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Learning To Fly

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Loki knew of the tower, of course: where the frost giant sorcerer Ymir had been imprisoned, after Odin had defeated him. A splendid choice, full of tradition. He smiled a little under the gag as they marched him to it, under guard, with Thor at his side holding his arm. Inside the doorway they removed the shackles, and put down the key to the gag.

Odin came behind and stood in the doorway, playing at grief. He dismissed the guards and spoke, and so did Thor; Loki didn't bother listening to either one of them. He took off the gag and flung it to the floor spattered with blood he'd bitten his tongue to get, for the pleasure of seeing them both flinch. He wiped blood from his mouth and said, "Save your hypocrisy for a more appreciative audience, and leave me alone."

He turned and went up the stairs. There was but the one chamber, but it did not need to hold very much. There were a few books, the sleeping-couch, a table for meals. There was a terrace, which offered a splendid view of the green fields and the citadel towering golden beyond them: a nice detail of torture, that.

Loki stood out in the wind, watching Thor and Odin walking back along the road together behind the marching guards, their heads bowed. He lifted his head towards the long shining ramp of the Bifrost, still under repair, where he could see Heimdall a small golden figurine watching. "Do tell Odin, gatekeeper," he said softly, "that I will find a way out of his inescapable tower."

He drew his hand across the air with a whisper and concealed himself from Heimdall's sight. No more need to hide that particular ability.

He started with all the obvious things: children's spells of opening, through the words of power, none of which he expected to work. That consumed a few weeks. Then he tried the handful of clever ideas he'd had, the last and best of which was turning himself into a thin dry leaf and lying on the floor to be tossed off by the wind. The trick of it was he had to forget he wasn't a leaf, for it to have any chance of working, so he wasn't sure how many hours it had been when he was finally blown off the edge of the terrace, and found himself flung back into his own shape onto the floor.

He lay a while on the floor afterwards, gazing at the ceiling. He hadn't really had much expectation of success. Ymir, they said, had been prisoner here for three centuries before he'd been broken out by his compatriots. Loki was younger in his art, and had no allies on the outside to hope for rescue. Quite the reverse. He wondered what Odin would do if the Chitauri really did come after him. Probably fight them off: it wouldn't look very good for the Allfather to yield the son he was still pretending to love to a band of monsters out to torture him to death. It didn't matter. Loki had no intention of buying protection with his imprisonment, even if that bargain were offered him.

He went out onto the terrace a week later and watched the first day of the apple harvest: laughter and music between the ranks of trees that rose even to his cell, maidens dancing in fluttering white gowns very like his own prisoner's shift. Loki saw Frigga and Odin when she came to bless the harvest, a glimpse of Thor moving among the feasters once, flash of sunlight on his golden hair.

The Bifrost repair had been completed. That night it flared again for the first time. Watching it, Loki knew Thor had gone back to Midgard, then, and his mortal pets. Presumably on the excuse of helping to repair the damage Loki had done: really, Thor was doing well out of the whole thing.

That was a good thought, a useful thought: one that made him stronger. One that made him ready. The harvest was always a good day for beginnings anyway.

"All right," Loki said to the air. "The other way, then."

His food came and went each day upon a tray which appeared on his table at dawn and vanished again with sunset. He had already trained them to send him only bread and water, in anticipation, by leaving everything else they offered him untouched. In the morning, he drank the water, then took the bread and went out onto the terrace and crumbled it to pieces on the ledge. The sparrows and magpies found the feast first, the larger crows and ravens coming shortly after. Loki stood back and enjoyed watching them squabble and snap and celebrate over the bounty.

"After all, it's the harvest," he said to them. "Why shouldn't you feast, too?"

It was an unexpected reward to have their loud and quarrelsome company, after a month of silence. He began to dole the bread out three times in a day: it also gave the smaller birds a better chance at getting some crumbs before they were shoved aside.

Hunger was unpleasant at first, but he soon learned to ignore the tightness in his belly. He'd never liked pain, and he could do without it now, but he'd learned a new meaning for the word that had nothing to do with the physical. To distract himself, he walked back and forth across the tower chanting all the alphabets he knew, reciting poetry that he invented as he spoke, solving aloud mathematical problems which he posed for himself. He could have asked for new books, but that would have been pathetic.

