Frigga listened from out of sight, as Loki and Thor argued. Then when Thor had finally gone, she rounded the column and walked silently down the long, high hallway into view of Loki's prison.
She had to close her eyes for a moment, pained by what she saw. Her son was trapped in an empty cube, with five sides of featureless silvery metal and the sixth of what seemed to be glass, but was energy. The empty cell was large enough to dwarf Loki, who stood in the center with his arms folded as he stared at the floor.
It reminded her of years past. Too many times she had found him alone, angry and upset that his physical strength would always be considered less, and his cleverness and studies were not as valued. She had longed to tell him the truth sometimes, to explain why he was different, but she always bit her tongue. It seemed cruel to tell him that he was Jotun, but that they had appreciated him even less, leaving him to die.
She remembered that day. All Asgard celebrated their great victory, but she remembered it more for her husband's gift.
She had stared in dismay and a little bit of horror at what Odin had held. "What have you done?" she demanded. "Why? Why did you steal him away from them?"
The child- the Jotun baby - was silent in Odin's left arm, wrapped in Odin's banner. His skin was bluish and his eyes were red, but he looked up at her with an infant's curious intensity. He blinked and his lips parted as if he would speak, and he let out a burp. His whole face went wide eyed with surprise at the sound he'd made and she couldn't help a smile at him. He smiled back at her, a toothless grin of such joy she reached out and took him from Odin, to gaze into his little delightful face. His skin under her fingers felt the same, despite the color.
"I found him, abandoned in their temple, crying. They left him to die, Frigga. He is tiny and weak, malformed for a Jotun."
Her heart swelled with pity and love. "No," she murmured, cradling the small weight against her. "He's perfect."
"He will be useful against Jotunheim--"
She snapped her head up to glare at him. "Is he a hostage, husband? How can that be if Laufey already gave him up for dead?"
"Not a hostage," he reassured her. "Watch. He does it on his own, if I call it forth." The brighter tones faded in his skin and eyes, as if draining away, until she could be holding her own child by blood. She gasped, amazed that he had such power already.
"No one ever need know the truth. He will be raised here. A child of Asgard," Odin declared.
"As our child," she declared. It was not often she startled the All-father, and she smiled when he looked at her as if she'd gone mad.
"Frigga, we will find someone else to foster the baby. They will raise him in love, not as an enemy hostage, I promise you--"
"No." She did not want to hear it or have him taken from her. "You took him, and you will not abandon him. We will raise him as our own. He is ours, our war price from Laufey. Our son."
She had kissed the baby's soft forehead and with that, he had become hers.
All these years later, it seemed she had been wrong. She had lost that precious innocent baby -- first to resentment and then to death as he fell into the unmoored wormhole of the shattered bifrost, and now, it seemed she had lost him for good. Thor had told her of his terrible deeds on Earth, and grief-stricken, he had claimed Loki was lost, too deep into corruption and evil to return.
Yet in that moment of unguarded repose, when Loki thought he was alone, she saw sorrow in the slight motion of his lips and throat, and guilt in his hooded eyes and the flicker of his eyelashes, that told her all she needed to know. Her son was still there. In spite of everything, he wasn't completely gone.
It gave her strength to draw in a deep breath and walk to the center of the observation wall, and say quietly, "Hello, Loki."
His shoulders twitched as if her voice fell on him like a weapon. He lifted his head, as his expression went blank and his eyes narrowed. He hissed, "Get out."
She refused to flinch at the hostile demand and moved two steps nearer the barrier. "No, I will not. I wanted to see you."
"You want to see the animal in the cage?" he spread his arms in grand invitation, as if he still wore his royal armor and cloak, not the simple trousers and tunic in green and brown. "Here I am. Ready for your entertainment. Shall I dance? Sing a song? Oh, I know, we should have a song to the glories of Thor and his great victory saving the useless humans of Earth."
She let the mocking words pass over her, too wise to be caught in his provocation. She watched him in silence, until his arms dropped back to his sides. He asked, "No? Then have you come to gloat over my fall? You can save your breath, I already heard it from Thor."
She very nearly objected to that, because she had heard their conversation and Loki had needled his brother until Thor had argued with him and stomped off. But she did wonder whether Loki believed Thor had been gloating, or if he was testing her allegiance -- if she defended Thor, Loki would believe she was against him, too, since he seemed determined to believe the worst of his family.
Loki was skilled in getting what he wanted. The problem with deciphering his motives was what he wanted was not always what he seemed to be reaching for.
She let the accusation against Thor pass unchallenged and watched her younger son. "I mourned you, when I thought you dead."
He snorted and his smile was a thing of bitterness. "I am certain you recovered quickly."
