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Old tales I remember of men long ago

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Heimdall saw Loki's birth. The boy's skin was unnaturally warm and he would not cry for the Frost Giant midwife. Heimdall watched Loki's father stand guard outside the doors of his wife's chamber; he heard Loki's mother call out for her son; he felt, though it tested his powers of perception to their limit, the first shuddering breath that Loki drew when he was placed in his mother's arms.

#

A Frost Giant has four names.

The first is whispered into his ear by his mother, quiet and tender, a name to keep his heart beating through the challenges of life.

The second is given by his father. With four cuts of one knife, the father will bleed for the son, the son will bleed for the father, and both will bleed for Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.

The third name is earned in battle. When the time is right, when the battle is high, a cry will come to the lips of a Frost Giant, and he will know it for his name.

And the fourth name he will never know, for it is given after death. He must be survived by ones who loved him, by those who felt his tenderness, by those who saw him bleed, by those who were led by his cry. They will give him his fourth and final name, the name that will take him into the stars.

When Heimdall opens the bridge to allow Odin back into Asgard, he knows he is opening the bridge for another, too. This tiny, squalling baby with its too-warm skin and too-cold heart, whose birth Heimdall watched and whose parents Heimdall saw fight with honour, this baby carries with it two names that only Heimdall knows.

#

Loki Odinson has seen five winters on Asgard now. He looks between his father and his brother and no one can tell who he adores more, if he even knows himself. Heimdall watches him strive to be as wise as Odin, as brave as Thor, and bears witness to a family he had not believed could be built. Odin has always been clear sighted.

Heimdall does not like children. They are loud and messy and hard to ignore, and when he disciplines them his powers of vision show him the tears they do not shed. They are a distraction at best, a weakness at worst.

When Thor has seen eight summers, he comes to Heimdall and demands to be shown the bridge. Heimdall does not think for a moment that the idea originated with him. If Loki's natural curiosity is a ravening beast, always sniffing out new horizons, then Thor's is a runt that has not yet opened its eyes.

"Loki," Heimdall says when Thor has been sent back to Odin with a ringing in his ears. "I see you."

He cannot see Loki. This would worry him more if he could not hear Loki's heartbeat, loud and strong, nor feel the weight of Loki's indrawn breath. If Loki believes he can still be seen, he will not think to mask his sounds just yet. Heimdall knows he cannot rely on this for long.

"Really?" Loki asks.

His petulance would almost make Heimdall smile. There is something in this child of Odin that Heimdall has not yet understood, but he knows it is there.

"You would seek to see the Bifröst?" A question for a question.

There is no need for a lie, but Loki tries one out anyway, a test. "That was my brother. I was just following him."

"If you had told the truth," Heimdall says, "I would have shown you the bridge between the worlds."

An indrawn breath, sharp with disappointment. But Loki has weathered seven winters now, and while he is still very much a child, he has learned to see further than most. The boy, visible now, cocks his head to one side and studies Heimdall closely. "Is that true, Heimdall?"

It's not; Heimdall's duties are too serious to indulge either of the King's sons. But Heimdall wishes for a moment-- Heimdall wishes nothing. He shakes his head. "No, Loki, son of Odin, it is not true. Your insight serves you well."

Loki walks the long journey back to Odin's palace with his head held high.

#

Odin's sons are becoming men before the eyes of the court. Warriors who once slipped them honeyed pastries from the banquet table now show them no mercy on the practice grounds. Women who once cooed at their games now sigh a very different sigh when they catch Thor and Loki tussling for sport.

Thor is brave and loyal. He leads by example, by fighting hardest and practising longest, until he has won his warriors' allegiance through sheer force of will. They will ride with him into any fight because they know he will not leave the battlefield before them.

Loki's silver tongue can make any man follow him for as long as his words sound in the air. But when Loki is gone, the magic he weaves over the minds of men goes with him, and they begin to doubt his leadership as they never would Thor's.

Heimdall wonders what kind of man Loki would have been had he kept his names. Odin knows of the Frost Giant customs; he could have asked Heimdall for Loki's names. That he chose not to is all the guidance Heimdall needs. But Heimdall does not sleep and he does not leave his post, and so he has plenty of time to think on the second son of Odin and what his first parents tried to give him.

"If you practised your magic as Thor practises his fighting," Heimdall says once, "in the open where all could see, then the warriors who so admire your brother would know that you, too, work hard to protect all that we hold dear."

It is no more than Heimdall has said before. He says it to the air in front of him, not turning to face the silent, still patch of nothingness where Loki is hiding. Loki is a master of illusion, but until he can keep from drawing breath, Heimdall will be able to feel his presence. This is not the comfort it once was.

"But then--" Loki asks.

"--how--" another Loki asks.

"--would I--" a third Loki asks, this one hovering above Heimdall's sword.

"--surprise them?" a final Loki concludes.

Heimdall does not smile.

"A fine trick," he says. It is. "And no less fine for the sharing."

