There are gaps between the worlds, branches on the great tree between the hissers and the horned ones and he can slip between, fast as thought. No one notices him leave. He was left to die when he was young, the whispers say. He is a runt, a halfbreed. His father has forgotten he ever existed. He is small, fast. He crosses the vast frozen lakes on fleet feet; he dances where the others lumber. He can make spears of ice from his hands, as the bigger ones do, but he can also make lines and shapes. He hones his skill. He builds small palaces, just for him, speaks softly to the ice and it melts and shapes, yields sweetly to his persuasion. He slips into the worlds of the other branches. He eats their scraps, listens to their lore, their stories. He learns runes that should be forbidden to him and watches the bards and skalds, hears the wild sweet music of their song. They give him pipes when they see him, where he thought they would cast him out, and they break bread with him, teach him their tunes. He hides his pipes in a pocket between worlds. All his treasures are there.
The old halls are cracked and shattered. There is no true light here. He goes to the mountains where it is warmer, but there are Storm Jotnar, voices booming in their halls, too hot for him, too loud. Too big. He goes back to the quiet and the whistling wind, and he slips between places on dancing feet, between all the worlds. He even goes to Asgard by the secret paths, shielded from the one who watches in a golden room. He watches them in the Healing Room and goes to the places of learning, listens to a teacher of words with little golden children and learns their lessons in secret. He reads in the quiet of the night in the room of scrolls and books, reads of everything he can until his mind is singing and his hands have ink on them. There is light here, golden light, warm and sweet as honey, and he dances in the grass in the half-light between night and day. Loki is small, the size of a child for all his age. He has lived through centuries. Sometimes he forgets his own name, he goes for so long without anyone calling him by it. He has been alone for a long time.
The Jotnar go to war on one of the worlds. Loki hides high up in the caves and watches them march with their spears. They forget him, and those who are left behind build swords and spears of ice as more and more go to conquer. They laugh of easy pickings. Those who return are triumphant. They are covered in red blood. It is not their own. They have left the cold halls and the frozen corpses, the ice and snow and wind that never end. The sun shines on them for the first time in an age. Over the conquering Jotnar, the sun shines in the cold and they bask in it, in the skin-blue sky. They come back when it is hot over in the conquered lands, or push north and still further north until they are in a land like their own and they sit and watch the snow and the ice and the dark until it is safe to go back to the land they have made theirs.
The Aesir come, no army this time. They come to talk, to remind his people of their agreement. They plead for Midgard. They have trained for war on Asgard, and it will not be long before his people are driven back into their frozen halls. Loki knows this, knows it by the training drills, the smiths and their forges, the deals with the dwarves and the elves, the long councils. Now they are here for diplomacy, but it is a warning really, delivered by warriors with power, more power than the Jotnar know. The shining Aesir have sent their ruler, Odin-king, one-eyed and clever as a snake, and his son, Thor, golden-haired and blunt as his hammer. He watches them, the shining sneaking thieving sons of rats with their decorated halls and their shining rooms full of stolen relics. The Jotnar fear Odin; Odin child-stealer wearing a broadbrimmed hat and the guise of a traveller, beware of him; beware if he should cast a shadow in your hall. He watches from his little perch. He wants to peep through his fingers like a child.
The Aesir do not notice him because he does not matter to them, because he is hiding, too small to fight even if he wishes to. He desires no share of the victory over Midgard, but he desires no part in their defeat by Asgard. All he wants, all he has ever wanted, is the freedom to wander where he wishes.
The little princeling slips his leash, breaks the truce with his hammer. Ice shatters, a Jotun falls and in the moment after the chaos, the suspended point of time when all is still, he freezes the princeling as easy as breathing, the cage beautiful around him as his hammer thuds to the ground with a crack of ice. Odin One-eye looks up, sees him with his eye that watches the wind blow and all he remembers are the stories: child-stealer, oath-breaker, thief, áss.
He runs, slips between the gaps again, swift as meltwater. There is the land of fire and of the dead, briefly, there is the shining city of the Aesir. Then, a wasteland where there was life, great cities of stone metal and glass. It is Midgard. It is not Jotunheim. It is not Asgard. It will do. He has no wish for violence or conquest. All he wants is a place to hide for a while. He has broken his rule: do not be seen, and he knows not what the consequences will be. He lands on a broad road. It is dark. He can see the stars above and the moon, and twisted metal posts that once gave light. It is a silent world. It was too noisy for him, once. No longer.
Strange, to see a place so bustling with life turned into this silent wasteland. He can see signs of his people wherever he looks, the broken buildings, the frozen towers extended by the shards of ice that soar up into the sky where there once was metal. There is only candlelight in the windows if there is light at all. He finds an empty building, an older building than some of them, and decides it will be his home. There is dust, and rotted food, and Loki hopes the inhabitants have fled across the sea because he is still a child in many ways, with a child’s hopes and whims. It was sheer chance that led the Jotnar to this gap between worlds, and they cannot cross the seas encircling Midgard, not until they have frozen over. Not yet, so the Midgardians will be safe there for a while, though the Jotnar have been calling the ice to them from the waters around this land.