After three months, he began to have vivid dreams of a great feast, and woke three mornings in a row with his mouth watering and the tormenting savor of fruit and meat on his tongue. With discipline, he managed to force the dream to expand, faces gradually coming clear one after another: Odin, Frigga, Thor, Sif, all the other warriors and ladies of the high court around a long table groaning with a feast: Loki's own funeral, when they'd all thought him dead.

In a few more days of this effort, their voices began to come in and out, a babble that at last resolved itself into laughter and song: Volstagg shouting of his valor on Midgard against Loki's destroyer, Fandral bragging of another romantic conquest, Hogun speaking of a hunt; all telling tales of their own glories and exploits, Loki conspicuously absent, and none of them looked particularly steeped in sorrow.

Loki woke from the vision and lay on his narrow couch: so they had mourned him, had they, Thor? He laughed a little, breathless with something between rage and delight: how had he ever believed he deserved to be called a skillful liar?

He rose with renewed strength and determination from his bed, confident, so it took him unprepared that evening, the bread nearly all crumbled out of his hand and the birds already eating, when he looked down at the last hunk of bread in his fingers and found he could not finish. He stared at it, trembling with want, and could not let it go.

He stood there and struggled, panting. He tried to recall all the laughing faces of his dream, tried to remember Odin's face looking down upon him from the Bifrost, tried to call to mind a thousand slights and insults dropped offhand from Thor's lips across a thousand years. His mind was blank. He could think of nothing but the piece of bread, soft and fresh, how it would taste in his mouth; and after that a whole loaf in the morning, and another the next day—he could leave a note and ask for more food, he could—

The crows had come, cawing in greedy pleasure. He barely heard their voices. One of the magpies, chased from the feast, leapt up onto his hand. He stared at it. It tilted its head, looking back at him, and then it snatched the hunk directly from his hand and fled in a rush of beating black and white, away from the tower.

Loki staggered back, his hand empty, and sank onto the couch. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

The next morning, he was prepared; he went to the tray, took the bread and tore it quickly, scattered it all at once over the terrace and brushed the last crumbs from his fingers before he had any time to think. The magpies descended in a delighted flock, and Loki looked at them. "Thank you," he said, and one of them lifted up its head and chattered boldly back at him. He kept the crows and ravens off them with a summoned gust of wind, to make up for having put all the bread out at once.

He fasted all the winter. He arranged the furnishings so he did not need to often stand: the table by his couch, in arm's reach; the couch alongside the open window to the terrace. The cold did not trouble him, after all. He fed the birds and kept them from famine while the snow covered the ground, and began to learn the tongue of magpies for amusement: they spoke in chatters and in the tilt of wing and angle of tail, with bright inquisitive eyes.

When the first buds of spring threw a haze of palest green over the trees below, he made the first trial. There were no knives or utensils given with his food, but there was a rough sharp place upon the corner of the tray. He put his thumb against it and pressed hard. He held his breath, and then the quick flash of pain came. He brought his thumb away with a single tiny bright spot of crimson blood upon it, where he had managed to break the skin: with no enchanted weapon, no great exertion of strength. He gazed upon it, smiling. He used a piece of bread to blot it and wipe the tray, careful not to leave any red traces for his jailors to see, and whistled to the bold magpie: it came and took the bread from his fingers, with a pleased chatter.

He watched the courtship flights from his couch, and threw pieces of bread to those who most particularly impressed: it was no longer so difficult not to eat, a pain that had lingered so long that his mind had barred it from his attention. The bold magpie won a handsome mate, and they built their nest further up the side of the tower from his terrace, between two crenellations at the top. Loki could partly see it if he leaned over.

The air was growing warm, coming near the solstice, when the eggs hatched: seven small voices Loki heard calling above, and he saved back a handful of bread for the magpie to carry up to his brood. Three days later, though, he woke to distressed cries, and saw a tiny ragged bundle of fluffed black down on the terrace, with a pair of large ravens perched on the terrace rail looking it over with predatory mien. The magpies were busy feeding the rest of their brood, who had pushed out the runt; they cared nothing.

