The best thing that about trade talks was when they finished. Odin had that same thought each time he undertook them. They were a necessary evil and a tedious one at that. Over time, he had perfected various tactics to speed things along and was often praised as a master negotiator when in truth, his fleetness sprang from the boredom he endured as a youth forced to suffer through seemingly endless summits on import tariffs and the like. Though a more patient, and he would like to think wiser man now, he held no love at all for the proceedings. It didn't help matters that often the representatives sent to negotiate were often new to their positions and eager to prove themselves to their home realm by standing firm against any demands Asgard tried to make, even when those demands were insignificant and merited no such debate.
Áleifr, the representative from Alfheim was no less new to his post than his predecessor had been when Odin first met with him. However Áleifr did not share the same desire to debate for the sake of debating and in fact seemed just as eager to conclude matters as Odin was. The elf worked well with Odin's advisors to draw up an agreement that was suitable to both realms and presented it to him in short order. By the end of the third day, all parties were happy and eagerly anticipating the festivities to celebrate the successful negotiations. As they concluded the final meeting, Odin approached him while the others made their way out.
"You are a credit to your people, Áleifr. It is not often that these talks are conducted with such efficiency."
The elf nodded with a slight grin. "That is high praise from one such as yourself, All-Father. I've observed much in the way of empty posturing in these sort of interrealm dealings. It seems to serve little purpose, especially in a case such as this where your majesty's disdain for such things is not exactly secret."
"A reputation I trust you shall attest to your fellow emissaries?" Odin asked. His reputation hadn't yet dissuaded any other diplomats from being difficult but he could always hope it might.
"I believe I will," he replied, a mischievous glint in his eye not unlike Loki often had. Áleifr glanced in the direction of the great hall. "I've been meaning to ask you, All-Father, if it would be appropriate for my children to attend the celebration tonight?"
Odin raised an eyebrow. "I have no objection. However, I should think that as their father, that decision falls to you."
"I only wish to avoid giving offence. I am not familiar with your customs in this regard."
"My sons would hardly speak to me if I did not allow them to attend. They begged for it almost from the hour they learned to speak. If I deny them not, I would be most inhospitable to deny your children the same"
Áleifr inclined his head in a slight bow. "You have my thanks, All-Father. I'm sure my children would not let my wife and I forget it if they were forced to remain in their chambers tonight."
Memories of Thor and Loki behaving much the same when they were of the age of the elf's children played through Odin's mind as they walked out into the corridor. He couldn't help but recall the "curse" his mother put on him so many years ago, the promise that he would one day have a child who behaved exactly as he had as a boy. There were times he was certain he could hear her laughter all the way from Valhalla now that he had not one but two such sons.
"Speaking of," Áleifr said, interrupting Odin's thoughts. "I must express my gratitude for your son's attention. He's been a wonderful host to my family while I was otherwise engaged here."
Odin could not help but feel a swell of pride in his son. "Yes, Thor has always enjoyed making new friends."
"Oh, forgive me, All-Father. I meant your younger son, Loki."
Footsteps faltering, he repeated, "Loki?"
"Yes," Áleifr affirmed, seeming not to notice the hitch in Odin's steps. "My children have never been to Asgard before and he has gone out of his way showing them around. I fear they will miss him terribly once we return to Alfheim. And if I may say so, Loki seemed quite taken with them as well."
The more the elf explained, the less his words made sense to Odin. Loki did his duty as prince in greeting the ambassador and his family on their arrival but beyond that, Odin hadn't seen him show any further interest. Even stranger was Loki seeking out company of such young children. As far as Odin knew, his son preferred more mature company.
"You're certain it was Loki?" he felt compelled to ask.
"I am," Áleifr replied, confusion bleeding into his tone.
"Did my wife ask him to attend your family?"
"I don't believe so," he replied, slow and a bit uncertain. Áleifr likely couldn't understand the reason for Odin's questions. "Even if she had, he seemed glad to be there. Loki spent hours occupying the children, taking them to the markets and to other sights Asgard has to offer. I believe he even made them several gifts, though if it was with his hands or seiðr I don't know. My wife greatly appreciated his efforts. It gave her the chance to spend time with the queen."
"Loki?" Odin asked a second time, still struggling with disbelief.
