumbled over the raised stone walkway lining the row of vendors. "Happy now? Is this what you wanted?" he yelled to the heavens or more precisely the golden king on his throne who was sure to watch this spectacle. "I hope you have a good laugh and choke on it, bastard!"

Thoroughly frustrated the former prince dragged himself to his feet, and if there had ever been a moment when he had felt less like royalty he was unable to remember - dirty from the desert's sand and the road's detritus, body drained of any last shred of energy and covered in bruises and scratches. Powerless. Defeated. He could not even stand without swaying like a newborn foal, as though he had had too much mead, a substance he had not touched in decades, ever since... Damn, and his stomach ached once more, threatening to spill what little food he had partaken in the day prior onto the path before him.

In order not to fall a second time he shuffled over to the nearest building and leaned against one of the wooden pillars that supported the balcony above. Breathing raggedly he tried to regain control of himself, a task made all the harder by the spinning, swimming vision of a near deserted settlement at twilight. With a sigh he closed his burning eyes, counting his heartbeats, drumming his fingers on the wood at his back.

Clam yourself. Calm. This is not the end. This is nothing. It could be worse. So much worse, he told himself, but when he truly thought on it he could not conjure up a more terrible Fate than this. And then he opened his eyes and realised that, yes, it could indeed be worse.

It was blurred through his own addled vision and the building's poor upkeep and not very vivid because of the strange lantern overhead that lit the road in the evening, but there to his right, in the murky wall of glass Loki saw his reflection: clothed in dirty, ripped Midgardian garments, shaking like a leaf in autumn winds and bleeding. The wound on his head was not deep, did not even sting, but the colour....

With a force that should not have been possible in this weakened, tired condition and with a fury so hot it rivalled the fires of Muspellsheimr he turned around, took two long steps forward and slammed his fist through the mirroring surface, again, and again and again.

A wordless scream tore through his throat as shards of glass cut into his hands, but he cared neither for the attention this display would surely draw from the mortals in their little houses nor for the abuse he put his body through. He just needed this gone, needed to erase this image and the unmistakable truth it showed.

But this, this laughable, violent outburst changed nothing for now the blood was all over his hands, even more visible than before and so, as sudden as he had begun, he just stopped. Stopped and sagged to the ground as though hit by a powerful blow.

How? How? How? How? Why? Why? Why? Why?

The thoughts kept running around in his mind, occupying it to the point where he nearly forgot to breath. He should have searched for a distraction, he knew, even if it was just stones on the opposite wall to count until he calmed himself.

Yet he did not want to see anymore, could not bear the evidence of his condition, wherefore he held his hands as far away from his body as possible so as not to see the crimson droplets pouring from the jagged wounds onto the ground.

Blue, blue, it should be blue, his circular thoughts provided.

Blue like frozen rain in moonlight.

His heart hammered painfully in his too tight chest, his head felt as if it might burst, black spots danced in front of his closed eyes. Pitiful, really, that after everything he had endured over the centuries it would be one of his own cherished talents that put an end to him.

Blue, it should be blue his blood, but it was red, instead. Red like is eyes. Red like the blood of the Aesir.

A thousand years ago he would have been proud of the feat, of the perfect change into another race. Now he just cursed the day he had learned how to discard who he truly was.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

ES

.........

The thud of books hitting the counter was loud in the small room and years of studying in a university's library made him cringe at the sound, made an apology spring forth without thought, never mind that he was not a curious student anymore about to be scolded by a stern teacher and despite the knowledge that there was hardly anyone here who could be disturbed by his clumsy action. Aside from himself there was only one younger man sitting behind a computer who - judging from the rapid bashing of the same key over and over again - was playing some kind of online game, and an even younger girl who, with a diligence and concentration of a professional architect, was stacking Lego pieces on top of each other on a small coffee table at the other side of the room.

His mumbled, slightly embarrassed "Sorry" earned him a sweet smile from the woman behind the register, at least, and her good humor seemed to increase when he continued, "Thank you for these, Anna, they helped a lot."

"Oh, please, your very welcome Dr. Selvig; everything for a fellow history buff," the librarian answered with honest delight in her voice. And he could understand that, this happiness at having found someone who actually shared an interest in one's hobby. God only knew how long it had taken him to get anyone in the academic circles to listen to his own 'wild' theories.  It had been sheer luck that had him meet Martin Foster at his terribly disastrous first day as a teacher at Culver University decades ago and it had been equally lucky that he had met Anna Goodyear here in this backwater town, who had actually managed to dig up a copy of the Prose Edda when he'd asked for more information on Norse Mythology. That book as well as half a dozen others on the same topic had come from her personal collection, which was why he had tried to handle them with the utmost care. Until he dropped them like a potato sack on the counter, that is. Fortunately, she didn't seem to mind this at all.

"I always loved these stories," she said cheerfully while she took the books in hand to arrange them on the shelves behind her. "They're much grimmer than fairy tales for sure but the language is so much more vivid. You can just imagine sitting around a fireplace and hearing a bard sing of these legends of old."

"Yeah, I like them, too. Grew up with them, really." Erik's reply was a bit strained, and though he tried to smile at the woman before him it probably came closer to a grimace. 

There was one particular 'legend' the physicist's thoughts couldn't help but stray to; a 'god' who, last he'd checked, had been preparing mac and cheese with Jane's bubbly intern. Even as a child he could hardly have dreamed up something so ludicrous, and to say 'Thor' was not what he'd expected when he read about epic quests and evil monsters the Thunderer had bested was the understatement of the century. Yes, the young man had successfully answered all the questions about his supposed family, his home and the other realms, had in fact spoken about all these matters as though they were common knowledge, and yes, he treated every modern convenience as though it were a thing of magic, like the TV or the microwave or something as simple as pre-packaged snack food; but none of that proved he was who he claimed to be.

Honestly, it would have been easy to ascribe all of this to good acting or a very troubled mind, if it were not for the man's overall strange behavior. The way he insisted on using full names when addressing anyone or calling his host Lady Jane but usually spoke of humans in general as "mortals". The way he at times underestimated his strength when shaking a person's hand and then overestimated it when, for example, lifting an armchair as though he had recently lost a lot of muscle mass. The way he could switch from a friendly and boisterous mood one day at breakfast, where he had praised the wonderful flavors of Pop Tarts to high heavens, to one staggeringly aggressive and intimidating only a few hours later with which he had driven 'Loki' from the house, after almost breaking the other man's jaw. 

It was jarring, all of this, and still Erik would have dismissed it, denied the truth behind Jane's insistent arguments, if it were not for SHIELD.

SHIELD, who had come and taken the research on interplanetary wormholes just one day after the electromagnetic storm, who had arrested and then released the blond stranger but clearly had no intention of leaving the man out of their sight. SHIELD, a secret government agency who usually popped up only when things got interesting, when a scientist came too close to developing a theory, a technology that could change the world. Or endanger it. There were not bad people, he thought, but they were certainly hard to get rid of, as Hank Pym had confirmed in his e-mail.

"Dear Erik,

I'm retired, if you care to remember. That is also the only method I have found to get our mutual friends off my radar. I don't know what you've done to draw their attention, but for your own sake and that of your colleagues I'd say, forget about it and go back to teaching."

If only it were so easy.  

The problem was not that it would be difficult to get their resident alien to leave them the hell alone because - though he was definitely dangerous to those he claimed as his enemies - he was the personification of politeness and etiquette, so much so that he made for a convincing prince, at least, if not a god. Should one of them, and it would have to be Erik himself he had no doubt, suggest to the man that it was time for him to go and find some other people to eat out of house and home, he would most likely just shrug, thank them for their hospitality and walk on to the nearest town.

No, the problem was Jane. Jane, who was obviously enamored with their weird guest and not just because he was build like, as Darcy put it, "a model for Lumberjacks Weekly" - an impression that was helped along by the flannel shirts he had taken to wear because they were the only ones in the shop that fit his broad frame. 

No, simple attraction would have been one thing and not too worrying as his erstwhile student was often much too preoccupied with her research to even care for her own appearance, but - while the lingering looks she gave the blond showed she wasn't completely uninterested in that area - what really concerned the older physicist to no end was the faith she put into the other man's words. With every question about the myths he answered correctly Jane grew more and more convinced that 'Thor' could help prove the existence of Einstein-Rosen Bridges, could turn theory into fact. For his part, Erik highly doubted the continued needling would do them much good as even their possible alien, god, or whatever else, had admitted to not understanding the 'workings of the Bifröst' beyond the basic parameters of 'the Gatekeeper Heimdallr', a 'giant sword' and 'magic'.

So, what exactly Jane hoped to learn from this culture exchange was a mystery but it was quite clear he couldn't just boot the 'Thunderer' out of the house. If only he had not agreed to get the guy out of SHIELD's den...

"Oh God, what was that?"

For a moment he was afraid he'd voiced some of this nonsense that had become his life aloud or that Anna had found a coffee stain on one of her clearly ancient books, and he almost stumbled over himself to apologize for that and also for being so busy chasing unwelcome thoughts from in his head that he'd completely ignored her for what had probably been several minutes, when he heard a loud noise from outside, one that was repeated several times - the unmistakable crash of breaking glass.

"Not again!" the woman before him nearly shouted, accompanied by pained look at the ceiling, as though pleading with a higher authority. Puzzled he let his eyes roam the small library to see whether one of the patrons had caused the commotion, but they were both still in their respective places creating noise of a very different, less troubling quality. And on second thought that sound had clearly come from outside, but not from far away.

When he turned back to ask his acquaintance for an explanation for both the din and her reaction to it her friendly face had turned a shade annoyed, though not with him, he quickly learned. "Jesus, that is the third time this month. I swear, I'm not usually that kind of person who sticks to clichés like 'Kids these days!' or some such nonsense, but do they really have nothing more constructive to do than to destroy public property as a sport? I bet it's that Baker girl again; she's been here a couple times to read to the younger children; clever little thing, but a real hellion when bored."

The way Anna spoke, both exasperated but also clearly fond, made him think of his own former charge, who could occupy herself with a book on exotic matter for half a day only to then start picking apart his old radio and the electric tea kettle to build herself a primitive yet fully functioning electrometer in his backyard.

"Well, maybe she just needs the right inspiration," he replied somewhat tongue-in-cheek with a slight nod to the books at his back, which earned him a dry chuckle in response.

"I'll see what I can do," the librarian said, warm smile in place once more.

She was still busy with bringing order to her collection and the rather sizable stack of returned volumes that had accumulated on the counter between them, so - not wanting to distract her from her work further and remembering the dinner waiting from him at the former car dealership turned laboratory - Erik thanked the gray haired woman for her help again, promised to return for a chat and a cup of coffee and then said goodbye to her, fully intending to take the direct rout back to his temporary home.

Later, he would be hard pressed to explain why he'd walked toward the place he assumed to be the source of the destruction instead of away from it, as any reasonable person would have done. Maybe it was because Thor and his adventurous tales were still very much on his mind or that he couldn't help but worry that the actual, flannel wearing deity was somehow involved, but in any case, he walked briskly out of the library and along the side street at the back of the building where he could still hear the clatter of shattering, falling glass. It could just have been bored teens throwing stones at shop fronts as Anna had predicted or a car crash for all he knew, and as a responsible adult he really should have called the police but when he arrived at the end of the road he was both glad and worried that he hadn't done so.

Because there, on a the porch of a dilapidated, clearly abandoned toy store that was littered with sparkling glass shards sat a figure he had not expected to ever lie eyes on again.

The lanky man sat with his legs draw up to his chest, outstretched arms loosely resting on his knees; he was dressed in what could only be described as rags; what was visible of his skin looked like it was caked in mud, and he was shaking. It was the last part that made Erik take a few careful steps closer, even though he knew this man was dangerous and probably also on SHIELD's watch list. The shaking could come from either cold or laughter, but as the brunet didn't make a sound to accompany it, he quickly discarded the second option. Given what he knew of this supposed figure of myth the first idea was even weirder but it was, after all, past sundown and the guy didn't even wear a jacket, so it was at least possible.

Cautiously, as though he were trying to tame a bear in the wild - which was equal to this plan in stupidity - the professor walked toward the other man with a healthy dose of trepidation. What do I do when he takes out a knife? Should I call SHIELD or Thor? he thought nervously as he neared the porch but then the crumbled figure looked up from where he had been contemplating the wooden floor, and immediately Erik felt his heart being squeezed by an unseen hand.

Here he had been worrying about his own safety and about agents arresting him alongside a possible deranged criminal and there was Loki looking so utterly lost and in pain that it made him appear ten years younger and several degrees less dangerous. And now, in the light of the lamp above and only a few feet away from him, the older man could see that the clothes weren't simply creased hand-me-downs but actually torn in places by something sharp, and part of the dirt, especially on his hands, was, in fact, blood.

Damn, what the hell happened to you, son? 

He didn't say this or anything like it aloud, but he had to wonder what could leave the, before so proud, young man in such a sate. Even Thor brutishly pushing him against a wall had merely made him angry and take out one of his many weapons, after all. Before he could ask after this or do so much as cough loudly to gain the other's attention he heard low muttering, so quiet it would have been inaudible had he stood just a bit farther away. A string of words repeated over and over again.

"Cannot make it right, cannot change. Cannot make it right..."

My God.

Now this was starting to become scary, like watching a scene from a horror movie right before the monster sprang out of the dark to eat the unsuspecting Redshirt. According to the tales his mother had read to him, and judging from a god's angry rants, the person in front of him was the monster, but even if any of that had ever held just an ounce of truth it certainly didn't do so now. Bleeding, beaten, surrounded by glittering shards he resembled a victim of a mugging or worse, which was honestly worrisome because, though he had seen Thor punch the brunet in the face on their last encounter, he hadn't seemed weak enough, human enough that a simple thug could have assaulted him and survived.

"What happened to you?" This time he did say it aloud and he did get an answer, though none that made sense.

"It is red. It is... it is not supposed to be. I have never seen..." Loki's voice was a broken, hoarse thing, as if he had been shouting for an hour before he was found, and surprisingly small compared to the aloof, refined tone he had used when they'd last met. That had been almost two weeks ago, but somehow it seemed not nearly enough time to cause such a big change in this man. The worst of it was that, though he had answered, he didn't appear to be aware of Erik's presence at all; instead, he stared off into the space with vacant, red-rimmed eyes.

Wary to get any nearer to this volatile individual, not sure whether it would earn him a knife to the gut or just an angry command to get lost, the astrophysicist still inched forward until he had closed the distance between them, then crouched down so as to be on equal eye-level. "Loki?" he began carefully, then said the name again when he got no reaction. Even the third time did nothing, however, and so he acted as any crazy thrill seeker in contact with a dangerous animal - he reached for the man's shoulder and shook it lightly. "Loki? Hey, son, are you OK?" It was a stupid question, but this, surprisingly, managed to clear the cobwebs in the green eyes before him.

"Erik Selvig. What... what do you want of me?" Loki asked, not with fear or anger or anything so passionate in his tone, but full of confusion as though he had really just noticed that there was someone else with him in this street. Maybe it would have been the perfect time to leave, now that this strange 'episode' was over and the young man seemed to be able to think again, probably a good idea to run off before the victim turned into the killer at the slightest provocation.

But just as he was about to stand up from his crouched position he saw the shaking again; a reaction that really couldn't have come from the cold because, while it was dark out, it was late spring and this guy had camped before an open freezer when no one had been in the house to stop him. So not hypothermia, then but maybe it was blood loss; there were definitely enough wounds on his hands, his arms, and his face was covered in bruises and cuts. If he hadn't know better he would have said the two gods had fought again, but Thor was still safely at the lab and Loki hadn't shown his face to anyone since his rather hasty retreat.

And there was glass embedded in his hands...

Oh gods.

"Loki? Did you..." he tried to ask, but the other didn't let him finish. It was a repeat of his earlier inquiry, but this time he sounded even worse, tired and almost afraid of the answer.

"What do you want of me?" The green eyes looked less empty now and whatever tears had been in them had been bilked away. Still, for someone who had been hailed as the God of Lies his show of emotions was strangely honest. It was, for some unfathomable reason, more terrifying than if he had held a dagger at Erik's throat.

"Um, I just thought I might help. You don't look so good; did someone attack you?" But even as he said it, he knew that wasn't what had happened. No, the chaos around them, the ripped clothes, the shards in the pale hands - they all painted a very vivid picture, one that the professor couldn't explain, yet was too afraid to ask about. Instead, he patted the young man's shoulder again and continued, "Do you think you can walk? I have a first aid kit in the car; I can patch up your cuts, get the glass out?" And he phrased that last part as a question because he didn't want to make it seem as though Loki had no choice on the matter.

"You cannot help me. I cannot undo this. Why would you presume you can, mortal?" And now there was the anger again in the otherwise so lackluster face, and Erik was reminded of their second meeting where the brunet had opted to steal food instead of demanding it from them, as Thor had done. Prideful, mistrustful, independent, he mentally tallied the man's character traits. None of them were exactly optimal when all he really wanted at the moment was to offer him medical help and maybe a warm blanket or two; that constant shivering made even him feel cold in sympathy.

With a self-deprecating smirk and a light shrug of his shoulders he replied, "Well, yeah, I can't say I know what happened or how to fix it, but I could at least bandage your hands, get all this blood off of you..."

"You are his ally." The accusation - and it was one given the harsh tone with which it was delivered - came quick and sure, as though there were no doubt about it nor was it necessary for either of them to speak the ally's name. Great, I didn't think I'd have to pick sides in your feud, he might have said but it seemed, at least in Loki's eyes, he'd already done so.

"He isn't here," Erik said instead, and because that wasn't enough to convince the other man he added, "And he doesn't get to tell me what to do." He might also have mentioned that he couldn't imagine Thor would begrudge him this, that the other god would hardly expect of him to leave his... 'acquaintance' alone in such a situation, but he doubted that would be believed nor was he sure he believed it himself. "Can you walk?" he asked, in lieu of empty reassurances.

Suddenly, without another word, Loki rose from his crumpled position, raining glass all over the wooden porch, and then there he stood - the God of Lies and Mischief. And there was no doubt now about this in the mind of the usually so skeptic physicist, for all that the man looked like a teenager after a particularly violent schoolyard fight. The eyes were what made the difference; vivid green pools reflecting the harsh neon light of the street lamps, filled with some ancient despair, as though he carried the weight of the worlds on his shoulders. Loki, Bringer of Ragnarök. Damn.

"Well, where is that car of yours, then?"

For a moment Erik hesitated until his mind caught up with the question and then he almost laughed out loud because the word 'car' had slipped from Loki's lips with so much venom behind it as if he'd said 'giant pile of shit'.  

While in his head 'You know what a car is?' warred with 'Are you going to stab me now?', what he actually said was, "It's at the end of the road, near the library." Which would have been followed by further directions or the suggestion that he would lead the way, but apparently the mention of the library alone was enough of an explanation.

And so Erik found himself almost running after the younger man, who, despite their similar height, had much longer legs and a surprising amount of stamina for one whose clothes were speckled with his own blood. When he arrived at the beat-up old SUV Loki was already standing in front of it, still as a statue except for the occasional shudder that ran through his whole body.

"OK, just sit down for a moment; I'll get the kit form the trunk," the professor said after he'd walked around the unmoving brunet and had opened the passenger side door. Not waiting for a response or an indication that his instructions would be followed, he headed to the back of the van to take out the red and white plastic box. To his relief he found his words had, in fact, reached the other man; he was sitting sideways in the cushioned seat, feet on the side-walk, and where before he had seemed tired he now looked absolutely drained. The short, fast walk here had most likely taken the last reserves of his energy.

Again, he felt like the warden in a zoo, one who was about to take a thorn out of a tiger's paw, as he crouched next to the open door. "This is going to sting a bit," he said in warning before he took one dirty hand in his, intending to get a few drops of antiseptic on the cuts before he poked in there for the splinters of glass.

Not expecting a reply he flinched when he heard the deep, now much more steady voice of the dark haired god. "I am hardly a stranger to pain, Erik Selvig." And what a harsh life did one have to lead before one could say something like this so matter-of-factly?

Wisely he didn't comment on this nor did he speak up at all while he worked diligently on the bloodied knuckles, first with a cotton swap and disinfectant, then with a pair of metal tweezers, and the only signs that Loki was aware of the whole procedure were the occasional sharp intake of breath and the tremors in his fingers. These tremors, these shivers, he realized then - while holding pale and icy hands between his own - did not come from blood loss or lack of warmth, but from shock. What the hell could cause a god to go into such a state of distress?  Probably not something he would want to meet in a dark alley; but like any good scientist he just needed to know.

So when he was finished, when he'd covered the hands in white gauze, he looked up into the young man's face, and with a wry smile on his lips asked, "You're not gonna tell me what happened to you, are you?"

"I might, yet you would not understand. Or you might, yet you would not believe me." A heavy sigh, a shrug of shoulders and then, "You do not even believe in who I am."

"You are Loki Laufeyson." And despite his earlier doubts Erik had never been more certain of anything else. Which was why, when he'd thought this answer might either surprise or cheer up the other man, he was rather taken aback by the pain he could see flicker over the pale face.

"Oh, if only that were still true."

OK, now he was seriously confused. But it seemed today was one of those days on which he collected more questions than explanations - like a first day at school when nothing yet made sense, when the world of numbers and words was still overwhelming - because as soon as he'd given this rather devastating remark, Loki stood up from the car seat and bowed his head deeply.

"I thank you for your aid, Erik Selvig. I know not why you would give it to one of his enemies, yet be assured I will not forget this kindness." 

Lost for words the physicist just watched as the God of Lies walked unsteadily away from the car, back to where they both had come from only minutes ago, then he took a seat behind the wheel himself to head back to the lab. Back to the place where Thor, God of Thunder, was preparing dinner.

I wonder if the bards will make a song of this, too, he thought while the engine began to stutter to life. And wasn't that a lovely idea.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

FN

.........

To say the Aesir disapproved of the man walking through the gleaming streets of Gladsheim would have been akin to claiming Muspellsheimr a place of slightly raised temperature. It was understandable to a point for he was the third of his kind to visit Asgard in the short span of ten days, when usually such a meeting was only undertaken once every half millennium. Still, she wished the people were not so very vocal about it as they were now, when - after the first person had glimpsed him in the distance - the entirety of the city, it seemed, had as one decided to murmur angrily like so many agitated bees after some fool had unwittingly stepped on their hive.

She was grateful that none of their words could be discerned in the cacophony as she doubted any of them had much good to say on the matter, although with dismay she remembered that his ears were sharper and would therefore be more successful in picking up the jeers and insults from the general din of discontent. Fortunately, he gave no indication of being bothered by it, and as he made his slow but sure approach to the palace, with head held high and shoulders squared, he seemed, indeed, to ignore all distractions in favour of the path in front of him.

In the bright midday light and walking through the throng of servants and peasants, who had gathered at the courtyard to gawk, the man's strangeness in this realm was hard to overlook. Yet it was not the blue skin or the imposing height that struck her as unusual, no, it was the fact that he had come alone. Of course, King Laufey and his second son had come unaccompanied by guards, as well, but it had been assumed they had done so for diplomacy's sake, to appear as less of a threat. Had he decided on the same tactic? Or was he truly so sure of the protection the truce between their peoples should provide him? It was a naive notion as was the hope that this visit would pass peacefully, especially after the events which had occurred on Midgard the day prior.  

No, this would most likely end in many a shouted curse, if not outright openly voiced threats, so Frigga knew she had been right to request she see the visitor first before her youngest son gave his report. She was not overly worried that Baldr would be attacked and yet it was prudent, the queen thought, to gauge the other's temperament before she left them in a room together.

Down below in the courtyard the sole Jötunn had now reached the palace steps, which he ascended two at a time, only to come to a sudden halt at the top rung. The Einherjar stationed before the doors shifted their position slightly, not alarmed as though by a threat but definitely more alert at the sight of the newcomer. As high up, and therefore far away from them, as she was the words they exchanged could not reach her ears - though she guessed it pertained to the audience with her the prince was invited to - yet she could clearly see the tension between the three people. As far as Frigga could discern the visitor was currently unarmed - which was not as reassuring as it should have been when one of his kind's unique skills meant he might not stay thus for long - but her own men made no secret of their aggression; standing with their feet apart, spears gripped tightly and pointed nearly strait forward they looked poised for battle.

The queen was prepared to shout down at them to show the prince the respect he deserved; in fact, she was terribly furious at this display which could easily be interpreted as an attack on his person, yet it quickly proved her interference was unnecessary.

With his head cocked to the side and arms crossed in front of his chest the Jötunn addressed the two Einherjar, though again what exactly he said was lost in the crowd's mutterings, and just as if they had been hit by a spell they took a hasty step away from him, then stood there before the doors like statues frozen in place. She could have sworn she heard him laugh, despite the distance that made this near impossible, before he himself walked toward the palace's doors, where the guards stiffly bowed to him before they finally let him enter.

This hardly could have gone worse, Frigga thought with a huff as she made her way down from the balcony to the council chamber two floors below in which she would meet her guest. It had been too much to hope, of course, that any of her people would be overly polite to a prince of Jötunheimr, but it was indeed a poor reflection on their characters when the Aesir held less restrain on their hatred than a man whose realm had recently been attacked by their prince, whose brother had been banished by their king, who was old enough to remember the war. 'Tis no wonder this truce of ours is about to fall apart. And it was worrisome when the continuation of it might depend on her own skills at diplomacy and both her sons' treatment of two of Laufey's.

.........

"You Grace, I thank you for the honour of inviting me to your realm."

That anyone could say these words in such a way that it bordered on insincere but actually sounded closer to boredom, as though he were reciting this season's granary report, was both astounding and a bad omen for their upcoming conversation. Admittedly, he had demonstrated proper manners when he had entered the council chamber, had indeed bowed to her without prompting and somehow managed to do so without making it seem mocking, despite their clear height difference. Even now, when he stood there before her waiting to be addressed in turn, he refrained from looming over her. It was the little gestures one had to appreciate, she supposed.

"It is a pleasure to welcome you to Asgard, Prince Helblindi," she replied with a slight nod while ushering him further into the room with one hand, toward the long oak table in the middle. "I trust the journey here was not too strenuous?"

That last question was merely part of the usual pleasantries and not normally answered with more than a 'Yes, my thanks', however it was probably foolish to expect anything about this would conform to normal, polite court etiquette. This particular visitor was hardly here for friendly chatter, after all, nor was he here because he himself had chosen to be. And he seemed not to even attempt to hide his opinion on that.

"Well, I certainly have endured worse inter-realm travel, though I doubt I will ever grow very fond of your Bridge. At least I was not dropped halfway through, so I count my blessings." It was hard to make out whether he was jesting or alluding to some kind of nefarious plan on her part, but Frigga chose to interpret it as the former, especially when she saw the wry smile which softened his otherwise stern expression.

"Was that a valid concern, then?" she inquired after she had gestured to him to take a seat opposite her, one especially crafted for his size, usually reserved for his father. 

The Jötunn's smile turned into a grimace, as though he would rather not think about such an uncomfortable matter and yet he answered without hesitation, "It might be when you have argued with someone moments before that very same person sends you through a pathway. Which truly validates the old saying of 'Never shall you part with anger in your heart' - a lesson better learned late than not at all."

Humour was one of the last traits Frigga would have excepted the eldest son of Laufey to possess, not after she had been subjected to the king's unfriendly sneers and the unmistakable hatred in his eyes every time they had met over the centuries. Yet humour there was in the prince's voice and the way he smirked somewhat self-deprecatingly. However, that was not the only difference between father and son readily apparent. For one, Helblindi was near a hand span shorter and had clearly inherited most of his looks from his mother; his face had none of the harshness nor the sharp cut features she associated with the only 'regular' Jötunn visitor to her realm. There was also the way the young man held himself; the posture regal but not trying to convey superiority; that he sat there with loosely entwined hands on the table, not exactly at ease but not hostile, either. And none of this was a facade, at least she hoped for it not to be so, as that would make him an even better Trickster than his notorious younger brother.

Latching on to the lightened mood Frigga replied to his words with a smile of her own, "Now that, at least, is nothing you would have to worry about in regards to the Bifröst; I highly doubt Heimdallr could leave you stranded, even were he so inclined."

And then she took a fortifying breath before she addressed that which she knew would put an end to any levity, "That does, however, bring up an important matter; I really must apologise for my people's behaviour toward you, especially of the Einherjar who were supposed to greet you at the place doors. Be assured their rudeness will not stay without consequence." "Rudeness" was, of course, putting it mildly yet it was probably a wiser choice than to call to attention how close to a breach in the truce it had actually been.  

Far from being angered by said event or her own attempt at minimizing the situation the prince just seemed indifferent to it all. With a light shrug of his shoulders and in a tone more fitting to pleasant supper conversation he said, "Oh, I can hardly fault them. The boys simply wanted to make sure I understood I was not to harm Your Grace in any way which - while a tad unnecessary given that I am not, in fact, an uncouth vagabond - is, after all, their highest priority as royal guards."

Whether he was honestly this forgiving or had simply decided to take the higher ground she could not determine, but the queen was deeply grateful for the Jötunn's apparently serene nature. Anyone else in possession of even a hint more rancour would, and rightfully could, have claimed some form of compensation for this, not very well veiled, threat to his person. Someone, like the man's father, for instance.

"Nevertheless, I truly am sorry. You have come here at my invitation," Frigga replied, voice strong but gentle, and eyes locked with the prince's so that in them he could read her sincerity, "and as such, as well as a prince of Jötunheimr, you deserve their respect." 

A short nod was all he gave in answer, maybe in thanks or just agreement, but although that might have concluded this rather unpleasant business just fine, she found she could not deny her curiosity in his own actions.

"Though I have to admit you seemed to handle them wonderfully. What did you say to them to change their attitude so quickly, if I may ask?"

"Oh, you saw that, hm?" Helblindi inquired, and that might have led to even more dangerous waters but, once more, he surprised her by laughing; a deep cheerful sound like a bard recounting the glorious days of battle. "Well, I merely pointed out that their posture was sloppy and the grip on their weapons too rigid. And when they failed to correct either I suggested we meet in the training grounds once my visit here is concluded so that I can give them a lesson or two, just as I have done for my own men for more than a thousand years. I know not whether the idea of sparring with me shocked them so due to my title or my race but, either way, it disabused them of the laughable notion of them being capable of intimidating me quite well."

Too easily these words could have been interpreted as an affront to Asgard's fighting prowess, and might have been were it Odin or even Thor sitting here instead of her, yet all that came to mind at his explanation was an adult caught between amusement and exasperation after a child had tried to stab him with a wooden sword. And maybe that was all it had been to him - two 'boys' misbehaving - which, while slightly condescending, was not too astonishing. On any of the previous visits, and this one was no exception, her husband had wisely chosen to have the palace guarded by men who were too young to have faced the Jötnar in the war. To the prince, who was nearing his third millennium, these particular Einherjar might, indeed, have seemed nought more than unruly youths.

It was a disconcerting thought, albeit one that explained the absence of an entourage; the Aesir posed no threat to Laufey's eldest because he clearly dismissed their abilities and at the same time was very sure of his own. Had he assessed the guards who had accompanied her son as harmless, as well? According to Baldr's elaborate retelling of this encounter and Heimdallr's short but precise report, there had been no similar conflict on Jötunheimr, which - in terms of hospitality - did not speak very well in her realm's favour.

Conscious of the tense silence in the room and the young man's eyes on her as he patiently waited for a response Frigga did her best to push unpleasant thoughts from her mind so that she could speak without lines of anger marring her face. It would not do to make him think her displeasure was in any way directed at him. "I am glad you could reason with them so artfully, yet of course it is their loss that they would not take you up on your kind offer."

Both of them smiled at the quip, and, once again, she was startled as to how much the Jötunn's face changed because of that light show of amusement. Would Laufey's open malevolence soften similarly with the help of but a smile? Was he even capable of such an expression? Maybe he is, in the presence of his children, she thought, for Helblindi must have learned it from someone.

"In light of all of this I am even more grateful that you have given my son a much warmer welcome when he visited your realm." Much warmer and amiable than anyone had expected when the blue skinned king had demanded that his eldest would be the one to receive any messenger Asgard decided to send. Laufey himself would certainly have been an unpleasant host, and not one she would have subjected Baldr to, but Jötunheimr's first born prince was practically an unknown entity and therefore hard to predict. Just as opaque, as it had turned out, their own decisions had been. "I have heard, though, you were quite surprised by his arrival," she said, while suppressing a laugh as she remembering her son telling her the young man had looked as though he had seen a draugr when first he had greeted his visitor.

"It was unexpected, yes," came the rather gruff reply and for a moment there was something like irritation flittering across Helblindi's face that showed he was perchance not very fond of being thus caught off guard, yet when he went on speaking his tone had regained its earlier levity. "He was, however, so unerringly polite I would have been hard pressed not to respond in kind. I cannot recall ever having been met with such honest friendliness outside of my own home; it almost made me forget we are enemies." She could not help but feel proud of this high praise, even when he added rather wryly, "Which, I would guess, was your intent in sending him rather than someone more experienced in diplomacy."

Though he had said it as a statement the question underneath was quite obvious, one he had already put before her son - a question about motivations, which were not near as sinister as the prince most likely assumed.

"Naturally we thought it best to put the task to one who would not see it as a chore but as a chance for peaceful communication between our two peoples." And there were very few Frigga could name who would have been able to keep the peace in this situation, even among those who oftimes negotiated with other realms in Asgard's name. Not after the incident at her eldest' coronation.

That had not been the only reason, however, and not the one which had convinced her of this choice in the end. "And the matters discussed were, after all, quite personal and therefore not lightly entrusted to just anyone." The rumours were ripe already, of what was happening to Thor on Midgard, even without an inebriated ambassador regaling an attentive audience in one of the many mead halls with the actual account. Baldr was not, by nature, a secretive boy but he had made it quite clear that he would disrespect neither his brother nor the foreign prince by sharing the lows and joys of their banishment, as though they were mere figures in a play.

That argument, it seemed, rang true with Helblindi, as well. With a nod, that now clearly represented a bow, he said, "Now, I must say I was rather grateful to your son for respecting Loki's privacy, but"-and here he leaned forward as though he were about to impart an important secret-"if I may ask, why take such a risk? I could see your husband doing this as a clever diplomatic gesture but mothers, in my experience, are usually much too protective of their offspring too use them as a political tool. If my king, for instance, decided to sent my youngest brother as an envoy to our enemies, the general would flay him alive."

Frigga knew not whether to be amused by the way the young man addressed Odin as just "your husband" or horrified by the cavalier depiction of a slighted mother's bloody revenge.

General Fárbauti was only ever spoken about in whispers, even amongst the more hardened veterans; a man not known by his appearance - though he was reportedly tall even for a giant - or by his political prowess - for in Jötunheimr a king's consort was only his companion and not a ruling figure - but for his very brutal, skilful swordsmanship. He had entered the war late, had indeed not accompanied Laufey on his conquest of Midgard, yet many Aesir had fallen to his wicked blade and more had been left alive but short a limb. She had a hard time imagining the man as a caring mother, although, as it was with wolves or bears, maybe one need not be gentle to be watchful of one's children.

And as the mother to an oftimes reckless warrior Frigga knew what it meant to feel protective, even of one who could usually protect himself. For that very reason her answer was not satisfying even to her own ears. "It did turn out well, did it not? And while it was certainly not required of you, you swore he would not come to harm. What reason, then, had I to object to his visit?"

As could be expected Helblindi frowned deeply in disbelief, his tone that of one who, while choosing his words, tried to solve a intricate puzzle put before him. "But you did not know I would do so; in fact, it was rather careless of you not to demand I do something similar beforehand. Whyever would you put your own little boy in such danger? Unless, of course, you did not. Oh, this... this is good."

The smile that crossed the man's face was less a sign of mirth and more a feral grin and for the first time his voice was touched by anger, "A masterpiece of deception. How foolish you must have thought me; there I was swearing upon my life to not mar a hair on your little prince's head, when all the while he was not near as vulnerable as he seemed." He shook his head slowly as though in mock of himself, then raised it to look her straight in the eye; a stare so cold it, for the first time, marked his relation to Laufey. "Now I am curious, really, what was it? An amulet around his neck? A few runes carefully stitched into his garments? An enchantment of his very skin? Not that I am in expert in these sorts of matters but Loki would surely wish to know the details once I tell him how I was tricked."

The politically sound answer would have been to deny any and all duplicity; in fact, she was sure it was the very course Odin would have taken. Were it the prince's father sitting opposite her it would also have been her own tactic, but during this conversation there was something very important the queen had learned about her visitor. Prince Loki, the Jötunn's troublesome younger brother, was renowned among the realms as the Silvertongue, but though it certainly ascribed a talent with words to him, it also indicated that his wit - like many things crafted of the shining metal - was sharp and dangerous. In case of Helblindi, however, unlike his brother's artful prose his blunt words were not used with an intent to wound, they were merely his honest opinion. The least he was owned for that, she thought, was the same frankness.

"Can you fault me? Whether sending him was a good choice or not, Baldr is still only a child and it eased my heart to know he could not come to harm no matter the greeting he might have received in Jötunheimr."

The loudly rumbled "Finally!" was almost enough to make her flinch though it had sounded joyous instead of threatening. In a much calmer, lower voice he added, "Finally, a bit of honesty. I guess I ought to thank you for that, Your Grace, though it does rather defeat the gesture of confidence in our so very sacred truce your husband had attempted to convey, does it not?"

"Are you accusing us of manipulating you?"

"Oh no, nothing so unpleasant; sway us to more peaceful thoughts, perhaps. For you see, it is a nice idea, this trust between our people, but the last time so much as an inkling of that existed even the Allfather had not yet been born." And there it was, the reason he had been calling Odin "your husband" as though he were just an afterthought to her own person - because he could not even voice the king's title without a healthy dose of disgust.

Why did she have the feeling this whole conversation was one wrong word away from turning into a debacle? Thousands of years of diplomatic meetings should have prepared her better for such a shift in mood but, to be honest, the queen felt at a loss when she attempted to contemplate what had gone awry. "Are you saying I ought not have trusted your oath, then?" she said, not even trying to mask her own shock at the mere idea. 

"No, of course not; my people do have a sense of honour, not dissimilar to yours. But why would you take my word for that, when in your eyes we are nought but monsters? When we are 'the giants who can smell her fear and the pumping of the warm heart they hear, as she dashes madly through the wood. She runs and runs, the little girl with the red hood.'"

Unsure whether to be disgusted or confused by this impromptu rendition of a poem Frigga merely sighed and prepared herself for an angry triad on the unfair treatment of the Jötnar which, to her surprise, did not follow. In fact, the young prince appeared to be highly amused.

"A lovely ode, is it not? One of my favourites, really. 'Tis part of a collection my dear brother gifted to me once, a volume of Asgardian children's tales; maybe not fitting to lull the little ones to sleep but certainly to put the fear of consequences into them, should they chose to disobey their elders. This one ends with the villains dragging the little girl into a cave where they promptly decide to boil her flesh in a pot of soup, which I always thought was the most offensive part; we Frost Giants do not eat cooked meat, after all."   

When Frigga had been very young, barely out of the nursery, really, Asgard had gone to war with Svartálfheimr. She could not personally remember a moment of it but she had subsequently grown up with tales of the evil, renegade elves who had wanted to destroy the whole of Yggdrasil. No one questioned the foulness of these creatures, even now, nor the valour of the brave Aesir warriors who had put an end to them. And it was easy, much too easy, to reduce an entire race of enemies to villains in a gruesome anecdote if said race was no longer alive to defend itself. It was another matter when a member of these supposed villains sat before you speaking of prejudices which could easily be refuted by a visit to his realm. Prejudices which nonetheless existed, she knew. Though surely that was true for both sides.

"Now, I will not insult you by pretending that I am a stranger to such tales, yet you should know I have never supported them nor read any such drivel to my own children. Whatever precautions I had taken to protect Baldr from injury, none of them were applied to prevent him from being eaten."

What would never have been possible with any other noble, would actually have led to many an affronted look, worked wonders on the first prince of Jötunheimr. It seemed he reacted the same way to bold speech as he did to handing it out himself; he smiled and his eyes lost any trace of coldness; as abruptly as it had appeared the tension in the room had vanished.

"Well, I am glad to hear that, and I have no doubt in that regard; your little son, after all, had not seemed afraid in the slightest, even when there were no guards to shield him. And it was admittedly rather petty of me to mention this in the first place, it is just..."-for a moment he appeared to search for the right word; he leaned back in the chair, rested his head on steepled fingers-"If it is not mistrust of me or dislike of my people, then why, pray tell, are we here and not on Jötunheimr? And what is it you wanted to tell me that your son can not?"

Only a day, nay an hour, ago Frigga would have been hard pressed to give an honest answer to this question, but if there was one thing she understood about this man now it was that he valued the truth more than politeness, in himself and others. It was both refreshing and disconcerting for the queen, who had been taught to dance around uncomfortable matters, to appease ruffled tempers, to put tact before sincerity. But a true shield-maiden was never too old to learn new tactics.

"To be frank, Prince Helblindi, I simply wanted to meet you. My son had spoken very highly of you after your first encounter and while he is very rarely wrong in his assessment of another's character, I wished for the chance to form my own opinion."

"And what do you think now, of my character, Frigga Queen?"

If ever there was a challenge more bluntly put forth or as riddled with danger as this one, she had not heard of it. Strangely, it was also the easiest question, yet, for her to answer.