He was shocked to violent rage: for a moment he would have flung himself up the tower, he would have torn the nest from its moorings and hurled them all to the rocks below. Then sense reasserted itself, and he let weakness drag him back down into his couch. There was no purpose in wasting his anger or his strength on them: they were only birds acting according to their nature, for all he'd made playthings of them.

Then one of the ravens leapt down and pecked at the distressed hatchling, which cried out and tried to flutter away with its useless wings. Loki hadn't risen from his couch in three months, but he pushed himself half-falling from the bed and staggered on wobbly legs out on the terrace. The ravens retreated before him. He gathered the tiny magpie in his hands and carried it within. It cheeped softly in his hands, trusting. Foolish creature.

There was a little blood on one wing; he washed it with some of his drinking water, and then he fed the hatchling a meal of the tiniest crumbs of bread moistened with his own blood, and bedded it down in a nest of soft scraps torn from his shift. He kept his hand upon it at night to keep it warm, and sang the songs of children to it softly, in place of its mother's voice. It soon fluffed up and grew stronger: he fed it by hand, and gave the other birds only its—her—leavings.

As she grew older he spoke to her in Allspeech and she answered in the magpie tongue; she had no raven's head for philosophy, but she liked poetry and rhyming, and would invent jokes which she took glee in telling him with great ceremony: he found himself laughing a great deal more than their quality merited, despite the weakness that left him breathless after.

He had never before had a pet: Thor had been too rough with young animals, when they had been children, and when they'd grown older, Loki hadn't seen the purpose of giving time from his books to the tiresome husbandry of caring for a beast. It had not occurred to him he might have enjoyed the company of so small and dumb a creature. "But quite honestly, you're a better conversationalist than half the court of Asgard," he told the magpie. "And significantly smarter than Volstagg, for one."

The magpie fluffed her wings in confident agreement: she didn't see why anyone who lumbered around on the ground all the time would have anything interesting to say, anyway. At least Loki had the sense to come live up high.

She was beginning to fledge; soon she would be able to fly. Loki stroked her with a finger. He'd delayed his plans a little to stay with her. Once she flew away, it would be time. He'd weakened himself enough. A week more, perhaps two.

A few days later, the magpie had begun her first stumbling flights from side to side of the tower room, and the Bifrost opened briefly: Thor coming home, perhaps for Midsummer Day. Dull with advancing weakness, Loki stupidly did not pay it any particular mind; he'd already devised the plan to work whether Thor was present in Asgard or not. So he took no further precautions and woke startled out of his usual afternoon stupor the next day to find Thor standing over him, his face horrified, saying, "What have you done to yourself?"

Loki tried too late to get away: Thor seized him in both hands and dragged him up against Loki's gasping protests. "I am taking you to the healers," Thor said grimly.

"No!" Loki said, cursing Thor and himself, groping for a spell, something, anything. He managed to fling the table into Thor's path with a child's charm and trip him, and tried to get away in his stumble; but Thor merely kicked the table across the room in pieces and seized him again. Loki struggled uselessly, in despair. It wasn't going to work: this wasn't enough. They could heal him of this easily, and then set a guard upon him to make sure he ate, henceforth.

Thor was dragging him easily to the door, and then—and then the magpie flung herself into Thor's face, yelling insults and pecking at his eyes, beating him around the head with her wings. Thor let one hand go. Loki seized the chance, tried to wring his arm loose from Thor's grip, and then he saw, too slow, too late, Thor raising his hand, and he cried, "No!" as Thor struck the magpie away, and she tumbled out of the sky and fell to the flagstones of the terrace, still.

Loki stopped struggling. He felt a queer sharp pain in his breast. Thor had taken his arm again and was saying something to him. Loki did not hear the words; he was staring at the small still body, and tears were running hot down his face. Thor's voice slowed and stopped. "Let go of me," Loki said, into the silence. Thor released him. Loki limped slowly across the room and out to the terrace. He knelt down with difficulty on his stiff legs and picked up the huddled heap of black and white feathers. Her body was still warm.