There was nothing further Odin could think to say on the matter and so they continued on in silence. It was just so strange, Loki taking it upon himself to entertain Áleifr's family. In recent times, his son had become quiet to the point of being withdrawn. Where had this gregarious host come from then?
Odin was still dwelling on Loki's odd behaviour when he arrived in the great hall a short time later. The feast began with a brief proclamation on his part and soon, the food arrived. There were the usual platters piled high with boar and venison as well as a few with delicacies from Alfheim. Other platters of vegetables cooked in every sort of style complimented the meats. And of course, barrels of mead lined one entire wall, ensuring all would have a joyous evening. The only thing setting this evening apart from many that had come before was where Odin decided to focus his attention. Apart from the times he was handling his official duties for the event, his eyes constantly sought out Loki.
His youngest son kept his seat at the high table only long enough to finish his meal before setting off into the crowd, where he disappeared for a time before Odin caught sight of him in one of the quieter corners of the room. Loki was seated atop one of the mead barrels with one of Áleifr's children, the youngest, in his lap and the other two seated on another barrel beside them. All three children watched Loki with rapt attention as he told them a story of some sort, replete with illusions dancing in his hands to liven up the tale. As the glow of seiðr lit up his face, Odin saw Loki was having almost as much fun as his young charges. Even from that distance it was clear to him that this was no chore for Loki. Nothing about his manner appeared grudging or reluctant, something which was thrown into sharp relief moments later when the rest of the feast-goers erupted in raucous laughter while Thor regaled them with a tale of one of his own adventures. Loki's joy vanished, his eyes flashing with irritation at his brother. Just as Loki turned his eyes back to the children though, Odin thought he saw something else. Longing.
Thor finished his tale and though he had only half-listened to it, Odin noticed something was missing. He waited until one of the skalds came forward to begin the formal entertainment, then waved Thor back to the high table. His son came and Odin leaned in close so others wouldn't overhear.
"That was an interesting story, my son, but why did you leave your brother out of the tale?"
Thor, who was rather distracted by the festivities, remained looking out over the floor and not at Odin when he answered. "He wasn't with us."
"Thor, look at me please." His son at last turned. "What do you mean Loki wasn't with you? You always journey together."
"No, not for a while now."
Thor shrugged. "He's not interested."
Odin's eyes narrowed. He knew when either of his sons were not being fully honest with him. "Thor, tell me truly. Did he say that, or did you decide he wouldn't want to come and so didn't ask?"
The way Thor squirmed and shuffled his feet was as much of an answer as the words he next spoke. "I didn't think he'd want to come with us. He's far more interested going off to find spell books than having a real adventure."
"You should still offer him the invitation anyway," Odin chided.
"But..." Thor protested with more uncomfortable shifting. "All he does is complain when he comes. He acts as though we're all simpletons and he knows everything. The whole time it feels as if he'd rather be back here with his face in some dusty old tome."
Odin sighed. Some friction between brothers was normal but he couldn't help but think back to when the two boys were inseparable and wonder if perhaps there was something more to their conflict than the typical sibling rivalry. "All right. Go rejoin your friends, Thor. We shall speak more on this later."
Thor's shoulders slumped a little at the suggestion that the discussion wasn't over. All was forgotten a moment later however when a maiden about his age with long dark hair dragged him up to dance. Odin looked back to where Loki had been but saw the mead barrels had been vacated. Further glancing around the room, he spied Loki turning the three very sleepy looking youngsters back over to their mother. To his surprise, Loki did not hand the youngest one, who Odin saw was in fact asleep, to her, but joined Áleifr's wife in herding the children out of the hall and presumably to bed. He thought perhaps his son was merely escorting them but a short time later, she returned without Loki.
After an hour or so passed, Odin excused himself from the table and ventured out into the hall. He hadn't gone far when he passed one of the many balconies of the palace. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of someone familiar sitting on the parapet, back turned toward where he stood.
Loki turned at hearing his name, giving Odin a glimpse of the book in his lap. He swung his legs back over the edge and stood up in order to give him a proper bow, holding the book in behind him as he did. "All-Father."
Odin waited for an explanation but Loki seemed to be waiting for him to say something first. "What are you doing out here? The evening is still young, there is much enjoyment to be had."
"I will return," Loki told him. "I was only getting some air."
