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What Grows Beneath the Nettle

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Loki was on his guard the moment the Warriors Three, Sif, and Heimdall approached the throne. Heimdall should be in his usual watch post, not coming to the throne room. For him to come at all when the situation was so fluid bespoke a bigger problem.

He checked the illusion which bound his features. It was not quite as reflexive as the one that kept his true appearance at bay, but it was holding. He'd not let it slip. They couldn't know. If they did, they would hardly be so foolish as come without more guards or weapons.

Yet, why come all together if not suspicion?

His grip tightened on Gungnir and he met the golden eyes steadily. "You have news, Watcher?"

Heimdall nodded his head briefly in respect. "My king. I do." He hesitated and Loki waited, glancing at the other four who - on closer examination - seemed disturbed by something, but not in a way that suggested they were angry.

Heimdall continued, "I watched as Thor battled Malekith as the Convergence continued. He was successful, as we know, as the aether left but a trace, and Malekith's ship was destroyed."

"We are still here," Loki cut in, impatient with this recital of events he already knew. "I know he had the victory. Days past now. I assume you come to report that Thor yet dallies with his mortal on Midgard and does not wish to return."

"No, my liege. I come to report that the mortal Jane Foster is upon Midgard, but Thor is not. He is not on Svartalfheim. Or, in fact, anywhere that I see. He is… gone."

Loki froze, as the words struck him incomprehensibly at first. "Gone?" he repeated blankly. "What - what do you mean by that? Heimdall?"

"I am sorry, my liege. He is beyond my sight. It was difficult to follow him through the convergence, but I have looked and he is … nowhere. Nor has he called my name. It may be he fell within Malekith's vessel, or was taken by the aether, or… I do not know what occurred, but he is not perceptibly within the Nine Realms. I waited until I was certain to report this." Then he bowed his head and waited.

"That is…" Loki couldn't find words, staring at the golden form that dared deliver this news to him. First Frigga, then Odin, and now this?

Within, a tiny voice sneered at him, isn't this exactly what you wanted?

But no, it was not. He had said it, he had made a couple of pathetic attempts to do it himself, but he had never meant it, not this. Not for Thor to be actually gone.

"That is impossible," he whispered. "Not Thor, also."

No wonder the others were here. They thought he might collapse under this weight of tragedy.

They were right. When he tried to stand, his knees threatened to buckle and he had to clutch onto Gungnir as if he were an old man in fact, not just illusion. But he straightened.

"No," he insisted in a stronger voice. "I do not accept this." Heimdall's head shot upward as if he would protest that he told the truth, but Loki overrode him, "You see far, old friend, but not everything. Did you not say that Loki too was gone, in the void of the Bifrost, but he returned." He saw it on their faces, their instinctive desire to remind him that Loki had perished again - Heimdall had seen that, too, as Loki had intended.

Odin slept deep in the warrens, and he wore Loki's face, as insurance, in case anyone stumbled upon it. No one would try to wake the villain locked in deathlike slumber.

So why don't you wake, old man? Your treasured son is missing, your hated one has stolen your throne… you're going to wait for exactly the wrong moment to wake up and ruin everything, aren't you?

He had kept silent for too long, as even Hogun's face started to crease in concern. "We will not relinquish hope that he survived. Continue your search, Heimdall, and I will use what arts I have to see in other ways," he declared.

He moved down the steps and started past the warriors.

"My king, should we not tell--" Fandral started hesitantly.

"Nothing. We tell nothing," Loki snapped. "We know nothing certain, and I will not drag the Realm into deeper mourning and uncertainty. For now, if any inquire, Thor remains on Midgard, assisting them in the wake of the attack. Everything here is under control."

Yet he lifted his eyes and saw the others in the hall, who had heard. The news would not stay quiet long.

They bowed and he left them, to head to his chambers. He passed the workers who were cleaning and repairing the rubble left both by the primary attack and then Thor's impetuous and poor escape flight out. The loose rubble had all been taken away, the throne itself was repaired, but much work remained to replace all the damage. Even when it was all fixed, it would still bear the scars, even if they were hidden, of a battle that should never have happened, and the wounds of immortal lives cut short.

