I want to dedicate this story to my big sister, who is seriously the Thor to my Loki minus the fratricide attempts, and who is responsible for inspiring me to write this mammoth of a story with that one prompt a long time ago at the end of last summer. Thank you to my writing mentor and most of all, best friend.
And thank you to every single one of you who read all the way to the very last chapter. You guys have encouraged me more than you could ever know and I am so honored and touched that you stuck to this story for so long. I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
If you would like, you can visit my tumblr (mykingdomforapen) for some last notes about this story, including title explanation, symbolism explanation, deleted scenes, alternate endings, and some parting words. I'd be very honored if you did so.
This will not be the last of me! There are already stories being currently uploaded on my AO3 that you won't find on FFnet (link on my profile and tumblr) and while I keep insisting this will be my last fanfiction, I've been telling myself that for the past two years. And who knows, maybe one of these days you will wander through the bookshelves and see a book whose writing style you strangely recognize...let's hope :'D.
And without further ado, the last chapter of 'Syrgja.' Enjoy~
Natasha was always strangely keen on remembering the exact time of things. As if her ledger was not only a list of all the rights and wrongs of her life, but the exact moment she let herself change.
2:42 (MSK)—The moment she killed her first man.
23:04 (MSK)—The moment that Clint lowered his arrow and raised his hand.
10:59 (CEST)—Operation Budapest. She and Clint never really looked at each other in the same way for a long time afterward.
15:34 (EST)—Despite all the doubt and disapproval of many superiors, the Avengers fought together and saved New York City.
1:10 (CET)—She landed her helicopter in Norway for a special mission to bring two certain people back to SHIELD.
23:43 (EST)—Loki said her name.
00:32 (AEST)—She saw the lights.
7:32 (?)—Her world ended.
So the moment when Loki breathed, when she rubbed her sleep-glazed eyes again and again because she was afraid of knowing the difference between dreams and reality but was more afraid of a lie, when Loki ran his hand through her hair and Loki smiled and Loki told her she was beautiful and Loki breathed, she knew.
The moment her dream became reality.
"They want to hold a feast, you know."
Thor was sitting beside Loki on the bed, changing the bandages across Loki's still-scarred chest. Loki's magic may leave permanent scars, and Clint's violent attempts of CPR certainly left their mark. Loki braced himself as Thor cleaned the wounds with hot water and salve, forcing himself not to shy away from the stinging.
"Has Asgard not yet gobbled their fill?" said Loki.
"Oh, we've had one to honor the fallen," said Thor, "but hardly one to celebrate the victory. Or to thank our mortal friends for their efforts. And you, very importantly, considering victory was at hand because of you. The artisans are composing ballads and tapestries of you already, and I promise you I had nothing to do with it."
"Please tell me you're joking."
Thor laughed and Loki cursed softly.
"I had thought you had gotten them all out of the way by now," said Loki.
"Apologies, brother," said Thor. "You did not stay unconscious long enough to miss out on all of them."
Loki cracked a smile. He shrank away instinctively when Thor's fingers slick with salve came close to his wounds, reluctant to feel its stinging effect. Thor put a hand on Loki's shoulder to keep him from backing away and applied the ointment.
"We aren't children anymore, Loki," said Thor.
"That balm is no kinder to adults than it is to children," said Loki. "It burns—no, it freezes!"
"Yes, what would happen if I did this?" said Thor before smearing his thumb across Loki's forehead. Loki flailed, sputtering indignantly, before crashing into the headboard. He gave a small gasp, his torso wracked with still-fresh pain. Thor's face sobered immediately.
"I shouldn't have done that," said Thor, gently pulling Loki back up. "I am sorry."
"For goodness' sake," said Loki. "It isn't like I've never been hurt before. This is nothing like that one injury in Nornheim."
"Yes, but you never legitimately almost died in Nornheim because you sacrificed yourself without telling anyone," said Thor.
"I don't know about that. Karnilla was not playing easy."
Loki lifted his eyes warily to Thor's face. "Don't tell me you're cross with me."
Thor said nothing at first, intent on properly cleaning Loki's wounds.
"Come now, Thor," said Loki. "How many ridiculously noble and life-threatening decisions have you made in your lifetime?"
"That does not soften the blow. Or the fear," said Thor. "Do you not realize what sort of monster of a journey you put my emotions through?"
