Here it is... the final chapter! (Well, the epilogue, technically.)
So, I just want to give a huge, Hulk-sized thank you to everyone who's read, reviewed, followed, and favorited this story. You guys are beyond wonderful. I'm incredibly grateful for all the support you've given me, and for all of you just taking the time to read my work. THANK YOU EVERONE! I LOVE YOU GUYS!
Some of you are probably wondering about a sequel. Unfortunately, I am not planning on one at present. I do have ideas for another story or two, which will be in no way connected to this and probably won't be published for a few months. I need to try writing an entire story and *then* publishing it, instead of this writing-from-scratch-each-weekend deal I've been keeping up.
Thank you again for reading 'With Friends Like These,' and I hope you enjoy the conclusion!
"Bjorn! Where are you? Bjorn!"
The young boy, face lit with a mischevious grin, crouched behind a pillar just as Thor bounded into the corridor, clad in his scarlet cape and armor and wearing an expression of utmost exasperation. He looked all about the hallway, peering around corners and under tables. "Bjorn, your mother has commanded that you take a bath. She will not rescind her orders simply because you hide."
The child leapt from behind the pillar. "You'll never catch me, Father!" he yelled, waving his hands. The moment Thor turned, Bjorn scampered away. Smiling and shaking his head, Thor chased after his son, catching the boy by the back of his shirt just before he could squeeze through a door.
"Now, come and take your bath," Thor said sternly.
"I hate baths!" Bjorn cried, pushing out his lower lip.
"You will do as your mother says." Thor opened the door to the bathroom and led Bjorn inside. "And I will not allow you to eat supper until you bathe." Bjorn huffed, but reluctantly began removing his clothes. Thor twisted the faucet, and a stream of warm, pleasantly-scented water cascaded into the bathtub. "Remember to put on clean clothing when you are finished," he said as the boy climbed into the tub. "And do not dilly-dally while you are washing."
Bjorn responded by splashing a large quantity of bathwater onto his father's leg.
"No more of that, my son, or you will have no dessert tonight," Thor said, though he was holding back a grin. He quickly ducked out of the bathroom before Bjorn could splash him again. The child was really too much like his father for his own good, Loki had said when Thor first brought the infant Bjorn to visit Midgard. Thor couldn't help but agree.
Jane greeted Thor happily when he joined her on their bedroom balcony. "Hey, Thor. Has Bjorn bathed yet?"
"He will have shortly," the god of thunder answered. "He was most reluctant to obey your orders."
Jane laughed. "Of course he was. But you will be a good little girl, won't you, Ashilde?" The chubby baby in her arms giggled and reached for her face.
"She will be just like her mother," Thor said fondly, gently holding one of the little pink hands in his own. "Beautiful and not a stubborn oaf like me."
Jane blushed furiously. "Stop it, Thor," she mumbled, smiling in spite of herself as the god hugged her tightly.
The door opened, and a servant stepped out. "Supper is ready, my king."
"Thank you," Thor said. He kissed Jane on the forehead. "I shall go fetch Bjorn."
"Okay," Jane replied, standing and cradling the cooing Ashilde in one arm as she straightened her dress. Thor went back through the bedroom and crossed the hallway, pausing outside the bathroom door.
"Bjorn? Have you finished?" There was a muffled noise of panic from within, and the sound of water draining. "You are still in the bathtub, aren't you?"
"Ah - not anymore -" came the reply. Moments later, the door swung open to reveal a hastily dried Bjorn, his clothes rumpled and hair sticking every which way.
"I told you to finish before supper," Thor said with longsuffering as he tried to arrange the wet blonde curls into something presentable. "What will Mother say?"
"I dunno," Bjorn responded sulkily.
Thor gave up on trying to tame his hair. "Come, now, or your supper will be cold."
Without warning, Bjorn dashed down the hallway, calling "Last one there has to muck the stables!" behind him. Thor sighed, glancing at the massive puddle on the bathroom floor before following his son towards the feasting hall. He paid no mind to the various servants hurrying in different directions, his thoughts far away. He almost missed the tall, dark figure leaning languidly against a statue.