It is a house that is full of signs of its previous dwellers. There is a bedroom for a child, a small bear made of soft material on the bed. There is a bed with soft warm blue sheets, and the shelves are full of books and toys and suddenly he has no wish to take this home. He closes his eyes and decides to seek an empty house, a long empty house. An unloved house.
He finds one after a long meander through the deserted streets and paths through the rubble. It is unfurnished, without curtains or signs of inhabitants. The walls are rough brick. There is a yellow hat on the floor of one of the larger rooms. It feels easier, being in this place. He wonders about the child with the fabric bear as he lies on the dusty wooden floor and closes his eyes. He does not dream.
He walks all day. A little cantrip, thrown away to the wind, and he can go unseen if he does not move suddenly. There is sunshine on the fresh snow, glinting off the ice, through the sheets of ice in places. It is beautiful, beyond beautiful and he feels very much like a child here, like he did when he first started to slide down the branches of the Great Tree, with new worlds and the dark places between them, the burning heat, the blinding light, the softness of the grass and the caves where the dwarves work with their forges and a thousand hammers clink in the warm stale darkness. He smiles as he walks, sticks out his tongue to catch the snow.
He follows his feet to a house of learning, a once grand building with half the façade ripped off, replaced by ice that juts and spikes out. Someone has attempted to secure the rest of the building; there is scaffolding, supporting beams and metal poles, joists and braces. There is a clear plastic film under the gaping hole in the roof, and the books have all been moved to watertight rooms, out of the howling winds and snow. Someone is still here to care for these books. He sits on a table among the teetering piles and reads until his spine feels as if it has fused together, till his eyes burn and he hungers and thirsts and yearns for sleep. He goes outside, eats a handful of snow and makes his home among the books with their familiar smell. Now he has found this place, he never wants to leave. He reads about everything, everything Midgardians hold dear and value. There are books of learning, there are books with soldiers and means of combat that use saltpetre and arrows, then potions (chemicals, they call them), then things that explode and words like ‘collateral damage’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’, and this is wordplay, these are grim riddles indeed.
There are books of war and books of love, and he finds a lexicon and learns words for breeks and sarks, the garments the men of Midgard wear and the food they eat, their speech and their routs and card parties and cotillions,their carriages and horses and walks in the rain. It is a strange thing, the love in these books. There are men and there are women. They talk, and become angry. Sometimes one of them leaves the other, but by the end of the book they are once more united, and there is one man for one woman, and they seem to talk of one thing while having a conversation about something completely other. He enjoys these books. It is another way to witness love without intruding, without the pangs of jealousy he is sometimes prone to, when there is a couple-bond between two. He is fond of the idea of a touch that thrills, as if the Midgardians had some magic that could be transferred, some innate electricity. He touches his lips, traces the patterns on his face. Closes his eyes, and smiles.
It feels a little foolish, playing the part of a young lover. There is space for love in a Jotun heart, he knows it by the bearers with their young, the comrades in battle, the kin and the friends. It is a love that is not often demonstrated or declared, but it is there within the ice. Hidden, secret. Safe. Perhaps it was not always so. Perhaps, when life had more ease to it, there were songs in the great halls and palaces, stories told. Perhaps they held hands, embraced each other, compared their skin to the blue of the day sky or the soft darkness of the night sky. Perhaps, when there were stars to be seen, they gazed upon them. He knows not.
He seeks out Midgardians. Not to talk to, but to watch, to listen to. He feels their daily lives thrumming through his awareness whenever he expands his mind as far as it will go. They are lives lived with stealth, with the occasional battle, the occasional act of defiance. There are bars in underground rooms, and people meet and talk and laugh and pretend for a while. The Jotnar do not find them. He develops the habit of drawing runes on the doors of such places. It is fun, to confuse his brothers so. As he wanders, he notices other acts of defiance, organised ones. There is a bakery, where bread is given out for free. Broth is ladled out on street corners. There are secret signals, messages left in odd places. There are fights, skirmishes. The man who bakes bread throws a shield and shatters ice, arrows fly and gunshots crack in the cold air, but there is more work done in secret places, tunnels beneath the earth.
There is a custodian of the books in the library. She has ice blue eyes and hair that corkscrews around her face. When she first sees him, Jotun-blue, with a pile of books about crop rotation on the table next to him, she merely asks him if he has dogeared the books, or if he has written in the margins, because if he has there will be no escaping from her wrath. He cannot work out if she is in her right mind. He helps her to move some of the books, and she does not fear him, even though he wears his Jotun form. He treasures learning, like her. They move around each other, silent in the partly frozen rooms.
As he walks one day, a man with dark skin dances, feet flickering and shuffling. He is wearing a smart suit. By his feet there is a typewriter, and he carries an umbrella although it will not rain here while ice prevails. It is as if the man has just decided to dance, that he has tired of walking. Loki laughs out loud by mistake, for the sheer joy of the sight, and the man looks in his direction, so, quick as thought, he gives himself the guise of a Midgardian. “Brother, can you spare a dime?” the man sings to him, voice a little cracked, soft and crooning, then he grins. “Feels like the thirties, and I wasn’t even there. I’m going places, though, kid. I just got a typewriter, my friend’s thinking of starting up the stock market again—he don’t know Jack K nothing about Wall Street, just likes the shirts. I’m thinking of going pre-capitalist, I’ve got a sweet deal going on my barter system. I got a store, now, just got it cleaned out.” For the first time since One-eye, someone sees him, talks to him. He reaches for his magic. Holding his left hand out, Loki produces a rose, yellow and fragrant with summer. It will stay fresh forever. He walks over and smiles, reaches out with the rose, meeting the man’s eyes. The man takes it, grasps his hand in a warm gloved grip. He has forgotten the last time he has touched anyone. Probably at the same time as he got his pipes, the centuries spent with the music makers. He feels fragile, vulnerable. “You’re not from round here, kid,” the man says with his cracked husk of a voice.
