"But those plans no longer matter."
It's bad enough that there was even a plan in Odin's mind at all, and feelings of betrayal and so many other things flooded over Loki. "So I am no more than another stolen relic..."
"No. You were always more. From the moment your eyes met mine, trusting though you had never been given a reason to trust anything... How you've changed since that day." Odin took a deep breath. "If the entire army of the Jotun had marched after us to reclaim you, I could not have handed you over to them then."
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Because I thought it was safer for you, my dear Loki." He looked away, then back. "I have put off my sleep as long as I can, my son. Sit with me. Talk to your mother as she keeps watch. And then we can talk again once I wake."
He held out his hand, and when Loki had taken it and climbed the few steps still separating them, he pulled him close and put an arm around his shoulders. "Would you help an old man to his bed?"
"Yes... Father," Loki said while looking out of the corner of his eye for the reaction.
The squeeze of his shoulders was an answer not even Thor could have missed.
"I wanted to tell you while you were growing up, but he thought it best you never think you were different."
"So I would never know I was a monster..."
He turned towards her.
"Never ever think that! If anything, you've proved it's the way Jotunheim forces them to live that makes us see them as monstrous. Although, given what happened to you..." She looked away, clearly distressed.
"Anyone can lose track of a baby in a battle."
She turned towards him. "That's what you think happened? Loki, exactly what did your father tell you?"
"That he found me in the Jotuns' temple after the battle, abandoned. That I trusted him immediately. That I was small for a giant."
"And what do you think you were doing there?"
"The same thing that would happen here in Asgard to such a child. There would be a ceremony to let everyone know that he might never be fit for the battlefield and that he would need guidance as he grew to find another place to fit in. A man who can craft a sword may yet not be fit to wield it, as the saying goes. It's how this city was built, how we have the weapons we bear. One of the old men who designed the Bifrost has never walked without a crutch. If he had been left to watch as the other boys played at war that potential would have been lost to us."
"Oh my Loki," Frigga sobbed.
"Loki, you have been to Jotunheim. You have seen the giants, seen their realm. Is there any place for such a person among them?"
Loki's eyes filled with tears and he shook his head slightly in confusion, not understanding why he was having that reaction. "What do you mean, Mother?"
"Shh. Come over here. Sit beside me, my little darling."
He did so, and she pulled him close in her arms.
"Loki, you came to us hours old. You'd been cleaned up, but barely. No matter how the battle went, if Odin hadn't walked into that temple, you would have starved or died of exposure, possibly before the day ended."
"Mother..." Loki sobbed, weeping openly.
"Yes, my son. Laufey never acknowledged you existed except to disclaim you on the day of your birth. Odin's was the first friendly face you ever knew, and your first food was broth from stew dripped into your mouth from one of his fingers, he was so afraid you would die before he could get you to the palace. Thor wasn't weaned yet then, and so I had him at one breast when Odin came into the room with you. And oh, I took one look at you and knew in a moment why I had another." She smiled at him through her own tears. "And the moment you had your first taste of milk, you latched on so hard I thought you would never let go. Oh, and I can still see it like it was yesterday: Thor flailed his little hand over and caught hold of yours. And so you are Loki Odinson of Asgard, brother to Thor, and have been so since you were less than a day old and just as surely as if I had borne you into the world myself."
When he had cried himself out, she dried his eyes with her sleeve.
There was a clanking in the hallway, then in the doorway. As Loki looked up, the guards bowed and a man bearing Odin's staff marched past them, into the room, and then knelt before Loki.
Loki glanced at his mother's face.
"Thor is banished, Loki. Your father acknowledged both of you as old enough for responsibility in his absence. Until your brother returns - and believe me, Thor will find a way if there is one - you are heir. And while your father sleeps this little while, Asgard must have a ruler."
Loki took the staff, staring at it in disbelief.
They all filed away.
"It is yours, for the next few days, my son."
Loki looked back at her. "Father asked me to stay with you."
Frigga smiled at him. "I know what will make him happy: Thor alive, you alive, and no more wars when he wakes than when he fell asleep. And his sons happy. I don't think he would begrudge you a short sit on the throne and having your friends bow before you just the once, knowing it will likely be just the once."
"I wish Thor were here."
"So do I. But oh, think of the look on his face when he realizes his actions meant a frost giant sat on Odin's throne."
"More like a frost midget," he grumbled, but he was grinning for the first time since he'd seen his skin tinge to blue.
Sif was going to hate this in all the right ways.
"That's the spirit, my little trickster. My - temporary - King Loki."
It was the third day when Odin finally stirred.
Loki immediately turned toward him, bowing his head and offering the royal staff back freely.
Frigga stood. "I'll give you men some time alone," she said, giving Odin's hand a squeeze before she walked out of the room.
"Oh my son," Odin said as he took the symbol of his power from Loki, "I would not have had such responsibility on your shoulders."
Loki clenched his eyes shut. "Because you wouldn't want a frost giant sitting on the throne of Asgard."
"No. Because recent events have told me that neither you nor your brother are ready. Not for more than a peaceful day. And because it was thrust upon you at the least stable moment of your life. That I find my throne returned to me in the same condition I left it is a testimony to your capacity under pressure, Loki."
It wasn't exactly a statement of paternal pride, but Loki'd take whatever he could get.
"Heimdall sent word to Jotunheim of Thor's banishment. It appears Laufey sees no reason to press for further retribution against Asgard."
"And you had no contact with him in my absence."
"None. All news passed through Heimdall."
Odin nodded as he sat up. "That is good. Very good."
Loki shifted in his chair. "I'm sorry it was me in your place first, Father. I know you favor Thor..."
Odin cut off his words. "Loki, if I have spent more time with your brother, it was because I knew that as the firstborn he would be inheriting the throne of Asgard and because he and I have so much in common in how we face the battlefield. I could teach him things that..."
"...that I would never need to know."
"No, that you would never have use for. Better that you learn how to use that tongue of yours than to learn how to swing a warhammer you would barely be able to lift. And if your brother had not swung his, you would have successfully talked yourself, your brother, and your friends out of Jotunheim. Talked! Do you have any idea how few in the nine realms could even attempt to do that?"
"I couldn't talk Thor out of going."
Odin sighed. "And if your brother gets his act together and learns the lessons he needs to learn, he will be more receptive to wise council in the future. Midgard runs on skills such as yours these days."
That brought Loki's head up. "Really?"
"They are many nations in one realm, my son, sometimes without so much as a stream dividing one from another. Even when they were all run by the strongest, there was great need for those such as you." The corner of his mouth quirked up. "There are even among them some who have abandoned kings, and spend great amounts of time letting their swiftest of tongue attempt to convince their countrymen to let them rule for a time."
"Different rules for different realms, my son. That would never work in Asgard."
"So what am I? Mind suited for one realm, body meant for another, raised in a third...? Forget simply being a monster, I don't belong anywhere!"
Odin smiled at him. "Loki, on Midgard where agreements between nations are constantly negotiated and adjusted by necessity, there are people, swift of tongue and mind, whose entire lives are spent in diplomacy as their rulers' proxies. Some of the best of these understand their negotiation partners as they understand their own nations. You are a man of Asgard who need never fear freezing to death in Jotunheim."
Loki felt tears welling up again. "Was that your plan, so long ago?"
"No. I meant one brother for each throne, a natural alliance. But you never grew as your bloodkin do, and so could never hold their throne long even if there were a way to claim it. And there were things I did not know about the Jotun then. Loki, you must never attempt to claim Laufey as kin."
"Because he will kill you if you do. Even if their abandoned babes survive and grow strong, it is a fatal insult for them to claim their birth families." Odin rested a hand on the back of Loki's neck. "I found that out before you took your first steps, my son. You have no memories of any time when I still held my original plan for your future to be even slightly workable."
"Then why did you keep telling me we were both born to be kings?"
"I wasn't telling you, Loki. I was telling you and Thor, to get it into his head that you had no less a birthright than he, even if he was the only one of you boys in a position to collect. So that your position as king's brother would afford you power of counsel when he does take the throne - which will not happen soon, as even when he returns he will have quite a bit of learning left to do before I'll feel secure stepping down. He made that clear with the events leading to his banishment."
"And there is a way for him to come home?" Loki asked, and he blushed at the way his voice broke with emotion.
"Yes. One I am sure he can find, should he be willing to grow. But that is up to him now."
"And you had this in mind when you sent him away?"
"Yes, of course. What is worrying..." Odin closed his eye. "When did you begin to suspect?"
"A frost giant grabbed my arm. My glove froze to bits, but my arm... My arm turned as blue as he was."
"Did he live?"
"I don't know, we were both surprised and then I just wanted to get away."
"So, I have cast out my trueson in front of his milkbrother who already had cause to doubt his own position in our family."
Loki said nothing. What could he say, and given his prank had led to the disastrous mission to Jotunheim in the first place, he could easily find himself thrown through the Bifrost as well.
The thought of being in a strange world without his powers, especially his illusions, for defense made his blood chill in a way that frightened him even further.
"Come, sit beside me."
Loki did so, and the Allfather - his father - wrapped an arm around him.
"Now, why would you be so afraid of this possibility, Loki?" Odin's words were soft, but Loki could feel the edge underneath. "What brings this terror to your heart?"
He already knows. Loki could only hope that being given a chance to confess it himself was a good sign.
"I... I have messed things up again, Father. Like I always do."
"And what has my youngest son, my little trickster, done this time?"
Loki swallowed. "I thought Thor wasn't ready, but no one would listen. All I could think to do was disrupt the ceremony."
"And so you let Jotun into Asgard." The disapproval in his voice made Loki shudder.
"A few. I had control of how many. And I knew the Destroyer was there. The Casket was not in real danger. At least I think I'm sure it wasn't. I only agreed to help them into Asgard - getting the Casket and leaving were their problem."
"But I didn't anticipate how Thor would take having his special day disrupted. Nor did I fully contemplate the possibility my actions could be a threat to the peace between realms. So when Thor went warring off, I went with them and left word of where we were going, what he was doing, so that you would have a chance to put an end to it. Heimdall tried to warn Thor off, but he wouldn't listen. And then I talked us out with the peace intact. We were even turning to leave, walking away, and then someone insulted Thor and it all went to pieces again."
"And so you blame your brother."
"No, I don't!" Loki insisted. "But I nearly had everything fixed. Only... I didn't count on someone I thought to be an egotistical impulsive hothead acting like one."
He looked up at his father's face, trying to get a glimpse of anything that would give Odin's reaction away.
There was a glint in his eye that Loki found oddly familiar.
"And I suppose I should have expected that you of all people would have problems understanding hotheads," Odin quipped.
It took a minute to recognize the reference to his parentage and the glint of mischief he'd often caught in his own reflection.
Loki smiled tentatively. "I suppose so."
Odin patted Loki's arm. "And this is why you are viewed as such a troublemaker: you admit error and try to fix what you have done. Thor does not, and in the comparison you suffer." That was when he turned stern again. "Which does not negate the need for punishment."
Loki closed his eyes and nodded. "I know, Father."
Noise out in the hall.
Sif charged in. Loki didn't even have to open his eyes to recognize her footfalls. "Allfather... Oh."
His little sit on the throne had gone nothing like Frigga had planned. If anything, it had proved Thor's questing buddies really did merely tolerate his presence.
And Sif had still been - very nearly literally - up in arms about Loki's defense of Odin's reasons for banishing Thor.
It had all gone wrong.
"And for what reason do you barge into my chambers, Lady Sif?" Odin demanded.
