Fear is the enemy of trust. But love is the enemy of fear. ~Loki
"Let's go, kids," Loki called to the rest of his children. "We're meeting Uncle Steve and Tony at the school so we can watch Belle read her poem."
"Last one in the van is a dead rat!" Vince yelled and sprinted for the door.
"You're so gross!" Serena shouted and darted toward the door, reaching it before her brother and yanking it open.
"No fair! We can't run that fast!" Lucy groaned.
"But we can trip 'em!" Max yodeled, and slid in front of Vince.
"Hey! You little idiot, I almost fell!"
"I'm telling! Daddy, Vince called Max an idiot!" Aleta shrilled.
"Blabbermouth!" her brother snapped.
"All of you, knock it off!" Sam growled. "You're behaving like hooligans."
"What's a hooligan?" Aleta asked.
"Kids who behave like animals," Nate replied, and then gunned the controls on his electric wheelchair, beating them all to the van. He pushed a button on the side and the back door slid open and a chair lift lowered down so Nate could maneuver on to it and then it lifted into the van and Sam locked the wheelchair into place.
"Nice going, Racer," she gave her brother a high five.
Nate had become paralyzed in an auto accident when he was six, the same accident had killed his parents, and made him an orphan. Because of this, despite his cheerful nature and intelligence, no one wanted to adopt the handicapped boy. Until Loki, that is. The Asgardian thought it a waste to let the boy spend his childhood in an orphanage when Nathan was bright and clever, able to build complex toys and robotics. At first the orphanage director had been reluctant to allow Loki to adopt the child, but Loki soon convinced them otherwise by redesigning his home to support Nate's handicap with the aid of his Avenger family. Steve, Tony, Thor, Clint, and Bruce had helped build ramps, install bars and chair lifts, a shower, commode, and Tony had designed a special electric wheelchair that could practically fly and had a special console that enabled Nate to play video games, a cooler for drinks and snacks and gel cushions. The chair also possessed a canopy that could be raised or lowered in case of rain, a built in fan for hot summer days, and a robotic arm so Nate could pick things up that were above his head.
Nate called his chair the Magic Bullet, and with it he could do nearly everything a normal child his age could do, including play certain sports and games.
Loki made sure Aleta and Max were buckled into their car seats before setting off for the school, which was about a mile and a half from the house. The van had a few things built into it, like armor plates, night scope rifles, and smoke grenades and anti-aircraft missiles, just in case a villain took it into their head to go after Loki or his family. Loki usually relied on his magic to safeguard his family, but as Steve pointed out, some extra firepower couldn't hurt. The van also had extra safety features as well as a built in TV/DVD and X-Box.
They parked in the school parking lot and then followed their dad inside. Loki carried Aleta and held Max's hand, knowing those two's tendency to run off and find something they shouldn't be touching. His older children followed in an orderly fashion, and they met up with Tony and Steve by the auditorium entrance.
"We saved you seats down in front," said Steve. Because of Nate they were allowed to use the front row.
"Thanks," Loki said, and went to sit down next to Nate.
No sooner had he done so, then Max pulled on the sleeve of his green and blue sweater. "Daddy, I gotta go potty."
"I'll take him," Steve said.
"Max, go with Uncle Steve."
Max slid off his seat and took Steve's hand. "Hey, Uncle Steve, I'm big enough now to not pee on the wall," the toddler informed the Avenger.
"Uh . . . that's great, little buddy," Steve coughed, trying not to laugh.
"Why don't you tell the whole school?" Vince rolled his eyes.
"Hush!" Loki ordered, covering his face with his hand. The things that child came out with.
Then Aleta piped up with, "One time when Max was sick he missed the potty and peed on the floor."
Several older girls a few seats behind them giggled.
"Aleta Lenore!" Loki scolded.
"Well, he did," the little girl said matter-of-factly. "And Daddy stepped in it."
Tony nearly busted a gut laughing.
Loki just blushed and muttered, "There are no secrets when you live with a three-year-old busybody."
"I'm not a busybody!" his daughter pouted, her lower lip sticking out. "I'm a princess!" She indicated her gold jeweled helmet.
"Okay, Princess, now it's time to play the quiet game," her father said slyly. "And the first one who talks goes to bed early." He made a zipping motion by his lips.
