In retrospect, it wasn't the brightest idea he'd ever had.
The problem was, he was getting restless, and increasingly elaborate distractions he tried inventing for himself did nothing to alleviate boredom. At this time of year Jotunheim was still and silent, deep in the clutches of cruel winter, sharp and bright like a knife's edge. Loki hunted with his brothers, chased and killed nameless beasts lurking in stone forests. When he grew tired of blood and howling, he started playing pranks, innocent ones for the most part, anything to make a little bit of noise to break cold silence. His father seemed rather unimpressed. Laufey's displeasure gnawed at him, slowly, insidiously.
He knew he was prone to recklessness when faced with his family's disappointment. He tried, tried so very hard to fulfill their expectations, to make up for his slight stature and strange features, to learn magic, to be useful. A good scion of the house of Laufey. Sometimes he thought he managed that. More often he knew it was all in vain. Laufey may have given him jewels and trinkets for his hair, cover his narrow shoulders with furs, praise the light of his magic, but under all this affection lurked something which found him wanting.
These were the times where Loki thought that if only he dug hard enough, tear his skin apart and sink his fingers into bone and muscle, open his ribcage wide, he would find an emptiness, a void where his heart should have been. He should have been carrying a frozen piece of winter inside him, he should have found a way to be a good son, a good brother. Instead he had only pieces of magic, parlor tricks to confuse and deceive. He could lie, he could hurt, find words that cut and sliced to the bone, create worlds of illusion at his fingertips, cut into flesh with magic sharp as knives. None of these were real enough for him, not real enough for them.
He tried nonetheless, tried to hide this gaping hole beneath his ribs. Maybe one day, under the green moon or in fleeting, pale sunlight, he would discover a way, a spell or a ritual, find the right offering for old forgotten gods. Maybe it never was about a heart at all, maybe the core of the problem run even deeper than his flesh. He did not know. It wasn't in his nature to sit idly and wait for answers, and he set forth on his own, with or without knowledge of his blood kin, only hoping they would never find out. Or maybe he hoped they would.
Regardless of his reasons, no matter should be grave enough to forgo basic common sense and he seemed to have done exactly that. He had found out about a place, a secret place tucked into a remote corner of Asgard, where some forgotten warlord had hidden a treasure, heaps of gems and gold, weapons wrought with finest iron and magic. The riches were less important, though, than a chance of getting a foothold into Asgard. His informant was rather vague on the details, which really should have rung some warning bells, but Loki wanted very much to be the one to provide a tactical advantage. The war with the Aesir was a constant in his life, though after the last disastrous offensive so many years before which had cost them the Casket, it burned low and quiet. Without this major part of their power which the Casket represented even mighty Laufey seemed somehow diminished, if Loki would permit such a thought about his proud father. He knew he had no way to recover it, not yet, but a possibility of striking a blow against Odin, any blow, was simply too sweet to ignore.
Now the sentiment seemed primarily embarrassing, Loki admitted to himself, huddling in the corner of his cell. There was a war inside his skull. At least it felt like that, raging across planes of his mind, trampling the beginnings of thoughts and loose strands of seidr into mud. He knew, intellectually, that it was merely a remnant of the blow which rendered him unconscious and unpleasant side-effect of his chains, which also held his magic. Also, it was hot. Loki was no stranger to warmer worlds, walked them often in his endless travels, but never before was he forced to endure it for so long and in such closed quarters. Every breath was an effort.
They took his weapons, took amber shards he kept woven into his hair, took his rings and bracelets and finely crafted golden chains which adorned his horns. He would be furious, if only splitting headache would permit such sentiments. If they wanted him dead, they would have killed him on the spot. Considering that he still drew breath, they must have wanted him for something. He would have thought information, or maybe for ransom. Or they wanted him tortured.
He was too tired and in too much pain to be able to worry about it too much. Sleep came unbidden, but a relief nonetheless.
Thor shoved another stuttering sentry aside and continued walking down the hall as if nothing happened. If only he knew that this day would turn out like that, he would never bother to get out of bed in the morning. His father had left Asgard a few days before on some mission or errand he had never bothered to explain to his son, leaving the kingdom in Thor's capable hands. And under his mother's supervision, obviously. Even Thor had no delusions about that. Frigga usually kept to herself when he wasn't doing anything spectacularly ill-advised, but he felt her gaze on himself every time he turned a corner. He would bump accidentally into one of the Valkyries, or find himself staring at serene face of one of his mother's ladies who just happened to be where he was. When he lay sleepless at night, he would hear mocking cawing of ravens outside his window.
