When the feast began, Loki left the hall. Sometimes he let people see him leave, and sometimes he didn't, but he never stayed.
He retreated to Frigga's chambers, warding the door against intruders, and wandered among her things. He'd ordered none of it be touched, and though he'd caught the worried looks exchanged behind his back, he didn't care. This was for him, not for the illusion.
He let the mask fade, unwilling to be there with her memory while pretending to be someone else.
The pain rose within, searing him, as he relived their last words to each other. His denial still burned his heart. She had died doubting his love, hurt by his words, and he would never forgive himself for that.
He picked up the comb he'd made for her years ago, carving it himself from horn. It was a clumsy piece made by childish hands, but she had kept it in the corner of her mirror, where she could see it whenever she sat down to arrange her hair. The first time he'd seen it here, on display, it had driven him to his knees with the pain, and it still hurt to see this evidence that she truly had never given up on him. Everyone else had let him go, but she had held onto hope, even when he'd been cruel and cold to her.
In the mirror he glimpsed his face - pale and drawn with eyes that glimmered with tears. It was the face of a lost little boy, not the king he'd become.
He had to look away.
The little ward of warning he'd put on the outer door broke. Loki hastily restored the illusion and drew breath to order the intruder to get out, when he heard Thor's voice, "Father?"
That stopped Loki's words. He was always so careful speaking to Thor now. He had to swallow back the reflexive taunts to speak to him as Odin would, and yet sometimes Odin would speak more harshly. But Loki couldn't.
Thor emerged from the archway and paused, face tightening with his own pain as his gaze traveled the room, before settling on who he thought was Odin, and he frowned in concern.
"The feast no longer to your liking?" Loki asked, but Thor was not distracted by such a simple feint these days.
"They say you come here often, Father."
Loki turned to let his gaze roam the hair ornaments and other jewelry she'd left behind. "I suppose I do. Feasting holds little interest for me now." It never had been something Loki had enjoyed, but now he couldn't stomach it at all, not even for the sake of his new role. "You will have to uphold our honor in the feasting hall, yourself."
"I will," Thor promised. For a moment, Loki thought Thor might leave. But then he added, "I miss her, too."
Loki murmured, "It should have been me." That was the real truth; it should have been him. He was the spare, the villain, the fallen - he should have been there to fight Malekith, to defend her. But instead he had been trapped in that cell, arrogantly assuming he was safe and that he cared nothing for what happened without.
No matter what he did now, it would never be enough.
"No," Thor objected. "Father, no, you must not believe it was your fault."
Loki said nothing. It was Odin's fault, and it was Thor's fault, Jane's fault, Malekith's fault - so much fault to go around. But none of it lessened the truth that it should have been Loki, who had survived his own encounter with Malekith's dog only through luck. It had been the second time he had survived what he should not have, and it infuriated him that she had not escaped instead.
"Father!" Thor rushed forward a few steps. "Your hand!"
Loki glanced down. He'd kept the comb in his hand and had clenched it so tightly the prongs had pierced his flesh and he was bleeding.
"It's nothing," he said, turning his shoulder to keep Thor back. "An old man's grief."
But Thor had glimpsed it. "That is the comb Loki made for her?"
"It is crudely made," Loki said. "But she loved it so."
He opened his hand. The previously flawless, cream-colored horn was now marred with an ugly maroon splotch as the blood droplets sank into the porous finish. So I ruin all precious things I touch.
"He spent weeks on it," Thor murmured in soft reminiscence. "And wouldn't let me see."
"He feared you would mock it," Loki murmured.
Thor's smile faded. "I probably would have. I should have been a better brother."
"And I a better father. But he should have been far better than he was, as well." Loki set the comb back in its spot, letting his fingers trail across it.
"You mourn him, even so," Thor observed.
"He made mistakes, but he was still my son."
It had been a shock to discover that feeling was actually true. Loki had gone in disguise to deliver the news to Odin that his least favorite son was dead again. Seeing the reaction for himself, even if it risked recapture, had been a strange compulsion. He'd expected Odin to react with a shrug, and maybe a cold comment that it was for the best. Once he proved his lack of feeling, Loki could laugh at the little boy inside who persisted in hoping for something different and finally burn Odin's claim on him to ash.