Or there was only one loss Loki cared about, but that one still burned. It was a poor consolation to think she had perished protecting the aether from Malekith, when Malekith had ended up with it anyway. And now Thor was missing.

Inside the king's chamber he shut the doors and let the illusion fall, relieved to be without it for a time, even under these circumstances. When he'd impetuously made the swap, he'd never expected it to be a burden, but the illusion seemed to have physical weight on him, like some strange form of geas.

A gesture formed a green flame in the brazier on the side table, and he sat down before it to look for Thor.

If you are tupping your wench right now, I swear I will ice all your sheets, even if that gives the game away, he promised darkly, as he held both hands before the light.

He knew that was not so, since Heimdall would never prank anyone, least of all the king about a matter like this. But with luck Thor was somewhere Heimdall couldn't see. Loki knew full well there were places and people and spells that could block the seer's gaze. But locator spells could penetrate many of those barriers.

The flame had little heat to it, as he built it stronger, weaving the locator spell with a murmur and gesture of his fingers. "Now where are you?" he murmured. "I hope with better company than I had, brother."

The fire sputtered, not finding him, and Loki fed more power into it, carefully, to widen his search. Asgard first, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, and Svartalfheim as the most likely places.

His head began to ache and his fingers trembled beneath the strain of holding the spell. Where are you, Thor?

Reluctantly, he widened the spell again to Midgard, to scan the vast and tedious multitude there. Then to the other Realms within Jormungandr and then the spaces in between, the void where Loki had once fallen, and the dark realms beyond that as far as he could reach.

When that failed, he pulled back to Asgard to start the search again, finer and slower this time.

For nothing. Thor was nowhere.

Exhaustion was like a spike through his skull, as he opened his eyes to the fire as it winked out. Gone. "You aren't dead," he insisted in a hoarse voice, staring blankly at the cold brazier. "I don't believe it. I won't."

Sudden fury clutched him and he shoved all of it away, power flaring. His seat toppled backward, as the table went flying. "All for your miserable human pet!" he yelled. "You stupid sentimental fool!"

As abruptly as it came, the rage left him huddled up on the floor, weary and heartsick. He held his head, fingers tugging at his hair though his head hurt enough he barely felt it.

Is it because I cheated Death that she comes for my family? Is this the blood price extracted because I keep slipping free? If I promise that next time I will accept it, will you give back my brother? You took my mother already, you cannot take him, too. I will do whatever I must, pay whatever price the ancestors ask, just … not Thor, too.


Sif pulled the short straw with a grimace. "Come on, Volstagg. It should be you. You've known the king the longest…"

"He tolerates my face rarely as is," Volstagg said. "And I have no words to offer."

"You think I do?" she countered.

"He knows you mourn as he does," Fandral said. "We were friends, but you…"

You wanted more, she finished for him and grimaced again. Everybody thought that, and they were all wrong. It had never been Thor. Everyone said things like "Thor and the Lady Sif" as if it was one word. That had always been irritating, but she'd accepted the jests, unwilling to admit the truth, even to herself. The queen had known it and had given her counsel which Sif had promptly ignored, and now her foolishness had been paid in another loss.

If I had spoken other words, if I had not assumed the worst and earned his enmity, if I had learned the truth earlier and offered my hand

It wouldn't have made a difference, she told herself. A wolf and a raven had no future together.

"Check on him," Hogun said. "The report from his chamber is worrisome. Rumors are spreading that the entire family is dead … I fear for all the Realms, if that happens."

Sif had to grant that point. Even if the king was in Odinsleep and Thor was missing - because he was not dead - that was the same problem. Asgard would be ruled by a regent's council until someone gathered enough support among the Einharjar and old families to be crowned, and that could take years. The other Realms and enemies would seek advantage in the void.

It was terrible to admit, but it was true - for the first time in thousands of years, Asgard was weakened. They needed the king to stay strong.

"Fine," she agreed with a nod and headed for the king's chamber. He would not want to see her, or anyone, she was sure, but perhaps if she made it plain that his kingdom and people still needed him, he would emerge.

The guards nodded to her, and both looked grateful that someone at last was willing to enter despite the king's command. At her request, one pulled the door open for her. The chamber was dim, lit only by the stars streaming through the high windows. "My king?" she called softly, but there was no response.

