Heyyyyy, guys! I didn't fall off the face of the planet! (too bad, too, I've always wanted to go into space... but I digress, which is half my problem when it comes to writing!) Delay excuses will now be enumerated, choose your favorite: Night job, moving and needing to move again, cat possibly going into heat (please God no, her name's Loki and we ALL know what Loki's offspring are like!), my kids out on summer vacay, poorly coordinated family visits, bad dates, etc. In other words, Real Life. 'Nuff said. But we're coming to the end of this fic soon, which makes me sad because I really love these two... oh well, nothing good lasts forever!

... don't tell Loki I said that.

Note to Badness Bunny, I adore that you named your cat Badness! My son's cat is named Stupid Sauerkraut Sandwich-Sammich for short. We win. (Did you know it was a weird-cat-name contest? Well, now you know. AND YOU LOSE. Bwahahaha!)

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Taryn wasn't in Frigga's hall when Loki arrived late for dinner. Thor smiled at him in warm welcome, but Loki didn't slide into his usual seat beside his brother and Jane. "Where's Taryn?"

"I believe she returned to your chambers to rest," Thor answered after gulping down a huge mouthful of food–Jane had certainly had a civilizing influence on her husband because it hadn't been that long ago that Thor would've spoken around the half-chewed food, spraying bits everywhere. It was an improvement that the rest of the table greatly appreciated. "The journey to Midgard fatigued her more than she anticipated."

Loki froze. "The journey to Midgard?" he repeated, fighting to keep his voice calm. "You took her to Earth?"

She left! Why did she leave? What did she need from Midgard, and why didn't she ask me to take her there? His thoughts churned with uncertainty and a flash of anger that Loki quickly tried to conceal. By the Norns, he'd been volatile lately.

Frigga placed a hand on his arm, proving he hadn't been as successful at hiding his anger from her as he would've liked. But Thor's smile didn't fade–at least he'd fooled his brother. "Indeed I did," Thor replied, sounding proud of himself for doing so. "I knew you had much to accomplish here today and it was my great pleasure to accompany your lady upon her brief journey. It has been too long since I walked upon that world."

Jane pouted and rested a hand on her midsection. "I can't wait until I can go back for a visit, too," she sighed. "I miss my research."

Thor lifted her hand and pressed a kiss into her palm before returning her hand to the slight curve of her belly. "You are doing something much more important here, sweet Jane." The petite scientist blushed as her husband beamed at her. "And once our children are born, I will gladly take you anywhere you wish to go."

Normally the sight of the mighty Thor, god of thunder, being romantic and mushy with Jane would provide Loki with some amusement. Not tonight. He bowed to the couple and to his mother. "Forgive me, but I find have little appetite tonight. I will retire and locate my lady."

Frigga squeezed his arm briefly before releasing him and picking up the large, empty trencher he and Taryn usually shared. "Gently, my son. Take her something to eat," she suggested, already beginning to load the dish with food. "She needs time to recover and shouldn't be skipping meals. And you should eat, too, Loki. You are still far too thin."

Loki chafed at the delay but knew from experience that it was far easier to give in than to argue. "Yes, Mother," he said.

Only once the trencher was laden with enough food to make three meals for Loki and Taryn was he allowed to leave. He abandoned the pretense of relaxation as soon as he'd left the crowded hall behind. Keeping his mind purposefully blank, Loki strode through the palace until he arrived at his own door. It took some control to open the door calmly instead of throwing it open and demanding that Taryn explain herself.

The first thing Loki noticed was the thick, plush rug in front of the fireplace that replaced the enormous bearskin that had previously held the place. It was nearly identical to the one Taryn had once had before her own fireplace in the home that SHIELD had destroyed. A fire was laid in the grate but not lit, and the large armchairs that used to flank the bearskin had been pushed back out of the way.

Taryn entered from the bedroom then. She'd forgone her usual Aesir gowns and wore a pair of capri-length black leggings and a teal tunic that came to the top of her thighs–he hadn't seen either before and thought she must've bought them today. A bottle of wine in one hand and two Midgardian-style glasses in the other, she smiled in welcome when she saw him. "Your timing is perfect," she said, walking over and going up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "I think you know what to do."

And he did. He'd gone to her house a hundred times, lit the fire with a breath of magic while she poured them wine, then sat before the flames on a rug just like this one and talked with her for hours on end. Such happy, peaceful memories when he felt anything but now. Loki's throat felt a little tight as he sent a thread of magic into the stacked wood, persuading it to burn. "We haven't done this in a while," he said, trying to sound casual.