Aleta copied him, and then curled up on his lap, her gray-eyed gaze watching everything.
The lights dimmed and then a spotlight was shone on the stage and Miss Linden walked on to announce Riverside's first poetry reading and afterwards the winners of the poetry contest would be announced.
Belle walked onstage along with Sadie and a few other girls and boys from her English class. All the Laufeysons cheered and clapped when they saw her.
Belle waved shyly and waited to be called up to read, her poem clutched in her damp fingers.
Meanwhile, at Yankee Stadium, Thor and Hunter had just gotten their seats near the dugout, and the Yankees and the Braves had just come out onto the field. Thor waited until the second inning before saying to his nephew, "How do you like the game so far?"
"Good," Hunter answered. "Especially since it's just you and me here and not my brothers and sisters."
"You don't like it when they follow you," Thor remarked.
"Not lately. Sometimes I just want to be alone," Hunter said honestly.
Thor nodded in understanding. "Occasionally, I felt like that too," he admitted. "It's hard being the oldest, the one to always set the example."
Hunter nodded eagerly. "Sometimes I get tired of . . . of always having to do stuff the right way." Though true, he immediately felt guilty, and added, "Dad's not . . . well he's not . . . um too bad . . .not like some of my friend's dads, we don't have rules about everything, and he's not always on me to obey either but . . . I just get tired of always having to be the good son, ya know?"
I can't believe you just said that, a part of him mocked. You aren't a good anything, and well you know it. The only thing you're good at, Hunter Laufeyson, is lying.
Then you are well chosen as the son of the God of Lies, whispered the unrepentant part of his mind.
Except since his rebirth, Loki was no longer that quick facile tongued liar. He had explained once to Hunter that like a snake shedding its skin or a shapeshifter trading flesh for fur or feathers, his ability to lie now came in a limited form. He could lie, but only to safeguard himself or those he cared about, and no longer for vain selfish hurtful reasons. I am all the promise of my youth fulfilled, all the bright pieces regained, born anew from fire and sorrow.
"It can be a heavy burden," Thor agreed. "Have you spoken to your father about this?"
The boy shook his head. "No. He's been too busy." Another lie. Hunter knew as well as any of his siblings that Loki would always make time to talk if asked. He had told them from the beginning that nothing was more important to him than his children—not even his job.
"Perhaps you might do so soon," Thor urged. "Loki isn't unreasonable. Not the way our own father was at times. And I think . . . he worries about you."
Hunter swallowed hard. I'm not worth him losing sleep over. But what he said aloud was, "I'm fine, Uncle Thor. Just kind of stressed with school and all."
Liar, liar pants on fire!
He was relieved to see, however, that the big warrior seemed to take his words at face value and didn't notice, the way Loki would have, the too pat answers falling from his lips and how his actions didn't match his glib tongue.
"Verily, then, shall we watch the game?" Thor abruptly changed the subject, happy that he had found the source of Hunter's discontent. Loki would be pleased.
"Yeah. I wanna see the Yankees hit one outta the park," Hunter said with unfeigned delight, for he truly loved baseball.
So they went back to watching the game and by the time five innings had gone by, the score was Yankees 10-Braves 6. It was intermission, and Hunter felt his stomach growl. He was hungry again, and it was time to put phase two of his plan into action.
"Uncle Thor, can I get something to eat? I'm starving," he said plaintively.
"So am I," the Thunder God admitted. "There is food and drinks over there," he waved at the concession stand.
"I gotta use the men's room too," Hunter added. "All that soda." That was also true, but not for that exact reason.
"Here. Take my wallet and buy some snacks," his uncle said, and handed him a shiny silver and blue wallet which Hunter never would have carried for it screamed easy mark. Except no one would be stupid enough to steal from Thor.
Hunter tucked the wallet inside the zippered pocket of his pants, then stood up, leaving his jacket on the seat. "Be right back. You want pizza?"
"Whatever you buy is fine. You know me, I eat anything."
Hunter flashed him a smile. Boy was that ever true! Once Loki had played a prank on his brother and cooked up a fish head and a goat head and chopped them both up and stuck them inside of a turkey. Then he served the turkey with stuffing to Thor and his brother had devoured it.