She moved like a wraith through the archway into the inner chamber. Even in the gloom, she could see it was a ruin of broken furniture and strewn fabric all around, as though a great storm had come through the room and left only chaos in its wake. "My king?"

From behind her, came a hoarse voice, barely the king's, "You so blithely ignore my command?"

"Not blithely, my liege," she said. "With heavy heart. It has been five days…" She turned slowly, to find the king on the floor, his back to the wall, outer cloak rent, and white hair lank and tangled. Gungnir lay on the floor a full body length away. She restrained a gasp -- the king had never appeared such to her eyes, so worn and … defeated. It seemed sacreligious to think the word.

He stirred, as if considering pushing himself to his feet or otherwise pretending to better health, but then slumped back against the wall. "Has it been so long?" he asked and let out a bitter soft laugh. "And all for naught."

"You found nothing." That was plain. He would have come out if he'd found Thor.

He shook his head once, and she blinked and frowned. Her eyes were playing tricks in the vague light so it seemed he'd had no beard for a moment. "I searched twice," he answered. "With all the powers at my command. There was no sign."

She went to one knee before him, as he seemed disinclined to rise, and made her voice soft, "Perhaps there is nothing to find."

"There is and I shall find it," he promised. "I shall use the tesseract and comb the universe, atom by atom, until he is found."

As pale and weary as he looked, she thought that was a spectacularly terrible idea. "Not soon, I hope, my liege. You seem - forgive me - as if you need rest first."

He raised his head to meet her gaze, his usual hawk-ish glare banked to embers. But his lips curled in a weary bemusement. "Such softness from Lady Sif? I barely recognize you…"

"We all worry for you, my king."

"Do you?" he returned and gave another short laugh, more to himself as he muttered, "Ah, it tastes so bitter now."

She frownd in confusion at his words, but did not parse his meaning, persisting instead, "Will you come forth? The Realm seeks comfort and stability amid all this loss and ruin."

"They know nothing of loss and ruin," he snarled. She frowned at the echo of other angry words; the tone seemed so familiar yet struck her oddly.

He straightened against the wall and called Gungnir back to his hand, though she saw his other hand clench with the effort. "Tomorrow," he said. "You and the Warriors Three must go to Svartalfheim. Much may be hidden there in the wild magic released with the destruction."

She frowned. "I thought the Bifrost could not reach Svartalfheim now that the Convergence has passed."

He was momentarily stymied by that, as though he'd forgotten, and leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. "Yes, of course. I must send you by portal. But it shall not be tomorrow." He pushed fingers through his hair, shoving it back off his face, and again she felt teased by an odd familiarity. "Go, now, Sif. I must rest to begin the search anew."

She hesitated, then offered, "My king, I know your worry and grief must be great, but I would remind you that the people have only you, right now. You must not spend yourself and leave us with no one."

He chuckled once, making her draw back in shock, since she hadn't intended to be humorous. "And what have I?" he murmured, not looking at her. "Everything yet nothing at all."

He lifted his free hand and flicked his fingers. "Go, now. You should not see an old king's weakness."

She nodded and rose back to her feet. "My king." She started for the door to leave him his privacy once more, but in the archway, she turned back to offer her hope that Thor might yet be found. Odin had not moved, resting against the wall, but something had changed. The silver starlight caught his form with a strange glow, as if it were ghostly and transparent.

And within the shimmering outline, there was a different shape: slimmer, with sharper features, clean-shaven and hair that vanished into the shadows.

Her eyes widened in shock at this impossibility. He was supposed to be dead. "Loki!"

His eyes shot open and he glanced her way, startled. The other image was gone, and Odin was there again, as if she'd never seen anything else. Yet she knew now it was a lie. For a moment, they stared at each other, shock paralyzing them both.

Then in his familiar sardonic tone, which was strange coming from Odin's face, Loki said in bemused resignation, "I knew I should have warded the doors."

She didn't have her sword but she grabbed a dagger off the wall display and stalked back to him. "You betraying traitor."