“I’m not from anywhere,” he whispers, and laughs at how true it feels, runs down the street on his light feet, spins and leaps and oh, this is wonderful, this is life, with the man’s laughter following him as his feet crunch in the snow.
There is a record player in the library. He has read of how they are powered: the arteries and veins of these Midgardians, their lifeblood, have been frozen, cracked, ripped apart. Their wires and communications, their heat and light. The Jotnar eviscerated this society while they were pulling their boots on for battle. He reads more of this electricity. In some ways it is like his own power. He finds the record section of the library. He is fond of the grooves on glossy black, the runes and sigils, something he can touch and feel. The silver discs with rainbow coating where the light catches them all feel the same when he strokes them with his fingertips. It is not the same. He secures the roof with ice scaffolding and settles in to find a recording of the song the man sang to him. Brother.
When he does find it, he puts it on the record player, cuts the wires and strips them of their covering, touches his finger to the copper and just breathes, just a spark of power, then more. He makes it a little heart in its centre, a place where he can push his power, enough that it could play for years and caresses it, coaxes it until there is a spinning black circle, and he can let the needle drop and there’s a crackling then warmth and a voice that’s as tired as rock comes out of the box. These Midgardians know they are mortal. They weave it into their songs. He lies on his back, closes his eyes and smiles.
For a week, he waits on a certain corner for the man who danced. He wears his Midgardian face. The record player and the record are in his pocket of treasures. He does not eat, does not sleep. He is patient, patient as only he can be. The man walks down the street with a hunch in his shoulders, and Loki steps out of the shadows quickly. The man is wearing his rose. Loki grabs the record player from his pocket of air and gives it to the man, quickly. Gift giving is something he does best in secret, unseen, unnoticed. He meets his eyes, stammers something. The man’s smile is warm like the sun and his shoulders go down and he carries the record player on his shoulder.
He has made his little home in the tower his own. He has swept the dust away, painted the walls bright colours. He has stolen bright fabrics to line his nest, sleeps on a bed with a wrought iron frame and coaxes water from the taps, heat from the oven. Books line the walls, all the books he can find. It is his own place. There is a shelf in a certain corner of his home where his treasures rest so he can see and touch them. They exist between worlds, too of course, because space folds and curves and time is not a line. He walks every day, past the breadlines and the broth, into the library and beyond to the smoky bars. He steals food and wine when he can, hides it about his home. Scraps and tatters.
One day, a crisp, fresh day with Jotun-blue sky, he sees messages on the walls, ‘hey brother’ on the windows, doors, everywhere he looks and he rushes fleet-footed to a certain corner and waits with his Midgardian form on, patient as a wolf, no cloak, no hiding. A child comes out of an alleyway. “Hey, brother,” she whispers. She has dark skin like the man’s, a smile that lifts his heart. She runs, fleet-footed, and he follows down streets, through alleys. She is sure-footedon the ice: her braided hair flies behind her. They could run forever through their frozen city, run and never fall. They reach the man who dances. He is among a crowd who are murmuring, agitated. He sighs when he sees them, but his shoulders are tense.
“You do magic, stranger?” he asks him. Loki nods, looks at the rose in his buttonhole. “We need help. Please. The aliens came. They—they froze him.”
Loki runs a hand through his hair. “I cannot raise the dead,” he says softly. The man barks a harsh laugh.
“See, that’s the thing. He isn’t.”
He steers Loki through the crowd. Next to a building that is familiar—the bakery—there is a pillar of ice, and within it there is a man. His eyes are open. They are open, and they see, and they show such fear it tightens his chest. Behind Loki, people argue. He ignores them. “There’s a chance I will turn blue. I mean you no harm, do not disturb me when I do. I can help him.”
The man nods. “I wondered, before. I’ll talk fast if you do. They won’t hurt you.”
They clasp forearms, then Loki turns to the ice, closes his eyes and puts his hand out. Cold, in this form. He can feel the ice leaping out to greet him. Do you tire of this? I can give you a new form. I could make you a tree, a bird, a crown. Darling, what would please you?
He smiles. Love, my own, for you I will.
It is like a sigh. Water flows down the sides of the pillar, first in a trickle then in a fall and he keeps his hands on her as she melts around him caressing his face, neck, shoulders, arms and he soothes and murmurs as he frees her from ice to meltwater, as she exults. Then there is a rush, a whisper and under his hands a heart beats strong. His eyes fly open as the man gasps for air, stumbles and falls. Loki catches him, blue handed, clad in his furs and cold, cold, cold.