A perfectly reasonable excuse but for the fact that it was a lie, and not even a very good one. If Loki was simply taking a break from the celebration, he would not have needed the book, nor would he have felt the need to hide it away as he was doing. In fact, if his expression was any indication, Loki looked as if he fully expected Odin would not believe it and was waiting to be chastised. For what precisely, Odin wasn't sure. What he did know, was he didn't like the feeling he got seeing Loki look at him that way, so sure he would be receiving punishment of some kind. It so discomfited him that he could not think of a thing to say to his son in response.
Uncomfortable in the silence, Loki ducked his head and swallowed. He said, "I'll return presently," and started walking toward the hall.
"Wait," Odin called after him. Loki stopped and turned, hands clenched tight on his book and shoulders completely rigid. "I heard you kept the ambassador's children occupied during the talks."
"I... did my duty as prince, All-Father."
The stiff reply was baffling. Odin had seen Loki with the children himself and he seemed anything but duty-bound with them. Why hide his feelings now?
Having the feeling that Loki would likely not be more forthcoming if pressed, Odin set his questions aside. "Be that as it may, Áleifr's made a point of saying how much he appreciated it and I wanted to tell you the same. I'm glad to see you show such initiative."
Loki tilted his head in a slight bow, the motion wary and a bit uncertain, as though he wasn't sure if it was the right response.
"Well, I didn't mean to intrude on your solitude out here. Good-night, my son."
"Good-night, my king," Loki replied.
Odin went back to the great hall without waiting to see where his son would go. If Loki was out of sorts about something perhaps it would be best to let him alone for a time.
The rest of the evening passed without incident, which left Odin with ample opportunity to wonder about his son. As much as he wanted to put Loki's odd behaviour down to something as simple as an ill temper, it was still weighing on his mind by the time he and Frigga retired to their chamber.
"Have you noticed anything odd about Loki as of late?" he asked his wife.
"In what way?" she asked in turn from where she was seated before a large mirror, busy unravelling the complicated plait in her hair.
"I'm not sure. I spoke to him a bit this evening and he was... odd. And did you know he spent the last three days with the ambassador's children, showing them around Asgard?"
Frigga smiled, but it was one of bemusement. "No, I didn't. That must be where he was all day. And the day before."
Odin nodded. "I am told they are distraught over losing their new companion, now that they will be returning home."
"Hmm," she murmured, at last finishing with her hair. "I'm glad he made some friends, leaving though they are."
"That's just it though," he told her. "When I spoke to him about it, he played it off as though he did it out of obligation. But Frigga, I saw him entertaining the children tonight and he seemed as enthralled with their company as they were with his. Have you ever seen him with any other children such as they?"
She thought for a moment. "No, I haven't. In fact, I haven't seen him spend time with anyone outside of Thor and a handful of their friends for some time and even that is becoming rarer."
"Thor mentioned something similar, that Loki is less inclined to join him on his adventures. I haven't thought on it much before tonight but I believe his manner has been growing distant for some time. He certainly was that way with me this evening."
Frigga sighed and stood up from her seat, a slight crinkle between her eyebrows from her concerned expression. "That I have noticed. He keeps ever more to himself, even in our lessons."
Her concern was replaced by a look tinged with disapproval. "You know what lessons. I've spoken to you of them."
Odin was forced to endure his wife's disappointed gaze for longer than he would have liked while he searched his memory. All things being fair though, the fire in that gaze was exactly why he was having trouble coming up with an answer.
"Ymir's head, is that the mind that's running this kingdom? Perhaps you should yield to a successor now," she said with a distinctly scolding tone that was usually reserved for her children, which made it all the more embarrassing when she used it on him. "Odin, your son will be one of the strongest seiðmenn Asgard has ever seen. I thought he was yet too young to begin training in the art but then I found he was teaching himself and had made a significant progress on his own before anyone learned what he was doing. I've never seen someone with the kind of natural talent he has."
"And now you are teaching him yourself," he said, relieved at last to remember. Now that she reminded him, he did recall her explaining it some time ago. It was just that in taking care of the everyday dealings of the Nine Realms, he simply forgot.
Frigga crossed her arms and did not let up her intense gaze. "Is this why you've never spoken to him on the subject? You didn't remember?"
"No, I didn't. Why, did he say something?"
"Just once. He asked why you took no interest in his training when you are so invested in Thor's activities. With his next breath he claimed it mattered not to him, but I suspect otherwise."