Hunter headed off to where the restrooms were first, and once inside a stall quickly pulled a different hoodie—a nondescript black one—over his Yankees one. If you were going to pick pockets you needed to be inconspicuous. He also went to count out the money in Thor's wallet for the food and soda he'd be buying, and saw to his astonishment that the wallet held close to a thousand dollars, some in twenties and some in fifties.
The boy gulped. Here was the money he needed . . . ripe for the taking. He shut his eyes, sweat trickling down his brow.
Are you crazy? It's Thor! You can't steal from your uncle! He'll pulverize you!
But even as he thought it, he knew the temptation was too much. If he took two hundred in both small bills and fifties it might not be missed until later. Thor was not Loki, since Loki would never have given one of his kids his entire wallet.
Shame warred with fear in his gut. He could just take what he needed for food and drinks, he thought and test his pick pocket ability within the crowd. In a crowd this size, a nimble fingers could always find easy pickings.
And yet . . . and yet . . . a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.
He exhaled sharply, shut his eyes, and counted out two hundred dollars by feel, the tips of his fingers gliding over the money unerringly. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. And now there's no going back. I'll burn in hell for this. Or freeze.
He opened his eyes and quickly stuck the money inside the unmarked envelope. There! It was done.
Oddly enough, his stomach rumbled with a vengeance, and upon emerging from the restroom, the dark haired boy bought three hot dogs with everything on it, four slices of pizza, a huge carton of fries, two huge Cokes and two apple turnovers.
Then he texted Lang, telling him he would meet him in an hour as promised. By then the game would be almost over and he could manufacture another excuse to disappear before the final inning. It would only take twenty minutes to run back to the warehouse and drop off the money.
He bit into a hotdog with Sabrett onions and sauce as he walked back to where Thor waited, but the food tasted like sawdust in his mouth.
The game went well, with the Yankees hitting two more home runs. Finally it was the bottom of the ninth, with the Braves at bat. Hunter kept checking his phone, then finally rose and told his uncle he was going to run to the restroom before it got too crowded. "The Yanks won this anyway, so I won't be too mad if I miss some," he said.
His uncle, however, was glued to the field and barely acknowledged the boy.
Hunter slipped out of the stands, through the stadium, and off into the night.
Over at Riverside, Miss Linden had just announced the third and second place winners of the fifth-sixth grade poetry contest. Sadie had taken third and won a gift card to Barnes and Noble. A sixth grader named Bennett Drexel had won second place, which was a gift card to Red Robin.
"And for our grand prize winner . . . please congratulate Miss Belle Laufeyson!"
Poor Belle almost passed out, for she was sure she had lost.
Her siblings and her uncles were cheering and clapping and as for her father, he had Aleta on his shoulders and was almost jumping up and down, smiling in pure unadulterated delight. "Way to go, Belle!"
Belle couldn't help but smile back, noticing that several women in the audience near her dad seemed to be having trouble breathing, they were fanning themselves. Then Sadie was urging her to go up to the podium and accept her prize, which was tickets to the Met and dinner at Jekyll and Hyde.
As Belle stepped down from the stage to receive hugs and congratulations from her family, Loki's phone beeped with a text from Thor. The mischievous god ignored it, since he was too busy hugging his little raven. "Did I not say you could do it if you set your mind to it?"
"You did. Next time I'll believe you," Belle laughed, giddy with excitement. "I wish Uncle Thor and Hunter could have been here."
"Well, we can tell them about it," Loki said. "Let's see how the game went." He took his phone out to read the text Thor sent and felt his heart plummet to his boots.
Hunter missing. Looked all over, went to bathroom and never came back after last inning. I need you, Loki.
"Dad? What's wrong? You look like a ghost," Belle exclaimed, for all the color had drained out of his face.
"Hunter is missing. Thor can't find him," Loki said, panic sharpening his voice. "I need to get over there."
"We'll take the kids home, Loki," Steve said reassuringly.
"Here's my keys," the god tossed his remote at the Avenger.
"I'm sure Thor just lost him in the crowd. Happens all the time," Tony said, trying to be optimistic.
Loki shook his head. "I don't . . . no, something is wrong . . ." All of his intuition was screaming that this was not just a simple thing of getting separated in a crowded stadium.
"Daddy!" Aleta tugged on his leg.
