Any need as strong
I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection.
Thor asks Heimdall about that mortal woman every day, and every day the answer is the same. Yet Thor does not give up as he believes that the woman will find a way to him, or he to her. Frigga observes Thor with pained affection and talks in a hollow voice about the mortal who stole the heart of the prince of Asgard. (It gives her something to do as well, to occupy her mind with.)
The prince, Odin notes sadly, as always able to pick up on his wife's subtleties.
"Can you see her?" Thor asks every day, and the answer is always a yes, accompanied by a small laugh.
"Can you see him?" asks the All-Father every night, when Asgard shines bright against the black of the sky and when everyone is deep asleep, and the answer is always a no.
"Can you see him?"
"No," Heimdall replies. The All-Father is ready to go back to his chambers when the Watcher speaks again, maybe finally taking pity on the king: "He shields himself well."
Odin hesitates and stops. He does not turn around to look at Heimdall, speaks forth to the outline of the golden city.
"Alive," the Watcher finishes and Odin lets out the breath he didn't realize he was holding, for so very long now. Alive. Heimdall would not lie about this. Alive. Not fine, maybe never fine again - it pains to even think that - but alive.
"Then that is enough."
Thor comes back at twilight and Odin never comes back at all. Enough is what he will have to do with for now.
He pretends to smile, he bids his time, and he waits.
The temple is not guarded and Odin walks into it without trouble. He can see a body of an elf by one of the altars, grimace of pain forever etched onto the beautiful face, frozen by the ice. There's snow everywhere; the sheer nothingness that he sees in the temple is covered in it. His footsteps are muffled by it - otherwise the echo of them would be heard in the grand halls. For all of its wickedness - Odin glances once again at the elf, at the frozen body and at the gaping hole where the heart once was - this place is beautiful and is, in its way and for some, sacred.
He's suddenly grateful for his decision to enter the temple on his own. It would not do to bring his warriors, even as brave and noble as Tyr, to such a place. Asgardian warriors, by large, had no patience for their own culture, even less for the culture of others. He closes his eyes and bows his head; he moves to kneel by the killed elf and tries to push its eyelids down. By now Tyr must have already located and removed the Casket. It is time to go home.
Odin gets up and brushes the snow off his armor and stops with his hand raised. He looks past the main nave, towards one of the smaller side aisles from where-- Yes. A wail. Past the wind singing in the temple, one can hear a wail, soft and weak. Odin steps over the elf's corpse and makes his way towards one of the side chambers. And there, on the altar... But no, not on the altar, in the snow underneath it. A baby. Odin takes a deep breath and reaches for the crying infant. He picks it - him, he sees - up, strokes his head gently and the baby slowly stops crying while his blue skin melts into a well-known pale Asgardian tone.
So. Not only a baby, but a baby with magic. Shapeshifter. Tiny, tiny even by Asgardian standards. Tiny and-- Odin stops stroking the baby's head and the infant immediately starts weeping again. Odin blinks and resumes the gesture, soothing the babe. The scarring on the baby's forehead, those were the marks of the House of Laufey. Laufey's son. This is Laufey's son. A million thoughts cross the All-Father's mind in that moment: Laufey's firstborn, what could be done with him and about him, is there any possible leverage? Odin cannot help it; he is the king of Asgard and he was trained well.
But all those thoughts disappear when the baby boy smiles at him, warmer, content and trusting. Laufey's son or not, this is a baby. A baby that would be considered a disgrace by every Frost Giant, let alone the king of the realm. A baby that was left here, abandoned, most likely to die. And that just will not do.
The baby is still smiling. Odin smiles back.
The thing is, Odin Borson was never meant to be a king of anything other than a tavern. Odin Borson was not the eldest son and as such was never formally trained in the matters of the state and court. He was a good warrior - better than Vili and Ve combined together, something he did not pride himself much in - but unlike his younger brothers, he was more interested in lying to the merchants of Nornheim or in obtaining things that weren't rightfully his. Odin Borson was a mage who prided himself in his cunning trickery, and an object of concealed pitiful glances of Bor's most trusted warriors. Cul was the eldest son and heir to the throne; that fact allowed Odin Borson to be exactly who he wanted to.
"It's working!" Odin exclaims in an excited tone. The water horse gallops around the edge of the bowl, following the trail of his fingers. "I'm doing it!"
"Now try influencing it," Freyja instructs slowly. "Make it leave the bowl. Ability to reign in the elements is crucial in the education of every mage."
Odin clears his throat, says the spell as loudly as he can and nothing happens. He frowns and glances over to Freyja, who's barely hiding a smile. Behind her, the golden door opens and Freyja's handmaiden enters the chamber, carrying two goblets of wine. Freyja motions her to put them on the small table standing by the wall. The handmaiden obeys and soon Odin is graced with the view of her back and her long brown hair.
"The spell's power is not tied to how loud you say it; it depends on the concentration of the one performing it," Freyja reminds. "A true master of magic needs only to think it for it to work. Think hard, Odin."
Odin bites his lower lip and concentrates on the spell. He repeats the formula a few times, trying out different pronunciation, and by the fourth try, the water horse rears and jumps out of the bowl, leaving a trail of water behind. Odin is ready to feel accomplished when the construct promptly explodes right in his face. A clear, sharp laughter soon follows and when Odin pushes the wet hair out of his face, he sees the handmaiden almost doubled over in laughter.
"You think this is funny?" he asks icily, mustering up all his well-hidden regal might.
"Yes," she answers simply.
"Frigga, that's enough. Leave us," Freyja orders. The handmaiden bows before her lady and the prince, but does not utter an apology. She exits with her head held high, still giggling. "Forgive her, Odin." Freyja sighs and reaches for one of the goblets. She motions Odin to take the other one. "She is of the Vanir, but unlike me she is not yet used to the ways of the Aesir. Silly child still thinks she can speak her mind whenever she wants, no matter in whose presence she is."
"There was no harm done, Lady Freyja," Odin assures and glances at the door behind which the long brown plait of the handmaiden has disappeared. This is new; as a prince, Odin is not used to hearing people criticize him, at least not so openly.
"Very well then." Freyja waves a hand at him. "Repeat. And this time remember: you are granting power to an element and such a power is often hard to control."