"Loki," Thor said behind him, low, "was it your pet? I am sorry."

"You're always sorry," Loki said. "What difference does it make to what you've broken?"

He knew without looking behind him that Thor flushed and looked away. Loki stroked the soft black feathers, and then he set the magpie down on the stones again. "You were a true friend," he said softly to the bird. "Forgive me." And then he took the two steps to the rail, and flung himself up and over.

Thor's cry followed him down. It wasn't a long time falling: six heartbeats, and he smashed heavily into the jagged rocks about the tower, and knew no more.

#

He woke in the healing hall, in agony. He sighed with relief: agony meant they hadn't been able to properly heal his long-weakened body. He opened his eyes and looked around. He was secured, of course, shackled hand and foot to the bed. There was a tall glass pillar of revitalizing serum standing by the bed, an infusing spell upon it: they were putting it directly into his veins. It was trivially easy to cast it off. A faint alarm chimed; Loki waited for the healers to come into the doorway, two of them, before he threw the second spell, the one that shattered the pillar and dropped a wet jagged piece of glass into his hand as the amber liquid spilled everywhere.

"Come near me and I'll have one of your throats, at least," he hissed at them.

They hesitated, wise enough to be wary, and retreated from the chamber. He leaned back against the pillows to gather his strength, waiting, until Lady Amaudin appeared in the door with the two healers behind her. She came a few paces towards the bed, not too close. "Prince Loki," she said sharply, "you are ill."

"What you mean is, I am mad," he said. "And I suppose I may be, but I'm not suicidal. I don't want to die."

"Then let us help you," she said.

"No," Loki said. "Because as little as I want to die, I want to be a prisoner less." She pressed her lips together hard and glanced back at the two young healers watching anxiously: witnesses. Loki managed not to smile. "I will have no aid from you, no healing," he said. "I refuse it, as is my right, being of sound mind."

"Your injuries from the fall are great," Amaudin said. "You cannot live long without care. Loki, allow us to—"

"Do I have the right or not?" Loki hissed.

After a moment she said, "You do."

"Then we're done," Loki said. "You can send me back to the tower or keep me here, as you like, but don't let any of your lackeys come and poke me: I trust it's not too much to ask that I be allowed to die in peace."

They left the room, and he shut his eyes again and lay back to wait. At least he'd made it this far, out of the tower walls—had bettered old Ymir. That was something to carry him into the land of the dead, if that was his fate. And surely his little magpie would be waiting for him on the road, if valor counted for anything: he thought of her flinging herself at Thor for his sake, and his eyes stung anew. No one had ever challenged Thor for his sake; anything he'd ever gotten from Thor, Thor had given.

He slept a little despite the pain, and woke to Thor's voice rising, angry, in the hall. "Do you mean to let him lie there and die in your care?" he roared. "I did not bring him here that you might sit idly by. He is shattered, he can scarce lift an arm, and yet you fear him? You there, fetch the medicines: I will come and hold him still, and you will give him whatever potion, whatever—"

"Prince Thor!" Lady Amaudin snapped, because if there was anything that could rouse that old witch, it was the precedence of the healers in their hall. "That is enough. Your brother has the right to refuse healing."

"My brother is mad!" Thor shouted, probably trying to loom over her: dear Thor, so splendidly infuriating. Loki would have laughed, if he hadn't hurt too much.

"I cannot call him mad because he prefers death to a prison," Amaudin said caustically, "nor am I a jailor's assistant: if you wished to ensure he could not thus escape the law, you might have kept a closer watch upon him. It is no part of my duty to force healing on an unwilling patient because you find it more palatable to forget him than to bury him."

Oh, that had probably smarted. Loki did laugh a little, then, and was sorry for it: a tearing pain seized his midsection, and he began to cough helplessly, blood coming up sharp and metallic on his tongue. Amaudin came into the room, Thor on her heels. "Water," Loki croaked, between the shattering coughs.