"Aleta, Daddy needs to go find Hunter. Be good and go with Uncle Steve," he said, kissing the little minx on the forehead.
As he did so, however, the child's eyes went unfocused and she cried, "Watch out for the Big Bad Wolf, Loki! The Wolf took Hunter!"
A moment later Aleta was staring up at him, whimpering. "My head hurts!"
"I know, sweetie." He handed her to Steve. "Give her some children's Tylenol, there's some in my first aid kit inside the van. Sometimes the Visions do that to her."
Aleta began to cry, and Loki looked torn.
Until Tony said, "Go! We've got this! Go find him, Loki!"
"I'll be back," he called, then he vanished, teleporting directly to Yankee Stadium. Aleta's cryptic warning echoed in his ears.
Thor was waiting for him beside the concession stand, looking frazzled. "Loki, I swear he was only going to the restroom but when the game was over I looked up and he was gone. I even checked the car but he wasn't there. What should we do? I can't fly, not with all these people around."
"Thor, stop," Loki held up a hand. "I don't know where he is, all I know is that Fenris has him."
"Fenris? The Wolf?"
"No, Fenris, the gang he used to run with. Aleta had a Vision and told me before I came here."
"How do we find him?"
"We're going to play Search and Rescue," Loki said swiftly. "And I'm going to track him in wolf shape."
Then he blurred into an enormous green-eyed black wolf with a white star upon his forehead. He wore a green and gold blanket over his back with a harness which read NYC Finest! Valhalla Search and Rescue Dogs!
Thor frowned. "Loki, are you sure?"
Wolf-Loki gave a sharp yelp and then shoved his nose into the jacket Thor carried, filling his nostrils with Hunter's scent. Then he spun, paws dancing over the pavement.
Thor grabbed the lead dangling from the harness, then commanded, "Search, Loki!"
Wolf-Loki took off, sprinting for all he was worth across the parking lot, the scent of his human pup hot in his nostrils, tracking through the air.
Thor was nearly dragged trying to keep up.
"Whoa! Cool dog!" shouted some teenagers as Loki went by.
"That ain't a dog—that's a wolf!"
"No, it's a Search and Rescue dog! Must be part Malamute."
"And a wolf!"
"Looks like he's tracking somebody."
"I hope you find him, mister!"
"Me too," Thor muttered. "Loki, by the Nine, slow down a little! Before you pull my shoulder out!"
Wolf-Loki flicked an ear back. Humans were so slow! His paws barely grazed the pavement as he ran, using that economical wolf lope that could cover ground in a matter of seconds.
Soon they had crossed the parking lot and Wolf-Loki raced down a back alley.
It was then that Thor got tired of being dragged and unsnapped the lead. "Go, Loki! I'll follow you with Mjolnir!"
Wolf-Loki surged ahead, following the scent, leaping over fences, dumpsters, cars and anything else in his path.
Above him, Thor flew with Mjolnir, but even using the winds he was hard pressed to keep up with Wolf-Loki's supernatural speed and determination.
The black wolf's danger instinct was howling at him, and soon his pup's scent was joined by other human pups—but these smelled dangerous and there was one who was not a pup, but a man, and he smelled of strange herbs, danger, and blood.
The great wolf's claws clicked as he emerged from leaping over an orange fence into a place with a large empty yard where a big box-like structure brooded. There in the yard was his missing pup, surrounded by the others he had smelled. Wolf-Loki snarled, all his fangs showing.
Danger, Hunter, danger!
Hunter said something to the man with the odd herb smell, shaking his head.
One of the other pups pushed Hunter and cried, "You traitor! You broke our deal!"
"Lang, I don't do smack!" Hunter cried.
"And I don't make deals with little boys who don't pay up!" Pete cried, and then he hit Hunter so hard the boy fell onto the concrete, his head hitting the ground with a sickening crack.
"Pete! I think you killed him!" cried one boy.
That was all they had time to say before a gigantic green-eyed monster came out of the shadows and attacked the dealer with a howl of rage.
Pete screamed as the weight of the monster slammed into him, and he found himself on the ground with a creature the size of a pony on top of him, a monster whose fangs were as long as his fingers. Hot breath smote him and he went to push it away, but then its head turned and those dagger-like fangs tore through his arm like wet paper.
His scream of terror and pain echoed through the night.