After a few days he was fairly sure he was going to go mad.
And now this matter with the prisoner. A strange Jotunn, slender and with a mane of black hair, but a Jotunn all the same, red-eyed and blue-skinned, with telltale lines marring his face and body. According to one of his father's spies, who had lured an unsuspecting Laufeyson into Asgard, he would be a valuable hostage, though how Laufey could love such a creature enough to stop his war was truly beyond Thor. He knew what was expected of him – to keep the prisoner safe and wait for Odin's return – but none of these made the whole thing less baffling. He itched to speak with the Jotunn, to learn more. For all his foreignness the prisoner seemed as fragile as anyone in his position, nothing like the Jotnar in the histories. He had apparently put up a good fight, deceiving the einherjar with clever illusions and cutting flesh with magic. In the end it didn't matter, though Thor heard many angry voices this evening, calling for appropriate punishment for the seidrmadr.
The cell they had put him in was decent enough, but the prisoner had apparently found the floor to be more fitting place for sleep than the bed. Curled on the cold hard stones, he seemed somehow small and alien at the same time. Without small jewels and golden thread which kept his hair in order, it was now strewn around his face, which was guarded and closed even in his sleep. Thor unwillingly found himself following curving lines crossing the prisoner's cheeks and chin with his eyes. They seemed a little like scars, though he could not fathom why anyone would willingly harm himself so. Maybe they were born with them, like with the scale-like protrusions which marked the Jotunn's narrow shoulders.
The warriors said he had taken a solid blow to the head before they could subdue him. In fact Thor could still see darker stains on blue skin of the prisoner's neck and back. Under different circumstances he would be more than happy to let the ice giant rot in the cell for all he cared, but this time he felt uneasy. He was not a prisoner of war, not truly, and he wasn't bested in fair combat, only captured through treachery and lies. Thor waited for anger – shouldn't the Jotnar answer for breaking a treaty, for sending one of their own to steal what didn't belong to them – but there was very little of it. He observed the prisoner instead, his weak thrashing on the floor, the thin sheen of sweat covering his body. Maybe he should send a healer down there.
He hoped Odin would know what to do with the sorcerer. For once Thor would gladly defer to his father's judgment.
There was a presence behind him. He turned around in time to see Sif, her face oddly contemplative. She ran her fingers along the steel bars of the cell, engraved with runes for protection and imprisonment.
“He is a strange one, is he not?”
“Aye.” Thor managed to turn his gaze away from the Jotunn. “He looks nothing like Laufey. Nothing like other Jotnar. I wonder if we were deceived.”
She shrugged and said nothing. She was among the einherjar to capture the sorcerer and still bore traces of frostbite and several shallow cuts on her arms and cheek.
“Did you want something?”
“Don't do anything stupid, won't you?” She smiled slightly and patted his shoulder. “I think Lady Frigga wishes to see you if you have a moment. It will not do to have her waiting, so don't dawdle.”
“Since when you are acting as her messenger?”
“My advice included stupid questions as well, just so you know. See you later. You still owe me a spar. Maybe this time you will best me.”
She didn't stay long enough to hear his indignant response. That was exactly like her, to remind him of still-painful bruises she had given him when they sparred before she left with the warriors to capture the Jotunn. He stole last glance at the ice giant and started violently, when his eyes met almost painfully intense red gaze.
“Please do go on,” the Jotunn said dryly. “I've had precious little entertainment here. Where is famous Asgardian hospitality?”
It seemed a small eternity before Thor found his tongue.
“We are not here to entertain you,” he said.
“So it would seem.” The Jotunn drew himself from the floor with a grunt of pain. He sat for a while in silence, his back to the wall, never once averting his eyes from Thor's face. Thor felt himself reddening under the scrutiny.
“You were found trespassing on our territory, you violated the border. You are lucky to be treated as gently as you were.” Thor's earlier kindness dissipated. His ears seemed to be on fire. To make matters worse, the small Jotunn apparently noticed everything, judging from his smirk.