"I think you are a good man, but a poor diplomat."

Now his laughter rang throughout the room, his whole body shook with it and when he spoke up once more he sounded genuinely delighted. "Oh, you have found my weakness, I fear. Many say I have the heart of a soldier and the mouth to match it. Please do not think I have not been taught better, but it seems my weapon will forever be the sword and not the word."

"That is not a weakness, I believe, for you are a soldier, but it might be necessary to learn once you are king." Which was not such an unpleasant prospect as it would have been before she met him. And, honestly, some of the stuffy, old dignitaries could only profit from a little bit more outspokenness.

A small chuckle and a nod was her answer and then, "Ancestors willing, that day is long in the future and you never know, maybe I will leave the throne to Loki, after all. He is certainly the better statesman." Her own face must have betrayed her feelings on such a proposal, for he quickly added, "Oh, never fear, that eventuality is - as amusing as it might be - highly unlikely. My brother has as much interest in the throne as you have in him gaining it. There is always Býleistr, but he already as his heart set on becoming the next Godi. No, you will have to make do with me, I am sorry to say. Maybe I can just pretend to be mute."

While she could not quite believe in the Trickster's unwillingness to be king, as that would give him much more freedom for his mischief, Frigga decided to reserve judgement on this until she personally met the young man herself. After all, she had been wrong about his elder brother, as well. Instead, she chose to steer the conversation back to safer waters and therefore to the actual reason for his visit. "I do not see it as quite so dire; perhaps all you are in need of is a little more practice, which you may acquire during all your subsequent meetings with my son."

Now the look she received was equal parts puzzled and wary, as though he were waiting for the outcome of a particularly vile jest. "Subsequent meetings?" he asked, brows set in the deep frown of clear disbelief.

All this talk of trust and truths and it was this simple question that revealed where she had gone wrong. She had thought him angry about the protections she had placed on Baldr because they were similar to a concealed weapon during a parley, not necessarily as dangerous but just as dishonest. But what might come closer to his actual feeling was disappointment. He may claim there was no trust between them but maybe, just maybe, he wished there to be, had actually liked what he now called a "clever diplomatic gesture". With him being the venerated soldier, it was surprising to find him hoping for peace, yet he had witnessed a war in the past, at an age even younger than Frigga's youngest child. Add to that his rather sanguine nature and it produced a man who would at least attempt to negotiate before he rushed into battle at the cost of his own or, at least, his kinsmen's lives. Which already made him a better candidate for kingship than either his brother or even her own eldest.

With gentle voice and sincere smile she, therefore, answered, "Certainly. It was never my intent to leave you without news of Prince Loki's life on Midgard or to bore you with a dispassionate, written report. As I said before, all I had wanted was to meet you in person and, having done so now, I can fully admit to agreeing with what Baldr said about you."

"Which would be what, precisely?"

"That you are neither frightening nor trying to be and that, despite your lack of refined manners, you are quite interesting to talk to." This time the prince's smile was a sweet, almost embarrassed thing, yet warm and, as everything else was about him, perfectly honest. Which was one aspect he had in common with his fellow prince.

"And now, I think, we should not further deprive my son of your company; he has been looking forward to your visit and happy that your audience with me would give him the chance to return your hospitality." With that said, Frigga rose from her chair and, after she motioned to the door to their right, so did he.

It was with no trepidation that the queen let the Jötunn visitor toward the adjacent receiving room, where she knew her son had been patiently waiting for the last hour. Yes, she had been worried about his safety before, if simply because he was himself still so very unconcerned about the dangers that littered the universe. But that just went to show that she had forgotten the most important aspect of diplomacy; that if you wanted to receive you had to be prepared to give, which held true for both trust and for peace.

She had to believe that her son would come to no harm. Neither of them. And she had to hope that there was a chance the truce would hold and that peace could be possible; if not for their realms then at least between Thor and Loki. Even though neither of them showed any sign of wanting it, yet. It would make her a very poor diplomat, after all, if she could not even believe in the wisdom of her king's decision.

Though, admittedly, there was one part of it she could not quite agree with, a part which could still ruin everything. Norns willing, the revelation of another 'trick' would merely lead to something as harmless as disappointment again; otherwise Captain Helblindi might yet get the chance to demonstrate how much better he was with a sword than with words.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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BO

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"The Americas, as the region is called by the natives, is a place of great contrasts; from the vast and mostly vacated north, which clime might remind one of the frozen mountains of Álfheimr, to the bustling, sweltering south it's lands offer a surprising amount of variations. And just as varied are its people. Rarely can one find such a multitude of tongues, beliefs and values as here, though it was only a scant few centuries past that the mortal seafarers themselves had mostly ignored this part of their realm after the initial settlement. Like the other regions from which it is separated by a large sea, the Americas, too, is divided into several smaller territories which is each headed by its own ruler [for a detailed description of the different Midgardian systems of government please consult Chapter 8 – The fall of royal families: The flaws and pitfalls of 'democracy']. When last visited the population counted about..."

Oh, it was no use. Only five pages in and he knew he would not find the information he was seeking, just as had been the case with the other volumes piled high on the side table to his right. Forsetadóttir had been his last hope for her writings were the most recent, but she, as well as all the others, simply focused on the wrong matters. What care had he for details of the native plant life or for all the different names Midgard had given to its bears? The animals, at least, would have been interesting, especially those which had no equal on the other realms, if he were reading about them casually, without purpose. But today Baldr was set on finding something specific, something, it seemed, no scholar could provide.

How, though, was he supposed to understand Thor's plight if all he had to base his assumptions on were the small moments that Heimdallr could glimpse with his superior sight?

Of course, the gatekeeper was always precise and he never refused to explain the exact look of a place of import or the appearance of a person who crossed his brother's path; in fact, he liked to think the elder Ás actually enjoyed to share his vision with an avid listener, for he had yet to find a limit to the other's patience, even after what must have been the hundredth request to describe the strange glass house and its residences.

Still, it was not enough, because no matter in how perfect a detail the accounts were given to him, they were told from an outside perspective. Just like the books, they could never really show him how it was like to live as a mortal. What made them happy or sad? What monsters did they fear and who were the heroes protecting them from harm? What games did they play when the work of day was done?  It was understandable to a point, this lack of knowledge in this area, for Midgard was not a destination for Bifröst travel anymore - neither for warrior's quests nor for the feasts the mortals had once held in his people's honour - but mostly it was frustrating. After all, if he knew so little about their lives he also knew very little about that of his older brother. 

How, then, was he supposed to keep hoping Thor would succeed in the task their father had set before him?

It had only been ten days, yes, but the uncertainty was gnawing at him as it never had done in the past when the other prince was away from Asgard. But always before there had been a certain purpose, valiant companions and an appointed time of return. Balder wished fervently that Father had warned the family of his plans for then, at least, they would have been prepared for a lengthily parting and he could have wished his brother farewell and good fortune.

As it was, all he could do as he sat there in the receiving room, that was big enough to house a whole battalion of foreign dignitaries and high enough up in the palace to provide a view of the entirety of Gladsheim, was wait and worry. And not just about Thor.

"...no need to worry. Patience is one of his strongest virtues. As long as I have returned by the end of the day he is not likely to make a move toward the whetstone." The voice that drifted from the doorway was deep and filled with obvious humour; the young prince recognised it immediately, as well as, or even more so, the second one answering it.

"He is not suspicious of our intent, then?" He had no idea what his mother was sounding so amused about, but it hinted at the audience having ended amicably, which he had not really doubted. The queen of Asgard had resolved many an argument among feuding nobles with her kind manner - or a stern talking to - and this particular noble man had already shown he wished them no ill.

"Oh, of course he is. But he is also confident in my strength. Even if I should find myself in mortal peril here, he will at least give me a chance to fight my own way out of it. My little brother, on the other hand, might pray for my soul even now; though, knowing him, he had already done so the moment I left Jötunheimr."

Well, this sounded not promising at all, wherefore, despite the levity with which both people spoke, Baldr turned toward them with nervousness, sure to see anger on at least one of their faces. What greeted him, however, were the usual gentle smile of his mother and a rather smug grin from the Jötunn prince.

"I see you have dispensed with the guards this time," the man said mirthfully, as though in private jest, addressing the queen. He had cleared the threshold now, was in the middle of the room in two long-legged strides. One hand gestured to the opposite entry which was closed and, indeed, not fringed on either side by sentries.

Again, Mother seemed to be charmed by the words that could have easily been taken as a threat. "Hm, I guess I will just have to trust you have not read all those tales to find inspiration."

At that odd and - seemingly only to him - confusing reply the older prince chuckled, then took one more step forward and bowed lightly. "Well met, Baldr Prince; I do hope we have not made you wait overly long. "

Only when he saw the man bow did he realise he was still sitting in one of the ornate, red cushioned chairs and not standing, as would have been proper the moment both the queen and her guest had entered. Rushing to his feet he nearly toppled over the stack of books at his right, ere he steadied it with an awkward, fumbling brush of his hand somewhere in the general direction.

Bowing himself he answered, "Prince Helblindi, I am very glad to see you once more. And, no, I did not mind the wait; it gave me more time to read." He gestured behind him to the now more or less straightened pile of leather bound volumes, that had before so frustrated him. They really had been a helpful diversion, if nothing else.

One of the Jötunn's hairless eyebrows rose in seeming surprise, the smug expression turned into an actual cheerful smile. "A studious youth, are you? That does you credit, indeed. Most your age would have to be smacked upside the head with one in order to recognise the substance of a good book."

The compliment pleased Baldr immensely, especially as he was not yet old enough to truly be called a "youth", and he was prepared to properly thank the other, but before he could do so his mother spoke up.

"I know only too well what you mean; if it was up to many a young warrior we might as well close all the libraries and turn them into interior sparring rings," she said, voice touched by mild disapproval that made him think such a suggestion had actually once been made to her and probably not just by any young warrior. "Fortunately, the Nine are not entirely bereft of those who wish to learn, which is also why you are here, is it not?" With these words she addressed the Jötunn, who only gave a short nod in response. "Good. Then I think I will take my leave; the two of you have much to talk of, after all."

Gathering her silvery skirts about her the queen made for the door but on second thought, it seemed, turned back towards the two princes. "Please remember what we spoke of earlier, my son," she said, both the tone of voice and look in her eyes displaying the gravity of the request. All he could do was nod and reply "Yes, Mother" with equal solemnity. The reminder was unnecessary, in truth, as there was little else he could think of, bedsides his worries for Thor, but thankfully he was not the only one to whom she chose to give advice.

"And, Prince Helblindi, if I could ask one favour?" The Jötunn in question rolled his eyes in clear annoyance but before he could object or give so much as a nod in permission she continued, "Please do not offer my son lessons in combat, for he is far cleverer than the guards."

With that rather obscure remark the queen really did depart, leaving behind her bewildered son, who was wondering what exactly had occurred during the prior audience, and a blue-skinned prince, who was grinning at him as though nothing could ruin his splendid mood.

And Baldr could only hope for that to be true.

Going to Jötunheimr had somehow been a less fearsome endeavour, in retrospect.

 

.........

 

"So, what fresh trouble have our dear brothers stumbled into these past few days?"

Even during their first meeting Baldr had found he rather enjoyed this directness that forwent all the usual niceties of court - of questions after the other's health or comments to the beauty of a person's garments - but it had the nasty habit of catching one off guard like a leaf covered root did the unwary foot. Consequently, he had barely sat down at the large, polished chestnut table after offering refreshments to his guest, who sat there with arms crossed and casually leaning back in his chair, before he was asked the question he most dreaded.

Could they not have started out with something easier, like a description of the Midgardian meals -which the young prince himself thought fascinatingly strange - or the towns current weather, which, admittedly, had changed very little over the days? No, it had to be "trouble" the Jötunn wanted to hear about, of which there had been plenty, but only for one of the brothers. Though he could begin with Thor, as Helblindi had asked after both of them, and hope to find a way to relay the other news tactfully.

"Well, Thor is still with the mortal scholars and I think he has made fast friends of them, as he should; they certainly seem very accepting and caring people. And they have done more than just given him shelter and food; he jests and laughs with them, he helps them in their chores and they, in turn, help him understand their world…"

"But?"

As focused as he was on recalling Heimdallr's account, all Baldr could answer this interruption with was "Hm?", but that was apparently enough of an invitation for the man opposite him to continue his inquiry.

"All of this sounds pleasant and yet you seem troubled. Has he fallen afoul of those men of the shield once more? Have Loki and he brawled anew? Was his mighty hammer turned into dust?"

That last question made him chuckle, despite the thoughts that weighed heavily on him. For a moment he considered whether to speak of this or not; after all, he was not sitting here with a friend nor a member of his family, but somehow that was actually the compelling aspect. Both his father and mother would reassure him, tell him everything would turn out well, and while that was nice to hear in and of itself, it was not always helpful. No, what he needed was one who could understand his concerns without directly dismissing them and who would be a better candidate for that than his fellow prince? The only one in the same situation as he, aside from Prince Býleistr whom he had yet to meet.

Taking a deep breath and one look at the older man's friendly smile, Baldr decided to just speak his mind. "I worry for him. He is in good health and treated well, but... but there has been no change to his mortality and he has yet to lift Mjölnir."

"Have you given up hope so soon? Surely ten days is not too long a time to fulfil such a momentous task?"

Oh, how to explain this without giving his brother's confidence away? But, on the other hand, if he was privy to Prince Loki's "troubles", maybe he had no right to keep secrets about Thor.

"You are right, of course, but I doubt he would agree. My brother has never been very patient and he…"-biting his lower lip the young Ás tried to find words for what he could merely speculate about, but eventually, not really comfortable with any of his choices, he just began again-"I fear, he is beginning to lose hope. Heimdallr said he has heard him ask our father for guidance more than once and he has made no further attempt at reclaiming Mjölnir. I know that if he wants to be forgiven he has to find the path himself, but he is not even walking in the right direction..."

"Ah, I see. You miss him." 

The one and only occasion that Baldr had met his brother's enemy had also been one of only a handful of times he had ever attempted to lie. Naturally, he had failed at it miserably, and not just because of the intended audience, as the Liesmith had mockingly made apparent. "You Odinsons are as easy to read as a book one has written himself while using only one-syllable words originating in the same tongue and not more complex than 'duck'." In fact, it was hardly a secret among those who knew him that he could not keep his emotions from openly showing on his face and he never put much care into hiding them, given that honesty was hardly a flaw in one's character, despite what a certain Jötunn might think.

Still, it was a tad embarrassing to be found out so effortlessly, by someone who had no known skills in that regard. Though, the stammering had probably helped.

His uneasiness at this turn of conversation must have been just as obvious to read for now Prince Helblindi carded one hand over his bald head, his smile turned a shade warmer and when he spoke his voice was oddly gentle for one as deep as a drum. "'Tis well, little prince, I understand. I, too, miss my brother." There was a huff, a shrug of shoulders and then a short, rather derisive laugh. "Oh, he would mock me for this, I know; after all, it is not as though the little fiend is rarely far from home. In truth, he had just returned from a three month journey to Álfheimr, where he did... I am probably better for not knowing what, before he decided it was a grant idea to test the breaking point of our two king's tolerance for his mischief."

His expression became stormy for just a moment, as though his own tolerance were close to breaking, as well. But after drawing one heavy breath and re-crossing his arms in front of his chest, he continued in a much lower, almost wistful tone, "Yet, what can I do? I miss him, all the same; it is far too quiet without him, more so now that the general has ceased shouting at everyone."

Quiet it was in Asgard as well, without the Thunderer - without his booming voice and boisterous manner - and Baldr was not the only one to think so, of that he was sure. More than once in the last ten days he had overheard the Warriors Three and Lady Sif speak of ways to bring their shield-companion back home and, though they tried to appear unconcerned when around him, their usual jovial banter was much subdued. He could only imagine, judging by the other's words, that the Jötunn prince's absence had a similar affect on his friends and family.

Though, they probably do not miss falling prey to his many tricks, he thought wryly.

What he said aloud, however, was, "At least you have another brother to keep you company" because that was something of which to be envious, especially when the dais, with its now only three occupants, felt so terribly empty.

"Hm, there is that, I suppose. Unfortunately, while he can be entertaining when you manage to drag him out of the temple for an hour, Býleistr is not what you would call 'optimistic'. At the moment, talking to him is akin to hearing the ravings of a soothsayer proclaiming the doom of Yggdrasil. He always makes it seem as though Loki were already dead and buried. Which, of course, he is not, right?"

If ever there was a question he should have just answered with a laugh or a clipped "Oh, no, he is well" it was this one, yet once again the Asgardian was simply too tongue tied. After all; if the Jötnar already assumed the worst when they had no notion of the goings-on on Midgard, then how would they react to what Heimdallr had seen? But he could not simply lie to the prince's face, could he? 

Apparently, the moment's hesitation was enough of a confirmation and while he had sounded light hearted when he spoke of the priest's bleak views, his mannerisms now made clear that Helblindi shared, at least, some of the youngest Laufeyson's fears. His broad hands were gripping the edges of his chair tight enough to make the wood creak, his eyes were hard as steel and the air around him became distinctly colder.

For the first time during their, admittedly short, acquaintance Baldr felt truly afraid of the Jötunn.

Luckily, what had embarrassed him before proved a blessing this time, as the other's anger visibly deflated once their eyes met. "Please, there is no need for this." He put one hand over his chest and was rubbing something invisible between his fingers, which was a confusing gesture until the Ás realised it was mimicking his own actions.

"I... uh..." Quickly he let go of the amulet around his neck that he had clutched without meaning to. Should he apologise for that? Ere he could make the attempt or even think of the right words, a deep chuckle made him look up from his now empty hands.

"Ha, I was right, after all. But truly, you have no cause to call on your little defence measure; I make it a habit not to punish the herald for the news he delivers, no matter how dire they might be. Just tell me true, what has happened to my brother that has you so nervous? Has he collected any more bruises from yours?"

"No, it was not Thor who attacked him this time!"

In one of the many languages the Alltounge gave them access to there was likely a way to phrase this more poorly, but at the moment Baldr could not think of one. With his mouth running away from him like this he might as well have started with 'Your brother called my father a bastard', which was true enough but really would not serve to be repeated. Argh, and Mother had warned him to be careful at this junction, had actually given him advice on how to deliver his report by making it sound positive, yet he could not help feeling foolish.

And very, very small.

At least he did, until his gloomy thoughts were interrupted by a gruff laugh, once more.

"Oh, the two of us make quite the pair, do we not? Here we are, aiming to better the understanding between our realms so that we may avoid a bloody war and they might as well have sent two peasants in our stead as much as we blunder at the art of poised conversation. But it hardly matters now. Just, for the love of Ymir, quit stalling and tell me: How fares my brother?"

There was no anger this time only a kind of sad desperation with which the red eyes bore into his grey ones and Baldr could not help but to sympathise. This situation was already difficult enough for him and had to be even harder for the Jötnar because they had no one to ask after Loki's well being but him, and he could just decide to keep mum, or lie, or withhold information. Father had thought so, as well, and he and the queen had had a lengthily debate about whether or not it would be prudent to not mention some of the incidences of the last few days on Midgard, but in the end he had been told to be as honest as possible while staying discreet.

He knew he had not really succeeded at the latter part but he could make up for it with the first, which was why he simply began his account without further delay and without any more interruptions.

The other prince's face was near as expressive as his own and in it he could read worry at Loki's continued frugal life on the rooftops of the small town's houses, pride when he heard how the archer had been so easily dispatched, and there had been a distinct crack of wood splintering as they reached the moment when the men of shield had taken the younger Jötunn captive. It was a relief to the both of them that he could state this captivity had not lasted long and all Helblindi said to the negotiations between his brother and the Son of Coul was "Of course, the rascal talked his way out! Whyever did I doubt him?".

If only he could have closed his report on this pleasant note, but lying was not to his strength, not even by omission. So his worry increased when the elder prince asked him, with obvious confusion in his voice, "Your family thought this little upset ground enough to magically guard you from me? What, they feared I would tear you limb from limb because my brother became the temporary prisoner of a band of mortal soldiers, who attempted to interrogate him about himself only for him to turn it into a lesson on your brother's darling hammer? I will have you know, I am not known for irrational outbursts of anger, and that surely would be irrational."

This time the activation of his amulet was entirely deliberate, although it would of course alert the other to his nervousness, again. Rather clumsily Baldr tried, therefore, to hide the gesture of his hands by lowering his head and looking at the polished surface of the table, then he took a deep breath and replied, in a voice most likely too low for anyone but a Jötunn to hear, "Well, it might be, but that was not all."

He had no notion of how Helblindi reacted to that for he was still not meeting the crimson eyes but rather studying the swirling patterns of a long dead tree, and there was no sound other than his own too thundering heartbeat. Or so it seemed. After what could easily have been hours, but what had more likely been a few moments, the silence became too stifling to bear, causing him to fidget in his seat and to clutch the charm ever tighter in his left hand, now more out of a need for distraction than outright fear.

Maybe he had spoken too quietly, even for the ears of a giant, he thought, and prepared himself to repeat his earlier words at a higher volume, but just then he felt and heard something heavy slam onto the table, with enough force to shake the board and the chairs all around it. Including the one on which Baldr was seated.

Daring a furtive glance at the prince opposite him he saw one large blue hand was digging its nails into the dark chestnut patterns of the abused furnishing while the second was massaging a bald blue head. The growl that followed sounded more like Father after an unusually long and ardours council meeting than the noise a beast would make the instant before it snapped its teeth around its prey's ankle, but it was not any less intimidating for it.

"Seven days. It has been seven days since last we met, what other ruckus could Loki have possibly caused in such short a while? I swear, there are times I think he is doing these things just to gall me."

Huh. So it appeared the anger was not at all directed at him but at the man's brother, which was a relief even though he knew himself to be safe from any "irrational outbursts".

Baldr had suggested he take up the task of messenger to Jötunheimr because he had been curious about the other realm but also, and most importantly, because he had felt bad for Prince Loki when he heard the ambassadors speak about him on the day they had assembled in the throne room at the king's behest. He had known, of course, that the Trickster was not very well liked among the Nine, especially not in Asgard, but the way they had sneered at the title of 'Laufeyson' and called him a villain so openly had quite decided for him that none of them should be sent to Jötunheimr. It was unfair, after all, to pretend that the Jötunn was the only one who had done wrong, when both he and Thor had broken the truce, on the same day, no less. Naturally, his parents had been concerned this task would put him in danger, but as he had managed to convince them otherwise - and agreed to wear a shield charm, just in case - he was quite determined to prove his arguments true. Helblindi throwing a table through the room in a fit of rage would probably not help with that.

Still, it was not exactly fair, either, to reprove the banished prince for some further misdeed on Midgard, considering all he really had done was break a glass wall.

"Um, it is... he has not... It is not that your brother has caused trouble, exactly. He just reacted very badly to finding out he could no longer shape shift and then cut his hands on glass and..."

"What?" The question was shouted so loudly, the young Ás was surprised it had not alerted any nearby guards, and again the table rattled as a giant fist slammed into it.

Biting his lip he made the attempt to explain, this time putting more care into not stammering his words as though he were to be executed should he chose a wrong one, "Well, you see, there was this house with glass filled windows and he..."

"No, no, no, no." Helblindi interjected; each 'no' punctuated by long, black nails beating a drum on the wood beneath them. Then the man took a deep breath through gritted teeth; an action likely done to compose himself, yet which made him appear a dragon close to emitting a burst of fire, nicely contrasting the ice in his voice when he asked, "That is irrelevant right now. What I wish to know is the meaning of 'he could no longer shape shift'? Are the mortals more powerful than I had realised or have I missed something of import here?"

For what felt to be the hundredth time this day Baldr was confused. It was as though reading a book upside-down so he was able to see the runes but had to concentrate in piecing the words together to form a coherent tale. Like the Jötunn seated across from him, he wondered whether he had missed some kind of information or simply misunderstood it. Outright asking for clarification seemed perilous, as he could not know what would happen if he really was mistaken about the agreement between the two kings, but it was also the only way for him to make sense of matters.

Fiddling once more with the pendant and bracing himself for another shout, he asked, "You do know that your brother's seidr has been taken, do you not?"

Contrary to his expectations all Helblindi did was frown deeply and then he replied, in a tone used by every tutor throughout the realms when faced with a terribly slow-witted student, "And? You do know that shapeshifting is not seidr, do you not? Otherwise how would anyone of my kinsmen aside from Loki do it? Jötunheimr, as you may have heard, is not exactly overrun by herds of mages. It is a natural ability, little prince, not a magic trick."

Huh. He had never thought of it like that, although he was aware that some people were born with abilities they did not have to work for - like Thor and his affinity for lighting that required a conduit, which he had found in Mjölnir, but had never necessitated any thorough study of spells.

Yet this did not explain why mentioning his brother's loss of this particular ability would anger the elder prince so much. "But your father has agreed to have Loki's powers removed; he must have known it would include shapeshifting," he said, therefore, still convinced this was just a misunderstanding.

"Oh, he was most likely aware, yes. But I was not and neither, it seems, was Loki. And you are surprised he reacted violently to this revelation? I am actually amazed that he has not yet razed the little town to the ground, magic or no. He, unlike me, is rather famous for letting everyone around him feel his fury. And he has an unhealthy appreciation for fire."

That last part was said accompanied by a grin, yet it left the impression of a threat, as did the Jötunn's every mannerism. He was leaning back against the high chair, hands entwined on the table so tightly as though he had to restrain himself from grabbing a weapon and his eyes blazed such deep a red, it looked like they were glowing from within.

By the Norns, Baldr could not comprehend this sudden anger. Yes, it was probably not a nice feeling to be bereft of a skill one had always possessed, but given that the kings' punishment had already involved the loss of magic and being turned mortal, it should not have been such a burden. It was not as though turning into another form would have given Prince Loki an advantage over Thor in a fight, and he said as much to the Jötunn, whose temper just seemed to flare even more at this.

"Does everything have to be about battle with you Aesir? Fine; let me explain it in terms you might understand. Imagine you are a mighty warrior, superior to all others on the field. But then, one day, you awaken to find you no longer know how to speak. 'Tis not a skill needed in a fight, it does not lessen your talents with the sword or axe in the least. So, does this mean you dismiss the loss, irrelevant as it is to your general life? Or would you rather avenge yourself on the one who had crippled you thus?"

Avenge? Now, that was a troubling thought, especially with Thor on Midgard and vulnerable to anything the slighted Jötunn might plan. To say nothing of how this might affect Father's attempts to prevent a war with the other realm, as their eldest prince and captain of their army was so obviously enraged by what had been done.

Enraged enough, it seemed, to decide he could not stay another moment in a room with an enemy.

Accompanied by the noise of wood scratching over marble, Helblindi shoved his chair away almost gently, then stood there stiffly, like the Einherjar guarding many of the palace's doors, and addressed the younger prince formally, "If you have nothing else to report, I should return home. I have already stayed away far longer than intended and there are duties that need seeing to." He remained standing there a moment to give the other a chance to add to his tale, but when no more was forthcoming he dipped his head in a short bow and turned to leave the room.

It all happened so fast that the Jötunn had already reached the door ere Baldr could react.

"Wait!" he yelled after his guest, not sure what it was he wanted the man to wait for, but unwilling to let their conversation end so disastrously. The request was repeated when he saw the blue hand turn the door handle as though he had not spoken at all. "Please, wait!"

It was a relief when the other turned back toward him, at least until the inquisitive look put him on the spot and he had to think up something to say. How could he safe this situation, though? Ultimately he decided to stop worrying so much and simply asked the first question that came to mind, which, for that reason, was far bolder than his wont and far from tactful. "Can you shift, as well? Would you show me?"

Red eyes bore into him for a moment, perhaps looking for a sign that this was a trick or a silly jest, but whatever they found instead effected his face as a sudden shower of rain would a dusty desert. Gone was the anger and the cold, in both his features and the air surrounding him; in their place was the smile with which Baldr had been greeted at the beginning of this meeting; one that turned him from the monster of countless chilling tales into a kind and good-humoured elder brother. It was a change drastic enough to be seen as a feat of shapeshifting on its own.

"You are a curious lad, indeed," Helblindi said at last, in a manner that showed he was not bothered by the, admittedly strange, request. In fact, when he leaned back against the closed door, arms loosely crossed in front of his chest, he seemed quite amused. "You wish for a demonstration, then? Hm, let me see... I must warn you, though, my skill at it is not very impressive. Loki would claim I lack imagination, but unlike him I simply never had the need to change into a strange new animal every other hour in order to escape maddened enemy soldiers chasing me through the realms."

While he spoke the Jötunn kept his eyes closed, and Baldr prepared himself for a burst of bright light or a loud crack in the air which often accompanied a mage's spell work, but what happened was not anything as notable. At least, not at first.

The prince's skin remained the same dark blue colour, his head was still entirely bald and when he opened them again his eyes were no different than before. But as one his whole body began to ripple, like a deep pool of water hit by a stone, and when it solidified again the change was impossible to miss.

The term "Frost Giant" was not a particularly polite name for Jötunheimr's people - though it was more wildly used by the other realms than the one they had given themselves - but usually it fit them well. The person standing in front of the young Ás, however, was not even close to gigantic, but actually seemed near to Baldr's own height. If this could not be called impressive, then he really hoped for a chance to see the Trickster's shifting one day. I wonder what sort of animals he can turn into, he thought, already contemplating how to go about asking for such a thing from the more prickly Jötunn.

"I used to do this regularly in my youth, when my brothers were still little boys. It was easier to play with them that way," Helblindi explained, almost wistfully, his voice not any less deep even though he appeared a child.

That honestly surprised the younger prince for there seemed to be a more sensible solution to this, from the eyes of a giant, at least.

"Why did they not just change to your height?" he asked, therefore, not even trying to hide his confusion. In fact, he wondered why Loki in particular did not do so all the time, to better fight his enemies. Surely it was a far greater advantage than to just change his looks to that of an Asgardian, as he had done many times before, to Thor's chagrin.

"Why should they? There is no shame in being born small, is there?" the captain calmly replied, pointedly straitening up his now much shorter body which brought him eye to eye with the other prince.

Now, there was a fine line between being impolite and being insulting, and Baldr had definitely crossed it without even trying, certainly without meaning to. Embarrassment was making itself known as a dark flush on his cheeks and he fervently wished that he had not halted the visitor's departure. Or that Mother would arrive and save him from making a complete fool of himself.

Why had this been easier on Jötunheimr when, by any and all logic, it was there he should have been afraid and intimidated? It was his safety that had concerned his family when he had been given the protection charm, but maybe they should have thought to guard his tongue, as well.

Utterly flustered and unable to look up from his boots he rushed out his apology. "I am so sorry, that was cruel of me to ask. Of course you are right; there is nothing wrong with not being a, well, a giant. I mean, with not being tall or as tall as you or..." Argh, this was impossible. No wonder Thor preferred to throw Mjölnir at his enemies; it had to be simpler than talking to them.

"Hm, I am glad we agree. But now-," the sonorous voice interjected before the body it belonged to rippled once more to shift into its previous height, "-I really must be going. As I said, there are duties I cannot delay any longer and it seems I will need to speak to both my king and general." The unhappy set to his mouth showed he was not looking forward to either conversation, which was confirmed by his next words, spoken almost sheepishly, "I guess it is my own fault for complaining the palace was too quiet. Good day, Baldr Prince."

The bow this time was a clipped, barely there gesture, and there was only enough time for the younger prince to echo it to the other's already turned back, before the door was opened none too gently and the Jötunn marched out of the room, even faster than he had entered.

Was there a way this could have ended worse? Possibly. At least the furnishings were still mostly intact and no blood had been spilled, yet when Mother had warned him that these days' news would not be well received she had most likely not expected a threat of burning towns from the visitor and insensitive remarks on his part. Truly, even a dwarven forged war hammer could not have made more damage.

Maybe he should leave the next report to one of the ambassadors.

Or, at least, pray to the Norns that Loki Laufeyson stayed out of trouble for a little while. And far away from Thor.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

………

JF

………

 

"…OK, OK, I get that he can see literally everything, but that still doesn't explain how he can know where to send you. The speed of light has to limit how he perceives things; I mean, he can't possibly see all the stars and planets in real time. What if the place he aims for no longer exists or has moved just a fraction? Would you end up drifting through space or would the bridge just not engage? And how does he manage to hold a wormhole open for so long, anyway? The sheer amount of exotic matter required has to be astronomical, if you use the bridge as frequently as we do a subway. Of course, that's only important if we actually live in the same universe, which you said we do, because Yggdrasil is this unified entity and…

"Jane!"

A hand waving in front of her face and the repeated call of her name interrupted her train of thoughts, and the even faster train of questions.

Erik's chuckle sounded rather forced as he patted her arm, though why he of all people was trying to curb her enthusiasm she couldn't even guess. "Jane, slow down; I think you've lost even me halfway through. Maybe we should take a break, hm?"

Feeling like a kid stepping off a roller coaster, she waited for her heartbeat to level out, took a deep breath and then looked up from her notebook and right into a pair of ridiculously blue eyes. Eyes which, at the moment, managed to look both confused and heartbreakingly sad. Huh, when exactly had she run over his puppy? He had seemed so happy to help in their research only a few minutes ago, or was it closer to an hour?

As though answering her unasked question, there came a loud clangor from the kitchen, followed a moment later by the ever shrill and ever cheerful voice of her intern. "Thor, buddy, move your pretty alien butt and let's get dinner ready!"

Jane would have felt insulted by the relief that suddenly crossed said alien's face, if it were not for the smile that accompanied it. He really did have a nice smile. And it seemed to have almost disappeared in the last few days, giving way for leaden sighs, long silences and well, kicked-puppy eyes. If she didn't know better, she would think he was depressed. Could Norse gods even get depressed?

"I am sorry," Thor told her solemnly, and, yes, the smile was gone again. "I should...", he continued with slight nod toward the other side of the big room where Darcy was already loudly chopping up vegetables. "I wish I could be of more help to you, but this... a warrior has no need for such knowledge and it is certainly not anything I ever would have thought to ask the gatekeeper about. I really am sorry."

Damn, if that wasn't the face of a man who thought he'd failed his kin and fatherland. And all that just because he couldn't provide her with information on space travel technology. Who would have guessed she could ever hold such sway over a tall, blond man with the build and personality of a football player?  It was like a very Freaky-Friday version of high school.

The reminder of those days actually made her feel bad for him and it occurred to her that she really should make clear that helping to prove an almost eighty year old theory true was not a requirement for his stay here. Jane could be terribly single minded, admittedly, but even she wouldn't just throw the poor guy out onto the street like that. After all, she had let her intern stay even when it had become pretty clear the other women had no clue about astrophysics. Or tact.

As it was, she would have gladly reassured him that what he had already given her was fine - though, of course, there were still a thousand things left uncovered - but he'd turned around and walked towards the kitchen before she'd had even the chance to open her mouth. Ugh, and to think it had all started so well this morning.

The four of them had been sitting around the breakfast table, munching on surprisingly tasty plates of omelets, listening to the riveting tale of Darcy Lewis vs. "the examiner of jerk-town" who had, according to her, been the only reason she had failed to get her driver's license. Three times. They had all laughed at her rather vivid descriptions of the gray suited, bespectacled man almost wetting himself when she'd managed to parallel-park her car between an ambulance and a limousine, loudest of them Thor, at least until he was leveled with an evil glare and an egg filled fork at his chest.

"You, mister, have no right to laugh. I bet you never had to test for anything. Or do they give out licenses in horseback riding in Vikingland?"

It really showed how much time the two of them had been spending together that he'd seemed neither offended nor puzzled by the intern's question; instead, the blond had just shrugged and answered her, good naturedly. "Well, no. Most of us learn how to ride a horse when we are still very young, and any dreadful rider is simply thrown off until he has mastered the skill. Skiffs, on the other hand, they do need training and one is only allowed to fly one after a lengthily trial, quite similar to your driving experience. Volstagg's eldest just passed his the year prior, although Hildegund is still insistent that he not fly one on his own."

What followed that bombshell was a rather confusing game of back-and-forth translations until they'd cleared up that what Thor called a "skiff" was literally a space ship. Though, as he explained it, the things usually weren't used to travel to other planets but to quickly move around Asgard. So more like a small private airplane. Without seat-belts or a roof. This had led the conversation to Thor's own experiences as a pilot, especially his first one, which he had admitted, he'd undergone without his parents' permission and only survived because Heimdallr had been watching the right part of the kingdom at the right time and had therefore been able to send someone to save the young prince from crashing into a mountain.

At the mention of Heimdallr - Asgard's one-man version of Big Brother - Jane's ears had perked up because, as she had learned earlier, the guy was the one who operated the Bifröst. So the astrophysicist took the opportunity of the broached subject and the blond's good mood to ask about the gatekeeper's abilities, a question he had seemed only to eager to answer and before she knew it they were discussing places he had traveled to and how easily the bridge could send him to and fro. Until her science babble had, once again, left him speechless. And unusually despondent.

"Maybe I should learn to breath between sentences," she wondered aloud while tapping a stub of a pencil on her notebook, which had not gained any more scientifically useful notes since the day of the storm.

"Or he really isn't the right person to ask about this," came the unexpected reply and only then did she realize that Erik was still sitting at the table with her, a legal pad in his hands which, she knew, held more notes on myth than science. "I mean, why would the God of Thunder know how to work time and space in order to travel across the universe? According to the Eddas he's known more for eh… heavy lifting than heavy thinking." Despite his light tone, the professor looked over his shoulder with obvious nervousness, as though he were afraid he'd been overheard. The nervousness around Thor was hardly knew but something else was.

"Wait a minute, Erik, are you telling me you finally believe him about being an actual god?"

There had been "maybes" and "what ifs" before, and no small amount of speculation around the lab table ever since she'd shown him the World Tree drawing, but still he seemed to be almost desperate to prove it was all a sham. Jane, on the other hand, had tried to cram as much information about the old Norse religion into her brain, and then had, not so subtly, quizzed Thor about his family and home. The blond's answers had been so rich in detail and given without a second of hesitation, that to her they were left with only two possibilities: Either he was a crazily obsessed, unusually buff historian or simply who he said he was.

She couldn't really think of him as a 'god' herself but, as Darcy had put it, that simply came down to a cultural misunderstanding of primitive humans worshiping what to them must have seemed awfully superior beings. Unfortunately, not even that rational argument had seemed to be able to convince her old mentor. At least, not until today.

"Yes, I do."

Huh.

"Any reason why?" She really was curious because Erik was a scientist of the more cautious school of thought, one who carefully weighed every aspect of a theory - for several years - and only accepted it as truth once he had the numbers to prove it. And the change of his opinion on Thor was much too drastic to be normal for him. Not that he was acting in any way normal.

Leaning forward so much that he was almost half way over the table and whispering quietly enough it was closer to just mouthing the words he said, "I met Loki yesterday."

OK, that at least explained why he'd returned so late from his trip to the library or why he'd come back without the usual pile of books. What made no sense, however, was that he hadn't told her of this before.

"You've met Loki? Why didn't you…"

"Jane! Not so loud!" It was a further sign of how much this whole situation was rattling his nerves that she could actually see his hands trembling as he pressed a finger to his mouth to shush her. In a quick, twitchy movement of his head he looked again behind himself and to the direction of the kitchen where - judging from the aroma in the air - the two chefs where cooking a pot of curry, both of them far to occupied with their task to care for the conversation going on in the lab. And even if they, or better he, had heard them, what did it matter? It was not as if the mere mention of Loki would cause their blond alien friend to bring the house down. Although he could be a bit irrational where the other god was concerned. Speaking of irrational...

"I'll explain but not here. Let's go outside." Still whispering and with a nod toward the door the older scientist got to his feet, slowly, wearily and Jane really didn't have the heart to argue with him. He's still not sleeping well, she realized as she took a closer look at her friend, the heavy bags under his eyes, the unkempt hair, the unshaven stubble of his gray beard. He was the picture perfect of 'I'm getting too old for this.' 

So instead of the protests she'd wanted to make at the absurdity of having to leave the room for a simple talk, she just gave her own nod toward the ceiling, indicating they could head to the roof. Erik seemed satisfied enough with that, though he didn't speak another word until they were actually sitting across from each other in the lawn chairs, neither of them comfortable or relaxed enough to lean back and study the sky above as they usually did up here.

And when he finally told her of his encounter the evening before it drove almost any thought of the stars out of the astrophysicist's mind, for once.

Not only had Loki been making short work of a shop window with his bare fists when the professor had found him, but he'd also been in a bad state, both physically and mentally. And to think Jane had already pegged him as unhinged when they'd first met.

"You should have seen him, Jane. He really looked a mess; I just had to help him. And he let me, which was even stranger. I have a feeling he wouldn't have done that had he been in his right mind. " 

Which did support her opinion of the brunet but still didn't answer the question of why he had suddenly been upgraded from 'conman' to 'god'.

Erik, unfortunately, didn't appear to be in a hurry to elaborate on that any time soon; instead, he wrung his hands in a clear sign of worry and his voice took on that concerned-father quality he used when telling her about A+ students who would fail his class because of 'personal problems'.  He'd always had such a soft spot for troubled kids. And gods, it seemed.

"I wish he hadn't just left after I was done with the first aid; he wouldn't even tell me who attacked him. Not that there are that many options."

"You think Shield got to him?"

