Author's note: I promise this story isn't abandoned. It's just slow. Because I'm slow. Sorry about that, and major thanks to everyone who's sticking with me through this! You're all amazing!
Loki wasn't entirely sure whether to feel amused or dismayed as he and Karla walked through the city. All of his expectations had been turned upside down and it had thrown him off his game completely. It was good, of course, that his worst-case scenario hadn't eventuated and she hadn't been angry and thrown him out. Better than good, really. But now he had to acknowledge to himself that in the back of his mind had been an idea of how the evening would go if she had welcomed him back. That idea had included the two of them and a bed and a lot less clothing. It hadn't included, amongst other things, spending time making polite conversation with this 'friend' of hers.
And yet... He couldn't help feeling slightly impressed with how neatly she'd outmaneuvered him. He did feel guilty for the pain he'd caused her, and for the way he'd made her doubt herself. She certainly couldn't have predicted that - he couldn't have predicted that! - and yet without doing any so overt as openly playing on it she'd managed to convince him to go along with her plans. He glanced down at her, walking with her arm looped through his and her head high, and smiled. There was also something in the way she was willing, even eager, to be seen publicly with him that was very appealing, he had to admit. Even despite her assurance that no one was likely to realise who he truly was.
He was pulled from his musings when Karla called out, "Hatter!" and waved to someone. Following her gaze, he studied the young man now striding towards them: nothing particularly notable about either height or build, but wearing a tall hat with a large white flower on the brim; a mane of brown curls sticking out from beneath it, and a neatly trimmed beard; dressed in a similar fashion to the way Loki was now dressed, but his waistcoat elaborately patterned in browns and golds; on his face, a grin almost broad enough to take the top of his head off. It was such an infectious grin that Loki found himself smiling in response despite his earlier annoyance with the man.
The smile faded a little as Karla slipped her arm from his and hurried forward to embrace the newcomer. Jaw clenched, he reminded himself that she wouldn't have brought him out just to taunt him with her affections for another man. Not when she had expressed such pleasure in seeing him again, nor when she had promised him a night in her bed once they'd gotten this dinner and dancing out of the way. She's not like that. Not like them.
Karla drew back from the embrace and grinned. "I hope you don't mind, but we've got company for this evening. This is Loki." She turned to include him in her smile, and he forced his taut muscles to relax as she added, "Loki, this is Paul."
The young man's smile, if possible, became even wider. "Loki, huh? No wonder you're looking so cheerful!" He stepped forward and held out his hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Loki." He sounded like it genuinely was a pleasure, too, and Loki found himself relaxing further.
He eyed the proffered hand for a moment, but he wasn't entirely unfamiliar with Midgard's customs. His grip was firm without being bruising and he forced a small smile onto his lips. "A pleasure to meet you too," he replied with more sincerity than he felt. "Although I suspect you rather have the advantage of me."
"Sure that won't last long," Paul replied with a laugh. "Now, how about dinner?"
So far, the meal hadn't been as uncomfortable as Loki had feared. He had kept quiet mostly, encouraging Karla and Paul to talk about their respective travels. In this way, he learned that they lived in the same city and were both travelling independently - Paul for work and Karla for fun - and had already crossed paths a few times. Whenever they found themselves in the same city, they always met for a meal or a drink and a night out dancing. The longer he watched them, though, the more his jealousy faded. They were both mindful of including him in the conversation, and Karla often reached out to touch him in some small way. The looks she darted his way occasionally went even further to reassure him that her interest was definitely in him rather than her old friend.
What he truly hadn't expected was that the jealousy would be replaced by envy. It was clear that the pair had known each other for some time, and when he asked he was told they had been students together almost a decade earlier at something called a University. It was equally clear that in that time they had shared a lot of fond experiences and developed a great deal of affection and trust for each other. He could understand why Karla had trusted Paul with knowledge of her aptitude for magic, and why she had confided in him about that night at the lake. He found himself wondering what it would be like to have a companion like that.
"So Loki, I have a question for you." He brought his attention back to the table at Paul's words, cocking his head to one side to indicate that the man should continue. "We have a lot of stories here about Asgard and its inhabitants, and the other worlds, and all of that. How much of it is true?"
Loki raised one eyebrow, a faint smile on his lips. "Well now, since I don't know what your stories say, how can I answer that? You'll have to give me some specifics." This should be interesting, he thought. He remembered Karla using phrases like 'I don't know how accurate our myths are, but...' and most of what she'd come up with to follow that 'but' had been reasonably accurate. But it had all been about high-level conceptual or cultural things rather than particular events.
Paul and Karla exchanged a look before Paul said, "Well, there was one about you and Thor getting dressed up as women after someone stole his hammer..."
It was difficult not to laugh, especially as it was obvious Karla was struggling not to. Instead, he replied smoothly, "And didn't he just look lovely, too, all clean-shaven and veiled."
Now Karla did laugh, smothering it behind her hand, eyes dancing with merriment. "And what about you?" she asked cheekily.
"I looked better, naturally."
"Naturally," she agreed, while Paul snorted over his beer. "Cheekbones like yours, and all." She ran the back of her hand down his cheek and he turned his head to nip gently at her fingers. "All right, my turn." Her lower lip caught between her teeth briefly. "You don't have to answer this one if you'd rather not. It's kind of personal."
"And the last one wasn't?" Loki asked incredulously.
She blushed. "Well, a different sort of personal. It's just that... our stories say that you have a number of children... And that your arse-hat of a foster-father took them all from you." The eyes that met his were full of nervousness, as though she worried she'd overstepped her bounds.