"Allfather, the Warriors Three and I were given reason to believe during the events in Jotunheim..."
They were actually listening for once, when Laufey spoke. Damn. Damn damn damn.
"Laufey seemed to believe there is a traitor in your house, and there's only one person we four know of who could have arranged..."
"Sif," Loki groaned.
"This time you've gone too far, Loki. Allfather, please listen to me."
"And this was urgent enough to not so much as allow your presence at your sovereign's chambers to be announced?"
Loki trembled at the boom in his voice. Nice job getting him good and riled at our generation just as he's about to punish me, Sif.
Loki finally opened his eyes in time to see Sif pale, finally seeming to realize what she had done.
"Sif, I just finished confessing," Loki told her.
"Oh. Well, I uh..." She started walking backwards.
"Stop!" Odin ordered.
"Since you are so intent on sticking your nose in royal matters..."
Loki closed his eyes again. She's never going to forgive me, even if it is her fault.
"Loki, much of your brother's punishment was not for what he did, but rather for his complete lack of responsibility for his own actions, his twisted logic of what it means to be leader of even the smallest fighting force, and his continuing lack of understanding his own place in the universe."
Here it comes.
"You, however, are an entirely different problem. You do, on the whole, take responsibility for what you do... And you must do so far to often. And when you do things that span the borders between realms, I must take responsibility for you as well. Do you understand?"
He hung his head. "Yes, Father."
"And you take responsibility in the wrong ways. Loki, had you merely confessed to your brother and your friends after the ceremony, this would have remained nothing more than a disagreement between brothers. Instead, a prince of our realm has been banished instead of chastised and there is a risk of war between realms. You were all very nearly killed, and had I fallen into the Odinsleep a few hours earlier you would have been."
Sif's breath caught.
"And so, it seems to me the best solution to your continuing problems is the Midgardian custom of grounding."
The word is ominous and speaks to Loki of being thrown to the floor or dropped from great height. Nothing pleasant. "Father?"
"Between the end of the evening feast and the breaking of the night fast, you will remain in your rooms unless seeking either your mother or I within the royal quarters. Should we be outside them, you will send a guard with a message of your need."
Loki's heart sank. At least physical punishment could be faced like a man. This was the restriction a mother placed on a child too young for even the bluntest wooden practice sword.
"Under no condition whatsoever will you leave Asgard without my express and explicit permission. Under no condition will you communicate personally or through any device or illusion with any subject of any other realm, even if they be on Asgard, other than to express this limitation on your actions, unless it be with my express and explicit permission, nor will you perform magic of any kind in their presences. Any offense or insult you give to any Asgardian will be patched immediately in the open, not by more hidden trickery. You will not have any more chains of trickery until you have proved you can handle one event at a time properly. Magic in the open in permissible in repairing the damage, but only in the open. Do you understand?"
"And, since the Lady Sif has been so gracious in becoming involved in royal matters..."
Sif squeaked. She honestly squeaked. Loki had never heard her squeak, at least not after they were old enough to have bladed weapons, and that had been ages ago.
"...during the daytime hours when not traveling to or from meals, you will be either with me, your mother, or her, or you will confine yourself to your rooms, unless I have given you express and explicit permission to do otherwise. You will confine yourself precisely to the limits of any such permissions I give, and the only exploitable boundaries will be ones I intend you to have access to. Do you both understand?"
"Sif, as I and my wife both do have official duties and you seem to spend your days in training and jest with my sons and their other friends, you will be expected to fulfill that role of watching Loki regularly. Should I find him spending days without leaving his quarters apart for meals, I will be quite cross with you. Wait directly outside the door, Sif, for I would have a word in private with my son and I feel the best beginning to his new way of dealing with his responsibilities will be explaining to you and the Warriors Three exactly what he has done."
Hel, please take me to your realm now. I don't care abut Valhalla, I've never loved mead songs and war stories much anyway, just take me now, Loki thought.
"Loki, look at me."
He lifted his head and opened his eyes.
"You are not my hostage. You have never been my hostage. You can never be my hostage. If these restrictions begin to feel as though you are, you are to tell me. You are my son, I love you, and I never want you to feel that way in our home. Do you understand this?"
Loki nodded. "Yes, Father, I understand."
"And do you understand that these restrictions mean that any attempt to remove you from this realm will be stopped, for there will be no question in the guards' minds about whether they should allow it as an act of your own will?"
"No one working for Jotunheim can abduct you from Asgard without making their actions clear, even if you be forced to walk casually under threat."
He blinked, then nodded. "Yes, Father. I understand. And it also gives me good excuse to retreat from any place where Jotun may be for diplomatic reasons, or even to hide within my rooms while such a delegation is present."
Odin smiled grimly. "Exactly, my son. And always remember, this is meant as a help for you to learn how not to ever cause trouble like this again."
"So, I can get privileges back."
Odin nodded. "If you prove you can handle them again without becoming a threat to the realm or to yourself."
Well, Loki thought, that's something to work with.
"Now, go and start explaining yourself."
Sif was on him the moment he stepped outside.
"This is all your fault."
"All my fault? You could have waited. You could have let yourself be announced. You are responsible for the punishment on your own head, Sif!"
"And I wouldn't have felt the need if..."
"If you hadn't taken over!"
"That wasn't my choice!" he hissed at her. "Thor was gone. I was the heir. Until he gets back, I am the heir. I only left Father's side to go sit on the throne because Mother insisted, since it will hopefully be the only time in my life it's ever permissible! 'Go sit on the throne' she said. 'Get your friends to bow to you once' she said. 'Have fun.' The Allfather was still half-asleep when I offered back his staff and his power, Sif! And now I know exactly what all of you think of me, Thor's tag-along brother. Would you four have even tolerated me if we weren't princes?"
Sif looked like he'd just slapped her.
"I was doomed from the moment Thor decided to go warring off to Jotunheim," he told her, calming down and forcing his voice to follow. "But you could have been kept from this."
"You? Care about something like that? You never do!"
"How do you think I keep digging myself into these situations? Trying to fix things when everything falls apart and people besides me start getting hurt! That's what Father ordered me to stop doing, because it always gets out of control."
The guards in the corridor were making very transparent attempts at looking everywhere but at Sif and Loki.
Sif noticed it too, and they began walking toward less populated parts of the building.
"If you cared, you wouldn't have done what you did."
"I did that because I cared. If an infiltration like that had happened just a little later, Sif, an hour or two perhaps, how many of us would already be dead on the crags of Jotunheim?"
She stopped and stared at him.
"No one would listen to me say anything against the perfect prince. Even things that were true. I care about Asgard, Sif. And though I love my brother, the realm comes first. He nearly got us all killed for the sake of a ceremony being postponed."
"Maybe he'll be different when he gets back," Sif offered.
"He'll have to be. Our father won't let him back otherwise, but he's not saying what the required lesson is."
Sif thought for a moment. "Maybe he doesn't want to make it easy. Maybe... He did leave a way open for you to go to Midgard and help."
"Oh really. Total ban on travel, Sif."
"Not total. Only with permission. And he did say the only holes in the rules were ones he meant you to have available."
"So I personally shouldn't learn what Thor has to do to get home."
She shrugged. "Seems like it to me."
He shook his head and laughed.
"Thor's trying to learn something to let him leave Midgard, and I'm going to have to get back Father's trust in order to go to Midgard."
Sif joined in the laughing. "I want to go with you, if you manage it," she asked.
"But how do we do it?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You're asking me for input into a tricky plot?"
"Sif," he said seriously, "you're my minder until further notice. If I don't include you, chances are you're going to make everything fall apart."
"Well then, that changes things a bit," she said, straightening and smiling somewhat. "I'd say we follow the Allfather's instruction for you to confess to the Warriors Three, and then see what things look like from there. He said no multiple stage plots, but it's not really a multiple step plot if you go one stage at a time and fix errors as he asked, is it?"
Loki looked at her with new appreciation. "You're good at bending rules."
"How do you think I managed to get where I am? Or do you think Thor's right that it was all on him."
Loki snorted. "Not likely. He should never have said that - if you weren't capable of holding your own on a battlefield you would have never been allowed near one even at Thor's insistence."
They started walking again.
"And besides," Loki told her, laughing again, "don't think I've forgotten who ended up teaching us so much advanced knifeplay."
"Invented it myself, more like it," she grumbled. "Weapons training for men like Thor is no good for either of us, but it's the proper war tactics of Asgard."
"Knife practice once we get done with the Three? Until dinner?"
"Or in the morning if there's not enough time left," she answered back. "It's going to take a while for your father to calm down." She shook her head. "My father is going to hate this."
"Sif, we spend practically all our social time together anyway."
"Because Thor's there. Father's been convinced there was something wrong with you since we were kids. He's never told me exactly what he meant. Oh, get that look off your face, Loki. You ought to be used to people his age having issues with your battlefield magic by now. And you'd better know by now that I don't have a problem with someone weaker than Fandral resorting to any advantage they can get."
"Oh, I am so touched," he cracked, trying to hide the pain inside.
Sif had been warned there was something off about him. She was still being warned.
And her father was one of Father's guardsmen long ago, Loki remembered. It was part of how he'd been convinced to let his daughter try her hand at arms at all.
He probably knows what I am, Loki realized.
And for the first time, he began to wonder just how many of the disapproving looks he'd earned over the years weren't even for anything he could ever control or change.
"Volstagg, this is not the time for insulting the Allfather's son in such a way," Fandral told him.
Loki felt hope at his words. At least one of them seemed to be sticking up for him now. And Sif had been okay once she started calming down.
"After all, given everything that's happened," the swordsman kept going, "well, if Thor can end up thrown through the Bifrost, what hope do we all have?"
Well, that's depressing. Two of the Three, against him but careful of Odin. And that left one.
Hogun stared at him for a moment. "Seems the Allfather believes all three of you have lessons to learn."
"Don't you start, any of you," Sif ordered. "I hear enough about not knowing my place from the old fighters."
"Not like that," Volstagg assured her. "Your fighting technique within the realms of your strength is second to few, Lady Sif, and those few be many times your age."
"It's your other techniques that are the problem," Fandral cracked, with a joking impression of a leer.
Or at least Loki hoped it was joking. He wouldn't have joked about a thing like that. Just about anything else, but not that.
Sif seemed less sure, if the knife in her hand was any indication.
"Politics, my dear lady!" Fandral corrected himself. "You are one of the best in the land at standing up for yourself, but your sense of where and how best to do it may be in need of some refinement."
It took a few seconds for Loki to take in that they were all four now looking his way.
He sighed. "I suppose helping with that is the least I can do, given everything."
"Great. Everything settled? Good. I want to go kill some practice dummies. Loki?"
He made a sweeping gesture toward the door. "Lead on, my lady."
It was the worst either of them had thrown in ages, but as Sif reminded him, they were both emotionally off-balance.
Then again, she was the one who still had a sense of aim left. Loki gave up after a half-hour for the sake of both their safeties and settled for making Sif grin predatorily with illusions of blood running from the new holes in the dummies whenever she retrieved her knives.
Loki barely slept that night.
When he dreamed, he saw all the faces over the years, all the odd looks, all the times he'd sensed their disapproval without knowing why.
When he was awake, he wondered how many of them had known and how many had simply been told that the second prince was an odd child to be tolerated because of his position.
The dawn was the only thing that brought an end to the misery.
Loki did his best to ignore the banging on the door.
"Loki, I do not care that your mother let you order food brought up here. I am not facing your father if you spend your first day under restrictions sulking alone."
He looked out on the spires of the city. How many of the people of the court were even now eating together at the long tables, laughing quietly at his misfortune and glad he was not present at the meal?