It was a disconcerting thought, even if a part of her - the little mean one that couldn't help but snicker when scrolling through the list of Darwin Awards - thought Loki deserved a bit of rough handling from the agents after he had laughed himself silly at the news of Thor's arrest. But really, no one should have that shady government organization at their heels, especially not an alien who most likely had no idea about the basic human rights they were ignoring or how to ask for a lawyer before answering their questions.

And, if her friend's account was to be believed they hadn't asked very nicely.

"I assume so, yes, but that's not all. Oh, I've no clue how to describe this", he said, then carded an unsteady hand through his already tussled hair and blew out a long breath of air like a heavy smoker. His gaze, when he continued, was very far away. "There was something wrong with him; he seemed diminished somehow. It was like his spirit was broken. He kept saying that he couldn't 'make it right' and whatever 'it' was, it apparently meant a great deal to him. It's just... he looked scared."

Scared of what, exactly? Certainly not of a gray-haired, soft spoken university professor. The agents, maybe? Or a certain thunder god?

Oh.

"Is that why you didn't wanna talk in the lab? Do you seriously think Thor would... hurt him while he's like this?"

Again, she saw the sweet, cheerful smile in front of her mind's eye and that image clashed so very drastically with that of a brute beating up an already broken man, it made a shudder run through her body. But hadn't he already done something very similar only two weeks ago? And hadn't she seen the hatred on his face every time the other god's existence was even so much as hinted at? Besides, if she was ready to accept that the two really were gods, or at least very powerful aliens, then she also had to consider that their lifelong animosity wasn't just a simple rivalry between opposing baseball fans. This was serious.

Erik just nodded, huffed again, then he gazed upward at the darkening sky before his eyes finally met hers. "You read the legends, Jane; whenever these two clash they tend to leave chaos behind them and I have no idea what Thor would do if he found his enemy weakened or what Loki would do to defend himself. We can't let him know, we really can't." And he sounded so placating, as though he had to try hard to convince her.

She didn't need much convincing, though, because she was sure he was absolutely right.

"No, we can't, but Erik, that still doesn't explain why you no longer claim they are nut jobs. Did Loki do anything unusual? Did he... turn you into a toad or... make it rain... or something?"

"No, he just... Damn, this is going to sound silly, but when he looked at me he suddenly seemed as old as the Eddas make him out to be. Ancient, really."

It was an odd observation, but maybe not as weird as it would have been a few weeks ago, before she saw a glowing, electrical sand storm, crashed into a blond god and had the government steal her research equipment. Now all it did was make her think of the book in question and of how it had been written in the middle ages. If the stories in there really were about the man who was currently cooking dinner in her kitchen then that would make him several hundred or closer to a thousand years old. "Ancient" was probably not a bad word for it.

Jesus. In a way it had been easier to accept he was an alien.

Jane had never asked about his age or anything so mundane because the scientific aspect of having a traveler from outer space in front of her had mattered much more. Maybe she should have, though. Actually, she was surprised that Erik had never tried to do so.

"Why do you think they're here?" she asked, apropos of nothing because the thought kept nagging at her. It was an issue she had brought up with Thor before but all she'd gotten as a reply had been a shrug of shoulders and a terse "I have a task to fulfill", clearly meant to fend off further questions. But, with what she knew now or even just guessed at, it made no sense at all for them to be here, in this tiny New Mexican village where the most exciting thing that had ever happened to the inhabitants was their own sudden appearance. 

"Well, from what I could understand, he said he and his father had an argument and he was sent to Earth as a punishment. Not that I gave that much credence when he told me, given that we were both drunk and I had thought him... eh... insane, but if we are going to accept everything else he's said as truth, then that's what happened, I guess."

"He was sent here as punishment," she said, rather dumbfounded, trying her best to make it sound reasonable to her own ears. "Is that like the Asgardian version of being grounded? God, this is... Actually, it' s a bit insulting, isn't it? "

Seriously, who where these people that they treated this planet as their own personal dumping ground for unruly kids? And what did one have to do to be shipped off to another part of the universe? Leave dirty swords lying around? Get an F in dragon slaying 101? Steal dad's space ship for a joyride? And that rather uncomfortable revelation did nothing to explain the second alien who had literally fallen from the sky.  

As though reading her mind Erik went on to recount his conversation of the morning two weeks ago, when he'd attempted to out-drink a Norse god.

"He didn't say why Loki was sent with him, but I doubt either one of them is here voluntarily. What really bothers me in all of this is that it's such a callous move, for both sides. I mean, we - as in, we humans - aren’t exactly equipped to handle a pair of angry gods. And on the other hand, the two of them don't seem all that godly at the moment. What if Shield finds out who they are and decide the chance to experiment on real life aliens is too good to pass up? Or if Thor gets his hammer back and levels the whole town in his fight with Loki? It's just, this seems more like a punishment for Earth because we'll be the ones left to deal with the fallout."

Well, with thoughts like these it was no wonder that her friend had trouble sleeping, but she couldn’t deny that there was truth to them. It seemed too much to hope for that they would get help form Asgard if things went south or that the group of black-suited agents would just pack up and leave.

And it was far too late to simply abandon this project and the their blond guest right with it. No, that would mean giving up months of research and if there was one thing Jane Foster absolutely didn't do it was giving up. Besides, she was pretty sure she was already on every kind of government watch list and probably even on the no-fly list, so where was the point?

"What do we do now, Erik?" she asked, voice thin and wary, eyes fixed at the point on the horizon where she'd first seen the 'aurora' weeks ago.

It took the professor a moment to answer and when he did it was with no small hint of nervousness, "I think the best we can do is to keep Thor occupied enough that he won't go back to throwing punches and somehow keep Loki far, far away from us."

That last part was really more up to Loki, though, fortunately, it looked as if the brunet had no interest to get involved with any of them.

But Thor, well... Here's to hoping she wouldn't one day chase him out of the house because she'd asked another uncomfortable question and that cooking lessons with Darcy were as exciting as chasing after his enemy.

 

………

DL

………

 

"Do you have any threes?" she asked, eyes roaming over her unfinished sets, not sure which one to focus on next.

"Go fish," he replied, in that awkward way of his - reserved for complicated words and phrases like 'microwave', 'shopping cart' or 'human' - and then held out his cards to her in a perfect fan as though he'd done this a hundred times before. The more she got to know him the more she found him to be an absolute bundle of contradictions; it made her head spin, but not in an all together bad way.

She had come here to get enough science credits to finish her semester at college and had thought the best that could happen to her was that she might find an object in the sky that no one had mapped yet, which would subsequently be named after her. But even without a "Darcy star" under her belt she felt she'd lucked out. Like, a lot.

None of her fellow Culver poli-sci undergrads could possibly compete with meeting an alien prince in the desert. A very hot, very funny alien prince who was always up to her taking pictures of him with her cell, which alone would give her bragging rights for months to come among the other girls at her dorm.

A shame, really, that during his short stay she'd never managed to take a single selfie with Loki, but that was probably for the best. Something told her that the phone might have met the same unfortunate fate as her poor taser before she could have even attempted to explain the concept to tall, dark and stabby.

Thor, though, never seemed to have a problem with anything she suggested - be it weird recipes she'd found online that kept them busy in the kitchen for hours or classic TV-shows she spent more time explaining the meaning of to him than actually watching - on the contrary, he approached all of it with a childlike enthusiasm and no small amount of fervor.

At least, he usually did.

Today, while they'd been preparing an experimental version of chicken vindaloo the big blond had been zoned out to the point that he would have cut off half his thumb if Darcy hadn't yelled his name in just the right moment and the only reason they'd even had a finished meal at the end of the day was because the intern had finally decided to turn the stove on herself after he had completely ignored her request to do so, at least four times.

This peculiar mood had been there all day, though she couldn't have said what had caused it. She didn't like it one bit, that was for sure, because it really didn't suit him. Looking at him all gloomy and brooding was like seeing a golden retriever who'd been caught chewing on its owner's favorite pair of shoes, and not for the first time was she hit with the sudden wish to hug a god. He wouldn't have minded, she knew, and yet what she decided he needed more than awkward attempts at comfort was a distraction, until the science duo would return from their secret meeting on the roof.

Hence the impromptu introduction to Earth's most popular games, at least to those without overly complex rules or the need to understand cultural references. As a result, Monopoly or any kind of trivia related stuff was out, but card games where definitely a go because, as it turned out, even the gods seemed to like those. She mentally added it to her very short list of "Things we have in common with aliens", right after a love for greasy food, sharp weapons, domesticated horses and boats; though of course humanity was still behind on making the latter fly.   

For a while her plan worked perfectly as they discussed the simple premise of "Go fish" and the names of the various suits - his affronted look at there being a king and a queen but no prince had been priceless - but not long into the game, after she had won the fifth round in succession, his sadness was back again, like a rain cloud that was permanently following him around. And it was starting to darken her day, as well.

Never one to shy away from blurting out what was on her mind and simply too fed up with it to beat around the bush any longer Darcy dropped her cards on the couch between her and the blond Space Viking and asked, "So, spill, what's wrong, Big Guy? Somebody ate the last Pop Tart while you weren't looking?" They both smiled at that; it wasn't the first time she'd teased him about eating an entire box of the stuff, after all.

Still, he didn't answer her, only shrugged a little before he returned his concentration back to the cards in his hands, effectively shielding his face from her. Not ready to give up so easily, she got up from her sitting position, knees on the couch which put the two of them at the same eye level, and with one quick motion pushed the multicolored fan down with her hands so she would be able to stare him down if necessary.

"Come on, tell me. I promise, I won't tell anyone else-" Not a single person of the big crowd of two in the house. "-and I'm a really good listener." Which was definitely true, even if she didn't always understand what she was listening to.

The loud sigh seemed, at first, to be Thor's only reply, but then he visibly deflated; with another shrug of shoulders he let his hands, with the playing cards still in them, fall to his lab and when he spoke up his voice sounded tired and small. "It has been two weeks now. "

This simple sentence was said with an air of tragedy, as though he were mourning a dead family member who'd recently passed away.

Two weeks since what? she almost asked, but then remembered what she herself had told him this morning when they'd prepared breakfast. "You've been here two weeks, buddy, you really should know better by now than to drink juice right from the jug."

In response he had promptly dropped said jug onto the floor, as if it had burned him, which had started the day of his unusual clumsiness but until now she hadn't connected that event to his overall mood, hadn't considered that she'd actually upset him somehow. Maybe a hug wouldn't have been such a bad idea.

But how could she have known that the simple reminder of the passage of time had the same effect on him as "there's no more coffee" would have on Jane?

Really, though, was it so terrible to be on Earth?

Either she'd accidentally said that last part aloud or the man's princely manners kicked in before she could do so, but whatever the case, the apology that hurriedly fell from his mouth was so contrite and painfully earnest, as though his mom was standing right next time, tapping her feet impatiently.

"Please, forgive me. It was not my intent to seem ungrateful after you have done so much for me; truly, I could not have hoped for kinder hosts and companions. It is merely... well, I had not thought to be gone from Asgard for so long. Not that two weeks are an awfully long time, but..."

'But why don't you just go back?' she could have asked, but from conversations she had overheard between her boss and him, she knew that wasn't really an option. He was, in a way, stuck here until he could get this Mew-mew back from the MiB, or, at least, that's what she assumed because they didn't have any spare princesses lying around for him to save and what else was a hero sent out to do?

He didn't look like much of a hero at the moment, however, more like a freshman in college who got homesick after his first few days in the dorms. Darcy had never been one of those because she'd taken to this first chance at independence like a kid with the key to a candy store, nor was she the comforting motherly type other people sought out when they needed a shoulder to cry on, but she had offered to listen and that she definitely could do.

"It's hard to be so far from home, hm?" she asked, trying her best to sound sympathetic despite the rather empty phrase.

"It is not that which troubles me so, or not just that. I had simply hoped that by now I would have received a sign from my father, a hint, at least, as to his expectations, but he will not answer me. "

God, now Thor really looked like a lost little boy, an image that was helped along by the way he said "father", as though he'd skinned his knee and the older man was supposed to make it right again.

She had no idea what his dad had to do with any of this or how he could have possibly talked to the great boss of Asgard, given that a normal smart phone would hardly be able to reach the other side of the universe, but the ongoing radio silence was apparently a big deal to him.

A little awkwardly she patted one of his ridiculously muscled arms in reassurance, "Maybe he's just busy." That explanation sounded stupid to her own ears, but it was still better than giving in to the rather oppressive feeling of sadness that had followed the blond's words.

And it wasn't stupid enough not to receive an answer from him, even if it was one that only confused Darcy more.

"Well, of course, as a king he is busy at all times, but no; if he wanted to aid me in this quest, he would have done so. It is probable that he has entered his Sleep, yet even then..." In the universal sign of frustration he carded a hand through his hair, while the other was fiddling a pair of jacks, passing them between his fingers like a poor magic trick. "It is so very unlike him to set me a task I cannot fulfill, and for all that it is beginning to feel impossible. "

Huh, so she had been right about him needing to commit some heroic deed, but how could she help him with that? Should she offer to let SHIELD kidnap her so he could save her like a proper knight in shining armor? Though, if she was interpreting the occasional besotted looks between them correctly, Jane would be a more fitting candidate for that role. And the agents would make for an awesome gang of villains, who had, unfortunately, already bested Thor once. Maybe not that good of an idea, then.

There had to be a way and Darcy was determined to find it, if only to stop Thor from depressing the hell out of her. Maybe she should start by figuring out what had let up to all of this. Kings didn't just send their sons to a foreign planet on mysterious missions out of boredom, right?

"So, you have no idea why you're here? Did you just go to bed and woke up in front of Jane's car the next day?" Her tone was teasing, but by the pained look on the blond's face she might as well have punched him. It was clearly something he didn't want to talk about and his words, when they finally came stumbling out, where hesitant and mumbled almost too quietly into his beard, as though he was about to confess something deeply embarrassing.

"I... well, my father.... he was irate about me going against his orders, so he has banished me to... to regain my worth, and it is that which I seem unable to do. I thought when he sent Mjölnir after me, that he wished for me to take her up again, to fight for the right to wield her, yet I could not even lift her a fraction."

Any other time she might have laughed about the way he kept calling his war hammer "she", like a teenager with his first shabby car, but at the moment she was still struck by the word "banished". That was less fairy tale and more Shakespeare drama and those usually ended in the death of the main character. Sheesh.

She almost didn't want to ask what he'd done to deserve a time-out on Earth -  because it was either something really epic or epically awful, like killing the wrong dragon by accident and then finding out it had cute little baby dragons which were now motherless - but that just made it more important for her to know, so she could hit him over the head for being mean to animals.

The answer Thor gave to her rather casual "What'd you do to make him mad?" was not even close to what she'd expected nor had she anticipated the rage in his voice and on his face. It was startling enough that she scooted back to the other side of the couch before he had even finished the first sentence; not that she was afraid he would hit her but the sudden increase in volume was a little unnerving as was the way he balled his very impressive fists and came close to growling like a hungry wolf every time he mentioned one particular name.

"What I did? What I did was act in the only way honor allowed. 'Twas Loki who broke into the Vault, Loki who attacked the guards, Loki who had the gall to interrupt my coronation.  My father commanded me not to go after the fiend, to let him speak with the Frost Giants' king first, but how could I in good conscience have done that, when I knew, when I was certain Loki would slip punishment again, as he has every other time before? Argh, if he had just let me finish this one battle, I could have put an end to that vile wretch."

When you spend long enough with a person to learn their habits, their breakfast preferences or how they drank their coffee and had picked up their dirty underwear from the floor so many times that the sight of it didn't even result in a raised eyebrow anymore, you may come to the dangerous conclusion that you knew that person very well. Unfortunately, that belief could easily be shattered when you found them sniffing coke in the bathroom; make out with a girl in the closet that had before been introduced as their sister; or when you heard them angrily rant about the one time they hadn't been allowed to kill a man.

Darcy really didn't want to be scared of Thor. He was addicted to sweets and had once spoken of pancakes as a 'fare made for the gods'; he had a laugh that shook his whole body, loud enough to wake the dead and contagious as hell; he had shown no shame in running around the house shirtless but always blushed like a teenager whenever Jane noticed him staring at her dreamily. He was sweet and friendly and funny, but that was not all.

Darcy didn't want to be scared of Thor but in this moment she was because he could be dangerous, aggressive and full of hate and, despite all of that being directed at a person who wasn't even in the room, it made her shiver. And really miss her taser.

Not that violence, or an unconscious god on the floor, would exactly help here but no other method came to mind that would diffuse this mess. Generally to her there were only two solid options whenever the intern found herself caught in an uncomfortable conversation: blatant honesty which made the people around her think her impolite if not downright bitchy and which she blamed entirely on that missing filter others seemed to have somewhere between their brains and vocal chords; or very childish, often terribly inappropriate humor, which she mostly blamed on too much alcohol even when all she'd had that night was Virgin Mary's with little umbrellas in them.

She couldn't have been more sober right now, but something told her that blurting out how very, very fucked up Asgard's morals were - if he could so easily admit to attempted murder or explain that he hadn't been punished for said attempt but for disobeying his kingly dad - would not go over well with the already pissed off Space Viking. So humor it was, then, and maybe a little bit of optimism.

"Eh, sorry you couldn't, you know, 'end the wretch', but at least Loki's here, too. Can't say he got away scot-free this time."

Could it be counted as a win that she'd made Thor laugh, if said laugh was rather short, and rough and somehow humorless? On second thought, it had probably been a terrible idea to remind the blond of his nemesis' presence on Earth just after he told her of how much he wished he could have killed him.

Damn, she needed a drink, especially after she saw that nasty grin on her buddy's face that would actually have fit the other god much better. "No, he could not escape this time, the damnable coward." Then he suddenly got all serious again and when he leaned closer as if to impart an ancient secret his eyes were hard. "But make no mistake, he will find a way to wreak havoc, even here. It is in his nature. And maybe it was remiss of me to ignore him for so long. Who knows what harm he has caused already to the innocents of the village, alone as he is out there with no one to stop him. Maybe I should..."

Before he could do more than get up from the couch in his sudden "Eureka!" moment of violence, like run out the door after a certain black haired villain who neither of them had seen for almost two weeks, Darcy put a hand on his arm again, and tried to calm him down, with all the might of rational arguments behind her. Not that she placed too much hope in those, usually.

"Hey there, Big Guy, don't get all Conan on me now. We don't even know where Loki is; he could have left town by now or, joined a circus or something. And besides, don't you think you should, eh, leave him be? After all, fighting him is what got you in trouble in the first place, right?"

"I will not just sit here whilst he plots mischief! Even without my powers, even banished as I am now it is my duty to protect the Nine Realms from monsters such as him."

Wow. It was one thing to call a guy a 'villain' or a 'fiend' because he loved to cause trouble, but monster? That was a little harsh, she thought, especially when she remembered Loki sitting all disheveled and tired in this very house with her, complaining about the sand in his hair. But there was no point in trying to convince the thunder god of that, not when the thought of a fight seemed to finally get him out of his funk, turning him into an enthusiastic soldier ready to shoot first and ask questions never. Also, his goals were not as noble as just protecting people, as became clear when he continued in a strangely hopeful voice,

"And if I can do this, if I can stop him without the aid of Mjölnir, then my father may see the worth in me again."

Kids seeking their parents' approval was another universal thing, it seemed, but she was ridiculously grateful that all she had to do to make her own dad proud was to finish this year without switching her major again.

She had wanted to cheer him up, yes, but the smile on his face now just made her deeply uncomfortable and with every word he spoke he managed to make Asgard, and himself, sound more and more unlikable. If he was prepared to commit murder just to hear "Good job, Son" then maybe they would have been better off with Loki as their house guest.

So naturally her voice held no small amount of disgust and disapproval when she replied to Thor, and she didn't care one bit that it made her sound like an exasperated teacher interrupting a schoolyard fight.

"This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Whatcha gonna do, beat the crap out of him for something he might do in the future? And if you think we're gonna treat you as a hero afterward, you've got another thing coming, mister, because all that will prove is that you're a massive bully. "

The proverbial scolding had achieved what nothing else had before - it rendered the big blond completely speechless and a little ashamed, if the way he was steadfastly looking at the floor now was anything to go by. It shouldn't have surprised her; after all, he always tried to be as inoffensive as possible and to adept to their customs, which apparently also included their views on homicide. Or being a bully was just one of those really big no-noes in Asgard similar to having bad manners or showing fear.

 "You do not understand," he said, in a way that meant she really should.

She didn't and didn't want to.

"Yes we do, more than you think."

Great, now they decided to show up again, after she'd had to get through a completely fucked up conversation with an angry Norse god all on her own. And what the hell had they been doing up on the roof that suddenly gave the good doctor the courage to speak up to Thor?

"We know who he is and who you are, but Darcy is right, you should stay away from Loki."

OK, wow, that was unexpected. Not that she minded getting backup, but as obsessed as Selvig was with the whole mythology stuff she'd have thought he would be more supportive of the thunder god.

The god himself seemed just as surprised, either by the sudden appearance of the two scientists or by the rather sharp tone he was addressed with, and when he looked up from the floor and right at the gray haired professor the confusion was written all over his face.

"If you truly know who he is, then how can you not grasp the danger your people are in? Loki is..., he is..."

"A villain? A Frost Giant? Evil? Yes, I get that, but he isn't the most dangerous person out there at the moment, Thor."

At that the blond scoffed, threw his head back and then the creepy grin was back in place; in short, it was the perfect display of 'I laugh in the face of danger'. Damn, could he be any more full of himself, Darcy thought a little disgusted.

"You speak of the Coulson's men; they worry me not. I have defeated far stronger, far more vicious foes."

Well, that answers that question.

Erik just sighed; behind him Jane stared unhappily at her alien Romeo, but otherwise left the conversation to her old friend. They all needed a good round of coffee, the intern decided when she saw her boss' tired eyes; maybe Irish would be best.

"Well, you didn't defeat Shield, did you?" the older man continued, a little less harshly now, but judging from the deep frown on the otherwise handsome face and tightening of fists it was clear the statement had still hit its mark. Damn, this was starting to get ugly.

"You mock my valor?" Fists were raised and so was his voice but it seemed he didn't have Loki's penchant for caring around an arsenal of weapons. Though he did like to punch people, as they had learned pretty early on.

Before he could do so, or maybe because he hadn't initially meant to sound so confrontational, Selvig replied in far calmer, more placating tone, "No, of course not. I don't doubt your strength or bravery or anything, but that's not the point, Thor. Shield is... they are not just one person or a handful of men trying to guard a satellite. They are like an army, they are powerful and very good at getting rid of people they see as a threat."

"But I mean your realm no harm," the blond answered, almost apologetically, and there was that lost puppy-dog look again, as though they'd been going around in circles and he were back to worrying about his dad's disapproval. Or maybe all of their disapproval.

Darcy had the urge to hug him, again; Jane on other hand seemed to take this as her cue to speak up, her voice gentle as though she knew he wouldn't like what he was about to hear.

"Shield won't care that you have good intentions, especially not if you just attack Loki out in the street. We have laws against things like that and they wouldn't be out of their jurisdiction to arrest you. We got you out one time, but that won't work again, don't you understand? "

"What if the Trickster..."

"If he does anything that breaks our laws, Shield will deal with him, as well. "

If this conversation were any closer to a typical television drama this would have been the perfect moment to cut to black and inform the tense viewer about products they just had to buy or - if the producers were especially cruel - to tell them the new episode would air at the same time next week. The way they were arranged in the room definitely offered a nice final shot. The two scientists were standing close together and, as a united front, silently staring at Thor, who seemed to shrink in on himself more and more with every counter point they shot at him; all the while Darcy was still sitting on the couch, clutching a throw pillow to her chest and trying to keep up with the whole argument, as though she were watching a tennis match with too many balls in play.

Honestly, how had they ended up here? Had she missed the important meeting where the group had decided that every conspiracy theory was true and, yes, they really were out to get you? Not that she thought Jane and Erik were entirely wrong to worry. Even though she'd never heard the name of the organization itself before she came to Puente Antiguo, as a student at Culver she knew of the biochemistry professor who had suddenly vanished after a failed experiment with radiation and was familiar with the rumors of men and women in dark suits interrogating people for hours in small, windowless rooms about the man's whereabouts. Naturally, it had all sounded like made-up nonsense to her, a silly story to make college life seem more exciting, but she'd also thought gods didn't exist. Having now met both a very tall, blond Norse deity and actual secret agents, who were not all that secret and not even making the attempt at hiding that they were watching said deity 24/7, Darcy wasn't sure what to believe anymore.

There was one thing she was absolutely sure about, however, and that was that if they let Thor exact his godly vengeance upon Loki it would quickly turn their weird sci-fi family drama into a far too real version of CSI: Supernatural Division.

Bracing herself for another aggressive outburst the intern got up from her comfy position, walked the few steps over to the arguing trio and promptly positioned herself between them, with the humans at her back, the alien in front of her. Because she didn't want this to seem like she was about to choose sides or order him around she offered him a rather lopsided smile and let humor creep back into her voice.

"Thor, buddy, listen; we don't think you're weak or anything, but this is just too big for you to fight. If you go up against Shield, you'll be in huge trouble and..."

"And it won't just be you," Erik interjected, a totally rude thing to do which she usually would have called him out on if his words hadn't rendered her speechless. Not just Thor, did he mean...

"We've been helping you, sheltering you, lied for you. If they decide you're a threat and take you into custody, we will all three suffer the consequences; you can bet on that."

Well, shit.

"I understand."

"Do you? Do you, really? Because I'm not so sure of that. But to make this very clear - you need to stay away from Loki. And if you can't do that, then you need to stay away from us."

The scientist's words rang with heavy finality in the air; a sonic boom of an explosion in a completely silent room. It left such a terrible tension between them all that Darcy could feel it tingling under her skin. And as always, when she was at her most uncomfortable, she went to her favorite weapon.

"So, who wants coffee?"

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

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PC

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"…so what it boils down to is a fuck ton of property damage and the military breathing down my neck about the 'dangerous criminal' slipping off their radar. Ross actually demanded we hand over everything we've got on the incident and help 'em contain him, you know, for the good of the country and all that crap."

"But we don't know where he is." It was both a question and not.

"No, haven't seen him around. You?" Definitely not a question, more like an order.

"No, can't say I have, but I'll let you know if that changes, Sir," he answered automatically, though he was a little distracted by the papers that had been shoved in his face at the same time. Out here in the desert with this small a unit it was nothing major, of course, just the usual budgetary plan for the week, but his eyes skimmed it over quickly to make sure Sitwell hadn't gone overboard with the snacks, again. In order to sign he had to shift the phone to his other hand and therefore only heard the tail end of the reply, something in the line of "You do that."

Grinning at the heavy sarcasm he took a few more steps away from the white plastic-sheeted containment area that housed the mysterious hammer because that thing always screwed with electronics, including phone reception. It was also messing with the weather, attracting thunder clouds and lightning strikes like a, well, lightning rod and as of yet the group of scientists he had brought along couldn't explain how or why it did so. A look up at the sky now revealed a wide expanse of azure blue right out of a cheesy postcard, which only added to the strangeness of it all.

It was the nice weather which had him leave the busy glass-and-metal trailer that he could claim as his current base of operations, in addition to all the - by nature of their profession - rather nosy agents crammed into the tiny space. He had no reason to doubt any of them, to question their discretion but as the conversation wore on it seemed the better choice to not let them overhear everything that was discussed between him and the director, especially when it came to his own report. First, though, there were a few questions he himself still needed to ask as par for the course, a step of an unwritten protocol between them.

"So, the situation is contained?"   

"As much as it can be." The frustration in the other man's voice was not unusual and understandable given the events of the past weeks - a self destructive billionaire who never quite managed to keep the destruction just to himself; a self-made monster who had leveled part of New York in his fight with another yet more twisted creature; a strange pair of men and an even stranger unearthly object - none of which would help with one's blood pressure and Nick Fury was not the calmest person to begin with. Still, the angry rant that followed next made Phil awfully glad to be stationed far away from DC.

"It wouldn't be such a fucking mess if it weren't for all those damned teenagers and their fucking smart phones. I swear, if I have to see another shaky video of a green blur playing rag doll with a tank I will personally hire Stark to unplug the internet. And the press's not helping; they took to this shit like sharks to blood in the water. Can't get by an hour without some new speculation and another so called expert who's explaining 'what really happened'. I bet Carter never had to deal with this cluster-fuck; in the good old days all you had to do was silence a few newspapers, buy off the one guy who'd managed to shoot a half decent picture or just blame the whole thing on mass hallucination."

It was never a great sign when one of them reminisced longingly about the 'good old days' - the days of what other, saner people called the Cold War. Most times it was Coulson who gave in to the nostalgia for an era of less and therefore more elegant technology, fewer restrictions and true heroes, but the director could be equally guilty of the sentiment, more and more so now as the World Security Council kept making work harder for them all.

"What are we blaming it on?" the agent asked, mentally going through the excuses they'd used for previous debacles. Experimental weapons testing, rabid wild animals, gas leaks...

"Hell, if I know. There's no point, really; he's too famous already. They're calling him 'The Hulk', Coulson. You know how it all goes to shit when they give 'em names."

Oh boy, that was bad, indeed. Names gave people power and confidence, which was true for heroes and villains alike, and it turned them into something more than human - legends. It was why the military had been so quick to create the figure of Captain America long before Steve Rodgers had even been allowed to join the war; why Phil had tried, unsuccessfully, to quell the whole nonsense of Iron Man, and the reason why SHIELD usually catalogued anyone particularly 'gifted' by serial number or skill and not some ridiculous nickname.

This really was a mess.

"Your orders on this… individual?"

"Well, I doubt you'll have to deal with him anytime soon, but I'll tell you what I told the Council. The man is a fucking genius who is awfully good at making himself scarce, and his alter ego is a natural disaster I refuse to waste my agents on. Sure, I'd like him on our side but if you ask me, the best way to do that at the moment is to leave him the hell alone. "

This approach was uncharacteristically careful for his old SO, though he knew it was probably the safer route, not just because of the danger the 'Hulk' posed but also because of the media coverage. A secret agency was hardly secret once it was seen chasing a green behemoth all over the world. The SSR honestly would have had an easier time of it.

"No plans to recruit him, then?" It was one thing to be cautious with powered people, but to let go of an asset such as Banner would just be plain stupid. Even if the man wouldn't agree to fight for the organization, they could certainly make use of his intellect.

At that question Fury snorted, and only the director of SHIELD could pack so much derision and cynicism into a single wordless sound; Phil could practically see the annoyed eye-role. "It's not worth the effort; even if we could provide him with a stress free work environment, which we can't, just managing to convince him that we're not the enemy keen on vivisecting him would probably need a miracle. Though you're certainly welcome to try, once you're back from counting grains of sand in the desert. Any progress on that, by the way?"

Ugh, this was what he had been dreading the moment he'd heard his phone ring.

Now, Phil Coulson was anything but a fresh faced agent, equally eager to please and intimidated by the big, bad director. It had been a long time ago that he'd last had to stand before a superior's desk to receive a scolding for a mission gone wrong or worry that he'd be sent somewhere unpleasant because he'd pissed off the wrong people, and not only because at level 8 there were not that many men or women above him in rank.  No, the main reason was that he had Fury's trust and the other man knew he worked best on his own terms and with a team of his own choosing.

The problem was simple - pride, or more specifically his pride in his work. It had been his idea to come to New Mexico in the first place, to follow some strange readings; his request to have Barton accompany him even though the archer could have probably been more useful in Harlem; and it was on his insistence that they were still here, two weeks later, though any sensible person would have long since given up on finding anything of value. Not that he had discovered nothing - after all, the hammer alone would keep the science department busy for years - but Fury had asked about progress and that had been hard to come by in the last few days.

Suppressing a sigh he looked again at the clear sky above and then went through a list of facts that might be of interest, only to give a report that would not vary much from the written one on the other's desk. "The 0-8-4 is still unresponsive to our attempts to remove it from the crater side. There have been suggestions about ways to dig out the rock underneath so we might at least relocate the item to somewhere less exposed. I'll sent in a request for the necessary equipment later today. Once the right people had a look at it there's hope we will figure out what it's made of and for what purpose."

"It causes thunder and lightning" was what he'd been told by a very unreliable source, but even that was hardly a clear explanation.  Aside from watering places in urgent need of rain he simply couldn't see the value of such a tool. And a part of him couldn't shake the feeling that it was indeed a weapon, one that was said to be "profoundly powerful, in the right hands."

In who's hands, though?

Before he could ponder that disturbing thought further he was confronted with the next topic on the agenda, one he also had no new intel on.

 "What about our mysterious duo; any change in their status?" which was a question that could be interpreted at least two ways.

First, the rather obvious matter of 'Who are these guys?'

Figuring that out should have been child's play - as combatants of their caliber tended to gain a reputation very fast - but somehow it wasn't. As of yet, no one in the relevant circles had heard of them, which indicated that they were either exceptionally good or completely new to this game. In fact, SHIELD had nothing on them, not even a clue as to what country they originated from or how they'd entered Puente Antiguo in the first place.

"No, Sir. If they work for someone then they don't seem all that eager to finish the job; both have only very limited contact with the town's inhabitants, neither has made contact with anyone outside of it, to our knowledge. Blake has barely left Foster's lab this week. The nameless one is, well he is still annoying every agent in his path-" Which had honestly surprised him because he'd thought the man would choose to hide himself away in one of the abandoned buildings or just leave Puente Antiguo entirely, judging by his rather frantic escape attempt. "-but otherwise he's keeping himself very much apart from the locals, not counting his little trips to the grocery store." 

Contrary to the action packed life of spies in Hollywood blockbuster movies, paperwork was, unfortunately, a big part of an agent's daily duties and usually Phil had no problem handling the dull repetitiveness of it, but even he had to try very hard not to fall asleep while reading the enrapturing accounts on the movements of the 'Weird Brit', which contained such gems as "Sat on roof for three hours and stared at nothing" or "Somehow smuggled out a six pack of mineral water from 7-Eleven. Again".  The only saving grace was Barton's dry sarcasm that never failed to convey how utterly fed up the archer was with his assignment. Misery loved company, after all.

"And?"

And then there was the other, less straightforward conundrum of 'What are they?'

Given the extraordinary and possibly extraterrestrial hammer that should have warranted a simple answer, as well. A part of Coulson he could not readily identify rebelled against that, however. He had, in his long career working for a secret government agency, seen and experienced so many weird things, people and phenomena that there wasn't much left in the world that could still surprise him. 'Impossible' was a word that had lost all meaning around the first week of his training; there was just no place for skepticism in SHIELD.

So, yes, he should be rational about this.

But, really, aliens?

Couldn't it just be mutants, botched science experiments, terrorists? That would be so much simpler; Phil knew how to deal with those, knew the protocol on how to approach them, how to take them down; he even had the paperwork ready for either scenario.

But aliens?

If only he hadn't brought up the idea with Fury in the first place.

"No news on that, either. Our instruments definitely registered a reaction in the 0-8-4 when Blake was nearby but maybe he just knows a method to trigger it that we haven't found, yet. If we could get him to try again, the readings might be more conclusive but..."

"Coulson, you know that when you can't discover anything superhuman about them, then maybe there just ain't."

Well, wasn't that motivating. Though, the director had a point, of course. Was he obsessing over nothing here? He could blame all of this on Barton who had put the bug in is ear by casually asking "If this is an alien object then where's the alien it belongs to?" and yet his gut had told him the moment the question had been voiced that the other agent was right.

Also there were the little peculiarities, little asides in the reports over the last two weeks that together formed a pretty clear picture. Both subjects spoke like characters in a very over-the-top play; both had arrived with seemingly no luggage and were wearing clothes they had either borrowed or stolen as though they hadn't planned ahead at all; they had very strange eating habits  - Blake ate enough for three people, while his companion's diet consisted of fresh fruits and raw meat; neither showed up on any kind of registry, not even for a speeding ticket; and since SHIELD's first encounters with them both men had been staying peacefully in their respective corners of the town, almost painfully inactive, as though they were waiting for something. Something big and game-changing.

It was only when he heard his name being spoken in Fury's ever annoyed voice, mixed with a hint of concern, that he realized he'd been lost in thought for a bit too long. That was definitely unlike him and he had to take a deep breath, straighten his tie one-handed and smooth the wrinkles out off his suit jacket before he reached equilibrium once more. Damn, this mission was turning him crazy, he just knew it, worse than even babysitting Stark had done. Or maybe it was just another hidden effect of the weird alien artifact.

Clearing his throat in a rather obvious attempt to buy time, Phil put both his thoughts and words back in order and then answered, perfectly calmly, "Still here, Sir. And you're right; I'm probably reading too much into this. As far as we've seen neither man possesses any kind of special ability; they're strong but not unnaturally so; they look perfectly normal if a bit on the tall side, and they speak English, admittedly very polished, outdated English, but maybe they just learned the language from books. What I'm trying to say is, they are probably not from around here but that doesn't mean they're not from around here, if you get my meaning, Sir."

"You're sure, Coulson?"

OK, had he missed something? A moment ago the director had all but told him to let the cigar be a cigar and now that he'd heard all the arguments which supported his claim he had second thoughts?

What was there to say, really? The rational answer was 'Yes, of course' and it was the one he wanted to give because it would make his life easier, not to mention it would give him the chance to return to the Arctic Division. But his gut was urging him towards another direction.

As though reading his mind or probably just interpreting the silence correctly Fury's deep voice filled the phone's speaker, again, far more serious this time but also openly curious, "What are your instincts telling you, agent?"

It was the same question he'd asked a hundred times before while training a naïve teenager from Wisconsin to spot a mark, calculate the danger of this or that move on the field, to see beyond the obvious. Trusting his instincts had become second nature since then, and that was what had him feeling so out of sorts, that he was fighting against them, against what he knew to be true.

"They tell me, I'm right, Sir. That there is more to these men, something more than human."

"OK."

Well, that had been easy, but then he'd known it would be. He wasn't a fresh faced agent, after all, one who would have to painstakingly explain his every decision, his every move and he wasn't the only one who trusted his instincts.

"You orders on this assignment, Sir?"

There was not a chance that he'd be told to pack up now but the director might decide to reassign him or at least reduce his already small team because they had more important matters to worry about at the moment, even if the 'green problem' was finally done and dealt with.

"Hm, for now? Stay put, keep an eye on the possible more-than-humans and keep me posted on any new developments." Huh, that simple?

"Oh, and Coulson?" Or maybe not. "Leave the 0-8-4 where it is and try to get Blake near it again; I wanna see what he does with it."

Great, nothing easier than that. He just hoped they'd brought enough material to repair the facility a second time.

After the perfunctory "Yes, Sir" he was about to end the discussion and therefore the phone call, but then he remembered that there was another piece of paperwork he had sent ahead to headquarters that should already be on Fury's desk.

"One last thing, Sir. Have you considered my request of a certain addition to my unit, yet?"

The last time he'd asked about this he'd been informed that the agent was otherwise occupied, but that shouldn't be an issue anymore.  

"You still think it relevant?"

Instinct could only get you so far in this business, but just like he knew there was more to the targets than met the eye, he also knew he wouldn't get proof of that unless they accidentally showed their hand. What he needed, therefore, was a fresh pair of eyes, ones that could easily see through any kind of face and right to a person's deepest and darkest secrets.

Another look at the sky showed the dark and heavy clouds of an oncoming storm. And just as suddenly as the weather had shifted the activity in the base had shifted with it. From behind him Phil could hear several footsteps, the hurried but not army-booted steps of the scientists gravitating to the alien artifact that would soon make it rain around them again, if past experiences were anything to go by.

"Now more than ever."

"Fine by me; I bet she'd be happy to get a less stressful assignment this time. Expect her around 1800 hours tomorrow."

"Thank you, Sir."

Well, that was one problem taken care of and hopefully it would get Barton to stop whining for a while.

He had a feeling they would all need to be in top form for what was to come. Whatever that may be.

 

 

 

 

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"What do your eyes see, Gatekeeper?"

This question, or slight variations thereof, was an unequivocal constant in Heimdallr's life, a familiar melody in an ever-changing universe, the very essence of his duty.

To many this routine and all it encompassed seemed like a curse - that he was to stand here in the golden observatory at the end of the Bifröst, charged with watching over the Nine Realms without pause, far removed from society and lacking entirely in the comforts that should have been afforded to a warrior of his rank. Some even thought he forwent any of the basic necessities of life - like food and drink and sleep - a rumour which was a source of great personal amusement but one which was, fortunately, not rooted in fact.

Unlike the Destroyer that guarded over the treasures in the royal Vault he was, after all, a man - imbued with unparalleled abilities and in possession of a name that was much more synonymous with a title, as well known throughout Yggdrasil as that of 'Allfather' - yet in the end still just a man.

So, yes, he did require nourishment and rest and on occasion even sought out the company of those who would ask nothing of him, yet he did so sporadically and unobserved, ever careful not to develop a predictable pattern which might leave Asgard vulnerable if for but a moment.

It might not have been an enviable duty but he bore it with pride, and the never ceasing questions did not chaff at him as maybe they should because they offered him the only way to share the vastness of that which he could perceive. No one would ever know all of it, of course, the day was simply not long enough for such an account, even if he truly were an automaton without the need to breath between words. In light of that the questions proved a blessing for they allowed him to focus his sight, to concentrate on one event, one realm, one person at a time, and these visions he could easily reveal to others.