"Off to supper, Thor?"
The thunder god whirled around, eyes wide with disbelief. "Loki!" he cried ecstatically.
"Yes, it is me," Loki replied, smiling softly. "Is there room for one more at your table?"
"Yes, yes, of course-" Thor replied breathlessly. "I did not expect to see you here, brother! Have you - have you returned? To stay?"
Loki had intended to reply with his usual sarcasm, but the childishly hopeful look on Thor's face stopped him. "Yes, Thor, I have returned for good."
Thor laughed aloud with joy and pulled Loki into an embrace. "Brother, this is..." Thor stepped back, hands on Loki's shoulders. "I have waited for this day for so many years, and now..."
Loki smiled. "I told you I would come back."
"I know you did, but the years went so slowly," Thor replied. "And so much has happened. I never dreamed I would be crowned king without you at my side."
"I thought it best if I did not come," Loki said quietly, averting his eyes. "Asgard would not have taken kindly to my presence after my actions at your first coronation."
"Brother, Asgard has forgiven you for all of that!"
Loki shook his head. "Not all of Asgard."
"There are many fools in Asgard," Thor replied. "And you would not be here now if you thought yourself unwelcome."
"You are not supposed to be so intelligent, Thor."
The thunder god laughed. "Come to supper with me, brother. Jane and the children will be delighted to see you."
"How are Bjorn and Ashilde?" Loki asked with a hint of fondness in his voice as he followed Thor to the feasting hall. Several servants stopped in their tracks and gaped openly as the brothers passed.
"Bjorn has grown since you last saw him. His head reaches my waist."
"Is he still the spitting image of you?"
Thor chuckled. "In more ways than one. He has become quite a stubborn child."
"Poor Jane," Loki replied with mock horror. "How she deals with the two of you, I cannot imagine."
"She manages," Thor said. "Fortunately for her, Ashilde has the promise of being a much better-behaved child."
"Perhaps Ashilde will take after her uncle," Loki said with a grin.
Thor pretended to cringe. "I hope not, for all our sakes."
They strode into the hall, which immediately quited in respect for the king and then in shock at the sight of Loki.
"Who is that?"
"Can it be-"
"He looks like-"
"Loki!" Jane cried, rising from her chair. The god of mischief bowed and kissed her hand.
"You are even more radiant than when I last beheld you," Loki said smoothly, his bright smile almost devoid of mischief.
"Thanks," Jane said, her face reddening. "So - are you here to stay?"
"I am," Loki replied. "I hope I am welcome?"
"Of course!" Jane smiled and beckoned for Bjorn to come over. "Say hello to your uncle."
"Hi, Loki," Bjorn said, eyes fixed expectantly on the god. Loki grinned and raised an eyebrow.
"Do you think I have something for you?" he asked teasingly.
Bjorn's face broke into a wide smile. "I want a present, Uncle Loki!"
Loki raised his empty hands. "I am afraid I have nothing."
"Nothing?" The boy's face drooped.
"Wait a minute - what is that behind you?" Bjorn turned around excitedly, but saw nothing. When he looked back to Loki, however, the god was holding a small sword in his hands.
"A sword!" Bjorn exclaimed excitedly. "Is it sharp?"
"Now, what do you think your mother would say if I brought you a sharpened sword?" Loki said as he held out the present. Bjorn glared at Jane before grabbing the weapon and swinging it around, nearly hitting Loki's leg.
"And that's why it isn't sharp," Jane said with relief as Loki moved out of the way. "Bjorn, don't wave it around like that in here. You could break something."
"I have a sword, Father!" Bjorn yelled excitedly, jabbing playfully at Thor.
"I see that," Thor replied, amused.
"And what about you, Ashilde?" Loki said, softly tickling the baby. "Do you want a present?" Ashilde giggled brightly when she saw Loki, her little hands grasping for his face. Loki bent forward, letting her grab at his hair. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small doll woven from soft cloth. Ashilde clutched it eagerly, running her tiny fingers across its face.
"That's beautiful," Jane said, feeling the doll. "Where did you get it?"