She gave him a glass and stood frowning over him, a hand hovering over his chest. "One of the wounds to your lungs is torn open again," she said. "If we do not close it, you will soon drown in your own blood."

He swallowed down enough water to be able to speak. "No healing," he said, when the spasm had passed.

"Loki!" Thor said, bending over him with his face appalled, his hands clenching. Of course: he probably wanted to grab on to his mad broken brother and shake sense into him. "This is—do not do this! You know Father would free you if only you would—"

"Grovel?" Loki said. "Promise never to do it again? Swear to be good?" He gasped another breath, instead of a laugh. "I'm not that good a liar." He looked at Amaudin. "How long?"

"Before you die? A few hours," she said. "But Prince Loki, I must warn you: you are weakening swiftly. Even if we act at once, there is now only a chance; in a quarter of an hour, you will be beyond healing. Even if you wish to live, then, we will not be able to help you."

Thor gripped a hand into the bedclothes and bent low. "Loki," he said, his voice cracking. "Let them heal you. Say but one word, say yes—I will speak with Father, I will—I will—"

Loki spat blood in his face. "You have everything," he said, as Thor recoiled. "All Asgard and all Earth and all you desire, the love and worship of all. And you'd begrudge me even my death. No." He turned to Amaudin. "I understand, Healer Amaudin," he said formally, and even managed to incline his head a little bit—the picture of determined courtesy in the face of failing strength, exactly the right counterpart to Thor's furious bluster. "I thank you for honoring my will."

She nodded, grudging, but his: she wouldn't let even Odin command healing to be forced on him now, Loki was certain. "Will you let us ease the pain?" she said.

He considered, but he wanted a clear head. "Not now," he said. "Perhaps nearer the end."

Amaudin gestured to a woman who had come in with her, young to be in the full white: one of the healers who'd first tried to come into the room. "Lady Sigyn will remain should you change your mind."

She turned to one of the acolytes hovering by the door and said, "Send word to the Allfather and Allmother that they must come soon, if they wish to make their farewells." The young man nodded and disappeared, and she left the room behind him.

Thor had retreated stricken a few paces from the bed. He looked bewildered, as though he could not understand something he could do nothing to repair: Loki saw him look at the shackles, as if he thought to break them open, presumably so Loki could run for freedom; he even took a step towards them. Loki didn't quite snort, but he managed a noise enough to convey disdain: it didn't take being a healer to see it wasn't the shackles keeping him in the bed anymore.

He looked at Sigyn. "May the bed be moved to face the window?"

"Yes," she said, and looked at Thor. "I must ask you to step back, your highness." She raised her hands and murmured a quick spell to raise and move the bed around, by herself: not a complicated spell, but also not part of the healing arts; a sorceress, then, and not just a healer. Lord Harvad's daughter? Loki thought, and tucked it away somewhere, if he ever had a chance to use it. She drew the curtains open, and raised the bed up that he might look out and see a little of the city and the fields beyond.

He nodded her his thanks, and she hesitated and said, "Highness, it is not yet too late."

"Would you turn and walk back into a cage, when you saw the sky before you?" Loki said. "If you knew they wouldn't let you get close to freedom ever again?"

She shook her head a little. "Tell me when you wish me to ease the pain," she said, and withdrew into a corner of the room.

Loki shut his eyes and enjoyed the feel of the wind on his face: he'd grown used to the air moving through the tower. Thor moved slowly to the side of the bed and sat down. He was breathing strangely, as if it were he and not Loki in pain. It helped a little to listen to him. "Loki," Thor said after a moment, "will you truly quit the field in this way? This is a defeat, not a victory—this is no escape, but a rout."

Loki opened his eyes. Thor's face was wet with tears; he looked dazed with misery. "Then you should be rejoicing," Loki said, "as the one who's defeated me."

Thor flinched. "I have never wished to be your enemy," he said, brokenly.

"And yet you muzzled and chained me and threw me into a cell to rot," Loki said. "Have you had a pleasant time on Midgard, brother, while I starved myself to escape the torment you'd left me in? Enjoyed yourself with your mortal lover, I imagine? Was she glad you'd made her safe? Did you describe my prison to your friends, and assure them that it would hold me, that I had no hope of liberty?"