To a certain extent every citizen of Asgard had the right to approach him and many did, be it for aid in finding a child lost in the busy activity of the capital or for assurance of continued health of a soldier fighting a battle on another realm. Thankfully, though, people had learned long ago not to bother him with trivialities and should he deem his assistance unnecessary or even harmful the gatekeeper had been known to turn a deaf ear to inquiries. There was, in fact, no obligation to answer any one of them. None, that was, for a select few.

Odin as his king and shield-companion of countless battles could, of course, always rely on his council and he was by far the most frequent visitor to the observatory. The Allfather's question differed rarely, neither in wording nor tone, nevertheless the answer he received was by no means per-functionary.  Indeed, for all that his reply in itself was most often nothing more than a short, clipped "Well", whenever he heard the customary "How fare the realms?" his eyes immediately roamed over all of Yggdrasil, from Álfheimr's highest mountains to the deepest, darkest cave in Nidavellir, in search of any sign of strife or tension that could become a danger to the long lasting, hard fought for peace.

The second question as part of their daily conversation had been added about a millennium ago, yet it was not only the king who ever voiced it. Truth be told, it was far more common for Asgard's queen to travel across the Bifröst to ask "How fares my son?", although that particular question had to be amended centuries later to include a name when the Realm Eternal was blessed with a second prince.

The princes themselves called on him quite regularly, as well; the elder oftimes came seeking the location for his newest quest or the whereabouts of a foe, the younger one to ask after his brother whenever he was away from home.

He had been away from home for more than a fortnight, now.

And every day at noon, reliable as the movement of the galaxies, the little blond Odinson appeared beside him on the bridge, voice filled with curiosity and poorly hidden worry. Like the child he still was Baldr never limited himself to one line of enquiry, instead he rattled off a sheer endless stream of words almost too quickly to keep track of, as though he feared there might be something missing in the report given to him, otherwise. It was also a clear sign of his nervousness for there was a chance that on this particular day the answers he received might not be as agreeable, that he might hear of matters that would invariably dampen his usual cheerfulness.

Those days had become more frequent of late.

Some would surely chasten the gatekeeper for even speaking of such things, for not just telling the young prince that his brother was hale and leave it at that, but he would and could not do so.

First and foremost, it was simply a preposterous idea for him to lie to a member of the royal family; not only was it a show of great disrespect but it would also endanger his position as a protector of the realm. If his word could not be relied upon at all times, there was little use for him, after all.

More important than even that was that the king himself had set his youngest the task of ambassador to Jötunheimr and no matter what Heimdallr thought of that decision it did indicate he was seen as old enough to hear and speak of what was happening on Midgard.

And quite frankly there was no reason to coddle the lad; he was a prince of a warrior realm, surely intent on becoming a warrior in his own right soon, and as such he was no stranger to accounts of battle in all their glorious, gory detail. Not to mention the countless times Thor and his companions had returned from a quest wounded or even close to death.

To think Heimdallr should somehow censor himself out of propriety or sympathy was therefore rather foolish and insulting, which did not mean he always felt completely at ease with his current duty.

Yes, he did enjoy sharing his sight with others but the amount of information young Baldr asked of him on virtually everything - from food to people to stars in the night sky - was staggering and akin to a general learning of the movements of enemy soldiers on the battlefield. It was childish curiosity which drove him, of course, but at times it was almost worrisome how very perceptive he was, how fast he picked up on details the older Às had been reluctant to mention. For instance, Heimdallr still could not discern how he had predicted his brother's growing fondness for the mortal Jane Foster when in all his recounts he had not mentioned her as anything other than the exiled prince's host. Or how quickly he had realised that his brother would not be coming home any time soon.

Yet it was the part of their conversations where he asked about the other banished prince with the same attention to detail and with the same clear interest in the man's well being that seemed a cause for true concern.  

He had had his own reasons for keeping an eye, or sometimes two, on the Jötnar over the millennia because they were a constant threat to the peace of the Nine and had been so even before the latest war. And while he would not judge them to be the monsters Asgard's tales often painted them as, they were decidedly a harsher, more primitive race. In that regard Loki Laufeyson was actually rather unlike them - a scholar of great renown, a warrior who fought more with words than a sword, a mage who might one day rival the power of the Allfather but who was mostly using his talent for pretty illusions and petty tricks. He was, without a doubt, the most dangerous of them all.

Heimdallr would be hard pressed to determine the exact moment when he could no longer rely on his sight to watch over this particular fiend but it surely had been centuries now. It was not a veil or simple invisibility that blinded him but something far more troubling. Many a time when his prince asked for directions to his chosen enemy the man in question had just not been there, as though he had left Yggdrasil entirely or as though dead - for even he could not look into the sacred structures of Valhalla or the depth of Hel - only for him to appear again hours later, leagues or even realms away from the place he had last been seen. It had come to a point where the gatekeeper would grow suspicious when he could see Prince Loki for an extended stretch of time as it near always preceded a bout of trouble for others, one which could only rarely be proven to have been caused by the Trickster and which usually ended in a battle between him and Thor.

Equally unknown was how it came to be that he could journey from realm to realm without the Bifröst; although there were pathways linking the Nine, most of those were jealously guarded from both sides and could not have been used without leave of the specific realm's ruler. So either Loki was aware of branches on the World Tree no one else had ever found or he possessed of a method of travelling unique only to him. Or possibly both.

Ironically, it had been those very talents which had proven incriminating for the young Frost Giant in his most recent string of mischief.

All Heimdallr had been able to tell his king, when asked about the attack on the Vault, was that he had seen nothing, meaning nothing at all. Not the Jötnar entering the treasury, not the fight that must have broken out once they had been spotted, not the Einherjar dying in defence of Asgard. To him the weapons and ancient relics had rested peacefully on their respective pedestals, undisturbed by intruders, and the guards had walked the hallways as was their duty. Only when the Allfather had charged through the doors, closely followed by his eldest son, his sight had become clear once more, as though the very opening of the golden doors had also opened his eyes to the truth, like a polished veneer peeling away to reveal the ugliness beneath.

It was a surprisingly foolish mistake for the clever Trickster to commit; to use such abilities for his attempted invasion only he was known to have mastered. There had been no point in denying his crimes and though Asgard's king had been careful not to openly accuse a prince of the realms of breaking the truce, in the end even the king of Jötunheimr had not objected to these allegations, nor had he objected to the punishment of his son.

A punishment which allowed Heimdallr unlimited sight of Loki Laufeyson for the first time in too many years, and what he saw did not surprise him in the least.

Ever the selfish and cowardly serpent he both stole from and attacked the innocent mortals, only to wail at the unfair Fate he believed to have been dealt by the Norns. As though he were not to blame for his own actions; as though the universe revolved around him; as though he were still a child thinking he could do as he pleased.

Admittedly, Thor Odinson was not free of this very same failing - calling to his father for advice and for aid when he had clearly been told what to do in order to be forgiven; seeking to regain his powers before he had proven himself worthy of them; seemingly unwilling to understand that a continuation of the battle which he had begun on Jötunheimr could not be what would gain him back his place on Asgard.

As a result both princes remained banished and, as Baldr had learned to accept early on, it could be a very long time, indeed, before either took the right steps in the direction of home.

Until then Heimdallr would be there to watch them and watch over them for though primitive and fragile the Midgardians might be compared to the other races, they were anything but harmless and, unfortunately, not as oblivious as they used to be.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

LL

………

 

Loki was bored.

That, in and of itself, was nothing new and usually it was a problem easily solved; there were always new spells to learn, places to see and - against the more stubborn cases of tedium - tricks to play on unsuspecting fools.   

None of these options were available to him at the moment, however, and not only because he was cut off from even the slightest trickle of magic. Indeed, his greatest frustration was the one he had least expected.

Midgard had ever been a forbidden domain in the middle of Yggdrasil; this mysterious little gem more heavily guarded than any treasure in Asgard's Vault, the pathways to which he had discovered centuries prior but never dared to open. And truly, as a stage to ancient heroic tales and as an object of abstract study it had seemed such a tempting place to visit, in spite of the consequences.

Now that he was here, though, it had quickly lost its appeal. It was, perhaps, unfair to judge a realm entirely on the merits of one measly, little village but that was exactly the problem as this village was all he had to judge it on.

After his undignified flight form Coulson's much too inquisitive questions and his subsequent discovery of the curse placed on him Loki had felt adrift in both body and mind; unsure of his next step as never before. Away had seemed as good a direction as any other then; after all, there was not anything or anyone he could have run toward. So, with nothing more than the clothes on his back and what little provisions would fit in his satchel he had set out to discover the territory surrounding Puente Antiguo which, as it had turned out, could easily rival Nilfheimr, if not in temperature then certainly in dreariness. Of course, there had to be other inhabited dwellings beyond this waste and it was in all likelihood not as endless as it appeared, but after walking for several hours under an unforgiving, scorching sun and with gleaming sand churning under his boots he had given it up as a failed and pointless cause. 

Now all he was left with was an uninspiring assortment of roads and houses and people; too strange to make him feel at ease, too well-known to keep his mind occupied and therefore too busy to dwell on thoughts of his skin, his blood, his magic. That way lay madness and he would much rather die of thirst in this blasted desert than lose his mind through Odin's machinations.

It was on one of his visits to the butcher that he discovered Coulson's men were still spying on him; an outcome that would have annoyed him before but which at this moment came as a very much appreciated distraction. Suddenly his bitter ponderings on Fate were replaced by speculations, ideas, plots and his days were filled with watching those tasked with watching him.

Loki was fond of soldiers; as the son of a general and growing up in Jötunheimr's capital Vagga, a place teeming both with shy little recruits and old hardened veterans, it would have been rather hard to avoid them and to not develop a certain camaraderie with them, despite his own dislike for rules and order. And though they were mortal and could very likely be counted among his enemies these peculiar agents were just as fascinating and delightful as any of their ilk had ever been.

At the moment, two of them were sitting together at a table in a seedy alehouse with the auspicious name of "Cheeks", sipping on glasses of strong liquor, occasionally conversing in a stilted, one worded back and forth and continuously struggling with themselves not to look at him, to betray that they knew he even existed. Their efforts were hampered in no small amount by Loki who had chosen a seat behind the counter with his back to the rest of the patrons but, nonetheless, never failed to meet their curious eyes with a cheerful smile whenever they thought to catch him unawares.

He had believed that catching him had, indeed, been what they were sent out to do when he had realised they were again following his movements, yet they never approached him, never stopped his thievery, never spoke to him. It was as though nothing had changed from the first few days before his troubling encounter with their leader. Much had changed, however, most of all his attitude toward the men of Shield. Where before he had been wary of challenging them despite being irritated by their constant scrutiny because he had lacked information, he now knew enough of them to warrant his wariness.

And, as a result of a few careless words spoken out of desperation, he was bound to this passive, restrained game of 'stare the beast down so it does not pounce', at least until one of them was fool enough to openly threaten him. That no one had done so he attributed to a fortuitous side effect of his oath, or more directly to Coulson's little annotation to it. The mortal commander had declared that a 'look' alone was not grounds enough to claim provocation and so, it seemed, looking was all his underlings were allowed to do.

Being the Trickster the Norns had surely fashioned him to be, he had decided to have fun with his own and his opponents' predicament by being unnervingly, aggressively friendly; for instance, greeting them with a smile when they entered a building they had followed him to, raising his glass of iced beverage to them in toast should they happen to frequent the same tavern or nodding his head slightly as a sign of farewell when they vacated a location before he did. There had also been a hilarious incident where he had again met the agent called Sitwell at the entrance of the bakery and because his unwilling erstwhile captive had been carrying several parcels of food in both hands Loki had taken it as his due to hold the door open, as was proper, only to startle the poor mortal so sorely that he had dropped his purchase onto his own feet.

It was probably not a particularly wise idea to goad these armed, ill-disposed adversaries into disobeying their orders, but then again, wisdom was a matter of perspective and boredom a torture created in Hel.

So, to be honest, he was not lacking in entertainment, merely in patience.

There was one particular agent he had been hoping to spot among the otherwise dull rabble but, as had been true for every day following their last encounter, the little archer refused to show himself. He had not left the village nor had he given up his post as Shield's scout but it seemed impossible to find an opportunity to renew their acquaintance for he was rarely walking the open roads and never strayed far from his comrades. As though he were avoiding danger, as though, he too, had learned caution.

It really was a shame and to Loki a simply unacceptable state of affairs.

Fortunately - as had been proven to him on many occasions - soldiers, no matter how loyal and steadfast in their honour, were a wondrous well of information when sufficiently drunk. Which led to the true reason he was currently sitting in this rather dreary tavern - waiting until the spirits took their desired effects. Spirits he had generously gifted to the two observant yet oblivious agents with the help of a very discreet serving woman.

Already their conversation had become a little less forced and their voices loud enough to be heard from his position on the other side of the room. Only another bottle or two and he would be able to charm them into spilling their every secret. For a Silvertongue like him it was hardly a challenge at all; easy, really, like harvesting apples in an orchard or pinching a treasure from a dragon's lair.

He just had to wait.

.........

TO

.........

Thor was drunk.

That, in itself, was nothing unusual for generous amounts of mead, ale and wine were the pillars of any good feast and he, as Asgard's mightiest warrior, had had countless feasts held in his honour over the centuries. It was not surprising, either, to find him sitting in a tavern of an evening, sharing a few cups with his friends while recounting their latest adventure to an attentive audience. 

That his current company consisted of a group of mortal scholars and that the tavern they were visiting was located in a little Midgardian village of no particular renown could certainly be seen as something of an oddity in his life, and yet he was not enjoying himself any less for it.

No, in all honesty, the suggestion made by Erik Selvig a few hours prior to "go out for a few drinks" had come as an immense relief to him and not because he had developed a taste for this realm's liquor - which was far weaker and much more bitter than he was used to - but because until then the other man had not exchanged even a single word with him during the last five days.

It was not just this particular mortal who was at fault here, of course; Thor himself might have reacted a tad poorly to the not so subtle ultimatum issued by his hosts. But, truly, what gave anyone the right to talk to him with such disrespect? To treat him like a child in need of a scolding? To demand he lay to rest his well founded grudges and leave his enemy in peace to commit mischief whenever he saw fit?

He had tried to reason with them - though perhaps not in as calm a manner as he had been taught to be helpful in negotiations - yet all three Midgardians had refused to listen. They still held fast unto the belief that it would be safer to "lay low", to not draw further attention to himself, and, in effect, act like a coward by hiding from the little army of the shield.

That was probably the most preposterous part of it all; that they thought he ought he fear Coulson's men now, merely because he had been bested that one time. A feat, he would avow, had only been possible because his grief at losing Mjölnir for good had rendered him oblivious to his surroundings for the crucial few moments it had taken them to put him in chains.

As the victor of hundreds of battles against foes far more mighty than these paltry mortal soldiers he would not so easily be cowed, however, and neither should his new friends for he would gladly protect them against any kind of threat to their safety - be it from their own people or a certain villainous member of another race.

Unfortunately, when spoken aloud that reassurance had not earned him the heartfelt thanks, as surely would have been his due; instead, all he had gotten in response were frustrated sighs and looks of resignation, as though they already tired of the argument or thought him too dim-witted to understand their position.

Yet he was not entirely ignorant to their concerns nor was he callous enough to just dismiss them. Truly, to hear that the help they had offered him thus far might have put his companions in danger had been jarring and so too had the notion that any violent confrontation with Loki, even if he were to fight in defence of innocents, could be considered a breach of Midgard's laws.

Both of these revelations left Thor in a quandary; he could either protect a few people by doing nothing or go out and do what he perceived his Norns appointed duty and potentially protect all of the village's inhabitants. Even now, a week later, he was not sure which was the wiser action wherefore he lived in an uncomfortable state of paralysis akin to that one step across a bridge one dared not to take after hearing the ominous creak of brittle wood.

None of this was made easier by the sudden change of demeanour in everyone around him; the return of the wary looks shared between the mortals and the obvious way they kept avoiding any chance at spending too much time in his presence, always explained by murmured excuses of being occupied with "work" and "research". It almost made him wonder why they were not simply demanding he leave their abode. Not that he would have preferred that, not even to the oppressive silence that was hanging in the air.

No, it really was not an appealing thought that he might have to spent the remainder of his banishment alone in a strange realm, without shelter, without solace, without purpose - all because he had dared to voice his wish to vanquish his sworn enemy.

It was ridiculous and unreasonable and maddening and it felt like a cruel jest. Or a trick.

Exactly the sort of underhanded scheme the damnable Frost Giant was known to concoct: creating discord where before there was peace, turning friends of old against each other in a matter of moments, igniting a fire that consumed entire forests with little more than a tiny spark. For that very reason Thor considered the Trickster such a dangerous foe, even here where his usual powers were not at his disposal. An artful choice of words and clever lies did not require magic, after all, though they certainly could be as malicious as any true curse.

A curse that appeared to also be brought about just by talking of  Loki and which induced in the speaker a bout of ill temper, ill favour, as well as very ill luck.

More than once he thought wistfully back to Sif's offer of sharing his punishment and what a comfort it would be to have even one of his fellow warriors at his side during this ordeal. The shield-maiden in particular would have been a great support for she was of a similar mind, concerning matters of battle and violence and a certain menace that plagued the Nine Realms, and while she, too, was betimes affected by that insidious curse at least her ire tended to be directed at the one who deserved it.

Unlike when dealing with actual, baleful spell work, however, it was enough to ignore the caster or to simply not make any mention of him, which was a lesson he learned five days after that heated argument when he was invited to spent time with his new friends at a tavern, all of them in good cheer, their fears and troubles seemingly put aside for the time being. Darcy and Jane especially had made it a point to include him in their every conversation and even in the complex, yet amusing activity of "billiards", that he neither fully understood nor proved to have any true talent at but nonetheless joined in with unchecked enthusiasm.

And as the evening wore on Selvig finally made good on his promise of drinks - strange colourful glasses, filled with more fruit than actual liquor for the ladies of their company, and tankards of the locale's speciality that both men made a sport of empting in one long gulp. After the first of these "Boiler Makers" Thor was pleasantly warm and his thoughts slightly muffled, the second had gone down much more smoothly - though he still thought the brew far inferior to mead or Asgard's fine ale -  and after the third he began to introduce his friends and the rest of the patrons to his favourite drinking ballads from all over the Nine Realms.  

He and Erik were still singing when their little group left the tavern, the older man leaning heavily on his shoulder in order to remain upright. And Thor, well he was drunk. Far more so than he had anticipated after only four tankards. Or had it been five? He had never before become inebriated so very fast, which had to either be the result of his current state of mortality or the unusual absence of liquor in the last three weeks.

Be that as it may, he was drunk and he was in a splendid mood. 

To be honest, he had blamed his companions for their distance, for the indifference he was met with, but maybe he should look more into his own behaviour. He had been unable to hide his anger and sorrow at his continued banishment and just as had been the case with his trusted friends on Asgard, who had forgone his company when he was at his worst, it was probably not all that astounding that the mortals had chosen to avoid him, even though the clouds in the sky no longer warned of a coming storm to mirror his disposition.

Accepting defeat and subsequently giving in to despair were not in his nature and yet that was all he had done ever since Mjölnir had deemed him unworthy. But that was simply unacceptable. Before he had come here he had planned to take this punishment as a challenge, as a quest which he would have to weather alone for once but which should not prove too much for a warrior such as him. What had become of that plan? Verily, he had been a fool to let this short stay on Midgard break his spirits so easily, when all the while his new friends had done so much to help lift them.

This just would not do.

And so he vowed to himself that he would cease brooding and arguing; instead, it was time to accept where and what he was and to make the best of things. It could be worse, could it not? He certainly could be in far worse company than the two kind ladies and the elderly wise man, who was currently swaying on his feet and bellowing a lewd song in his native tongue that made both of them giggle like children after every verse.

This truly had turned out to be a pleasant, harmonious evening.

Right until a loud bang rang out in the otherwise quiet surroundings, startling enough to silence Erik's singing mid-verse and to make Darcy - who was walking arm-in-arm with Jane beside them - exclaim "Oh, shit!", in a voice so shrill and fearful, it made his ears hurt.

"Was that... was that a...?" Jane asked, as all of them came to a stop in the middle of the road, looking around frantically, seemingly in search of the noise's source.

"Gunshot? Yeah, definitely. Believe me, I know one when I hear it. I think we should go; that had sounded really close." The fear had transformed into panic, and now the younger woman, too, was trying to locate the threat, while rummaging with one hand in her purse.

When the second "gunshot" reverberated through the village she gave up her search in favour of flinching violently and then taking a few deliberate steps toward Thor. "Fuck, I want my taser!"

"Darcy is right; we should head home, fast." This time it was Erik Selvig who spoke up, sounding completely sober all of a sudden and quite earnest in his entreaty.

For a moment he had to contemplate what they were all so worried about but then he remembered the weapons the men of Shield had carried with them when he had invaded their fortress and the noise that accompanied their use.

"Gunshots" meant a battle, maybe one he could offer his aid with for he was sure of at least one person bound to already be involved in it.

"Yes, you should return to your abode; I will see who is responsible for this clamour."

It was a reasonable suggestion and therefore he anticipated no objections, yet the hand on his arm halted his movements, away from his companions and toward the battleground.  "Thor, please don't do this. Remember what we talked about earlier? This is too big for you; just trust me."

Oh, there was true concern and worry in Jane Foster's eyes and not for herself, he knew. She feared he might be harmed in this fight, a sentiment he would have found insulting in different circumstances but, given this miserable lonely week, he was actually encouraged by it.

"Worry not, my friends; I will be well. It is not Shield I mean to face but their enemy. My enemy."

Now, there could not be a complaint of having started this fight, or having provoked his opponent; all he intended to do was to ensure that the right side was victorious. And if that meant he could finally finish what he had started on Jötunheimr, all the better.

With sure steps and the familiar rhythm of drums in his heart, Thor made his way toward Loki.

Even without Mjölnir, this battle would be most enjoyable.

He could hardly wait.

.........

LL

.........

 

"Yes. Not a problem... Yeah, I'm sure, boss."

Hearing the voice breaking the silence of the evening was his first sign of success; gruff and clipped yet unhurried, oblivious. And - as only one end of the conversation could be detected - occupied by frivolous technology.

Perfect.

He had only to wait another few moments and then his quarry would be in sight; Loki's nerves were tingling with the excitement of the hunt.

Finally, a bit of fun!

Still, he had learned not to underestimate this particular mortal so he pressed himself further to the wall, leaning forward only far enough to see the path below.

"...well, they're a bunch of idiots. Doesn't matter. Sleep's overrated, anyway."

Oh, he was in a good mood, that seemed promising, though the mention of sleep was less so. A tired soldier could have his advantages but he would not prove much of an entertainment. Still, he could hardly wait until the man had had his rest; by then he might have relocated, again. That he could not allow; he would simply have to offer enough entertainment of his own to keep the other awake. Not exactly a demanding challenge.

The conversation must have drawn to a close or at least to a temporary halt because for a while Loki could hear nothing but his own heartbeat. But when the unmistakable sound of boots on sand alerted him to movement to his left he slowed his breathing, dropped into a crouch and trained his eyes on the approaching figure.

The darkness of the late evening, as well as his damnable flawed sight, made it hard to see such details as hair colour or facial expressions, but none of that was truly necessary. The black attire had not changed nor had the man's posture and the bow, hidden in its case, was slung over one shoulder, so even had he not spoken before there would be no doubting his identity.  

So his inebriated informants had not led him astray when they had given him directions to this place. He had assumed so, had almost begun to doubt his own abilities at dissembling lies when he a arrived here at what could barely be called a house, a white little shack wedged between two other buildings that were in the same poor state of upkeep. It might have been a suitable accommodation for a peasant but at as a home, however temporally, to a soldier of such promise it seemed rather inadequate.

Yet it was clearly where the archer was headed; with sure, confidant strides he walked between the short row of transport vehicles caring a paper bag in his left hand that rustled with every step and in his right the communication device still pressed to his ear.

This might be the best opportunity to make his own approach but he was too curious about what else the archer had to say to his leader. Maybe he could learn something of value.

"Yeah, I agree, Sir. We shouldn't leave him without a tail for too long." The bag crackled loudly as it was placed on the ground; standing before the door of his abode the mortal rummaged with his now free hand in the pocket of his breeches.

"Aw, damn, where the hell is... eh, sorry boss. I'll be there ASAP, just have to drop off my groceries."

The communicator shifted hands; before long a metallic clinking revealed the item the man had been trying to locate. A set of keys. There was not much time left for eavesdropping, it seemed.

"Where is he, anyway? ...seriously? Huh, OK, don't worry, I'll find him; bastard never stays out of sight for too long."

Oh, now that was interesting. They had the same goal, then. That would make this easier.

"Sure, I'll call when I've found him. Have fun chewing out the drunkards."

As the blond stashed away his device Loki knew he had to make his move, therefore he stood up, out of the shadows and called down from the balcony of the building next to which his prey was still standing, "If you wished to find me you could have just stopped hiding yourself away, you know."

This moment had always been one of the Trickster's favourites - that one precious glimpse behind masks of bravery and arrogant posturing that even the strongest warrior could not avoid to reveal when he dropped his glamour, dispelled an illusion or left the shadows he had drawn around himself. It was a petty amusement, certainly, but he just could not help himself.

And, oh, it was worth it now, to hear the startled little yelp from Agent Barton, to see him flinch ever so slightly at the sudden realisation that he was not alone. The man's reflexes were sharp, however, so it took him no more than that moment of surprise to orient himself, find his opponent and take up arms in defence.

That last part was unfortunate, although Loki had the advantage of higher ground if it came to a fight and, of course, he was not unarmed, either. Alas, a fight was not what he had come for.

Despite the weapon aiming for the Jötunn's head the archer seemed of similar disposition; when he answered it was with a level voice devoid of anger, "I could ask you what you're doing here, but that'd be pointless, right?"

"Hm, maybe I just like the view." How his quip was received was hard to tell for he was still too far away to see the other's expression, but as there was no arrow currently piercing any part of his body he doubted he had caused offence.

"Funny, really funny. But seriously, if you're here to get back at me for shooting you, you know I was just..."

"Following orders? Yes, I am aware and I bare you no ill will for it."

As was so often the case when Loki was at his most sincere, the mocking snort of the mortal conveyed complete disbelief. Nevertheless, the grip on the bow slackened; the weapon was not put away but no longer aimed at him.

"OK, great; that's, uh, good to hear. Though if you don't wanna make me eat sand again, then what do you want? Is it the draw of my charming personality or are you just bored?"

"Yes."

The reply struck the archer silent; there was probably a frown on his face now as he attempted to puzzle out to which of his assumptions it pertained.

Feeling gracious the former prince decided to elaborate, "To both, actually. This... settlement has long since become tiresome but I had planned to have words with you regardless of my current state of restlessness."

The boredom had been a good motivator, however; without it he might have been less inclined to engage a potential enemy. Ah, the risks he was willing to take just to give his mind something to work on and to satiate his curiosity.

Unfortunately, Barton appeared not at all pleased to have caught his attention; as though he had heard the call to arms, the soldier pulled his bow taut but still refrained from aiming it up to his former target. "Sorry, I'm not stoked about your interrogation methods and I really shouldn't have to remind you of how last time turned out for you, buddy."

The threat was evident enough in the man's voice and posture but the harshness of the reaction left Loki rather confused. What had he done to warrant such animosity? He had let his anger get the better of him in that specific battle, admittedly, yet had it not been him who had ended up in chains? Although, Coulson had mentioned the archer's injuries afterwards... Hm.

Sighing he crossed his arms before his chest, not at all happy with the mistrust directed at him or with the way this conversation seemed to go around in circles. Truly, why was it so complicated to just speak to these people? It was like struggling to pull oneself out of a tar pit.

"Now, I would apologise for the harm I have caused you but, then, it was you who facilitated my capture. However..." Before the blond had a chance to misinterpreted his words as a wish for revenge, once more, he held a up hand to forestall any interruptions. "However, that too was likely done at the command of your leader, which is why I seek no retribution. What I do want is to speak with you and to pay you my compliments."

There, that ought to be unambiguous and cordial enough to at least earn him an open ear, though who knew with these strange mortals? Honestly, he had had an easier time conversing with Asgardian soldiers and they had actual grounds to despise him.

"Huh, compliments, yeah? OK. But why don't you come down from your stage so you can deliver those to my face? Would be way more polite, wouldn't it?"

"And why do you not put away your weapon? That would be far more conductive to a pleasant talk, would it not?"

Like two predators hunting for the same prey they each stood rooted to the spot, waiting for the other to heed their suggestion first.

Oh, honestly, this was ludicrous.

With an annoyed huff Loki took the last step to the very edge, where a railing might have once halted his progress - likely rusted away years prior- then, deciding upon a compromise, sat down on the wooden ledge with his legs dangling over thin air.

In response, bow and arrow finally disappeared back into their case, yet the archer let a hand hover over his belt that was sure to hold another one of those black, not-metallic atrocities. The warning was not exactly subtle.

"So, let's hear it, then; shower me with praise, Hamlet!"

Argh, such cheek would have earned him a nasty little curse from the mage on any other day; the magic-less mage, though, found himself disinclined to vent his anger or simply not very angry in the first place. Humour, at least, was preferable to threats.

"Well, now you make me think you do not deserve such kindness from me, after all. I have never been fond of arrogance, you see." On the other hand, he did like the laugh his statement elicited, a tad mocking maybe but full of honest mirth. He had always enjoyed making people laugh.

And even if it was just out of vanity his words had clearly caught the man's interest, enough to have him walk closer until he stood almost underneath the ledge, close enough for his face to finally be visible in the dim light. Or for Loki to kick him.

There was a smirk on Barton's lips and his tone was mildly exasperated when he spoke up, "Come one, man, you wound me. I'm not being arrogant; it's just not every day that someone goes to so much effort just to tell me how great I am."

This playful banter between them seemed an auspicious start for what the Trickster had in mind and plenty amusing besides; even if his endeavour should not succeed, at least he was, for once, not bored. Swinging his feet back and forth, a mere hair's breadth away from the agent's head, he contemplated his next words carefully. The trick was to be charming without making it sound like empty flattery; not an easy feat with someone already suspicious of his intend, but nought that was truly beyond his skills.

The archer watched him expectantly as he, with deliberate slowness, changed position; his legs now crossed beneath him, body leaned forward, chin resting on one hand while the other was tapping nails against the wooden flooring. It brought to mind Vanaheimr's forums, the endless discussions he had taken part in with the brightest of the realms, the grand speeches he had held on theories of life and fate and seidr...

Oh, he could not even recall when he had last done such a thing, let alone found an audience willing to listen to an enemy of Asgard and the mortal was probably just humouring him in order to glean anything of interest to report to his leader but that was no reason not to have fun with this.

"You know, I really ought to be cross with you for defeating me - it is not something I forgive easily in others let alone myself - but your abilities with your chosen weapon are simply far greater than I had previously anticipated." When a look of astonishment crossed the blond's face Loki knew the hook was in place; time to draw the line in carefully. "Now, no need to play at humbleness; surely I am not the first to congratulate you on your marvellous aim."

Again, he had managed to stun the man, but this time not by confusing him; with a grin caught halfway between embarrassment and amusement Barton looked up at him, seemingly lost for words. My, what a charming sight.

"No, no, my talents are , eh... widely revered; gets me all the brownie points and agent-of-the-month awards I could wish for. But 'marvellous aim'? Nah, I don't think anyone's ever put it that nicely. Also, you might be the first mark to ever admire me for shooting him."

"I merely believe in giving respect to those who deserve it." Which was true, though he would be the first to admit that he just as quickly found fault and was never shy of giving voice to that, either. "You might be the best archer I have ever come across and it would be churlish of me not to recognise such aptitude just because you serve my adversaries."

"You've met that many archers?" the mortal asked, probably in jest or in an attempt to assess the validity of his opinion.

Loki had, in fact, met several of the bow carrying soldiers in his life, mostly when he had been chosen as their target, enough of them so that the sharp bite of an arrow-head in his flesh had just become a familiar annoyance. "You would be surprised," he answered, with a smile on his lips and a quirk of an eyebrow. "Sadly, none of them are, shall we say, particularly fond of me and that is why I never had the chance to acquire one as a teacher. With you, however, there is no burden of prior rivalry, if you are willing to discount that one little scuffle, which I am. So, I thought, I might be able to convince you to..."

"Wait, wait, wait! You're not seriously trying to ask me teach you archery? This is... probably the craziest idea I've ever heard."

It was, in the former prince's opinion, a fantastic idea, one that would solve two problems at once for him. Firstly, he would have something with which to occupy himself during his banishment, a better pastime than to steal goods out from under merchants' noses; an activity that might have been entertaining if his very survival were not dependant on it. Even more important, though, was to gain any possible advantage over Thor that he could get a hold of, at least until either of them regained their inherent powers. Furthermore, this might truly be the only chance he would receive at mastering this weapon and thus not one he would let go to waste.

Armed with these, to him, very convincing arguments, all Loki replied with was, "Well, yes."

He had always liked making people laugh, but being laughed at was a different matter; he was quite tempted to end the display of hilarity with a weighty kick to the other man's white teeth.

But before he could contemplate losing a potential ally in favour of saving his already bruised pride Barton calmed himself again, quickly enough that it was likely in answer to the tight frown on the Jötunn's face. "Sorry," he said, while wiping tears from his cheeks. "Sorry, I just... man, you are a strange one. First you try to kill me, then I get you arrested and now you wanna be my apprentice? You don't see anything wrong with that?"

Put like that, his request did sound laughable, yes, but if he only ever had been taught by people who wished him no ill at all he would probably not even know how to read. Although he would still be a skilled warrior, thanks to Helblindi's tutelage.

Naturally, he did understand the mortal's hesitance, wherefore he thought it prudent to point out one of his more recent mistakes, distasteful as it was. "You are right, Barton. What I ask of you is rather unusual and a risk to you personally. Yet I have already given my word to the son of Coul that I will not harm any of your people, that includes you, as well. Is that not enough of a concession?"

"Son of Coul?" the archer asked, sounding baffled, as though he were not sure he had heard correctly, but he dismissed the question with a shake of his head and a resigned "Never mind", too quickly to leave room for an answer. "Look, as much as I would love to make you do a hundred sit-ups or get you to shoot so many arrows that your fingers start to bleed - and, believe me, I would get a kick out of that - I'm pretty sure that giving a potential threat to national security combat lessons counts as some form of treason. My boss probably has a form for that."

"Treason? Now, there is no need to be so dramatic; I wish merely to..."

The Norns, apparently, were not even remotely interested in what he wished for as they used that very moment to bring both the conversation and Loki's heart to a screeching halt.  All they needed for that was one sound. Unmistakable among all others, as it was one he had not heard anywhere else in the realms but here, in this Midgardian village in a prior confrontation with the very same opponent.

The loud bang was accompanied by shuffling footsteps and shouted calls of the blond agent's name. And Loki knew he was in trouble because he had not even noticed the approach of other people in the street, had let himself be lulled into a false sense of security that had been created not by trust in vows or honour or any such frivolous nonsense but by trust in his own abilities. How these abilities compared to the archer's aim had been proven once before and again he was outnumbered as he saw when he looked to his left where the other, still clearly drunk mortals stood with their weapons pointed at his head.

"There he is, the fucker! Thought ya could play with us and we wouldn't notice, eh? But we've b'n  watchin' ya, weirdo," one of them drawled; his hand holding the black device wavering up and down with each stumbling step he took, enough so that he was in danger of hitting the agent still standing below the balcony by accident, should he choose to start the battle in earnest.

Far from being concerned for his well being, Barton just looked back and forth between his comrades and his opponent until, having reached some sort of conclusion, he levelled an annoyed stare and an accusing question at Loki. "Aw, no. What the hell did you do?"

When asked by worried members of his family, by companions he had dragged into trouble with him or even by his chosen nemesis this question would have been easily brushed aside, but for a Midgardian to have the gall to speak to him thus....

"What have I done? You were the one who tricked me, lured me into a trap! You... you foul little wretch, you will pay for this!"

Caught in a whirlwind of fury and frustration he sprang to his feet, untangled two knives from his hair and prepared to jump to the ground to face the damnable man of Shield. He did not get very far, however, ere a second bang reverberated through the village, louder even then the first and coming from his right.

Startled he whipped his head in the direction of the soldier's abode where he could spot a blur of red curls and black armour through an open window.

Yes, this definitely had been a trap and he had walked right into it, fool that he was.

With a growl he threw up his right arm to sling his knife at his attacker, yet the limb would not obey and the dragon shard fell uselessly to the floor. Only then did he become aware of a hot, sharp pain near his shoulder, the ever growing red stain on his shift.

This... this could not be good.

The pain became more intense with every little movement of his arm, it was like a piece of burning coal in his veins.

No, not good at all.

He could curse the Norns or pray to them or to his ancestors above all he wished but none of that would save him now, he was sure. Here on Midgard he was on his own and surrounded by far too many threats. Pride would have prevented him from taking the coward's way out, once more, but pride could very likely get him killed.

How much blood could a mortal lose before he was beyond help?

Deciding he would not wait here to find out he used the fingers of his one good arm to put pressure on the wound and looked right and left for an escape route. The two drunkards were still standing in front of the building, now in a heated discussion with the pesky blond; the unknown member of the group had disappeared from the window, however. He could never hope to win a fight against the four agents, all of them armed with these helish things and with him wounded...

"Hey, wait! This wasn't a..." The shout form below was ignored, as were the subsequent bouts of colourful curses; all Loki could concentrate on was the wooden floor beneath his feet and the warm liquid beneath his hand. As quickly as he was able to and as silently - besides the occasional pain-filled wince - he ran, first to the edge of the balcony then, after a jump to the sandy ground, away from the threat.

He did not look back to see if he was being followed, did not allow himself to worry about what might lie ahead. With his heart drumming in his chest and his breath wheezing out of his lungs he kept running like a beast escaping slaughter.

And this - running, fleeing, fearing - was becoming an all too familiar routine by know. A braver, more honourable man might have stayed and faced his enemies; the Thunderer, he was certain, would have rather died than leave a battle in shame. To him, however, survival had always been of higher value than victory or glory, and shame could only be felt by the living. Just like pain.

The pain was exquisite, really, turning form a hot ember to a searing, serrated blade moving below his skin and shredding his nerves. More than once he had to stop in his directionless dash through the village to catch his breath and to take a look at his injury, covered in the cursed sea of red.

He needed aid, that was growing more and more clear; unfortunately, he had never discovered a healer in all the days he had spent studying the settlement. Even had he known their whereabouts, however, the risk of seeking out such a person was too great, given that Coulson's army was watching everyone and everything. And aside from that, any law-abiding citizen was more likely to deliver him to their peacekeepers than to offer him help.

The thought of Erik Selvig suddenly came to mind as he, ever more slowly, shuffled through the unlit roads, passing abandoned houses and rusty vehicles but luckily not a single other living soul. The curious mortal had approached him so very casually, as though they were acquaintances of old, and he had dressed his then minimal wounds with such delicate care as a father might have done for a son; all this without denying his alliance to Asgard's golden prince and while fully aware of Loki's identity. And there had been young Darcy, as well, who had looked at him with honest worry in her eyes when he had let his mask slip for just a moment...

But no, that was not an option, not even a terrible one. No, he might as well fall on one of his own knives; that would likely prove less fatal.

Yet his traitorous feet had carried him right to the strange glass house, without consulting his mind, before they gave out from under him. With a dull thud he fell to his knees, lungs burning for air, head pounding in sync with his heart, tiny white and black spots dancing in front of his eyes...

Oh, but the pain in his arm was gone now, leaving behind a strange numbness that he might have called cold, except that cold was good and familiar and comforting.

This was... this had to be wrong. Had someone hacked off his limb at the shoulder when he was not looking? No, no it was still there, he could still see it; moving the useless thing was another matter.

"Loki?"

Norns, could this day get any worse?

Needing to see who was addressing him, though knowing he would not be able to defend himself against anyone here, let alone one of the few who knew his name, he turned his head away from the grains of sand on the ground up to the blurred face of his potential new attacker.

He made out a shimmering crown of gold and two pools of deep blue - familiar colours and an equally familiar shape; the name was at the tip of his tongue...

But before he could fully put his thoughts in order the blackness encroached on his sight; his pulse became a slow, lulling rhythm drowning out the intruder's voice and he was swept under the sweet, comforting wave of nothingness.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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TO

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The first time Thor had attended a hunt he had been naught but a child, small enough that he had needed help to mount his horse and far too young, at least according to his mother. Yet it was his father who had decided that as a prince he should finally take that integral step towards manhood at the tender age of 700.

At the break of day, surrounded by finely clad, high spirited nobles Thor, of course, was more excited than he had ever been before. None of the other boys in his circle of friends had been allowed to hunt yet, and to him this was a sign that maybe, if he comported himself right and managed to hit at least one of the boars, Father might even let him begin formal warrior training early. Sif would be so envious!

It certainly went off to a very auspicious beginning as the party left the palace grounds in the direction of the forest and every one of the men in attendance seemed to have a compliment to offer to the little prince, be it the perfect way he sat in his saddle to the impressive figure of a warrior he presented with that spear in hand, specifically crafted for his small stature but with an actual sharp metal tip that set it apart from just a child's toy.

He had been instructed not to use the spear on a person, had received lessons on how to hold and throw it and Mother had been very, very insistent that he understood he was only to take it up for this one day and then it would be stored in the armoury. Thor, though quite miffed by the prospect of losing his first weapon again so soon, agreed to all of it readily and without the least bit of arguing because the prize at the end was far too precious to risk.