The image of the king disappeared to reveal Loki beneath, hair slicked back, usual green and black leather and coat forming. But her step faltered, as the picture shifted again, flickering twice and then fading into a version of Loki in scarcely better condition than what he'd cast of Odin. His cheeks were thin and his skin looked pale as ice, and his raven hair hung in untidy, limp waves to his shoulders. He was wearing a simple green tunic and black breeches, and didn't try to rise, as he watched her approach with eyes smudged with exhaustion.

But there was no weariness in the grin he offered as he looked up at her, with a irritating lack of alarm. "I missed you, too."

"Where's the king?"

"You mean his corpse?" he countered and his eyes glinted. "You assumed I murdered him for power before, and I had ever so much more cause this time."

"You monster. I should kill you right now." She knelt and held out the blade before his face in a swift attack. He didn't flinch, just stared into her eyes.

"Ah Sif, if only you would," he murmured. "But you won't."

"You assume too much, trading on mercy I do not possess." She pressed the tip of the knife into the open collar of his shirt into his skin. He didn't move. "Not for you."

"Not mercy." His lip curled as if the idea were distasteful.

"I promised to kill you, did you not believe me?" She pressed the knife harder, finally getting a wince as the tip broke the skin.

"If I betrayed him, which I did not," he protested.

"You sit on his throne! What insanity is it that you think stealing it away is no betrayal?"

"If Thor were here, we would not be having this discussion," he hissed.

"You betrayed the Allfather--"

"He betrayed me first," Loki interrupted sharply.

"So you murdered him and stole his throne, and- and you did something to Thor! This whole saga has been nothing but one of your plans all along!"

That accusation finally broke his restraint. "Yes of course!" he snapped at her with deep sarcasm, "I planned for my idiot brother to disappear where I can't find him! And I planned for Odin Allfather to drop like a rock at the most inconvenient time possible. Malekith and I planned to destroy all the Nine Realms, and murder my mother, because that's what monsters do! That's what you all think, so why not?" His expression was ravaged and furious, and Gungnir slammed into her hand and then her shoulder, shoving her back. He was breathing hard as she recovered her balance, shifting her dagger to the other hand. Then he glanced down at Gungnir as if he'd forgotten he'd had it and hadn't meant to use it. He tossed it to the side, where it rattled against the floor and she found her eyes on it until it settled, and back to Loki afterward.

He said, "There. I'm done with this farce. I have no dagger and barely a shred of power left. I admit to all of it. Do as you please."

She hesitated. It had to be a bluff. He wasn't truly surrendering. But where did the illusion end with him and where was the truth?

"It comes as a relief," he added. "I don't know why I ever wanted to be king in the first place. What a tedious bunch of complainers, who look to the king for every single decision, as if they have no wills of their own." He tilted his head back against the wall and shut his eyes in what seemed to be weariness, not caring what she did next, even if it was to kill him.

She considered his words. He was admitting to great crimes, but at the same time, she knew some of it was false. "Were you truly looking for Thor?" she asked.

"No, I was watching him pace the cage where I put him," he retorted smirking.

She shut her eyes and prayed for patience. "This is not the time for games. Tell me the truth."

"The truth?" he repeated and laughed bitterly. "Why should I? Everyone will assume the worst anyway. So I shall take my small amusements, now that the bigger game is ended."

"Being king is no game."

He rolled his eyes. "It is the biggest game of all. It should make you wonder if he was that good a king how I could step in his place without anyone noticing, shouldn't it?"

He had a point. She certainly had had no suspicions at all until coming in here, when his own weariness had shattered the illusion. He hadn't intended to let her see, she was sure of that. Which meant the search for Thor must have been real. There was no knowing what he would do once he found Thor, but she was confident the search had been real. Five days of magic searching had worn him down. She lowered the dagger. "Where is Thor?"

As if he could see that she had figured out the truth, he stopped playing and shrugged. "I can trace him to Svartalfheim then nothing. Either he slipped through a gate to some distant dimension beyond Jormungandr, or he has been taken and hidden by some greater power, or …"

"Or he's dead," she finished softly and he nodded once.