"I have not yet recovered, because you are still lost, my son."
"I'm not your son," he returned sharply. His eyes gleamed briefly with a baleful red frost. "I know the truth."
She laid her hand flat on the barrier, and she would have pushed it aside if she could. "You do, Loki. You know the truth, but you've forgotten it. You are my son. I loved you as my own blood--"
"No, not as your own! Never as your own!" He stalked closer, glaring at her, from the opposite side of the barrier as if it wasn't there. "I didn't understand why, but I always felt it - I was the after-thought. The one who never mattered, not as much. Always second place. Always the shadow." He turned then, and his voice turned hollow murmur, "Never the sun." His lip curled. "But I suppose that's fitting for one who always belonged in the realm of shadows and ice."
She stared at him, appalled at how much worse his anger had become since their last conversation at Odin's bedside. She protested, "No, you cannot believe that, not truly. You are my son, you have always been my son, and I love you just as much as I ever loved Thor." She could see only his profile, but it was rigid with disbelief and refusal to listen. "Loki," she implored him to look at her again, to see the truth of her words, but he stayed still. "Oh, Loki, it breaks my heart to see you so lost."
For a moment, it seemed she reached him, as he hesitated and his gaze flicked downward. But then a bitter smile formed. "And they call me the god of lies." He turned back to face her and said with a biting hatred, "You've always lied to me, but worse, you lie to yourself. You try to make it so you didn't deserve it, when you did. All of you did." He put a hand on the barrier between them and the frost began to form on the inside surface, darting across it like rivulets of diamonds, until it was clouded over with ice crystals, hiding him from her view.
She took a step back, suddenly fearful that it would shatter. He was a frost-giant after all, and maybe with that power he could free himself. Cracks raced across the ice and made spider webs in the surface. She took another step away and looked toward the guards at the end of the hall, nearly calling out.
Inside, Loki laughed, sharp and scornful. "You see? I know what I am. I know what you fear, "mother", and it's me. It always was."
The ice shattered completely and dropped, vanishing before it reached the ground. She realized it had all been illusion.
His look was pure satisfaction at her response, and she cursed the impulse to step away. She recovered her steps back to the barrier and looked him in the eye. "No. It's true I fear many things: I fear I will never get my son back; I fear that you will die alone, wrapped in this shroud of bitterness and hatred that clouds your spirit, but I do not fear you, Loki. You didn't hurt your father or your brother, and I will never believe you would harm me."
"You shouldn't be so sure of that," he returned, but he couldn't hold her gaze. His eyes dropped away, flicking sideways with regret, and she smiled at him gently.
"Never," she repeated with confidence. "You will not harm your family."
"Not for lack of trying." Loki chuckled once, and his lips quirked upward in a smile which didn't touch his cold eyes. "You are a fool. Listen to you, straining to find something that will comfort you that I am not a monster. I am a monster. I am what Asgardian children have nightmares about. I am what the humans should kneel down and worship. The only thing I regret about my time on Earth is that it failed."
She caught her breath, watching as he paced closer again to tell her, "There. That is the truth. You can return to the light and continue with your day, and never be troubled again. Because I can save you the effort of returning here -- I regret nothing. I would do all of it again and," he bent closer, eyes dark, as he whispered, "next time I will succeed." He lifted a hand and made a fist, "The humans will kneel before me and I will be their god."
She listened to his low, cold words, and shook her head in denial. Everything he claimed was the truth felt so much like a lie. "No. This isn't you, Loki. What happened to you? This is not the son I knew--"
"You knew nothing!" he shouted, eyes wide in abrupt fury. As the echo died away he spoke more calmly, but was shaking with the effort, "Nothing about who I am or what I want. Nothing at all. So leave me here, return to your perfect world and your perfect family, and forget I ever existed. It shouldn't take long."
By the time he finished, the anger had faded back to bitterness. He retreated to the far corner of the cell, facing away from her to hide his expression, with his arms folded.
"I would never forget," she promised softly. "I planted a tree for you in the garden, among my flowers, where I could look at it every day when I missed you."
He didn't move or show his face, but he twitched and she heard him draw a ragged breath.
Frigga continued pressing her advantage and get past the armor he had layered over himself. "Thor said that you let go. You let yourself fall."
"Well, if Thor said it, it must be true," Loki sneered.
She almost admired that one - it neatly lay a suspicion on Thor without actually stating he was a liar while making his disdain for Thor perfectly clear. Perhaps it was another attempt to get her to take Thor's side. She refused the distraction and asked, "Why did you let go?"
"To spare myself your incessant prattling," he snapped.