“Oh, I have no doubt about that, Odinson. You are him, am I right? I wonder how Odin could have spawned such a foolish child.”
The sound which came from Thor's throat resembled an animal's growl more than anything human. It amused the Jotunn to no end.
“Keep your clever words, Laufeyson,” Thor managed to say through gritted teeth. “They will not help you in the end.”
He turned and tried to make his exit as dignified as possible. The sound of icy chuckle followed him through the halls.
Loki made sure that the big golden oaf was well beyond the hearing range before he allowed his shoulders to sag. His whole body felt stiff, his head still pounded abominably, there were patches of black and silver floating lazily in his sight, and every word he managed to get out at Odinson hurt. This little encounter gave him some hope, however. Apparently Odin was not at Asgard, otherwise he would be long questioning Loki by now. And his son was so obviously a failure who could not piece a decent thought together. There may be a chance of escaping yet.
He did not miss the shieldmaiden's gaze, though. She was the one to knock him out in the end. It would be prudent to keep an eye on her, he decided, as much as he could keep an eye on anything in his sorry state. How his brothers would laugh to see him like this. How Farbauti would laugh. There mere thought of his other parent sent shivers through him. Laufey was often stern and cold, but never cruel, never unkind. Farbauti had little love for Loki, for his strange features and his magic. He was no longer welcome into Laufey's halls, his visits few and far between. Laufey never said what caused this rift between them, though Loki suspected he knew the reason.
He could hardly keep a passage of time, but it seemed that a few hours passed before they finally brought him some food and water. He was of half a mind to ignore the stale bread disdainfully, but his grumbling stomach disagreed violently with his pride. Well, his dignity could wait. He had precious little of it left and didn't care for starving for its sake. The guard eyed him warily and disappeared as soon as he came. Apparently there wasn't an abundance of volunteers to watch over the Jotunn. Loki felt the beginning of a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. He could use it somehow, this distaste for something foreign and dangerous.
These few drops of cold water did him some good, though the heat in the cell was still stifling. He could smell his own sweat, acrid, bitter stench of closed spaces and wounded people. His head still felt tender and his vision swam if he moved carelessly, but he was reasonably certain that this discomfort was passing. He had worse things to worry about, anyway.
Thor found his mother in her favorite place, deep in the gardens of Fensalir. She and her entourage spent their days sitting on stone benches around the fountain, walking around, sewing, weaving, doing embroidery. He always felt a little bit uncomfortable among them. The ladies in waiting rarely spoke in his presence, but he felt their gaze, could almost hear their words. He had a feeling that they were judging him somehow unworthy. The barely-contained amusement in the eyes of the Valkyries who sometimes accompanied Frigga only seemed to confirm it.
Afternoon sun was heavy and golden on his head. Slight wind rustled leaves and flowers of slender blooming trees Frigga favored. His steps sounded loud and heavy on the stony path. Suddenly he felt the weight of gazes of a dozen women. He summoned a smile which felt strained and sheepish even for him. He wished he could still go back to bed and wake up in a world without the Jotnar and amused ladies in waiting.
“Welcome, dear,” Frigga murmured, letting him kiss her cheek and sit next to her on the bench. A needle was flashing in her quick fingers, but he could not make out the embroidery yet. He felt too large, too heavy and very out of place.
“You wished to see me, Mother?”
Frigga gave him a small, kind smile which chilled him to the bone.
“I heard we have quite an... unusual guest here.”
“There's one way of putting it,” Thor murmured resentfully before he could stop himself.
“I hope he has been treated with respect. Has he?” Frigga's smile resembled a knife's edge.
Thor desperately looked away, but none of the ladies gave him any signs of support. Freyja, who was seated nearby, was trying to stifle a giggle and failing.
“He is locked in a cell, Mother.”
“It will not do to have a Laufeyson die under our roof,” Frigga's voice was still mild, serene, but with a hint of reproach. Thor attempted to shrink and disappear.
“I will take care of this, Mother,” he said and was very proud of himself when his voice didn't waver. It gave him a spark of courage. “But why, Mother? He is a criminal, a thief. A Jotunn and a seidrmadr. Why do you care?”
She touched his cheek gently.