Taryn sank down cross-legged on the rug and patted the space beside her. "I know," she agreed. There was nothing casual in her eyes as she watched him place the trencher on the floor and sit. "I think that's part of what's wrong, don't you?"

That tightness grew until it cut off his voice. All Loki could do was nod. Now that she'd said it aloud, he could no longer deny that there was something wrong with their relationship.

Taryn uncorked the wine and poured them each a glass. The brief silence was oddly comforting. Perhaps it was the familiarity of it–they'd done this so many times and they'd never felt the need to talk just to fill the silences. Loki took the glass she offered him and sipped it, but he was hardly aware of what he was drinking, so caught up was he in this déjà vu.

Finally she met his gaze and spoke again. "Loki, I need you to trust me."

He frowned, taken aback. "I do trust you," he protested, but she was shaking her head.

"Not fully," she said with a sad little smile. "And I understand why–really, I do. You've been screwed over more times than I can count. But I need you to trust that I'm not just one more person who's destined to hurt you."

Loki couldn't hold her gaze and stared into the fire instead. He thought of Thor trying his best to help by getting Loki drunk and trying to make him talk. He thought of Frigga telling him to be gentle. He thought of his rage at Taryn for taking off his necklace, for proving that she could remove his mark, even though her reasons for doing so had made perfect sense. "I've… been afraid," he finally whispered, speaking to the comforting flames as he had this morning. "I never believed you'd actually love me."

There was a little clink as she set her glass aside, then her soft hands framed his face. "I know," she murmured gently. "I know, Loki. But I need you to believe it now. I do love you, but I don't want to marry you if you're going to go through the rest of our lives wondering when I'm going to leave you–not if, but when. I can't spend every moment proving to you that I'm not. Eventually it'll wear us both out. It's not healthy."

His gaze flew to hers, shocked. "Taryn–" he started, and realized he had no idea what to say next. She released his face to reach up and grasp the necklace. "Don't," he whispered, but she didn't stop.

"Come off," she said, and it obeyed her. His heart skipped a beat as she held it in her hand. Her eyes were so soft when they met his again. "Do you think I love you any less right now than I did when I was wearing this?" When he just sat, staring, immobile, Taryn sighed and placed it on the rug between them–gently, as carefully as if it really were alive. "You're afraid that taking this off means I'll leave you."

It wasn't a question but he answered it anyway. "I created it to keep you safe," he whispered. Whatever he'd been expecting when he'd left the feast to find her here, a fight perhaps, it hadn't been this. "I wanted to keep you safe and with me." While you wear this, you are my lady, Loki remembered telling her the night he'd given her this necklace. This doesn't end. But if wearing it meant that, then taking it off meant… he wished he'd never given her the ability to do so.

"If you'd created this necklace to be something I couldn't remove, I wouldn't have accepted it."

Loki's mouth dropped open in shock. She could've been reading his mind. "You wouldn't have?"

She shook her head firmly. "I want to be your lover, your friend, your equal. Not your property. And that means I need you to trust me not to hurt you."

He closed his eyes. His heart pounded, aching, in his chest, banging out desperate rhythms of fear and longing against his ribs. "It's hard," he whispered, reaching out and nearly groaning with relief when she caught his hand and laced their fingers together. He needed her comfort and strength. "I have never wanted you to feel like property, but… there have been few enough people in my life I could trust completely, Taryn." Right now, apart from Taryn, he could think of only Frigga, and even she had been complicit in the deception of his true birth and race.

"I know," she murmured, squeezing his hand comfortingly. "You've been betrayed many times. But Loki, think about this. Today I did leave–I went back to Earth for hours. I visited my parents' graves, did a little shopping, walked around the university campus. And just now I took off that necklace. Those are the things you feared I'd do, right? Remove your token and leave you?" Loki nodded, eyes squeezed tightly shut, throat tight. "Loki, I did them all and I'm still here."

The words hit him like a punch to the gut. Loki opened his eyes and stared down at their linked hands as the truth of it hit him. She'd done the things he dreaded most, and she'd returned to him–not because she had to, or because he'd used that necklace's tracking power to find her and drag her back. She'd come back because she loved him. She'd come back because she had chosen to do so.

And her willing choice was worth the universe to him.

Finally Loki met her gaze. "I love you, Taryn," he said softly, and as always, the words sent equal parts fear and thrill through him. Perhaps someday he'd be able to say them freely and without fear.

"I love you, Loki," she replied, and picked up the necklace again. A murmured command returned it to its place about her throat. Despite everything she'd said, he still breathed easier seeing it there, knowing she was protected, knowing her mortality was held at bay by his magic. Then she leaned forward and brushed a soft, slow kiss over his lips. "Trust me," she whispered against his mouth. "I can leave–just like you can leave me–and that's what keeps us from taking each other for granted. But jealousy and fear can destroy love just as fast as indifference can. I want to be with you forever, Loki. I want this to work. So trust me."