She ignored that attack as well. "You chose to die, Loki. Neither Odin nor Heimdall could see you anywhere, so we believed you were in Valhalla. And yet, you weren't. What happened? Where did you go?"
He didn't answer right away and when he did, he still faced away. His voice was distant. "I fell between the realms, into a chasm without end, and I prayed for death to take me. But I was saved. I was offered revenge and rule, and I took it." He slanted a sly look and smirking lips over his shoulder at her. "It was easy. The humans are ripe for conquest. They long for someone to herd them like sheep."
She shook her head, unsettled by how quickly he changed between one moment when he was still recognizably her son, and the next, a near-stranger who wanted only conquest and rule.
"You were supposed to protect them, Loki! You promised."
"I would protect them," he answered, with a shrug. "After they submitted to my rule. And after they were culled to a manageable number."
Her heart turned cold at the casual suggestion of mass murder, but she noticed even he blinked at that, as if taken by surprise by his own words. Then he shook it off and returned to face her again. "When I escape from this hole, I will bring my armies to Earth and I will conquer all its peoples, and I will be a king. As I was born to be."
"You wouldn't," she retorted, lifting her chin to glare back at him. "You have a good heart, and you --"
His laughter interrupted her, and he waited until she fell silent. "I have a heart of ice and darkness. And a hunger for power and fear. Do not look for what does not exist. The soft, mewling child you knew is gone, freed from the chains you tried to bind him in." He leaned in closer and whispered, as if telling her a secret, "He is unmade. Mourn him if you wish, but you will never see that weak coward again."
She didn't believe him, since she had already glimpsed the Loki hidden deep within, but she wondered at the cause. Was it a madness that had come over him, during his fall? Cracks of rage and despair already within him that had widened as he hurtled toward death?
She looked into his eyes, deeper and into his true self, searching for the baby she had held on that day long ago. She was not Heimdall to see between worlds but she had her own sight, which she used normally to heal. There was … a glow. A strange insidious glow that had not been there before. For the first time she felt fear - not of Loki, but for him.
"You should give up," Loki taunted, tearing his gaze away from hers, but it was too late. She had seen. "You are not my mother, you never were. This was only a place I lived where I was barely tolerated, and I'll leave it soon."
Thor had told her of the creatures he had battled and a portal to another, unknown realm.
She asked again. "Loki, when you fell, how did you survive?"
"I was saved," he answered. "I was offered revenge and rule of the Midgard savages. I took it. The Chitauri gave me an army and I could close my fist around the world and make it mine."
She ignored the raving, noticing with a chill that he had said almost the exact same words in answer as he had before, as if it was a litany he had been given to say. "The Chitauri could not have saved you. They are not that strong to pluck you from between the realms. Who saved you?" she insisted.
He went still. "It gave me no name. It needed none. There was power beyond Asgard, beyond Jotunheim, beyond the nine realms. Power enough to remake the universe."
The cold strengthened, because she knew what that it had to be, and she laid a hand on her chest, trying to warm her heart. "And you held that power?" she asked fearful of his answer.
"He let me hold a piece of it. It was beautiful," he answered, for a moment sounding stunned and reverent. He stared into the distance, smiling in ecstatic pleasure. "Terrible and perfect."
"He?" she repeated, watching Loki very carefully. He didn't answer, but his hands trembled at his sides.
Then he declared in proud, cold threat, "When I escape from here, that power will be mine again, and the first thing I shall do is lay waste to Asgard and everyone in it. And I will make all of you bow to me."
"This thirst for conquest came from this creature who saved you, didn't it?" she murmured. "What did he do to you, my son?
"Nothing!" he snapped, and she knew it was a lie when rage lit his eyes again. "Stop trying to find a reason! Stop hoping to find the one you lost. He's gone! The best thing to do is stop me before I do it again, because I swear I will." His eyes were wild with desperation. "I will destroy and I will kill and I am a monster, and you should never trust a word I tell you because all I want is to get out of this cage so I can start it all again!"
He slammed the clear barrier with both fists. The energy flared like a star and hurled him back. He slammed against the opposite wall and crumpled to the floor, where he lay unmoving.
He stirred, to her relief.
He turned over and pushed himself up on trembling arms and looked at her. She caught her breath, stricken. He was her little boy again, with his dark eyes full of terror of the things that lurk in the shadows and of a heart-rending hopelessness. Tears burned in her eyes and she held out a hand toward him, futilely wishing she could hold him as she had when he'd been small.
"Mother," he whispered, for the first time calling it for help and comfort. His lower lip was trembling. "Please. Kill me."