Hunting was one of the Aesir's favourite ways to pass the time - right after sparing - and so many of the most thrilling tales began as a normal day in a hero's life, out hunting with his shield-brothers, which more often than not let to him chasing after a mysterious beast that was threatening the poor townsfolk and, after a mighty battle, slaying the foul thing to the wonder and adoration of the whole realm. Now, he was well aware that even Father would not be pleased were he to try at being a hero this day and the beasts selected for this occasion were nothing more than wild boars which, while the size of an adult Às, were not any more impressive than the pigs farmers held in the sty; still, he could not help but feel as though he were embarking on a true quest of epic proportions.

And he was riding beside the Allfather which always let pride swell his chest as that was a clear signal to the realm that he was the heir. The future king.

This was surely the best day he could recall in his, admittedly short, life, especially when he looked to his left up into his father's face and saw that so very rare smile only reserved for family and a confidence in him that Thor was determined not to disappoint. He knew that no one believed he would be able to slay one of the animals and it was definitely not expected of a lad his age, but for him that just meant they would be all the more impressed if he accomplished such a feat.

Despite being called the Golden Realm Asgard had plenty of gardens and fields and small clusters of trees throughout the villages and even in the busy capital of Gladsheim, but when people spoke of 'The Forest' no one needed to ask twice which of them was meant. Like the massive mountains had done for countless millennia the forest encompassed the southern part of the realm and together they formed a grey-green semi-circle that shielded any unwary traveller from the Void beyond. Also like the mountains, the forest was forbidden to any citizen under the age of majority because of the dangers hidden therein - true dangers that far out-ranged the occasional wild animal and which warriors were oftimes sent to eliminate. Only a few months past there had been a group of trolls that were held responsible for many a farmer's complain of missing livestock and before that the Einherjar had arrested a band of thieves who had taken up their lair here; not to mention the tales associated with this corner of the realm that were known to every Asgardian - of evil sprites, hiding in the crowns of the tallest trees, that put curses on those unable to solve their riddles or the Frost Giants, more likely to be found in caves along the mountains, that were just waiting for a foolish child to wander into their traps.

All that meant, of course, was that young boys in particular were fascinated with this place and that it therefore featured heavily in the mock battles they played with wooden swords and shields, often as re-enactments of actual quests undertaken by their fathers or elder brothers or as boastful prediction of future ones they themselves were sure to take part in. And - despite the dire warnings delivered by every parent in the realm and the possible punishment that might await them should they be caught by a sentry - it was a time-honoured tradition among the Einherjar to dare their newest recruits to venture to the lake in the very midst of the forest and bring back a catch of fish as proof of their courage.

As this was Thor's very first visit to this otherwise inaccessible environs he was slightly overwhelmed, trying to take in everything at once in order to be able to give a detailed retelling to his friends at the feast that was scheduled for the evening. A forest, in itself, may not usually be something on which one could hold long and enrapturing accounts yet this one was different. It was not enchanted as those of Álfheimr or nearly as vast as the Green Hills in western Vanaheimr but every tree, every boulder and even the little deer trails leading away from the main path held significance.

There were the ruins of a long abandoned temple to the Norns to his right and here a deadened crop of trees that must have fallen victim to that terrible thunderstorm four centuries prior - the result of a battle between two rivalling sorcerers, if rumours were to be believed - and that circle of black earth amidst the otherwise verdant pasture was this where the dragon Fritjof had been slain by a young prince Vili?

Ah, it was like taking a ride through Asgard's history and, though Thor was by no means a studious child, he thought he might pay more attention to his tutors if they could make their lessons even half as interesting.

The woods became denser and darker the further the hunting party moved toward it's heart; the loud and boisterous voices of the men had diminished into only the occasional whisper and the shining weapons had long since been conveyed from their sheaths to the strong and mighty hands of their wielders, and while many of his age might have been frightened in this situation, instead he felt elated for soon the true hunt would begin!

Still , a small, secret part of him could not help but also feel a little bit intimidated and not by the creatures that might lurk amongst the trees but by the Aesir in his company - tall and proud and seasoned warriors, with sharp and battle-tested weapons that no one would mistake for mere toys. Thor knew many of their names and deeds, knew that he was riding beside men who had gone to war with his father, who had defended the realm and the peace of the Nine for most of their lives. In a few short centuries he would be just like them and he would be the one they told tales of in the mead halls. Oh, that time cannot come fast enough, he thought with a thrill in his heart. But first he had to show he was worthy of such honour by, well, not losing his nerve.

It was one thing to try himself at piercing imaginary foes in the safety of the palace grounds but here, when it really counted and with so many curious eyes on him, it was another matter entirely.  What if he proved to have rotten aim? What if he lost hold of the spear? What if he made a fool of himself? To have the other boys and especially Sif hold this day over his head forever would not be pleasant, yet even worse was the idea of his father witnessing his failure.

Luckily, the time to dwell on his worries seemed to have come to an end when, up ahead, the signal was given to dismount. Thor would have much preferred to stay seated on his horse, if for nought else but the advantage of added height, yet he had been told that the noble animals, while too well bread to shy at the approach of a mere boar, were at too great a risk of injury during the hunt or, even worse, could easily crush a rider underneath them if felled.

So the party continued their journey on foot and in almost unbroken silence, although had they suddenly begun to loudly recite some epic ballad it would not have made a difference for the deep pulsing in the prince's ears could have easily drowned them all out.

As he followed his father through the thicket Thor frantically tried to remember everything he had learned about these beasts. There had been a lesson by Master Rolfe, one of the few that had not necessitated a struggle with sleep. "Boars travel in groups... they have a keen sense of smell and very good ears... the females are the more aggressive, especially when protecting their young..." Oh, but how could one tell when they were near or where to hit them for a clean kill?

As focused as he was on every little rustle of leafs or the possible snuffle of an animal he could not quite suppress a yelp from escaping his lips as a heavy hand fell on his shoulder and Thor was glad for the darkness that prevented anyone from seeing him blush in embarrassment. "We are close," Father said in a hushed, slightly amused tone. "We will attempt to surround the boars; stay behind me and do not strike before I tell you to, my son."

With a decisive nod he did as he was told, walking in the footsteps of those before him, all the while wondering how he could have overheard the beasts' angry snarling or whatever else the other hunters must have taken as a sign of their proximity. Well, he could always ask them later on, when they returned victorious with their spoils tied to their mounts; there were more important things to consider now. Such as, how to walk behind the party without making too much noise but fast enough so as not to miss out on the hunt itself.

They could not have trekked through the forest like this for longer than half an hour before Thor became aware of a faint noise from behind him. Now, he was sure that, while clever, pigs were not exactly known to be sneaky, especially not the giant wild kind, but then he had not been able to hear the beasts earlier, had he?

Heart thumping in his chest he thought on what to do. He could alert Father, who was walking only a few paces in front of him, yet maybe the king already knew about this; maybe letting the animals come to them was part of the strategy and Thor would show to the entire party that he was a complete simpleton for not understanding it. If the others were oblivious to the threat, however, would they not blame him should the boars suddenly chose to charge?

When the rustling from behind grew louder he knew he had run out of time; he had to act now and stop worrying so much. After all, he was a prince of Asgard and, like the heroes of his favourite tales, he should not need to ask for help, should not wait for anyone else to strike down the monster.

Decision made he took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and, in one fluid move, turned on his heel to throw his spear into the direction of the low hanging branches that he assumed the boar to hide behind. For a tense moment he thought to have missed but then a high whine broke the silence, which honestly surprised the young prince. He had believed to have aimed far too low to have hurt an animal so large, at best he had hoped to shoo it away or to chase it out of hiding. Yet judging from the pitiful noise he must have hit something vital. He did not long remain the only one to notice this.

"What was that, Thor? What have I told you about waiting for my word?"

Why Father sounded so angry he could not understand; yes, strictly speaking he had disobeyed but surely that was not important now that he had managed such an impressive kill all on his own.

"I am sorry, Father, but it was behind us and I thought I could..."

Any chance he might have had to explain himself vanished when General Týr arrived, his expression equally grim and foreboding. Norns, had he just ruined it all?

"My king, should I give signal to halt the hunt? We will lose the trail but..."

In answer the king shook his head, which Thor only saw out of the corner of one eye, while the other was busy studying his muddy boots.

"No, that will not be necessary. Continue on without me; I will see what mighty foe my son has slayed today." While his words were good-natured, his tone was decidedly not. This did not bode well.

Nervously the little Ás was shuffling his feet, waiting for the adults to depart and for the shame to leave him, as well. He did not dare to look up until he felt his father's hand on his shoulder, once more.

"Come Thor, let us discover your spoils, then." It was a clear command, one he would not have disobey in a lifetime.

The clearing they had passed earlier was not far away but it seemed to take forever to reach it. Once there, Father brushed the branches aside to let him walk through unhindered and to give an unobstructed view of the felled animal that lay beyond.

"Well, that his definitely not a boar, Son." The kings tone was lighter now, maybe relived to see his son had not accidentally killed something sacred or sentient. Thor, on the other hand, felt bile rising up in his throat and tears filling his wide eyes.

For there before him lay a deer, a tiny deer and it was still alive. The spear was stuck in one of its little legs and the poor thing was trying to get up from the ground again and again without success.

Oh Norns, what had he done?

"Father, I am sorry. I never meant to... it was an accident... I did not want..."

At his words the deer just struggled harder, probably afraid he was going to hurt it again. Quickly he took a few steps back, wishing he knew how to calm the little fawn and that there were some way to fix his mistake. With a shred of hope in his heart he looked up to his father; surely if anyone could put this to rights it was him.

"Now Thor, no need to be so upset; what is done is done." At least he was not angry anymore but his words were not what the young prince wanted to hear. And those that followed even less so. "There is no use in standing around here; we should put it out of its misery now."

What? No, no, no, no! There had to be something they could do.

"But, but, you have magic! You can help it, right? Or, or Eir, she can heal it. We could..."

"Thor, this is an animal and it is on its own; we will not waste the healers' resources for something that is likely not going to survive this year in any case."

Before he could bring up the courage to protest, again, the king took his hand and led him back to the clearing where both of them crouched down before the fallen deer. It was barely moving now but its eyes, big and fearful, seemed to stare at Thor in silent accusation. He wanted desperately to run away - back to the palace, back to Mother - however, the Norns and Father had other ideas.

"A cut along its neck will be cleanest and quickest. Here."

There was a blade in the king's hand, golden with sparkling opals, and it's hilt was held out toward him. Was he supposed to...? was he expected to...?

Terrified and shaking he lifted his tear-filled eyes from the blade to the king, hoping to see that this was merely a jest and, when he could find no indication of that, to plead for a different Fate.

"Father, I... I cannot. Please, I cannot do this." He was shaking his head in denial; tears were freely falling down his cheeks but he did not bother with whipping them away. Surely Father would not ask him to kill that poor little thing? It was hardly more than a babe.

"Thor..." Whatever the other Às had meant to say was interrupted when the prince began to sniffle, something he had not done in years, not even when Fandral had broken his finger during a particularly rough battle. Only then was the dagger taken away, but not to be put back in its sheath. "Very well, Son; we will leave that lesson for another time. But you will have to learn this eventually; a hunt is not all fun and games, after all."

He said nothing to this, did not trust his voice at all; instead, he turned his head away, closed his eyes tight for good measure and the only reason he did not also cover his ears against the poor animal's last painful breaths was that he had his arms slung around himself in order to keep from trembling.

When it was finally over and the two made their way back home Thor's thoughts were not on what he would tell his friends or on the feast or even on the disappointment he had seen in his father's eye, but on the pain he had caused to that innocent creature.

I will never go on a hunt, ever again, he swore to himself then.

Yet it was not a promise he would be able to keep for long. And after many years and many successful quests he had hardened his heart enough that the prospect of taking a life no longer held any horror in store for him. Be it the life of an animal or that of fellow men.

In fact, he had not thought of that incident for a very long time. Until more than a thousand years later, when his enemy lay before him, as helpless as that fawn and all he could think was "This is not what I wanted".

.........

"Loki?"

It had been meant as a question but the other man was clearly unable to answer as only a moment later he fell face-forward into the sand. Thor could do nothing but stare as he saw his enemy lie before him in a crumbled heap.

What had happened here? Who could have reduced the Trickster to this? And was that blood on his arm? Wait...

"This is wrong; his blood is not supposed to be... this has to be a trick."

He had seen Loki wounded many times over their centuries long acquaintance, mostly cuts and bruises as a result of scuffles between them; he had even seen the other with half his body burned and there had been that one time when the giant's face had bled so profusely that his anguished expression beneath had barely been discernible. But never had such an image shocked him so deeply as it did now because there was something significantly wrong with it.

The mortals, of course, could not understand this and chose, therefore, to misinterpreted the disgust in his voice to have far more sinister reasons.

"Seriously? You think he would just play around like that? You two really have issues," Darcy proclaimed with no small amount of anger, then she pushed passed him to examine the still form of the black haired prince.

Yes, he did believe his enemy capable of such vile trickery, yet he could not understand the point of this. Was he trying to gain access to Jane's home? To garner pity from the mortals? The latter truly was quite unlike Loki; a man so damnably proud that he would rather risk his life than to seek help. It had ever been so, even when the two of them had been nought but children.

Those thoughts led to even more uncomfortable memories, however, and he was glad for Selvig's interruption, as confusing as it was.

"Em, what do you mean his blood is wrong? Loki has said that to me before, but I didn't understand him. What is wrong with it?"

When had that conversation taken place? Certainly not in his presence. Should he be worried about such secrets being kept from him? First, though, he should probably explain himself; maybe then the ladies would cease looking at him as though he had been the one to put the other prince in this predicament.

"The Frost Giants' blood is blue, like their skin. But this... he is trying to fool us." Because whatever substance was drenching the villain's shift was red like rubies, like Aesir blood.  Like mine.

How such a deception was possible without magic he had no idea, not that he would have put it past that fiend to just douse himself in animal blood or red paint or, even worse, to find a way around his father's sentencing. Maybe then, this trick was not directed at his Midgardian companions at all, but at him; to lure him into a trap, make himself look harmless, appear as easy prey. No matter his motivation, it was not safe for them to linger here, when at any moment now one of these ever convoluted schemes could come into fruition.

He placed a hand on Darcy's shoulder, the young woman was kneeling beside Loki pressing her coat on the still bleeding wound on his right arm. "My friend," he said gently so as not to startle her, "you have a kind heart and I know it is in your nature to help even one like him, but he is dangerous; you should step away from him now."

She did not move at his suggestion, did not so much as look up from her task and where he might have felt insulted by that obvious dismissal from others he knew her well enough by now to see it as a sign of sheer stubbornness that could easily match his own. There was no point in arguing with her so he directed his hope to the other lady in their little group, only to be confronted with a look of shock that had nothing to do with him and everything with the pale, limp form lying on the sandy ground.

"He needs help, actual medical help. We have to take him to a hospital." Jane sounded panicked, which could have simply been the result of the sight of so much blood or because her sympathy, too, knew no bounds, not even towards almost strangers. Either way, his warnings would fall on deaf ears here, as well. Which left him with only one person to whom he could turn, who could be expected to apply a little common sense.

Strangely enough, it seemed, he need not even say a word to sway the man.

"We can't, Jane. It's too risky."

"But we need..."

Sighing heavily the elderly mortal carded a hand through his grey hair, his gaze was stuck for a while on the fallen figure but after another unhappy sigh he looked back up, his eyes holding none of the earlier drunken levity.

"We can't. If Shield was behind this, and I'm sure they were, then they will immediately look for him there or at any local doctor's office."

Shield. Well, if he had fallen afoul of those men than he must have committed some crime or another to deserve this. Thor himself was not overly fond of Coulson's people; still, they had left him to his own devises for more than two weeks now. For them to strike it would have certainly needed some form of open aggression.

He had no chance to voice these concerns, little good they might have done him in any case, because the two mortals were not yet finished arguing.

"We can hardly just leave him out here. And I don't see the problem; we took Thor to the hospital without a hitch."

Oh, yes, that had been an undignified experience, not one he would wish to repeat, though if the Midgardians there had any understanding of healing he could not understand Selvig's protest, either.

"Yes, but we had no idea who he was, then. Don't you think the staff might be a bit alarmed at finding an alien on their operating table?"

"Why does that... Thor, what do you think?"

A bit startled at being addressed and puzzled by most of their words he had no idea how to answer Jane's question or what it even pertained to. Clearly that confusion was evident on his face for she repeated and then explained herself only a moment later.

"Do you think it would be safe to take him to an Earth doctor? I mean, you said the two of you were... eh, turned human. To what extend? Would someone looking at him, looking at his blood, his anatomy figure out that he's... different?"

Now, that was a difficult question and an uncomfortable one. Were Loki and he entirely mortal? Was anything of their old, superior selves left to them? He would have liked to think he was still Aesir in part yet he had been unable to lift his family's heirloom. And as for Laufeyson, well that blood - if it was indeed real - showed that the change was not just on the outside, was no mere illusion.

Filled with uncertainty and troubling thoughts all he could do was shrug his shoulders.

"I know not. My father took our powers, our immortality; I cannot tell whether that makes us alike Midgardians in truth or if your healers would be able to tell the difference. I just... I do not know."

"Then we can't risk it," Erik Selvig replied, not with anger, nor reproach, only sadness. As though he were mourning the fact that they could not give aid to one who should by rights be their enemy. It was hard to understand, but if it got them to abandon their strange quest than he would not take issue with it.

Jane, however, was not so easily convinced. Taking a few steps toward her older friend, determination clear in her warm brown eyes, she continued to discuss the matter. "Fine. Then tell me what else to do. We are not just leaving him here; that's... I know you think that's exactly what we should do"-and here she pointed a finger at Thor's chest as though to stab him-"but we're not that kind of people. We didn't grow up killing  things and boasting about battles and bloodshed and whatnot. Human's help each other, at least they are meant to and he might not be our friend but he isn’t our enemy, either, get it? We can't just..."

"Whatever the hell we're doing, I think we should do it fast, like, now!" Came the sudden shout from behind the arguing scholars who, upon hearing it, stepped away from each other as if burned and thereby revealed the young mortal who had stayed silent until now, still kneeling in the sand, hands covered in red, tears in her eyes. "The bleeding, it won't stop and I think his pulse is really slow. I... we need to hurry up, guys; he doesn't have much time left."

Not much time. Did that mean Loki could die from this trivial little injury?

He had not meant to ask this aloud but the looks of both anger and pity made it apparent that he had misstepped, once more.

"Yes, Thor, he can die from this. Mortals die from all sorts of trivial stuff, you know. "

Oh. What was he to say to that? Moreover, what was he to think?

He had been aware of the mortals' vulnerability, of course, but he had also come to appreciate their advancements. Surely, while developing faster and unique ways to travel and cook and to entertain themselves they had bettered their methods of healing enough that no one would just perish of what, to him, looked like nothing more than a stab wound?

And if, indeed, Loki was to die here? How was he supposed to feel?

For about half the time that they had known each other both he and the Trickster had made honest, unveiled attempts to end the other's life. He could not say what had started it, when the desire to stop the damned villain from creating mischief had become synonymous with killing him, but he had never questioned the necessity of it. Nor did he do so now.

Still, whenever he had pictured his final victory over his nemesis it had always been preceded by an extensive, gruelling battle; both of them fighting to the brink of their abilities and the last shreds of strength; neither of them caring for their own survival nor for their surroundings, which such fateful duel would have probably reduced to ashes.

The idea had never been for him to just stumble upon the other already half dead, as if finding a sheep scavenged by a wolf, and for the infamous Silvertongue to be too weak to utter even on last scathing insult.

Certainly, Thor had never imagined he would one day question whether such victory was right or wrong, good or bad.

This did not feel much like a victory.

In fact, he felt almost as if in a dream, confused, disoriented and numb to what he thought he ought to feel instead. That sensation did not change even when it seemed the mortals had finally concluded their argument about possible healers and the group made their way back toward their abode, with Loki hanging limply between Erik and Darcy, and he had to trudge after them like a beaten dog. They had not asked for his help, though that was not a surprise, and he was unsure of whether or not he would have given it.

He was unsure of a great many things at the moment.

Once they had arrived and the injured man was carefully deposited on the lounge it was Selvig who administered some form of basic healing, but after cleaning the wound, it seemed, another problem had arisen.

"It wasn't a clean shot. The bullet is still inside."

He understood not what this meant for the other prince's chance of survival but when he saw Jane falling into a chair in clear exhaustion and hear the younger women exclaim a horrified "Oh God" he knew it could not be good.

"I can't do this on my own. He needs a doctor, a surgeon probably."

Oh, this was bound to lead to yet another quarrel, not that the sole Asgardian in the room could even begin to make heads or tail of their concerns. Why did they mistrust their 'doctors' so thoroughly? In his experience those who had dedicated their lives to the healing arts were kind, gentle and would never turn away someone in need, no matter their standing or origin. From the earlier discussion, however, it had sounded as though Loki were to be in graver danger still, should the Midgardians in that 'hospital' learn of who he was. Ugh, why was this realm so very contradictory to all that he had learned to take for granted?

Not even their disagreements were predictable.

"Do you still have that card, Jane? The one Agent Coulson gave you?" Selvig asked once he had stepped away from the daybed, apparently finished with what aid he could give. Almost absent-mindedly the mortal was cleaning his hands on a towel that he must have retrieved from the kitchen, the fabric had been yellow before, now it was tinged with spots of red; Thor felt the strange urge to look away.

"What do you want with that? Are you going to send them a bill from the dry cleaner's?"

There was the usual humour in Darcy's voice but it was muted by the heavy air of despondency that seemed to have swept over the room.  She did not make the attempt to smile, her gaze directed at the Frost Giant's unconscious form.

Leaning against the wall that connected the scholars' laboratory with the little niche of a sitting room it was easy for him to view all of his companions, to see the worry on their faces, the uncertainty on how to proceed. He also saw the moment that Jane seemed to fully understand her mentor's question.

"Are you... are you kidding me?" the brunet asked, confusion and anger displayed on her pretty face, "You want to ask them for help?"

"We have no choice," Selvig replied with finality.

"You told me, minutes ago, that we can't get him help because of Shield, and now you want to... to get them to make a house call?"

Well, he could certainly understand her reservations; he would not like to be left in the mercy of these men, either. And if they were responsible for Loki's injury...

"They are bound to have skilled doctors and they wouldn't be surprised to discover something unique about him. It's likely they already know who he is."

Actually, that was rather unlikely; the Trickster had ever been skilled at lying and keeping secrets, at hiding in plain sight. If he had not been careless enough to reveal himself on purpose, and that was even less probable, then this Midgardian army was just as blind to his identity as Asgard's had often been in the past.

Yet it was not Shield's abilities that the younger scholar seemed to question, but their actions.

"They tried to kill him, Erik!"

It was a shout that nonetheless could not cover the quiver in her voice; only a fool would have missed how much this brush with death - even if only indirectly - was affecting her, was affecting all of them. Norns, when had he last been so innocent?

Thankfully, Selvig was of a more practical nature and also more prone to channel his fear into fury. Quickly, and without further discussion he walked across the room to the still cluttered table in order to snatch up his black communication device. On his walk back he came to a halt in front of Jane and held the little machine out to her.

"Exactly, and that means they can be held accountable to clean up their own damn mess."

 

.........

 

Later, when the healers had done their work and the agent Coulson was outside with the three other occupants of the house to - as he had put it - "Settle some legal matters", Thor found himself alone with Loki for the first time in weeks.

He had stayed away during the entire healing procedure, had sat up on the roof that his mortal friends often went to in order to clear their heads after a long day of research. It had not done the same trick for him; he was still as unsure of his feelings as he had been when he they had stumbled upon the bloodied, unconscious form in the sand.

As he saw him lying there now, so pale and weak on only slightly whiter sheets Thor could not help but remember the only other time his enemy had appeared thus. When the awl had pierced the thin blue lips he had for once not looked angry or spiteful but truly afraid. And while at that occasion it had been easy to recall the reason for the Trickster's plight and so feel justified in laughing at the pitiful sight, he could not do so now. Yes, he still hated the man and had no doubt at all that this feeling was mutual, and yes, he still wished this fiend dead, but he would not strike at him now.

It was not only the rules of an honourable battle which held him back, but the sheer feeling of wrongness when he even thought about such an act. The wound was on his dominant arm, now swathed in wide bandages; it was unlikely that he would be able to make full use of it soon, nor that he could have managed to hold his knives steady, and yet it was unquestionable for any warrior to just lie still and accept defeat at the hands of his enemy. No, Loki would fight back and the effort alone might kill him. That was too ugly a way to die, even for someone so deeply evil. There was justice and then there was cruelty, and somehow Thor knew with certainty, that neither of them could stoop so low.

He needed to make a decision on how to go on from here and if he wanted to preserve his honour as well as his enemy's dignity there really was only one possibility.

But first Loki would have to wake. And to agree to his suggestion.

The latter might be the bigger hindrance.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

.........

LL

.........

 

The first time he awoke it was to white hot pain and loud, unfamiliar voices speaking words he could barely decipher. Whoever these voices belonged to, they seemed to be arguing, a discussion about "transfusions"  and "bullets " and something called "meds". None of that told him anything useful, except to show he was still on Midgard but apparently not amongst those few mortals he had met before; that alone would have been enough to unnerve him. Add to that the very irritating feeling of being talked over as though he were not even present and he was more than ready to make his protests known, to demand an explanation or to just throw curses left and right at whoever dared to touch him without permission, yet the pitiful little moan which left his mouth was probably not helpful at conveying any of that.

The next attempt at speech was no more comprehensible and merely alerted him to the severe dryness of his throat. Had he swallowed a bucket of sand at one point?

Ugh, and it was unbearably warm here, wherever here was; he could feel the sweat beading his forehead, running into his eyes. He dearly wanted to blink the drops away but his eyelids were too heavy. Had they always been so heavy? Or was he just unusually weak? That had to be the true problem; Midgard had made him weak. Or had that been Odin?

Well, certainly Odin was to blame for all of this, but there had been another, with blond hair and grey eyes, a bow over his shoulder and two more, no, three. A trap... a noise... a flash of red...

This time when a sigh rasped through his throat it was more a sound of annoyance. What an utter fool the mortals must think him, to walk right into his own doom. When had he last been so careless?

"Oh shit, he's waking up!"

Who? Ah, it seemed he was no longer being ignored. Lovely.

Now, if he could get them to cease their prodding...

"Hey, hey, stop moving. You need to stop..."

He was a prince of Jötunheimr, who was that little mortal to command him to do anything? Just to be contrary he struggled ever more against the hands and strangely soft, thin bindings and... oh, damn.

With one wrong movement the pain in his shoulder doubled, then tripled in intensity.  Ancestors, this was... bad. Not the worst agony he had ever felt, not even the worst in a century, but it was harder, somehow, to push past it, to let his mind wander away from it.

His thoughts were a muddled mess of memories, voices, images; it was impossible to focus and therefore he felt every moment, every nuance of the blade moving under his shoulder. And the heat was becoming more oppressive, not necessarily in strength but it was everywhere now, settling in his bones and lungs as if the very air were sweltering. Were they cooking him alive?

Damn, it was time for another escape, time for him to run again, if only his legs were not so terribly heavy. One after another, then.

"Oh no, no, no. Don't try to get up. Fuck!"

There were more hands holding him down now and there was no point in fighting them because they all had the strength of trolls and apparently a similar understanding of gentleness.

He shouted in anger but it must have come closer to a cry of pain because the hands loosened their hold and suddenly there was another voice to his left, higher, feminine; one delicate hand was carefully caressing his uninjured shoulder.

"It's OK, please calm down. We will take care of this. The pain will be gone in a moment."

Then the unknown woman turned away from him, seeming to speak to yet another person behind her.

"Anderson, prepare another 2mg of Ketamine; we need to get him under before he manages to move the bullet even deeper."

Soon, a sharp sting at his inner arm joined the many small aches all over his body. He was far too weak to fight this attack, pitiful as it was, and his mouth was unable to form actual words so he could not object, either. All he could do was lie there and feel miserable, but oh...

Oh, this was nice.

The mortal healer had been true to her word for the pain was fading, leaving behind a sensation of weightlessness, like flying over the softest clouds or swimming in the over-salted seas of Svartálfheimr's moon.

It was not long before he was entirely free of pain, drifting through water and sky and only a moment later he felt nothing at all.

 

.........

 

The second time, he woke to quite murmurs and to a stranger patting his hand. Now, this was odd but not unpleasant so he might have easily returned to sleep had he not heard his name spoken among the whispers.

Carefully he cracked open an eyelid, only to close it again tightly against the harsh bright light from above.

"Ugh." Ah, and his voice was still a useless wisp of air, wonderful.

Luckily, more was not needed to alert his unknown companion to his sate of consciousness.

"Loki," she said again, with a voice that he was sure to have heard before, although he could not picture the face to which it belonged. She was no threat, that became clear almost immediately, when she moved her hand from his to pat his hair, instead.

Why were the mortals so very tactile? The Jötnar were not exactly shy when it came to physical contact, yet people in general tended not to touch them for fear of being burned. There had been that child, who also had been bold enough to threaten him...

The second try at taking in his surrounding was less jarring; the light was still a nuisance but he was better prepared for it, only having to blink a few times to adjust his eyes to the brightness. And there she was, little Darcy, smiling down on him and continuing to smooth out a few strands that had escaped his braids, like a mother might do to comfort an ailing child.

"Not my mother," he said quietly, gravelly. 

Why was that the first thing to come out of his mouth? Of course, she was not; what a silly thing to say.

"Ah, no sweetie, sorry. But I'm sure she's a very nice person."

That made him giggle; Mother was most definitely not a "she" nor was any other part of that sentence accurate in the least. But he could be very protective whenever Loki was injured or ill. Centuries past, when he had broken a leg during a misadventure, the general had sat by his side for three days, not once tending to his duties or lecturing him on his foolishness. That had been nice; he would not mind that now.

"Mother is much taller." That was certainly true, but entirely irrelevant. Why was he speaking such nonsense?

Darcy just kept smiling; her hand was warm but not uncomfortably so. "Boy, you're on the good stuff, eh? That's OK, you should probably sleep a little more, anyway. It's really early."

Early? Oh, so the light came from the sun? Why was he awake at this hour? Sunlight was irritating and not made for his kind. Sleep was not a bad suggestion, then, but first there was something he had to know. What was it he had wanted... ah, yes.

"Safe?"

Why would he not be? He could not remember. But there was the nagging sensation at the back of his mind that told him he should be wary. Something that smelled like thunder.

"Yep, you're safe here. We're gonna take care of you, OK?"

Well, that was good; if she was not afraid, he had no reason to be, either.

Relieved he smiled at the friendly mortal, then he closed his eyes, trying to find the right position on this too soft bed in order to return to sleep. It was like lying on a cloud, not usually something he would enjoy, but at least with his eyes closed the light was equally soft. The hand on his forehead helped, as well, such a careful tender touch as though she feared she might hurt him, otherwise.

"I like you," he said, again unbidden but not insincere.

There was sweet short laugh and then, "I like you too, Loki. Try not to let the bed bugs bite."

He had a short moment to wonder how there could be bugs among the clouds before nothingness claimed him, once more.

 

.........

 

Food was what pulled him from sleep next or, better, the smell of food. It was a heady aroma of strong spices and charred meat, not something that would usually appeal to him but after lying still for a few moments, trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind, he felt his stomach growling.

It was a struggle to remember when he had last eaten and he could not be certain how long he had been abed, in any case, but he knew - the moment he let his thoughts pick at the matter - that he was ravenous. Well, there was no way around it; he would have to rouse himself and pilfer whatever concoction was being prepared by one of the village's vendors. That plan, however, would have been far more likely to succeed, were his head not currently filled with the dense fogs of Nilfheimr. As it was, all he could do was to let himself fall back onto the bed mere moments after he had managed to sit up because the world around him had suddenly tilted on its axis.

"Hey, careful there, buddy.  No getting up yet, OK?" There was a weight on his chest, not heavy or forceful, more like the light pressure of a hand but it was enough to keep him pinned. Now, if he was no match even for that slip of a mortal girl, what did that say about his current condition?

The girl, so that had not been a dream, then. The vague snatches he could recall of their previous conversation - strange ramblings about his mother and bugs of some kind - might have embarrassed him, had he not long ago divested himself of such useless emotions. Still, the memories and Darcy's presence at his side now served to make him aware of the one thing he really should not have forgotten - that he was with the mortals, Thor's mortals.

"Here."

He had no time to worry about that, nor the chance to make an attempt to rise once more as there was something in front of his face that kept him firmly in place, better even than the Thunderer's blasted hammer could have done. Water, a glass of it right under his nose where he could smell it, practically feel it under his tongue. He had acknowledged his need for sustenance earlier but had not realised how very thirsty he was until deliverance was so close. Mindful of his injury he grabbed at the glass with his left hand, downing the contents in one quick gulp as though he had been stranded in a desert for uncounted days. Which, in his defence, was not too far from the truth.

"OK, no need to ask if you'd like more of that, I guess. But maybe you should go a little slower this time." Without prompting the girl took the glass, refilled it from a pitcher on the table next to the bed, then handed it back to him.

She looked concerned but was trying valiantly to hide it under a guise of humour. What it was that worried her, his condition or his presence, he could not have said, but Loki was glad for the mask, either way. He wanted neither her pity nor her fear, although he usually welcomed the latter.

"My thanks," he said, voice still rough and weak.

This was a decidedly awkward situation, one that left him with no idea of how to behave. For many centuries now he had been able to tend to most of his injuries by way of seidr and potions; there had rarely been the need to seek out a healer. Therefore, he was unused to let someone else care for his needs while he lay there like a wounded animal. And he was sure the young mortal had not studied the healing arts, not even the Midgardian equivalent, which meant she was not caring for him out of professional obligation but out of kindness. He was unused to that, as well. At least when it came to strangers, which they certainly were. 

Enemies was what they should have been, if she had given her loyalty to Thor, yet he felt no hostility in her when she fluffed up the pillows behind his head, readjusted a thin grey blanked around his body, that he must have tossed off in his hasty attempt to leave, nor did she seem to mind that he declined her offer of 'eggs and bacon' in favour of a few slices of buttered bread, even though she must have prepared the former especially for him; the room was empty of any other resident.

Only when her task appeared to have been fulfilled to her own satisfaction did she sit down, in a chair next to his bed; her gaze, however, was far away, even when she spoke to him. "How are you feeling? If the arm still hurts, I can give you some pills. The doctor said, she'd come back tomorrow, but I can call her if the wound re-opens or in case the fever comes back or... Well, anyway, you're doing alright?"

Now, Loki prided himself on being able to read people as easily as he could read the written word and he was used to seeing fear in others, mostly when he himself inflicted it in them, but he could not quite decipher the reason for the tension in the young mortal's posture, the nervous ramblings, the distress he saw in her eyes when they finally met his own. She did not fear him, though he would have understood that; she would have hardly chosen to stay in a room alone with him, if that were the case. And her words indicated that she wished to reassure him, to put him at ease. None of that made sense, but he could not deny that he welcomed the sentiment.

Ah, well, maybe then he should pay her the same kindness.

Doing his best to look more like a prince and less like a pitiful wretch he cleared his throat and replied with a slightly forced smile, "Oh, I feel much improved, already. In great part thanks to your generous care. I thank you, Lady Darcy." And he inclined his head to show his gratitude, even though the movement made his vision blur once more, and even though his words were a blatant lie. Yet his pain was no fault of hers and her care had been a balm to his heart, if not to his aching body.

There was no point in telling her that he wished he had not woken up here of all places or that it was a bad idea to offer aid to him or any of the unhelpful thoughts that worried at his mind. So he employed a tactic that was entirely against his nature - he kept his mouth shut and feigned sleep.

This little moment of peace would end soon enough, and when it did he might be thankful for an ally, even if it was only a young Midgardian woman. He certainly could do worse.

.........

 

The following morning found Loki in marginally better health. His right arm remained a good-for-nothing lump of flesh - bound to his chest by a sling of black cloth that at least took the weight of his strained muscles - the wound on which sent sparks of pain through him with every beat of his heart. And, though he must have slept away more hours in these last few days than he usually did in a fortnight, he was still so utterly drained of energy that every small movement had turned into a chore. When it came to his most potent weapon, however, that was fully his again and it was just as sharp as ever.  

He had ample reason to be thankful for that little recovery, not only because he was bereft of any other weapons at the moment, although that soon became the foremost concern when he woke to a room that was no longer occupied by just him and his young caretaker.

Not that the other mortals treated him poorly; in fact, they were perfectly civil and surprisingly attentive hosts. Supplying him with water and food - this time in the form of a bowl of "Cheerios" submerged in milk that proved more enjoyable than most anything he had eaten on this realm - and asking after his well being almost hourly, all while going out of their way to make as little noise as possible so as not to disturb his rest. It might have been a pleasant reprieve from the life of an exile and thief that he had been leading since his arrival on Midgard, had he been able to ignore the rather glaring blemish in the idyllic image.

Strangely enough, the blond blemish seemed to have decided to ignore him, or at least to avoid any kind of interaction with him - a strategy they both were wont to make use of on the few occasions that they had to attend the same feast or ceremony in their official, princely capacities, but had never managed to uphold otherwise.

He had expected arguments, threats or, at the very least, the usual exchange of insults, yet judging by the attention he received from his nemesis Loki might as well have turned invisible. What had prompted this he could not say and, as always, he could not truly be at ease until he had unravelled that particular mystery. Naturally, he was not so daft as to question his good fortune or to outright ask Thor for an explanation of his behaviour. Barring either option, he was left with observing his enemy so that he would know the moment their battle was to begin anew. If the Norns had even a shred of mercy, that moment would not come today for even with a clear head he was not likely to last long in any sort of physical confrontation.

Unfortunately, his hope that the Midgardian healer might rid him of that weakness or, at the least, alleviate his pain was squashed the instant he saw the primitive tools with which she operated and the rather horrid method she had used to treat his wound. 

The woman by the name of Helen Cho did arrive by midday as promised yet the aid she offered was pitiful. "Medicine" she called it, little white pebbles that smelled like chalk and acid - attributes which alone would have sufficed to make him wary; to make it worse, taking them also had such lovely repercussions as "nausea", "fatigue" or "headaches".  His initial response - that he would have rather swallowed a healthy dose of fire, which was the cure-all of the Sons of Muspel, than willingly subject himself to this realm's poisons  - was left unsaid, as Loki was sure the mortal would have neither understood the reference nor his scathing tone of voice. There was no better remedy on offer, he could see that plainly on her too honest, unhappy face once he had given his more diplomatic refusal, but that only served to consolidate his already sour mood.

Of course, that was before the healer moved on to change his bandages and revealed what exactly she had done to his arm. How anyone in this universe or other could possibly think it a good idea to patch a hole within a living being's flesh by punching even more holes in it he would never be able to understand, although if the sight of this - of these stitches - had not sickened him so, he would certainly have found a way to put a hole somewhere else and maybe that would have done more to help.

Whether it was the growl that escaped his lips once he discovered his mistreatment at the hands of yet another Midgardian or the clear anger on his face, that he had made no attempt at hiding, which caused Helen Cho to markedly hasten her healing efforts was not easy to determine - maybe it was the combination of the two - but he was certainly not sorry to see her go. She had left him with a jar of "pills" and a coil of clean cloth to use at his own discretion and a renewed promise to return if the need arose.

Loki was tempted to throw the damned bottle of poison at her retreating back.

Needless to say, he was both quick to irritate and severely apprehensive for the remainder of the day and that was even without thinking of the, oddly quiet, bilgesnipe in the garden. In seeming response to this, his temporary hosts gave him a wide berth as though he were like to bite should they get too close. Still, they had not ceased their care for him nor their concern.

"You need to get back your strength, though not for stabbing, OK?" Darcy told him mirthfully while arranging a bowl of soup and slices of white bread on the table for his supper. He did not think that little quip necessitated an answer but he did return her smile and gave his thanks. Almost he would have given has thanks to the Norns, as well, for granting his request but that would have been entirely premature, it turned out, only moments later.

The soup had not yet cooled enough to the Jötunn's liking so he was pulling apart the first slice of toast, more to give himself something to do than out of any hunger for food, when the loud, but strangely hesitant footsteps alerted him to an unwelcome presence.

Not one full day of peace, then. Well, he should have known.

"I will not fight you in this state," was what Thor finally said; the first words exchanged between them since that rash argument weeks prior. The Asgardian's expression was so painfully earnest and simultaneously looked as though he were suffering from a tooth ache that Loki might have laughed in his shining golden face, if he himself were not dissecting the words for a trap. This particular warrior was not known for his use of guile, it was true, but as a simple statement of fact it made very little sense.

"Of course not!" he replied, while struggling into an upright position with only one functioning arm for support and struggling even harder to make it look effortless. "That would be terribly foolish on your part."

"Foolish?" the blond asked, accompanied by furrowed brows and clenched fists that showed he was unsure whether he had just been insulted. It was a look he had worn often during their acquaintance and certainly one of the least flattering to his otherwise dashing image.