Thor made a noise as though someone had slid a hot blade into his vitals, and buried his face in his hands. Loki smiled.

"Loki," Odin said from the door. "Enough. Thor took no joy in your imprisonment, nor did I. You know well the terms: you had only to ask for anything which might have eased you."

"Except freedom," Loki said.

Odin shook his head and looked at Sigyn, who had risen to make him a courtesy. "Healer, you will attend the prince. He is not well: I will not see him destroyed by this madness."

Sigyn said, "Allfather, I am ready to ease him whenever he should ask it. But I will not force healing on him; Lady Amaudin—"

"Lady Amaudin has been relieved of her duties," Odin said flatly. "You will do as I command."

Loki felt a moment of panic: the door was swinging shut, just out of reach of his grasping fingers—

And then Sigyn swallowed and put her shoulders back and said, "Sire, I will not."

Odin stared at her, as though shocked to be refused. "Father," Thor said, springing to his feet. "I will go to the other healers, I will find one—"

"Go!" Odin said. Loki forced himself to wait, forced himself to wait until Thor had gone away from the bed, was nearly at the door, and then he snatched the second glass shard, the one he'd concealed under his pillow, and in desperation dragged it along his forearm, slashing open the vein.

The blood burst forth, crimson everywhere, and Loki fell gasping against the pillows as weakness rolled over him, even as Thor tore the shard from his hand and seized his arm, gripping closed the wound. "Heal this, at least!" he cried to Sigyn. "Stop this bleeding—" She bit her lip, hesitating, but she did not act.

"Sethtaz," Odin said, the word burning through the air like fire. It scorched Loki's ears, but he held on to it anyway: he knew at once what it was, one of the greater words of power. He had never been able to wring one out of Odin before. A word of closing, of shutting; the wound on Loki's arm shut like a box.

The sheets were blood-soaked, though, and a crimson pool wet upon the floor, still dripping a little from the edge of the bed. Loki felt weakness rolling over him like a wave, a shadow beginning to steal in from the corners of his sight. Thor's arms were around him, Thor was calling his name, and Loki decided he could let himself enjoy the warmth and strength now, at least; he let his head lean back against Thor's chest.

And then the darkness faded back as a fragrance came into the room: the scent of apples, not merely of the fruit but of the dirt in which the tree took root; the scent of a green branch peeled open in the first days of spring, of the blossoms heavy on the bough, of the heavy green leaves crushed; all of these together and with them all the sweetness of the final harvest.

Frigga gently sat down on the bed opposite Thor, the shining golden fruit in her hand, and with a small silver knife she cut a sliver, the thinnest slice. She held it to his lips, kissed his brow, and said, "Eat, my son."

It was life; it was summer; it was the bread he hadn't eaten, three hundred loaves in one. It was the warmth of the hearth where they had been baked, and he knew suddenly, the world beginning to grow thin around him, that Frigga had put her hands on every one of them: that she had blessed them before she had put them on the tray going to his prison, every morning of this whole long wretched solitary year. He drew a desperate breath: there was no greedy magpie here to save him, and he didn't think he had the strength to refuse. If she put the sliver in his mouth he would swallow.

"Mother," he whispered, hopeless. "Please."

She was very still, and then slowly, she lowered her hand.

"Mother!" Thor said.

"You are not my only son," she said to Thor, and she bowed her head.

Odin was standing by the bed, his face baffled, somewhere between rage and horror. "Loki!" he shouted, a cry that sounded so like real agony that Loki nearly broke then: nearly reached for the apple, nearly cried for forgiveness, for healing, for his chains back, if only Odin would—if only Odin would—

But Odin wouldn't; Odin never had, never would. That was only a lie. At least death would be true. Loki dragged his eyes away to the window: there was a small black bird flying in the distance, towards the citadel; it could even have been a magpie. He fixed his gaze on it while the pain closed in.