He had not expected Odin to turn pale, repeat that Loki was dead, and collapse. For one horrifying instant, he'd thought the news had actually killed the king. It had proven to be Odinsleep, not death, but he'd panicked when he heard footsteps, slapped an invisibility on Odin's fallen form and taken Odin's appearance himself.
Then Loki had taken his place on the throne.
It had been startlingly easy. Teleporting the body to Loki's vacated cell had been simple enough, and stepping into Odin's words and ways had not been too difficult either, after a thousand years of observation. No one expected the king to be unchanged in the aftermath, and that had covered some of his early lapses. Keeping the spell strong enough to trick everyone was wearing, but it had been worth it to find out that Odin cared at all.
Even if he knew Odin would never allow Loki anywhere near the throne, Loki thought it better to keep its king. Thor was not ready and had said he didn't want it, and so it fell to Loki to keep the Realm strong in this time of mourning and rebuilding. He had caused Odin's fall, unintentionally, but it was still his responsibility to manage the aftermath as best he could. Loki was determined to do what he had tried to do last time, and do it well.
If it was occasionally frustrating that he had to do it in another's face, that was part of his penance. This was not for his own glory, but to make Asgard strong in his mother's memory.
"I still look for him," Thor said unexpectedly. "Hear echoes of his voice. I even miss his insults and the fights." Loki opened his mouth, intending a dig about that, but had to hold it back in his guise. Thor went on, more sadly, "I look back and now I see how desperately unhappy he was for so long."
Loki flinched and couldn't look at him. Hearing about his various flaws after his 'death' was something he could bear, but this? Thor's pity was unendurable.
"Some are never content with what they have and seek more," Loki said sharply, hoping Thor would drop it.
Brow knitted in that way that suggested thinking was a bit difficult for him, Thor gestured with both hands, intending to argue, but then let out a sigh instead. "I hope he's found peace."
"He has, Thor." In a strange way, it was true that he'd found his peace. Pretending to be Odin had forced him to be less himself, training himself to calmer mien. He hated having to keep most of his sarcastic retorts to himself, but overall, he liked the challenge. People listened and obeyed, and everything was progressing well. He'd taken to walking among the people, cloaked in invisibility, to assure himself that they weren't just telling him what they thought he wanted to hear. It was sometimes difficult to hear the unfiltered truth, but it was also satisfying to hear as many approved his changes as they disquieted.
Thor touched Frigga's mantle, still resting on the back of the sofa. "At least they're together."
Loki could only nod, while he wished that were true. But he doubted he would gain admittance to Valhalla, and so he would never see her again, not even in the afterlife. That fear choked his breath and froze his heart with pain, that not even in death would he be able to put his head in her lap and beg her forgiveness. He'd never again feel her smoothing his hair, or hear her sing to him...
Why did you take her? It should have been me…
The desire to tear apart everything in the room, to utterly destroy it, rose in his chest. He took hold of the edge of the table, nearly crushing it, so he wouldn't gesture and call the energy, and he shut his eyes, trying to remember how to breathe until the impulse settled again.
He had to clear his throat. "So. Was there something else?"
The clumsy attempt at changing the subject drew Thor's attention, but he went along, blinking his own eyes free of sorrow. "This council. I… do not understand what you hope to gain."
Loki had to smile at that admission. "What did we learn from the broken Bifrost?" he asked.
"That… the Realms fall into chaos without it," Thor answered.
"Yes. But why?"
Thor frowned and shook his head. "Because they knew they could, without us enforcing order."
Loki wanted to sigh at how perfectly Thor parroted Odin. He knew that was what Thor was doing, because he'd done it himself. But they were both wrong. "Because they depend on us to keep the peace. Because they cannot do it themselves." He headed for the window, away from the memories of Frigga, and to look out over the city lights and the starry sky beyond. "I have, over time, tightened our grip too much. That is not to our advantage, to have so many dependent on so few."
He could see Thor's reflection in the window, as Thor stared at him in shock. At first Loki feared he'd seen through the illusion, especially as Thor said, "I never… those are not words I'd expect from you. You want to give them their freedom? To rule themselves?"