"I might be able to guess," Loki said.
"First you tell me you're dying," said Thor. "Then we have that hope of the Reality Gem saving you. Then, right when we could have taken the Reality Gem from Thanos, you instead go and pursue a plan that kills Thanos and nearly yourself—"
"To be fair, if you used the Reality Gem to take the Mind Gem out of me, there'd be no way to weaken Thanos," said Loki.
"—then," Thor said, speaking louder, "the Mind Gem, which was meant to kill you, ended up helping to save you—"
"It makes those paradoxes more often than not, it seems."
"—and then your survival wasn't even certain until now and—by the Norns, Loki, I swear, your life goal is to give me gray hairs."
"I could easily do that without all this trouble."
Thor unfurled a roll of bandages and carefully wrapped Loki's chest with them.
"How fares Asgard now?" said Loki. "Is there any rebuilding to be done?"
"The city was not touched, though the fields are currently being cleaned away," said Thor. "Those who have lost loved ones will receive aid and reparation. But Asgard is safe now, as is Midgard."
"What of the other Realms?" said Loki. "What of Jotunheim?"
"Jotunheim rises victoriously," said Thor. "The Kree and the Chitauri stood little chance against them when Jotunheim's innate powers reawakened."
"Any news of the queen?"
Thor raised his eyebrows. "No. Their messenger did not bring details, only reassurance. Why?"
Loki hesitated before shrugging a shoulder. "Jotunheim shouldn't have to deal with yet another political dilemma, is all. What of the other realms?"
"Vanaheim is rebuilding the damage as we speak. The dwarves suffered many blows, but kept the enemy from their home, and the elves have returned to their usual and peaceful seclusion."
"That is good," said Loki, closing his eyes. "That is very good."
Silence fell between the two brothers as Thor tirelessly reapplied Loki's bandages. Indeed, the scars will stay for a very long time, perhaps until the end of Loki's life—an angry reminder upon ivory skin of what could have been lost.
"How are Sif's parents?" Loki said, voice soft.
Thor wetted his lips. "They are still grieving."
Loki sighed, bowing his head.
"Loki of Asgard, self-proclaimed most powerful sorcerer in the Nine Realms," he said, "and I cannot even restore breath unto others."
"If Death were so easily defeated, life would not nearly be so precious," said Thor. "Sif was brave and strong until the very end. She would have wanted it that way."
"The Valkyries should be honored to escort a soul like hers," said Loki. He ran his hand over his wrist. "I don't know how to feel. We won the war. I'm alive. Our Avengers are alive. You're alive. But Sif is dead, and so are many other brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, parents. And it didn't have to happen this way, yet it did."
Thor paused in his bandaging. Loki averted his gaze to the window. He could not see the remnants of the battlefield from here, but he knew the sun shone down on it just as boldly as it did upon the golden city.
"We cannot change who dies and who will live to see another day," said Thor. "And we can't change war once it is borne out of someone's choices. But what we do with it—how we move on and heal and change the realms for the better—now, how can anyone call that powerless?"
He carefully returned to bandaging Loki's wounds. Loki leaned in a little closer to Thor, as if to comfort himself in Thor's warmth.
"Are you well, brother?" said Loki.
"I told you, the healers have locked us all down before we could even move back to the city once the war was finished," said Thor.
"Your silence is heavy and anxious," said Loki. "I'd think that grief and tiredness is on your mind, but I believe that it is not the only thing."
Thor exhaled heavily. "You do have a knack on reading emotions."
"What is on your mind?" said Loki.
"I still cannot get the image out of my head," said Thor. "Of you—dying—in my arms. I was powerless. If we had not figured out about the Mind Gem…if it faded too soon…" Thor swallowed. "I can't even imagine it."
"I apologize. For worrying you," said Loki. "But I couldn't think of any other way. Thanos is—was—nearly unbeatable by himself."
Loki sank into silence, his hands clutching his ankle protectively. Thor tilted his head worriedly, wrapping the bandages tightly around Loki's lean torso.
"When you were offering Thanos a second chance, Loki," Thor said, "did you mean it?"
"What do you mean, did I mean it?" Loki said.
He gave a small gasp when Thor pulled the bandage too tightly. Thor immediately loosened the bandage, a hasty apology on his lips.