Odin grins at the group of angrily murmuring dwarves and beckons Sleipnir to run faster. It would not do to linger here any longer than necessary; dwarves are easily irritated, who knows, maybe they'd want to reclaim what they've lost and also to spill some royal blood? Sleipnir carries him back to the safety of Asgard and straight to Lady Freyja's palace. There Odin stops under one of the windows in the eastern wing and he whistles loudly. As expected, the window opens and a headful of brown curly hair appears.
"It is late, Borson," the young woman tells him in a sleepy voice. Odin gets off Sleipnir and raises his head high to be able to look at her.
"I have brought you a most splendid gift, Lady Frigga," he announces and bows before the girl. He is awarded with a yawn.
"It does not explain what you are doing under my window at such an hour, prince."
Odin grins at her and reaches into the bag that's tightly tied to Sleipnir's saddle. He takes out a small leather pouch and opens it.
"I have brought you a necklace," he says as he shows it to a not amused Frigga. "It was made by the dwarves with the purest of gold and the most precious charmed stones from Alfheim."
"Did you steal it?" Frigga asks and she puts her chin on her hand, looking bored.
"I did not! I have played cards with the dwarves. I have won."
"Did you cheat, then?"
"Yes," Odin admits and Frigga snickers. "But so did they. I have won honestly in the most dishonest of games."
Frigga shakes her head, laughing, and her curly hair dance around her face. She doesn't offer to take the necklace, so Odin assumes it does not please her. Perhaps he'll give it to his mother, then. Or perhaps to Lady Freyja. Frigga, it appears, needs a gift even more precious.
"Perhaps you'd like the horse?" Odin asks as he points at Sleipnir. The eight-legged steed is the fastest and most valuable in all Nine Realms. It is a pride of Asgard's stables, but Odin will gladly part with it if that would win him Frigga's favour.
"I assume you did not steal this either?" Odin flushes at that and it's enough of an answer. "Go back to your palace, prince of Asgard," Frigga suggests. "You are wasting your time here."
She shuts the window firmly close and does not respond to Odin's calls any more that night.
Odin shushes the babe as he makes his way towards the royal couple's chambers. His army has returned a day prior, but without the king. Odin stalled, claiming the need to inspect the Jotnar's ruined temple more thoroughly. Tyr was suspicious of Odin's true motivation, but knew his liege well enough to trust him and leave him alone. That one day spared Odin the need of attending the official parade and allowed him to sneak back into Asgard unnoticed, with the infant sleeping soundly in his arms.
Well, the infant was sleeping when they've left Jotunheim; now he is wriggling in Odin's arms and making soft, unhappy noises. Odin thinks he must be hungry; he, however, does not know what little Frost Giants eat and there's no one to ask. Save Frigga, of course, who seems to always have the answers to Odin's questions. Odin smiles at the thought of his fearsome, fiery wife.
"Shh," he tells the babe and the infant turns his curious green eyes to him. "We are almost at home. Soon you will meet your mother and your brother. Thor. I told you about Thor, did I not?" The infant smiles and gurgles happily. "Aye, I did. Thor will be happy to meet you too, my little one. You will have a good brother in him."
Odin enters the chamber quietly and manages not to rouse Frigga. The queen is sitting by the window, looking out at the road leading to Heimdall's observatory. She is waiting for her husband's return, oblivious to the fact that her husband had sneaked into Asgard like a common thief, not entered it in fully glory like the returning victorious king that he is.
Odin suddenly wonders how she'll react to the hollowness where his eye used to be.
"My wife," Odin clears his throat and announces loudly, "I have returned."
Frigga leaps from her spot and comes to stand in front of Odin, tall, regal and proud. There is a certain tightness around her mouth and her eyes are reddened and tired, but she is every inch the beautiful queen that bards write odes about. She exhales shakily at the sight of her husband, she reaches out to touch his cheek and steps closer.
"Odin," she breaths and smiles. She cups his cheek, places her hand left under the missing eye and Odin lets her caress his bruised flesh. He nuzzles her palm and places a soft kiss on her wrist.
The infant in his arms chooses this moment to demand attention. Frigga snaps her hand back as if burned and retreats back to stand closer to the window.
"What it that, Odin?" she asks, though the noise of an ignored child is known to her even better than to Odin.
"A babe." Odin sits on the edge of the giant bed and takes one layer of cloth away from the bundle. Frigga steps closer again and peeks into her husband's arms. The baby blinks and yawns, and reaches up with one tiny hand. Odin lets him catch his forefinger in his fist and caresses the small knuckles.
"Where did you get it from?" Frigga asks in an all too familiar tone that implies that she thinks he'd stolen it or cheated his way into its possession. It would be most likely true, if it were anything less precious.
"I found it in the Jotnar temple," he explains. He speaks each word quieter and quieter as the babe slowly falls asleep, tired by the journey. "Laufey's son. He must have been abandoned when Laufey's court fled the palace."
"Laufey's son," Frigga repeats and runs a finger over the smooth Aesir skin of the baby's cheek. She knows powerful magic when she sees it and she must make the connection. A small child with magic so strong at this age. Left alone, to die. All magic comes with a price and this little one's power came at the cost of not being a good enough Frost Giant. But an Asgardian... That is a different matter altogether. "What will you do with him?"
Odin smiles as the child puts his finger into his mouth and starts sucking absentmindedly.
"He will not be safe anywhere else but in the king's household," he says and Frigga nods. Of course not. Asgard has just returned from a bloody war with Jotunheim, no one would want to take in a Jotunn child. "We shall keep him with us and raise him alongside Thor. He shall be our son."
Frigga's finger freezes on the baby's cheek and she does not speak for long minutes. Then she takes her hand back and straightens up.
"No," she says icily and the coldness of her voice betrays her anger. "I will not accept him into my family. I will not let him replace my son."
"My love--" Odin starts, then falls silent. The infant he's holding starts drooling in his sleep. "I did not bring him here intending that. Balder--"
"Don't." Frigga silences him with a flick of hand. "I am done talking to you, All-Father. You can do as you please with this child, but I will not be a part of it."
Frigga turns on her heel and exits the royal chambers, most likely goes to check on their one son that still lives. Odin takes a deep breath. He desperately wants to run his hand over his face, but to do that he would need to stop supporting the child. And he does not want him to wake. The babe is overly attentive when awake, and Odin has yet to master the art of calming him down.