“Oh, my dear,” she whispered and suddenly she seemed sad. Her gaze strayed towards Freyja for a second. “One day you will understand that some wars are not worth waging, and some are not won with blades.”
He looked at her, puzzled, but she refused to elaborate.
When Laufey was irritated, his stronghold would shake in its roots and men trembled. Ice broke slowly, groaning in its otherworldly voice. Laufey's sons scrambled and fled, save for the youngest one, the smallest one, who never feared the roar and biting sarcasm and always managed to calm their father somewhat. Sometimes people whispered that the little runt, this abomination, charmed their King somehow, worked his magics and clouded his mind. Laufey tended to break those who dared to speak such thoughts aloud.
But when Laufey was angry, truly furious, deep in his black icy rage, the keep was quiet like death and Winter.
He was sitting on his throne, a huge slab of ice carved in a thousand changing shapes, when the news came, an ultimatum disguised as an invitation. He rose silently, walked through the crowd of Jotnar, none of whom dared to look him in the eyes, and left. His two elder sons glanced at each other, seemed to come at some sort of understanding and slithered along, following their father. It was much better to face his wrath now than to hide and prove themselves cowards.
“Why didn't you stop him?” Laufey asked, stopping near the end of narrow dark corridor. He leaned on the windowsill and looked outside, into the night, into the raging blizzard. His whole body screamed of tightly wound tension.
“We had no idea,” Helblindi said. His voice came out clipped.
“None of you?” Laufey fixed his gaze at something behind his sons. Helblindi didn't need to turn his head to see a slender shadow of a girl curling her fingers into thick fur of a wolf. They just stood there, silent. Helblindi always found his – niece, he could say – a little more than unnerving. The wolf and the serpent he understood, they were wild, they were strong and always hungry, comfortable in their predictability.
“No, Father,” he whispered. “Loki kept to himself lately. We thought--”
His voice trailed away when he noticed Laufey's fingers digging into the wall, through ice and stone as easily as if they were soft butter. He heard a quiet slither of scales on the floor tiles somewhere behind them.
“We never thought he would come to Asgard,” he finished lamely.
“You never thought?” Laufey voice was still gentle. “You never thought to question your brother? Your father?”
Hel never looked away, her single eye still and unblinking. Helblindi never dared to ask Loki how exactly he had come up with the children, his creations – the girl, the wolf, the serpent. He fashioned them somehow out of ice and magic and his own blood, with the aid of Angrboda the witch who taught him the words and the rituals. Sometimes Helblindi thought that Loki made them just to prove that he could. The other times he thought his brother felt lonely, and it made him uncomfortable and guilty.
“If only I could do something,” Helblindi said without thinking. Laufey's fist missed him by the inches and struck the wall, shattering a portion of it.
“Now you cannot do anything,” he whispered. Helblindi stepped back, almost stumbled into his brother, who apparently thought that the best survival technique was to stand still and silent, and hope that Laufey would mistake him for a stone statue. He envied the wolf and the serpent. Nobody expected them to talk.
“They invited me to Asgard,” Laufey dropped broken shards of ice to the floor. He didn't seem to notice dark blood dripping from his fingers. “I shall come. You will come with me, all of you, you will see what has become of your brother and what price we are to pay for our kin.”
He turned away again, to the window. His voice suddenly sounded broken.
“I swear, if they harmed him, I shall give them the war they love so much.”
If anyone asked him, Thor would insist that he was doing it out of respect for his mother. In fact, he did not fear her disappointment or wanted to die of shame at her ladies' whispering, and certainly did not notice at all glances cast in his direction by the einherjar, the Valkyries, the other gods and generally by anyone. He would stand by his point even when faced with threat of death.
In any case, he personally supervised moving the prisoner into better quarters and getting a healer to him. The manacles stayed, obviously. The Jotunn may have been no simple thief, but Thor had no wish to experience his magic for his own. Laufeyson had woken up halfway through the process and wasted no time in insulting Thor's wits, his hair, his clothes and his wits again. After a ninth or so sarcastic remark Thor was tempted to wring his neck and endure the consequences. Even his parents' wrath seemed to be an agreeable alternative.