"Did you…did you really offer a second chance in hopes that he would take it?" said Thor.
Loki licked his thin lips, scratching absentmindedly at his leg.
"Yes," said Loki. "We're all broken, Thor, somehow. Why else would we break others? We're all hurting from something. So was Thanos. Maybe if he took it, we could be spared one less corpse."
"It does not excuse his wrongs," said Thor.
"No," said Loki. "Nor does it excuse mine." He smiled sadly. "But it certainly puts things into perspective."
He trailed into silence, eyes watching the swiftly rising sun. Perhaps in that gaze he remembered a hundred years of what had passed, or a hundred years of what might have been if things fell differently, only to be drawn back with Thor's words to the reality of what was now.
"Have you forgiven him?" said Thor. "For all that he had done to you?"
Loki hesitated. When he did not speak for a long time, Thor put a warm hand on his shoulder. Loki leaned into it instinctively, protectively.
"One day I will," said Loki. "I hope so."
Thor tied the bandage tightly closed on Loki's back, smoothing it down to catch any wrinkles. He helped Loki back into his loose tunic, noting that exhaustion was settling into Loki's still healing body. Loki lowered himself back onto the bed, eyelids drooping with sleep. Thor pulled the sheets up to Loki's shoulders like their mother used to do for them back in those speckled, childhood nights.
"I don't know if this means anything to you, Loki," said Thor, "but I am so proud of you."
He thought he saw Loki smile before drifting asleep.
"Are you really, really sure about this?"
Bruce was staring down at the Infinity Gauntlet and the Gems lay out before him on a stone table. Odin nodded, still miraculously patient after probably five times of Bruce questioning his orders.
"We've nearly lost our Nine Realms, our homes, and in my case my family because of these artifacts," said Odin. "I've never wanted to be rid of something more than I do now."
Bruce raised his eyebrows in a way that Tony knew was saying, then why keep them around in the first place?
"I hope you understand the gravity of what you're asking," said Bruce. "I don't even know if the Hulk can do so much as dent it."
Tony had to hand it to Bruce for being so comfortable contradicting the king of all things supernatural...and Point Break's old man.
"No one truly needs infinite and invulnerable power," said Odin. "I had once thought that possessing such formidable relics would make easier ensuring peace, but in truth it only causes unrest and dangerous ambition. There are better ways of keeping order and making peace, and holding absolute power is not it."
"Come on, Bruce," said Tony. "I'd totally have a go with trying to destroy these babies, except the suit's gone out of order."
"Yes, but…" Bruce bit his lip. "What if you need it for some reason in the future? But then you wouldn't have it."
"A time when I would want to force a change in reality and the balance of how everything is already designed?" said Odin. "I do not want to play god. Perhaps one can wield its power and responsibility perfectly and carefully, and use it not solely for order but for love and wisdom, but that one is neither I nor anyone here."
"Clint would so have a go at this," said Tony, voice low with awe. "He's been complaining about these 'all-powerful gadgets' and whatnot for ages."
Bruce pressed his lips in a thin line, cautiously pushing up his sleeve. Tony could sense Bruce's practical hesitation like it was a whirlwind, but what Odin said was true. So long as the Infinity Gauntlet existed, it could only destroy. There was no need for such power—even the meek with absolutely nothing can stand strong, and the most fearsome could fall.
"Okay," said Bruce. "I'll do it."
"Thank you, Bruce Banner," said Odin, bowing his head. "I do not know how to repay you, but whatever you wish from me, I shall do it."
"That won't be necessary at all," said Bruce. "But what makes you think I'll have a better shot at destroying these than you guys with your magical powers? I mean, it was Loki's magic that destroyed the first one."
"All of us are running thin with our magic," said Odin. "Even I suspect the Odinsleep to come soon."
"Think of all the bragging rights you'll get," said Tony. "Bruce Banner, the Destroyer of the Infinity Gauntlet...sounds like one hell of a comic book hero."
"I'll forego the titles, thanks," said Bruce. He glanced around the room; it was completely impenetrable stone—Hulk-proof, at least to a point. "You guys want to get the other guy to come out and play somehow? I've been keeping such a cap on him during the war to focus on healing people that I think it'll be harder to get him out now."
"We can prompt him with Bambi," said Tony. "The other guy's pretty protective of him."