"Or that." He pushed back his hair with the same gesture she'd seen before, and pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead with a grimace as if his head hurt him. "I thought I would be glad. But…" His lips parted as if he'd finish, before he swallowed and looked away. "I know you won't believe it, after everything, but… I don't want that."

He wouldn't look at her, as if the admission was somehow shameful or he didn't want to see her doubt. But she found she did believe it. Somewhere in that cold broken thing left of your heart you do still care, and you're just tired enough to admit it. She knew better than to say it aloud.

"And the Allfather? What happened to him?"

His lips quirked in a wry smile. "What always happens? I confronted him, we argued, and he collapsed." He snorted and shook his head. "Odinsleep's a rather extreme way to avoid my questions, and I was furious that he did it to me again." His hand curled and lifted, unconsciously mimicking his actions, "I had my dagger in my hand, I was going to stab him in the heart and get him out of my misery forever, and … I couldn't do it." His hand lowered to his lap. "Some pathetic, lingering shard of sentiment I suppose."

She was relieved that the king was alive. Unless Loki was lying about that. "Where is he?"

"Below," he gestured with his hand vaguely. "Safe. I expected him to rouse to rescue Thor again, but so far he's being quite dull."

She eased back from her crouch to regard him, now reasonably convinced of what had actually happened. "So why did you take his appearance?"

"Why not?" He gave another shrug, unrepentant. "He fell at my feet, and I seized the opportunity. Thor was absent, Asgard needed a king, and it was rightfully mine. In Odin's face no one would betray me." He flicked a sour glare at her. "Again."

She left that alone, deciding to ask the important question, "Why are you surrendering? Why are you telling me this?"

He lifted his brows at her, lips twisting into a wry smile, but his amusement faded for greater anger as he spoke. "Am I supposed to fight? Why? For a throne I no longer want, that binds so tightly I can't breathe? For vengeance when I have no one to take it on? For power when I know what's out there is coming to kill us all and I'm not even strong enough to find my stupid brother? When I let a monster kill my mother? I put it all together to avenge her, but to what end?" His voice rose to a shout, as he gestured with one hand around the room. "This? Who would want this?" he demanded furiously, then fell back against the wall, letting out a long breath.

His voice was calm again when he continued, "The answer is, I am weary to the bone, Sif. I have spent everything in this futile search. I have nothing left to resist you."

She smiled. "So you're playing for time until you get strong enough to escape?"

He returned the smile, a quick amused flash. "Beautiful and clever, too."

"Empty flattery will avail you nothing, Silvertongue."

Some shadow of hurt flickered across his features before he smirked, "And yet I think calling you ugly and stupid will not avail me either."

"Definitely not." She looked at him closely. He rarely had allowed anyone to see him looking so unkempt, but she was also sure this was much closer to the truth than he would usually portray. She was not such a fool that she believed he was truly as weak as he looked or that he wouldn't fight if she pressed him, but she thought much of what he'd said in anger and frustration had been true.

"Kingship not everything you thought it would be?" she mocked.

His smile widened and he said with a sly provocation, "Perhaps mortals would be less annoying to rule."

She snorted a laugh. "Did you not learn they would be worse?"

"Worse than Aesir? Impossible. It is herding turtles to get them to repair the great hall -- I tell them to make it exactly as it was and yet still they pester me with inane questions. Then they whine when I order something as obvious and necessary as build more defensive fortifications. I daily restrain myself from killing the stupidest ones!" His frustration made her grin at him until he frowned at her. "What?"

"Listen to you. You sound like an actual king," she teased. It was an unexpected attitude, but interesting.

He looked away, grumbling, "Playing a role. Nothing more."

Which told her it was more, if he was downplaying its importance.

She hesitated, and then made up her mind. "I want you to show me the Allfather. Prove to me he's alive and that much of your story is true."

"And then what?" he asked.

"And then… we'll see."

He cocked his head a bit to one side, regarding her curiously as though she was doing something completely unexpected. "What are you planning?" He might have guessed, but thankfully he didn't say it, because she hadn't convinced herself of it yet either. Saying it aloud she might realize how reckless and ridiculous it was.

"Just show me, and we'll talk."

He raised both hands as if to let her have her way, and said, "Ordinarily I would teleport there. But right now, we would likely end up in a wall. And I refuse to die so stupidly, after surviving so much worse. We'll have to walk."