Finally he could sit down in a chair on the other side of the room, watch the healer clean and bandage the Jotunn less than gently and try his best to squash all the thoughts about murder. Laufeyson started behaving as if he was a visiting dignitary and should be treated as such within minutes, magical manacles and ragged clothing notwithstanding. He wore only a pair of trousers and a sleeveless vest under his green cloak with a fur collar, an outfit more fitted to a wandering warrior than a King's son. Thor wavered between anger and curiosity. The Jotunn's narrow face betrayed nothing. The lines on his forehead, cheeks and chin formed a simple, harmonious pattern, his slender horns curved slightly above his head. Thick streams of black hair cascaded down his back nearly to his waist. He was the strangest Jotunn Thor had ever seen and he could not help being fascinated and enraged at the same time. This strange mix of feelings did nothing good for his mood.
“The All-father is going to be here tonight,” Thor said after a while, anything to break the silence. He watched the Jotunn for a reaction, any kind of reaction, but there was nothing save for a brief moment of stillness, a quick tension of his shoulders.
“Finally someone worth talking to.” The Jotunn smirked at him. Thor wanted to punch him. The healer finished with his ministrations, bowed and left slightly faster than it was entirely appropriate.
“You are going to regret this,” Thor said just to have something to say.
“Listening to you talk? Certainly. I am regretting it at this very moment.”
They sat for a while in silence.
“Care to tell me what do you find so fascinating about me?” asked Laufeyson, smiling like a cat which not only managed to catch a canary, but also a fish and drink all the cream in a jug.
“You are not very clever, are you?”
Thor could see very clearly his hands on this slender, blue neck, fingers digging into skin, hear every little choked noise. Even if Laufeyson could see his intent on his face, he never stopped smiling.
Whatever the healer gave him, must have worked, because pain became rather dull and unimportant, but it also made Loki very sleepy. When Odin's oaf of a son finally left in a huff, it took Loki all but five seconds to fall asleep again. However, he woke up to a different set of eyes altogether – eye – watching him and suddenly wished he had not slept at all.
“I did not expect someone like you here,” the All-father told him in a flat voice. Loki resisted the urge to draw his knees to his chest. He met Odin's gaze as steadily as he could.
“I did not expect to be here at all,” Loki said. He didn't like the sound of his own voice, high and strained.
A raven sat perched at the edge of the bed and cawed at him mockingly. Its twin stayed on Odin's other shoulder, watching Loki with one beady, gleaming eye. Are you Thought or Memory, Loki wanted to ask it, just for the comfort of knowing. The rumor had it that Odin traded his eye for knowledge, sold it like a sack of wheat, though Loki knew that the scars visible from under his eye-patch were the mark of his father's claws.
“And yet here you are,” Odin said. He was watching him greedily, as if he was given a strange and unexpected gift and did not know yet what to do with it.
“I quite enjoy your hospitality, All-father,” Loki finally managed to get his face and voice under control again. It would not do at all to break down here where Odin could see him, even if Loki felt cold sweat gathering on his brow and his hands trembling.
“Don't you,” Odin did not turn it into a question.
“Truly, the legend does not do you justice,” Loki forced himself to smile. Odin did not raise to a bait.
“Your father should be here shortly,” he said after a few moments of heavy silence. Loki started, unable to contain his expression for a second. “You will come with me and hear what mighty Laufey has to say.”
Even when evening fell on Asgard the heat was oppressive. Laufey felt hot trickles of sweat trailing down his back, his face. He refused to wipe them. The Bifrost stretched before him, seemingly infinite, the city only a distant golden gleam on the horizon. How Laufey had wanted, how he had desired to see this place, to conquer it, break the shining spires and turn the shimmering sea into ice, but it was ages, millennia ago. He liked to think that he was now older, wiser. He would not go to war to kill and subjugate, even when his blood called for it. There was more glory in living and surviving than in dying senselessly. They still had to rebuild much of Jotunheim, a seemingly impossible task without the Casket. Sometimes Laufey wondered whether Odin knew, truly realized what they had taken.
It was of little importance anymore.
Somehow Farbauti had found out about the whole disaster and showed up at Laufey's threshold with demands and advice before they left. Leave the runt alone, he said. You have more important matters to worry about. Let the Aesir kill him and good riddance.
When Laufey was leaving, they were still trying to wipe the blood from the walls.