He realizes that the baby doesn't even have a name. He assumed that Frigga would choose one, like she did with their previous children. So now there's a problem. He looks at the boy, who drools in his sleep and makes a few unhappy noises, and is, unexpectedly, reminded of a Jotnar ambassador who stayed at Bor's court long before Laufey ascended to the throne. A brilliant mage from whom Odin first learnt the art of illusions; the first person who fully embraced the prince's interests. The only other Frost Giant that Odin ever had a chance to get to know.
"Do not worry, little Loki," Odin whispers, deciding on the babe's name in a flash of brilliant insight. Frigga refuses to share responsibility? Well then, she will have to live with his naming choices. "I am sure your mother will come to her senses."
The door to the royal chambers creaks open and Odin is immediately woken up to full alertness. Beside him, Frigga murmurs in her sleep and burrows her head in the pillow. Odin's eye sweeps the room and pauses only when it notices a tiny figure in the doorway, clutching something big in hand.
"Loki," Odin sighs and sits up on the bed. The barefoot boy runs up to him and stops only when he's seated on the bed beside his father. He hugs his toy dragon closely to his chest. "Has something happened, son?"
"Thor said today there were monsters under my bed," he says, but his voice is muffled by the dragon's fur. "And I know that he's an oaf--"
"Loki, it is not polite to call your brother that." Loki cocks his head to the side as if he was trying to say that it was true anyway. Odin closes his eyes and fights the urge to shake his head. He's too tired for this. "Then what is the matter, my boy?"
"Something howled in my room!" Loki hugs his toy tighter and looks at Odin with such a miserable expression that Odin considers going to Thor's room, waking his older child and asking where did he get the idea that scaring his younger sibling was a honorable course of action. Alas, he is too tired for that as well.
"You will sleep with us tonight," Odin proposes, knowing fully well that this is exactly what Loki wanted to do and the reason he came to his parents in the first place. "And tomorrow morning we shall find and defeat the monster from under your bed. Is that acceptable?"
"Yes, daddy," Loki nods fervently. Odin allows him to nestle between him and Frigga and watches over him until the boy falls back asleep.
"You coddle him," Frigga comments quietly. Odin cannot make out her face in the darkness of the chamber, but he knows she's smiling. He hears it in her voice. The time when Thor would come to them looking for reassurance is long gone and Odin knows that his wife is enjoying this as much as he is. He runs a hand through Loki's raven-black hair and shrugs.
"As if there was anything wrong with that."
Odin introduces Loki to the court as his youngest child, born in the time of the king's absence. The courtiers congratulate him and all gather close to look at the little prince. One of the generals even comments that Prince Loki seems to resemble Odin's own mother a great deal, that he has the late Queen Mother's eyes and brow. Odin manages not to laugh at that, but barely.
No one in the court questions what they presume is the queen's decision not to present her youngest child before the end of the war. It is, after all, sensible - no one puts it beyond the Frost Giants to be able to plan to kidnap the royal infant in hopes of giving them leverage over Asgard. Everyone also remembers what happened with Prince Balder.
If Frigga appears to distance herself from the younger royal child, no one in the court comments. Again, everyone remembers what happened with Prince Balder. The queen's attitude is attributed to the grief she's still feeling and the fear of losing another babe. Prince Thor, however, has no such reservations. He trails after whoever is currently in charge of overseeing the younger prince - be it one of the ladies-in-waiting or even the All-Father himself - and prods and pokes his brother, eager to get any sort of response from the baby. The female part of Odin's court considers it adorable and thinks of Odin's family as perfect.
It is far from it in reality. Even now, five months after Odin first brought Loki home, Frigga refuses to be a part of the child's life. Her love for Odin stops her from outright stating that this child is not, in fact, hers, but - for the first time since they wed - she is of no assistance and Odin finds himself not a bit out of his depth. Never before has he realized how tiring and demanding the role of a parent was. With Thor, Frigga took care of everything, delighted in her newfound motherhood. With Balder-- With Balder, they didn't have time to do anything. With Loki, Odin is on his own. It is bad enough just as it is; to make matters worse, Loki is a very fussy child.
"Hush, little one," Odin repeats again, hoping against all reason that this time Loki will listen and will stop crying. He does not and Odin resumes his walk around Loki's nursery, which does nothing to soothe the child but makes Odin feel not so useless. "I don't know what you want, Loki. I don't know how to help you."
"You hopeless man."
Odin turns to the doorway where Frigga stands in her nightgown, with arms crossed over her chest and curly brown hair out of order. She strides over to him and plucks the baby out of his arms. She shushes Loki and offers him her forefinger, which he grabs and puts in his mouth. At that, Frigga smiles a knowing smile and moves her finger along his gums, massaging them.
"He started teething," she explains as Loki quiets in her arms and, after a while, starts smiling again, "which you would have noticed if you knew a first thing about children."
Frigga sits down in a solid rocking chair - a present from the Light Elves of Alfheim, given at the occasion of Balder's birth - and hums an old Vanir lullaby. Soon enough Loki stops fidgeting and falls blissfully asleep. Odin lets out a breath. Finally, peace. Frigga puts him back into the silver crib - made by the dwarves for Thor - and stops herself an inch from kissing his brow. She looks stricken, for a moment; she straightens and looks to her husband with visible confusion, before turning around and leaving the room without uttering another word. In the crib, Loki clenches his fist exactly where - a moment before - Frigga's hair fell over her shoulder.
Odin motions his advisors to leave. Tyr and the others bow before their king and queen and leave the room as quickly as possible. Frigga makes a point of smiling at each of them as they pass her by. When the door closes behind Algrim the elf, Frigga's smile drops. Odin is overcome with one of his rare feelings of impending doom, and he wonders what might have happened recently to sour the queen's mood so greatly. He wonders if she's finally got tired of his charade and will demand that he return Loki to-- Wherever he might actually be able to return him to. Which is not going to be Jotunheim. Odin will not hand over a child to die.
He hopes she does not demand that. Lately he has been faring much better, and Loki stopped being so sad once he was given something to chew on, and both of them were finally getting some sleep. He could do it. Even without Frigga's help, he could do it, he could raise a child properly. Many people who weren't as wise as him were able to, so the King of Asgard would not fail at this. At the one thing he could not fail at.
"I want you to assign me a new handmaiden."
Odin blinks. That is not what he was expecting, but - in this circumstances - unexpected was good.
"Why?" In fact, this is great news. Odin never liked Frigga's chosen maid, he always found her a silly gossip. And not in that charming way that once won Frigga his heart. "Is Hlín not of help to you anymore?"