"Let's find a way that doesn't put anyone in the line of danger, please," Bruce said with an exasperated sigh.
"Okay, okay…stand aside, your highness," said Tony, dragging Odin back into the corner of the room. Tony returned to Bruce, opposite of him across the table with the Infinity relics.
"Okay, Hulkie-Hulk, my man…can you hear me?"
"Tony," Bruce said, raising an eyebrow.
"Shh, I'm trying to communicate," said Tony, holding up a finger.
Bruce sighed heavily.
"See these babies right here?" Tony gestured to the bulbous gems upon the table. "See them? Do you remember what they did? Yeah—they hurt Loki. They hurt all of us—Natasha, Clint, Steve, Brucie, even me. It's because of them we were all hurt. They even almost killed us. Do you hear me, Hulk? These things caused an asshole to kill thousands of people and torture many. These things right on the table are responsible for all that."
Bruce was frowning; Tony couldn't tell if it was out of annoyance of Tony's badgering or because of legitimate anger. Either way was a sure playground for the Other Guy, at least.
"It's true," Tony said, raising his voice. "Because of the Infinity Gems and the Gauntlet, Loki was tortured, war was waged, and many people lost their lives. It corrupted others into lives of destruction, into hopelessness—"
Apparently some weeks in Asgard made his speech a sure shoe-in for Shakespeare in the park as well.
"And now they're just sitting here," said Tony. "Don't you see, big guy? The longer these guys stay around, the more possibility there is that someone else will use these to hurt other people. People you care about. It could be Steve next time, or your Betty, or—"
At the mention of Betty's name, Bruce ripped apart and Hulk took over, skin blooming a deep and irrepressible green. Tony stepped back immediately until his back hit the wall as the Hulk let out a long, angry growl and smashed his fist against the table.
Crack—Tony couldn't tell what exactly broke but something definitely did not stand against Hulk's fist.
Crack—there was a definite line on the stone table and sparkling grit fell to the table—at least one of the Gems was done for good.
Crack—the fingers of the gauntlet were sent flying across the room and Tony had to duck to avoid being punctured by them.
Crack—the entire table split in half and whatever remained intact fell to the ground. That did not stop the Hulk, who began to stomp mercilessly upon the Gems until the floor crackled beneath him. Tony pressed closely against the wall, wondering how exactly possible it was for the Hulk to break through the floor and send them all plummeting even though they were already underground.
The Hulk continued his rampage against the Gems until only rubble and fine dust lay at his feet. When he saw that his work was done, he scuffed his sole against the debris until it scattered like ashes before prowling in the corners, rubbing bits of glass from his feet. What was left of the Gems flickered, their lights dying in their dust before fading altogether, leaving no memory of the superfluous power they promised.
"Walk it off, big guy," said Tony as the Hulk calmed down in the corners of the room, scuffing dust from his knuckles. "That's my boy."
"Fascinating," Odin said, his voice soft.
Tony turned warily to Odin.
"What is?" Tony said.
His first thought was that he feared that Odin spoke like a scientist observing a specimen, or anyone that saw both Bruce and the Hulk as subhuman miracle. But instead of detached interest in Odin's eye, Tony saw a softness—awe, even.
"He is," said Odin, his eye following the Hulk. "For someone whom many fear to be dangerous and cruel, he has an enormous heart to protect others."
Tony cracked a smile. Of course, Tony had known this all along.
"If there's anything anyone should ever know about Bruce or the Hulk," said Tony, "it's that those two share more than a body—they share one big, fat heart too."
Steve was never one to sit still and let others work around him. All of Asgard seemed to expect that he would rest and not associate himself with any more duties because he was, in all technicalities, a guest to them, but how was he supposed to sit back and relax while there was still so much to fix in the aftermath of the battle?
But every time he tried to clean up the streets, help out the people with whatever they needed, they would usher him back to the castle and into plush seats and rich delicacies that Steve ended up having to sneak out in old Asgardian armor to avoid recognition, just so he could at least help distribute soldiers' benefits to the brave warriors or their widows.
During one of his rounds through town, passing baskets of food to families suffering losses, he spotted the Warriors Three a little ways off, riding horses through town, along with a line of other soldiers. Steve curiously followed them—no doubt they were heading to the direction of the Bifröst, but for what?