He didn't kill Farbauti, even though his blood screamed for it. He had little love left for him anymore, not since the ages when whatever was between them withered and died. Laufey mourned it sometimes, all the lost chances and broken bonds, but he had a weight of a crown of ice on his head, a responsibility. He had three sons and strange grandchildren, and while they left him sometimes baffled in the fashion of all growing children everywhere, he was content. As content as the King of Jotunheim could be.
However, on that day he discovered he could still hate.
There was enough ice and Winter left in him to wage a war, a war they had no chance of winning, only of spilling more and more blood onto the ground. He was prepared to do it. Only this little, offhand chance of negotiations, of getting his son back without bloodshed, stayed his hand. His warriors remained in Jotunheim. His hands were empty, free of ice. He took only his sons and his grandchildren as his entourage. He was reasonably certain that no force of arms would help him if the All-father decided to betray him. Besides, Laufey and his sons were fighters of considerable strength, and Fenrir the wolf was a fierce warrior when roused to anger, and seeing his father in such distress would certainly give him ample reason. Laufey felt better having them all at his back, large shapes of his sons, the mountain of fur and rage which was Fenrir, even the small figure of Hel with Jormungandr slithering in her shadow. The green, shining serpent was still small, but growing steadily and Laufey sometimes found himself wondering whether Loki had thought his creations through all that well.
Odin apparently did not think him a threat or wanted to appear so, because his entourage was even smaller. A broad-shouldered young man whom Laufey recognized as his son, his golden-haired wife, and four young warriors stood behind him. However, Laufey had eyes only for his son and it took him all of his willpower to quench his fury at seeing him like that. They had taken Loki's fur cloak and jewelery and gems, they had put him in chains to bind his magic. Standing like that he seemed small, vulnerable and very young, nothing like the self-assured prince and sorcerer Laufey was used to seeing.
Loki's stony expression wavered for a second when he saw his father. Laufey felt tiny shards of ice gathering around his fingers, along his arms. He willed them away with an effort. This called for subtlety, and implicit threat of his blade would do nothing good.
“I wish we could meet under better circumstances, Laufey,” Odin called. Laufey forced his voice to come out cold and steady.
“There are no better circumstances for us,” he growled, stopping at a distance from Odin. He could not help feeling a flash of grim satisfaction when he noticed old, white scars under his eye-patch. He was the only one throughout all the ages to wound him so. Only Odin's damned pride was the reason to construct an elaborate lie around it.
Odin inclined his head, as if in acquiescence.
“You took my son, my blood kin, and expect me to come agreeably?”
One of the ravens perched on Odin's shoulders cawed at him in mockery. Laufey hated them, spent years upon years trying to devise a way to keep them out of Jotunheim and found none. Thanks to them and Heimdall's unwavering eyesight very little escaped Odin's notice.
“'Tis a sad coincidence, and your son's fault. He should not have come to steal what belongs to us. There must be consequences, Laufey.”
Laufey could see Loki's faint flinch. He tried to convey with his eyes that he would never leave him alone. Loki's trust was a fragile thing, easy to destroy, difficult to build. His strange son never stopped trying to gain something he already had. Laufey would never cast someone he bore out of his family, despite of how he looked like, but Loki never seemed sure of that.
“But maybe something good can come out of that,” Odin said softly. “I have seen how your realm fares without the Casket. Do not lie to me. You will die, maybe not today, maybe not in this age, but you will.”
“Is that a threat? We may be weakened, our halls in shambles, but we can still raze the earth and leave wounds on your realm which will take millennia to heal.” Laufey's voice could match Odin's for its mildness, but it carried an edge of ice.
“There is no need for that,” Frigga spoke for the first time. Laufey always had more respect for her than for her husband. She was clever enough to have a gift of foresight and wise enough not to share what she saw. “That was me who sent this invitation for you, Laufey. We need peace, something lasting, not built on resentment.”
Laufey felt the first stab of fear like a punch to the gut. Before that, he was angry, he hated, he planned waging a war for vengeance. Now he could glimpse the future devious Aesir decided on. The worst part was, he could see them winning. Not in combat, not even in negotiations, because every Jotunn would agree that they offered a fair bargain, but not Laufey, because he could not bear to pay the price. The child he carried, bore and loved was not a bargaining chip, not a relic to be traded.
“No,” he whispered, his voice like ice grinding. “I would never stand by it.”