The taste of blood drove Wolf-Loki mad. Snarling viciously, he attacked again, biting the man savagely in the shoulder and face.
"Help meee! Jesus, help!"
The Pack was frozen, unable to move, and Crusher whispered, "Holy crap it's Fenris Himself!"
"Come to take vengeance!" Lang whimpered, then fell to his knees crying.
Blood coated the black wolf's tongue, its salty sweet taste arousing the need to rip and tear and kill. This insignificant mortal had dared hurt his pup! He would pay—pay in blood. He howled in fury, then went to open the coward's throat and end his suffering when hands grabbed him from behind and dragged him off the man.
"Loki, no!" Thor yelled, grappling with the berserk wolf. "You mustn't kill him!"
Wolf-Loki snarled and snapped, his teeth meeting in the man's arm, as he fought to return and tear apart the prey upon the ground.
"Loki, dammit!" Thor swore, and cuffed the wolf's snout, pulling his arm free. He grabbed the ruff on either side of the wolf's face and shook him hard. "Loki, come back! Hunter needs you! Understand!"
Suddenly, the bloodlust left the green eyes, and abruptly the wolf quit trying to bite the Thunder God. Instead his pink tongue darted out and he licked Thor's cheek.
Whining, the wolf pulled free, shook himself, grimaced, and spat upon the ground.
Then the wolf blurred into Loki, who looked like he was about to be ill, and he pressed a handkerchief to his mouth.
"Disgusting!" he spat. "I hope to hell I don't catch anything from that scumbag." He looked at Thor. "Well, don't just stand there, brother, put cuffs on that piece of dung and the rest of these little rats! And call Bruce and tell him we need him to get the sick bay ready."
He knelt beside the comatose form of his son, gently feeling for broken bones and checking his pulse and breathing. "You're gonna be okay, son. I'm here," he whispered, his eyes misting with tears. Then he gently lifted the boy in his arms and teleported back to the Avengers mansion, where Bruce and Pepper waited with a gurney.
Several hours later:
Loki sat slumped in a chair beside Hunter's diagnostic bed. The boy hadn't regained consciousness since being brought back to the mansion, Bruce told him that was due to a concussion when he hit his head on the pavement. In addition to that Hunter had three fractured ribs, various contusions, but otherwise was stable. Bruce had done an X-ray and said the concussion wasn't severe, taped the ribs and said all they could do now was wait until the boy woke.
Steve and Tony had texted Loki, letting him know the children were home safe and had been put to bed. Loki had told them Hunter had been found, he'd been attacked by a gang and was being treated over at the mansion.
That had been over an hour previous. And still the boy showed no signs of waking.
Thor had brought the dealer and the boys to the police, given a brief explanation of finding his nephew being attacked and then stating a feral dog had appeared and attacked Pete.
"It weren't no dog!" sobbed the dealer. "It were Fenris Himself! A wolf black as sin!"
The police put it down to a bad acid trip and Thor left them to deal with the boys and the dealer, who they found was carrying five grand in heroine and cocaine on him plus some cash.
Thor returned to the mansion to find his brother keeping silent vigil beside Hunter. "Has he woke yet?"
"No," Loki replied, lifting haggard emerald eyes to his brother's face. "What happened to you?"
Thor's costume was shredded and his arm bore a bandage from wrist to elbow.
"You did," Thor replied.
"You don't remember? I grabbed you to keep you from killing that swine and braking your oath and you . . . you went berserk and bit me."
Loki rubbed his eyes, which were hot and dry. "Oh hellfire! I'm sorry, Thor. I can't believe . . . that's never happened to me before . . ." He stared at the bandage like it was a venomous serpent. " . . .not in all the millennia I've shifted . . . I've always kept my mind . . . Forgive me."
He looked away in shame.
Thor came and clasped his shoulder. "There's nothing to forgive. Your son was in danger. That's never happened before when you've shifted. I'd go berserk too if it had been me."
Loki pressed a hand to his forehead. "By the Nine, Thor, it never should have happened! I'm a master magician, by Yggdrasil!" Regret tinged his next words. "How bad is it?"
"I've had worse sparring with the Einhijari," Thor chuckled.
"Liar," Loki muttered.
"Bruce sewed me up. Only twenty stitches. I'll heal."