He quietly approached them, pulling away the hood of his coat that he had borrowed from Thor. When one of them—Fandral—spotted him, he gave a pleased exclamation.
"If it isn't the captain of Midgard!" said Fandral, pulling his horse to stop. He slid off his steed, giving Steve a welcoming clap on the shoulder. "Is this how you pass your time? By the Norns, you Midgardians really never stop and rest, do you?"
Fandral spoke cheerily, but Steve could see the scars of war still glisten in his eyes—a look he was far too used to after so many wars.
"I just want to help," said Steve. "Your hospitality is great, really—but I just want to serve." He nodded to Volstagg and Hogun, who also joined Fandral before Steve while the other soldiers maneuvered around them to continue their trek to the Rainbow Bridge. "Where are you guys going?"
"To the other Realms as messengers," said Volstagg. "News about Thanos' fall may not have spread throughout the rest of Yggdrasil, though victory has found them all, and we would see if any Realm needs our help in rebuilding."
"That's really great," said Steve. "But what happens now?"
"What do you mean by that?" said Fandral with a raised eyebrow.
"Well—I don't know much about Asgardian politics," said Steve. "But I heard you weren't on the best terms with the Dark Elves or the Dwarves or the Frost Giants."
"I think this war rather shook our priorities enough," said Volstagg, with a sad smile. "After many friends are lost, we really do forget the point in enemies."
Steve lowered his head. He knew from Thor's stories that Sif had been a dear friend to them all, especially these three warriors. Fandral and Hogun had trained with her since their earliest youth, and Volstagg had watched her grow from childhood to womanhood like his own child, and all of a sudden she was gone. They had not even seen her go, as if she was suddenly erased from their existence and no explanation could be given, and they had to wade through grief and disbelief.
"I'm very sorry," said Steve, "about Sif."
Fandral offered a small smile. "Thank you, Captain. Mourning is never easy, no matter the situation, but at least she had gone the way she had always wanted to—strong and for her people."
"It will be empty, though," said Volstagg, "how we will go to our duties and training and she will not be there with us."
His voice trailed away and he averted his gaze, offering Steve a flash of a quick smile as if that could distract him.
"She would not want us to mourn her so painfully," Hogun said, and Steve realized it was the first time he heard the man speak. "She would have hit us across the heads and called us spineless maidens for our tears."
Fandral chuckled, shaking his head. "That she would have. I can guarantee that."
His bright eyes flickered up to the sky, to the clouds as pale as light.
"We all loved her," he said, his voice soft. "In our own way. Like a sister, a friend. Perhaps some of us hoped as a lover." The corners of his lips twitched upward at that. "But nevertheless, we loved her dearly. She was a dear friend, and always will be."
"She reminded me a little of Peggy," said Steve.
"Who is Peggy?" said Fandral.
"A woman I know," said Steve, his memory still plush and sweet of her. "She's really strong-hearted and independent…always aimed to take care of everyone around her with her own strength. She and Sif…both were great women."
"Where is she now?" said Volstagg.
"Ah…I don't really know," said Steve. "Sometimes the best people you meet might be the ones you have the least amount of time with. But it's time nonetheless and I'm grateful for that."
The four men stood in thoughtful silence, their memories golden with the reflection of the past. When Volstagg spoke again, Steve was a little shaken; it was as if he had expected Sif to speak next, as she would interject loudly in the presence of men.
"Your companion—the archer," said Volstagg.
"Clint?" said Steve.
"Yes," said Volstagg. "Please—make sure he too understands that it is not his fault. I had seen it in his eyes when we bade Sif farewell, that guilt plagues him. It is by no means his fault, and we are glad that he had been her companion."
"Okay," said Steve, his voice as light as an echo. "Thank you."
Volstagg nodded before climbing back onto his horse. The other warriors bade goodbye to Steve before returning to their steeds and continuing their path to the Bifröst. Steve watched them go, their receding figures disappearing deep into the outskirts of the city, before he pulled back on his hood and continued his duties.
When he saw Clint, the first thing he noticed was that Clint was smiling and speaking with the other Asgardians. He had seen little of Clint these past several days, their days taking them through different paths in different hours, but the sight of Clint smiling lifted Steve's spirits; Clint, if anything, was a poor liar, and smiles were the hardest to feign.