"I will trust you," he replied and kissed her back, so grateful that she'd confronted him. Yes, knowing she'd gone to Midgard today was still a frightening thought, but she'd come back. He could trust that she would continue to do so. "Are you still going to marry me?" he asked when he broke the kiss.

"Yes," Taryn replied at once, and the last of his anxiety floated away. "As a matter of fact, you're the one who hasn't picked the date yet."

"Oh, really? I've been a bit busy fighting to release you from Helheimr," he returned, and her face softened.

"You did, didn't you?" She squeezed his hand again. "I suppose you're forgiven, then. But choose a date, Loki, or I'll start to get worried you really want to be king and queen."

He groaned. "I suppose it was Thor who told you of that?"

She grinned. "After all the times you told and retold Thrym's story? Of course he jumped at the chance to tell on you. Sounded like it was a bit more than crossdressing, too. You know I want to see."

He laughed and shook his head. "Not tonight. I think my female form has PMS."

Taryn snorted a surprised giggle. "I suppose that's a better excuse than not tonight, honey, I have a headache. But be warned–I won't let you put me off forever." He grinned and she returned it, and he marveled at how much better he felt after such a difficult talk. Then she sighed contentedly and asked, "Do you remember all those nights we spent talking in front of the fire at my house?"

"Of course." Those nights had been some of the best of his very long life.

Taryn's dark eyes were sparkling in the firelight. "Know what I was thinking every single time?" Loki's heart skipped for a new reason as he shook his head. She licked her lower lip, drawing his rapt gaze as the pink tip of her tongue darted out and vanished. "Well, I suppose I could tell you what I was thinking," she mused, tapping her chin thoughtfully.

"Don't tell me," Loki replied, using all his willpower to remain still instead of crawling over to her and pressing her down onto the rug–which was what he'd been thinking during all those long conversations. "Show me."

Taryn's smile lost a bit of its wicked edge and turned tender. "I thought about how beautiful you are," she said, trailing her fingertips over his cheek and down his throat.

He raised an eyebrow. "Beautiful?" It wasn't a word he associated with masculinity, but despite that, her praise and the look in her eyes was enough to make his breath catch.

She nodded. "Yes. You are a beautiful, beautiful man," she repeated, and Loki felt the warmth in his chest surge and grow. She released him long enough to move their glasses and the wine bottle to the side, then scooted closer. Both hands framed his face now. "Even if we'd met in a different way, I'd have known you weren't from Earth. There's nothing ordinary about you, nothing average. Too perfect." She blushed a little as if she really was back in the past, shy and unsure of him. "But I'm sure you've heard this before, being a god, receiving prayers and all."

He shook his head slowly, every molecule of his being focused on her. "I'm… I was never the kind of god that was worshiped," he admitted. "Most prayers were said to keep me away."

She frowned, then smiled. "Stupid them. Lucky me." Loki laughed and she leaned forward and caught the sound with her lips.

For as many times as he'd kissed her, he still felt it–that electricity, the disbelief that he could be so blessed, the deep, potent thrill of it. This time was almost like a first kiss all over again. Soft, and slow, and hesitant, sending his heart pounding and his hands shaking and his breath tight. He closed his eyes and savored the sweet taste of her, the gentleness of her hands on his face, the softness of her breath on his cheek.

The aeons he'd waited to feel this way melted into nothingness–they were gone, the loneliness over, and every instant worth it to have her now. And to keep her–he didn't want to contemplate the things he'd do. But all she wanted was his trust.

She would have it.

When she pulled away, he wished he could brand the sight of her into his memory–cheeks flushed, eyes bright, lips moist from his. "You are the most beautiful thing I have seen in all my long life," he murmured, reaching up and brushing the hair from her forehead.

Her smile delighted him with its edge of mischief. "Remember the first time you brought me here to your rooms?"

"How could I forget?" It had been one of the most intense moments of his life.

"We didn't quite make it to the bed," she said, and he nodded, chuckling. He'd been out of control, burning alive with desire. She moved a little closer and her hands slid away from his face, down to his chest. "Think you can make it this time?"

Loki was on his feet in an instant and had her swept up in his arms a heartbeat later. "I make no guarantees," he said, and carried her into their bedroom to the sound of her laughter.

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I'll update as soon as I can, but as Loki says, no guarantees-it's insane 'round here, folks. Thanks to everyone who's been reading this endless thing and extra-special thanks with Loki sprinkles to all my reviewers! MWAH!