"All right."

He waited a moment and when she said nothing, he demanded, as though she should have known what he wanted, "In my face or his?"

"His. The king needs to be seen." Nor did she want to deal with the questions that Loki's face would bring. Odin's would bring enough.

He winced as though the thought gave him actual pain. "Very well." He raised a hand. "If you could help an old man to his feet?"

She hesitated, wondering if he meant some trickery or attack, but he added impatiently, "If you want to see him. Because your choice right now is to help me stand, or I fall asleep right here."

"No tricks," she warned, and he smirked at her, as she clasped her hand around his forearm. It was thinner than she recalled, especially since he was without armor, and she pulled him to his feet easily. There were no tricks; instead, he staggered, nearly falling with an utter lack of his usual grace, and his grip tightened on her arm until he steadied himself. Then he stepped away and shut his eyes.

The change flowed back over him with a coruscating glow, and then Odin was there again. He seemed restored, strong and well, but when she looked more closely the skin of his cheeks and eyes seemed tight, and beneath the beard his jaw was clenched. She asked, "Does it hurt?"

"No," he answered shortly, and she thought it was probably a lie. "But if you want this, we should go swiftly. I can do little but hold it."

He flipped Gungnir up with his foot - something she had never seen Odin do, but Loki had done with his weapons all the time until he had learned to conjure them to his hand. He glanced at her afterward, as if to check that she had seen, and he shrugged. "You know it's me."

She rolled her eyes at him and headed for the door.

The doors parted for the king's approach automatically, and the guards outside snapped to formal attention.

She glanced sidelong, but the illusion was perfect, with not a twitch of his lips to give away that he was not Odin. No wonder no one had guessed.

When they were momentarily alone in the hall and without looking at her, he muttered, "People are going to talk if you keep looking at me that way, Sif."

She snapped her eyes forward, cheeks suddenly hot by the implication. The king? Oh dear lords, no, never.

They were not able to get away quite as easily as she had hoped, as first the Warriors Three crowded around - Volstagg casting her a 'told you so' look from under his shaggy brows, and she held her tongue, since he had no idea. They were soon sent away, sobered by the news that Thor was still missing.

Freyr was next to ask about defensive postures, and Loki answered him, but ordered a council later to discuss it. It was uncanny-- despite knowing it was Loki beneath the illusion, it could have been Odin there. Or, if it wasn't exactly as Odin would have done it, it was not Loki, either, with no sneering or jokes, only thoughtful answers.

The master of the reconstruction project started to approach with a hesitant bow, until Odin's eye glared at him and stopped him flat. He turned and scurried away. Sif had to chuckle at that. Then Odin turned to her again, "Shall we, my lady? There is something you wished me to show you."

"Yes, my liege," she answered for the benefit of the listeners.

He sent away his personal guards and led her beneath the main part of the palace. Soon he stopped before a small, plain door and he gestured to a lantern hanging beside the door. "You will need that."

She took it in one hand and turned it on, and peered inside the door, seeing only a stone spiral staircase heading downward. She waited, not wanting to go through that door first and possibly let him trap her on the other side. He gave an impatient sigh as if she were being tedious and went ahead of her. "Do you want to see or not?"

Once the door was shut behind them, he dropped the Odin illusion with a relieved sigh and headed down the stairs. His progress was slow and careful on the steps, finding each with Gungnir before stepping down. She wanted to go quicker, nearly stepping on his heels, until he snapped, "I have not gone this way in two hundred years. The steps are very old. So either move ahead so you can use the lantern, or stand back."

"You know you're not truly an old man, right?" she teased.

His head turned and he looked up at her, eyes bright in the lamp's reflection. "I'm glad you noticed."

"Not like that," she retorted and he chuckled smugly.

She said as they went down the steps, "You can't be glad I saw that you were lying to us about the Allfather."

"Glad, no. But I never expected it to last forever." His voice seemed to float back to her, echoing from the narrow, curved walls, strange and sad. "Come, Sif, there are only four hundred thirty-nine more steps."

She groaned and followed him down into the dark, deciding if she was going to be reckless she wasn't turning back now.