When Clint spotted Steve and easily recognized him underneath the hood, he motioned for Steve to come to him. Steve hurriedly obliged. He noted that Clint was pushing a wheelbarrow of brick and shale, with a scroll of what looked like a layout of a new building tucked under his arm. And most of all, that Clint too tried to blend in with the disguise of Asgardian clothing to keep from being recognized and dragged back into hospitality.
"What are you doing?" said Steve. "I thought you were sticking around the castle."
"I thought you were too," said Clint. "Looks like everyone's sneaking around trying to get things done." He nodded to some of his acquaintances. "Hey, you guys go ahead, all right?"
"What's all this for?" said Steve when they were left alone.
"This?" Clint nodded at the wheelbarrow. "The city's walls were sort of battered, so we're rebuilding it. Thankfully nothing got in to wreak hell, but still, broken wall and everything."
"Need any help?" said Steve.
"Yeah, I'm sure we can use your rippling muscles and all for some of the work," said Clint, offering Steve the wheelbarrow. Steve took it readily and Clint laughed. "I could seriously trick you to do all my work and you'd do it."
"Only because I know you'd still want to do your share in the end," said Steve.
"Touché," said Clint. "Shoo, that's my wheelbarrow. You can get your own. Actually, hold my map."
Clint handed Steve the map and continued pushing the wheelbarrow to the wall. Steve could see the gaping holes in the once proud walls, like jagged teeth rising from the earth. Already craftsmen were slathering bricks on the empty spaces.
"How's your body?" said Clint. "Wow, that sounded suggestive. I mean, how are you holding up? No lasting injuries or anything?"
"Those healers patched me up really well," said Steve, unfurling the scroll. There were many miniscule rips on the paper, as if whoever wrote upon it used a pair of scissors instead of a pen to write. "You? Nothing wrong, right?"
"I'm all good," said Clint. "Thank God, right? No one lost any fingers. I hope Fury promotes us for this."
"What, you want to replace Hill or Coulson and become his right hand man?" said Steve with a grin.
"Oh, I take that back. Those two can have Fury all they want," said Clint. "Whoa, sorry, little lady!" he said when a young child playing on the side of the road jumped away when Clint's wheelbarrow came too close. "I really don't know how to steer these things."
"How are you holding up?" said Steve.
"I mean, are you doing well?"
Clint raised his eyebrows.
"All right, who decided to sic you on me?" said Clint. "Was it Nat? I swear, she wants to be my mother hen or something."
"I just want to make sure you're all right after—"
Steve paused. Clint gave a crooked smile and looked away.
"No, I'm not completely okay," said Clint. "Of course not. It's only been a couple of days or something. I still remember her, you know? And I still regret things. I can't snap my fingers and expect to be okay."
"I know," said Steve. "I just…wish you didn't have to hurt, you know."
"Man," Clint said. "If you wished that for everyone, you'd be getting a lot of disappointments."
Steve smiled sadly. The two men walked quietly side by side for a while. Children would sometimes run up, shrieking with excitement at the sight of the mortal heroes—sometimes a coy girl would ask for a lock of their hair. Clint laughed at Steve's blush, and Steve nearly succeeded in tripping Clint.
"What do you think happens after this?" said Steve.
"Always looking far into the future, aren't you?" said Clint. "We make sure everything's peachy keen here, then we go back. Tell Fury we were just on a vacation and skip along."
"Something tells me Fury wouldn't believe that," said Steve.
"Eh, probably not," said Clint. "But explaining to him that we just went through a war and our ex-war criminal sacrificed himself for us but then we forced him back to life is a little bit of a long story."
"Which he would believe even less," Steve said with a wry smile.
"Bah, I think he'd see Loki's good side one of these days," said Clint. "We'll spoon-feed him that, little by little. I mean…I wouldn't want SHIELD thinking for the rest of their existence that Loki is a no-good SOB."
"You know what, Barton?" said Steve. "You really are one remarkable guy."
"Whoa, hold it," said Clint. "Did that doozie on your head get to your brain harder than you thought?"
"Shh, I'm trying to praise you," said Steve. "I'm serious. Do you want me to tell you why I think so?"
"I actually would rather you didn't," Clint said, walking faster. "Excuse me, pardon me, man with a shitload of bricks coming through."
Steve laughed, easily catching up with Clint. "Okay, okay, I'll stop. But I'm serious. You're one hell of a remarkable guy."
