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Loki's Wager

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It was a delicate diplomatic situation. Odin's family enjoyed the fruits of Loki's transgression, the gifts given by the dwarves in a way that might, in the right light, be called 'freely', and so the Allfather could hardly deny them the chance to save face. Loki had lied, and they had been shamed by it. If Odin tried to protect his wayward son now, all the realms would mutter that he could not control him. And if Loki Lie Smith was not under the control of Asgard, there was no knowing what trouble that might cause.

Even knowing that this was the only thing he could do, Odin was wretchedly grateful when the thread pulled tight and the enchantment took hold and his winter child finally stopped screaming.

Brokk and Eitiri, the dwarven smiths stood at the base of Hlidskjalf, watching Loki with hunger in their eyes. Loki's ragged breathing, from where he hung limp and unmoving between the two einherjar who held him, was the loudest sound in the hall. Thor finally stepped back, blood up to his wrists, looking heartbroken, and Loki's head hung loose against his chest. His hair hid his face. It hid the stark river of blood against his throat and the thin golden thread that crisscrossed his lips and kept him silent. But for the sound of his sobbing, shuddering breath, he might have been a corpse.

Odin let the silence stretch out. See, he thought to the assembled multitude. See the consequences I will wreak on my own son. The justice I will dispense. And make this the last time I am called upon to do it. If this punishment could at last stick in the minds of the people...

He became aware of a low whisper from the base of his throne, lower than sound, and two shadows standing behind the dwarves. "Please be assured," said a silent voice, "that this victory of yours will not go without punishment. You chose to go over his head after he outsmarted you, and that... That was graceless. Our revenge will be a long time coming, but don't you worry - it will come."

Odin was too practised a hand to let anything show on his face, but he slid his eye down to the twin shadows and to Brokk and Eitiri's faces. They stood bolt-straight, facing forward. It was clear they had heard as well, but now somehow there was only one shadow beside their own. And the soft slap of sandals against the marble of the floor as a woman stepped out of the crowd into the centre of the hall.

She was dark haired, tan skinned and wore flowing white. From Olympus, Odin's mind supplied, though he had never seen the woman before. There was a ripple of confusion through the watching Asgardians, but no one spoke as she approached the wrecked form of the Mischief Monger and knelt to wipe the blood from his chin.

"With your leave, Odin Allfather," she said without taking her eyes from Loki's face, "I'll take the Lie Smith with me to tend his wounds away from Asgard."

Odin narrowed his good eye. She had come a stranger into his hall, addressed him without obeisance, and planned to deny him the right to care for his own son. And though she asked permission, Odin suspected that she did not intend to abide by it. She had that same distant quality to her voice that Loki employed, a quality which made Odin feel that his words were spoken only for the sake of speaking.

But at the sound of her voice Loki raised his head, and pulled his arm free of the einherjar to take her hand. None present could know that this woman wasn't in the employ of Asgard, and so Odin could be kind to his son.

"You have my leave," he said, and the woman allowed the crowd to believe that she had been waiting for his consent. The einherjar released Loki, and the woman took his weight. A man in a dark leather jerkin stepped out of nowhere to help her, and when Odin let his eye slip downwards the second shadow at Brokk and Eitiri's back was gone.

He swept his gaze back along the crowd. "As do you all. This audience is concluded. Masters Brokk and Eitiri, I hope you will continue to enjoy the hospitality of our hall." He said it in such a final voice as to discourage any reply but for the two of them to offer their thanks and leave.

As the two strangers half-carried Loki from the hall, Thor reached out a hand to him. Loki flinched back from the touch and Odin forced himself not to look away.

---

Eris and Autolycus brought him to a midnight forest, and what had probably been a temple in times forgotten. Autolycus went to open the heavy stone door, but Eris stopped him and looked to Loki - he was almost steady on his feet after the journey, and took a moment to straighten his clothes and brush the worst of the dried blood from his leather coat. He raked fingers through his hair until it lay flat, and rubbed a hand over his face. He presented himself silently to Eris, and she ran a gentle cooling thumb over both his eyelids. It was still obvious that he had cried, but now it was clear enough that he had tried to hide it so that no one would mention it.

The thread was bright gold, not dulled at all by the drying blood along its length. It was pulled tight around his lips, stretching the skin around his mouth and squeezing his lips together. Bruises stained his skin from each dark oozing point where gold sank into his flesh, and the edges were beginning to swell. Unattended, the wounds would turn septic and swallow the thread under his skin. Eris' fingertips hovered without touching.

Given the nod, Autolycus opened the door. A few dozen stone steps down, and Loki was walking with sure feet by the time they reached the bottom.