How much better would they think their lives if he simply kept himself to the royal quarters and retreated into his private rooms whenever one of them had cause to enter?
The hidden prince, forgettable, the spare heir no one had to consider unless the absolutely unthinkable happened...
He could have anything he wanted up here other than the gardens and interpersonal contact, and he knew how to use illusions to simulate both well enough that most people would be completely deceived.
You'd know, he reminded himself. You could never fool yourself that way. Not when you're keeping up your own illusions. Not when you're Asgard's master of the deceptive arts.
So, then, it was really just a matter of whether staying in his rooms with no one but his family to talk to was going to be more or less damaging than feeling unaccepted elsewhere in the city.
"Loki, I'll stand out here all day if I have to!"
He had wandered toward the door, pondering whether or not impatient Sif, Sif who just yesterday burst into the Allfather's private bedroom for something that could have waited a few hours, could possibly stand to wait outside a door for a day when another voice joined hers.
"Your food is here, Dear. Leaving your rooms for meals is optional. Eating is not."
Frigga hadn't been Loki's mother for a solid millennium without learning a thing or two about managing him.
He has to eat. He couldn't eat without opening the door, because no one would ever stick a flap on a door in the royal quarters and the entire door and the surrounding wall was magic-shielded against the kind of physical manipulation it would take to make a flap or even a simple plate-sized hole before the door was installed. If he opened the door they would both be coming in, and if he didn't open the door Frigga would use her rank as queen to get the door open the hard way.
She hasn't had to use the hard way since Loki turned 100 and the talk around him "Then I'll Be Summoning Your Father" caused started mattering to him. (Which was also around when he started to figure out not all attention from Odin was desirable, and didn't recent events show that little bit of childhood delayed development in an entirely different light?) Loki had always intended to keep things that way.
Loki gave in and unlocked the door.
They had brought enough food to feed three well and heartily.
"I could not bear to leave you here alone," Frigga explained after they had all broken their fast.
"And I couldn't stand what the old warriors were saying about you when they thought your father was out of earshot. She noticed, and offered for me to come up here as well. Father can't complain if I'm fulfilling the responsibility the Allfather set for me, especially not with your mother chaperoning."
"He can, Sif," Frigga gently corrected. "But all his grousing won't get him anywhere."
That seemed to unsettle her.
"He'll look the fool if he complains about you spending time with the queen," Loki told her. "If you had favored the crafts of women, he would be offering his best armor in exchange for such a thing."
But then Frigga was slightly shaking her head at him. "No, Loki. Her father is not the sort to do anything for a daughter besides ensure she looks on her mother's own handiwork."
"Oh I don't know," Sif said with clearly false lightness that had an edge like meteoric-steel to it, "he has one rusted set of practice armor he might be willing to give for me to gain an advantage."
"That would be the set of practice armor Father wouldn't let any of us use when sparring because of the risk of structural failure under direct blows or blood-poisoning from blows that glanced off and broke skin?"
"Yes. That armor."
"I thought he swore he was selling it as scrap after my husband rejected its presence near his sons so mightily."
Sif snorted. "No one would pay what he wanted for it."
Frigga sighed. "The old fool. He didn't even want you to have the barest minimum of defensive training."
"Thank you again for helping with that, my queen."
"Think nothing of it, child. It was no more than your due." She casually flipped a knife out of her bodice, and Loki was stunned to realize he actually couldn't figure out where the sheath was. "The wives and mothers of Asgard have always been our realm's last line of defense."
He and Sif shared shocked looks.
"You children were not born yesterday. Please tell me you did not honestly think I stay by the Allfather's side while he is in the Odinsleep because I fear what might happen to me while he is unable to fight in my defense."
Sif spoke up in a voice that would have been very quiet even had she not been Sif. "That's what my father says."
"Your father is a fool who took too many blows to the helm during the war, and rather than knock some sense into him they merely drove his own mistaken thinking further into his skull. Pay him as little mind as you think you must, Lady Sif."
"That would explain some things," Loki said under his breath.
Sif managed to smile.
"May we set up a target and practice with you this morning, Mother?"
"Loki, the idea is not for you to spend all your time cooped up."
"I won't let him," Sif assured her. "But I taught Loki, and I mainly taught myself as well, so having an impromptu lesson from someone who has been using blades for longer than we have lived is an opportunity not to be passed up."
"And here I thought I'd be spending my morning teaching Sif how to be the third in High Nor Low."
"High Nor Low?" Sif asked.
"It's a three-person card game we play with Thor. The goal is to have the middle score at the end."
"Thor always loses high," Frigga noted with a tear.
"Mother, what are your plans for the day?"
"Given the events of the past week, I had planned to be available if you needed me. For the next few days."
"So, would this be acceptable with you: knife practice here in private until midday. We eat here, then we play High Nor Low and plan out what my next actions in public need to be once Sif's comfortable enough to talk while playing. I decide whether or not to have the evening meal with everyone else. Then tomorrow I walk around in public again, either with you, Sif, or both of you."
"That sounds like a good plan, my son."
"Great, I'll go get a target we can set up, whenever Loki uses an illusion for one we end up breaking something..." Sif's voice trailed off as she sprinted through the door.
"I swear that girl needs to learn a bit of decorum to go with that spunk."
"What has turned you into a recluse this morning, Loki?" Frigga asked him.
Happy time over, then. "I heard them talking last night, and something Sif said... Some of the old warriors know, don't they? They were in the war, at the end. They knew Father got me somewhere. You said he fed me on the way home, and with Sif the first female fighter we've had who identified as such there's no chance any Asgardian capable of being pregnant went to Jotunheim in that campaign."
She sighed. "There is a great chance they do know where you came from - not who, I am the only one Odin ever told until he told you. And they must know as well that Odin's ire would be great against anyone who discussed it openly with those who were not there that night."
He buried his face in her shoulder. "It's all I could think about last night, the whispers, the glances... They've always known and I've never known and I always thought it was something I could fix but it never was... It never will be..."
Frigga held him close until Sif's footsteps rang through the hallway outside again.
If Sif noticed his eyes were red, the only thing she did about it was give him an opening to go last so his vision would have a chance to recover before letting Frigga see what her second son could do with his blades.
The morning went well.
Frigga had never seen Loki throw knives at close-quarters before, and of course neither Loki nor Sif had ever seen what she was capable of.
Knife-throwing turned into pointers about the short swords Sif favored when she had a choice of weapon, and that turned into a long discussion about how to chose and use found-weapons in an emergency.
Which led to Loki having a very queasy moment when he realized just how many of the furnishings that had been in his quarters since he was old enough to sleep away from Frigga's side for the night had likely been picked because Frigga knew how to turn them into means of defense with scarcely a moment's thought.
And that while Thor's rooms did have their fair share of such items, there weren't anywhere near as many.
How much palace intrigue was there when I was too young to notice?
When Sif had stepped away for a moment before the midday meal, Loki quietly commented, "This room is an armory."
Frigga gave him a slight smile that looked more than a little mournful and nodded. "Yes, it is. And that was intentional."
"Then why did you never teach me?"
"Everything had quieted down. We were sure none of the Jotun knew, and our own people... Well, there was no talk that I heard. And then you picked up knives so early and so well. When a man's weapon of choice is something he can carry anywhere but the bath, and keep near to hand even there, found-weapon skills are no great need."
"So I should be carrying as many knives as my armor will hold, now?"
Frigga clenched her eyes shut for a moment, as if trying to hold the very idea of the need away. "That might be for the best, my son."
"So, now that Sif doesn't need a rules check every other draw," Frigga said casually as she looked over her cards, "what is the plan going forward?"
"Father said no tricks to fix tricks gone wrong. Not until I've shown I can handle fixing them in the open, at least."
"Loki, I'm sure you noticed, since locking yourself inside isn't like you at all, but there's whispering going on."
"I've heard." He smirked, trying to put on the bravest face he could. "It's not like many people honestly like me around here, Sif. Tolerate, yes. Recognize as the king's second son and current default heir, certainly. But like? The Warriors Three don't even..."
"Loki." Frigga drew and rearranged her hand without looking at him.
Not a good sign. I usually end up losing low when she bothers rearranging...
"It's mostly true, my lady. Loki is noted for what he can do, valued for it even, but when it comes to who people think he is when the abilities do not matter and his bloodline does not count..."
Loki had to remind himself repetitively that Sif did not know, could not know, because he would have heard it long and loud if she had.
His real bloodline most certainly did seem to count.
"So, that identifies a problem that needs fixing," Frigga told them a bit more cheerfully than Loki would have liked. Good hand. "Now, what can be done to fix it?"
"Well, Loki certainly can't impress them all with feats of manly strength." She jokingly flexed one arm, and Loki felt a rush of something not completely unlike shame at realizing she honestly had larger biceps compared to total arm dimensions than he did.
"That likely would not work even if Thor were the one facing such whispers, Lady Sif. Although I must admit, you do have a point. Loki has never been good at such things."
He discarded and drew, scowling.
"You are good at other things, my son. Better than many of our people will admit."
"This is often so, I have noticed," Sif confirmed. "To be quite honest with you, Loki, even when you have annoyed or angered us, I doubt I or the Three would much want to be on a battlefield without you now. That trick with the mist saved our necks."
"What trick with the mist?"
"She was exaggerating, Mother." Except she really wasn't and if Frigga didn't know then Loki did not want an audience for her reaction when she found out.
Not unless that audience was Thor, and Thor would attract just as much ire from her for that particular stunt.
"So, what do I do?"
"You try to change their opinion of you, Loki. You try to change it the exact same way you changed Sif's opinion and that of the Three."
"I'm fairly sure Sif's father will pin me to the wall with his battleaxe if I fill the feasthall with an opaque mist, Mother."
Sif snorted and the physical motion of it was almost enough for Loki to catch a look at her hand, but it sadly was not to be.
"That's not what she means, Loki. She means making yourself useful. Doing magical work others don't have the skill or finesse to handle, out in the open as the Allfather demanded. Using your skill for figuring things out to help the people doing the whispering. Things such as that."
He snorted. "Sif, I don't know if you remember, but I tried making myself useful when I started learning magical theory. It didn't go very well."
"That's not true."
"Of course it's not true, Lady Sif. As I recall, my son's declaration was a distinct understatement."
I was just showing off, same as Thor, only with magic. Only... only I reminded them I was different.
I didn't even know I was different...
"I sit," Frigga declared.
"I give in," Loki responded.
"Loki, if there is one thing I know about you it is that you never give in. And I don't think I can fix this hand."
It only took a moment to calculate the scores.
Loki blinked, stunned.
"Why are you so surprised?" Frigga asked with a smile that made the folds around her eyes wrinkle. "You win half the time when we play with Thor."
"But you were doing all the same things you do when I lose!"
"Change of battlefield," Sif told him with a laugh. "I've been told Thor always loses high. I can barely play and so will likely lose low for quite some time yet. You needed to score less than your mother to win, not more."
He blinked again. "That's what I need to do."
"Beat me at cards a few more times?" Sif asked sweetly, with an edge that told him she planned on beating him before long.
"No. Change the battlefield. Right now, they're judging me for actions taken independently outside any cover of authority, correct?"
Sif nodded. "Exactly so."
Frigga was grinning, and Loki took it as a sign he was right.
"I need to make some actions under cover of authority, so that any grumbling ends up framed as not nearly against me. Father told me to fix mistakes I made out in the open and with strict limits on magic use. But he never said a word about limiting that order to future mistakes."
Sif stared at him.