"I have a personal quarrel with her," Frigga answers. "She called our son a foul name after he bit her. I will not tolerate that in my household."
"Thor bit her?" Thor was much too old to be biting people. Then again, he was never the most well-behaved child and he too seemed to dislike Frigga's handmaiden. In fact, Frigga seemed to be the only person in the palace who actually liked Hlín.
"No, not Thor, Loki." Frigga waves her hand dismissively. "But that does not matter. What matters is that my handmaiden insulted my son. And that is not acceptable."
"Of course," Odin says with a small smile and immediately corrects himself: "By which I mean that you are right, my love, that is not acceptable. Perhaps Lady Fulla could be of help to you now? I hear from her father that she is a most polite and respectable young woman."
"Perhaps." Frigga's eyes narrow. "Why are you smiling, Odin?"
"It's nothing." Frigga raises a brow, unconvinced. "Just... 'Our son'."
"You said 'our son'. You said 'my son' and you meant Loki. You have never done that before."
Frigga clears her throat and looks to the side, thus giving Odin a perfect view of the beautiful blush that creeps over her face. She is embarrassed, he notices, but doesn't know if it's because her tongue slipped or because he caught her while it did.
"Well--" she starts. "He does grow on you." She looks at him sharply. "And this is all your fault, Borson."
"How exactly is that my fault, my love?"
"A son is always his father's fault."
"And then Sif's father took his sword and slayed another Frost Giant," a ten-year-old Thor recollects the tale excitedly. "He killed all the ugly monsters that day!"
He's standing on his chair and is waving his hands animatedly. Tyr, seated nearby the prince, laughs under his breath. Some of the sentries start clapping when Thor concludes his story. Loki is sitting on the opposite side of the table from his brother; his eyes are opened wide and the fork he's holding stopped halfway to his mouth. Sauce is dripping from it onto the snow-white tablecloth.
"Thor, that is enough."
Silence befalls the dining hall and all heads turn to Odin. Thor's mouth hangs open in surprise and he drops gracelessly back onto his chair. Loki dropped his fork altogether. Odin ignores the confused stares of his warriors, preferring to address his son directly.
"It does not befit anyone to call Frost Giants monsters, least of all a prince of Asgard." Odin's eye sweeps the hall, looking for someone ready to retort. As usual, no one dares. "For all their wretchedness and animosity towards our kingdom, they are creatures worth of respect, like all the people of Nine Realms."
Odin reaches for his goblet and drinks the mead. Around him, people start murmuring and Tyr looks at him questioningly. Loki cannot turn his head fast enough to judge the expressions on Odin's and Thor's faces. The boy is utterly fascinated with how Thor's usual tale-telling ended this time, so differently from other instances. Odin's outburst seems to serve as a proof that even the All-Father's patience is a limited resource and even the Crown Prince can exhaust it.
"I would like to have a word with you, husband," Frigga whispers into Odin's ear. He stands up and lets his wife guide him out of the dining chamber and into one of the small adjacent reading rooms. Frigga lets him close the door with a simple spell and he delights in this uncommon opportunity to use magic freely.
"Yes, my love?"
"I believe it is time to revisit our old argument," she says.
"No," Odin immediately replies. Frigga huffs impatiently.
"We cannot carry on like this, husband!"
"What would you have me do?!"
"Tell them the truth." Odin shakes his head. No, no. Absolutely not. "Why not, Odin? They are more than old enough. They deserve to know. Our son deserves to know."
"He is still a child!" Odin rubs his forehead pensively. "You have heard Thor. This is what young Sif's father told him. This is what everyone in Asgard is saying. Frost Giants are monsters. And you want to tell our son that he is of Jotunn blood?"
"He knows that we condemn this line of thought," Frigga tries softly.
"But what of others? You know that once Loki knows, Thor will know, and once Thor knows, everyone in Asgard will. I do not wish to deceive our son, I only wish to protect him."
"From the truth?"
"From everything!" Odin glares angrily at Frigga and begins pacing around the room. "Loki is so easily upset. How will he react if we tell him the truth? He will only care that we adopted him, that he is not of our blood. He might think himself less worthy because of that."
There was also the other issue, Thor's side of the problem. Odin has thought a lot about how the truth might affect his older son. If he knew that Loki was the adopted son, the son his parents had chosen. The son they had chosen, of their own free will, the son they wanted to have, not a one who was given to them, with all his faults and flaws. Odin knows that this is what he would have thought, were he Thor; he would have thought Loki the better son, the more cherished one as he was the child Odin and Frigga picked to claim as their own. But Thor was not like Odin, for all the superficial similarities. Thor was like Cul, he was like Bor; he did not tend to over-analyze anything. And he certainly was too fond of himself to ever stray to that line of thought. No, Thor was not a problem - at least not in this matter.
"I do not like lying to them," Frigga sighs, resigned, and Odin knows that she's surrendering her point for the time being. "I know that you want what's best for them, but I need you to remember one thing, Odin: I do not agree with you."
"I know, my love," Odin whispers. He does not agree with himself either, and he knows that this is not a good course of action. But, as it is, it is the best one there is.
When Thor is nine and Loki is seven, Thor takes his wooden toy sword and hits Tyr with it. The sharp edge of the toy cuts Tyr's skin and makes him bleed. Loki - Thor's constant companion - runs up to the seasoned warrior and clumsily tries to make the gash heal with a spell. It's that display of magic that causes more confusion and borderline outrage than Thor's usual reckless behavior. That day is the moment when Odin decides that Thor will inherit his throne.
It is not because Thor is the older son, the Crown Prince and, by custom, he is supposed to succeed his father. During his reign Odin has proven time and again that he does not consider himself bound by the custom entirely - he married a Vanir handmaiden, for Buri's sake. No, it's not that. It's the fact that Thor embodies everything that the Aesir cherish, that he is the perfect Asgardian warrior while Loki is... not. Loki likes books. Loki likes playing pranks. Loki likes magic. Loki is everything that Odin was at his age and everything Odin had to give up when he took up the throne. Odin doesn't doubt that Loki would be a terrific monarch - even now he is smart and sharp, a brilliant conservationist and strategist. No, he would be a good king. But Odin also knows that the price of turning Loki into a king the Asgardians would think worth bowing to is too great.
And Odin promised himself a long time ago that he would not force his child to resign from being himself .