Loki thought how scornfully he'd talked about the Midgardians' freedom and ruling themselves, and had to grin at his own reflection, unseen by Thor. The irony was rather delicious, but never let it be said that he could not learn from Odin's mistakes. "Indeed, I do."
"I am not arguing, but… why the change of heart?"
"Because I was complacent and weak," Loki snarled and turned back to face Thor, letting some of his rage escape. "I let an enemy into my hall, and he murdered my -- my queen. And I will not let it happen again. I will be a strong king of Asgard, not a weak king of all."
Every word of that was true. Loki was strengthening Asgard again with new defenses. Malekith was not the only enemy out there, and eventually the tesseract would bring another attack. That much was certain. And it was foolish to depend on Heimdall alone.
"I - I agree, of course I do," Thor still seemed stunned by Odin's change of heart.
This was something Odin would never have done, but Loki was convinced it was necessary, so he would do it. Not because he cared about those childish mortal ideas of liberty, which were mostly philosophical justification for the powerful to keep their own rule through illusions of choice, but at least the mortals had developed enough to have a chance to defend themselves with Asgard so lightly upon them. But Asgard had crushed Vanaheim and Jotunheim into shadows of their former strength. He feared that both would be scooped up into the army of a greater power, if they could not resist.
It was dangerous to strengthen them. They might turn on Asgard, which was what Odin had always feared, as his father had feared the Svartalfar before him. But the Mad Eternal was still out there, and Loki was not such a fool to believe Thanos would not be coming for his prize, even if he believed his traitor was dead.
"Is there some threat you hold secret?" Thor asked, and Loki nearly flinched with guilt. "You act as if something comes."
"We hold the tesseract, Thor. You were not yet born the last time it was active, but it is a prize for the entire universe. Something will come."
He'd sent the aether away specifically to give himself and Asgard time. Let Thanos chase that one first, while Asgard strengthened its defenses. Loki had put his own traps around the tesseract, powered by the Casket of Ancient Winters. Its use would give away his presence if anyone saw and understood what he'd done, but it was a small price to pay for the protection.
I have been beneath your boot before, Thanos. Not again. Not in my home, not with my own artifact of power.
But it was not only defenses that he sought to strengthen and change. The unrest and weakness in the other Realms also fostered the culture of glorification of war on Asgard. There was always plenty of chaos for Asgardian warriors to go try their skills on. Loki aimed to put an end to that if he could - it was perhaps a futile hope, and would likely take more time than he would end up having, but he wanted Asgard to grow beyond this archaic love for empty honor in battle. If there were fewer battles to join, the warriors would be forced to find other tasks. Perhaps they might even pick up a book once in a while.
"Hogun will appreciate it," Thor said.
"I didn't do it for him," Loki said, and Thor's head snapped around to look at him. Loki wanted to bite off his own tongue. He had to be more careful than to repeat phrases that Thor undoubtedly had enshrined in his memory. As cover Loki frowned at him. "What?"
"I… heard that before. No matter," Thor said, and shook his head, letting it go. "Have you spoken with him of your plan?"
"He knows who to fetch."
Then, finally, they got to Thor's actual problem, as he grimaced. "I am uncertain if I will be able to get any of the Frost Giants to come with me. I am no negotiator."
Ancestors knew that was true. "A king has many duties, Thor; battle is only one of them. You must learn ways to bring peace, as well as war." Thor nodded his head in abashed agreement. Loki wandered back to the table thaat held her hair ornaments and other jewelry, and he touched the few fragile golden threads still trapped within the hair brush, hoping she would be proud of him. "I wish you could leave them be, but they are one of my chief concerns at this time. Leaderless yet violent, if they are not made more friendly to us, they will surely ally with our enemies."
"They hate us."
Loki looked at his hand, thinking of the blue skin that lay beneath. "They have cause," he murmured. "I did not understand before, but now, seeing my own home laid to waste, I do." He doubted Odin actually did, but Loki was speaking for himself. He had manipulated the Jotunn hatred for Asgard for his own ends, without caring about it. But now, the ruined buildings and the storms were reminders not of triumph over the monsters, but Odin's own brutality.