Far from any desire to mock him for this Loki was merely left with the wish to be rid of his foe, at least for the evening, so he simply rolled his eyes and continued this rather awkward attempt at conversation. "Oh come now, you know as well as I do that should one of us die at the hands of the other here neither of us will ever go home again." This was a conclusion he had come to early on, while still on his way to the Bifröst, though it had not stopped him from plotting means of the other's demise. At least, until he discovered the other, hidden terms of his banishment - that rather took some of the wind out of his sails. Nevertheless, saying it aloud felt worse, felt like this, too, was a curse more on him than his enemy.

Naturally, Thor would have to make this even more complicated by being his usual simple minded self.

"I do not understand. What makes you think that?"

By Ymir, how did that man manage put a foot in front of the other, let alone dress himself? Was it truly necessary to explain such matters to a fellow prince as though he had no concept of justice and his own people's laws? Oh damn, of course it was. This was going to be a long talk.

Utterly frustrated but not willing to let the Às see more than a flicker of it on his face, Loki took a deep soothing breath and then, leaning his good arm on his knee, he lifted up his fist, to enumerate the points of his argument with his fingers.  

"Well, let us see. The fact that we were banished because we had been fighting." His thump indicated point one.

"That we were sentenced so harshly because we have been fighting for centuries." The index finger followed suit.

"That your father has said our 'enmity' has caused too much damage." And the middle finger joined the other to show three, which to him were enough facts to make a good, convincing case.

But just to be thorough he decided to summarize his analysis. "Really, Thor, you still do not see it? We were sent here to keep the truce from crumbling, to teach us a lesson on peace. You think Odin will consider that lesson learned when you kill me? My father certainly will not. "

No, Laufey King would not tolerate such an act of war, against any of his sons. To keep the truce intact was paramount but it was not more important than family, for a Jötunn hardly anything was. The Aesir could not have a set of values so dissimilar that this issues should not have occurred to his nemesis, but then again, the Norns really had not blessed the man with an excess of brain matter.

Disbelief and confusion was all that greeted Loki's explanation, which made the previous statement even stranger. "You have not even thought of this, have you? Why, then, are you offering me this 'mercy'?"

That Thor saw it as such was evident; he probably thought himself the perfect hero now that he had declared the wish to spare his enemy's life. What a noble, selfless act, indeed. And like the perfect hero he stood with his feet apart, head held high, arms crossed over his broad chest in such a way that it made his overdeveloped muscles bulge. This ridiculous display nicely served to make his otherwise neutral words sound like petty gloating.

"Because you are injured; you can barely stand on your own feet, let alone hold a weapon."

He wanted to ask why that proved a hindrance when the two of them usually were the cause for each other's injuries but refrained from doing so in order to move the conversation along. The faster he got this over with the better. Yet he could not quite help his pride bristling at the answer's most likely implication.

When he spoke his voice held as much venom and hatred in it as he could muster in his exhaustion. "You believe me to be harmless, then?"

"No," the blond replied quickly, though with obvious reluctance.                

Hm, that was something, he supposed and it showed at last a modicum of sense from the Thunderer. Believing in an easy victory and thus underestimating Jötunheimr's second prince, or any of them really, was a mistake few of his opponents ever made and none of them did so twice. However, this only heightened the mystery of why he had not been threatened with bodily harm or thrown out of the mortals' abode yet.

Like the scholar he was Loki scrutinised the problem from all angles and, while he had not taken his gaze off his enemy, he was more thinking aloud than addressing the other, though that genuine, artless face helped to pinpoint when he hit the mark.

"Have the mortals softened you? Do you pity my predicament? Do you want our fight to be a proper challenge? Ah, that is it, am I right? You want a glorious battle, one of which you can boast to your witless followers, one of which the bards will sing for centuries. You are such a hopelessly arrogant creature, it is almost painful to behold."

Well, if there was one sure way to rile up the lout's tempter it was to openly refer to his flaws. That temper near belied the peaceful intentions he had claimed to have; the clenched fists, now at his side again, clearly itched for a hammer.

"I am staying my hand because it would be dishonourable to fight you, weakened as you are."

At that he had to laugh and he almost did not regret the flares of pain in consequence as he jarred his arm in the process. Truly, the most enjoyable of jests were those made unwillingly with a straight face.

"Nothing about our conflict has been honourable so far, why start now?"

While only one of them was known as the Trickster, both had used methods that were far from chivalrous in the past, at times breaking the laws of their own or other realms just to goad the other into a fight or to seek vengeance for a particularly grievous offence. To make a claim at honourable conduct would mean to claim they were a pair of dutiful warriors only acting at their kings' behest or at least with their fathers' blessing and that was plainly ludicrous given their current predicament.

Again, Thor was inclined to disagree or he was simply tired of the conversation altogether; with a huff he raked the fingers of his left hand through his golden hair, mussing it up even further from the already quite unkempt state. By the look of it, it seemed he had done this many times before he had begun this awkward non-violent confrontation, even forgoing the little decorative braids that so often graced his empty head. My, my was the poor man troubled by something?

"Must you make this so difficult?" came the sudden frustrated shout; it did not manage to intimidate the Jötunn, but it did wipe the smile of his face, if only to be replaced by a frown. "I am attempting to offer you a truce and all you can do is mock me!"

A truce? That was what it was about, then? Huh, that had not even been on the list of possible reasons for this nonsensical exchange. Most likely because it was so preposterous. It might have hinted at trickery, if he honestly thought the fool capable of that.

This time it was Loki who's face betrayed honest confusion, enough so that even the usually unobservant Thunderer could interpreted it correctly.

"As I said before, I do not wish to fight you, at least not until you have recovered fully."

"And what will this kindness cost me, Odinson?"

Because there was always a price for such pacts between enemies; Jötunheimr's people were still suffering from the consequences of the last one.

"Nothing," was the simple reply, yet at the dubious look he received Thor quickly amended it. "I only ask that you not... provoke me."

"Provoke? What is that supposed to..."

"You know exactly what I mean. You... you would goad me into attacking you, even at the risk of your own life, just to make me break my oath."

Well, that was not entirely wrong; it would prove an entertaining game, indeed, to see how long it took to drive the other to the edge of his very limited patience. Not a very advisable pastime in his present condition, perhaps, but then again, he had often been accused of recklessness in the face of curiosity.

Still, these terms were far too vague for his liking; there was too much room for interpretation, which he tended to make use of in his own contracts and therefore was wise enough to spot in those made by others. 

"What exactly do you expect of me; to hold my breath for the entirety of my stay here?" he asked, with feigned levity and sincere annoyance in is voice. Why was he even indulging the Às in this farce of a negotiation? It was not as though he planned to go along with it.

"It would suffice if you could hold your tongue."

The, for once, quite witty comment made him grin involuntarily, but the humour seemed lost on Thor nor would he allow for any more jests on the other prince's part. "And no, I do not mean to say you have to stay silent, either, though Norns know I would enjoy that. "

Now, that was a surprising concession; next he might suggest that Loki could eat at the table like the other well behaved children. If this was what went for diplomacy in the fool's head then he might have actually done more than one realm a favour by delaying his coronation.

"What makes you think I would agree to this?" he asked out of honest curiosity. If Odinson had planned this conversation, as he surely had, then he would have had to prepare some convincing arguments.

"Do you think it impossible for you to be civil to me for a fortnight?"

Or not. Well, if he wanted to go the road of open challenges, then two could play this game.

"Do you really think it possible for you to refrain from violence for even half that time?"

He did not like the smug smile on the other's face one bit, nor the determination visible in his eyes. This unique mixture of expressions usually heralded a storm and it did not help that Mjölnir was still far out of reach; the sight still made his shoulders tense.

 "I have refrained from violence for longer than that now, unlike you."

Ah, of course, there was the mockery; he badly wanted to throw a pillow into that grinning face. Or one of his daggers. But that would just prove Thor right and damn, was he about to lose a battle of words to that simpleton? The thought was so infuriating that, in his anger, he was close to snapping the arm of the bed he was leaning on; instead, he spat out the first heated words that came to mind.

"Fine. Speak your oath, then."

Maybe this was all a bluff or a distraction and, in that case, they could at least put this mock parley to an end and he could return to his meal. The demand had the effect of rendering the Thunderer momentarily speechless, likely because he had not expected to obtain his enemy's acquiescence to his laughable plan so fast. Then he nodded once in Loki's direction, as if to say 'You first', but that just would not do.

"No, this was your idea. If you wish for me to rein in my tongue, then first you will have to chain your hands, so to speak."

In answer to this demand the Às looked hesitant, because he had not prepared his vow in advance or maybe because he had never thought to have to go so far, but a heartbeat later his posture changed and then he stood there - back straight, hand held over his heart, his sky blue eyes boring into an expectant pair of green ones.

"I, Thor, Son of Odin, will refrain from any violent act against Loki, Son of Laufey, as long as he is recuperating in the abode of the mortal Jane Foster, unless in defence of her or her comrades. This I swear, by my strength and my honour."

Now, that was... thorough and far more shrewdly worded than he would have given the man credit for. Though for an actual binding contract of such magnitude there was one thing missing from the procedure. "You will not spill you blood for this?" he asked only half jesting, while not overly eager to spill any more of his own blood in the foreseeable future, at least not until it regained the right colour.

Thor only grimaced and had the gall to motion for him to stand up from the bed with one hand, as though he were directing a servant to a task. Slowly, always mindful of his current weakness and the light-headedness that came with moving too quickly, he got to his feet and when he felt steady enough he drew his right hand over his heart with the help of the other. Even this small shift was enough to sent flares of agony through him, but he refused to so much as acknowledge this nor did it show on his face.

Well, it seemed there was nothing for it, then. As though he were about to plunge into the depth of Jötunheimr's deepest ocean, Loki took a long, exasperated breath and delivered his own formal vow.

"For as long as I remain a guest in Jane Foster's home and he remains true to his oath I, Loki, Son of Laufey, shall do my uttermost not to provoke Thor, Son of Odin, into a fight, either physical or verbal. This I swear, by my mind and honour. Satisfied?"

At the nod from the other he let himself slump back onto the bed, suddenly too drained of energy to care for masks or perfect appearances of health. "You know, this is never going to work, yes?" he could not help but ask for he doubted they each could hold themselves to these conditions for longer than a day.

"We shall see," Thor responded, shrugging his shoulders as though he cared not, either way. His eyes spoke of some deep worry, however, that must have driven him to this madness. "We have to try, though, do we not? If you are right and this is what our fathers mean to teach us."

Oh, so he had gotten through that thick head, for once; this day would not cease to surprise him, it seemed.

"And if I am wrong?" Not that he thought that possible. What else, after all, was the purpose for this punishment? But in the very unlikely case, this could be an enormous waste of time, not to mention a strain on bother their nerves and patience.

"Well, then you will at least have had time enough to regain your strength and we might fight again on even footing." The smile he wore was wry yet not lacking in humour; the little bow of his head was sheer mockery, though. "Rest well, Laufeyson."

He was almost out of the room before he turned around again, his smile, if possible even broader. "Oh, and I hope you will enjoy your meal, Darcy and I laboured for hours over that."

If ever there had been a moment he had missed his magic more than now, when the urge to light that blasted bastard's golden hair on fire was neigh impossible to suppress, he did not wish to remember it.

Ancestors, keeping his vow would be a task worthy of a true hero, but he would be damned ere he broke first. He would rather have his slips sewn shut, again.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

.........

HL

.........

 

 

"To the honourable Helblindi, Son of Laufey, First Prince and Captain of the Royal Guard of Jötunheimr

I hope to find you in good health and ask that you forgive the discourtesy of not delivering these news to you in person.

It is with true regret that I have to inform you that your brother, Prince Loki, has been wounded in battle against a mortal soldier on the eve of the previous Midgardian day. He has been taken in by the group of mortals who have also shown a generous amount of hospitality to my son, Prince Thor. I shall pray to the Norns for the prince's swift recovery.

You will receive a report on your brother's condition two days hence and every other day thereafter until he is deemed hale once more.

With wishes for peace, prosperity and the Norns' blessings to your realm and people

Her Grace, Frigga Njörðsdottir, Queen of Asgard, Lady of Vanaheimr"

 

The message reached him while he was patrolling the border; an activity that was not part of his duties anymore, ever since he had been made captain, but which he did take up from time to time when necessary. There had been stirrings in the west and well, it was a good excuse to avoid the palace for a day.

Although the loud, passionate arguments between his father and the general had stopped around the first fortnight, the heavy silence left in their wake was somehow even harder to bear. Shared meals in the private dining hall were an awkward, stilted affair nowadays, so much so that he might have decided against attending them altogether and instead eat with his fellow soldiers were it not for his youngest brother, poor little Býleistr, who still tried to mediate between his parents with no effect other than to make everyone in the room feel chastened and churlish but certainly not more amicable toward one another.

And the tension that had gripped the royal family seemed to have an equally strong hold on the rest of the realm, leading the people to constantly look at the sky for hints of their enemies' approach, to more and more young boys wishing to join the ranks of Jötunheimr's defenders and to far more discussions on strategy and troop deployments than even he could stomach. Officially, they were not at war - in fact, neither side had made even one hostile move against the other - yet the word itself was on everyone's mind, echoing like a curse through the quiet halls of the palace and the noisy barracks alike.

It feels like last time, Helblindi thought as he walked the perimeter, keeping his eyes trained on the narrow passageways between the mountains which separated Vagga from Utgardr. Last time he had been so very young, enough so that pride had not yet overruled fear; his memories, therefore, were of secret hiding places and the sheer deafening sound of uncountable soldiers running, fighting, dying just a floor above.

This time he would fight with and for his people but, though he was a warrior at heart, he could not pretend that he was looking forward to the experience nor even to the chance at revenge he knew many of his men were craving. All he truly longed for was peace and for his family to be safe - an outcome that seemed more unlikely with every passing day under this crumbling truce, with every day that went by without news of Loki.

Maybe there was simply nothing of note to report - an absurd scenario when it came to his brother but not entirely impossible - or maybe Asgard was too busy preparing its army for the inevitable to remember their promises, but whatever the reason, there had been no visit by their little ambassador nor an invitation for Helblindi himself to visit the other realm, not since their last encounter five days ago.

He tried to remind himself that his brother was a grown man - both of them were now - and a skilled warrior even without the aid of magic, thus his worry was both baseless and disrespectful - knowing this did not help, however. The problem was that as much as Loki loved to cause trouble, trouble just as easily found him and like a snake biting its own tail it was something he seemed unable to put a stop to. In less than half a month into his banishment he had landed himself in a scuffle with Asgard's prince, followed shortly after by an outright fight with a mortal archer and somehow he had antagonised the leaders of Midgard faster than those of any other realm, to the point that they had decided to take him captive.

This constant barrage of difficulties was almost enough to make him glad for the lack of news; nevertheless, he took a deep breath of relief when he saw the multi-coloured light appear in the sky, as though a steel band around his chest had loosened.  As he was too far away from the usual spot where the Aesir's bridge would connect the two realms he stayed at his post and waited for one of the guards to inform him of a visitor's arrival or to deliver a message to him.       

Indeed, not much later he could make out Frár walking toward him at a swift pace, a spear in his left hand, a scroll in the right. "Captain!" he called out, when he was still several paces away and there was a small dip of his head that could barely be called a salute, acceptable only because the two of them happened to be friends.

"News from Asgard," the lieutenant clarified as he handed over the small piece of sealed parchment; the smile on his face infectious and audible in his voice. "The pompous brat of an Einherji did not want to give it to me, at first. Said he was to deliver it to 'the Laufeyson' personally, but when I was so kind as to offer escorting him to you, all the way through the training grounds and the village markets, he changed his mind rather quickly. He was probably not so eager to walk among all these evil Frost Giants or to trudge through ankle deep snow. 'Tis a mystery why they always come here dressed so poorly; you would think they had never heard of fur."

Mocking the poor fellow who had been tasked to play messenger to Jötunheimr was decidedly petty and unfair, given that the man probably had not asked for the honour, but as he had been short on any sort of amusement of late and the Às in question was not present to witness it, he laughed along with the other soldier and felt his mood lighten considerably for it. Which was fortunate because he had no wish to intimidate the younger prince with too open a display of anger again, should he have the chance to met Baldr Odinson today.

"They probably consider it a sign of weakness, to admit that the cold bothers them," Helblindi replied while picking with one nail at the wax that held the scroll shut, "which is rather pointless, when then cannot help shivering like a herd of startled deer, anyhow." That earned him a loud, cheerful laugh from his friend, who still stood close by as though to await instructions.

For a moment he considered sending the lieutenant back to the training grounds and the inspection of their most recent batch of recruits, but whatever this message held, surely he himself would need to leave his post soon - either for Asgard or a more private meeting place near the palace - and that meant he would require the other to take over his duties for the day.

Still, when he had finally managed to unroll the delicate parchment without ripping it in two, he held it close to his face, for he would not have put it past his fellow Jötunn to peer over his shoulder in order to read along with him, nosy dolt that he was.

As it turned out, his attempt at secrecy was hardly necessary because after finishing the first paragraph his face likely showed the contents of the letter, if not the exact wording.

By Ymir, this could not be happening.

Another battle with a soldier mere days after the last one; that was so unlike Loki, who prided himself on his intellect above any other weapon usually at his disposal, who loved to talk circles around his opponents until they surrendered in sheer annoyance, who deemed violence a measure of last resorts.

Had Midgard turned into a such a dangerous, helish place that he had believed to have no other choice but to fight to stay alive? Had he somehow revealed who he was? Did the people of this realm hold him responsible for the war two thousand years prior? If so, had that vicious cur of an Allfather selected this place as his exile for that very reason?  

And what exactly did "wounded" mean? It could be no more than a broken bone, but just as likely something crippling, something fatal. Whatever his brother had suffered, healing it would take longer than two days, according to Asgard's queen, so it had to be rather severe.

Then there was the laughable assumption that the mortals would take good care of him. But why would they, when it had been one of them who had spilled his blood? Would they even know how to heal one of his kind? What if their attempts only worsened his condition? What if...

"Captain!" The call that finally made it through the thick fog in his mind was likely not the first, judging by the urgency with which it was voiced. He might have failed to hear even this one were it not for the addition of a hand covering his own, effectively stopping him from digging his nails into his palm and from crumbling the letter in to shreds. "Helblindi, what is wrong?"

There were few people beside his family who called him by his name - which was the curse of being both the eldest prince and the second-in-command of the royal army - and even those he claimed as friends rarely did so, especially when on duty. Consequently, it helped nicely to catch his attention and it jarred him out of that useless spiral of... agitation and back to what really mattered, to what need to be done.

Thinking, worrying, raging would only get him so far, it certainly would not help Loki.

Concern-filled eyes implored him to speak, to explain the sudden change of temper, but he would not let himself get distracted now. There would be time for sentimentality later, once he had accomplished his task, once his little brother was safe.

With one deep breath he forced himself to remain calm, then he unclenched his fist, took the ghastly, over-polite message in his other hand to smooth out the wrinkles before he folded it in half to stash under his belt. Maybe he did not sound as collected as he would have liked, but the other's reaction to it made him at least hopeful that he managed to convey it was a command when he said, "Lieutenant, find Nýr, Bergr and Ávarr. Head to the southern border."

At once the soldier straightened, his salute this time was exact and respectful. Despite that he made no move to actually comply with the order, still standing there with a worried and confused expression as though he feared Helblindi was going to fall apart. "What has..."

"The southern border. Wait there. I will join you shortly."

Now his tone truly brook no argument and, fortunately for him, Frár knew better than to try.

"Aye, Captain, at once." However, he would not have reached so high a rank at his age if he were a coward, or even a hint less stubborn. Carefully so as to not question a direct command by his superior but seemingly sure that he would receive an answer he continued, "Just, eh, if I may ask, where are we going?"

Because there was nothing beyond the southern border, aside from lakes of steaming water and a system of, currently empty, caves that usually housed the less hardy animals during the long winter months. And well, a pathway, leading out of Jötunheimr.

"We are going to Midgard."

 

.........

 

Deciding to head to another realm and actually going were two very different matters.

For one, as the responsible soldier that he was, he could not just up and leave his post and, more importantly, he had to ensure there was a proper chain of command in place during his absence. To that end he walked along the perimeter, once more, until he reached the road that led back to the palace where he came upon two soldiers, immersed in a heated discussion that had rendered them oblivious to his presence. Just who he had been looking for.

Kali and Abel Agnarsson, a pair of twins, were big and strong warriors, whose father was one of the chief advisors to the king. Fortunately, they had not only inherited Agnarr's build but also his wits, which was what he needed them for. The only problem with them was that, for the life of him, he could not tell them apart. Therefore, he merely called out "You" to garner their attention and then pointed his spear at the one on the right to assign a task to him.

"You will patrol the western border until sunrise. There have been rumours of Marauders close to Utgardr, so be vigilant."  Waiting only a moment to receive the requisite "Aye" he turned to the second brother, who was carrying an axe that was bigger than his head, "I have business to attend to elsewhere, so you will take command over the guards today. "

He had to smile at the startled look this order elicited, though he was glad the young man was not arrogant enough to preen as though he deserved no less. Truthfully, the twins were probably too inexperienced for either duty but as he was taking his trusty lieutenant with him it mattered not much who else he put in charge. He simply had to hope that nothing would disturb the peace while he was gone, neither from within nor without.

Again there was a decisive, but still slightly baffled "Aye, Captain",  before, at a nod from him, both twins left for their respective posts. Which meant there was only one remaining assignment that needed seeing to.

All along the borders of Vagga and at key positions throughout the realm platforms had been erected high above, which served as lookouts to the scouts in Jötunheimr's army. Old as they were the platforms had begun to crumble here and there, so only the bravest of warriors dared to tread on them. And the lightest.  One of them was pacing back and forth between two stone pillars, probably impatiently awaiting the end to his shift. Well, I can help with that, he thought, though likely not in a way that would be appreciated.

It took a few moments for the scout to spot him below but he reacted promptly to the hand gesture that motioned him to step down. With enviable agility he descended, jumping from one well placed handhold to the other and then he let himself drop to the ground when he reached the last. The manoeuvre reminded Helblindi so painfully of his brother that he had to close his eyes ere he gave too much of his emotions away.

This was taking too long, he felt, so without any preamble or even a greeting he walked up to the short soldier and pressed a small parcel into his hand. "You will take this to the general. Quickly. Do not stop for anything on the way, do not open it and if you should lose it, you will lose your head. Understood?"

"The general?" the scout asked, his voice wavering a little on the title.

Ah, yes, he was not surprised that the prospect of this task did not appeal to the man; Fárbauti was well respected among the people but he was also rather intimidating, especially to those who dealt with him only rarely. As captain of guards, the scouts had been under his command for several centuries now and while he too could be strict, he certainly did not make any of his men shudder in fear.

"The general," Helblindi repeated and hoped that the rest of his demands had gotten through, as well. "Only him. You will not give it to anyone else. Yes?"

The reply was shaky, the salute even more so, but at least once he accepted the task the young Jötunn did so without further hesitation, turning on his heel and hurrying along the road fast enough that he was soon lost to sight.

Helblindi took up the same path, at a more restrained yet still brisk pace, though his destination was not the palace itself but the tunnels nearby, where fresh meat was stored.

Were he a mage his jaunt to Midgard would be laughably easy; with the ability to hide he would not be stopped at any point by the people of the other realms and he could travel the vast distances between the branches of Yggdrasil at the speed of a heartbeat. However, as neither he nor one of his chosen companions possessed even a hint of magic, they would need several days to reach the place of his brother's banishment.  As they could hardly undertake this quest on an empty stomach and because the climate of any other world, except for Nilfheimr, was not suitable to their kind, he would have to pack plenty of both food and water. Also, besides provisions, it might be prudent to bring along a few bags of jewels.

In the case of Frey King it was perhaps enough to state his peaceful intentions and to explain Loki's plight, but for both dwarven leaders of Nidavellir and Svartálfheimr he would require guile and a good amount of bribery in order to gain passage through their lands and use of the pathways. Just as was true with diplomacy, neither method spoke to the captain's strengths, but he would have to muddle through.

Even harder, though, would be the last step in his journey. Midgard had been a forbidden domain to his people for the last two millennia, consequently he had no knowledge of its terrain or inhabitants. He also had not the slightest idea where on this realm Loki had been sent to.

Luckily, there was a certain trinket that could help him overcome this difficulty.

In size it was no larger than a plain bird's egg and in shape it resembled one, as well. Except that, when inert, it was a deep midnight black. While it was not designed to give an exact location the jewel would show him which direction to go because it changed colour, brighter and brighter, the closer it was to one of his kin. Helblindi was immensely glad to have it, even though he did not like to think of the reason for its creation - one of the Trickster's less stellar misadventures centuries prior - nor of the one time it had been of use so far.

All in all, these preparations took far longer than he would have liked, yet he knew to rush his departure would have been folly. He simply had to believe that Loki would hold on until his little rescue party could reach him and to trust in his brother's inability to surrender, even to such a primal force as death.

.........

The moon hung low in the sky by the time the heavy laden sleigh was skimming over the plains of Hilmirland; the massive elks pulling it were huffing unhappily as they were urged on by the sole passenger again and again.  

If only he were at the south already or, better yet, had made it to Álfheimr, maybe then his nerves would settle and he could start to actually formulate a plan. Retrieving a wounded man from a hostile environment would not be child's play, after all. Here, though, his focus was set on slipping to the amulet - dangling on a leather cord around his neck - that still refused to turn so much as a lighter shade of black.

As he could barely move fast enough, even were he to suddenly develop wings with which to fly over the land that separated him from his goal, the last thing he welcomed was any sort of hurdle or distraction. Naturally, the Norns showed their favour to him by providing both, in the form of a second sleigh, steered by no other than the scout he had appointed as envoy.

For some time he attempted to ignore the sounds of hoof beats from behind but when the young soldier decided to shout after him he could hardly claim not to have noticed the pursuit. Annoyed he pulled sharply at the reigns to bring his own chariot to a halt, though he remained seated while the other came to a stop beside him. "A message, Captain," the younger Jötunn wheezed, clearly out of breath. Prepared to berate the fool for bothering him with such triviality now, he stared down at the man in anger but that was soon transformed into dread when he heard "From the king."

Now, this could not be good, he knew, nor was he naive enough to hope this was unrelated to his plans. Indeed, when the writing tablet was handed over to him it was as though the damned thing weighed a ton, even with only a single sentence written on it.

 Return to the palace at once.

No name, no salutation, not even an "or else" was added to it. Not that the latter was at all necessary. There was no defying the king's command.

With heavy heart he threw the tablet at the back of his sleigh and after one last look at the path forward, turned around to confront his father.

.........

Despite having grown used to the shouting in the last few weeks Helblindi was taken aback by the harsh accusation levelled at him the moment he entered the throne room. Maybe it was the difference in voice or that, for once, he was the recipient of it, but it was certainly not a promising start.

"Have you entirely lost your mind?" the king growled at him, not even waiting for the door to be closed. He was standing in the middle of the room, as though he had only just arrived, as well.

What was there to be said, aside from denying his intentions or playing at ignorance? Both would do more harm than good, surely, so he simply decided to explain. Or attempted to. "I merely did what I thought was best. Loki needs us, Father; he..."

"He is wounded, yes; I know. I, too, am capable of reading." Holding Asgard's letter in one hand and Helblindi's own short missive in the other the older Jötunn looked enraged enough to tear both apart or to throw them to the ground. In the end he took a few steps closer until he could push the tablet, addressed to the general, into his son's hand. "When did you decide that your best was to risk your life and that of everyone else in this realm? And to do so behind my back? Do I have to fear betrayal at every corner now?"

Oh, Hel, this was worse than the shouting, decidedly worse, for now he could hear disappointment in his father's voice and a weariness that was harder to stomach than the heated anger of before. He had to fight with himself to even be able to look the other in the eye. "Father, I just... I had to do something and I thought it better that you were not aware, so Asgard could not claim you had sent me."

That was not a particularly convincing argument, nor an honest one. A shame, really, that only one of Laufey's sons was a gifted liar.

"No," was the immediate reply, voiced in such a deceptively calm tone that Helblindi might have thought all was well, if he were a stranger to the king's moods. As it was, he knew his cause was doomed, even before he heard it confirmed. "No, you knew I would stop this madness, just as you ought to know that Asgard would have seen this as a breach of the truce, no matter who sent you."

Sighing he let his shoulders slump in defeat, though his own anger was far from extinguished. He might have asked what "truce" the king was speaking of, as the one they were supposedly still existing under was liable to break any day, no matter their conduct. Or he could have easily accused Laufey of cowering before Asgard. Yet those words would have proven the greater betrayal when weighed against his actions.

For the last two thousand years the king of Jötunheimr had done everything in his power to protect his people, to uphold the peace with their enemies even at the cost of his own pride. And he had to face a great amount of criticisms for this, as well as for surrendering to Asgard in the first place, which was nothing short of cruel when he was so adamant to prevent another catastrophe that would destroy all they had worked centuries to rebuild.

As a son it was his duty to support his father, as a captain he understood the king's wishes; nevertheless, Loki's life was at stake, so he could not give up his appeal. "Frigga Queen has informed us of what happened; she cannot expect us to sit here idly, twiddling our thumbs."

"This message was an unexpected courtesy and definitely not an invitation for you to waltz into Midgard and save Loki from the consequences of his own foiled schemes."

Schemes and their consequences, what a perfect way to make it all sound as though this were no more than their usual fare. As if his devious little brother had spelled a noble's hair green, once more, and he were now confined to his chambers to put an end to his mischief. This, though, was more than any punishment he deserved and Helblindi refused to leave him to suffer.

"He is my brother!" he shouted, all his anger and frustration packed into this one statement, yet his mind swam with the things he did not say, could not say for fear of crumbling.

My brother, my little Loptr, my dearest friend. I held him when he was but a babe and the war was waged around us; he is mine to protect.

"And he is my son!"

A Jötunn's loyalty was with his family, before aught else, yet a king served the realm first and foremost - that was a lesson he had been taught long ago. It was a constant struggle against one's nature, to let politics overrule one's feelings and the strain this put one through could be easily seen in Laufey's eyes, in the way he was clutching that awful message like an anchor, as the only sign that Loki yet lived.

"You think I worry not for him? That I do not wish him home and hale? But he brought this on himself and if it were not for me he would have faced a far worse Fate at the hands of Odin."

The thought of a harsher punishment made Helblindi shudder; he did not even want to imagine what the Giant-Slayer's idea of justice would have entailed. While he had not been there to witness the negotiations that led to the two princes' banishment, he knew it was not the first time his father had intervened, had swayed the rulers of other realms to leniency. Although Loki would hardly see the removal of all his abilities as lenient.

His displeasure at this supposed kinder Fate must have been evident on his face for now the king's expression turned grim; with one hand he lifted the younger Jötunn's chin up, forcing him to meet his eyes.

"You are not obligated to agree with me on this matter, but for you to oppose me so openly... It might make me worry you were trying to replace your bother, if I thought for a moment this was your idea."

Now, this he would not let stand. Yes, there had been that order, weeks prior - which he had foolishly mentioned on the tablet still in his hand - but that was not why he had acted. And Father could not fault his consort for something any mother would have done.

"The general just..."

"Yes the general just wants his son back." An argument that had been loudly discussed over the course of this month, loudly enough for half of Vagga to hear. "Alas, as you are not his son; he does not get to risk your life over that of Loki's. Nor is it for the general to decide when you leave my realm."

"Father..."

"Enough! You are not a child, wont to consider only your own needs and wishes. We, our family, have a duty to Jötunheimr, to all our kinsmen and while we are a hair's breadth away from war this duty is what we ought to focus on."

Slowly, almost sedately Laufey walked across the room, then sat down on his throne. There was no clearer sign of dismissal, yet he still had one last thing to say.

"We will talk no more of this and I am prepared to excuse your momentary... act of rebellion. But let me be very clear, you will stay on the palace grounds unless I tell you otherwise and if you attempt to leave for Midgard again, I will place you under guard."

All Helblindi could do was nod and speak his acquiescence. "Aye, my king," he said, head bowed and chest constricted once more, by that steel band that felt put in place by a curse. With another, deeper bow, he left the room and, once outside, he threw the damning message away from himself against the nearest wall.

What was he to do now? Could he resign himself to just sit and hope and pray? He was a man of action but that did him no good when any sort of useful action was not permitted to him.

Almost he longed for the days when his brothers were small, when he could shield them from harm simply by cradling them in his arms. But they were both grown now, and his protection was no longer sufficient, especially not for the one who loved to risk his head for a bit of fun, whose pride did not allow him to ask for help, the one who walked where others could not follow.

If only his enemies were as easily kept away as his allies.

.........

For a set of chambers housing a member of the royal family those of the second prince were unusually austere, had always been thus for as long as he could recall. Compared to his own - which were decorated with trophies of various hunts, myriad weapons he had taken from the hands of defeated opponents in battle and his prized collection of books, comprised of healer's tomes once belonging to his mother and the many gifts he had received from his brother's travels - Loki's seemed almost empty.

A bed, a desk, a few shelves on the walls that held a sparse number of volumes on no prevalent topic - all that of the best quality to be sure, but merely of a practical nature and not speaking at all of who lived here.

The few personal items Helblindi could find, while he was pacing these rooms with a heavy heart, had likely been left out in the open because of a hasty, unwilling departure, certainly not intentionally.

Why his brother was so very secretive he had never been able to understand, but even though they were kin he felt like an intruder here, as much as he knew that the wards and enchantments put in place would have kept him out if he truly were uninvited. Still, he had grown used to the younger one's strange insistence for him to "knock" before he entered and no longer so much as rolled his eyes at the eccentricity that went so far as to bar all servants from the chambers, even if it meant the prince had to clean up after himself.

Of course, what could be observed here was not the whole of Loki's possessions; most of them, the important ones, were stored away on a little branch of Yggdrasil the mage had carved out for himself centuries before, through means that anyone beside him was unlikely to grasp.

But that alone was telling, was enough to leave a clear mark of who resided within these halls, for what was true here was equally true for the prince's face - everything that hinted at emotion, everything that could reveal too much about who he was, was hidden away behind his masks, so only those who knew him, who knew where to look ever had the chance to catch a glimpse of weakness.

Absently Helblindi traced the runes on a broken dagger lying on a worktable in his brother's overlarge study, which the other man must have been in the process of mending when he was called away. It was the only weapon to be found and that almost elicited a laugh from the captain as it meant that his troublesome little brother had gone to Asgard fully armed. A thought that should have been alarming, yet he doubted even one of the dozen or so knives had been discovered; if there was one thing the Trickster was better at concealing than the true state of his heart, it was the number of sharp objects he kept on his person.

Well, at least he was not left on Midgard without some form of defence.

Though that was probably what had gotten him into trouble, had made him appear a threat to the mortals, not aided at all by the man's unbalanced control on his temper. As much as he would like to condemn these people for the harm they had done Loki, he could not reasonably believe such actions had been entirely unprovoked. His brother was many things but certainly not some innocent little lamb, for all that he himself tended to treat him as the most vulnerable member of their family.

Whoever was to blame for what had occurred the day before, though, it was no reason to abandon him, to not send even a drop of help, a trace of comfort or just a simple healing stone...

At once his thoughts wandered to the jewel around his neck, which he had not had the heart to slip off yet, and when he caught sight of it, he felt as though he had been punched in the chest. For, instead of the usual black, the talisman's colour was a bright snow white.

Quickly he turned around to see what had changed and then immediately regretted it because this could only be one of Loki's ridiculous tricks, that had somehow summoned a likeness of him when he was most dearly missed. A moment later, however, he scolded himself for a fool, as the figure in the doorway was anything but an illusion nor was he the one who had been haunting his thoughts.

While the short stature was similar, the posture was wrong; too unguarded, too open. And, though they looked enough alike to be mistaken for twins at times, only one of them ever appeared sheepish when he believed to have misstepped.

"Oh, I am sorry, Brother, I had not meant to startle you."

Helblindi only shook his head, then left the study behind to join the youngest prince in their brother's sleeping chamber, where he sat down at the edge of the bed - the only piece of furniture fit to hold him and, unlike everything else here, not specifically crafted for one of a smaller build.

"'Tis alright," he replied, voice rough and touched by humour, "I was merely too deep in thought to have heard you. You are not exactly one to sneak up on people."

Unlike Loki, was left unsaid, as was the question of why he was no longer alone here. Both seemed rather obvious.

"Have at it then, little one, tell me what I have done wrong. I am sure there is much that has displeased our esteemed ancestors."

It was unkind to speak with such sarcasm of what he knew to be close to the priest's heart, especially when his anger was directed more at their father, who had likely sent the other here to discourage further disobedience. He regretted even opening his mouth when he saw the hurt written across Býleistr's face, the way he seemed to shrink in on himself.

"I... I was not going to... That is not why I am here." Dismally he hung his head, heaved a great shuddering sigh and when he looked up his eyes were shimmering with unshed tears. "They are fighting again."

Oh, damn. Well, it was to be expected after such dire news had reached them, and it was almost a welcome occurrence, given Helblindi's anger that he could never voice as freely as the king's consort. To his little brother that would hardly be a comfort, however. The last few weeks had put a toll on the entire royal family, but had been hardest for Býleistr, who judged disputes among kin as destructive as any attack from without.

"Ah, I am sorry. I know you cannot stand their arguments but even you ought to agree with your mother on bringing Loki back home."

Because by now Father was likely to have confronted his husband about that disloyal order of his, as well as explained his stance on upholding the prince's banishment, and Fárbauti would not have taken any of that well.

"But he will be well," came the reply, sure and confident for all that the younger man's voice wavered at the end. "We ought to have faith."

Well, that was not an unusual thing for a priest to say, though it was a rather new tune from Býleistr, who had been proclaiming nothing but gloom and doom for their brother since he had left Jötunheimr.

And faith was an uncertain ally to rely upon, when he who needed the ancestors' protection the most was well out of their reach.

Almost despite himself the third prince smiled slightly, as though at a private jest. Or at one he had not intended to tell. "Oh, that is not..."  Then suddenly his voice became firmer and he spoke with true conviction. "I meant, we ought to have faith in Loki. He is strong and awfully stubborn, he will not give up so easily and neither should we."

Now, this was maybe the most uplifting statement ever given by this particular young Jötunn and about the person in question. It was a sign of how very despondent and irate the rest of them had become that they needed cheering up from one who spent his days speaking to the exalted dead.

With a sharp laugh Helblindi got up from the bed and dropped to one knee so he could throw his arms around the other's shoulders for a heartfelt embrace; as always, this was endured with only a minimum of indignation. "You are right. Of course, you are right, little one. There is not a monster in the Nine Realms that would not find itself with a nasty stomach ache if it tried to feast on Loki. Even Hela herself might think twice before she dared to confront him."

As silly as these boastful words might have been they were a comfort to him, because they felt like a battle cry, a call from one soldier to another not to surrender in the face of an overwhelming enemy. And he had to consider that he was not the only one who needed to hear this, who required comfort. Which he was quickly reminded of when he heard the barely audible question mumbled against his chest. "Will you come to the temple with me?"

Now, that was an interesting suggestion, but not one he was all too keen on accepting.

The thing about the temple was that it always made him feel like an ignorant lunk. He might as well have entered the mages' guild of Álfheimr to listen to old men drone on about seidr; it would have had the same result. In his opinion both places were better left to those who had dedicated their lives to the respective philosophy. On the other hand, he did not wish to hurt his brother's feelings again.

Býleistr, however, seemed to be prepared for a refusal; when he continued, with his head up and shoulders straight, there was no sign of disappointment in his eyes. "You do not have to," he said meekly, while his fingers busied themselves with tucking some errant locks behind his ear. "I simply thought, well, Loki claims listening to the hymns gives him peace of mind and we could all use a little bit of peace, yes?"

Well, listening that he could do, even to the words that were left unspoken.

"You know, little one, if you wished for my company, you could have just asked for it."

What followed were a sweet embarrassed smile on the face of the younger and another bone crushing embrace from the elder and then both left the chambers of their missing brother, maybe not entirely free of worry or sorrow but at least more hopeful then when they had entered.

In these dark and troubling times hope was more precious than gold, and while that alone would not bring Loki back home to them, it gave them the strength to believe that he would return, when the time was right.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Please be warned for major Age of Ultron spoilers, especially for Clint Barton's character.

 

 

 

.........

NR

.........

 

Working for SHIELD was - when one overlooked the rather grueling recruitment process and the constant threat to one's life - just a job as any other. At the beginning of their shift an agent would report to their SO, pick up an assignment, read through the briefing package, in case of a mission that included multiple agents there might also be a more thorough team briefing and strategy meetings but before long they would head to the armory to equip themselves with the standard number of SHIELD issued weaponry and protective gear and then it was only a matter of arranging schedules and transportation before he or she left the base to watch/capture/interrogate/kill the mark.

Maybe it involved a little bit more bloodshed and violence than a mundane 9-to-5 office job but even that easily became part of the routine, not any more bothersome than a jammed copier or arguments about who had taken the wrong food from the shared fridge. At least it did for the right people, the ones who stayed beyond the first year.

Natasha Romanov had been at it for so long that to others she appeared jaded - to put it politely - but for the most part she honestly enjoyed the profession she had chosen for herself. It was definitely better than anything she had done before.

Still, there were moments when she almost envied all the average Joes with 'normal' lives; people who had no idea about half of the strangeness going on around them, who would run away screaming if they ever found out the truth about those 'conspiracies' they thought the government was hiding from them. People who were allowed to run away screaming when they saw an angry green behemoth making mincemeat out of trained soldiers and armored tanks.