Besides, Odin thinks, there is still the matter of Jotunheim. Both of his sons were born to be kings - as Odin always reminds them - and both of them will get the chance to rule. After all, Laufey will not live forever. Through his various spies Odin has learnt that Laufey - denying ever having a child - adopted two of his orphaned nephews. It was widely assumed that one of them will inherit Laufey's throne. And then there was Loki, whom Laufey clearly thinks to be dead. Odin takes a moment to spare a hateful thought towards the man who so carelessly abandoned whom Odin treasures so much. Loki is Laufey's only son and heir. When Laufey dies, Loki will have precedent over Helblindi and Býleistr; as the legitimate, biological child, he will be the first in line to the throne. When he's old enough, Odin will tell him the whole truth, will give him back the Casket and will promise him to make sure that Loki receives what is rightfully his.
Asgard will have a lasting peace with Jotunheim. As a king, Loki will have no reason to fight with Asgard. A prince of Asgard will be the king of Jotunheim and there will be peace, the two kingdoms will be united. Asgardians will quarrel and mock, and will most likely be angry with Odin's little deception, but in this one matter Odin could not care less for what his subjects say. Loki is his son and there is nothing that Odin would not do for his children.
"And what if Loki decides he wants to own a tavern?" Frigga asks when Odin lays down his plan for her. She's laughing at him, at his own childhood desire to run a tavern at the border with Nornheim; her concern, though, is legitimate and Odin finds himself thinking about a good answer.
But there is only one answer he can give. If Loki would decide that he does not wish to have anything to do with Jotunheim and he'd rather do anything else, he would do so with his parents' blessing. The matter of Jotunn succession would have to be settled differently. Loki would have to give up his right to the crown on behalf of someone else, someone least likely to wage a war on Asgard. Maybe even Helblindi or Býleistr, if one of them would agree to sign a peace treaty in exchange for the throne.
There are options, Odin decides. There are options to make this all work out.
"Yes, my liege?" Tyr walks into the armory and bows before Odin. Odin runs his hand over Mjolnir's handle.
"It is customary to present the royal son with a gift upon his reaching adulthood and him proving himself," Odin states. "I wish to know your opinion on my choices."
Tyr looks approvingly at the hammer. He steps closer, walks around it and whistles.
"The hammer Mjolnir is truly a spectacular weapon worthy of a son of Odin."
Odin smiles at the over-the-top praise. Some things never change, no matter how old he gets or how many battles he thought alongside this man; Tyr was always one for colourful phrases.
"I intend to give the hammer to Thor." He points at a stool at the back of the armory. "And that is the gift Loki will receive."
Tyr grimaces when Odin mentions Loki and Odin's eyes narrow dangerously. Tyr - as many typical warriors - is not fond of the sorcerer prince who feels much better in a library than on the training field. Odin, though, will not tolerate a single bad word about his son. Tyr must have caught Odin's glare because he coughs and murmurs an apology.
"Laevateinn is a mighty sword," Tyr says half in awe, half in fear. For he is right; forged by Völundr, equipped with powerful runes by Freyr and given by him to his sister upon her arrival in Asgard. Then given by Freyja to Frigga as a wedding gift. "I am not sure--"
"It will be the perfect gift," Odin cuts off whatever Tyr was going to say, tired of his general's constant disapproval. "A powerful sword for a powerful warrior."
Tyr makes a choked-off noise that most likely means he disagrees with Odin's assessment of Loki. But that is well. Like most of Asgardians, Tyr belittles magic, does not see it as a weapon. But Odin knows that it is, that it is a more than an adequate weapon and thus he knows that, with the aid of the sword of Freyr, Loki will one day do true wonders.
"Why did you tell Hoder not to train with Loki anymore?"
Odin looks up at his wife, glad for the opportunity to stop looking at the thrice-damned papers. Being a king was not nearly half as interesting as people thought; in his youth, Odin was pretty disillusioned with kingship, but never in his wildest dreams he thought the task would be this dull.
"Because Lady Freyja agreed to tutor him and it would be difficult to fit her lessons in alongside the sparrings. Besides, he does not like those sessions."
"But you did not let Thor stop the history sessions with Algrim just because he finds it tiring," Frigga huffs impatiently.
"But that is important!"
Frigga looks at him in that condescending way she uses when she thinks Odin is being exceptionally stupid and does not understand what she means.
"But Thor is still training with Hoder," Frigga says slowly, like she used to do when Thor was little and did not understand her. "Loki's big brother is still training with Hoder."
Frigga grunts and raises her hands, mutely announcing her surrender.
"You just do not understand those boys, do you?"
And then she leaves. Odin sighs. He does not even understand his wife. Sometimes he thinks his whole family speaks a different language than he does.
When Bor Burison dies on a hunting trip, everyone mourns but no one is particularly surprised. The king - late king, now - has never been the most skillful of hunters and he has never been the smartest of people. He sometimes even had bad luck; it figured, then, that in his elderly age an incident of some kind was bound to happen. And it did when Bor Burison intentionally trespassed the land of Storm Giants while chasing a deer. The Storm Giants were not happy with the situation and proved not to be merciful; they have slayed the man, not caring that he was the All-Father of Asgard.
As it was, the death of Bor did not come as a surprise. But the death of Cul Borson, the Crown Prince and the heir to the throne of Asgard, did.
Odin sits quietly by the bed where only two short days ago his older brother was still lying and where the healers still tried to mend the broken bones in his broken body. Cul has gone hunting with Father. And he never listened to any advice, never listened to smarter people; he was just like father, proud to the point of arrogance, too full of himself, too in love with himself. In the end, that was what got him killed, what got them both killed and forced Odin into this position.
In this moment, Odin hates them both. Because he is the second-oldest son. Because the throne of Asgard is his now.
"Odin," the Queen Mother says in that authoritative tone of hers, the one that means you shall not argue with her for she is right. "My son, I need to speak to you."
Odin gets up from the chair he was half drowning in and follows Bestla out. They move past healers and guards who all bow before the queen and then straighten up before Odin. The new king. Odin feels sick with the mere idea. He has never wanted that. He wanted to be a scholar. He wanted to have a tavern where all the mightiest heroes of the Nine Realms would drink and share their stories. He wanted to live somewhere at the outskirts of Asgard, and he wanted to marry Lady Freyja's witty handmaiden. A crown did not fit anywhere in those dreams.