"And given the overall stated intent of the restrictions, I could claim to be following his wishes, or at least attempting to follow them, if I thought back over time and tried to make up for my
long list of past mistakes. Starting with the cup-bearer I distressed just before Thor's ceremony. Mother, does that sound like a logical way forward?"
"I want to run it past Odin first, but yes."
"I want it run past him, since I'll be acting under his authority as Allfather instead of simply using my own as Odinson. If I manage to look worse by doing it, he'll come off worse than if I were merely acting as myself."
Frigga nodded. "Well-reasoned, my son," she praised him.
"Sif? I'll need you to be my minder for it, since having either Father or Mother with me would make what I'm doing look too much like a guided penance, so what you think matters."
She smiled. "I think I'm going to enjoy watching you try."
Loki ate the evening meal with Frigga in the royal quarters.
"There is only one thing I like about what has happened to Thor," she admitted over dessert.
"Oh? I wasn't aware there was anything to like about it."
She reached out to rest a hand on his arm and gave him a sad smile. "It's meant both Odin and I could have such time with you alone in these days, to help you deal with what you've finally learned about yourself, without feeling like we were slighting Thor. It's so hard to balance such things with two sons so close in age."
And Loki could feel the truth of it - apart from weapons' training, the time both he and Thor had with their parents had either been carefully balanced or had been spent with both of them together. For two sons who were milkbrothers, practically the next closest emotional thing to twins since they had been in each other's lives constantly since before either could walk or talk, together time with their parents as a pair had simply been natural, as natural as Loki tagging along when Thor joined up with Sif and the Warriors Three.
"I wish he were here anyway, but..." He shook his head, unable to bring himself to say it.
"Dealing with him would be a pain right now. I don't want to think about how he's going to react, but I can't help it. The things he used to say, the way he was willing to march on Jotunheim, the way he acted while we were there..."
"Loki, you're his brother. If anything, I think he'll get mad at them for abandoning you."
"I'm not so sure."
"Loki. Please, trust me. Mothers know these things."
The night passed easier than the one before, but Loki was still stuck wondering if Thor had meant a political or a racial definition of "all", if he'd been capable of understanding the difference when he swore to "slay them all", and if he was capable of understanding the difference now as he tried to sleep.
Disclaimer: I own no part of the Marvel movie universe.
Frigga brought a platter piled high to Loki's rooms before he could decide whether or not to venture out for the meal itself.
"For the sake of the door," she explained. "I didn't think it could stand another morning of Lady Sif trying to beat it into submission."
"And this also gives me an opening to tell you in private that your father loves the idea and gives his full and complete support to the reputation rehabilitation plan."
"That's good. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do today if he didn't."
"We'd just have to play High Nor Low until Sif starts winning," Frigga told him. "And then unleash you both on Thor when he returns."
Loki shook his head as he helped her lay out the contents of the platter onto the table. "Thor always loses high. Even when he gets horrible cards."
"I think once he's learned what your father wants him to learn," Frigga told him with a sadly knowing smile, "your brother's playing style is likely to change."
"So you know what that lesson is."
"It's something he must learn if he's going to lead Asgard well. I think your father believed Thor already knew, but that ill-considered trip to Jotunheim made it clear that Thor didn't. And your actions made it clear that you need a better sense of the wider consequences of what you do." She carefully filled her plate. "And there's something else you two boys need to understand."
"How to survive without the protection of each other."
"But in battle..."
"In battle you each can manage. We couldn't have allowed you to not learn that much, not and let you have separate living spaces. But everywhere else? Loki, you've kept him from consequences for centuries now. A joke, a trick, someone else to get a little mad at, and whatever Thor did, no matter how many times he'd done it before, was suddenly fine again with a token admonishment. You've talked him down from a rage so often he doesn't know how to do it himself anymore, if he ever has. The wonder of you nearly talking you six out of Jotunheim untouched has practically nothing to do with a single thing you said to Laufey, and everything to do with how you managed Thor."
Loki paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. "And what of me?"
She smiled at him wryly. "You have always had Thor's protection from the moment you two first met. Even when Odin was intentionally giving you some space to let you rise or fall on your own, Thor was right there to shield you. Sif and the Three were his friends first, and anyone who objects to something you have done has to consider that they are objecting to the favorite brother of Thor the mighty."
"I'm his only brother, I have to be his favorite."
"Loki, Sif is the only daughter of her father. Would you honestly ever call her his favorite daughter in anything but complete jest?"
It didn't require a moment's thought to have the answer. "No. And even if she fit his ideal of what a woman should be, no. He would push her to be married and then wash his hands of her, completely if her husband were not a warrior he favored. If it were not for the rank she inherited from her mother, the friends she keeps, and the Allfather's influence, he might have already disowned her long ago. This is a thing all of us know."
"Loki, the protection you have from Thor is similar. Those who would yell merely ask you not to do it again. Those who would tell you not to do it again think twice and stay silent. And so you have often offended without any hint to you - or to the rest of our family - that there was anything to apologize for."
"...This is going to be a long project."
"So, I start with the offenses I know about. And then..."
"And then, once the rest of Asgard learns that you care when you cause harm and wish to fix such injuries, and that your father agrees and has so ordered, you may find yourself hearing about the hidden ones. Some might even count you a changed man and let go of held feelings without letting you know so."
Sif came up to collect him after the meal was over, and they made their way down to the kitchens.
What followed was the most exhausting five days of his life.
Because if wasn't just the one cupbearer he'd offended.
All the years of dropped platters, the food lost to youthful schenanigans...
Once they got done recalling all the incidents they cared to recall to him, the list was rather... long.
"What can I do?" he asked. "Is there anything magic could mend or..."
"What we really need, Lad," the chief cook told him in a tone that gave no offense, "is another pair of hands. Or two, if your friend wants to do more than sit at a table and look pretty while we work."
"All right," Loki agreed. "It fits what I did."
"Where do you need us?" Sif asked.
"Let's see if the two warriors can man a spit as well as they can fight together," the cupbearer suggested.
The chief cook looked uneasy, but Loki and Sif agreed to try it.
Which quickly proved a mistake.
Asgard had long been an advanced technological society. They had the Bifrost. They had all manner of energy weapons. They had the means to manipulate matter and energy in ways that lesser beings rightfully called magic.
Food preparation had, by general consensus long ago, been kept to the old ways whenever possible. There was something primal about food, about knowing hands had prepared it, about knowing real beasts became the meat and the vegetables had grown, about knowing it had been cooked over a fire the way the earliest Asgardians had once done.
Which meant old-style spits such as any well-to-do Norse leader on Midgard would have had in his mead-hall's kitchens at the time of the Jotun invasion.
Old-style spits that radiated heat onto anyone who manned a handle.
Fifteen minutes in, the chief cook hauled Loki away from it bodily, threw a wet serving towel over his head and neck, steered him to a table in a shadowed corner, and forced a mead-mug of cold water into his hands. "No need to risk your health over childish indiscretions, Lad. Another five and..."
"Another five and I would've fallen over," Loki finished between gulps.
"Recover a moment, and we'll set you doing something else."
Loki noticed the eyes leaving them, the few workers who had drifted close - no doubt so that help could be obtained if he were more damaged than a glass of water could fix - drifting away again.
The chief cook looked at him out of the corner of his eye. "I rode with your father. In the war."
It took a moment for Loki's heat-addled mind to process what he meant. "You know," he whispered.
The reply was just as quiet. "Thought you didn't."
"After my brother was banished."
"Ah." A pause that made Loki feel very uneasy.
He knows. He could do anything. He knows.
"Did your father tell you how afraid he was for you?"
Loki made sure no one was watching his mouth when he answered. "Afraid enough to feed me before we could get home."
"Who do you think made the stew, eh?"
Loki blinked. "You."
A nod. "Don't be a damn fool trying to prove yourself to me. And we do have things here in need of magic." He raised his voice again. "Someone get me that pile of serving and tableware that Thor dented the other day. It'll be faster for him to magic them than for use to have them pounded back into shape. And someone find those pieces we haven't been able to fix from his previous tantrums. Lad caused enough of them."
There was general laughter directed at him, but Loki didn't mind smiling along so much when Thor was the largest part of the target.
And it helped, really helped, to know there was at least one person who knew outside the family and was willing to not just tolerate having a hidden frost midget around but look out for him.
So Loki mended the damaged plates, goblets, trays, and everything else he was brought, and Sif astonished everyone by how long she lasted before she needed to sit down, and then they both took midday meal with everyone and laughed at the jokes before the chief cook shooed them out so they wouldn't get in the way of the preparations for the evening. A few hours of weapons' practice, evening meal, and the day was done.
The next four days, they were set to lifting and carrying, or to a different kind of knifework, or even once to updating the pantry inventories. Again they were shooed off for the afternoons.
Loki found himself appreciating food more than he ever had before, and Sif agreed with him when he brought it up to Volstagg one evening over the meal.
He was actually looking forward now to what he might find out about how the rest of Asgard worked once he had done enough to satisfy the kitchens and started asking other people what he could do for them.
And oddly enough, apart from adding his own voice to the jokes, he hadn't felt the need for tricks. He still liked doing them - he tricked Frigga one night with illusionary flowers in a vase on a table before handing her the real bouquet himself - but the urge was gone.
He didn't know what to make of that.
Everything fell apart at the evening meal on the fifth day.
Frigga walked past the table Loki, Sif, and the Warriors Three were joking around at on her way out of the hall. "Your father and I are quite pleased with what you've done these past few days," she told Loki quietly. "You can stay until they start clearing everything from the tables, and whichever of your friends feels like escorting you home tonight may so that no one thinks you are wandering alone without permission when you come home for the night."
"My thanks to you and the Allfather," Loki responded in surprise. It wasn't an actual loosening of the restriction, but he'd felt that he needed to get back to his rooms as soon as he finished eating the past few nights just the same. Hanging around until the meal was over for the last stragglers had felt like a violation.
They had a grand time laughing and joking, with no lingering worry that Loki might outstay his father's limits on his behavior.
The raven Huginn even flew over for a visit, preening at Loki's hair and pecking at Volstagg until he admitted that yes, one of Odin's familiars did have the right to ask for that bit of ham and a bit of roll.
There was no risk to it. Nothing they were discussing was anything that Odin couldn't have already learned from Heimdall, and most of the talk was of long-ago events with Thor that they had already gotten disapproving looks for ages ago.
Their elders slowly filed out of the hall in groups as the evening drew on, until all that were left was the table on the far end of the room where Sif's father and his questing companions of old were laughing about their own long-ago exploits.
And then they must have either thought they were alone or been too deep in their mead to care, because Sif's father proclaimed, "Ah, things were good before the war ended. And now the rightful prince is banished while the ice runt remains. And has made play at being a king."
"It's a disgrace!" someone else declared.
Loki was dropping beneath the table even as he saw Sif's eyes widen. He grabbed her ankles in the manner of a man begging mercy from a warrior with the right by law to kill him.
A few seconds later, he felt someone slip beside him and place a firm hand over his mouth.
"I saw," Hogun breathed in his ear. "Stay quiet."
Loki nodded. Hogun lifted his hand.
Loki's mind swung back into a functional state. Of course. I can't hide alone, not and have it be believed. Now they can claim Hogun is walking me to my rooms.
Sif slipped a hand under the table and patted Loki's head, then wiggled her feet.
Loki let go, relaxing just a bit.
There was a sound of feet going off and out of the hall, boots ringing on stone accompanied by the clanking of armor.
Loki's blood chilled. He knew where they were going.