"I am sorry, my love. It slipped my mind and there is no excuse for it."
On hearing that, she smiled at him, lifting the weight that always settled on his shoulders when she was cross. "I accept your apology. Although, I wonder if it would benefit another more than me."
Odin nodded. "You're right, as always. Tell me of his progress."
The following morning, Odin made up his mind to seek out Loki. He'd spent a good part of the night prior hearing about his son's skill with seiðr from Frigga and realized he hadn't been paying any attention something that was very important to Loki. For the second time in one day he was forced to consider that he didn't know his son as well as he'd thought and that was something that needed correcting.
He found Loki that morning in the library. That was not of itself surprising, but that Loki was there at such an early hour was. His son had folded himself into a window seat with his legs crossed beneath him and his head bowed over the tome in his lap. Another sat open on top of a cushion beside him. Every so often, he would look back and forth between them, cross-referencing what he read. He was so absorbed in his study, that Odin was able to watch him for some time without being noticed.
"I've found the table more suited to that kind of study," he said at last.
Loki's head sharply snapped upright. He shut the tome in his lap with a loud thwack at the same time. "All-Father! Forgive me, I didn't see you there."
He set the large volume aside and was about to get to his feet when Odin held up a hand to stop him. "Please, don't. I didn't come to interrupt you. I merely wished to ask how your study is going."
Loki hesitated, still partway to standing. Surprise coloured his features before fading into a closed off, wary expression. "Fine," was all he said.
The air between them was nearly vibrating with tension and on his life, Odin didn't know why. Loki had ever been difficult to draw into conversation but this was something else entirely and it made him do something he hadn't done in a long time. Retreat. "Good. That is... good. I'll leave you to it then."
His son's head made a motion that was something between a bow and a nod and Odin returned it before making for the exit. He was in the middle of wondering how things had become so strained between them without his notice when a thought struck him like a bolt of lightning.
Loki called him All-Father. He used a formal title instead of a familiar one, and it wasn't the first time. He'd done the same thing when they talked last night outside the banquet hall. Odin had paid it no mind then because during official ceremonies, proper etiquette for the boys was to call their parents by their respective titles. Both conversations had been private however, not part of court affairs. As much as he wished he could, Odin couldn't dismiss it as a slip on Loki's part because it hadn't just been in the library or on the balcony. Now that he was thinking about it, he couldn't actually remember the last time his son called him Father.
Throughout the whole day, that thought hung over his head like a dark cloud threatening to open and shower him with even more evidence of his mistakes as a father. He'd let his son pull so far away that they no longer knew how to speak to each other in a simple conversation and if it hadn't been for the elven diplomat's off-handed comments, Odin might have gone on believing everything was fine between them.
By mid-afternoon, he came to the conclusion that dwelling on what was past served no purpose. He couldn't stop Loki from pulling away in the first place, but he could reach out and bring him back. Given how stilted their interaction was that morning, it was going to be a battle.
As a start, Odin decided on something simple. He sent a request to Loki for his son to join him for dinner in his private chamber behind the throne room instead of the royal family's dining room. Thor and Frigga were not invited because Odin knew if Thor was there, Loki would keep more to himself and let his more extroverted brother occupy the attention. If Frigga was there, Loki would be more inclined to behave as if Odin wasn't and focus on her. If he was to rebuild his relationship with his son, it would have to be on their own, as difficult as that might be.
Odin requested the kitchen staff prepare any favourite dishes of Loki and they were just set upon the table when an attendant informed him that his son was waiting outside. He called him in and couldn't help the feeling of dismay over seeing how tense Loki was. His son held his back straight and rigid, and his hands clasped behind him as if he was awaiting inspection by the arms masters instead of about to partake of a simple meal with his father.
"Loki, I... thank you for coming," Odin said, just managing not to wince at the awkwardness of own greeting. Loki's tension seemed to be spreading to him. Their evening had only just begun and it was already not going well. "Please sit down."
If Loki was at all surprised by the menu he gave no sign of it. Either he had tremendous skill at dissembling or he didn't care for his father's attempts to please and Odin wasn't sure which possibility was less appealing. They ate in between stilted attempts at conversation. It was no easy task engaging Loki when all his son would give were the barest hints of answers. After exhausting all general topics of conversation with no success, Odin grew desperate enough to bring up Thor in spite of the difficulties he knew his sons were having with each other.