"Yes, mother?" Odin asks when Bestla leads him into the throne room. He looks around; decides that one cannot feel death in the place, even though two days ago Asgard has lost two monarchs. The king is dead, long live the king, it appeared.
"You will officially take the throne tomorrow," she notifies him in a leveled, cold voice. He does not like it. "And you will be a proper king."
"What is that supposed to mean, mother?"
"It means that you will give up that cursed magic!" The queen shouts, finally agitated. Ah. Of course. That is what this was all about. The magic. The magic both Bor and Bestla detested; the queen never got over the shame of having a sorcerer son. "You will give up your tricks as they do not befit an Asgardian warrior. You will be the king people need, the king people want to respect."
"And if I will not?"
At that, Bestla's face goes from angry to outraged in a mere second.
"Even you would not dare go against tradition," she hisses. And suddenly the scene changes, Bestla is standing almost toe-to-toe with her son and cups his cheek lovingly. "Don't you want to make your father proud?"
Odin swallows and nods. It will be years before Vili and Ve are anywhere close adulthood and even then they would, most likely, make very poor monarchs. If Asgard wants to avoid civil war or any kind of an invasion resulting from an unstable political situation, Odin has to step up and take the throne. Besides, the Queen Mother is right. Odin is not brave enough to go against Asgardian tradition.
It will be years before he gathers up that courage and goes against every custom there is by marrying a Vanir commoner. Sadly, the Queen Mother will not be there to see him do it. But after that, disregarding tradition when situation calls for it will become easier. And, after all, Odin Borson always did love breaking the rules.
"Is something the matter, Thor?"
Thor is twelve and has spent the last few days in the company of young Sif and Fandral. That was not worrisome; what did worry Odin was the fact that - for the first time - Thor expressly forbade his younger brother from following him and his friends, and from playing with them. That has upset Loki greatly and even Frigga has had problems calming the ten-year-old prince down. After that incident, Thor has taken to avoiding his brother altogether. That was worrisome.
"No," Thor answers and looks away and to the painting on the wall behind Odin. Odin smiles. Thor was always a bad liar. "Father, why is Loki better than me?"
"Better than you?" Odin is, frankly, shocked by Thor's blunt question. "What do you mean?"
"I mean--" Thor takes a breath. "I mean, he's so smart. He's wise, like you. He is talented. He understands everything that Algrim says very fast and Algrim dismisses him so he can go and play or read, or do something else while I struggle with... all of that." Thor waves a hand. "He always makes brilliant plans. He has magic and that is... That is amazing. And I--"
"Yes?" Odin prompts him as it seems that Thor got lost in his own torrent of words.
"And I can just use a sword and fight, and not even very well according to Sif. And Loki laughs at me, and sometimes calls me a big oaf, and I try so hard to be equally good as him at something, but I fail and he never notices me trying anyway."
Sibling rivalry and jealousy. Oh, joy. Odin sighs and rubs his temples; then he smiles at Thor and beckons him to come closer. When he does, Odin moves a bit, lets Thor sit with him on the throne and that lightens the prince's mood a little.
"Loki is not better, Thor." No, that sounded wrong. Odin wets his lips and starts anew. "Loki is brilliant at some things, but so are you. You just excel in different areas and that is perfectly fine. You are two different people. But!" Odin waves his finger in front of Thor's nose and then tries to tickle him, which makes Thor snort and roll his eyes. Oh, how Odin misses the days when that was enough to solve his boy's problems. "Together, you complete each other. You are each other's greatest strengths and allies, Thor. You should always be proud to have a brother like Loki."
Thor nods, leaps off the throne and goes off to find Loki. As his hair is bright pink during the dinner, it appears that their reconciliation was not as easy as he first assumed. Odin chastises Loki for magicing his brother's hair to a different colour, but his heart is not in it. Personally, he finds it hilarious and wishes that he'd done it to his own brothers when he was Loki's age.
The topic of sibling rivalry and jealousy is not raised again and Odin happily assumes that it has been solved once and for all.
The older Thor gets, the more reckless and sure of himself he becomes. In character, he is the spitting image of Bor, of Cul. He is the perfect material for a king and is everything Bestla wished her own son to be. Odin thinks that his mother would say that, in this case, true potential just skipped a generation.
"Being a king is not about drawing a sword in battle," Odin tells his son after he - finally, it took him so long - finds out that the warriors were under an oath to let the prince win their sparring sessions. "It's about avoiding battle entirely."
That is the lesson Odin took out from many tavern fights he'd took part in before becoming the king. It is also a principle he's applied to dealings with Jotunheim and it has been fruitful so far.
"Hiding from conflict sounds more like one of Loki's strengths. Perhaps he should inherit your throne!"
There were days when Thor reminded Odin of Cul so much and those were the days when Odin regretted his choice the most. Maybe he should choose Loki as his heir after all. He would not be a liked king or even a respected one - not with the magic that Odin would not let him just give up for he loved it too much, not with the mischief, not with how easy offending others came to him - but he would be much more reasonable and responsible than Thor.
"Perhaps he will!"
The rest of the conversation doesn't go well and Thor storms off, angry, fuming. And Odin tells himself, he'll learn. He's still a child, let him make mistakes. He'll learn in time that his arrogance will not lead him anywhere. And he'll always have Loki by his side to guide him.
That same day the sons of Odin run off on a quest and drag all their friends into it. The quest almost ends in a war and takes the life of one person too many. Thor learns something, but not enough. And Loki... Something breaks in Loki and he is not quite the same little boy ever again.
When Thor Odinson is born, a three-days-long feast is organized in Asgard as all the citizens rejoice and welcome the birth of the future king.
When Balder Odinson is born less than two years after, a similar festive is called for. But the feast doesn't last long and after only a day there is no reason to celebrate anymore. Then the war with Jotunheim comes and no one thinks about feasting.
When Loki Odinson is born, there is no feast. (Odin assumes that when Loki Laufeyson was born there was no feast either and it angers him to think that no one celebrated that day.) As far as the court knows, the green-eyed prince was born in secret and kept in one until the day the war was over. But there is a feast the day Loki Odinson is first brought to the court. It lasts only a day - three-days ones are reserved for celebrating births only - but Odin makes a point of making it the richest and most memorable of all.
It's the least he can do in the situation.
"Frost Giants!" Frigga paces around their chambers, agitated and scared. "Frost Giants, in Asgard! Something might have happened!"