Crowley was there, and Morgan le Fay and Reynard. They sat on stolen furniture, looking out of place around a sacrificial altar. At the sound from the stairs, Crowley called over, "Did you get him?"

"No," Autolycus replied easily. "We travelled at our own peril into the heart of Asgard, spoke to Odin Allfather, and then forgot to bring Loki back with us." He snapped his fingers. "Damn. This is embarrassing."

Loki raised an eyebrow as he stepped past him into the circle of light, and with his derisive gaze on Autolycus he could pretend not to hear the sharp intake of breath at the sight of his stitches.

"Oh, my stars." A delighted voice floated down from the shadows at the ceiling. It was followed by Coyote, springing off the crumbling ivy-covered columns to land at Loki's feet. "Silvertongue!" he exclaimed in greeting. "What have you done to yourself, you stupid bastard?"

Loki folded his arms with a deeply unimpressed look. What have I done? the look said. Coyote hoisted himself up onto his hind legs, placing his front feet on Loki's shoulders. "I mean," the great dog grinned, "I knew you had your self destructive tendencies, but--" He dissolved into giggles, wheezing against Loki's chest until the Asgardian brushed him off with both arms. Coyote wound his body around Loki's ankles before standing up again.

"How did this one go?" he asked, grinning. "Let me guess - You were somehow clever enough to get everything you wanted, and still stupid enough to keep talking after that?"

Reynard tutted disapproval. "An accurate description, Coyote," he said, "If an unfair guess. We all know what happened."

"Oh, we know what happened," said Morgan, standing to walk her own little circuit around Loki. He pointedly didn't follow her with his eyes, opting instead to watch the ceiling with a look of supreme patience. "I can't possibly allow you to cut my head off," she said, dropping her gentle brogue for an angular approximation of Loki's voice, "because there was nothing in the agreement about cutting my neck! Honestly, how did you even get away with that one?"

Loki looked down at that one, gesturing incredulously at his mangled lips, is this 'getting away with it'? and by that time Crowley was advancing with an eager smirk. Before he could say anything, though, Reynard held up a paw.

"Now, I realise there's hours of material in this, but. The man is clearly in need of medical attention. Loki. What do you say to fifteen minutes' worth of concentrated mockery, and then we'll have those stitches out?"

It was a good offer, but Loki rolled his eyes and gestured, lower your expectations.

Reynard smiled. Or, he showed off his sharp canines. "Ten minutes."

No chance.

"Five minutes, then," offered Reynard. Loki considered a moment, then inclined his head in assent.

The fox clapped his paws together."Excellent. Well, that said, let me be the first to suggest that you have at last reached the inevitable conclusion of how much your family enjoys the sound of your voice!"

The flash of hurt in Loki's green eyes was just brief enough that those who had seen it could pretend they hadn't, especially with the way he theatrically clutched at his heart in its wake.

"I do have to say," laughed Morgan, "just how lovely it is to get a word in edge-wise around you Loki. Now, let's talk about how you should have seen this coming. At length. You can feel free to jump in at any time..."

"I, for one," put in Crowley, "think his plan was a stroke of genius! I mean--" he nudged Loki until the lie smith had to catch his balance, "--your exit strategy needs some serious work, but there's merit here. Oh, you know what? I think I could sell a story like this to Puck's dear pal, Will Shakespeare. Hey, Loki, if you're happy for me to do that, just say absolutely nothing!" He grinned like a bastard.

Loki offered him an obscene hand gesture instead, and then Coyote was leaning all over his shoulders again to take the mockery somewhere vulgar and uncomfortable, and Autolycus was asking if he could poke the stitches -- if that's okay with you, just say nothing!

Loki rolled his eyes and graded the taunts, try harder, Coyote; you wound me, Morgan, and when Eris joined in he turned wide, betrayed eyes on her until she laughed and announced, "And, that's time, I think! Gentlemen, Morgana... Leave the poor man alone and let's heal his hurts."

"Wait, I had more!" protested Autolycus, but Reynard cut him off.

"You'll have to take your chances mocking him when he can make reply, won't you?"

Loki huffed a silent involuntary laugh at the prospect, then groaned and clutched at his mouth when the smile caused the threads to cut open healing wounds. Coyote howled with laughter slightly louder than the situation merited, and Autolycus grinned widely. "No, that's fine," he said. "I'm done."

Loki glared at the round of sniggering.

"Come then, Trickster," said Morgan at last, and the group sobered. "Take a seat."