"Thor told me you have ceased accompanying him on his sojourns."
At last he got a reaction, albeit not one Odin was expecting. Loki made a rather undignified sound, something like the snorts that came from Sleipnir when the horse was displeased. He looked up from his plate, casting a mortified glance at Odin.
"I... I..." he stammered, cheeks turning pink to highlight his shame over his unseemly response.
"Actually, that's not quite right," Odin said, deciding to rescue Loki from his apparent embarrassment by pretending it hadn't happened. "When I pressed him on the matter, he admitted to not inviting you to join him."
Loki stared at him in silence for so long, Odin started to worry he was having a fit of some kind. "... Oh... did he?"
"He did. I made it clear to him how I felt about him purposefully excluding you. If you don't wish to join him, it should be your choice, not his."
The open-mouthed stare Loki gave him was almost comical and Odin might have laughed but for the fact that the source of Loki's shock was the idea his father was taking his part in a disagreement and not Thor's.
"He also mentioned you are often searching for various books. Are you not able to find what you need in Asgard's library?"
"...Not always," Loki answered, avoiding his eyes.
"Is it something specific that you seek?" Loki didn't answer. "Something to do with your mother's lessons, perhaps?"
The word came out with such reluctance it almost sounded against his will and Odin couldn't understand why. According to Frigga, Loki had great enthusiasm for learning seiðr. Yet when Odin broached the subject, Loki behaved as though it was the last thing he wanted to discuss. He trusted his wife was not wrong about Loki's feelings on the matter however, and persisted.
"Where are the books you need?"
On hearing the question, Loki's shoulders slouched. "Vanaheim. They possess the greatest collection of grimoires in all the realms. They allow anyone to come and study them but it's forbidden to remove them from the library. I seldom have enough time to give them proper consideration."
"I see," Odin replied.
It was the most his son had spoken through the entire evening and Odin chose not to question Loki further on the subject, not willing to surrender such a hard won victory by pushing too hard too fast. Later on though, he couldn't get Loki's disappointment when he spoke of not being able to do proper study out of his mind.
Loki swiped one hand over his brow as he walked back to his chamber. Combat training was an essential part of life in Asgard and while he didn't mind it per se, he was not at all fond of the feeling of sweat and dirt coating his skin after a morning spent on the dusty training grounds. He had a little more than an hour before meeting his mother for their lessons, plenty of time for a bath.
Arriving at his chamber, he stopped short. The door was open. He never left the door open. If one of the servants-
"Yes, just there is fine," came a voice from within.
A sick feeling roiled in his stomach. Odin was in there, without Loki's knowledge or permission. The All-Father had been odd since their painfully uncomfortable dinner some weeks before. He kept asking questions about his activities and studies and Loki found the attention to be grating. If his father didn't approve of the way he used his time, why couldn't he just ignore him the way he'd always done instead of this meddling?
At that exact moment two servants, porters to be precise, emerged. Loki glared and they quickly excused themselves.
"Loki? Is that you out there?"
Loki sighed and braced himself for another awkward conversation. He passed through the open door. "Yes, All-Fath..."
Any coherent thoughts were swept away by what he saw. Piled high in two stacks on his desk were grimoires. Vanir grimoires.
"I visited the head keeper in Vanaheim's library," Odin told him, the words just about unheard in his shock. "She told me which books you had sought out on your visits and pointed out several other related volumes. I then spoke to Freyr about you and he agreed to loan the books to Asgard for you to study for as long as you have need of them on the condition that they are returned in the same pristine state. You will see to that, won't you?"
Unable to tear his eyes from the tomes or find his voice, Loki meekly nodded.
"Excellent," Odin said, coming close enough to clap one hand on Loki's shoulder. "I look forward to seeing your progress."
Odin walked past him and was nearly out the door before Loki remembered his manners.
"Father!" he called after him. Odin stopped. "I... this... thank you."
"You are most welcome, my son," he replied with a warm smile.
Loki watched him go, still dumbfounded by the gift. When he looked back at his desk, his hand reached out to the grimoires and his body followed it without any conscious thought on his part. Just as he was about to touch one of them, he remembered the reason he was in his rooms to begin with was to bathe. His hands were filthy. He couldn't risk soiling such treasures with them. Loki spun around and sprinted to his bath.
He never washed so quickly in his life.