And if he had left the meal at the same time he had since his punishment had began, he might well now have been unknowingly moments from death.
"Loki?" Sif asked, as breathless as if she had run for an hour.
Hogun pressed a knife handle into Loki's hand, his fingers forced into closing over it. And then Loki processed what the warrior had done and said since their return from Jotunheim: he had known for as long as Loki had, and he had spoken of and to Loki as if nothing at all had changed. His suspicions had been based in and voiced from knowledge of Loki's skills with no mention of his blood.
And giving him a usable blade at this close a range, when they each knew very well what the other was capable of in battle, was a sign of trust nothing else in the world could ever match.
"One of the frost giants grabbed him during the battle," Hogun told them.
"His gauntlet fell apart, but he himself stood unharmed. He did not know. The giant did not know. It seems to me that the Casket was not the only thing the Allfather took away from Jotunheim."
"Friend?" Fandral asked.
It took a long moment for Loki to realize it was he who was being addressed.
"I did not know I was adopted until that day. I swear it. I was an abandoned newborn who had never had a meal. The father who sired me will kill me if ever I try to claim him. In all but blood, I am Odinson."
A heavy hand clapped him on the back, and if long training hadn't had him already holding the knife low to the ground the force could have easily stabbed Sif in the leg. "Well of course you are!" Volstagg assured him through half a leg of lamb. "Never doubted that about you, even when we thought... well..."
"That I was a threat to this realm?"
"You gave him back his throne without prompting, Loki," Sif reminded him, still trying to calm her breathing. "If anyone ever had any doubts about where your loyalties lie, that should have laid them to rest."
Loki looked down at the floor. "Volstagg, Fandral... you don't sound surprised."
"They aren't," Hogun told him.
Loki felt like running.
"He told us after you announced your intention to fix your reputation. You and Sif were spending so little time with us that my dear swordbrother here decided we could be told and react without you being any the wiser. And since you knew as well..."
"It would have been different if you didn't know," Volstagg assured him. He gestured with the now-stripped leg bone. "And of course we would have found a way to let you know if you hadn't."
"And why wasn't I informed," Sif demanded.
"My father's order," Loki guessed.
She shook her head. "Why wouldn't he want me to know when it now seems half of Asgard does?"
"No," Hogun corrected. "You are Loki's freedom of movement, on threat of punishment by the Allfather. If you had rejected Loki, it would have harmed both of you."
"We need to be moving," Fandral hissed. "They won't find Loki where they think he is, and when they don't..."
"We don't know where they would go next, or which corridors they are marching through," Loki told him. "We do know there are guards there and here..."
"And how many of the guards may know?" Volstagg asked him.
He had a point. A horrifically scary and flat-out terrifying point.
Any guard of Asgard could turn on Loki in an instant when told of his biological heritage.
Even including the chief cook and his parents, Loki had less than a dozen sure allies in all of Asgard.
And for the first time in all his years, he knew it.
Hogun had strong arms around him a moment later. "Wouldn't have thought you'd get cold here, of all people," he joked gruffly, covering for Loki's sudden onset of the shakes.
Sif put a hand on his shoulder. "If Huginn were still here, we could send him to get help."
Volstagg smiled. "There's a better way."
Sif's eyebrow arched.
"Simple, dear Lady," Fandral told her. "Heimdall, we have need of the Allfather's aid. There, that should do it. If he could hear us planning to go to Jotunheim, he can certainly hear that an Odinson needs the Allfather's attention."
A raven's cackle, and Muninn flew in.
"And what a fast response!"
"It means they already knew," Sif corrected him with an eyeroll.
The raven dove under the table and pecked at Loki's hair from a perch on Hogun's shoulder.
"Thanks for coming, feathered-lady," Loki told her as he ruffled her chest feathers with a finger.
She nipped the finger affectionately, then held out a foot.
There was a little multicolored string tied to it.
Loki's heart sank.
"What does that mean, I wonder?" Volstagg thought out loud.
Loki closed his eyes. Much as he had wanted to leave to help Thor, much as he actually enjoyed trips to other realms, he didn't want it to happen this way, for these reasons. "It means we need to get to the Bifrost."
The moment they got up, returned Hogun's knife safely to its sheath, and looked through the doorway, they were confronted by a solid wall of cloaks.
The guards stood there six abreast and three deep, shoulder to shoulder, their blades drawn, an impenetrable force blocking anyone from coming through the door whom they did not wish to allow passage.
It was a terrifying sight, even though Loki had grown up surrounded by them.
It would have been even more terrifying had they not been facing the corridor and his enemies unseen beyond instead of Loki himself.
"I need to get to the Bifrost," he told them firmly.
Their leader turned to face him. "Would my prince like an escort?" he offered.
Loki closed his eyes and counted to three. "Did everyone in Asgard but me know?" he ground out.
"We didn't," Fandral offered helpfully.
"We had to, Prince Loki. To be ready to step in if you were about to unknowingly do yourself harm, if nothing else."
He had to bite back a question of where they had been when he'd tried his hand at the spit, but then they had to have known the chief cook at the very least knew and there were usually very few guards anywhere near the kitchens.
Food was not, after all, something Asgard's enemies had ever thought was worth staging an invasion over.
"And you didn't stop my father why?" Sif asked haughtily.
"When they left, they had not done anything actionable beyond calling an Odinson a name." The guard grinned predatorily, and Loki was very glad he had never crossed any of the guard beyond an 'I'm going to make you smile on-duty' prank or two thousand. "They are being watched and followed. If they do anything worse, or show signs they had planned to do worse, they will be detained for the Allfather's judgment."
Sif trembled a little, just enough for Loki to notice it, but she nodded firmly.
"What we need," Loki announced, "is a distraction. We intend to go to the Bifrost, as my father has ordered me by way of his raven."
There was a helpful croak behind him.
"I intend to go to the armory so that we can arm ourselves more appropriately, then onward from there. If you can make them believe we are gathering food from the kitchens and going to retrieve personal possessions from my chambers, it would be most helpful."
He saw Volstagg give him a questioning look, but Loki said nothing in response. He thought he knew exactly what the objection was, and it was something that had nothing to do with his true plans.
Which Loki had no intention of giving to anyone who wasn't riding to the Bifrost with him tonight. Not when anyone who knew what realm he'd been born to was a potential assassin-of-opportunity and he had no idea who knew.
The guards left, marching down the corridor.
"And now what?" Fandral asked.
"We're not letting you go to the armory," Volstagg told him. "Too risky, they'll know you'll want weapons..."
"I have a plan. Just trust me," he told them all.
Just then, a door opened somewhere behind them. "My lord!" the chief cook called out.
They all spun around.
"There isn't supposed to be a door there," Loki stammered.
"Yes there is!" Volstagg laughed.
A feral grin. "You think we want to carry platters around in the same back passages running message-bearers use? You never come to meals early, dear prince. How would you have ever seen us, when we try to make ourselves just part of the scenery?"
Loki smiled. This... this could be better than he had planned. "Do these passages go near the outer stables?"
"You've had warm meals waiting there for your return from other realms and you need to ask that?"
They ended up stopping at the kitchens for supplies, if only because it was the hub of the tunnel system and therefore on the way no matter what they did.
"Guess who's back?" the chief cook called out.
The looks the gathered youngsters garnered were mostly uneasy, and mostly at Loki.
"We need traveling food for at least one. Enough to last a few days. Someone give me a bag." The chief cook started going through stored goods, picking out bits of things.
Loki was slightly disturbed that nothing fresh and nothing anyone else handed over was being put into the canvas bag that came from a corner somewhere.
Everything was stored for use by anyone. He's the only one to touch it since it was designated for my personal use.
He had never had to consider a risk of poison in anything coming from the palace kitchen. Eating in other realms in the wild, yes. Eating at home, where his father ruled, never.
And now someone else, someone who would know when food could be a threat because it was his business to know, was worried enough to take precautions.
"Is it true, my lord?" the cupbearer he'd pranked not even two weeks ago - could it really be such a little bit of time? - asked.
"That I need to get the Bifrost by the Allfather's order and have no idea what happens after I get there?" he asked back, trying to keep his voice calm and light.
"That we figured," someone cracked in the dry serious humor that had become so familiar the past few days.
Damn, he was going to miss it.
"He means the other," the chief cook told him with his head in a cabinet. "And yes, 'tis true. I knew. He didn't, not until Thor charged off to Jotunheim and dragged these five with him. Shock for anyone, losing contact with a brother and certainty of identity within six hours, ain't it?" The patterns of fireside warrior talk still came easily to him and it showed.
It also showed in the uneasy acceptance of the situation that came into the room, the automatic trust of a warrior's word beginning to win them over just enough for Loki to feel safe again.
And then someone laughed.
"Eh, a frost giant manned a spit - an Asgardian spit - just to make us fools feel better about some boyhood pranks? Knowing what realm he was born to? And the Chief here had to haul him away because he'd fall over before he'd give up? When the Allfather'd given him enough position to ignore everything he'd caused, same as Thor always has?"
"I prefer 'frost midget', if you don't mind," he responded politely through his shock, earning a few more laughs here and there.
That's what Mother noticed about us, Loki thought in shock as others joined in the laughter and it turned more and more good-natured as the seconds and minutes passed and he was drawn into back-slapping and shoulder-squeezing affection. Thor ignores, I takes responsibility. Only I hadn't tried fixing things openly before, so no one saw anything but blame on my head...
They'll tell the tale while I'm gone. The Jotun-born prince risking his health for the sake of kitchen servants' feelings. By the time I get back...
I've won. I didn't even know I was fighting a war but I've won. I just have to survive long enough.
And get my brother back.
And then the affection shifted, changed, became less about affirming a relationship between ruled and ruler's family and more about wishing him well for the journey to who knew where for who knew how long.
And then it was them - five young warriors out of their depth, one old warrior of a chief cook, and a raven perched on Volstagg's broad shoulder and pecking bits out of his ample beard as they went - back in the tunnels and working their way to the stash of weapons and armor the youngsters kept for sneaking off near the stables closest to the Bifrost.
There, then the stables, then the Bifrost, and then a realm beyond, the unknown destination closer with every step and the royal quarters he had occupied since he'd come to Asgard feeling farther away than they ever had.
By the time they made it to the stables and began to ride across the Bifrost in a bubble of conjured mist just in case anyone was aiming from a window anywhere, it felt like it had been days since the joke-filled midday meal in the kitchens instead of merely half of one.
Loki was tired.
This was so much different than any trip he'd taken to another realm before, even leaving out circumstances.
He was tired and weary, and had been before he'd even mounted the horse.
He hoped that wherever the Allfather had in mind, there would be a nice soft bed waiting nearby for him.
Little chance of that, even if he was sent where Thor was. Heimdall preferred to put people down away from habitation - it cut down on unfortunate misunderstandings and gave the locals a chance to think before they were close enough to react.
That was an essential consideration when dealing with a realm such as Midgard that had so little contact with the outside universe and none of it voluntary so far.
Sif had armed herself with her favorite traveling sword and shield set, the same one she'd used on Jotunheim.
Loki hadn't bothered. There was no other place on him to stick another throwing knife, not after he'd heeded Frigga's warning.
Mother's warning, he reminded himself. Bloodlines aside, even if Laufey could claim him and Loki wished to allow it, he would still call her Mother.
She had nursed him, fretted over him, held him after childhood nightmares, raised him beside her own as her own. Whatever plans Odin might have had for him at the very beginning, it seemed that to Frigga Loki had never been anything less or more than an abandoned child that needed a mother at a time when she had milk to spare and willingness and no child old enough to remember she wasn't the one who bore him.