"Stop," Thor ordered. "Let it go, Loki." He glanced at the small figure under the mound of blankets. "How is he?"
Loki told him what Bruce had said. "But he hasn't woken up since this happened. Bruce says that's normal, that sleep is the way the body heals but . . . what if he's wrong? What if there's something else wrong? Like brain damage?" Fear blazed in the emerald eyes.
"Trust Bruce, Loki."
"Trust Bruce! That's all you have to say? My son could be a vegetable or something!" he snapped. Abruptly he rose and paced the room, muttering curse words in Norse, his eyes bloodshot. "Nine Hells, I need coffee."
"You need to lie down more," his brother said. "You look like you're going to collapse."
"I'm not leaving him," the other said stubbornly.
"Just lie down on the bed next to him," Thor said. "I'll stay and wake you if he comes to."
"You have my word. Go to sleep, brother."
Loki reluctantly went and lay down upon the other bed and in moments was fast asleep.
Thor covered him with a green blanket.
An hour later:
Hunter's eyelids fluttered, then slowly opened.
"Well, look who's back with us," Bruce said, having been alerted to the boy's awakening by one of the monitors. "Hello, sleepyhead."
"Uncle Bruce?" Hunter queried, wondering if this were a dream. "Where am I?"
"You're at the mansion, of course," Bruce answered. "How are you feeling?"
"Like something stomped me."
"I'd say that's exactly what happened. Do you know your name?"
"My name? It's Hunter. Hunter Laufeyson."
"Good. How old are you? Where do you live?"
"Uncle Bruce, how can you not remember that?"
Bruce laughed. "I remember it fine. I'm seeing if you do."
When he had correctly answered both questions, Hunter asked, "Why?"
"You have a mild concussion, son. So I'm checking to make sure your memory isn't affected. You seem fine."
Now Hunter looked around more and saw a chair beside the bed. It was empty.
Bruce caught his gaze. "Your uncle was in that till just recently, when I made him go to bed."
"Right over there," Bruce indicated a large lump curled up under a blanket on the bed next to Hunter's. "Thor practically had to wrestle him into there. He was up all night with you."
"He was? Then he's not . . . he doesn't hate me?" Hunter asked in a very small voice.
Bruce shook his head. "Kiddo, your dad nearly went out of his mind when you disappeared. Dragged Thor through half of downtown looking for you. Hate you? Trust me when I say that man loves you to pieces."
For some reason that only made Hunter feel worse. He gulped and muttered into the pillow, "He won't after this."
Bruce chuckled. "You're kidding, right? Hunter, Loki is the last person in this family to judge anyone about mistakes. Now quite worrying and let me go wake him up. He left strict instructions for me to do so and this is one time he can command and I'll obey." He went to shake the Master of Mischief awake.
Loki wakened almost as soon as Bruce called him. "Hunter?"
"Is awake and talking," Bruce said with a smile. "Remembers who he is and everything. But you can see for yourself."
Then Dr. Banner stepped out of the room, leaving the two Laufeysons alone.
Loki came over to his son's bedside. "Hey, buddy. How are you feeling?" he asked softly.
"My head aches. And my chest feels weird."
"That's cause of the tape, son. Your uncle Bruce had to tape your ribs because you cracked a few," his father told him. "And your head hurts because you have a concussion from that miserable scum hitting you and knocking you on the concrete," Loki said and his eyes flashed sparks.
"Where—where are they?"
"In jail. Don't worry about them. They can't hurt you anymore," Loki soothed. He gently put a cool hand on his son's forehead. "Good. No fever, at least."
"Can I have some water?"
"Sure. Wait a minute." Soon a paper cup of water floated over. Loki carefully helped him lift his head and put the cup to his mouth. "Small sips. Don't gulp it, you might upset your stomach and you don't want to throw up with a concussion. Trust me. Been there and done that."
"You've had one?"
"Yes. Got knocked around by more than my share of villains and heroes," Loki replied matter-of-factly. "Lucky I have a hard head."
"But I thought . . . all you Asgardians were invulnerable."