And if she had been anyone else, that would be the case, he acknowledged silently. Keeping his voice as even as possible, he replied, "I suspect your stories don't quite put it like that, though, do they? I suspect they talk of how it was done for 'the good of Asgard' or somesuch? Because they were monsters?" He couldn't quite keep the bitterness from his tone at that last question.
Karla leaned over and wrapped her arms tightly around him. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked," she whispered. "I should have known better."
Heaving a sigh, he returned her embrace and shook his head. "No, it's fine," he told her. "I'm just not used to people who don't pretend they don't exist."
Across from them, Paul's eyes widened. "So it's true then? About your children and what happened to them?" Loki nodded, and the young man shook his head and whistled through his teeth. "You know, even not knowing anything else about him, I already dislike your fa... sorry, foster-father. It shouldn't matter what they look like, they're your children! And it's obvious from the way you spoke just now that you cared for them."
Loki looked at him with growing respect, both for his words and the fact that he'd followed Karla's lead on the family relationship. Nodding, he replied, "I still do care. Very much."
Pushing herself up from where she was slumped against him, Karla gave him a sad smile and brushed her lips against his. He deepened the kiss for just a moment, wanting to ensure she knew that he wasn't annoyed with her, but mindful of the fact that they weren't alone at the table. Her expression was brighter when she pulled back, so he figured he'd succeeded. With tentative curiosity, she asked, "Do you still see any of them?"
"Sleipnir I see regularly," he admitted. "He's the only one who remained in Asgard, so it's easier, even if I don't have unrestricted access. Fenrir I visit as often as I can, to comfort and heal him." He hesitated, then asked, "You know what became of him?"
Karla swallowed heavily. "Chained up, with a sword wedging his jaws open, because Odin doesn't understand about self-fulfilling prophecies?"
Loki started to nod, then frowned in confusion. "What do you mean?"
She shrugged. "Is it true that he was restrained like that because there was a prophecy that one day he'd kill Odin?" When he nodded, she wrinkled her nose. "So Odin has him tied up and basically tortured for what, a few millenia? If that happened to me, and then I managed to get free, you bet your arse the first thing I'm going to want to do is get revenge on the bastard responsible! He's pretty much ensured that there's no chance at all of that prophecy not coming true eventually."
He blinked in surprise. "I... never thought of it like that. It's a good point though. I wonder..." His voice trailed off as he considered the possibility of entreating the Allfather to release Fenrir and focus on securing his affection and loyalty instead. Then he shook his head in annoyance. "Never mind. He won't listen to me anyway. Now where were we?" He had to look away from Karla, and the pain and sympathy in her gaze. He focussed his attention on Paul instead. Or rather, the flower on Paul's hat, since there was too much sympathy in that gaze too. "Hela I see less often. She has her own realm to see to, and for the most part I leave her to it. But I enjoy visiting from time to time. She's a lot like me in many ways, so we can talk easily. I think she enjoys the occasional break in her routine as well."
"I'd like to meet her one day," Karla murmured. Loki started in shock, and instantly her cheeks flamed red and she ducked her head. "Ignore me," she gasped. "I shouldn't have said that out loud."
"Internal monologue, Karla, internal!" Paul chuckled.
Loki lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss against the fingertips. "I think we've already proven that I can't ignore you, little one, even when I try. And... perhaps one day." She graced him with a brilliant smile, and he returned it before continuing, "And Jormungandr is in this realm, of course. I generally don't see him, as he slumbers for centuries at a time. For which you should all be grateful." His smile turned wry as he added, "His waking tends to be somewhat catastrophic for your world."
Karla shook her head. "Wow. Just... wow. Thank you, though. For answering what was actually a pretty insensitive question, I mean."
He chuckled. "Actually, it's nice to be able to speak of them to people who don't consider them monsters who should... never have been born." He silently cursed himself for the wobble in his voice at that last.
Paul made a sudden slashing gesture with one hand. "Anyone who says that can go screw themselves," he snapped. "There's no one alive who deserves to have that said about them."
Loki startled a little at this vehemence, but when he glanced at Karla she was nodding her agreement. Feeling a lump rise in his throat, he smiled. "Thank you. Both of you." He took a long swallow of his drink, then said, "Now, let's find a more cheerful story, shall we?"
"You tied by the balls to a goat?" Paul slapped his hand across his own mouth the second the words were out, his eyes mortified, while Karla choked on her drink.
"Your definition of cheerful disturbs me," Loki replied with a straight face. He left it hanging like that for a moment, then relented and said with a rueful chuckle, "I don't think I'm ever going to live that one down. But I did achieve my aim."
"The mind boggles!" Karla gasped, wiping tears from her eyes. "Surely there must have been an easier... less painful way? You needed to make her laugh, yes?"
He shrugged. "Possibly. That was just the first thing that came to mind. No, before you ask, I don't know why." His lips curved in a mischievous grin. "On the other hand, I can't say it did my reputation any harm. Rather the opposite in fact."
Her eyes darted downwards for a second and her delightfully wicked smile bloomed. "I don't doubt that for a moment," she murmured.
Author's note 2: Okay, a little aside here. While I've been struggling with this story, I've written a few one-shots featuring Loki and Karla in an attempt to get the creative juices flowing. I've been debating whether I should post them before I finish this story. On the one hand, I can use them to fill the holes in between my actually having new chapters of this story read to post. On the other hand, since they're almost all set after this story, it does sort of seem like giving spoilers to where this is heading.
What do people think? To post, or not to post? (Either way, it probably wouldn't hurt to add me to your "author alerts" - sooner or later, I will be posting more stories in this series!)