The Lokis look at him. They are all figments -- Heimdall knows where the real Loki is, knows as well as he knows the orbits of the nine worlds -- and they can none of them hide their weariness from him.

Heimdall would never invite Thor to sit with him, nor counsel Odin to rest a while. To do this to Loki would be to shame him, and Heimdall has no wish to do that.

#

Loki fights well. Thor fights as if he were born to it. In battle, eyes are on both of them. Odin has not yet chosen his successor, and it would be foolish to discount the younger son on or off the battlefield.

No one but Heimdall knows to listen when Loki fights. One day a cry will come to his lips, a name that Heimdall will keep safe, guarding it as he guards all of Asgard.

If Heimdall dies before Loki, who will give him his final name? His family love him well, but they will wish for him to ride with them to Valhalla. Heimdall sees far, but he cannot see past death, and he does not know if a Frost Giant will be welcome in that realm.

It tugs at him, this worry. He does not want to live to watch Loki die, to feel his last breath the way he felt his first, but it seems he will have to. After that, Heimdall's duty to Odin's second son will be over. The thought does not rest lightly on him.

#

When Loki lies to Thor, it is almost a relief. Heimdall may still have a duty to Loki, but his loyalty is to Odin and to Asgard, not to this changeling child who can so easily let his brother believe his father is dead. The distinction is a slight one, but it pleases him to think that Loki would understand: loyalty is earned, duty is not.

Loki hasn't even made to shield himself from Heimdall's sight. It is deliberate -- everything Loki does now is deliberate -- but the meaning does not become clear until after, when Loki walks out to the site of Thor's hammer. He must know that it is not his to lift; he must also know that he has to try. And he must let Heimdall bear witness, for otherwise how would he show that he is not ashamed?

It is true; the look on Loki's face is not shame. It is something powerful, a warrior's emotion, and Heimdall cannot regret being by Loki's side for this, whatever the distance between them.

#

Heimdall is in the healing chamber when Loki falls away from the nine worlds. He does not witness it himself, nor feel Loki's final breath as he always believed he would; he simply wakes up and knows that Loki has gone.

He tells Thor that in order to heal the Bifröst he must know everything of the battle in which it was destroyed, and Thor -- brave, loyal, strong Thor, who, in his runt-like curiosity, does not think to doubt Heimdall's motives -- Thor tells him of Loki's plans, of Loki's motives, of what he believes to be Loki's death.

Heimdall draws a steady breath and tells Thor he is not to blame for his brother's actions. If there is an echo of Loki's earlier lies -- "Father is dead. You mustn't blame yourself." -- then Thor will never believe it could be deliberate. Heimdall has lived long enough to know grief in many forms, and still this desire to lash out, to hurt, takes him by surprise. He will practise his sword work later until his muscles tire and his bones ache. Then he will think on Loki's final name.

"You knew my brother better than most," Thor says.

Heimdall must hide his surprise, and with it his chagrin at being surprised. Thor is not Loki, but that does not mean he cannot think; just as Loki was not Thor, but that did not mean he could not fight.

"I did," Heimdall allows.

"Do you think he's really dead?" Thor asks.

This is not the plaintive question of a child, hoping against hope. This is the shrewd question of a man, and once again Heimdall must wonder if he saw the full extent of what Thor learned on Midgard.

A true question deserves a true answer, but Heimdall is not interested in being kind. "If you know to ask the question, you know the answer," he says.

Thor laughs. "You play the part of the cryptic gatekeeper well, Heimdall."

The old Thor would have left immediately. This Thor stays a while, looking out at the broken Bifröst and the worlds that lie beyond.

"I hope I did right," he says.

What is he looking for in Heimdall? A brother to replace the one he lost? A friend, a confessor, an equal? Heimdall is none of these things. Thor Odinson is a born King, and Heimdall is his servant. Thor has only ever had one equal, a changeling brat who never even glimpsed in himself his true value.

Heimdall says nothing.

"If you see him," Thor says, and again Heimdall must hide his surprise, "tell him he has a home here still."

"He will not believe me," Heimdall says, not unkindly.

"He is well-loved," Thor answers. Again they trade a truth for a truth. Without Loki, it seems Thor has learned to see for himself.

When Thor leaves, Heimdall looks out over the nine worlds, searching for a silent, still patch of nothingness that could hide Odin's second son. He did not feel Loki's final breath, after all, and perhaps the trickster has finally learned to hide everything from Heimdall. It is a foolish hope, not fitting for a warrior as old or as bloodied as Heimdall, but it plays inside his chest until it is as much a part of him as his own heartbeat. Perhaps the trickster is truly a worthy opponent now. Perhaps he is hiding, licking his wounds and plotting revenge.

That Heimdall would prefer Loki alive even if it threatened the safety of Asgard is a weight he will bear alone.

"Loki," he says aloud, though he knows there is no one to hear him. "I see you."

He strains his powers to their absolute. If Loki answers, he will know.

##
End
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