He glanced at Gungnir, left against the entry. Yet you condemned me so harshly. Were my actions so much worse than what you did to Jotunheim and Vanaheim, and your father before you to Svartalfheim? No, you may have claimed otherwise, but your anger was at my daring to oppose you. I might have made the Midgardians a force to be reckoned with, in the Realms, had I united them.
Except… that would never have come to pass. Because Thanos had been lurking in the shadows. He had tried to hide from Loki behind his bannerman, but Loki knew the lore well enough to identify his mysterious benefactor and supposed ally. Thanos would never have let Midgard grow strong enough to challenge anyone.
"Did you truly intend Loki to rule Jotunheim?" Thor asked curiously.
Loki had no answer to that question. "Does it matter now? Loki would not rule them, even if he were here. Though," he heaved a breath, "I would wish for him to go in your place. At least he could get them to listen. Perhaps I should go myself…"
As expected, Thor objected, "No, I will go, Father. All I need do is bring one or two back with me; that much I can do. Though I think your eloquence shall have to be magical to make peace." Then he found a wry, sad smile. "Strange that we should be speaking of peace with Jotunheim without Loki."
It was strange to be contemplating it with him, but at least the irony was amusing. Had he destroyed them, this would be no problem, and yet now he was trying to help them. It remained to be seen whether his intentions would survive his loathing at the sight of them. At least no one would expect Odin to be friendly with them, since he doubted he could manage that.
"You should prepare. I will see you in the morn," Loki said, and turned away from Thor in dismissal.
"Yes, Father," Thor answered obediently, but hesitated before adding in a murmur, "I fear you are preparing me for something. But I cannot do this without you. Without Mother or Loki, you are all I have. Please… do not leave me alone."
"You can do this and you will, if you must. You will not be alone, Thor. You have your friends. You have the whole Realm, who all love you." Loki gestured to the window and the city spread before them, like a reflection of the stars above.
Thor shook his head once, blue eyes pained. "It is not the same. Not without family."
For an instant, struck by Thor's sorrow, Loki considered dropping the illusion to tell him the truth, before he shoved the impulse away as the reckless sentiment it was. Thor was never going to understand this deception, and Loki had come too far to stop now.
"Were Loki here instead of me, he would yet be in his cell, and exceedingly unhelpful to you." He couldn't help a flicker of a smile at the thought. Because yes, that would have been fun to taunt King Thor and all his shortcomings from his cell. It was almost enough to make him wish he had decided that course instead.
Thor chuckled. "He would mock, yes, but he would have given good advice as well."
"You are ever the bright-hearted, hopeful one." Loki meant to say more, but caught sight of a bit of silk trailing beneath the sofa he had never noticed before. His fingers itched to touch it. "Go, now, Thor. I would visit alone a little longer this night."
Thor inhaled a breath as if he wanted to object, but in the end, said only, "Good night, Father."
After Thor was gone, Loki moved the pillow aside to dig his fingers between the cushions to retrieve the square of aqua silk. It had probably been lost some time ago, but when he carefully tugged it from its hiding place and held it to his face and closed his eyes, it still carried her scent.
The lingering perfume carried with it memories of the final time she had embraced him. That had been the last moment he had let himself hope everything would be all right, before all had shattered and slid into an abyss.
When he lowered the kerchief, he looked around the chamber, and the emptiness pressed upon him. Where once her voice and the voices of her ladies, her husband and her sons had echoed, now there was nothing but silence deep enough to hear the fall of the dust and the distant murmur of the sea.
He had the throne, he had power, he had people who listened to his every word… He had everything he'd ever thought he wanted, only to watch the gold turn to cheap tin once he held it. He could throw it from his hand, but never far enough to escape the pain. He could destroy everything that remained, even himself, but he would find no relief on the other side. The only thing he could do was try to build with it, though it was brittle and soon would shatter to dust.
He still lived, yet he felt unreal. Perhaps the true Loki was dead and all that remained was this illusion, trapped in someone else's life. He had burned his past and gained this empty room, and he had burned his future and gained an empty throne.
He was finally king, but he was alone.