At the very least, she envied Clint and his visits to the little farm up north and his ever growing family. But Black Widow didn't do family and she didn't really do vacations, either, not voluntarily.  She had been tempted, though, after the latest fiasco of a mission, especially when she reported back to Fury and all of it came crashing down on her again - the Hulk, the carnage it had created, their complete failure to stop the thing and it's deformed opponent from wrecking half a New York neighborhood.

Nevertheless, there was not a second's worth of hesitation when the director relayed the request for her to go to New Mexico and not only because her usual partner had been stationed there for the last few weeks but also for the source of that request. It was not often that this particular agent required additional help and she couldn't recall ever hearing him admit defeat at something so simple as interrogating a suspect, yet when she read his reports and those of his unit on site her surprise was quickly replaced by curiosity. Whoever it was that had managed to stymie both Coulson and Barton was bound to be interesting, though luckily not interesting enough to have made the news yet.

And, while they were suspected to be super-humans of some sort, 'Blake' and his nameless friend hadn't done anything more dangerous than beating up a few regular agents and annoying the hell out the rest, respectively.

She could deal with this, had dealt with far worse and really, after what had happened in both Queens and Harlem, it might even feel like a holiday.

 

.........

 

"You can't be serious."

"Oh, but I am, Doctor."

"That's... you're...  You shot at him..."

"Allegedly."

"You shot at him; he almost died..."

"Yes, but fortunately you called us before it could come to that."

"You can't honestly think we're letting any of you near him."

"Why not? Do you expect me to murder him in front of you? And why do you feel the need to defend him? Is he a friend of yours?"

Well, this was going nowhere.

Natasha had to admit, she was quite impressed by the brunette who was steadfastly refusing them entrance to her house and by the way she deflected any and all arguments that Coulson threw her way. She hadn't suspected any of the little group of scientists to be particularly courageous; from what she had observed so far, she'd have said they were more than a little unnerved by SHIELD's presence in Puente Antiguo and the heavy scrutiny the agency kept them under. Dr. Selvig, especially, never failed to look like a startled rabbit whenever he spotted one of the men stationed on the roof tops of the small town, but even he couldn't be convinced to move an inch from the door he and the young intern were blocking like a pair of very unintimidating bouncers.

Stranger still was the person they were doing this for, someone neither of them had been in contact with for over three weeks and nor, it seemed, at any point before arriving here. Maybe it was cynical of her to assume an ulterior motive but, in her experience, people didn't usually risk trouble with the authorities for nothing or no one. Had the man paid them off? Threatened them somehow?

But that wouldn't explain the other 'possible mutant' who didn't look as though either method would work on him and who, despite his far closer association with the man in question, hadn't made any attempt to argue for or defend his friend. He was simply standing there, to the side of Foster, with his arms crossed over his broad chest and a grim look on his face that discouraged anyone from stepping closer. 'Blake' certainly would have made the better door man but, judging from his position and the way his gaze kept slipping over to the physicist beside him, he was not trying to protect anyone inside the house.

The only conclusion she could draw from this weird scene in front of her was that several or all of their assumptions about these people were incorrect and that could only have happened because they were missing some key details here, and not just the names and identities of the two targets. The only way to solve that was to ask the right questions, but that was easier said than done when they couldn't even get into the house. Of course, both she and Phil could have long gotten past the little barricade, even without harming the civilians, but any show of force would have likely lead to more stubbornness and rather undermined the claim of just being here 'to talk'.

After about half an hour into this laughable standoff both sides were running out of arguments, however; Foster didn't even bother to say much more than "No" to any new request, the other two were now leaning more on the door than guarding it, 'Blake' looked ready to physically remove their unwanted guests from the premises and in her peripheral vision she could see her fellow agent smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in his suit, in a clear sign that he was starting to get a little annoyed by the hold up.

It seemed, it was up to her to defuse the situation before it turned ugly.

"Look, we really don't want to hurt your friend," she said calmly, during a lull in the conversation that had become increasingly louder by the minute. She was doing her best to look nonthreatening and - with both hands outstretched - showing that she was unarmed. Which was decidedly untrue, although Coulson had ordered her to leave the more obvious weapons behind as their target was apparently far too good at spotting them. "I, for one, actually came here to apologize."

As though she'd fired a shot in the air all eyes immediately focused on her, including Coulson's because, well, that had not been part of their plan. But she would have hardly become a successful spy without the ability to think on her feet.

"You want to apologize? What for?"

Darcy Lewis was another one of those missing elements; as a political sciences student who worked for a duo of astrophysicists in the desert she was already suspect enough but during their stay in this town she had spent more time around the targets than any other, which marked her as more important than an innocent bystander.

"Wait, you're the one who shot him, right?"

 Also, she was far too clever for her own good.

"Well, yes," Natasha answered, voice lowered in contrition, but not too much to be on the nose. "It was an accident, honestly, but I would still like to tell him that, face to face."

Either she had suddenly lost her touch or these people were eerily perceptive; no matter the reason, she could see that neither of them was convinced by her lie. Or maybe it was the "accident" part that they wouldn't buy. For a group of citizens who had never been in conflict with the law before they really were unusually hostile toward what was officially an agency of the US government. It was like dealing with Stark all over again, but that assignment had at least included a really nice choice of drinks.

Maybe it was time to get out the big guns. Figuratively speaking. Hopefully.

Not that she was given a chance for any of those options because suddenly a loud yelp split the silence, followed by the rather ludicrous display of Selvig jumping aside as though stung by a bee and Lewis almost falling backward onto her ass, only stopped by the fast reflexes of Blake who caught her by the arm.

All of this because the door had been opened from inside and in it stood a man who, despite his annoyed tone of voice, was grinning from ear to ear.

"Oh, for the love of Ymir, just let them enter."

Although Natasha had seen him around town several times since her arrival, it had always been from a distance as, unlike Barton, she'd never gotten on his radar. Of course, that might change now, after her 'confession', which was a good motivation for observing him as thoroughly as possible.

As had been noted in the report, he was tall and would likely appear even more so when he was not resting half of his weight on the door frame. With his right arm in a sling, the mass of dark hair atop his head in complete disarray and wearing a set of mismatched clothes that were definitely borrowed from someone much shorter he could have easily resembled a homeless person or a patient who'd spent too many bedridden days in a hospital, but he didn't look sickly or bedraggled, at all. Instead, he appeared strangely regal, in the way he held himself, in the sharply cut features and how he greeted them at the door, like a lord of an ancient manor and not a guest in a defunct car dealership. Albeit one with remarkably cold eyes that made all of his smiles look fake, though he did have the dimples to show he smiled often. The rest of his face was rather more expressive; when one of the others voiced concerns over his condition and told him he shouldn't be out of bed yet he even came close to blushing, but it was such a quick transformation that she doubted any of it was genuine.

And there was also the way he spoke, which would not have been out of place in one of those black and white atrocities Phil loved to watch so much.

"I thank you, dear Darcy, but there is no need to worry. I assure you, I am well," he said softly and, as if to prove it, he pushed away from the entryway to stand without support. "More than that, I am curious as to what the lady of Shield has to say. Apologies are not often given to one such as me, even when they are duly owed." For some reason his eyes darted to Blake at this last words, whose answering glare looked frankly murderous. The resulting starring contest lasted for a good minute until the blond turned away with a disgruntled huff.

What the hell was that about?

"You'll get your apology, don't you worry," Coulson interjected in a clear attempt to get the conversation back on track. His sidelong glance in her direction told her he wasn't joking and that she'd better make it convincing. "But I hope you won't mind if we ask you a few questions, afterwards."

That was what they'd come here for in the first place, what she had come to New Mexico for. She could tell it would be tricky, though, and that it might be more like a tug-of-war than an interrogation. Especially when she heard him haggling over technicalities.

"Naturally, you have questions and you are free to ask them, yet I see no reason why you would expect me to answer."

"We kind of saved your life, if you remember that." It was not the smoothest opening he could have chosen but it was obvious he was bracing himself for the long haul, anyway, with both hands in his pockets and a warm smile on his lips - the trademark signs of infinite patience and unwavering composure. Both might come in handy, if this went anything like their last encounter; the tape of which she had studied in detail together with Clint, who had continuously asked for popcorn.

She had to admit it really was entertaining, as much as it would likely give her a headache if it went on any longer. Like watching a parent argue about the color of the sky with a child. A very, very wordy child.

"True, but given that one of your people has almost ended it, as well, that seems a faulty premise. Also, I have never actually asked for the aid of your healer, kind as the gesture of providing one has been. Doing so would have been an astonishing feat, indeed, while in the grip of unconsciousness."

"And here I thought you valued things like integrity and honor."

From his position at Foster's side Blake could be heard laughing derisively; at the door the other man's expression turned sour. Someone had hit a nerve.

"I do, yes. But tell me, Son of Coul, why should I feel obligated to honor a dept which I myself have not incurred?" Then his tone switched from angry to pleasant, rapidly enough to give anyone listening whiplash and to make the experienced liar in her wonder which emotion was the real one, or if both were an act he had put on. That she couldn't be sure either way worried her a little. "However," he continued, with his head cocked arrogantly, "we might come to an agreement, after all, if you return to me that which you have taken."

For once, Phil actually looked confused without having to pretend. It was understandable as he hadn't spent hours studying the items in question as Nat had done the moment she'd gotten wind of them.

"He means the knives, Sir," she explained, already mourning the loss of these beauties. Whoever this guy was and whatever kind of threat he posed to national security, a part of her couldn't help but admire his taste in weaponry. The other agent wouldn't agree, of course, but he had his own reasons for wanting to hold on to the 'appropriated' goods.

"It might surprise you, but I'm not overly fond of the idea of arming you right now," Coulson replied while rocking back and forth on the heels of his shoes. He did so enjoy getting one over the people who'd annoyed him; the story of how he'd imprisoned Stark in his own house would never get old, even though she'd been there.

But the strange brunet definitely wasn't Stark; no, he was far more volatile.

"Please, do you honestly believe I am not armed, already?" Casually, as if it were nothing more than a tissue, he drew a small, black blade from his pocket that she recognized from the recordings as the one he'd said could cut through bone. And like in the video he let it dance between his fingers, which didn't look any less graceful when done with his left hand. Ambidextrous, just wonderful.

The open threat and the wicked grin he was sporting made it hard for the Widow to suppress her instincts, which were screaming at her to take him out before he could strike. She had to remind herself that he was injured and she could easily take him down with her pinky, but it would be stupid to underestimate him; both Clint and Sitwell could attest to that.

Coulson was right; giving the man any additional firepower, so to speak, would be a mistake.

Around them the scientists got noticeably more anxious; even Lewis had taken a few steps away from the door. Again, it was Blake who interjected, this time with an unintelligible growl that had his friend roll his eyes, but it did convince him to put the blade away. Curious.

"Now, to be clear, I mean you no harm." Which was demonstrated by empty hands held to his sides, palms up. It was such a perfect imitation of Natasha's own charade earlier that he had to have watched the entire exchange between her and his hosts before joining them. How he had managed that without being seen by anyone while literally sitting in a glass house she couldn’t even guess.

"I have every intention of keeping our previous agreement." By which he meant that he wouldn't attack any of SHIELD's agents, but that probably didn't include her, given that she had already 'provoked' him. "And I will not retaliate for the wrong that was done me," he added, as though he'd read her thoughts. "I will even answer your oh so important questions; all you have to do is to give back what is rightfully mine."

It was a tempting offer, honestly, especially to Coulson who had been getting nowhere with this duo of possible super-humans and the odd hammer in the desert, for weeks; she could practically see the gears turning in his head. Maybe this was a deal with the devil but, then, those were made far more often than anyone in SHIELD felt comfortable admitting to. In the end the deciding factor wouldn't be who they were bargaining with or even for what price, but how high they valued the information they would get out of this.

And in this case, it only needed about a minute for the senior agent to decide. "Fine," he said through gritted teeth. "Fine, you can have your toys back. Under one condition."

That only earned him a raised eyebrow and a flippant "I am listening".

"You'll answer honestly; I will have your word on that."

Whatever superstition had forced him to keep his word so far, it apparently didn't make sense only to him. "I would like to see you slither out of that, Trickster," Blake said with open amusement on his face. The 'Trickster' wasn't amused at all, he had to visibly restrain himself from shouting back or maybe punching his companion and that he did neither was likely because he had something more important on his mind.

"Very well, I shall swear to it, but first I want my apology."

 

.........

 

While Coulson went back to the other side of town to fetch the promised knives - because apparently they couldn't be trusted to keep their end of the deal once they got what they wanted - Natasha and her mark were sitting around a small coffee table that was littered with books and the remains of the meal that must have been interrupted by the agents' arrival.

Foster and company had retreated to the kitchen area, which didn't exactly offer them much privacy - as there was no wall separating that part of the house from what had been pointed out as the living room - but hopefully it would put the man a bit more at ease. Because, as soon as they had entered the house, the others had bombarded him with questions after his health and Lewis had pressed a cup of tea into his hand, which seemed to unnerve him more than the heated exchange with his blond friend afterwards. As it was, he looked quite relieved when he finally took a seat on the couch opposite her or maybe that had more to do with exhaustion.

No matter how good an actor he was, he could hardly hide the beads of sweat on his face nor the pallor to his already pale skin. Not that she would have expected him to be in top form right now, when it was only three days ago that she'd put a bullet in his shoulder. And, judging from the still sealed up bottle of painkillers on the nightstand next to him, he had apparently decided to tough it out. His flagging health did nothing to slow his wits, however, nor did it seem to dampen his mood.

With a big grin and a grand, inviting gesture of his hand he told her, "Now, you have made me wait long enough, do you not agree? Let us hear how very sorry you are, Agent…"

"Natasha Romanov," she replied and was not in the least surprised when he didn't offer up his own name in exchange. It was clear to her, from what she had seen of this man in recordings and in person, that he didn't give anything away for free. That, at least, she could sympathize with.

It was his sympathy that she needed to draw out, though, and that was no small feat. First of all, he didn't strike her as the forgiving type and Natasha herself wasn't that keen on admitting mistakes. The Widow didn't do regret, even when she honestly felt it, but she had enough practice at faking her way through it.

"It was a misunderstanding," was how she began, voice low and eyes directed at the floor in shame. "I thought you were about to attack Agent Barton and, as his partner, it's up to me to protect him." Which was true, but she might have let him fall on his ass in that particular situation if she'd thought it would serve the mission. And if he hadn't already gotten a knife to the gut a few days earlier. "He told me afterwards that the two of you had just been talking peacefully and that it was the two drunk idiots who'd set you off." Coulson had been livid at that, especially when she'd reported to him that they'd fired shots into the air like a bunch of frat boys at a 4th of July party. "It was a mistake and I'm truly sorry."

"Yes, it was and no, you are not."

Well, what was she supposed to say to that?

There was no point in insisting that she'd been nothing but sincere when he was so damn smug about having caught her in a lie. He had likely known beforehand that she was going to bullshit him and only bothering with this to get him to talk. Needless to say, that it didn't sit right with her that some stranger, practically a nonentity, could see right through her without even trying.

Reluctantly she had to agree with Clint - this guy was a professional, and it was up to her to figure out whether that made him an asset SHIELD might try to recruit or a danger that they would have to remove.

 

.........

 

"OK, here we are. One delivery of knives in exchange for truthful answers."

In the short time it had taken him to drive to the base and back Coulson had seemingly found his equilibrium, which was fortunate as both of them needed to be at their best with this particular target. He was holding the small silver briefcase as though he were presenting it to a possible customer in some shady, back alley arms deal, nicely juxtaposed by the bright sunlight shinning through the glass fronts and his equally bright smile.

At once, a hand shot out to grab the case but it was pulled away in the other direction before even one greedy finger could touch it. "Uh, uh, first the answers, then you'll get your reward," Coulson admonished with a shake of his head.

It wasn't often that Natasha had to stop herself from laughing out loud but this moment definitely made the list, even more so when she got a good look at the unhappy little pout on the before so carefully controlled face. He really wanted those weapons back, she knew, and holding them out of his reach was like denying candy to a hyperactive five-year old.

But, again, the man's emotions pivoted within seconds; he leaned back against the couch, his left hand tapping out a rhythm on his knee, his eyes directed at a spot on the wall opposite - the perfect picture of indifference. "Very well, if you insist. Nine answers, then, one for each of my daggers. That is a fair trade, yes?"

"Eh, we only have eight," Phil replied, a little bewildered. To make sure, he opened the briefcase again but that was hardly necessary. The unit's scientists had thoroughly bagged, classified and tagged these babies; if one of them had gotten missing, she would have heard about it. Or been suspected of pilfering it.

For a moment the cold eyes blazed with fury as though he thought he was being swindled, which was why the chuckle that followed felt more jarring than humorous. "Oh, I had forgotten about that," he remarked without further explanation. Though a little bit more detail would have been nice and less alarming than this standalone statement, which was open to far too many interpretations. 'I forgot I've left one of them at home' or 'I forgot one of them in the body of my victim' - either option would probably amuse him just the same.

"Eight, then. No more, no less and no further stipulations, Coulson." This was said flippantly enough, but the stare which he leveled at the agent in question could have easily melted steel. Which just proved that SHIELD made them of tougher stuff.

"OK, fine with me. But you still have to swear your honesty to me."

Surprisingly, the brunet stood up at once and, with a hand over his heart, rattled off an oath similarly solemn as the one he had given at the base a week ago. "For each of my belongings that you return to me I shall answer one question of your choosing and I will do so sincerely and without duplicity, this I swear by my honor." When he sat back down he looked almost giddy, his smirk an open challenge. "Now, I wonder what you wish to know so very badly that you would bargain for it with me, once more. I hope it is not that dull hammer this time."

"We'll see. Agent Romanov, if you would be so kind?"

With that they outlined their usual roles in this game; Natasha would ask and he would observe, which could be turned around if needed and often was during the course of a session, but Phil did prefer to let her take the lead.

Of course, some targets didn't take so well to that strategy, especially the male ones.

"You want her to question me?" He sounded neither angry nor disgusted, just confused, as though he'd only now noticed she was even in the room.

"Is that a problem?" Not that his opinion would make a difference, but it might be revealing in and of itself. But as it turned out, his objection had nothing to do with her being a woman, for once.

"No, I simply did not think you would relinquish the satisfaction of forcing honest answers out of me to someone else."

"Oh, I'll be satisfied just watching, thank you."

She could only shake her head at these two kids; a few minutes more of this and they would start pulling each other's pigtails. It was a good thing, then, that she was here to bang their heads together. Figuratively.

"Boys, if we could get going, then?" she asked while getting back to her previous seat, directly opposite her target. With a self-deprecating grin Coulson slowly walked toward the back of the room from where he fetched an old folding chair that he positioned at an angle to the couch, far enough away to stay out of focus of the conversation, close enough to interject when necessary. Out of the pocket of his suit jacket he pulled a small notepad and pen; with a nod he signaled for her to begin.

Finally.

"So, let's start simple."

Keeping it simple was essential with this one; she had watched him disassemble even the most basic of inquiries and willfully misinterpret them with a flourish. That would not happen here; she had to weigh her words carefully so as to not waste even one question.

"What is your name?" There, that shouldn't be hard to answer.

He did answer, without any kind of hesitation, but not exactly how she would have preferred.

"Loki," he said cheerfully and, although she waited for a good minute for him to go on, that was apparently all of it.

"That's not enough; your full name, please."

"Loki is all I can lay claim to, at the moment, I am sorry to say."

The arrogant tilt to his head showed he was not sorry at all, but he would get stubborn if she called him out on a lie. Also he had worded his reply as an obvious trap, which she had to take anyway or risk leaving with nothing. SHIELD's resources were vast but even the best informants or newest search algorithms would be useless with only a first name to go on.

"OK. Then, what could you lay claim to before you got here?"

Yes, he had wanted her to ask this, but he also looked a little pained, as though he actually had to force himself to answer. "Loki, Son of Laufey, of the royal line of Hraesvelgr, Son of Ymir; Second Prince and High Mage of Jötunheimr. Trickster, Liesmith, Silvertongue, Sky-treader, Sly One... Shall I go on?"

Half of this had to have been made up - for one, she quite strongly doubted the 'prince' part - but hopefully they could find out who he really was through one of the nicknames at the end. Though maybe it wasn't a lie but an actual title, albeit one that marked him as a member of a crime syndicate or a cult; that should show up in the databases, as well.

"No, that's all right, I think. You got all that, Coulson?"

The other agent had been scribbling away hastily on his notepad, which usually was more for show than a real necessity; both of them had excellent memory. There was just one small problem.

"Spell that, please."

That earned him a mocking laugh, but, honestly, even Natasha would be hard pressed to pronounce most of these words, despite her talent with languages. "All of it?" he asked, with far too much humor in his voice. Damn, he was enjoying this.

"Well, I believe I can manage L-O-K-I; I was thinking more of this…eh, Yoton…something."

"Jötunheimr," he clarified, enunciating each syllable carefully, but when he saw the still puzzled look he reached out for a pen that had been resting on one of the books on the coffee table. "If you would provide me with something on which to write...?"

In a moment he had a sheaf of paper shoved in his face, the same one that already held several scribbled names, all of them misspelled. Or so she guessed, judging by Loki's wicked grin. He had no difficulty writing with his left hand, proving her earlier theory true. And he wrote fast enough that, if this was really no more than fabricated nonsense, he could not have come up with it just now. When he was done he held the page up over his head, so Coulson - who'd been leaning over the other man's shoulder while he wrote - could take it out of his hand. "Satisfied?"

"Immensely."

It took a few moments for the agent to get back to his chair and for the smugness to leave the target's face again; it was enough time for her to prepare her next question.

"Moving on, then, Your Highness." She had only used the honorific to tease him a little, but he actually winced when he heard it.

It was certainly not humbleness that made him say "Loki. Just Loki, if you please" because he didn't strike her as the most humble of people, and it really looked like it hurt him. Strange. Maybe there was more to him only being able to 'lay claim' to his first name but asking after that could easily derail the conversation, so she just went on with what she'd planned to say, while keeping the matter on a back burner. 

"OK, Loki, tell me, why are you here? And before you get the wrong idea - 'here' doesn't mean this room, or this house or your general reason for being alive. Why are you in Puente Antiguo?"

Of all the things she could have asked she would not have expected that one to be the breaking point; after all, it was obvious it had something to do with the hammer, given that he, Blake and that thing had arrived at the same time. Also, he could have easily given her something vague or half-assed like 'I'm here for a job'. But as though he really was pondering the meaning of life, he was sitting there for several minutes with his chin on his hand, quietly muttering to himself and occasionally biting his lip in what was clearly an unconscious gesture of nervousness. Either he was trying to wait out her patience or he had no idea how to get out of this one without lying.

"Uh, you will not like my answer, I fear," he said at last, not even trying to hide that he liked it even less. After an encouraging "Go on" from her he sighed deeply and then continued in a small, unhappy voice, "I do not know."

"You're right; I don't like that answer. I thought you were going to be honest with us."

Because he could not have just come here by accident or gotten lost on the way; there was no other inhabited place for miles in either direction. People didn't just travel to this backwater town for fun and giant hammers didn't just fall from the sky. But for someone who only moments ago had admitted to being called "Liesmith" he looked incredibly affronted by the implication that he might not have been entirely truthful; that sneer he sported now could have curdled milk and the way he balled his left hand indicated he was a hair's breath away from taking out his blade, again. There was that short fuse Clint had reported on, which was apparently triggered by hurting his pride.

"I am attempting to be honest, that is exactly the problem. I could tell you why I believe to be here, but that does not necessarily have to be the true reason. And, as you were so very specific in your wording, all I can offer you would be mere guesswork."

He addressed this one to Coulson as though asking for permission from a higher up or maybe because he thought that any possible objections were more likely to come from this agent, but all he received in response was a shrug of shoulders.

"Fine, hazard a guess; it doesn't need to hold up in court."

"Very well." One heavy sigh followed another until he finally made up his mind as to how to continue; a trained liar he was but not a practiced truth teller, it seemed. "All I can be certain of is that I came here to learn. I know not precisely what nor why here, to this little town, but my theory is that this place is removed enough from the general populace that I am unlikely to cause too much harm. Which, as I have already told you, I have no intention of causing but some people are less trusting than even you, Coulson."

Now, this created about a dozen new questions, starting with what he meant by 'learning' or why - when he thought he was not supposed to hurt the people around him - he had come armed for a small war, but she had bigger fish to fry than to dismantle his wording. Before they'd gotten here the two agents had debated what issues to tackle during this interrogation, things that would be good to know and essential information that they would not leave the house without. What she was about to ask might be the most important one, no matter that it wasn't the one the Widow was itching to get an answer to.

"That sounds as though this little trip wasn't your idea. I'd say, someone sent you to do a job." As it wasn't phrased as a question all she got in response was a "Hm" from Loki, but that was probably a confirmation in itself. He didn't like to talk about this, that much was obvious, which only encouraged her to keep going; even if he broke his word now, his reaction would be telling enough.

"Who are you working for?"

Again, he hesitated to answer, but not because he didn't want to. No, this time they had come up against that language barrier Coulson had mentioned to her before, the existence of which didn't surprise her in the slightest - because the man was just as American as Natasha, if not less so - but she had not expected it would turn up at a simple word like "working".

Nevertheless, he actually asked for clarification with an air of academic curiosity. "Now, when you say 'work for' you mean the person from whom I earn my keep or someone I take orders from or...?"

"Either is fine. Whatever fits your situation better." If he was some kind of mobster, he was unlikely to be paid for his jobs, at least not in money.

"Hm, well, I take orders from my father, of course, and occasionally from my mother," he replied almost mockingly, as though she should have known that already. And it was straightforward enough, she supposed, if they actually were talking about a king and queen. "And as a prince I serve the people of Jötunheimr, although I would not call that 'work', more an inherent duty."

Huh, that was more than she'd hoped to get out of him; at the very least it confirmed that this "Jötunheimr" was either a real place or an organization and that he was an important enough figure in it to not get his hands dirty with real labor. She could just imagine this guy leading a board meeting or presiding over an audience in a throne room; both would fit him perfectly.

Coulson was apparently unhappy with not knowing which scenario was the right one, because he interjected again, with a question that was carefully crafted to sound like a statement. "So, when you say "father" and "mother" you mean your biological parents, I take it, and not just someone you call by that title."

Damn, now she wished they'd brought a camera for this occasion; that utterly perplexed look was simply priceless, as was the open disgust that showed on Loki's face, once he seemed to have puzzled out the possible implications of that non-question. "Why, by the Nine, should I call anyone my father who is not my father? That is... that is preposterous. I honestly cannot imagine why you would even need to... Argh, you people have troubling ideas about family, I have to tell you." His disgruntled answer was followed by a deep shudder, which definitely was not for show. Hm, she wouldn't have pegged him as prudish, given all that damn innuendo he'd been delivering in earlier conversations, but maybe it was different when he was at the receiving end of it. Or when it involved his family; some people could be hypersensitive on that subject.

"What about Blake?" she asked, in a complete non sequitur. If the blond was a member of his family, it would probably be easier to get that out of him now before he fully regained his composure, even if all she had to go on was his body language. The name was enough to get him to grimace, though that could also be due to it being made up or, better, borrowed from Dr. Foster's ex-boyfriend.

When she didn't get an answer, she attempted to define more closely what she wanted to know, but that didn't help either, as it turned out. "Who is he working for?"

"I cannot speak for him." That came out through gritted teeth; his harsh stare was directed at the kitchen area, as though the other man was standing there, giving him directions which he took issue with. A quick look around told her that neither of the house's inhabitants had moved from the table they'd been sitting around from the beginning and that Blake was currently occupied with playing cards with the intern.

Still, maybe that was what they'd been arguing about before, in a language that she'd had not been able to make out. Was the 'prince' intimidated by the 'bouncer'? Or was this a professional agreement he was loath to break? No matter the reason, she would not let him break their agreement.

"That is not an answer. You know, lying by omission is still lying."

That hit the mark, as she knew it would. The green eyes were practically boring holes into hers as he replied, "I am not lying, nor am I willfully withholding information. I cannot speak for him, that is the unvarnished truth."

Ah, so there really was some form of coercion in place as he had not said "will not" or "should not" but "cannot", as in 'or else...'

What the hell was going on between these two?

"OK, then I'll rescind that question, which still leaves me with four."

"Certainly not. That you mislike what I have to say is no concern of mine; I swore an oath to be honest not to satisfy your curiosity."

On any other day and with any other target she would have argued the point, or at least persuaded to him to give her something else in exchange - maybe one of those nice little daggers - but Loki was a stubborn brat and this could easily lead to a tiresome debate about semantics, again. In her peripheral she could see Coulson shaking his head, telling her to drop it. Well, they had almost covered the basics, anyway.

Heaving a long suffering sigh, that was mostly for the sake of dramatics, Natasha pondered which topic to bring up next and which she should leave for last. Maybe something simple first, to diffuse the tension. "I'll give you that. But I can't help being curious. Which reminds me, do you have any notable abilities we should be aware of?"

He was taken aback by her willingness to compromise, that she could tell, maybe because he too had thought this would lead to a long winded argument. And the question itself seemed to puzzle him, as well. "Abilities? That depends on what you define as 'notable'," he said, a touch wryly. "I am a fairly good artist, when inspiration strikes me and I ride a horse better than any of my kinsmen. I also have heard it said that I possess a lovely singing voice, but you would have get me very drunk in order to admire that..."

Oh, for the love of... "Unusual abilities, I mean. Like telepathy, telekinesis, super strength..."

... a talent at annoying everyone around him. That had to count as a super-human skill, right? She would have to get that registered as a category on the Gifted Index, once she was back at the Triskelion.

"Well, in that case... no," Loki replied, and by the way his shoulders slumped and his eyes turned away from her to stare at his feet he appeared downright depressed having to admit that.

Ah, it was a shame that she couldn't get a few more hours with him, to get to the bottom of this, because with every damn word he said he only became more of an enigma. But there were only two questions left and she would not waste them on what could easily be a smoke screen, a way to distract her from what was actually important.

SHIELD had tagged Loki as a target because they'd assumed he was a mutant or otherwise gifted, like the Hulk, but if he was neither that left only one option and not exactly the most harmless one, for all that it was the most mundane. He was only one man, if one ruled out a partnership with Blake, but he had a family which - whether it consisted of genuine royals or not - could become a problem.

"That's disappointing, but I might take you up on that concert later, if you accept requests," she quipped and that, at least, turned that frown upside-down, though, his smile still looked a little crooked when he met her eyes again. What a sad little puppy, the Widow thought pitilessly. But maybe getting to brag about his connections would make him feel better.

"Of course, I will only get to enjoy that lovely voice if I'm not otherwise occupied. So, I'm wondering, will your family come to take you back home now, that you're... incapacitated?"

"Are you worried about retaliation, Agent Romanov?" Now the smugness was back, but only for a moment, while he likely imagined she was left in suspense, fearing for her life. In truth, all she worried about was how fast they could evacuate the town before it was swarmed with terrorists or a foreign security detail. As it turned out, she need not have wasted any concern for either issue.

"Rest easy, my lady," he said, his voice light, yet his posture was stiff and his eyes were colder than the Siberian winter. "No one will come to punish you for the harm you have done me. While you might be in very real trouble now had you attacked me on Jötunheimr, my family is... far away and I... I am not worth the trouble it would cause for even one of them to... visit me."

Oh. Now she understood; at least she thought she did. It was like puzzle pieces clicking in to place to reveal a very interesting picture. Whoever that family was, clearly they'd had a falling out with their annoying little son, and they'd sent him here as some sort of disciplinary measure, probably a lesson on how to get along without the backing of the family fortune. That was why he only got to refer to himself by his first name, then. Ouch.

She almost felt sorry for him, and she would have, if he actually were some former trust fund kid. Given that he was, at best, the son of some shady European aristocrat, her sympathy was somewhat lacking. "Hm, then maybe we'll have to come over more often, for a drink or two. I'm sure I can persuade Clint to visit, too, if you offer the right type of beer and some Hawaiian pizza."

To her left she could see Coulson chuckle soundlessly and even Loki looked a little amused, in a manner of acknowledging friendly teasing that meant he was close to sticking his tongue out at her. Well, as long as she had him in a good mood...

"But I'd guess that you'll probably be glad to be rid of us for today, so one last question..." With that hanging in the air she got up from her chair and walked over to the other agent, put one hand on the briefcase sitting by his side and - after a nonverbal discussion between them that ended in a nod from her former SO - she carried the thing over to the couch.

Simply setting it on the coffee table and holding it open with on hand she let her fingers trail over the various goodies inside for a few moments before she turned back to her target. "These are beautiful. Where did you get them?"

A very confused "Huh?" was the only answer, proving that he could be brought down from his Shakespearean diction if one managed to catch him off guard. That alone made her feel like she'd done a good job, today, but she wasn't finished yet.

"The knives, daggers, whatever you'd like to call them. Where did you get them? I wouldn't mind a few of those for myself, you know."

"That is what you wish to waste your last question on?" He sounded more bewildered than angry, but he was still looking for the hidden trap, she knew. Because she would have done the same.

"I don't really see it as a waste. You have no idea how hard it is to find a quality weapon these days, especially after Stark shut down his factories." With a slight turn of her head she quickly added, only for Coulson's ears, "Don't tell him I said that!"

The resulting laugh was one of the agent's rare honest ones, warm and infectious; it brought a small smile to Natasha's own lips. It also seemed to have put Loki at ease a little, enough so that he rose from the couch and stepped over to her side where, predictably, he stood for a while to look over his precious weapons, as though to inspect them for damage.

Then he pulled out the first one in the row - a dark grey blade, that looked dull as stone in the sunlight, but sported a wicked, curved edge. "This I won in a wager," he explained, cheerfully, before putting it aside, onto of the pile of books.

Next came a set of identical pieces - silvery, thin and light, perfect for throwing. "These I commissioned from one of the best craftsmen in the Nine. They cost me a fortune, but as you said, quality is rare to find and worth its weight in gold." As if to emphasize his point, he took the set out of the case and promptly tucked them away under his belt. Mine, the gesture said, like a child clutching his favorite toy to his chest.

The following three he just pointed out with a finger, leaving them where they lay side by side for the moment, maybe because he had nowhere else to hide them away or because they were replaceable. "These I crafted myself." And though they were not the most extraordinary parts of this collection, his voice was filled with pride. Well, she had to admit, she had never made more than a crude shift on her own, and these were definitely of finer quality.

One was thin and colored as deep a red as her hair; from what she remembered of the lab report, it was of an unknown material and as durable as vibranium. To its left was a small, triangular blade made out of ordinary silver, with two curved protrusions on each side that let the wielder hide it between his fingers, so he could stab unsuspecting agents in the gut with it. Lastly there was, what Clint had dubbed the 'fruit knife'; a flat, white thing not much wider that an inch and, unlike all the others, it held no trace of metal. Instead, the report said, it was a piece of organic material, that could either be bone or ivory, but again the source of it was uncertain.

If Loki actually had made all of these, he must have very good connections to smugglers and/or mad scientists.

But what came next put all of the previous weapons to shame, and their owner must have thought so as well, because only now his smile became warmer and his fingers went into the case to carefully caress the hilt of the leftmost knife and the green jewels on the one next to it. "This," he said with a finger on the last in the row, an unadorned steel blade, long enough to almost count as a sword, "was a gift from by brother after I had bested him in a duel for the first time."

The softness of his voice spoke of fond memories, no matter that he talked about a physical fight against a family member. Maybe that was normal in Jötunheimr.  

"And this was given to me by my father," he went on, after he had taken out the dagger in question - a beautiful, gleaming item covered in emeralds and intricate, symmetric lines - and literally clutched it to his heart. Wow, she'd not have thought he would be so hopelessly sentimental and so open about it, but no matter how good he was at masking his emotions, he obviously saw no need to hide how he felt about his family. "He gave it to me when I came of age. 'Tis an heirloom, handed down from father to eldest son for, oh, I do not know how many generations. He should have given it to my eldest brother, of course, but well, he thought I could make better use of it, I suppose."

It was adorable how sheepish he looked at his own explanation, like a little boy who'd gotten away with pinching his sibling's cookies, and for once, even his eyes held a trace of warmth. No wonder, then, that he'd appeared so depressed at being kicked out, if these people meant so much to him.

"Is that answer to your satisfaction, Agent Romanov?" he asked, jarring her out of her contemplation.

She merely nodded, then pointed to the case still resting on the table. "You can keep that, if you like. Wouldn't do to lose one of your treasures, right?"

Once more she looked at Coulson to make sure they were done before she held out her hand to Loki. "Well, this was an interesting conversation, to say the least. I'm almost glad I shot you."

To make it even more interesting the strange brunet didn't shake the offered hand put took it in his and then bowed lightly over it. "It was an honor, I assure you. You are a rare jewel in the otherwise dull rabble of this town. I hope we meet again, on lighter terms, perhaps."

A 'rare jewel', now that was creative, also not what she'd expected after she'd grilled him on so many personal, uncomfortable topics. Most of her targets just wanted to hit her afterwards or hit on her. But Loki clearly was too well mannered to do either; he just gave her one more friendly smile before he said goodbye to Coulson, as well, in a less flowery way but just as regally.

The two of them were almost out of the door before they were called back with a decisive "Wait!".

"If I may have one question of my own, Lady Romanov?"

And just for the chivalrous address she was tempted agree on the spot, but she was too much of a professional to risk it. So, carefully she posed a counter-question. "That depends; what about?"

"Barton. Is he your... Do you care for him?"

Oh. That was direct and not exactly a safe topic. Yet this didn't feel like a trap or a way to get under her skin; he was asking in a manner one might use to inquire after a favorite drink or the name of a pet - personal but not intrusive. It probably couldn't harm to show him a little trust after all that he had divulged about himself today.

"Yes. He's a good friend." There, that wasn't too compromising and hardly a secret to anyone who had met her.

To Loki it seemed important, though, which worried her for about a second until he said, "Well, then, I suppose I shall forgive you your little 'mistake'."

"Really?" she asked with no small amount of disbelief. That was all it took?

"Yes, for I would not have acted any different in your position. After all, there is no duty more sacred than to protect those we love."

What might have come off as cheesy or downright hilarious from anyone else managed to sound more genuine than even his professed truths. This was something he believed in, possibly even lived by.

"In that case, I hope I never get in the position to hurt one of your friends, hm?"

That was said merely to lighten the suddenly pensive mood, but it only darkened when Loki replied, "So do I, for I would hate to have you as my enemy, Natasha Romanov."

And while that could easily be interpreted as a threat she actually thought he meant it as compliment.

This man, if he was human, was certainly not a normal one. Wherever this Jötunheimr was, it might be worth a trip, if only so she could get her hands on some of their lovely weaponry. Though she should probably not show her face there, for the next few decades or so.

But, damn, did she need a vacation right about now.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.........

ES

.........

 

Living with two rivaling gods under one roof was an incredibly odd experience, Erik thought, yet at the same time it was far more peaceful than anyone could have guessed.

For one, it helped that their sleep cycles were almost comically contrary to one another. Where Thor rose at the crack of dawn - like an annoyingly cheerful and talkative rooster - but was barely able to make it through one entire movie after dinner, Loki seemed at his most alert during the late evening - giving any stressed-out student or obsessed physicist a run for their money when it came to all-nighters - only to then hurry away to bed at the first sign of sunlight as though one little ray of it would cause him to melt or burst into flames.

Also, it was fortunate that the blond spent so much time in the kitchen and that his enemy avoided that part of the house like the plague because of the heat of the oven and the smell of, what he called, "the spoiling of perfectly good meat" by cooking or, heaven forbid, roasting it. Likewise, in an uncharacteristic show of squeamishness, nothing got the Thunderer to bolt from a room faster than the appearance of the first aid kit, with which Loki patched up his wounded shoulder once a day.

As a result both men did a great job of staying out of each other's way - whether intentionally or not -and when they had to occupy the same place at the same time, mostly for meals, they rarely exchanged more than two words between them. He had to give them credit for managing even that much with a terse but unwavering politeness, though it was hard to tell whether the sudden shift from using patronyms instead of first names when they addressed each other was actually as harmless at it sounded or rather a veiled form of insult.

What mattered the most, however, was that they didn't have to deal with any battles, physical or otherwise, and so the occupants of the little glass house lived together in relative harmony, which gave Erik a break from all the headaches of the last month and a chance to witness two gods in the wild without the fear of being caught in the crossfire.

After only a week of observing them he thought to have found at least one reason for their continued rivalry - they were each other's polar opposite and not only in looks.

Thor was loud and boisterous while Loki was quiet and reserved. Thor seemed to thrive in the company of their little group while Loki largely kept to himself - in the small former office they had assigned as his bedroom once he was well enough to move from the couch, although he always kept the room's door wide open, even when he slept.

Thor could probably drink an entire pub under the table, despite the lack of godly powers, but Loki had looked as though he might be sick the one time he had offered the brunet a bottle of beer.

Thor learned about Earth things simply by trying them, be it the way they ate certain foods or the use of the house's electronics, and he was never deterred by his continued mishaps. And then there was Loki, who carefully watched others use them several times from afar before he imitated each action perfectly.

Thor loved to speak of himself and his exploits, which had made it easy to confirm or disapprove most of the myths surrounding him, yet unfortunately the same couldn't be said about Loki. Even a week in and he hadn't given anything more away than what he had confessed to Agent Romanov. 

Except for one thing.