The man, the one who calls him brother, lets out a low whistle. His eyes are shining. Everyone else stares.
“Who are you?” the girl who brought him here asks, her brown eyes calm and level.
“I am a Jotun, a frost giant in your tongue.”
“You’re a bit short for a giant,” a man mutters and is hushed frantically by four different people.
“I’m a runt and a halfbreed,” he says mildly, which isn’t the full story but it’s true, all true. He looks at the Midgardian who passed comment on his height. He is lean, with dark messy hair and a beard. He is clad in armour, dull black and gleaming. He sends heat to the man in his arms, gradually, wishing he had read more anatomical books in the library (but oh, the romances) so he knew more about healing. “I believe this man should be somewhere warm. Can anyone carry him?” The man in armour comes forward and takes his burden. Loki looks down at the water flowing about his feet with a wry smile. She will not freeze again. The man who calls him brother puts his hand on Loki’s shoulder, tentatively at first then with a warm grip. Scared, but brave.
There is a scent on the wind. One of his kind, half a mile away, fully grown. Getting closer. “Hide again. You summoned me once, and can do so again.”
Ice whipcracks and they run like rabbits through a wood and he runs too, runs to calm his mind, to escape. Runs across frozen lakes, leaps walls and rubble until his soul is quiet once more. He is far from home. There was a statue in this place. A woman they called ‘Liberty’. She lies in pieces, now, and he climbs atop her head and lies, panting like a dog, looking up at the sky. He takes his pipes from his pocket between worlds and holds them in his hands, fingers caressing them, deep in thought. When he plays, it is a sad tune, but doesn’t stay sad for long. His shoulder feels warm where it was touched.
He rebuilds the library in ice, sending sheets from the walls that are whole, building lattices and girders and braces, making a structure that will not bend and break, that cannot be undone. He sleeps when he has to, makes vaulted rooms and sends the books flying in spirals, sends them hither and thither until the shelves are full once more and there is no rhyme nor reason to it but it’s his own, his own creation. He is the prince of his kingdom. Dark panelled walls turn into ice and filigree and he lies staring up at it, dreaming idle fantasies of ruling this world of books. The librarian finds him, and stares at him over the top of her spectacles. He reorders the books, using the system she favours. She pats him on the head and says “well done, dear,” and he surrenders his crown to her once more. Queen Anthea of Library, ruler of all she indexes.
A week passes. Night falls, and there is ‘spare me a dime?’ written in lights above the dark hulking shapes of ruined towers. He smiles slightly. It could be a trap; they know now that he is Jotun. They know him as an enemy, but they know nothing of him. He fears no trap, no prison they could devise. He has been in worse places than they can imagine, slipped into them, slipped out of them with little more than a whisper in his wake. He has no fear of them, because they need not fear him. He strolls to the building under the lights. The scruffy man in the armour stands on a patch of ice—hovers there. In his hand, there is a bottle of golden liquid. “So, uh, I don’t know the terminology for this—is this a parley? Conference? Diplomatic thing? Uh, council of war? Anyway, doesn’t matter, I have alcohol, I guess you can provide the ice, love the blue by the way, Scout’s honour this isn’t a trap, but come drink whiskey, shoot the breeze.”
“I…yes?” he says at last, unsure of quite what he has agreed to.
“Right, great. Come on in. I’ll, uh, turn off the light display, you kick off your shoes—no, scratch that, no shoes.”
“You put a beacon above your place of residence?”
“Only a little one?”
Loki sighs. This Midgardian may be trouble, but he has the sneaking suspicion that, should he decline this time, he will merely keep on trying to gain Loki’s attention in increasingly intrusive ways. He follows him into his dwelling, through thick steel doors, down seemingly endless stairs, into a large room with metal creatures, suits of armour, thin wires and loops of copper coiling, gold, silver and crucibles, an anvil and such tools as the dwarves use. It is fascinating, full of half-finished devices and creatures, the product of a restless, flitting mind, but there are great completed works here, too. “I’m Tony Stark,” he says, dragging Loki’s mind from the beauty of his creation. It is strange, that such a man can make such things. “I’m an inventor, primarily. Used to be a…well, used to have champagne and caviar, fast cars, more money than God…at the moment, though, I’m attempting the biggest jury-rig in the world. The aliens really did a number on our communications, our power, electricity, transport…all that ice, though, probably making the polar bears happy. Another ice age, knew those Russian scientists should’ve brought back woolly mammoths, missed opportunity there.” Loki is patient, struggling to understand Stark’s speech, the point he is attempting to make. “Anyway, you made that gramophone work, and you melted the Capsicle, what with his refreezing—pretty sure you shouldn’t do that, doesn’t it make the food go bad or something?— so I figure you’re not actively hostile, but I don’t know what your play is here.”
He assumes Stark requires an answer, as he has paused for longer than a breath. “My aim is to remain unseen. It has always been thus.” The books of romance he reads in the house of learning would describe Stark as ‘mercurial’. He is too short to be the object of desire for a woman; he wears no hessian boots or cravat. His face is expressive when he isn’t smiling, and he seems desperately lonely, or else why would he make metal companions for himself? “I wander the worlds, drifting between them. I have no fixed point, no aims, no allegiance.”