"Watch that tongue of yours, Cap," said Clint.
"Do you have some sort of paranoia against heartfelt compliments? What if I started commenting on other things, like your singing voice? Or—I don't know—your archery arm?"
"Oh, look at this, I'm losing control over my wheelbarrow!" said Clint before sprinting, rolling the wheelbarrow down the street. "Oh no, I can't stop it, holy cow!"
Steve couldn't stop laughing.
The feast had qualities that Loki remembered from every other feast he attended; loaded with food and drink—perhaps a little too much drink—Thor laughing up a storm (which was fitting), Frigga sighing loudly at her sons' (read: Thor) shenanigans, and very, very loud.
But this feast, of all the feasts he ever attended, was far from being similar to anything Loki had ever seen. The tables were underneath the Asgardian night sky, out in the open air and in the town square, spilling into the broad cobblestone streets of the city. Every chair was filled with civilians, warriors, servants, nobility—everyone of Asgard attended the feast of celebration. There was no face left peeping in on them from the dark corners, not unless someone pulled them into the light cast by the many lanterns strung up over their heads and gave them a chair to rest on.
There were no adorning helmets to be worn, no cloaks, none of those stifling embellishments dedicated to special occasions. This Loki was glad of—but even with the intermingling of all the people to celebrate their lives, he found himself drawn to sit next to Thor, a familiar companion ever since childhood. Thor beamed when Loki came close to him, hugging him carefully as to not upset Loki's still tender wounds.
"Glad to see that you deigned to come," said Thor.
"Glad to see you're not inebriated yet," said Loki.
He gazed around them, at the long tables of endless food and drink, of the songs and laughter that were so bright he could have sworn the flames in the lantern glowed at the sound of them. He was never one for public festivities, but at the sight of the townspeople dancing on the town square at the music of the pan flutes and lyres, his heart warmed. These were his people, whether he liked it or not…and like it he did.
"Prince Loki, Prince Loki!"
A young child tottered up to Loki, a wreath of white lilies in her tiny hand. Loki, surprised, bent down before her.
"Yes?" he said.
Before he could react, the child crowned him with the wreath of lilies, beaming as she fitted the snowy petals over his ebony locks, before dashing away, shyness overtaking her. Loki straightened, both touched and bemused, while Thor chuckled in the background.
"You truly are a king now, Loki," said Thor.
"Shush," said Loki. The wreath was made too big for his head and slipped down to his neck like a necklace. "I think we've broke a record here. Who can truly say that they celebrated a feast with an entire city?"
"We ought to make a habit of this," said Thor.
"Perhaps since you are king, you would start making up excuses to host them," Loki said with a smirk.
"That will be ways away from now."
"I thought you would be crowned soon."
"Father is doing a fine enough job still," Thor said with a shrug. "I still have much to learn."
"Yes, perhaps," said Loki. "Perhaps you can return to your Jane in the meantime…what was it that Tony likes to say? Keep love alive?"
Thor chuckled. "Maybe one day you would meet her. Would you?"
Loki took a drink from his cup. "Only to see how far out of your league she is."
"Oh, do not worry," said Thor. "She is very far."
Tony came to them, a flagon of drinksloshing in his hand. Loki rolled his eyes at the evident source of Tony's jubilation before receiving Tony's one-armed hug.
"I'm telling you," said Tony. "Asgard parties hard. A significantly less number of strippers, but I can manage."
"Please don't frighten anyone with your songs and odd dance moves," said Loki. "There are children present."
"Aw, don't worry about it," said Tony. "I'll make sure your innocent little eyes won't see anything." He took another healthy gulp of his goblet.
"You do realize that Asgardian mead is significantly stronger than your Midgardian brew," said Thor.
"Don't mess with me, Point Break," said Tony. "I mean, Steve's been drinking and he's absolutely fine."
"Stark, Steve cannot be intoxicated."
"Oh. Right." Tony rubbed his eyes. "Well, gold star for him. Damn, don't tell Pepper. I asked your old man to send her a message for me through those ravens. Make sure he doesn't tell her I'm in a party with ten thousand year-old alcohol."
"When will you be going back?" said Loki.