"I was traveling through China, and stopped in a little village just beside a-"
"Tell us later," Thor said quickly. "I am hungry."
"Has anything else changed in my absence?" Loki asked with a smirk as they all sat down, Thor at the head of the table and Jane and Loki on either side.
"Hela's been redecorating the palace," Jane replied. "She says there's way too much gold around here. Personally, I agree, but I really don't have time to worry about it that much."
"What decorations does my daughter prefer?"
"She uses a great deal of black," Thor said, somewhat disapprovingly. "And almost as much green. She has also installed many televisions other such Midgardian appliances throughout the palace."
Loki smiled. "Well, it sounds as though she is having fun."
"Mother and Father have figured out how to use the Midgardian technology," Thor continued, "but most others have not. They think the televisions are mediums for dark magic."
"Asgard's not very tech savvy," Jane added as she gave Ashilde a small dab of pudding. "In case you haven't noticed."
"Hela also likes to bring her siblings to visit," Thor said. "There was quite a stir when they arrived the first time."
"Jormungand is huge!" Bjorn interjected, extending his arms to demonstrate. "So is Sleipnir. And Fenris has really sharp teeth."
"True," Loki said with a grin. "I remember Tony and Clint using some very colorful language the first time I acquainted them with all of my children."
"I can understand why," Jane said. "They're... very unique."
"That is an understatement, as far as my children go. Any word on Helblindi?"
"He has not caused any trouble," Thor replied. "The Jotuns have mainly been rebuilding their realm."
"And I see Asgard has grown more accepting of them." Loki glanced down the long table; there were a few Jotun warriors interspersed among the Asgardians, laughing and drinking with the rest.
"They have," Thor said proudly. "I made sure of that."
"Hela told me all about it. She says you've started sending students to Jotunheim to learn from its sorcerers."
"They have enjoyed it greatly," Thor said, taking a long drink of mead. "It has cured Asgard of the notion that magic is a subject for women only."
"Grandmother and Grandfather are in Jotunheim now," Bjorn added. "They say they'll take me with them one day when I'm bigger."
"You'd better be careful, Bjorn," Loki said seriously. "You cannot trust a frost giant."
"But Father says you're a frost giant!"
Thor turned red as Loki laughed. "I am."
"Why aren't you blue?"
Loki leaned closer to the little boy. "Close your eyes."
Bjorn scrunched his eyes shut, and waited for a few moments. "Can I open them now?"
The bright blue eyes opened, then widened with surprise to see his uncle with skin as dark as the night sky. "Uncle Loki is blue!" he cried with delight. Loki laughed, his skin slowly melting back to the pale Aesir hue.
"Would you like to be blue?" Loki asked teasingly. Bjorn nodded enthusiastically.
"I want to be a frost giant when I grow up. They're big and strong, just like Father."
Loki was speechless for a moment, words dying as his throat constricted. He tried to speak, but his voice wouldn't work.
"You need to eat your turnips, Bjorn," Jane said quickly. Bjorn turned his attention from his uncle to his plate, which was clean except for the turnips.
"I don't like those," he complained. "I want pudding."
Jane shook her head. "Not until you've eaten the turnips."
Bjorn pouted, but followed his mother's orders. Loki, finally regaining control of himself, turned to Thor. "I never thought I would say this, but it seems you are raising your children well."
"I am glad you think so, brother. I do not want to repeat our father's mistakes."
"You are not in danger of that, it seems."
Thor smiled. "Thank you. I know your praise is not easily earned."
"Especially not by one with blue hair." Loki snickered as Thor hastily examined his hair and sighed with relief to find that it was still blonde.
"I was afraid for a moment that you had decided to dye my hair as you used to on Midgard."
Loki raised an eyebrow, taking a small sip of mead. "Who's to say I haven't?"
"Please, not during supper," Thor groaned.
"All right," Loki agreed. "I will do it during breakfast tomorrow."
"You were the one who wanted me to return to Asgard."
"I should have known better." The brothers glared at each other for a moment, then burst into laughter.
"Oh, Thor," Loki said, wiping his eyes. "It is good to be back."