“Be reasonable, Laufey,” Odin chided. Laufey longed to see his bright red blood on his blade again. “We don't want to harm you or your family. You have been less than trustworthy in the past, but I believe we can forge something good now, a good peace. But I need a token of your good faith before we can return the Casket to you.”
“If you think,” Laufey whispered. “If you think I value Winter, even the most ancient of Winters above my own blood and flesh, you know very little of me, All-father.”
He could hear anguished whispers of his sons behind his back, quiet stillness of Hel, faint growling and hissing. Loki could be an ice statue. Laufey could see disbelief deep in his eyes. He wanted to grab him by the arms and shake him, until he saw reason, that he had nothing to prove to him, that he never needed to try so hard. The thought that he may never have a chance to say it again caused him pain which was almost physical.
Above all, above being father, he was King.
“Your son can stay here, in Asgard, as our honored guest,” Frigga said mildly. There was calm in her eyes, and what was worse, understanding. She was a mother, too. “Not in chains, not in the cell. In return we shall give the Casket of Ancient Winters to you. Go home, Laufey. Rebuild it. It has gone on long enough. We can live in peace, we can form a lasting alliance. No harm will come to your child.”
There was an anguished cry behind his back, but he had no heart to chastise Helblindi for showing weakness in front of an enemy. Frigga's bargain – he had no doubt that she had come up with it, no matter how it may have pained her to do so – was fair, more than fair. The Aesir kept hostages for years upon years and usually held to their alliances. Jotunheim needed the Casket more than it needed Loki, and Laufey was King.
“Father,” Loki said suddenly, his voice shaking, pleading. “Father, please. Take it and leave. I can do this. I should do this.”
Laufey refused to look at him.
“How could I leave my child here, alone among enemies? I wouldn't trust you to watch over a pack of wolves, let alone my son.”
“It's only fitting that I paid a price for my own stupidity,” Loki said.
“Name other price. Anything, but not my child,” Laufey locked his eyes on Odin. He did not want to see his son trembling, his mask of calm shattered.
“Do you think you have something we may want among your broken homes and frozen earth?” Odin smiled bitterly. “I need a guarantee that you will never set foot in Midgard again. I thought that the Casket will do, but your destruction was never my intent. Neither is harming your child.”
“How can I know?” Laufey's words were hard, biting. “How can I know that he won't suffer for imagined transgressions on my part? That you won't take your damned revenge on him when I cannot see him? Look at him, All-father. Blood of my blood. You will never have him, you hear me? Never.”
“Please,” Loki's voice was no louder than a whisper. “I can take care of myself. It is the best choice. They are right, Father, we need the Casket more than one sorcerer.”
“Not a word more from you, child,” Laufey warned.
Neither Odin nor Frigga said anything. They knew, Laufey thought, they knew that his protests would be for naught in the end, for he could not afford to have a chance to win back the Casket slip by.
“Let us stay with him,” Laufey started when he heard Hel speak. She was a silent child, conscious of her appearance and origin. She would rather talk to her brothers and watch other Jotunn without uttering a word. There was little that escaped Hel attention, though she was still a young child. Her hand was buried in Fenrir's fur, trembling slightly. “We could watch each other's backs and we won't be missed in Jotunheim. We can still act as a token of your good faith, all four of us.”
Odin eyed the girl, the wolf and the serpent doubtfully.
“Are we harboring monsters in Asgard now?” Odinson's voice was too loud, too sudden in silence. Frigga pinched the bridge of her nose in irritation.
“Silence, child, when the elders are speaking.”
One look from Odin silenced his son much more effectively. The young man pointedly looked away, red-faced. If Laufey had had a child like that, he would have driven this arrogance out of him much earlier.
“Why would I agree to that?” Odin addressed Laufey, Loki and Hel at the same time. Loki's expression was suddenly thoughtful, with a devious edge. Laufey realized that his son had a plan and that he had no way to stop it in time. He gritted his teeth, suppressed his rage violently before it lashed out.
“I would make you a gift, All-father,” Loki said with something approaching respect. It was a lie, but nobody but his family knew him well enough to recognize it for what it was. “I would present you with my creation in return for letting my children stay with me.”
Odin looked mildly interested.