"But nothing did, my love," Odin reminds her patiently. "And now Loki is with Thor, he will make him see reason--"
"But Frost Giants." Frigga stops and puts her hands on her hips. "And what if they had hurt one of the dignitaries? One of our sons?" Her eyes go wide and one of her hands snaps to cover her mouth. "And what if they had found out? Found out about Loki? Odin, they could have taken--"
"But nothing happened." Odin raises from the bed, walks up to Frigga and takes her shaking hands into his own. He raises them to his mouth and kisses her knuckles. "All is well, my love."
"You have to talk to them," Frigga says quickly. "And you know well what I mean, All-Father. This has gone for far too long, and you know that."
"I will," Odin sighs. "In a minute, I will call a guard--"
A guard appears without having been called. He tells Odin that the princes and their friends just left and are headed to Jotunheim. Odin and Frigga exchange terrified looks; Odin puts on his battle armor, takes Sleipnir and goes after those foolish boys.
The only thing that happens that day is the dawning realisation that Odin was wrong, that Thor is not ready for the responsibility. That - for all intents and purposes - he is still very much the child who went after the sword of Surtur. They argue - as they usually do these days, which is still better than the silence he shares with Loki, and when did his boys grow so distant? - and then Odin casts Thor out, not seeing any other way of harshly teaching him a lesson. After that Loki just runs away from him before Odin has the chance to ask him to talk to him.
And Odin is just so tired.
"No, you took me for a purpose. What was it?"
He tries to explain to Loki why he did what he did. But there's no time, he grows weary with every passing second and soon he might collapse entirely. But no, not now, not now because this is important. He needs to get this right.
He tries to explain how a million possible plans crossed his mind when he first held Loki in his arms and how they all just died when Loki smiled. Smiled, happily, at a complete stranger, like the sight of him was still preferred to the sight of his own family, his supposed caretakers. How Loki grew to be one of Odin's greatest prides and joys. How Odin has plans for him - he's the king, he's supposed to make grand plans - but how they don't matter if Loki doesn't want to be any part of them, because what Odin wants most is for his children to simply be happy.
"So I am no more than another stolen relic, locked up, here, until you might have use of me."
"Why do you twist my words?"
Odin has always known that Loki was sensitive, prone to take anything as a slight against himself, to turn everything that was said against himself. It didn't use to be like this, once upon a time, but then there was Algrim and the sword, and Odin doesn't know at which point he lost track of just how deeply Loki could be hurt by the most mundane and trivial things. Just how much he appeared to harbor some level of hatred against everything and against himself.
"You could have told me what I was from the beginning, why didn't you?!"
He could have, yes. Should have, even, probably. Odin tries to lay out his reasoning as he once did for Frigga, but all his arguments suddenly sound weak and unconvincing. He honestly doesn't know why he ever thought this was a good idea. It's just... He wanted Loki to be a carefree child, as long as possible.
"You're my son," Odin says and that's the truth and nothing will ever change that. Loki doesn't seem to believe him. "I wanted only to protect you from the truth."
"What, because I-I-I'm the monster who parents tell their children about at night?"
And there, there it is, the thing Odin always feared and that made Frigga at least understand why he was keeping the truth from their boys, if not agree with him. No matter how hard Odin and Frigga tried to make the boys understand that people - any kind of people, in any of the realms - were not monsters, there were always warriors, always parents of other children who'd whisper something and that something would be stuck in the boys' heads, would rot there--
Odin's eyelids start dropping and he feels his legs ready to buckle under him.
"Well now it all makes sense now, why you favoured Thor all these years," Loki says and his every word is filled with more venom, and in his anger he doesn't see that Odin is at the verge of falling over, "because no matter how much you claimed to love me, you could never have a Frost Giant sitting on the throne of Asgard!"
Odin reaches out to touch Loki's cheek, curl his fingers in Loki's tunic, something, anything, because this is his son, his little baby boy, and Odin loves him and Loki doesn't believe him. And when did it became so complicated, when did they stop understanding each other, when did Loki stop seeing Odin as the person he could always come to when he had a nightmare because Thor scared him, when he couldn't cast the spell right, when--
Odin took one treasure and one useless relic from Jotunheim on the day of the victory. He doesn't know what wrong he ever committed to make his son think that he fell into the latter category.
Loki is sleeping. This is the thing he does mainly these days, sleeping and practicing magic with young Amora. He refused any further lessons with Freyja; Odin thinks, maybe that's what he needs now. For those who use it, magic has a shape, a flavor. Odin's magic is gold and beautiful, but heavy and rusty for it was lying unused for far too long. Young Amora's magic is far too adult for her age, sleazy and wicked, all-encompassing and almost suffocating. Loki's magic-- Ever since Algrim's death, Loki's magic became rougher at the edges, more fierce, angrier and more desperate. So Odin thinks, maybe that's what he needs for now. An outlet for that anger and rage and hatred. Freyja can teach him control, can teach him the finesse, how to be precise and delicate and how to create beauty out of nothing, but that's not for Loki, not now, not yet. So Odin leaves him be, lets him stay locked up in his room, and Loki doesn't leave when Thor comes to him or when Frigga calls his name. And Thor rightfully blames himself, distances himself from his brother, and Frigga thinks this is wrong, and Odin feels more helpless than ever.
"Loki," Odin calls the boy's name softly. "Loki, wake up."
Loki is unlike Thor. He doesn't force himself into warrior training so he doesn't go to full alertness in the span of mere seconds, immediately springing on his bed into a sitting position. Loki wakes up slowly, with a soft, languid drag of too long limbs and much blinking. It's his own method of assessing danger though. He looks, blinks and processes, positions everything that might be of use and everyone who might pose any danger. He blinks again and yawns, and bids his time to think of the right thing to do, the right thing to say.
"Father," Loki says when his green eyes finally settle on Odin's silhouette. He sits up a bit and cocks his head to the side. "What are you doing here?"
It might be a suspicious question of Odin's motives. It might be a concerned question over Odin's health. Odin chooses to believe in the latter, though he knows he's most likely wrong. He extends his hand and offers it to Loki, who looks between it and Odin's face with a tightly guarded expression.
"Come with me," Odin says and Loki - after a moment of hesitation - takes his hand because he's thirteen and broken, but still more curious than wary. Odin gives him a cloak and they sneak out of Loki's chamber, out of the palace and onto the streets of Asgard. Odin puts a cloaking spell on them and Loki laughs, because he's thirteen and still a child and he does like it when his father uses magic.