“Yeah, no. Bullshit. Complete fucking bull. You,” he points, “are from the same place as the others. You are of the same species, and you,” he takes two glasses from the table, opens the bottle and pours as he speaks, “are here, on earth, the planet they are in the process of colonising. You do not get to claim neutrality, just because you’re on a lifelong sabbatical,” and by the Tree, his focus is terrifying when it is directed completely at one thing, sharp as a knife, skin-stripping. Loki brushes a delicate finger along the casing of one of Stark’s automatons.
“And yet, I am,” he comments mildly. Stark snorts, hands him a glass. They both sit down at the pocked and burnt table. Metal creatures hum to themselves and dust dances in the warm air. Stark has managed to make light in this underground room.
“There’ll come a point when you have to choose,” he says, raising a glass in a mocking toast. Loki tilts his glass towards him, in the full knowledge that he can run if it comes to that, run and never be found. The liquid burns oddly, painful, but like scratching an itch. It warms his throat and his veins. He is not sure if he likes it.
“What is this?”
“Whiskey. Can’t remember if it’s the good stuff, or the knockoff spleenrot that I stockpiled a while back. Ouch, yeah, it’s spleenrot. One sniff’s enough to get you drunk. Horrible stuff, should set fire to it.Still, it’ll put hairs on your chest or something.”
Loki drinks the whole glass in a long, painful gulp, shakes his head to clear some of the jangling noise from around his forehead, and slams one hand down on the table.
“I am a Jotun of Jotunheim. I need no hair of the chest.”
Stark looks at him, swirls the whiskey around in his glass, and refills Loki’s. “So, Jotunheim. How was that, anyway? The whole living there thing.”
He means to say ‘beautiful’ or ‘cold’ or ‘quiet’. What he says instead, enunciating clearly and carefully is: “boring. You have no idea how dull it is, living somewhere that is made of ice, and time is measured in centuries, and it is measured from one point: the time after the Casket of Ancient Winters was stolen and everything became awful. I left as soon as I was able and was not stopped. The only things there are to eat are snow, or fish, which are caught by standing in the one river in the whole land, which is black and stinking, and stabbing the fish with an ice spear, and apparently to speed up the process by creating a net is forbidden, because Mimir forfend there be an easy way to do things, not when you can brood and toil and strive for nothing but resentment and the empty halls and loneliness.”
It is the first time he has even spoken these thoughts out loud, and he feels as if he has said too much. He tried to live in Jotunheim, for a while. He makes a terrible Jotun; he is so easily bored. Had he had kin who acknowledged him, it may have been different, but as soon as he learnt how to leave, he did. Stark’s mouth is hanging slightly open. “I…I think the best way to win this thing might be to get Jotunheim a decent cable package,” he says at last.
He has no idea what Stark has just said. “I have no idea what you just said.”
Stark shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. So you’ve been in this place, or, I guess, popping in and out of this place, for, what, a few thousand years?”
“Aye. I was not missed much on Jotunheim, so I was not stopped,” he says with a slight shrug. He likes this liquid. It feels warm as it slips down his throat, burns him like fire. It makes him feel light and blurred, sunshine through ice. It has loosened his tongue, too.
“Right, okay, setting aside how fucked up that is for a moment, you got out of there. I mean, you had the abilities to escape that world, have adventures, watch people sleeping, switch around the salt and sugar in the kitchen…but that’s not relevant. Anyway. Yeah. You got out of there. So this world, this is kind of…nice place to visit, maybe you’ll stay here for a while, maybe you’ll go someplace else, like a transplanetary littlest hobo. But for the rest of the Jotuns, well. This is the first place they’ve been to for millennia that isn’t dark and covered with ice. Even if you ignore the whole colonial aspirations aspect, I can see their point.”
His first impulse is to say that they are not his people. He sits down, puts out his glass for Stark to fill. He is unaccustomed to discourse with a man such as this, and he hides his confusion with another sip of whiskey. Stark notices, probably. He sees too much. It is unpleasant, to be looked at like this. Scrutinised. He drains his glass “Sympathy with the monsters? Those creatures of ice that have taken your land, your homes, the shiny trinkets that make light and noise? The lives of your loved ones? Your buildings of stone, metal and glass? You think we feel pity for you?” and suddenly he feels trapped, with a hot feeling that strikes at his heart and in his throat that he recognises unwillingly as guilt. “You tiny creatures, with your lifespans that are over in a blink, who play with items of great power and wonder why they are taken from you? Greedy, grasping, selfish children, and do you know what we do to our children? Do you? The weak ones, who weep too often, who caused their bearer to cry out in pain in birthing them? We leave them to die.” He attempts to relax. “I apologise. I am…what is the phrase? I am somewhat foxed.”
“I…I get the impression that you’re feeling a little conflicted, here?” Stark ventures, his phrasing and intonation oh so delicate, and Loki feels himself smile against his will, even if something inside him has been scraped out and made hollow.
“I want—I want,” he whispers, not sure if Stark will understand. It has been an age since he has done anything but skim the surface, but look and feel, and have simple wonder and joy in discovery, the sating of a curiosity that was never dormant. To want, oh that was dangerous, that was to yearn, to demand, to need, fear and desire something more than that which could be touched with his fingertips.