"Don't I wish! I'm not Balder, wolfling," Loki chuckled. "It takes a lot more to damage us than most mortals but we can get hurt. Or killed. We're immortal only in the sense that we'll never age after we reach adulthood or get sick like you." None of the children except Belle knew about his rebirth. It wasn't something he ever wished to discuss with them, and had barely discussed it with Thor. Belle knew because you couldn't hide something of that great magical magnitude from a Lorekeeper, and she also was the only one who understood the price he had paid to be reborn. For such magic always came with a price, and only another magician would understand fully all the price required. Even Thor didn't know everything, only that certain actions could damage his redemption, such as killing unless defending his life or those of ones he loved.
He placed the remainder of the water on a small rolling table, saying, "You can have more in a bit. Quit giving me that look."
"But I'm thirsty," his son complained.
"Give your body a chance to wake up, son. You were unconscious for almost a whole night. And your stomach can get sick really easy with a concussion."
"Even on water?"
"Yes. And with your ribs cracked, the last thing you want is to throw up. It is not fun. So, listen to me, okay?" At his nod, Loki then asked, "Do you hurt anywhere else? I can give you something for pain if you do.'
"M'fine," Hunter said quickly. He did ache but the worst pain was not something one of Loki's potions could fix.
"All right. But you tell me if you are. Don't play hero, you aren't an Avenger and you don't need to act like one," Loki said. Then he asked the question he had been pondering all night as he watched his son sleep. "What happened last night at the stadium. Hunter? Did Fenris kidnap you for some reason?"
The boy looked at his hands, thinking rapidly, here was the out he had been looking for. All he would have to do was to agree with what Loki had just assumed. He had been kidnapped and forced to steal money for Fenris to give to Pete. But he found he couldn't speak the words. One of the rules he had agreed to when Loki had adopted him was to never lie to his father. As formerly the most facile liar in the Nine Worlds, Loki could always tell when people lied to him, and all of his children knew better than to try it.
"No. I went to them," the boy muttered.
"You went to them," Loki repeated. "Why? Did they make you?"
"You aren't gonna like this," Hunter warned.
"Please, just tell me. From the beginning."
He listened as his son poured out the whole sorry tale-a tale of fear and blackmail and a secret the boy had hidden from everyone.
When he finished, Hunter lay back on the pillows, tears streaking his face and asked brokenly, "You gonna kick me out now? You should. I don't deserve to be part of this family."
"Don't you ever say that again!" Loki snapped. Then he covered his face with a hand and muttered, "Is that why you didn't trust me? Because you thought I would tell you to leave?" His tone was sharp with astonishment and hurt. "Norns, Hunter, am I so terrifying that you thought it was better to let those delinquents blackmail you than to come to me for help? By the Nine, tell me I haven't become my father. Because I swore I would never ever become like that autocratic judgmental old bastard." He lowered his hand and his emerald eyes glistened with unshed tears. How had he not seen the signs, he berated himself. He should have, but he'd missed them. "What kind of father am I?" he hissed half to himself.
"You're the best one!" Hunter cried, horrified. "I'm the one who screwed up! Not you. I never wanted you to know cause I was afraid you'd hate me!"
'Hate you? Me, the Trickster Thief of the realms? I would be the worst hypocrite ever and I may be many things but that I'm not," the Asgardian snorted. "If that's all you were worried about-"
"It's not. I didn't just steal . . . I'm . . . a murderer too!" the boy hissed, his eyes dark as midnight in his pale face. "Now tell me you still want me."
Loki moved then, to perch on the edge of the bed and gently take his son's head in his lap. Long fingers threaded through the tangled strands as he whispered, "Silly wolfling, I will always want you. Nothing you have done can ever be half as bad as what I used to be. Now explain what in Hel you mean. Who did you kill?"
"His name was Rasper. He was a little younger than me, he ran off cause his old man was beating on him and joined Fenris about a year after I did. I was Beta then, and it was my job to show him how things were done. So I took him with me on a couple of easy snatch and grabs, and he was getting pretty good at it, but he went and lifted some dough off a Skull Crusher. We were at war with them back then . . . and Rasper didn't run like he ought to. Instead he tried to fight, the dumb jerk, and the Crusher had a knife. . . ." he coughed, winced, and Loki gave him more water.
"Where were you? I take it you weren't there?"
"No. I was casing out a mark. By the time I heard what went down, cause somebody saw and was screaming, the Crusher had already stabbed Rasper. I tried . . . I tried to stop the bleeding, but it was no good . .. and more Crushers were coming . . . so I ran to see if I could find a doc or call for one . . .but by the time I found somebody and brought him there it was too late. Rasper was dead."