And Odin's plan had fallen apart so early...
Yes. Them he could be absolutely certain of.
It was maybe the hundredth time he had run through it all since the Odinsleep had ended.
Loki knew it might well take another thousand times before he didn't question it in moments of stress, but he knew that time would come. Eventually.
Just not today.
So, his parents, the chief cook, and Hogun he could be absolutely sure were on his side. Fandral and Volstagg a bit less so, but they had still had plenty of time to turn on him if they had wished to.
And Sif. She had chosen the least debasing way to resolve his begging her for mercy even when still in shock at everything, and that spoke volumes.
The kitchen staff were far away now, and only mattered in future hopes for return. The same with the guard, and he wasn't even sure the entire guard was on his side.
He glanced over at Sif as they neared Heimdall's observatory.
Where was her father now? What was he doing? Was he even now in custody?
Was he dead?
Would he have a chance to disown her before his words became worthless or ended forever?
Was Sif already merely Sif, no more to be called Sif Styrsdottir? And if he hadn't? Would Sif chose to disown him, become Sif Gunnhildarsdottir after her mother?
And just who would Gunnhildr be siding with when her husband's perfidy came to common knowledge?
He shook his head. Not your problem, not anymore. Sif's picked her loyalties, and that's what matters.
And if he's disowned her, you aren't even going to be here to help her through it. Leave it to the Three, they treat her like a sister as it is.
But there was another impulse in his mind, one that said, Of course it's your problem, she's practically been courting your brother as it is and Thor has no clue any of this is going on.
How was he going to explain all of this to Thor, if their father let him go to him?
Another worry he didn't have the energy left to deal with.
Damn. Damn damn damn.
His parents were waiting with Heimdall. There was a single pack of supplies at Odin's feet, and it was clear Frigga had been weeping.
She ran to him the moment he dismounted. "Oh, Loki! If I hadn't told you to stay at dinner with your friends..."
"Then I would have just practiced all you showed me about how to survive an assault in my quarters, Mother." He tried to keep his voice light. "And it didn't happen. I'm here."
He felt one of her hands encircle one of his wrists firmly and knew she was reassuring herself that his heart was still beating.
"See? I'm fine."
"Not with a pulse that fast, you aren't," she whispered.
He looked to Odin, the raven already on his shoulder on her customary perch. "You are sending me away."
"For your own safety, until this is cleared up. I hereby lift the restrictions until your return, although I would advise you to take care you don't cause more trouble to make up for later."
Loki nodded, then made his move. "Please. Let me go to Thor. Someplace where there is at least one friendly face. I helped get him to where he is, and I'm not just talking about the Jotunheim excursion. Let me help him now."
The corner of Odin's mouth twitched up. "You can't trick him out of this one, my son. I made certain of that."
"I don't intend to try to. If nothing else, he could probably use the company. Appreciate it too, by now, along with words of home."
"It is a dangerous place for you, child of ice," Heimdall stated simply.
"And you sent Thor there?"
"He is in a place on Midgard only a bit less dangerous to you than the chill of Jotunheim is to him, Loki. I never intended you to go there."
Frigga rounded on her husband. "And if he had gotten it in his head to go while you were in the Odinsleep? Without a word of warning to him? Stars above, Odin, after what Gunnleifr here has told me happened in the kitchens, I wouldn't put it past him and did you not even bother warning him about heat? "
Odin looked as defensive as Loki had ever seen him. One scuffle won, Mother.
"He seemed to have figured that out instinctively as a child," the Allfather retorted weakly.
"So there's no way I can go to him," Loki said flatly.
All that thinking and planning and if they'd just told me...
"It is only slightly less dangerous to the Midgardians who make their home there," Heimdall said in his same always-calm voice. "All the technology they have to manage the risks would be available to you once you reached their towns. He is staying at a building called Smith kept cool enough you should be safe in a town called Puerte Antiguo."
Loki stared at him, hope rising again.
"It is a desert, with burning days and freezing nights. It is night there now. A few hours' walk would be safe enough."
Hope and despair sprang up at the same moment. Hours of walking...
"Thor doesn't know, " Frigga warned them.
"It's probably the safest time to ever tell him," Odin answered her.
Loki was dimly aware that his friends had dismounted and were standing behind him.
His friends. Not just Thor's. He wouldn't doubt that after tonight, at least not for very long at a time.
Frigga closed her eyes and nodded. "It's the longest they've ever been apart, as it is."
"Alone is not a good place to be," he said quietly. He meant it to be a statement about Thor, but the stricken look in Odin and Frigga's eyes let him know they were remembering just how he'd come to them.
Alone. Absolutely alone.
Odin nodded. "The risk to you can be lowered enough to make it feasible."
Sif strode to stand beside him. "Allfather?"
"I, Sif Neimadursdottir, make request to the Allfather that I might accompany the Odinson princes in Midgard."
Loki flinched. Calling herself 'no man's daughter' was not something she could ever take back. Even the matronymic would have maintained a family connection of sorts. This...
There was gasping all around as others realized what had just happened.
"My father has broken his oaths, abandoned reason, and led a mob with intent to attack a member of the Allfather's family. In times like these, all must choose. I choose to stand as far away from him as I can find stable ground to set my feet on. Metaphorically speaking."
"Physically speaking as well may be for the best right now, Lady Sif," Odin told her in a voice which was grave and kind all at once.
"I'll make sure there's a place for you here when you return," Frigga assured her with a quick hug.
Fandral swaggered forward a few steps.
"No," Odin said firmly without glancing over at him. "I have need of you three here ."
"Feeling too at home is more likely to delay Thor's return than speed it," Heimdall offered as well.
"But... they..." Volstagg stammered.
"And when have Sif and Loki ever not told Thor when he was being a fool?" Hogun asked his swordbrothers dryly. "And if something happens and Loki needs to get someplace cooler but cannot manage it himself?"
And that was that.
They said their goodbyes to everyone.
Odin held Loki by the upper arms after the Three had each clapped him on the back in turn. "This is not exile, nor even temporary banishment. This is fleeing for your safety and possibly very life. When that danger is past, you can come home."
"And if Thor can come home before it is safe for me? Or it takes much longer for Thor?"
Odin thought for a moment. "We'll see. This may end quickly. And he has already learned much."
Muninn pecked at Loki affectionately.
"I shall miss you, feathered-lady," he told her.
Frigga hugged him hard enough he practically rocked back enough to lose his balance. "Mom!" he protested with a laugh he couldn't hold in despite everything.
"Be careful. I love you - never doubt that for a minute."
Odin put a hand on his shoulder. "We both do."
"And make sure to tell Thor he's made me fret." She kissed him on his forehead.
At the very last moment, Hogun handed him the knife again, this time with the sheath.
Loki shook his head. "I have my throwing knives."
"You need a weapon that will stay on you," Hogun told him calmly.
And Loki realized exactly what he meant. Something for the Valkyries to see if the worst happened. "Thank you."
He and Sif grabbed the packs, Frigga fussed over him one more time, and then the familiar pull of wormhole travel sent them on.
The fear rose the moment his feet touched the ground.
It was cold, the middle of the night.
But under his boots, under the sand and the sandstone, far too close to the surface...
Sif had sunk to her knees, weeping.
Loki knelt beside her, suddenly aware of just how much taller than her he actually was, and put an arm around her shoulders. "My mother will keep her word, Sif. The Three and both we Odinsons have always stood beside you against him."
"Loki, I have no family..."
"No family from bloodties, yes. A thing of which I am also well and truly lacking. If I ever try to claim my birth family, I will be slain. Not by the Allfather, but by them ." He squeezed her a little. "You have made a name for yourself, Lady Sif. And I think in our hearts we all knew this would be coming someday."
She nodded. "It still hurts."
"Then the sooner we get to Thor, the sooner you can receive comforting from the both of us."
She smirked. "The sooner you can explain why he was banished as well..."
It took Loki a moment to decide whether that or the residual heat from below scared him more.
Instinct won out. "He'd find out sooner or later anyway, from Father on his return and no later than that if I did not."
Loki pointed. "There. Those look to be the lights of a town. We walk that way."
"There's a brighter spot over there."
Loki shook his head. "Brighter, not broader. We're looking for a settlement with resources and technology, not an outpost trying to work in the cool night under lights."
Sif was actually attentive, or as attentive as anyone with that many tear tracks on her face could be. "So that way, then." She forced a goofy grin and held out her hand. "Lead on, fair prince."
He shook his head, but took her by the arm anyway, their packs slung over their outside shoulders. "Let's go find Thor."
"My king," Heimdall announced when they two and Frigga were the only ones left in the Observatory and Muninn had flown off home, "Laufey demands an audience."
"Demands?" Frigga asked. "Odin, could he know?"
"He is standing on a hill far from their settlements, alone and weaponless. He says he will not leave until I bring him here to speak to you."
Frigga decided asking Heimdall might lead to actual results. "Has he figured out where Loki came from?"
"Indeed," Heimdall said evenly.
She felt herself chill.
But then, nothing had happened yet. And the current recementing of the truce had occurred far too easily... and under Loki's watch.
Odin sighed. "No time for it like the present, with Loki away. The Jotun lost their independent means of travel to other realms at the end of the war. Even if he wanted to find and harm Loki, there's no way he could get to Midgard to do it."
Frigga nodded. "I'm staying here. I'm the one of us who knows best how Loki has been handling this."
"He was abandoned ," Odin insisted. "Laufey will not care."
"Loki is small. We do not know their law." And you know less than I do, dear husband mine.
After all, Odin called Allfather was a proper Asgardian warrior.
And since he had never changed nor bathed the son of his blood, there was no chance he would do so for an adopted baby.
Oh, Loki had innately shapeshifted some as a newborn. Skin color. Eyes. A thin coating of hair beginning on his scalp.
Comprehending other changes were needed had taken a few weeks of bathing with Thor and the like. But in the end, his subconscious had taken the hint and made another physical modification.
She'd hated doing it, in a way, but the rule had been to keep him from ever feeling different.
And the secret of where the hidden Jotun women were was safe with Frigga.
Even as the mob had sought to harm him, they had no clue Loki was one of the Jotun 'women' they joked about being strong enough to rape when they were completely drunk.
Frost giants were too big and strong for the threats to be anything but laughable.
But Loki... her Loki...
Odin nodded to Heimdall.
The wormhole opened and for the first time Frigga saw a fully grown frost giant up close.
"Your request for a conversation has been granted," Odin stated simply.
"You are not the only one with a far-seer," Laufey said simply. "What has your second done to offend you?"
"Nothing," Frigga responded with tears in her eyes. "Loki has done nothing to offend us."
Odin glared at her.
"We all know ," she ground out. "Why hide things in private? This isn't a question of realms, but one of family!"
"He abandoned ..."
"Lofi was wanted !" Laufey bellowed.
"'Lofi'?" Frigga asked when the palpable shock in the room began to recede.
"What we had named him. After the palm of the hand we thought he might fit in once he was born. Already knowing there was no chance he would survive."
"And yet he..." Odin began.
Laufey shook his head. "On Asgard. Jotunheim is harsher. And there was no milk for him, in any case. His small size was not all that went wrong with that pregnancy."
Frigga's hand rose to her mouth in horror.
"By our law, none of us can claim him. Nor he us."
" That I knew. Loki has been warned not to try," Odin informed him.
"Then he knows."
Odin nodded. "So far as we can tell, he had little suspicion he was not ours by blood until... until Thor decided to pick a fight."