“I once made a horse with my magic, the swiftest horse in all nine realms,” Loki offered. “He would be my gift to you, as a proof of my good intentions.”
Of course Loki would do something like that. Laufey suddenly wanted to smack him, or maybe himself. He could see no way out of this, no way to prevent this unwanted sacrifice which would let him return to Jotunheim victorious. He never desired anything less.
“I would agree to this,” said Odin after a moment's hesitation. He looked at Laufey with a gleam in his single eye. “Your child has more reason than you, Laufey. Would you refuse to honor this sacrifice, freely offered?”
“I wish to speak with my son for a moment,” Laufey grated. “Alone.”
Odin looked like he wanted to refuse, but Frigga put a hand silently on his arm and he conceded. “Go ahead.”
Laufey watched them all step aside, his sons eyeing Odin's entourage suspiciously. He threw caution to the wind, embraced Loki fiercely, clanking chains and all. Then he drew away, dug his fingers into his son's shoulder and shook him, wordlessly. Loki let him, his face closed and dark again.
“Why did you do it?” Laufey asked after a long, long while, when he could trust his voice again not to tremble. “Why did you come here, why did you get caught, why do you insist on this insanity?”
Loki's words were steady, careful.
“I never planned on getting caught,” he said. “I just wanted to find something and get out, quickly. I was betrayed and they waited for me. However, I think it is for the best, Father. You will get the Casket back. You need it, we all do.”
You will get rid of me, came silently after. Laufey shook him again. He loosened his fingers reluctantly when he heard Loki's quiet hiss of pain.
“It's not worth it,” he said with desperation. “It has never been. And now I am to lose not only you, but the children as well? You gave me a hollow and false victory, Loki.”
“I gave you peace,” Loki hissed. “I gave you prosperity.”
“Losing you was not a price I was prepared to give,” Laufey's voice sounded old and weary even to his own ears. “I would gladly endure another thousand years without the Casket. There would be some other way, eventually.”
“All this while our people starve and die?”
“We are strong. It would be enough.”
“No, Father.” Loki sighed. “You know that is not true. You are lying to yourself. It is the best choice. I can survive it, I won't be alone. I can learn more, so if I can ever return to Jotunheim, we can use that knowledge.”
“You should not be forced to do this,” Laufey protested. He knew that the matter was already decided and there was nothing he could do about it, even if helplessness was tearing him apart.
“It's all right, Father,” Loki murmured. He looked down, at Jormungandr, who apparently got bored watching them, and slithered up Loki's arm, curling around his neck. Loki stroked bright green scales absently and seemed to communicate somehow with the serpent, judging from his focused expression. Laufey never doubted that both Fenrir and Jormungandr could talk, just chose not to do so very often.
“I will have them watching over me,” Loki said. His smile was so obviously forced that Laufey reached and embraced him again, ignoring Jormungandr's annoyed hiss.
“Stay safe,” he whispered. “All of you. If I ever hear that any harm have come to any of you, I will tear the realms apart. Never doubt that.”
Loki felt his mask of calm almost failing when he watched his father and brothers walk away and disappear into the Bifrost, carrying the blue flame of the Casket. He kept reminding himself that it was all for a good cause, but the sheer hopelessness of it left him nearly choking on tears. Stupid, it was everything he wanted and more. He managed to return the Casket to his family and get himself away from them at the same time, so Laufey would never have to endure the taunts about his existence again. Loki had no delusions that he had any place in Jotunheim. He would gladly remain in the shadow of the throne, but every ruler who even partially depended on him would find their reign undermined. Most Jotnar hated Loki. Hardly more than he hated himself, but it was an inconvenience nonetheless.
Suddenly there was a little cold hand in his. He looked down, at Hel. Her thin light hair danced in the wind, her single eye was as solemn and thoughtful as always, the other an empty blackened socket. She offered him half a smile, a rare sight he had learned to treasure. He squeezed his strange, silent daughter's hand, smiled at her in return. Jormungandr slithered down his arm to her, wrapped himself over her thin shoulders. Fenrir stood near them, a quiet, menacing presence. Loki suddenly felt his spirits rise. He regretted getting his children into this mess with him, but they were better off together.
He looked at Odin and his family, and felt his honest smile dissolve into a smirk.
“Shall we go back? I would like to get these chains off, if you please.”