Each breath was a struggle now, and he couldn't get enough air from them. There was a heaviness low in his chest, beneath his ribs; he coughed again and tasted blood once more. There was silence in the room around him. So, it turned out there was only one way out of the tower, not two: it would be death, after all. He would have called for Sigyn, then, but he'd spent his last words to ask for freedom, and not for relief; he didn't regret them.

The black bird was coming nearer, and he saw a flash of white in the tail: it was a magpie; he wondered if perhaps it was even his own, come to lead him on. He would have liked to ask the others if they saw it.

"Father!" Thor cried. "Father, please."

Odin heaved a breath and said, "Loki, you are free. Asgard will never imprison you again. So be it."

The shackles burst and fell off his limbs onto the floor with a clatter. Frigga pressed the apple to his lips instantly. A drop of juice landed on his tongue; with that burst of strength, Loki managed to chew; the first sliver gone, he could take a slice, and then he was sitting up, shakily, and cupping the apple close to his mouth and biting deep, the sweetness exploding on his tongue beyond anything he'd ever imagined.

He'd been given an apple on his coming-of-age, like every noble child, to fix his age; he'd remembered it ever after, but it hadn't tasted like this. This apple tasted exactly like victory, he wanted to tell Thor, and better still: it tasted like freedom; but he couldn't stop eating long enough to speak.

Thor had risen from the bed to make his cry to Odin. He stood over Loki watching him eat until Loki took the apple into his own hands, and then at last Thor backed away and slid down the wall and sat with his forehead resting against his palm. Regretting all those assurances he'd given his mortal friends, Loki imagined as he chewed, unremorsefully. He should have known Loki would find a way out.

Loki didn't feel guilty in the least, but he was feeling magnanimous: he'd won, after all. Loki remembered suddenly one of the worlds he'd fallen through, in his long exiled wandering: Rigaheim, he'd called it, as there were no sentients there to have given it a name. He'd stood upon a cliff overlooking a pack of massive tusked and clawed beasts a little like mastodons crossed with saber-toothed tigers, fast and vicious as they took down an even larger beast, and he'd thought involuntarily, Thor will love hunting these.

It had been a flare of agony, then; a reminder of the completeness of his defeat and exile. Now, perhaps—he might take Thor there. They wouldn't need the Bifrost; Loki could slip the two of them between the worlds alone, and bring Thor to that cliff and show him the pack; together they could run in their trail and bring them down, and afterwards lying in the grass they would look up and he would tell Thor stories of alien stars.

He luxuriated even in the simplest part of the idea: that he could make a plan, imagine a journey. He kept on eating: there would be time to tell Thor later. And then there was a fluttering rush of wings, and the magpie darted wobbly through the window and landed on his bedspread. Loki lowered the apple and stared at the bird, even through his savage hunger: because it was his magpie, somehow, after all.

It plainly wasn't a moment for bursting into tears, so instead he said to her, "I see: now you get here?"

The magpie flipped her tail: this flying thing wasn't as easy as she made it look, and why had he left her behind, anyway, just because she'd been dazed for a moment? She cocked her head and looked at the apple. It smelled quite nice. "Yes, and it's mine," Loki said. She hopped to his shoulder and peered down at it as he took another enormous bite. He could share a little.

Loki ignored her and ate another bite, taking the apple down to the core. He was feeling stronger by the instant: the wounds had already healed; now his gaunt limbs began to fill out again, the hollow concavity of his chest swelling back to strength. He was already well enough to urgently want a bath; he was half drenched in clotting blood. He slowed down a little, nibbling around the core to make it last longer.

Odin was staring at the magpie, his face strange. "Where did you come from, little one?" Frigga said to the bird, and reached up a hand to touch her back; the magpie hopped neatly to Loki's other shoulder, evading, though birds and beasts loved Frigga above all others.

I don't see why I should follow the crowd, the magpie said, and while Loki glanced at her bemused, she darted her head out lightning-quick and snatched a piece of the remaining apple core out of his hands—it had broken in two as he gnawed it slowly down to the pips—and fled out the window with her prize, the flip of her tail triumphant. Loki shouted after her, "Wretched little thief!" and laughed for very joy.