"Then we are even, in a way. The warrior who grabbed him is his youngest half-brother. We had thought he was yours."
Frigga shuddered. "So close in age. With nearly identical names."
"I had no heir. You had two."
"He has half-brothers?" Odin asked casually.
"Several. My first love died the year Lofi... Loki was born. We had no other children."
Well said, Frigga thought past the sympathetic ache. Unless you knew what she did about Jotun biology, the gender of that first love was hidden and without a single lie. No wonder
"No wonder we have been past diplomacy for so long, Laufey."
"Indeed, Allfather," Laufey confirmed dryly. "Now, why has he been sent away?"
"There was an an attack this night, by some who knew what he is. He and a friend who knows have gone to seek refuge for a time where I have banished Thor. Given his role in Thor's banishment, I believe he feels a responsibility to help Thor learn his lesson."
"And the hothead knows of his bloodline?" Laufey seemed to think the idea was laughable.
And considering what Frigga knew of her son's views, she had to agree.
"No. I advised Loki that given Thor's current physical limitations it might be a safer time to tell him."
"But he should be able to keep it secret if he so chooses," Frigga added quickly. "And this is temporary only. Until we're sure Asgard is safe for him again."
"And only Loki and we know he is biologically yours," Odin added in the silence that followed.
"So little time for so much change," Laufey mused. "How did he take it?"
"Badly," Frigga said flatly. "Mainly from the shock and that we told him he had been abandoned. He is fundamentally unsure of himself now, something I was trying to help him with."
"I could explain the circumstances of his birth to him, on his return. If it were allowed."
The look in Laufey's blood-red eyes made it very clear to Frigga that he wanted it to be allowed. Very very much.
"That would likely help," Odin agreed.
"Allfather, your presence is needed in the palace," Heimdall stated out of nowhere.
"Laufey, before you go, may I have a word?" Frigga asked quickly.
"Of course." He smiled slyly. "I find myself in possession of a personal debt that cannot be repaid in any way that would affect my people. Perhaps even be visible to them. A word... a word I can certainly manage."
Odin seemed to consider for a moment.
"A debt to your wife personally, Allfather. Not to you. Among us, sparing milk nature intended for a child yet living... it is not a thing that can be afforded often even to close family. That you would do this for the babe of an enemy..."
Odin nodded. "Heimdall, I trust you can get Laufey safely home once Frigga has her word with him?"
"Of course, Allfather."
He turned and left with uneasy steps.
Heimdall had stepped outside, just far enough that it felt like they were alone, though of course Frigga and Laufey both knew he'd hear everything they said to each other anyway.
"Now, what of that word you wished, Frigga?" Laufey asked very accommodatingly, folding his legs under him so that with him sitting on the observatory floor they were a lot closer to eye-to-eye.
"I know why the warriors have no idea where the women of the Jotun are."
Something flashed in Laufey's eyes.
"Loki does not know. Odin does not know. Thor does not know. Loki is something of a natural shapeshifter, and after enough exposure to what an Asgardian boy of the same age looks like..."
Laufey took a deep breath. "You intentionally made this happen."
"Odin wished him to never know he was different from everyone around him. Odin is a proper Asgardian warrior who would never change or bathe a baby unless there were no other way. He took one glance when he picked Loki up, classified him as male, and promptly paid no more mind to the subject. Loki hides it the same way he hides the rest of his genetic heritage. I'd imagine if he ever gets control over what he's been doing to make that possible, he might be able to chose whether to live as an Asgardian male or a Jotun male, but after over a thousand years of it..."
Laufey nodded, "His decision would be rightfully weighted to the familiar. And you did not force him?"
"Never," she answered vehemently. "I only increased the chance he'd do it. If he hadn't... well, I'd have had to think of other ways to help him."
"I suppose I don't need to request your silence?"
"You've already had it on that count all the days of Loki's life, Laufey." She smiled. "A question."
"Which of his parents are you?"
"Farbauti died before he was born. Nearly before he quickened. Does that answer it?" The bitterness in Laufey's voice was thick enough Frigga thought she could have cut it with one of Loki's throwing knives.
A posthumous child... "I'm so sorry."
"It was a random rockfall, no one's fault." The corner of his mouth lifted. "There are many things I can yet blame your husband for. That is not one of them."
She nodded. "Still... I have borne a son myself, and even thinking he was sure to arrive healthy and whole I can't imagine facing those last days alone." A moment's thought. "Your other sons. Are any of them..."
"No. I had no clue he had lived, no way to know where the problem had lain. I would not take the risk again. All of them were born fine and grew up strong and tall."
An empty span of time when neither spoke.
"Did you have any more questions, Frigga?"
"No, I didn't. But I was wondering if you did."
A eyebrow raised and an interested look that she knew oh so well. "And what questions did you think I would have?"
"How he was when he came to me. What his first days were like. Who his first steps were to. If Thor treated him well as a brother when they were small. What his first words were. Things such as that."
Hope glinted like ice in his eyes. "And you would be willing to tell me these things?"
She grinned and laughed. "What mother doesn't like to talk on and on about her darlings when she has the chance? Ask. Anything that wouldn't affect outcomes on the field of battle. Learn how your Lofi grew, Laufey. Ask."
The glinting became gleaming.
"Can we rest for a moment?" Sif asked.
"Just a moment." Loki set his pack down and she sat on it - his being the heavy one Odin had given them, the one that held equipment rather than food, the one firm enough to bear weight. "I can feel the heat in the rocks under our feet. They're still cooling down from yesterday."
"But... from everything we learned about Midgardian astronomy... for Earth's moon in that phase to be so low..."
He nodded. "The night's already over half gone."
They were nearly there.
In the distance, behind them, he could hear noises. Noises that tended to only come from technology, even if hardly advanced beyond smelting steel the hard way.
Good thing I've kept us to harder paths where I could, to keep our tracks covered.
With any luck, they wouldn't be followed.
"I wonder how Thor's been taking it."
Loki shrugged. "Father never explicitly told him there was a way home. Thor might even think it was permanent."
Sif shivered, hugging herself. "And he knew the Odinsleep was being put off for his coronation."
"Father shouldn't have done that." Loki paced a little. "It would have been better to let it be one last trial before the coronation."
"Given everything that happened, I won't argue with you about that." She stared into the distance. "Maybe another two miles, do you think?"
He tried to gauge the distance himself. "Closer to three, perhaps. Another hour, at the speed we've been walking. And then we find the building named Smith."
Sif stood. "Then we'd better get going again."
Loki picked up both packs.
"No." The word was firm. "I can handle..."
"Sif, normally I wouldn't dare. But right now, it looks like I've got a lot more distance endurance than you do on this terrain. At least here, tonight. Even though I was exhausted to start with. The important thing is getting to Thor before sunrise. And I'm not the one who's just lost everything she knew."
"Close enough, Sif Neimadursdottir. Close enough."
They walked on.
They were lucky.
The building named Smith - it was in bold letters over the roof, the only building in town so marked - was on the edge of town.
Their edge of town.
There was the clear flickering gleam of an intentional controlled campfire up on the roof.
They walked up to the side of the building as quietly as they could.
There was no sound from the roof.
"Hullo-ah," Loki called very softly into the still night air, an old Asgardian call for those approaching a campfire where battlefield reflexes were active..
The familiar sound of Thor grunting in his sleep, nothing more.
"He's asleep," Loki mouthed to Sif. "I'll wake him up."
Sif nodded, hiding her mouth behind her hand.
"Hullo-ah," he called a bit louder.
A soft "whuh?" and then the sound of someone lying down again.
He thinks he dreamed it. Loki smiled, and waited a minute or two before stating quite clearly in a normal voice, "Well? Are you going to let us in or not?"
The sound of someone falling onto the ground in shock.
There was a very female "What's happening?"
And then Thor was leaning over the edge of the roof, disbelief written all over his face.
The disbelief was in his voice, too.
"It's good to see you," Loki told him. "There's so much to tell you, and we've been walking for hours after an already long day. I don't suppose there's a place for two more bedrolls here?"
And every bit of it was the truth.
"How is Father? Mother? What happened with Jotunheim? Can I come home?"
Loki stopped in his tracks and sighed. So much for sleeping first.
"First, your banishment. When you've learned something Father wants you to, you can come home. And no, he hasn't told me what that is. But this isn't permanent, not intentionally permanent. And he fully expected you to be able to figure it out on your own."
"Then why are you here?"
"Internal political problem. My being away for a little while seemed for the best, and I requested I be sent here."
Thor hugged him.
Loki clawed down the thought of, You wouldn't do that if you knew.
"Next, Jotunheim. Laufey has accepted what Father has done to you as just punishment for your offense. No war. The truce is back to about what it was before everything happened."
Loki raised his eyebrow. A change of thought towards the Jotun would be a very good thing.
"I would hate our realm to be at war with me unable to help defend it."
No change of thought there. Loki thought himself a fool for hoping for it.
"Father entered the Odinsleep not long after he banished you."
"And you left him?"
"It's been days since he woke up, Brother." Loki forced himself to laugh. "He was fine when he sent me here. And I swear, the problem back home has nothing to do with you."
"And while he was in the Odinsleep?"
Oh well, Frigga had wanted to know Thor's reaction, had wanted the answer to be what it was, and Heimdall would surely tell her...
And it's a damned good way for me to find out how safe telling him my real biological ancestry will be.
"One of the Jotun managed to sit on Father's throne for a little while."
Thor was raging like his old self again almost before Loki was done speaking.
"Give me a name and I shall hunt him down and..."
"Remind me again how you ended up in this trouble again, Thor?" Sif interrupted before Loki could begin instinctively retreating.
Thor thought for a moment, then looked at Loki disapprovingly.
"How dare you jest about such a thing, Brother. If a Jotun had sat on Father's throne, you would both be needed for war and the peace with Jotunheim would not rest on their reaction to my banishment."
Loki shrugged, trying to stay calm. "Mother thought the look on your face would be amusing." He paused for a moment. "She also wished for me to tell you that you have made her fret."
"Mother truly frets for me?"
You're the only child she ever bore from her own body, fool, of course she frets about you!
"Truly," Sif told him. "I was there when she passed on the message to him."
"And Father worries too, in his way."
"So what did happen, Brother?"
"Loki was in charge for three days."
One of Thor's Midgardian friends dropped a glass in the next room.
"Ah, my reputation precedes me."
"I'm beginning to see why the Allfather wished you to have a minder."
Thor looked confused.
"You were banished. I was what the Midgardians would call 'grounded'."
"Which meant no leaving Asgard, no talking to anyone from other realms without permission, me constantly keeping an eye on him, no nighttime wandering... It was a fairly extensive list."
"On what grounds was this done? Surely he knew you had tried to stop me."
"And reported us on the way, or else the Allfather would not have rescued us in time," Sif added very dryly.
Loki was very aware that she had begun drifting away from him.
Out of the swiftly approaching danger he was surely about to be in.
"So that was no reason for Father to... Loki?" he asked in the ever-familiar tone that established Loki was caught, very caught, and there was no getting out of it now.
"I didn't think you were quite ready, and no one would listen to..."
He wasn't exactly aware of the punch when it happened, just of the falling to the floor clutching at his face that followed while Sif started moving between them.
SAFER, Father? SAFER? Thor may be weaker than he was before but...
He felt very inadequate and he wished desperately that Sif hadn't been there to see it.
The frost midget, still capable of being knocked flat by someone with nothing more than the physical capacities of a very well trained Midgardian mortal.
No wonder Laufey didn't want me.
And above it all, the absolute shock of it.
Yes, they had quarreled in the ways brothers so close in age must.