She gestured him towards the altar, dark stone and heavy presence in the centre of the temple. There was a thin ragged blanket laid out there, with a shallow golden bowl of water and a tiny silver pair of scissors that suggested the involvement of a time traveller. Seeing his raised eyebrow, Morgan murmured, "Our Doctor." Loki nodded understanding, and sat himself down, an offering on the blood soaked stone.

The magic of the Celtic druids was so close to Seidr as made no difference, and Morgan could cut through the spellwork as easily as the golden thread. She seated herself on the edge of the altar with Loki, picked up the sewing scissors and ran fingertips along his jaw to tilt his face up.

The group was quiet as she worked, save an occasional giggle from Coyote. She moved deftly, cutting each delicate thread with the scissors and whispering low words of power as she went. When half the stitches were cut, Loki held up a hand and twisted where he sat to spit a mouthful of gore into the water. He must have been holding it there since Odin's hall. When he turned back and nodded to Morgan to continue his face was impassive enough that, if his knuckles had been less white, no one would have guessed how bad the pain was.

At last she set the scissors down. Loki opened and closed his mouth, just working his stiff jaw for a moment before she swiped the pad of her finger through the blood on his lips and pressed a quick kiss to them. Even as Loki winced, there was the odd ear-popping sensation in the air that signified a magic spell being worked. "There," she said with satisfaction. "The enchantment?"

Loki drew a shaky breath. "...I didn't think he would truly do it," he whispered. His voice was hoarse, but that was easily attributed to the screaming rather than his bespelled throat. Eris cut through the tense quiet with a relieved laugh.

"Yes! Here," she slid onto the altar behind him and held her hand up to his mouth, "eat this. Quickly, before you get blood all over it."

Loki shrugged irritably, completely failing to dislodge her as she clung cheerfully around his neck, and managed to wrestle from her hand the bloodstained slice of apple she was trying to feed him. His mouth opened in surprise. "Is this...?" At Eris' gleeful nod he grinned widely, then grimaced as it stretched his wounded lips. He bit into the apple quickly. "How did you even get this?" he asked around the fruit.

"Autolycus stole it from the table in Asgard. My idea," crowed Coyote, and Autolycus sketched a smug bow. "Any trickster knows that no one can keep their eyes off a beautiful woman with blood on her hands." He curled his body around the altar, his tail 'accidentally' swiping up Eris' toga. She aimed a kick his way and he laughed.

"Not that I needed it, mind," protested Autolycus. "I stole the secret of invisibility from the gods; it doesn't matter how many people are looking at me!"

"Oh, please." Eris rolled her eyes. "We let you get away with invisibility, just to make you feel better about yourself."

"And it's not as though there's any real difficulty in stealing from an open table," Loki said, warming up as Idunn's apple closed the broken skin of his mouth. "Next time you're in Asgard, try stealing Mjolnir - then I might concede that you're good."

"All right, all right!" Autolycus affected an air of deep offense. "You know that if anyone could steal that hammer it'd be me!"

"Oh," laughed Loki, "such big words! Maybe you would like to prove there's more to you than boasting?" He accepted another slice of apple from Eris, and cut across Autolycus' bluster quietly, "Thank you, though. You have my gratitude, truly."

Autolycus stilled a moment, mouth still open on an agitated retort, and then he accepted the sentiment with grace. Loki smiled softly.

"It's all very well to know that this has ended with as little bloodshed as we could manage," said Reynard at last, "But there is still the matter of the Smiths."

"Yes, yes," joined Coyote, "The miniature malevolents! What shall we do with them?"

"Whatever it is," said Crowley darkly, "we make it hurt. If they didn't like how Loki treated them, they should have dealt with it themselves. Not run to tattle to his Daddy. That's an indignity we can't let pass."

"Hear, hear," said Morgan, halfway through vanishing the water in the font and the blood on her hands. "They ought to know there are at least rules to this kind of thing." As a group, they all ignored the fact that Loki had broken more rules, and quicker, than the dwarves.

"I told them as much," said Eris, "so they know we're coming. That gives us a while to plan."

"Decades, I should think," offered Reynard. "Give them adequate time to reflect on what they might have done wrong."

Crowley barked a short laugh. "Let the bastards stew."

Nobody expected Loki to contribute. He was the conduit by which they had all been wronged, and now it was the role of his friends to show the realms (or at least, those parts of the realms named Brokk and Eitiri) what happened when you crossed someone with friends like these. Turning a slice of apple over between his fingers, he let the familiar cadences of revenge schemes wash over him and lay himself comfortably down on the altar.

Down out of sight at his waist, his knuckles brushed Eris', and she squeezed back.