“I’ve got a proposition for you,” Stark says as he tries to breathe. “Stay with me—not all the time, because you’ll go insane, plus you may need a rest, but a week on, week off deal. Stay with me and help me. You got the record player working again, and I need to get some communications up and running. This arc reactor’s all I’ve got, and I need it for my heart. I tried—they wouldn’t let me take it out.”
He is drunk. They both are, probably. He spent three moons with a five headed sorcerer a few centuries ago. He has the sneaking suspicion that this will be a similar experience. “Yes. I accept. Sleep now.”
He wakes up lying among the machines, thirsting, full of hunger, and with a prickling at the back of his neck and up his flanks. There are other Midgardians here in this room. “I know you’re awake,” a soft voice says. Feminine, with a sound like smoke to it. He sits up slowly, going through the means he has at his disposal for escaping. His curiosity prevents him from doing so immediately. Stark sits up, too.
“Natasha! I can explain! You remember the Jotun—that’s what they’re called, who knew?—who unfroze the Capsicle, right?”
“I remember,” the woman says. Her eyes have never wavered from his. She holds herself as if she is about to dance, or kill, or both. She is every part of a fire; the flame and the smoke. She would torture him without blinking if she had to, or save his life if she wanted to.
“We are Jotnar. I am of their world, but I…I believe I sojourn here, rather than invade. I mean no one harm. You are…you fight the invasion?”
A man in formal clothing, with a peaceful stillness to his expression, clears his throat, delicately. “I believe it is more ‘staying alive’ than ‘fighting’ at present. My name is Agent Coulson. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” he says absently. He looks at the others in the group. They are…he is unaccustomed to reading the expressions of Midgardians, but they are grubby, pale, wounded in more ways than the flesh. He lets a little magic bloom, just for guidance. One of them, the frozen man with blue eyes who carries a shield, feels different from the others. Suddenly curious (and Hel take his curiosity; it will be the end of him one way or another) he stands, circles the man, seeking out clues, answers. He has the whiff of ice about him. Sleep, too, and a deep sorrow, deeper than he will ever show. Old sorrow, and the taint of one of the objects that first attracted the Jotnar to this place. “You are out of time,” he murmurs. The man stiffens, and another man, short, stocky, nocks an arrow to his bow and aims it unerringly. “I confess, I was expecting something more…incendiary. People in New York do not still resort to saltpetre and cannons, surely? No, do not bristle. The simpler the weapon, the fewer the flaws. I believe, though my mind is clouded with whiskey yet, that I offered to help. The offer still stands, but not if I am threatened. Do we have an accord?”
The Midgardians go into a corner and talk in hushed voices. Loki amuses himself by making a tiny ice bird, breathes spirit into it so it can hop and perch. He has made many such birds over the years. The way they tilt their heads pleases him. There is a flock on Jotunheim that he has managed to give voices to. They flutter in the rafters of one of the disused longhouses, their song the tinkling of icicles, the dripping of water. They will sing forever.
The group comes back. They introduce themselves with careful courtesy. He does not—will not. He is the son of a king. He is leverage. He says ‘call me brother’, and they do. He works with Stark, providing power when asked, bending and shaping metal. Sometimes Stark just talks at him, and seems to like it when he responds sarcastically. Once, he asks him to use up all his power reserves, and they make a circle that glows blue, and Loki sleeps for a week. He is unsure of what Stark is attempting, but can tell that they are getting closer with each week.
He learns more of the group. Steve Rogers had been frozen in ice for many years, brought by the Jotnar to the shore when they called the ice, chipped out and awoken in a barren and cold land. He fights, and he bakes bread to feed the poor of the city. The wheat no longer grows, and soon, the food will run out. People have stockpiled food in tins, and will not share, and Steve Rogers tries not to be disappointed in them. Philip Coulson used to work for the rulers of the country. He still does, in a way, but he has no idea of his orders, no idea where his soldiers are, his generals scattered to the four winds. Clint Barton, they call Hawkeye. He worked in a circus. He is all rough edges and mistrust, and hardly smiles. He likes high places, Philip Coulson, and Natasha Romanova. Natasha, he is in awe of. She comes from a land of snow and ice, and she wears a mask that is too beautiful to look behind. Tony Stark is a tangle of conflicting needs and desires. He sent the woman he loves away. She may live, but he does not know.
Loki stays in his home on the weeks when he is not needed, goes to the library and aids the custodian of the books, queues in the breadline and listens to people talking. There are rumours coming from other cities, rumours of lightning and thunder, of battles and victories. He wakes one night and finds the room glowing golden, then dimming back to the old comfortable glow. He sits up, stares. Odin One-eye sits in his little room, watching him, his face lit by the magelight Loki had made. He gets ready to disappear again, mind nearly blank with fear. “No, stay a while. I mean no harm,” One-eye says, every word weighed and measured. “You are learned in these arts, young Jotun. When I asked King Laufey of you, he would not say who you were. I would know your name and the source of your learning.”
Loki watches him, looks at his face in magelight. There is something going on here, something beyond what One-eye is saying. “I have no part in this conquest,” he says at last, still not sure of the steps of this dance.