The plea horrified her. "Loki-- no--"
He shook his head, begging, "Mother, please. I can't fight it, it's always there, inside, always pulling at me--"
"You have to fight, Loki. You have to be strong," she said, both her hands flat against the barrier. "You can cast it off and be free. You are my son, and no insidious whispers in your mind will ever change that. Come back to me, to us, be with your family again. We want you with us."
It was the wrong thing to say, or perhaps the moment passed -- he blinked and the vulnerability was gone. He rose back to his feet and stared at her as if she was an insect beneath his foot. "Do you?" he returned scornfully. "Really? After all I've done, you'll open your arms and take me back? Liar," he spat.
"Not a lie," she insisted. "Truth. There is always a place for you."
He barked a laugh. He didn't believe her, and she realized that doubt went bone-deep. That was why he had let himself fall, before that Eternal power had snatched him up. And if he didn't believe he could come home, there was nothing for him to fight for.
He strolled the edge of his cell, musing, "Maybe you're right -- Perhaps I should start here. I'll retake the throne and with those powers locked not far from this place, I could conquer all the realms. No one would be able to defeat me and the armies I would command."
She swallowed. "Loki, listen to me. You need to use your power - the power of your own blood. Fill the cell with ice, over and over again, use it until you don't reach for that other power. You have to throw it from you -- do not touch it and it will fade."
As he returned to stand before her, he dragged his fingertips across the front barrier, ignoring what had to be sharp pain as ice blue sparks flew.
"Why would I want to do that?" His lips twisted in a smirk. "I like it."
"Why? Because this power belongs to an ancient enemy, who seeks the destruction of the nine realms."
"Good! Let them fall. They mean nothing to me."
He said the words with conviction, and there was nothing in his cold expression at that moment that would indicate otherwise, but she knew better. "Now who lies to himself? I thought you had more pride than to be used like this!"
"At least he gave me a purpose!" he flared.
"A purpose of murder and evil!"
He leaned in close, and smiled at her rather cheerfully. "It is better than none at all."
She swallowed, identifying the same madness she'd last seen in Thanos the Eternal, before his exile by the gathered lords of the nine realms. How Thanos must have laughed to realize he'd found the resentful son of two of the nine, so easily twisted to his own ends.
Loki turned away to return to the middle of the cell, and she had no doubt he stood in the exact center. He made illusions of himself, duplicate copies, until the cell was full of them. They all spoke in unison. "You want me to use my power? No one in Asgard appreciates my skills. Why should they, when their highest ideal is someone who can smash things with a hammer?" All of them rolled their eyes in scorn. "But outside, it turns out I have useful talents."
Loki appeared beside her and she jumped. All of the copies laughed. "All of you are so pathetic," he whispered. "Goodbye, Mother." He strolled away down the hall, as if he had all the time in the world.
She turned her eyes back to the cell, searching until she found her son. He had moved away from the center, against the barrier, and he was frowning after his duplicate, pale with the effort of forcing the illusion on the wrong side of the barrier. She was going to have to tell Odin to strengthen it - apparently Loki's hit had weakened it, or else Loki was that much stronger than his father had anticipated.
Loki glanced her way, to check her reaction to his "escape", and their eyes met. He seemed surprised that she had not been fooled this time, and the illusions disappeared without a trace. He grimaced, pouting at the failure of his trick. "You could have at least pretended I escaped. It would have been fun."
She smiled, shaking her head. That seemed like the Loki of before, full of mischief.
But when he smiled back at her, there was smirking cold edge to it, and she realized nothing had changed.
She inhaled a deep breath and squared her shoulders, preparing for a long war. This would not be easy; the claws went deep, and he would try many tricks to make her leave or give up. But she would hold tight to the memory of his despairing face, begging her to kill him in a moment of lucidity, and she would not surrender. She would not cede her son to a poisonous power thought vanquished millennia ago.
She moved to join him and her hand brushed the barrier, recalling when he'd been young and she had brushed his dark hair while listening to his eager reports of his lessons. She murmured, "Do you not yet understand, Loki? I know you; I will always know you. I have loved you for a thousand years, since I first cradled you in my arms. I kissed your forehead then and I named you son. No matter whether you sprang from my blood or not, I am your mother, and I swear to you, my child -- I will not give up until you are free of this shadow of madness."
He listened, dropping his eyes with a frown between his brows, before glancing up with a mocking smile. "Very touching. Futile, but touching."
But the words came a heartbeat too slow, and the scorn in them seemed a struggle. She smiled. She did not often wield a sword or spear, but she was a warrior with her own weapons of words and patience, healing and love. With them she would do what her husband and other son could not, and she would bring her lost child home again.
She was Asgardian, and she would fight.
to be continued in Understanding the Storm 3: The Poison Rain