"I think the day after tomorrow," said Tony. "Give us a day to fight off hangovers, you know? Hey—" He poked Loki hard in the chest. "That thing I said—a long, long time ago—about fixing you up after finding you in Norway and then making you promise to never come back to Earth—you know that I was kidding, right? That I didn't mean a single word of that?"
"Tony, you're drunk," said Loki.
"Uh-uh, no I'm not," said Tony, putting the drink underneath Loki's nose.
Loki caught its smell and found—to his surprise—that it was not in fact mead but cloudberry juice. Tony laughed at Loki's look of disbelief.
"Since when did you pass over alcohol?" said Loki.
"Looks like the God of Lies is losing his touch day after day," said Tony. He sobered and shook Loki by the shoulder. "I'm serious, Bambi. Don't you make some disappearing act on us like Thor did right after New York City."
"In my defense, the Bifröst wasn't repaired for much of that time," said Thor.
"You could have at least given us raven-mail or something," said Tony. "Don't make this the last time we see you, okay? Are you sure you can't just live some time on Earth, the two of you? I'll dedicate two whole floors for you, just like the others. We could be like a family, seriously. A really weird, happy sort of family."
Loki couldn't stop himself from smiling.
"I won't lie, Stark," said Loki. "I did technically promise Fury I would never return to Earth."
"Oh, forget Fury," said Stark. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him. I mean, what are you doing here on Asgard anyway? Besides being a prince and probably having a lot of royal responsibilities because of reasons."
"Possibly Thor's advisor, if he'd let me," said Loki.
"Is that even a question?" said Thor.
"Damn, you're getting busier and busier," said Tony. "Just…don't forget about us, okay? I know time passes really slowly for you guys up here, but time passes super fast on Earth, so I don't want you guys to think you're playing hard to get on Asgard and by the time you come, I'm a ninety-year-old grandpa with no hair. So, remember us, okay?"
Loki pulled Tony into a hug—Tony was so caught by surprise that he spilled cloudberry juice onto his shoes.
"You fool," said Loki. "You really think I would forget any of you?"
"Aw, dammit," said Tony. "Now you're getting sentimental."
Loki pulled away, a smirk on his face. "Now, we can't have that, can we?"
"It's okay, I'll keep your secret," said Tony. "I'm off now. Going to get myself some actual Viking alcohol and see what you crazy people call a stiff drink."
"Please don't hurt yourself," said Thor.
Tony threw them a wink and a wave before disappearing to the table crowded with kegs of drink. Thor laughed, shaking his head.
"What will we do, brother?" Loki said.
"What will we do?" said Thor. "Father will need diplomatic visits with Midgard often, after all."
Loki chuckled, his eyes grazing the crowd. Clint was playing with Volstagg's children, strings of flowers draped over his head. Bruce chatted with some of the sorcerers, fascinated with their studies of magic and science. Steve was well acquainted with the guards of the castle, who more often than not were supposed to keep Steve out of work until they long gave up and joined him.
His eyes fell upon her near the dance square, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other to the beat of the music. His heart stumbled in its beats at the sight of her and he wondered if she too planned to leave the day after tomorrow, so soon…if he would not follow her down to Midgard, just for a little longer.
"You know, Loki."
Loki turned to Thor, who was helping himself to a flagon of mead. A devilish smile played on his older brother's lips.
"Most gentlemen ought to ask the ladies for a dance," said Thor. "Not stare longingly at them from afar."
"I beg to differ," said Loki.
Thor chortled before taking a sip of his drink. Loki looked back at Natasha, who had closed her eyes now and swayed on the spot, arms raised delicately in dance. His heart ached in a wonderful way just watching her.
"Thor," said Loki.
"Hm?" Thor said with a ridiculously smug quirk of the eyebrows. Suddenly Loki wondered if he had somehow rubbed off on Thor after all this time.
"I'll have to ask you to excuse me," said Loki.
Thor blinked before his face cracked open into a wide smile, but Loki had no eyes for anything else anymore. He blindly set down his cup and silently weaved through the crowd, eyes fastened on her as if she was the entire world.
He never saw Thor watch his retreating back with a laugh so hearty nothing in the world could break it. Never saw how Thor chuckled into his cup and shook his head, watching as Loki took her hands and filled in the gaps of her dance, leaning in so close to her that their lips were just breaths away.
"Welcome home, brother," Thor said. He turned his gaze away just in time to give them privacy. His words were lost in his smile.