One-eye makes a small gesture to the rest of the room. “And yet, you are here,” he says mildly, and it isn’t the same thing, it isn’t but Loki does not know how to argue his case.
“It is my sanctuary. I harm no one.”
“Nor have you ever. There is no blood on your hands. Unusual for a Jotun. Or an áss too, for that matter. I ask you again: who are you?”
Loki knows the rules of these things. Three times of asking, and he must answer. “Have you been watching me?”
Odin smiles. “There is not much I do not see, or hear of. I saw you in our rooms of learning and of healing. Curious as a child. You are a child still, I think, or not yet fully grown. I ask you for the third time, tell me who you are.”
Loki scowls. “I am Loki, son of Laufey-king, half Jotun, left at the temple to die but survived the night, stepper between worlds, player of pipes, reader of books, wielder of no weapons, caster of spells, hider from battles.”
Odin sits back, closes his eye briefly. “A prince of the Jotnar. They let slip many treasures through their icy fingers, did they not, young one?”
“You stole them, thief One-eye. And I am not one of your stolen treasures.”
He sighs, looking for a moment every one of his years. “No, Loki son of Laufey. You are not. I have a question for you. Were you in my position, if you desired to protect this Midgard, though they are like spoiled, greedy children who thoughtlessly wield ancient weapons with the arrogance of callow youths, how would you do it? What would make the Jotnar retreat? How would you make Midgard free?”
His first impulse is to say he wouldn’t, but that is not wholly true. “I would take the ancient weapons from them. All of them. Then I would restore Jotunheim to the glory it once had, so that defeat was not a sour and brooding thing, as it has been these past few thousand years. Give us back our halls and our songs, our ice and snow so we are not mere beggars in our master’s house. Lift the cloud that we may once more see the blue of our skies. There is not enough space for us to live among the broken walls and ruins of what once was. Defeat us in battle, for that is the only way to win Midgard from us. We respect defeat, if we have somewhere to retreat to that is home.”
“You ask a lot, but you ask for it well. I name you Silver-tongue. I name you Prince. When the time comes to talk after the battle, I would have you there.”
Loki is dimly aware that he might have walked into a trap, but it is a cunningly executed one. Gilded. He may not even notice its walls, in the end. “I am no ambassador, and I am no prince. I will not speak for those who abandoned me. But Silver-tongue I will take, for it is a good name, One-eye. Break bread with me, Ygg, terrible one, and share the salt of my table, as a mark of faith.”
He gets some of the bread that he has queued for, gets meat he has hunted and salt he has stolen, the tastes of them still novel and wonderful. He brings plates to the table, wine and glasses. He tries to ignore the fear he feels, a relic of all the terrible tales told to children and grimmer mutterings in the halls by the warriors. It works. His fear of Odin now is a new thing, because he is going to bring an end to Loki’s peace, and Loki knows not how he will restore it. They eat quietly together. In the distance, Loki hears the creaking of the ice, gentle as a lullaby. They finish their meal together, and one-eye stands up. “For the mercy you showed my son, and the speed of your actions, I will keep our conversation and your name secret until after the battle is won. It would be wise if you were to do the same.”
Loki nods, the taste of the wine sweet in his mouth, singing in his veins. Not knowing why, he picks a knife up from the table, makes a cut across his palm. It stings, drips on the table. Odin’s eye narrows, and he draws his own knife from his belt. He cuts quick and shallow and they clasp hands, their blood mingling. “We will go far together,” Loki whispers, giddy. Everything is changing. He can sense Odin’s magic, alien to him, warm and golden like sun on fruit.
The Jotnar are retreating. Rumours fly back and forth. A team of sled dogs come into New York, and the woman driving it is mobbed for news. People gather in larger groups, hold markets and meetings. They no longer scurry between places of safety. He finds out the name of the man who wears his rose. It is Gabriel. He has a shop, and he plays music for all who enter it. He prospers, as much as is possible in this city. Loki sits in the shop in his Jotun form and watches and wonders as people accept his presence. Gabriel’s daughter, Sasha, fleet-footed and brave, gives him a long string of beads, which he puts on his shelf of treasures. He can smell a storm coming, can taste it in the air. He sleeps badly, with disturbing dreams.
Thor, the spoilt princeling, flies into New York with a tattered cloak and battered armour, all thunder and lightning. He hears the storm in the morning. Ostentation, nothing more. Loki hears of it everywhere he goes. He feels oddly bad tempered about it, out of sorts. The librarian calls him a crosspatch, and sends him to mend the roof until he’s in a better mood. Natasha finds him at the library, sits on the tiled part of the roof. “Expecting rain?” she asks, and smiles when he scowls. “He’s been asking about you. Or, at least, about a small Jotun who could do magic.”
“I am taller than you,” he says loftily as he persuades the ice to flow over the cracks, to unwarp itself with soft caressing words. “I am interested to see if he finds me. He seemed to lack a brain, the last time we met.”
Natasha crosses her gloved hands behind her head, lies back on the roof. She looks up at the grey, looming skies. They listen for the thunder as he murmurs to the ice.