Yes, they had sparred as brothers so close in age must in a world made of warriors.
The two had never before been allowed to meet.
Loki had never tricked Thor out of anger and Thor had never used his strength and skills at war against Loki when he was fuming.
Words yes, both ways, often and loudly.
A female voice called out, "I'm getting the taser!"
The voice of the woman Thor had introduced as Jane yelled, "NO! Do not get the taser!"
And what their mother had told him only made it worse. Thor had been the first friendly being he'd known who he wasn't reliant on for survival.
Two babes, one slightly older than the other and born to the realm in which they found themselves but both very much in a new place figuring everything out. Together.
Milkbrothers, much as they were nothing alike. Real ones, not just on a technicality.
And this... this changed everything.
He felt tears on his cheeks and there was nothing he could do to stop them from coming.
Loki curled up a bit on the floor, hand still protectively covering the left side of his face even though it blocked most of his available vision, and tried to brace himself in case Thor managed another hit.
A hand on his shoulder and a shaky voice. "Brother?"
"I'm sorry," he pleaded. "It got out of hand, everything always gets out of hand, and..."
"I'm sorry, too," Thor cut him off. "I... If I can lose myself enough to strike you, I have no business being leader of anything." His voice was shaking, and Loki took his hand away long enough to see that the rest of him was too.
That was... new.
Loki spent the day peripherally aware of the heat only a few feet away through the wall, a coldpack - properly Asgardian from the supplies his parents had packed, constantly evenly chilled and no doubt a sign they knew well what Thor might do - on his face and Thor hovering like their mother had in the Healing Room the first time either of them had been honestly injured during one of their sparring matches.
Sif was somewhere else in the building, the woman Jane and her assistant Darcy who'd offered to get the taser - whatever that was - looking out for her.
Their colleague Eirk – there was no doubt in Loki's mind that he was the one who knew of him by name already - stepped in for a moment when he was nearly properly awake.
"I hope you realize the stories we have of your brother aren't exactly, well, nice."
"And I have told you before, more than half of those stories from that book of yours are completely inaccurate. Valhalla is our version of your heaven, not a physical realm as your skalds depict it. Balder is one of our own deities, obviously borrowed. And the entire concept of that one outlandish story about my brother's ancestry... It's impossible from first facts!"
This, I have to hear. Could the Midgardians know anything close to the truth?
Loki yawned as if he'd just been woken up by their discussion. "What's impossible?"
"A story the Midgardians have, that you are really adopted. From the frost giants."
"When a proper frost giant has twice my height, three times my strength, and four times my stamina running over distance?" Loki joked, even though it hurt. It was the truth, after all. Compared to his kin, he looked even worse than he did in comparison to Thor. Although, come to think of it, the strength could be based in increased muscle size from simply being larger, and the stamina from longer strides taking less effort for the same distance... He really did know so little about them, after all.
"Exactly!" Thor laughed.
"I just know what my grandmother used to tell us."
Loki settled back down. "What time is it?"
"Not long after noon."
"You should go eat." Loki yawned.
"So, why is Sif here?" Thor asked, completely ignoring Loki's veiled request for alone time. "And what pushed you from home? I... I didn't give you much of a chance to tell earlier."
Loki closed his eyes and focused on the comforting chill. "Sif's father tried to... well, probably kill me. We didn't hang around long enough to be sure how far he was going to..."
Thor hugged him so hard he couldn't get the rest of the words he'd planned out.
"Gah, let me breathe!" he finally got out.
"Do you honestly think she would ever cross our father outside of helping us put more gray hairs in his beard now that we've managed to turn the ones on top of his head completely gray?"
"No." There was no hesitation. "Never."
"And even if he weren't the Allfather, if it came between choosing us two or her father, which would she select?"
"Us." Again no hesitation. "So, he finally disowned her."
"Oh no, dear brother. She disowned him. And Mother's promised to look out for her, in a fashion." He yawned and Thor let him try to drift off again this time.
It was very hard not to flinch away when Thor held his hand, probably for reassurance that Loki was there at all.
You wouldn't do that if you knew, Thor.
And then the other question rose within him.
If he'd not looked Asgardian when Frigga put them together that first day of his life, as he must have by that point, if he'd been Jotun blue instead...
Would Thor have even done it back then?
Thor must have detected something was off. "Everything will work out, Brother," he assured Loki with that firm certainty he'd inherited from Odin.
And Frigga, now Loki thought about it.
"You'll see. We'll go home with Sif, and they'll welcome us home with a feast as the realms have never seen before."
Loki wished he could believe him.
After hours of lying awake staring at the ceiling, Frigga decided enough was enough and made her way down to the stables.
"It is not often you come to visit me before the day rightly begins, my queen," Heimdall told her in a voice full of his subtle humor.
"Did Loki make it to Thor safely?" she asked quickly.
After letting the silence hang long enough that he should have said something more already, she prompted, "And how did it go?"
"Loki has apologized."
That was good. Very good. And he'd been learning how to handle making good strong apologies, too.
"He is sleeping. Thor is keeping watch over him."
Frigga smiled, feeling warmth come over her.
Even if they were so far away from her, at least they were together again.
"Did he tell Thor?"
"No, he did not, my queen."
Oh my dears, she thought. It made sense to wait - after all, with the apology, it might well look as if Loki had intentionally turned on their family in favor of the one he'd been born to - but still, for them to have something such as this between them...
The image sprang to mind again of little Thor, not quite toddling yet, reaching out his little hand to Loki as he had his first meal.
Laufey had laughed, honestly laughed, when she told him, and oh...
It really was high humor that Thor, detester of all things Jotun, had done that, and for Laufey, who had never even once dealt with Thor on any other basis than exactly that, to hear tell of that incident, well...
That was something the Jotun king could appreciate.
And it had been important for Frigga to make sure he knew Loki had been accepted as if he were born to them from the earliest moments they could do so. She couldn't imagine what he must be going through right now, to find a child thought so long dead and unburied alive and thriving.
"Loki did tell Thor that a Jotun had sat on the throne of Asgard."
Oh dear. Frigga nearly wished she'd never suggested that. She'd mainly been trying to cheer Loki up during one of the most emotionally shaken moments of his life. If it had backfired... "What did Thor do?"
"Threatened vengeance on that Jotun until he decided it must be a cruel joke."
"Oh dear. How did Loki take it?"
"He passed it off as just such a joke and told him you had thought the look on Thor's face might be amusing."
Bless her fast-thinking boy. With a great deal of luck, Thor would see it as the truth it was whenever Loki did tell him, and understand just where she stood on the subject.
"My queen, all your fretting cannot help them," he reminded her lightly.
"Just so," she agreed and returned to the city with a parting nod.
Her boys would just have to take care of themselves now, and deities knew they'd managed in battle before.
Loki woke with a groan, feeling the threat of great heat nearby. "What time is it?" he asked after opening his eyes just enough to tell Thor was sitting beside him.
"Dawn again. You have slept a day and a night."
Not much of the day, really, if he was honest with at least himself.
It was a bad sign. He hadn't even noticed the onset of night. Given how tired he'd been on their arrival, he should have slept straight through the day and then had trouble not being wide awake during the night.
But no. He obviously just couldn't sleep comfortably with all that thermal energy so close. Becoming functionally nocturnal wouldn't be an option even if he were willing to explain everything to Thor.
Which meant being awake during the unsettling days.
He could only hope the nights were long enough here that he might be able to have some time out in the cool without becoming progressively sleep-deprived.
"That long?" He yawned and stretched.
"Sif was not nearly so tired. Emotionally..." Thor looked unsettled.
"It has been under two days since her world turned upside down, Brother."
"I never would have thought... her father set against ours, against the Allfather... for any of our people to wish you dead..."
Loki snorted. He'd seen the glares before and knew better. Maybe not dead, but close.
They would have considered their lives brighter if he had locked himself into the royal quarters and only left at the Allfather's specific and exact command to do so.
"Loki, 'tis so. Gagged until you calmed your tongue, yes. Taught to keep your tricks and magic under control, yes. Dead... dead is different."
"I heard them, Thor. They meant whatever they were planning. They hated me... had for ages, it seems now. Since we were small children."
"Then why did he allow Sif to..."
"... to run around with the perfectly acceptable first son and heir? When you two make eyes at each other as much as you do? Throw away a match with the next king of the realm over a distaste for a royal who may never touch the throne?"
Thor looked ill.
"So, what of these stories the Midgardians tell?" he asked, desperate to change the subject.
"That you are half-Jotun," Thor told him with obvious discomfort.
"False," Loki told him with certainty. He didn't even have to fake it - there was no way Laufey would have had a child by anyone but another Jotun. Not when his age pegged Loki as older than the known and recognized Laufeysons.
"A number of impossible acts of trickery and deceit. Including stealing apples of immortality."
He brightened. Not even Asgardians lived forever. "Really?"
"Loki." A stern look.
He laughed then sobered. This was not the time for jokes, but oh it was good to have Thor around to poke fun at again.
"And the bad one..."
"They think you're the one who killed Balder."
Loki could hear his heartbeat in his ears. "What?"
If anything could top finding out the monster he'd thought was hiding under his bed was actually sleeping in it all those years, this was it.
A moment later, a voice he remembered from the sleepy uncomfortable hours of yesterday - Selvig - was telling Thor, "That settles it for me. If he had, or was capable of it, he'd be calling it a good trick."
"I'm right here," Loki insisted in a voice still weak from the shock. "And I was right here last night. Whatever you think of me, I'm still a person."
A distinctly uncomfortable "Quite right" and then a hand slipping around one of his own.
"And this is what the Midgardians know of me?"
A silence. "The most commonly read book that mentions Norse myths at all in this country only mentions that about you. And none of those names are used at all here, so you are the only 'Loki' in a few thousand miles, I'd wager."
His head hurt, his face hurt, the heat outside was making him anxious...
Thor's hand squeezed his shoulder and he felt the coldpack against his face again.
"How bad is it?"
"Mother will kill me."
"No, she won't." He almost told Thor then, at least about the adoption. It was the perfect opening for telling Thor that Frigga would never hurt, much less kill, her first- and only-born son, at the very least.
Frigga was exactly the sort of woman who would have taken the child of a mother dead in labor into her own family and to her own breast. Let him figure out the 'but both of you were born to be kings' conundrum later.
But selvig was there, and just what details were in the myth that he might not have told Thor?
It wasn't safe.
"So," he changed the subject, "I guess that means I need to assume a new, safer, name while I'm here."
"Darcy!" Selvig called out. "He's agreeing with you, get in here."
Darcy, it turned out, was a young human woman who was an odd mix of bubbly and serious in temperament.
And only serious in temperament. Her thought processes appeared to be another story entirely.
"I told you all last night after Sif got up for dinner. Lucky's just one vowel sound different and it's common as a nickname and not uncommon as a name here. It wouldn't take long to adjust to it and it wouldn't seem out of place."
"And I told you," Selvig retorted, "that it doesn't fit the situation. Calling a man in flight for his life 'Lucky'." He snorted.
"I got away, didn't I?" Loki quipped with a barely-forced smile.
Lucky Odin found me. Lucky Frigga had milk enough and was willing. Lucky those who knew obeyed Odin until I was grown. Lucky no accident occurred to give me away before the trip to Jotunheim. Lucky the Jotun who touched me was too shocked to kill me. Lucky Thor didn't see and Hogun did not hold it against me. Lucky we were still in the feast hall. Lucky to have such good friends.
He reached up to hold the coldpack down, unwilling to get up just yet. "Lucky suits me."