"Where are we going?" Loki asks. He's breathless and there's excitement in his voice, one of the very first real emotions he's allowed himself to display lately. He might be actually happy, off on an adventure his brother was not invited to.
Odin stops and bends a little to look right into Loki's eyes. He likes the spark that he sees there, a hint of mischief, a good-natured amusement at the sudden rule-breaking.
"Can I tell you something if you promise not to tell anyone else?
Loki nods fervently, eager to hear the secret. He won't tell anyone and they both know it; Loki likes secrets, he likes knowing more than others and he likes the immense advantage it gives him.
"There are soft spots between worlds, Loki," Odin says as he gestures at the tree in front of which they've stopped. "One needn't rely solely on the Bifrost to move from one realm to the next. You can travel outside the World Tree. There are many passages to be found if you're smart and you know where to look."
Odin murmurs a spell that Loki strains to hear and opens a passage. Loki holds tightly onto his hand when they step through it and emerge on the other side, in a dark forest in a wholly different realm. The portal closes behind them, which alarms Loki not a small bit.
"Can we use it to go back home?"
"Yes," Odin answers and Loki settles.
He takes Loki's hand again and leads him out of the woods. It's been a long time since he's been here last, but he still remembers the path, which becomes clear once the tall trees disappear and only grayish and burnt down cinders remain. Loki tries to appear calm and collected, but he squeezes Odin's hand that much harder and he steps that much closer to his father.
"Where are we?" he whispers.
"This is Svartalfheim," Odin whispers back, mindful that the place is a living tomb. "The home of the Dark Elves."
Loki swallows thickly and sombers at that, but he also starts paying more attention to everything they pass. Soon ruins of a city come into view on the horizon and Odin stops once again. Loki shivers next to him, but not because he's cold.
"Surtur had a grudge against the queen of this realm, Alflyse. He attacked and destroyed, brought doom upon this world, burned it almost to the ground. There aren't many Dark Elves left and those who are were scattered among other realms for a long time."
"Algrim was one of them."
"Yes," Odin nods. "What you've done to him, Loki, was neither good nor kind and it wasn't honorable. But what you did for your family and home was brave." Odin kneels and puts his arm around Loki's still shivering frame. "You might think otherwise now, but it does not have to define who you are. It's not just the awful things that create us, Loki, it's the summa of everything that happens. We are gods, Loki, our lives are so much longer than those of others and so much more complicated. I have brought you here because you need to see that even the vilest and most horrible thing does not have to be the end. It is not the end."
Odin lifts Loki's chin and points at a small flame burning at the highest tower of the ruined castle, far on the horizon, a clear sign that there's someone residing in there.
"It is merely a new beginning."
Odin says "no, Loki" and means "you never had to, I love you anyway, it was wrong but it will be alright, just hold on". He needs just a moment, just a tiny moment to pull his boys back up, and then he'll smack them on their heads and will hold them tight, and he'll take them back home and they will start anew because they're gods and they never run out of second chances.
Loki hears it as something completely different and lets go of the spear. In a flash, where his fingers were curled around Gungnir, there's nothing and Thor's desolate wail is heard over the whole city.
Thor yells "Loki, no!" and reaches out to grab his brother's loose hand, but he's not strong enough or fast enough. In this one thing he's just like his father and he can only watch as Loki disappears into the void left by the Bifrost explosion.
Frigga falls to her knees at the edge of the broken bridge and cries for another child she's lost. She bats Odin's hand away when he tries to help her up and she doesn't wait for him before hurrying back to the palace and locking herself in Loki's room. It will be a long time before she forgives Odin and when she does, she still won't forget.
Days later, there is a feast that celebrates a glorious Midgardian battle and the return of the Crown Prince. Frigga avoids it, Thor haunts the chambers with a forced, grim smile plastered on his face and Odin doesn't bother showing up at all. Soon the merriment dies out when the queen finally cracks and yells at the warriors to get out, get out, get out. Then she yells at the All-Father and it's still better than hearing Thor call him a good father.
Because he's not. If he were, his baby boy would be here with them.
Frigga doesn't believe Heimdall's words simply because it's easier for her to think that she's lost her child than to wait and hope and - at the end of the day - still be as heartbroken as the day before. But Odin believes; it's not because he wants to (but he does, oh so much) or because Heimdall is supposed to be all-seeing. It's because Odin needs, he absolutely has to believe him because that is his only chance of making it better, of making his family whole again, of making sure his son sees how loved and treasured he is.
That's why he ignores Tyr's initial reports on the 'fearsome Asgardian pirate' that's been seen with the Chitauri. He ignores all the implications of what it means as long as he can, up until the point where Tyr himself feels it cannot be ignored any longer.
"You know who the Chitauri serve, my liege," Tyr says as he stands his ground in front of Odin's throne during a private audience. "You know very well what he wants."
"I do," Odin admits.
"I have been patient and faithful, my king. I have never said a word when you've brought the child to Asgard. I have kept quiet when he wrecked havoc in this realm. But I will not be silent now, when the future of all the realms might be endangered. Bringing that Jotunn runt here was a mistake--"
"ENOUGH." It's not shouted, but Odin's voice still resonates in the hall, echoes for a good minute, presses on Tyr with its power and authority and anger. "You speak of my son and a prince of Asgard, Tyr, and you will show him the respect he deserves. Mind your words because I will not tolerate another indiscretion like this."
"You will not renounce the boy," Tyr more states than asks, but Odin decides to grace it with an answer nonetheless, to support the gravity and importance of his words.
"Never. He is my son and he will always be my son. While he is not of my blood, he is mine as truly as Thor."
Tyr doesn't like the answer and doesn't agree with him, but - just like Odin - he was trained well and he knows that he ought to listen to and obey his king. He drops to one knee before Odin, bows his head and then leaves, and Odin asks for his older son to come here. In one aspect Tyr was right, the issue cannot be ignored any longer; it's time for Thor to bring Loki back home.
Loki was, is and always will be Odin's little baby boy, his son and a prince of Asgard. And no matter what Loki will do - and of course he will, Odin is not so naïve as to think that he will come without a fight to a place he thinks he despises and which, he thinks, despises him in return - and what Odin will have to do as a result - because as much as he'd like to avoid it, some deeds have to be punished - that will never change.
Odin can only hope that Loki will finally come to see it one day and that when that day comes, it will be enough.