"So how are you a murderer? You didn't stab the kid."
"Cause I left him and he died. Lang-that's the Leader, he said it was my fault, that I could have stayed and cause I didn't, Rasper's death was on my hands. He died cause I ran away," Hunter sniffled.
"No, son. He died because he got in a knife fight with someone who knew how to kill," Loki disagreed. "That little worm Lang was guilt-tripping you. Rasper's death wasn't your fault. You tried to save him."
"But he died 'cause I wasn't fast enough," Hunter sobbed.
"Ai, no. He might have died even if you'd had a doctor right there when it happened. Where was he stabbed?"
"Uh, between the ribs . . . I think. There was so much blood . . ."
"Sounds like the knife hit an artery. In which case he would have bled out no matter if you stayed or not."
"How do you know?"
"Because I've seen my share of fatal knife wounds. And I know my son. You're not a murderer, Hunter. Don't ever let anyone-especially not that lying piece of swamp trash who calls himself a Leader-tell you otherwise." He continued to card the boy's messy hair.
"You really mean that?"
"I do." Loki reassured him. "No court in the land would ever convict you, Hunter. The only reason Lang did was because you felt guilty. What happened afterwards?"
"A few days after that I turned myself in. That was how I ended up in Second Chance," he said, which was the name of the orphanage Loki had adopted him from.
"Is that the only secret you've been keeping from me? Or did you push old ladies down stairs too?'
"Yeah. The rest you know." The boy met his eyes fearlessly.
The trickster god grabbed a tissue from the rolling cart and gently wiped the tears from his son's face. "I love you, wolfling."
"Then you're not mad?"
"Oh, I am. At how this could all have been avoided if you'd trusted me," Loki scolded.
Hunter squirmed under the chastising gaze. "What are you gonna do to me? Beat me?"
"That knock on the head must have scrambled your brains," Loki chided. "You forgot what I told you when I adopted you-that I don't punish my children that way."
"Not even for this?"
"Ever. That hasn't changed. But you will be punished. I just need to come up with something suitable. One thing you will do, however, is give your Uncle Thor an apology for stealing from him."
"Dad, he'll kill me!" Hunter protested.
"He won't. But he might make you run laps around the mansion till you collapse. That's up to him, since you wronged him. The rest . . . I'll tell you later." he said with an evil smirk.
"Dad! Please can't you just tell me?" the boy begged.
"No. That's part of your punishment."
Loki raised an eyebrow. "Too bad. Next time don't get in trouble."
"Now don't pout. You're acting like Max," Loki waved a finger at him.
"I know. And I'm about to get meaner," he said with a snort. He snapped his fingers and a familiar blue phial appeared.
"No!" the boy yelped. "You know I hate that pain potion. It tastes gross."
"I also know it will help you better than anything a Midgard doctor would prescribe."
"I'm not hurting all that bad," Hunter argued.
"Yet. But you will be. "
"You always think you know best."
"Because this time I do. Now-we can do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way-you listen to me and take your medicine like the twelve-year-old you are."
"And what's the other way?"
"I treat you like a baby and hold your nose shut and pour it down your throat. Either way, it's up to you."
Realizing he wasn't going to win this battle, Hunter gave in. After all, he wasn't a baby. "Okay."
"Smart boy," Loki said approvingly. He propped the boy's head up and then handed him the phial.
Hunter screwed up his face, then drank the potion down in two gulps. "Ugh!"
"Here," Loki handed him a spoonful of honey.
Hunter sucked it off the spoon gratefully.
"There. Now was that so bad?"
"Yes," he grumbled. "Can you tell me now?"
"No. You'll know when I'm ready for you to know," his father answered maddeningly. "Now why don't you get some sleep?"
"How can I sleep when you won't tell me how much trouble I'm in?"
"Just close your eyes."
'I'm not tired. I'm not-" Hunter muttered, then his eyes shut and he fell asleep.
Which was exactly what Loki intended when he'd given him the pain potion. Smiling, he tucked the covers around his son and then went to text Steve and Tony to update them on Hunter's condition and make sure the rest of his little zoo wasn't holding their uncles hostage.