As he had noticed that one time in the library weeks ago, the God of Lies loved books. And he didn't simply read them, he almost devoured them as though his eyes could move across the pages faster than light and his mind worked at an equally impossible speed to soak up their information. It wasn't a surprise, then, that he had gotten through their limited supply of scientific dissertations, romance novels and magazines two days into his convalescence, and when he saw the young man leaf through one of Darcy's school books for the third time that week the professor had finally decided to take pity on him.

"You know, I could pick up some new reading material from the library, if you'd like," he said, while stepping into Loki's line of sight; startling him was a decidedly bad idea - as the hole in the lab's metal wall, courtesy of one little black knife, could attest.

He was startled, though, but more by the words, it seemed, than by suddenly having company; his head whipped around quickly enough to make Erik's neck hurt in sympathy and he sounded doubtful when he asked, "Why would you offer this when you know I have naught to give you in recompense?"

That question was either a comment on how greedy he thought Earth's people were or simply testament to how different his own culture was in comparison. Were the Jötnar opposed to receiving gifts if they couldn't return the gesture?

Carefully he tried to explain, as always mindful of not sounding condescending; no matter his outward appearance the god was probably several hundred years his senior and anything but stupid. "Well, I don't want anything from you, that's not how it works here. I just thought you might get bored after a fourth read-through." He gestured to the volume lying on the coffee table, which the brunet had been flipping through listlessly before - a collection of essays on the Nixon administration - then shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "I know I would. And you see, I go to that place almost daily; it won't cost me anything to fetch a few books for you, as well."   

It was easy to recognize the deep seated curiosity on Loki's face, no matter how hard he tried to hide it, because the physicist had seen it often enough in his colleagues, including one Jane Foster. That curiosity was what made people study for years to get a degree in subjects that paid less than a summer job at Starbucks or pin all their hopes on obscure theories even to the detriment of their reputation. Or what made them end up in the middle of the New Mexican desert to look at 'subtle auroras'. 

Still, it seemed that the promise of knowledge wasn't tempting enough to win out against the other man's mistrustful nature. "And what exactly is it going to cost me? I already owe you a debt, Erik Selvig, I do not make a habit of accumulating those."

Ah, so that's what it was about. Well, he could not pretend that he hadn't revisited that moment when he'd found Loki in an alley, alone and in shock, several times over the last week, especially after Thor had accidentally shed some light on the situation by explaining that the thing the Jötunn had been unable to 'make right' was the color of his blood. That revelation had set the professor's mind whirling with a plethora of questions on myths, biology and philosophy, which he likely would have already bombarded either of the gods with days ago, if he thought there was a chance he would get honest answers from the Liesmith or unbiased ones from the Thunderer.

Maybe it would have been a good idea to take a leaf out of SHIELD's handbook and to barter for the information he badly wanted to have, but he only entertained that possibility for a second before he shrugged it off in disgust. He wouldn't stoop to the level of spies and assassins, who thought it was appropriate to interrogate a man only days after they'd almost killed him, nor was he going to use that 'debt' as a bargaining tool. Honestly, he hadn't even known there was a debt in the first place, because 'I owe you one' was usually just a meaningless phrase people flung around instead of saying 'thank you'. That it had actual meaning to Loki made it all the more unappealing and, in any case, the thought of using that one moment of weakness against the young man was just utterly distasteful, like reaching out a hand to pull someone up from a nasty fall only to push them down into the mud again. Maybe that was SHIELD's way but it was definitely not his.

"You don't owe me anything," Erik said, therefore, and immediately felt tons lighter for it. "I didn't help you that day to get something out of it but because it was the only decent thing to do. And before you ask, no, you don't owe us for taking you in, either. We're glad to have you as long as you, you know, don't stab anyone." He's said that last part as more of a joke than out of true concern and, fortunately, that's how it was received, as well, if the sharp grin and raised eyebrow were anything to go by.

"Now, that would be a terrible way to repay your kindness, would it not? And I will repay you, whether you see a need for it or not; Odinson my claim I have no sense of honor but just as I have never broken my word I have also never taken without giving back." And because they were both aware of the times he had 'taken' food from shops in the last few weeks he added a bit sheepishly, "Not where it counted."

Owning a favor from a god was not something many people could brag about, he supposed, yet he wasn't so sure he should count it as a good thing to have this particular deity indebted to him. Like letting the proverbial genie out of its bottle, this could very well backfire on him; probably in quite spectacular fashion, depending on how Loki decided to 'repay' him.  Still, he realized there was no getting out of this, not if he didn't want to offend the other man.

It was one of the few things he had in common with Thor, that when he spoke of himself or such important matters as honor it was done with a certain kind of gravitas and more than a hint of authority, as though he were at court, talking to his subjects. Which was not surprising, given that both of them were princes, though it was a fact one easily forgot when only focusing on the 'god' part of their identity.

And Erik was focusing too much on the latter part, he knew, so he tried to picture, again, the young man in the library who had looked so enraptured by the small collection of books, and to not let that image get clouded by the, probably very inaccurate, legends he had read about supposedly the same person. "Well, I won't stop you from saving me from the next dragon that comes into town," he replied good-humouredly, and before Loki had the chance to confirm the existence of yet another mythical creature he continued, "But for now, why don't I take this,"-he took a step closer to the table to pick up the textbook-"and give you something new for it, hm?"

It was a risk to make fun of someone so quick to anger and of a promise so solemnly given, but it paid off nicely when he heard the small chuckle in response, which soon turned into full out laughter as though a dam had broken and he just couldn't hold onto his serious demeanor any longer.

After several minutes and more than one attempt at regaining his composure the brunet spoke up, voice still a little out of breath and eyes sparkling with honest amusement, "Oh, you are an interesting one, Erik Selvig." And while that not-quite-compliment was already a good step away from his earlier reticence, what he said next was even more promising in regards to the professor's hope of finding some common ground with him. "As to your offer, well, I would welcome something new or more of the same, actually; your realm's ideas on politics are incredibly fascinating, I have to admit."

The request was made flippantly enough that it almost sounded indifferent but when Erik came back an hour later with an arm full of presidential biographies and a heavy door-stopper on democracy he knew he had struck gold. Because at the sight the god's eyes lit up like a kid's on Christmas Morning and, though he was lost to the world for the rest of the day with his nose stuck in one book or another, once he emerged he suddenly talked like a waterfall and asked all sorts of questions about the things that he had read.

This was a completely new side of Loki, a far more approachable one and if all it took to bring it out in him was to supply him with new books every day, now, that was hardly a great sacrifice. Though it might prove a challenge for Puente Antiguo's library. Maybe he could ask Agent Coulson to send in a few shipments, if worst came to worse; it was for a good cause, after all.

.........

The books helped to make the God of Lies more talkative and at times he even gave away a few snippets about himself or at least about his opinion on certain topics but usually he avoided anything too personal and he never strayed too far from the subject of his chosen volume for the day. So nothing short of shoving the Eddas in his face was likely to help Erik solve his dilemma of sorting out the truth from the nonsense of the Old Norse religion. Or so he thought.

Strangely enough it was a discussion on the weather that finally got him what he'd hoped for.

Darcy had just come back from grocery shopping for the now much larger group and, as happened more often than not, she had dragged Thor along so that he could carry the heavy bags across town for her. Or, as she had secretly admitted to Jane and him one day, because the blond was "entertaining as hell" in the environment of a simple department store.

Loki had been sitting in the kitchen, eating what amounted to breakfast - only called that because he'd just gotten out of bed a few minutes earlier, though judging by the time of day it shouldn't even count as lunch anymore  - while everyone around him was storing food away into various cupboards. Occasionally he looked up from his bowl of fruit salad to scoff at the boxes of sweets and dried meat Thor was cramming into a shelve near the fridge, and then very noticeably rolled his eyes at the announcement that they would be having chicken wings for dinner.

He never verbally complained but he was terribly picky when it came to food and apparently the intern was getting tired of it. "You know, if you just told us what to get you, you wouldn't have to whine about what we buy every day. Or better yet, you could actually come with me next time. A bit of fresh air might do you some good, eh?"

Far from being thrilled by the invitation the man actually looked a little pained when he took a glance out of the window to his left, as though he could see some terrible monster in that very spot that the others were oblivious to. "It is far too warm out there," he said in a tone that really made him sound like a moody teenager. "I do not know how you can stand it."

Erik had to suppress a laugh at the dramatics as Darcy walked over to him to pat his uninjured shoulder and then none too gently explained, "Oh sweetie, you think this is warm? We're in New Mexico; wait until summer time and you can cook an egg on the pavement."

The god's voice was filled with both disgust and wonder when he asked, "You mean to tell me that this is not summer yet?"

And naturally the next batch of books he requested from the library was about the seasons and different climate zones on Earth.

He was reading one of them - a big hardcover full of statistical charts and high-definition photographs - when Erik walked into the living room that evening. As always, the physicist tried to find a way to steer the conversation to something not-Earth related right off the bat, not that he actually thought it would work anymore. "It's quite different from your home, isn't it?" he said with a nod to the image of the Sahara that was filling two pages of the book and which Loki had been staring at for the last few minutes.

Usually such questions earned him nothing more than a distracted "Hm" or a terse "Aye" but today the brunet went so far as to put the book down on the table and, leaning back on the couch, he stared at his host with no small amount of annoyance. "Yes, of course it is, but you already knew that. In fact, you likely know far more about me than I would prefer. Wherefore I see no reason why you would persist in talking in circles around me all the time."

Huh? What was he supposed to think about that? Did he mean...

"Honestly, my good man, if you are so very curious about me you could just ask directly. I promise, I do not bite," he proclaimed with a shark-like grin that was making the last part of his statement rather unconvincing.

OK, that was not what he'd expected. So he could have just asked out right, but hadn't he done that before? Had he? Well, maybe his inquiries had been a little on the vague side but how else did you get someone to talk who proved even too tough a nut for trained spies to crack?

He felt a little idiotic when he admitted, "I just assumed you wouldn't answer. You never talk about yourself and Shield barely got anything out of you, so…"

"But you are not a soldier of Shield; you are one of my hosts and a very generous one at that. The least I can do is to trade knowledge for knowledge, although I will reserve the right to reject such questions that I deem too personal in nature." This last stipulation didn't seem up for discussion, yet the brunet still waited for him to give a noise of agreement before he continued.  "Now what, pray tell, is burning so madly under your nails that you were willing to waste your valuable time in order to wheedle it out of me, one word a day?"

Just spit it out, damn it, he told himself sternly, even though he had no clue how to start. He couldn't mess this up, there would likely not be another opportunity for this, but maybe he was over-thinking the whole thing again.

He took a deep breath and then just rattled off a similar explanation to the one he had given Thor weeks ago, albeit a little more rushed and with even less confidence in his voice. Damn, why were these gods making him so nervous? Gods. Right.

"OK, the truth is, there are stories... about you and Thor and the Nine Realms; I grew up with these stories, my mother read them to me as a child. I didn't really want to believe that you both were the, eh, real deal but it's not so easy to deny anymore with everything that's happened. And now that I have the chance to actually talk to you..."

"You wish to know whether these tales are mere fabrication or if they ring true, yes?"

All he could do was nod and hope he hadn't made even more of an ass of himself with that rather clunky justification. The derisive laugh he received in response wasn't particularly encouraging, to be sure, nor was the way Loki kept staring him down as though he couldn't quite believe what he'd heard.

"This is... odd, to say the least. I know not why your people would have even heard of me; after all, I have never been to this realm before now. The Odinson, well, that I can understand; he has likely spread half of these tales himself. But, oh, now you have me curious. Am I at all like you imagined?"

Though he was definitely going for teasing with that last question and his tone of voice made him sound like he was preening before an audience there was something shy, almost embarrassed about him, in his small, uncertain grin. Was he waiting for a negative response? For ugly, unfair descriptions, for stories that showed him as the villain? There were plenty of those to choose from, of course, but Erik didn't care that much about what the god had done in the past or what he was destined to do in the future but about who he was.

"Heh, from what I can tell, you're certainly as clever and as... reckless as the Loki in the stories," he replied, a little hesitant but when he saw the black eyebrows rise in mock astonishment and the shy smile turn into a smirk, he knew he'd said something right. Maybe here's where he should have stopped, but then he would just make the same mistake as before and never get any answers. He had been told to ask directly, so that's what he would do, even if it would likely get him stabbed.

"OK,  there's... eh, there's been something I've been wondering for a while now."

"Yes?"

Argh, how could he phrase this without sounding insulting? Was it insulting, really, or just prejudiced? Maybe the god would even take it as a compliment. "You see, your character is really not that different from what I thought it would be, but you know, for a Frost Giant you look a little too..."

"Short?" Loki quipped back, catching him entirely off guard.

God, that had definitely not been on his mind, though it was true, in a way; the man sitting across from him was tall but not gigantic. Still, he had actually not considered the size of these people but everything else he knew about them.

"No, no, that wasn’t... What I was about say was that you look far more human than I imagined."

Now, if there actually was a way to stay politically correct with this, he hadn't managed it. Fortunately, the statement had not earned him a knife to the eye, just a very puzzled look from the brunet.

"But does the Odinson not also look human?" he asked, as always stressing that last word as though it were strange on his tongue, which it probably was. Now this might have called for an apology, but to Erik's relief he was stopped from shoveling himself an even deeper hole by attempting that, when the other man continued, "Fear not, I do take your meaning. "

With a heavy sigh he straightened up and then began to explain, in a tone fit for a teacher lecturing his student. "This," - And here he swept his hand down, from the tousled nest of black locks on his head to his bare feet - "is not my natural form. As your beloved tales might have taught you, I am a shapeshifter and so I have the ability to appear however I wish. This current shape is merely a disguise, one of many in my arsenal, but the one I was born to, hm... For one, my skin is usually a different color, as are my eyes..."

"And your blood," Erik blurted out and then immediately wanted to bite his tongue because, despite the open invitation to sate his curiosity, this was definitely one thought he should have kept to himself. For a moment he actually worried the god would end the conversation right here or straight out punch him; the mix of emotions flickering across his face was hard to read but they were unlikely to spell out anything good.

It only went to show that one should not judge a book by its cover nor, in this case, a character by the books written about him as all Loki did to vent his obvious anger was to huff loudly and close his eyes for a second. But literally after a blink he seemed perfectly calm, once more, and only the slight edge to his voice gave away that he wasn't entirely indifferent to the topic at hand.

"Yes, that too, but let us not dwell on that, hm?" Again, it wasn't a question, more like a warning but he didn't wait for a response this time before he continued. "You wondered at my appearance or was that more at how my kinsmen look in comparison to your kind?"

"Is there a difference?" 

Although the question bore the potential of another pitfall the professor still didn't worry about it too much; he had the distinct feeling he was supposed to ask it, that this was something the other man wanted to talk about, so he was happy to oblige.

And it did look as though the god was happier with this line of inquiry, as well, even if the smile he wore now was a little too sharp to be called friendly. "A difference? Heh, you said it yourself, my people are called Frost Giants." Which was apparently not a term Loki approved of, given that he almost spat it out. "That is, indeed, what we are. Most of us, at least. I, however... Well, what you see here is all there is to me. I am, to put it crudely, a runt."

OK, he would not touch that with a ten foot pole, no matter how much his mind begged him for more information. As it turned out, he was lucky that he hadn't interrupted because otherwise he would have likely missed out on something even more vital.

"Oh, there is no need to look so perturbed. That word has long since lost its capacity to wound me."

Which doesn't mean you wouldn't wound anyone stupid enough to use it against you, Erik thought and then had to wonder if this was ever an issue between him and Thor. 

"Of course, it does help that I am not the only one with this particular affliction, not even the only one in my family, though there I was the first. By the time my younger brother was born, however, no one so much as dared to raise an eyebrow at his smaller stature."

Now, that was fascinating and certainly not a point the Eddas had bothered to mention.  Speaking of the things not mentioned...

"Your younger brother, would that be Býleistr or Helblindi?"

It was such a harmless question that he was honestly taken aback by the other's rather severe reaction to it. Was he actually more offended by this than be the reminder of his near-breakdown? Apparently he was because the fingers of his left hand were digging punishingly into the couch cushion and his voice came close to a growl when he answered, "You people are frustratingly confusing. You say you know who I am but have never heard of the one thing that every simpleton in the Nine Realms knows about me. You know my brothers' names but not who they are. That is just... What sort of tales are these that would leave you so oblivious to such common knowledge?"

Yes, he definitely sounded offended, but maybe not for the reason that Erik had guessed. Ironically, it was quite similar to how Thor had reacted when he and Jane had quizzed him about his life in the first week of his stay - a tad irritated by the questions themselves and somehow convinced that they should already know the answers. Was that just because they were princes or had their status as gods turned them into universal celebrities?

Either way, not being aware of this 'common knowledge' was enough to get on the bad side of both his guests; consequently, there had never been a better motivation to study. For that, though, he would have to convince his teacher to continue the lesson.

"I'm sorry, but the thing is, the stories just focus on different themes; they're more about heroic deeds and battles than people. They list the most important, eh, figures of each realm and their relation to each other but they don't give detailed descriptions and nothing like people's ages or something. And parts of the legends were simply lost to time which is why, I guess, historians can't even agree on who your parents are." That had to be one of the weirdest things he'd ever said and it looked like Loki agreed with that assessment.

"Pardon?" he asked, not hiding his disgust.

"Eh, that's not... I mean, you say Laufey is your father right?" He waited for the other man to nod, which he did, very slowly as though unsure of what he was agreeing to. "You see, according to what I've read, he is your mother and your father is either Fárbauti or Nál. I don't know the reason for the mix-up but..."

"Ah, now that I can explain," Loki interjected and suddenly it seemed that his anger had gone up in smoke. He sat up straighter, held his head up high and when he spoke it was with the voice of the prince and not the teacher. "Fárbauti Jarason, General of Jötunheimr, is my mother; Nál Siafason was the chief palace healer and first consort to Laufey King. He was also the mother of Helblindi, my elder brother."

That made an awful lot of sense. He had thought, before, that the names had been mistranslated or that they were aliases for the same person. None of the authorities in the field had ever suggested that they were two different people, that Laufey had two wives. Wait.

"Sorry, but did you say 'he' and 'son'? Does that mean..."

"By the Norns, not that again."

As much as he'd believed the god had over-reacted minutes ago, when asked about his family, it became clear now that he'd been holding back at that point. This time the frustration and anger were overwhelming enough that he had to massage his temples with his left hand, as though the question had given him a violent headache. And he was definitely growling.

Erik very badly wanted to take his words back or just tell the furious god to forget about the whole issue; unfortunately, said god was not done with his rant.

"Yes, my mother is male, as was Nál, as is every single member of the Jötunn race. We do not even have a word for 'female' or 'woman', nor do we have need of it. Why is that always so surprising? We are, after all, not the only people who consist exclusively of men; so do the Sons of Muspel and the Mountain Men and the Dvergar. Well, they do have women but you would not be able to distinguish them from their counterparts. So how come we are always held to Asgard's standards?"

Boy, that had turned serious pretty quickly, and personal and political and damn, this was exactly what Erik had hoped for. Like discussing physics with Albert Einstein or astronomy with Kepler, it was a bewildering mix of time-travel and a celebrity campus lecture, and he was not prepared to led it end yet. Even if the god looked ready to throw the ten-pound book at his head.

"But that's just it, I'm not holding you to Asgard's standards but to Earth's, because that's the only point of reference I have. This is why I wanted to talk to you because there are so many things about the Nine Realms and their people that we, here, have no clue of. And you are a scientist yourself, right, a scholar? I'm sure there is so much you could teach us." And because he remembered the idea of 'knowledge for knowledge' he added, "Just as I think there's a lot we could teach you. Did you know, for example, that there's a device in your room that can turn it as cold as the fridge?"

By the sparkle in Loki's eyes and the honest look of wonder he knew he had him hooked and he wasn't even sorry for the likely doubling of the utilities bill, that he was currently sharing with Jane. Hell, he would pay for the whole house to be turned into a walk-in freezer if that got him the answers he was seeking.

At least that way it would really feel like Christmas.

 

.........

JF

.........

 

"… so you see, it makes sense as long as you keep in mind that these rules only apply to objects in perfect vacuum, which we can't actually recreate in a lab."

"Yes, that does explain it. And this subject is quite intriguing but if you will excuse me, I think I shall retire now; I would not want to fall asleep in the middle of our conversation."

Argh, this was so typical, just when they'd gotten to the good part he would up and leave, though at this point she shouldn't be surprised anymore. First of all, it was past 5 a.m. and he had already begun to balefully glare at the sun peeking through the blinds as if it had said something mean about his mom. And then there was the noise she'd heard from the hall that could only mean...

"A good morning to you Jane. Laufeyson."

Ah, yes.

A tactical retreat, then. Also typical.

Honestly, she thought the whole avoidance spiel the resident aliens had going on between them a bit silly, especially as it was hard to accomplish in a house so small, but as long as it kept the peace intact she probably shouldn't complain.

It wasn't peace, however, but a 'truce', she had to remind herself; a seemingly small difference, the significance of which she had never been so aware of as when she was watching Loki and Thor navigate the waters of their own personal Cold War.

At least they weren't childish enough to pretend the other wasn't in the room; in fact, they even managed to exchange greetings or, to be exact, last names - in the same over-the-top neutral tone - before the blond sat down at the table that the brunet had just vacated.

"I hope we can continue this delightful conversation at a later time," Loki told her, accompanied by a small nod in her direction that she knew by now to take as a princely 'goodbye'.

Returning the formal gesture with a smile she wished him goodnight, then turned her attention to the other man in the room, only to catch him starring daggers at his enemy's retreating back.

Just a normal Tuesday in New Mexico, then.

As usual, the charged atmosphere that build up whenever the two aliens met had not fully dissipated yet, and while the scientist in her itched to study this phenomenon as though it were a real physical event - which, given the participants, it might be - the rest of her opted to clear the air by way of a tired-and-true method.

Sighing loudly and stretching her stiff limbs Jane got up from her chair in order to pour her, by now, stone cold coffee down the sink. "You want some?" she asked over her shoulder and before she could get a reply she was already reaching for the biggest cup on the shelve above her - a garishly colored novelty mug with "#1 Boss" printed on it. When the machine was done delivering its life elixir she carried both Thor's and her own, much smaller cup to the table and sat back down across from him.

"My thanks," was all she got in response and then the two of them just proceeded to enjoy their favorite drink in companionable silence. It was a nice way to start the day, free of drama and stress, and after hours of non-stop talking she was glad that her second house guest didn't require much in the way of conversation right now.

Strange, really, that someone who could recite entire sagas without taking a breath and who always seemed to brim with an excess of energy was also capable of simply sitting there with a smile on his face and no word leaving his lips to disturb the quiet. But they had done this many times now - here in the early hours of the morning before Erik and Darcy joined them for breakfast, or on the roof during the evening when they could watch the stars together.

There was nothing romantic between them, as she had firmly explained to her intern after one too many knowing winks, but she did like to think they were friends. And because of that she no longer rolled her eyes and was able to pick up the honest concern in his voice when Thor finally broke the silence to ask, "Have you been awake the entire night, once more?" even though he had asked the very same question yesterday, and the day before.

OK, maybe he had a point.

The problem was that, as with any proper addiction, she didn't know how to stop once she had answered the alluring call of science. Even when she wasn't the one learning something new.

The story of how Erik had managed to recruit the otherwise so solitary man to join their study sessions was a little convoluted but she really could have kissed him when he told her "Loki has agreed to explain the makeup of Yggdrasil and the workings of the Bifröst to us" because, boy, was that an exciting prospect.

First, however, the two physicists had to do some explaining of their own in order to establish some common ground. To her relief, it was not as though they had to start at the primary school level - they didn't even have to dumb down any of the theories or mathematical formulae - it was more like a foreign exchange program where they had to clear up technical jargon, spell out abbreviations and agree on a units of measurements. Because, as it turned out, even aliens preferred the metric system.

While the process was slow and they hadn't yet made any headway on the things that they'd set out to learn the study sessions themselves were still the most fun she'd had in ages.

Once they got over the initial awkwardness and any unnecessary formality between them their little group really felt like a bunch of students getting ready for finals, complete with an ugly metal table covered over and over in books and charts, notepads always held at the ready and the occasional heated debate on the right terminology.

It was here that Loki showed how truly alien he was, in the words he used for such things like 'black hole' or 'super nova' which sounded so close to esoteric nonsense that it took all of Jane's willpower not to laugh in his face every time she heard them. There was a clear logic behind them, though, and he didn't seem to have any trouble following that of Earth's sciences, which became clear when he fired off one insightful question after the other at a speed that left both astrophysicists reeling.

And she knew he wasn't just humoring them because - as she was doing herself during every evening - he kept very precise notes on their conversations, which she would have loved to sneak a peek at but, unfortunately, whatever kind of runic alphabet he was writing in it definitely wasn't one from Earth; Erik had already confirmed that.

The only downside to these nightly lessons was that they obviously worried Thor and she doubted that his only issue with them was that she missed out on a few hours of sleep.

"Well, yes. But honestly, I just keep losing track of time," she replied, while trying to avoid his big blue gaze, so full of concern that it made her feel strangely guilty. "That's usually what happens when I work on something big; sleep gets somehow pushed to the sidelines; Darcy says I basically live on coffee and science, which might not be so wrong."

Out of the corner of her eye Jane could see the blond smiling warmly at her which she counted as a win but by the way he was gripping his mug in both hands, as though he was about to break it, showed they still weren't done with the serious conversation. So much for a peaceful start into the day.

Thor's next question definitely didn't bode well, even if his tone was unerringly gentle.

"Was Erik Selvig with you at all today?"

"Yep, he definitely wouldn't miss a chance to play teacher, to an alien no less. But he went to bed, eh..."-And here she took one look at the clock on the wall behind her, just to be sure-"Probably a few hours ago, now that I think of it. He can get as bad as me when it comes to working a little too hard but he actually has something close to a healthy sleep cycle. Or a sleep cycle, I guess," she said with forced casualness because she knew, just knew what that answer would bring about.

"So you were alone with the Laufeyson for hours?"

There it was, exactly the kind of thing she'd been afraid to hear. She appreciated that it had to be difficult to live in the same house as a lifelong enemy and that he might feel the need to protect her from a person he thought to be dangerous, but there was a fine line between the concerned advice of a friend and the condescending attitude of a jealous boyfriend, which he had definitely crossed right here.

As a result, there was much more of a bite to her voice than she'd intended when she replied, or maybe she could chalk this up as exhaustion finally catching up with her.  

"Yes, he was here with me, at this very table, without any supervision. But he was the perfect gentleman the entire time, you know; kept his hands to himself and all that, if you can believe it."

Either the heavy sarcasm went over the alien's head or he chose to ignore it and her clear irritation intentionally, but whatever the case, he didn't seemed deterred in the slightest from his mission to save her from the evil that was Loki.

"Oh, I have no doubt that he remembered his manners perfectly; he can be quite charming when it suits him. Yet one should never make the mistake to think him harmless, especially when he openly appears thus."

She'd sworn to herself that she wouldn't get involved in the feud, that she wouldn't pick sides and she still wasn't planning on doing so. On the other hand, his arguments started to sound downright irrational and she was already fed up with the topic itself.

"Oh come on, do you honestly believe he would hurt me? Why, because I don't agree with everything he says or because I might accidentally tell him that 'the loving brothers' is a silly name for a binary star?"

"No. I do not believe anything you might do could provoke him to resort to violence," he said in a calm, slightly sad tone. And she almost felt triumphant, was starting to hope they could just drop the whole 'dire warnings' episode for the day and enjoy the rest of their quiet morning, until he added, "To anger me, however, or to make me break my oath, yes that is more likely. It would not be the first time he has harmed a lady merely because she was... close to me."

OK, that honestly shocked her, enough so that all she could do was to stare at Thor, wide eyed and speechless.

Of course, she knew that Loki wasn't some stereotypical nerd, who spent his childhood doing math homework for the jocks and handing his lunch money over to the bullies. Even with one arm in a sling and wearing an unflattering mix of stolen hoodies and Erik's too short slacks he still radiated a strange kind of intensity that warned anyone not to come too close, like a wild cat that studied you from a far, contemplating whether you were edible or not. Also there were the knives, one should never forget about the knives.

Moreover, he was a warrior, as the brunet himself had insisted many times, so the idea of him using violence against his enemy's friends just to piss off said enemy wasn't that outlandish. What rattled her, though, was that this friend had apparently been a woman.

If there was one thing the two men had in common it was that they were chivalrous to a fault; after all, it had taken her about a week to convince Thor not to get up from his chair every time she or Darcy entered a room and about as long to convince Loki to call her by her first name.

Wasn't attacking a poor defenseless woman supposed to be a big taboo for someone who'd been raised as a proper prince?

Although, come to think of it, Erik had told her that Jötunheimr didn't have women.

"He hurt someone?" she finally dared to ask, though she wasn't too sure she wanted to know the details.

At her words the blond let his broad shoulders slump; the look on his face could only be described as deponent. Was that because he feared Jane wouldn't believe him or was he remembering the whole sad event?

"Yes, he did. Although, 'hurt' may be the wrong word. Compared to what he could have done instead it might even be counted as a mere triviality, yet I assure you, to Sif it was not so."

"Oh God, that story with her hair, that really happened?"

Please say no, please say no, Jane thought frantically. Because, if there was one part of the Eddas that had really freaked her out it was that awful matter of Loki cutting Sif's golden hair or, more accurately, the whole cruel and unusual punishment it led to. Only outclassed in the category of 'disgusting medieval ideas of justice' by the one about the snake.  

"Yes," was all Thor said in answer and he seemed to feel just as unhappy having to admit that as she was about hearing it.

She should have let it end here and not dug deeper; after all, what was the point of making both of them uncomfortable? But the scientist in her hoped that with a bit more information, more hard facts, she would be able to see it in a clearer, less emotional light. Maybe if they started at the beginning it would all make sense.

"So why'd he do it? Did you beat him in a fight or something?"

God, that sounded stupid and far too much as though the two were kids caught up in a schoolyard rivalry. Which, come to think of it, was not so far from the truth.

"I know not."

Now, that was less than helpful and also surprising, given that he was so sure it had something to do with himself. Was that just his default assumption?

Fortunately, there was no need to coax him to elaborate on that morsel; after draining his - by now probably lukewarm - mug of coffee in on long gulp, he continued his story.

"We were young, then. And, while I did already consider him my enemy, not every one of our encounters yet led to battle."

Meaning, nowadays they usually do, Jane figured and then had to suppress a shiver at the thought that these things had taken place when they were 'young', which could imply simply a span of a few years or enough time that both men might have been closer to adolescence. Sheesh.

"The day prior to the... incident we were attending a feast on Vanaheimr, both of us invited there as princes of our realms. We barely saw each other and I am unsure whether there were even words exchanged between us during that day. Sif had accompanied me and maybe that was enough of an incentive, that she was by my side and for once not looking at all like the shield-maiden he knew her as. She does not usually wear dresses or leave her hair open; likely he saw her, saw the admiring looks she received from most of the men in attendance and thought to humiliate her."

It was a flimsy reasoning, making the act itself sound awfully petty but, from what little she'd seen, that was kind of their modus operandi when dealing with each other. Petty and brutal.

Yet, for the blond the 'why' was apparently secondary to 'how' it had happened.

 "You must know, Lady Sif is not a vain woman; had she lost her hair due to some mishap or even had the Trickster cursed her while the two of them were fighting openly, she would have likely laughed it off and borne her bald head as proudly as any scar received in battle. But the way it was done..."

He shook his head several times, as if to clear it, but it did nothing to dim the fury that was burning in his eyes, bright and simmering. Was this how he looked when he called down lighting form the sky?

"I know not how he succeeded not to wake her or how he knew the location of her chambers within the palace but he is the only one who would have stooped to such a cowardly, lowly act, of that I am sure."

"Wait, he did it while she was sleeping?"

His immediate response was a quick, unforgiving nod and damn had she ever regretted her curious nature, that made her ask these things instead of just letting her continue to live in blessed ignorance.

Loki could be volatile, yes, and a bit intimidating but Jane would never have taken him for a creep.

And she was not the only one disgusted by that revelation.

"She awoke with what remained of her locks littering her pillow the morning after the feast," he added, carding his right hand through his own blond strands, as if in emphasis. "Therefore, I have to assume so, yes. And this - to be attacked while at her most vulnerable and in her own home, no less - it affected her most deeply. She still, to this day, will not rest anywhere without a weapon close to hand."

Damn, that was a troubling thought and it was a bit embarrassing that she'd never contemplated the other woman's situation while reading this particular story. It had seemed a trivial thing, really, to have her hair cut off because it wasn't as though it wouldn't have grown back in time. That other stuff, the gory part, had stuck with her far more, as was likely intended by the author. It was possible it hadn't happened like that or that it was vastly exaggerated for dramatic effect; the only one who could confirm or deny that was Loki himself, whom she would never, ever ask about it.

She did ask Thor, however, not for details but for the more general information and so he would stop burning holes into the hall behind her, where his enemy was sleeping.

"But he got in to trouble for this, right?"

Contrary to her hope of lifting the other's black mood by reminding him of justice being served, he actually seemed even closer to exploding or, at least, to breaking the table under his balled fists.

"Not as much as I would have liked. We could never prove that he was the culprit and he would not admit to any wrongdoing, dishonorable cur that he is. Even when he finally agreed to find a way to return what he had taken it was only because Sif had threatened to do the same to him."

Well, that would have been only fair, she thought, and much less bloody. Though Loki would have probably taken it far harder than the lady in question, given his ridiculously long and elaborate braid. He definitely didn't lack in the vanity department.

All of this gave her enough to contemplate for the next few weeks, stuff she was dying to discuss with Erik, topics she might have to avoid with the other alien, but there was still one thing that didn't add up in Thor's long winded explanation.

"I get that you might think I should know about this, with me being a woman and all." Which she honestly did, as much as she resented the notion that she was automatically more vulnerable because of her gender. "But doesn't that truce you both swore to stop Loki from attacking anyone in the house, anyway?"

"Maybe. Although, if he wishes to, I am certain he will find a way around that. He is a master of words and I will freely admit that he is ever more shrewd than I; it would not surprise me if he had chosen his oath carefully, constructed it so that it has enough holes for him to wiggle through."

Great. Couldn't he have warned her about this, like say, five days ago?

Not that that formal promise was the only reason she had invited the dark haired man into her house nor was she planning to throw him out on his ass now. The thing was, she liked Loki - even if what she'd heard today made her want to kick him in the shins - and she wasn't going to judge him solely on a one-sided account of an event that might have occurred hundreds of years ago.

She would, however, keep a closer look on where he was storing his knives in the future.

Though she'd tried to stay neutral on the matter, her face must have betrayed that cheerful little thought because there was suddenly a warm, comforting hand covering her own, where it was resting on her notepad, and Thor's voice was, once again, gentle when he said, "Please forgive me, I meant not to frighten you, Jane. Truly." Well, that she could believe and just to show there were no hard feelings she smiled up at him until his own frown was wiped away. "Maybe you are right, maybe he would not hurt you. You have, after all, shown him only kindness and compassion; he might be grateful enough to forego his usual mischief, at least for a little while. I merely thought you ought to be aware that there is a reason to be vigilant, especially as the two of us are..."

"Friends?"

"Well, yes."

Oh God, was that a blush? Yep, he was definitely blushing. Had he meant to say something else, then?

Intend on telling him that it was OK, that she understood, and thereby saving him from embarrassment Jane opened her mouth, only to close it a second later when he looked at her with these ridiculously blue eyes, now free of any trace of hatred but filled with some other, equally intense emotion.

"We have not known each other for very long and it is perhaps presumptions of me to say this, yet I cannot deny that I have grown fond of you, Jane Foster." For a moment she thought he would kiss her, the way he kept gazing at her almost shyly. But all he did was caress her wrist with his thump, which was somehow far more intimate. "I could never forgive myself if you were to be harmed for no greater crime than that you hold a place in my heart."

Oh, damn. As far as declarations of feelings went, this one was definitely creative and prettily worded. Also slightly overwhelming. What could she possibly say to that, apart from something stupid as 'I like you, too.'

So, to prove that she was a genius at anything but social skills, she chose the cowardly way out and just changed the topic. "That's, eh, sweet of you, that you're worried for my safety. But I don't feel afraid, not any more than I did a week ago. And I gave you a chance, right? I think Loki deserves the same; I can always boot him out if he starts running around the house with scissors."

She had expected anger at this pronouncement or, at the very least, irritation, but he only took a deep, long breath and then replied calmly, "I can respect that and I would not ask that you evict Loki from your home on my behest alone. All I wish is for you to be careful."

"OK," she said, as her eyes swept from his kind and smiling face to the big hand still covering her own. "OK, I can do that."

And maybe Loki wasn't the only alien she had to be careful about nor was her hair the only thing she was in danger of losing.

Strangely enough, she still wasn't afraid.

 

 

Chapter Text

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DL

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"So, what do ya think?"

"'Twas rather-" Dramatic? Violent? Hilarious? "-bleak."

Well, yes, that was what you got when you watched a tragedy written by Shakespeare.

"What, stories in Asgard all end with 'happily ever after'?" she asked and then immediately wondered whether the Space Vikings really did have something like fairy tales. Probably ones with way more dragons and giant hammers and, from what she'd heard about shield-maidens, ones where the princess saved her own ass. A girl could dream, right?

Even if he didn't get the allusion to the usual Grimm's spiel, Thor still seemed to understand the gist of her question. "Oh no, many of our tales have tragic conclusions, especially those of a... romantic nature. I had merely not suspected that you would enjoy such."

Well, that was true; she really did prefer the stupid Hollywood endings where they showed the happy couple with 1.3 kids in a pretty house with a white-picket fence. Or those that ended in explosions; you could never go wrong with a good explosion and the hero manfully walking away from it.

But this was not about her.

Rolling her shoulders in attempt to get that knot out of there from sitting still for too long and then stretching out her arm to grab for the last few kernels of popcorn in the bucket she replied, "See, I can still surprise you, he? You liked it, though, right?"

She had totally seen him enjoy it, at least the whole sword fighting stuff, though the swords had been replaced by guns in this version. That she'd had to explain to him several times; he really wasn't big on symbolism.

In response the big guy nodded, his eyes finally leaving the screen and the closing credits rolling over it.

"I did, yes. Although it would not have been near as enjoyable without you by my side." As compliments went this one was pretty sweet, but only when she smiled up at him and got a big goofy smile from him in return did she feel like shouting 'Success!'.

Because the reason they were sitting here in this little run-down movie theater one hour's car ride away from Puente Antiguo, at a time that the manager had apparently decided to show all the DiCaprio movies ever made - maybe he'd been nominated for an award, again, who knew - was that Thor had been moping for the entirety of this week, and Darcy just couldn't look at the misery anymore.

The problem, funnily enough, was not Loki, or at least not Loki on his own.

Rather, it was that Jane just wouldn't stop spending time with the knife-happy alien, even after she'd been told the story of how another woman had lost her hair to some childish prank of his. Which was totally the right choice, though the intern herself had given the guy the stink eye for a day after she'd heard that he'd snuck into the woman's bedroom at night. Because, seriously, ew!

And it was adorable how the blond tried to hide that he was bothered by this and that he thought anyone would miss the grimace on his face whenever he spotted his arch nemesis alone at the table  with his chosen lady.  Of course, the boss lady claimed he was simply worried for her safety, but only an idiot, or a scientist without a clue of social interactions, could be blind to the obvious jealousy.

At least he didn't try to convince anyone to stay away from Loki anymore.

Instead, he moped, which wasn't easier to deal with, only quieter.

Hence the visit to the cinema and the awesomeness that was Leo at his most over-the-top and baby-faced. In light of a certain god's mood it might have been more considerate had she selected a different movie but it had been so very tempting and it was not as though there had been much of a choice, as she really hadn't felt up to the task of explaining the craziness that was Inception to an alien when she wasn't even sure she understood it herself. Also she had seen it as a great opportunity to present him with an example of the plays she kept comparing his archaic speech to all the time.

It was ridiculously easy to imagine him in such a setting, anyway - him and Loki both - medieval weapons always at the ready, absurdly descriptive insults shared between them and dueling for the honor of their respective kingdoms as they called down plagues upon each other's house.

And that was probably not so far off the mark, judging by the stories that her blond buddy had already shared with her. Though, come to think of it, he had never mentioned an open confrontation like that; most of it had sounded more like chance encounters with fantastic beasts and loads of magic in the mix. Was that how it usually went down?

As they were walking through the parking lot and back to their car that question and similar ones kept popping up in her head, until she simply got too curious to hold them back, even though she regretted bringing up the topic - or person - she had been trying to distract him from during the last few hours. Maybe if she could word it as a general inquiry on his culture, which she honestly was interested in, she might avoid ruining is newly improved mood.

"The dueling, is that how you do it at home, too? You know, minus the car chases and the terrible fashion sense; I really can't picture you in a Hawaiian shirt."

That got a chuckle out of the big guy, a rich and warm sound that was easy to get used to and that she'd actually begun to miss. And she didn't mind one bit that the reason he was laughing at her was that she'd apparently said something stupid.

"No, certainly not. Hólmganga - single combat - is a sacred practice, a way to settle disagreements between two people without involving the king or the royal council. There are many rules surrounding it and although every citizen is allowed to challenge another such a thing would never take place in the middle of a town where innocents might be harmed. Truly, the conduct of this Tybalt was most dishonorable