Stark has not slept for four days. He is getting close, he says. His right hand shakes, and his eyes are red, his hair dirty with oil and dust. Loki feeds power into a series of small blue circles, there is a crackle and a series of whistles, Stark grins like he has been touched by the moon and dances around the room. Loki waits until he stops moving, steers him to the mattress in the corner of the room and puts a blanket over him, then he puts his Midgardian form on and goes for a walk in the ice. A hand on his shoulder stops him in the street. “Mortal, I am seeking a Jotun. A small one who uses sorcery.”
He catches a glimpse of Clint Barton, high above them. Natasha is probably also nearby. Thor Odinsson is tired, grimy, streaks of blood on his skin. Perhaps this is an adventure for him; perhaps he fights like Loki learns. He sheds his Midgardian form with Odinsson’s hand still on his shoulder, just to see what he does.
Thor laughs, throwing back his head, then slings an arm about his shoulders. “A merry jest, my friend. Come, my father would have us prepare a place for parley. Great battles have been fought, but the time now is for words, and I, little giant, have a tongue of lead.”
He smells of sweat, blood and worse, would never manage to fix a cravat with any skill, but he bears Loki no ill will, his arm warm and heavy about his shoulders, and he laughs like a child at the simplest piece of mischief. He takes him down to Tony Stark’s workshop and shows him the Midgardian devices, the glowing blue, the creatures that chirp and whirr and scuttle. He takes him to Gabriel’s store and they listen to music, sit and hear rumours fly about as people come and go. Natasha finds them there and Thor clasps forearms with her and Loki can see pleased surprise in her eyes. He tells her of Stark’s success and sleep and she smiles fondly.
Thor tells her of the planned negotiations, then when she is gone, grins at Loki. “Surely you did not expect me to leave these Midgardians out of these talks like children? I confess, I would have a few months ago, but I am wiser now than I was back then.”
“That is hardly a feat,” Loki murmurs. Thor’s laugh is loud and bright. It warms him.
People come and go. Thor has a knapsack that never runs out of supplies, and is garrulous in the extreme, delighted to talk to anyone who will stay still for long enough. Loki is unsure of what to make of him. Hard to think of him as the son of one such as Odin; he wears his every thought on his face. He spies Tony Stark running towards them, clad in his vest and trousers, barefooted, followed closely by Natasha and Steve, who carries a pair of shoes. He bursts into the store, panting for breath. “She’s alive! My Pepper Pott’s gone and got herself an army.” His face is incandescent, eyes fever-bright and oh, such joy and relief in his voice, and Thor produces beer from somewhere and they sit and toast her health.
Philip Coulson’s scattered generals and soldiers can talk to each other now, which Thor calls a great feat of magic, and Steve calls some sort of electricity and everything is coming together, Loki can feel it, there is food in their bellies and candles burning brightly on the tables. Gabriel and Sasha sit and eat with them, and Loki looks around the room and sees only people he likes, who like him in return, even if Thor is attempting to tell the assembled group about bilgesnipes, with actions, and Tony is complaining that his feet are cold to anyone who will listen. He sits back and makes frost patterns on the table, gentle curves with his fingers. “Your smile is so tender when you do that,” Natasha murmurs, her lips close to his ear. “Do all Jotnar love the ice as you do?”
He can only shrug. It is a gesture he was become fond of; it has many uses.
Odin One-eye asks Anthea for the use of the library in the peace talks. Asks, not commands, with a deep bow over her hand which she accepts with the dignity of a queen. Laufey-king is given a throne of ice. Loki creates it himself, twines vines and branches together until it looks alive enough to grow. Odin One-eye selects a simple wooden chair for himself. There are contingents from all three races there, all sat around the table in the reading chamber. Loki watches from an alcove. He will not speak for his people, but he wishes to listen.
These are long debates indeed. Loki drifts in and out of paying attention. Sometimes, there are raised voices; sometimes, no one utters a word. He is surprised to note that his words to Odin have been marked; the Jotnar are surprised, too. They would have surrendered their claim to Midgard, even without these concessions, there were too many of the other worlds against them. Their surrender is not enough, the Midgardians say. They have been plunged into an ice age, and there is famine, mass starvation, the collapse of communication and production. Asgard offers grain and fruit, for they have plenty to share. It is not sustainable.
“Clear the ice,” Tony Stark says, clad in clean clothing, eyes sharp as needles.
“We have not the power to melt, only to freeze,” Laufey-king rumbles, his fingers gripping the arms of his throne. Odin looks to Loki, then, nods once, and Loki understands at least a part of what Odin needs of him. He smiles, steps out of the shadows, pipes around his neck, his belt of beads around his waist, the warmth of the sun on the back of his neck and a cantrip readied on the tip of his tongue. He steps out of the shadows, and Laufey-King, his father, looks. He steps out of the shadows and his feet make a sound and he’s been hiding for millennia but no more, and he meets his father’s eyes. Thor is grinning, Tony Stark is showing him his thumbs and Natasha knows what he is about to say before the words have left his lips. Her eyes are warm and fond, her hair flame-red.
“I believe I may be able to aid you with that,” he says, because the ice yields to him when he caresses as a lover would, he has never written in the margins of a book, he has a pocket between places where his treasures are hidden, there are gaps between worlds that he can slip through and he is not alone.