Thor had not expected to see his father watching by the side of the training grounds while he threw some of the older warriors into the dust again and again. Nor had he expected to see his father looking so weary and drawn. For a second, Thor could not even be sure if Odin was watching him, or in some far away land deep inside his own mind, and it was in that second he was caught off guard and knocked to the ground. While the other man crowed victoriously, Thor waved him off and dismissed him without word as he walked to Odin.
"Father. What brings you out this time of day?" he asked, looking up at Odin where he stood on the high walkway that circled the grounds.
Odin sighed heavily and looked down at Thor. "I would have a word with you. See me in the weapons vault."
Without as much as any other greeting or a dismissal, Odin turned and walked away, leaving Thor even more confused than he'd been before. For a moment, he thought it might be one of Loki's meaner tricks, except he had not heard any news of Loki's return from wherever he'd vanished to this time. Still, it was odd for Odin to issue any summons himself, when usually a guard would deliver the message instead. Casting a glance over his shoulder toward the kennels and sighing loudly to echo Odin's own, Thor decided that whatever it was, and whoever was truly summoning him, he should get clean and properly dressed to answer the call. The path to his chambers was a short one, but Thor took the longer route, detouring to pass Loki's. The doors were closed and their constant guards still stood outside, but as ever there was no indication whether or not Loki had returned.
"Have you seen my brother?" Thor asked the guards, not wishing to guess at it any further.
"No, my lord," said one of them. "We have not seen him enter since before Summer's Day."
Thor nodded and kept going. Four months was not the longest Loki had been gone, but it was close. Between the constant trouble with Vanaheimr, and the new trouble with Muspelheimr, as well as Odin's frequent visits to Heimdall, this trip of Loki's felt altogether more dangerous than any of his previous attempts to cause trouble for someone else. Part of Thor wanted to suspect that wherever Loki was, he was angry and foolish enough to have caused the trouble with Surtur's family, but it was a small part that was easily silenced. Loki was always so easily frightened of everything that he would not dare journey to Muspelheimr alone. He possibly would not journey to Muspelheimr even with an armed guard after last time. Thor never forgot the thrashing he'd got for leaving Loki and Fandral behind, even if they did return safely on their own
Pushing it all from his mind, he hastened his pace to his chambers to quickly wash and dress, not bothering with armour, but still at least trying to look like he'd made an effort. When he finally made his way to the vault, he found Odin already there, studying one of the ancient treasures kept hidden away. Mjölnir had once been housed in the vault, before it hung on Thor's own belt, but he had no clue as to what he was doing down there now.
"Father," he said as he let the towering doors swing shut behind him.
Odin turned to face him, nodding as Thor made his way down the steep stairs.
"Tell me, Thor, what you think of this," he said, looking back to what Thor could now see to be a mighty dwarven battleaxe, forged of black steel and inlaid with gold and gems.
"For what purpose?" asked Thor, not having much of an opinion of the axe at all.
"For Loki," said Odin, not looking away from it.
Thor frowned at the axe. Loki would hate it, but before Thor said as much, he realised why he had been called down. Loki must have been called for the same purpose, years before while Thor was in Vanaheimr. Thor reached for Mjölnir's heft, gripping it loosely before letting go again.
"You mean it as an age gift," Thor said uncertainly.
Odin only nodded.
Not sure what else to do, Thor looked away and cleared his throad. "It is my understanding, Father, that Loki has no intention of ever taking his Rite."
"I know that," Odin said tiredly. "But I cannot have him continuing on as a child. If he ever comes back, then we will all say he's taken it and go on with our lives. This is not a battle I wish to continue fighting with him." He sounded almost defeated over the whole issue, much to Thor's surprise. Though it had been a battle they had been waging for years, with Loki disappearing for months only to return with tales of drunken depravity every time Odin tried to force him to go.
But Thor also caught the uncertainty in Odin's words. Whatever he knew, it was enough to suspect that this time, Loki would not return. Once again, Thor thought back to the trouble with Surtur and wondered what role in it Loki played. He had not been above using Jötnar pawns to make Thor look like a fool in the past. Perhaps he was truly angry enough this time to trouble Surtur in Odin's name. Not for the first time, Thor wanted to ask if Loki did these things because it was natural behaviour for Jötnar, or because there was just something wrong with him. Not for the first time, Thor kept these thoughts to himself.
Inhaling slowly, Thor nodded at Odin's original question. "I think it is a fine weapon. Loki would be proud to have it," Thor lied, knowing the only reason Loki would ever be proud to have it is if he had stolen it.
Odin clearly knew as well. He almost sagged within his armour and shook his head slowly. "Leave the lies to your brother. You've never had talent for it," he said.
Thor wasn't sure what he was meant to do. His father had asked his opinion of a gift he intended to give to Loki should they ever see him again, and Thor had no wish to insult that choice. But yet, it seemed to be exactly what Odin had expected. He stood next to his father silently, still looking at the axe and struggling to think of what to say to please his father when Odin finally took pity on him.
"When I showed Loki what I had considered giving to you, do you know what the first words out of his mouth were?" asked Odin.
Thor shook his head. "No," he said.
For the first time in weeks, Odin smiled. It was a weak, fragile affair, but also honest, and for the first time in weeks, Thor thought maybe all this would end well. "He told me that you would accept it, but hate it."
"What was it?" asked Thor, laughing at was definitely sounded like something Loki would say.
Odin turned and nodded toward a plinth behind them, where a thin, golden dagger lay prominently.
"That?" asked Thor, almost expecting there to be some sort of joke hidden in this tale. He walked toward the dagger to examine it, and found it unremarkable in every way. "I'm afraid he would have been right. I have no love for such things. They are more Loki's style."
"I know," said Odin.
Thor had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. Neither Odin nor Loki ever went about any task head-on, and both seemed determined to always make even the simplest thing more complicated than it needed to be.
"He'd hate the axe," Thor said finally. He looked down at the dagger again, but shook his head. "And he has more of these than there are stars in the sky, I think. He may like it, but not appreciate it for its worth."
He risked a glance back to see Odin nodding slowly behind him. Understanding now what he'd been called to do, Thor started walking slowly down the length of the vault, taking in weapon after weapon and assessing and dismissing each one as he came to it. It seemed none of the weapons Odin kept locked up down there would suit Loki or appeal to him, until finally a gleam of silver caught his eye. Thor stopped before it and knew it was perfect. Loki would appreciate the craftsmanship of the weapon, with a hilt and crossbar fashioned to look like twisting serpents with gleaming emeralds for eyes, and a shining silver blade that almost glowed despite the dim light. It was sharp and powerful, and a sword he could see in Loki's hand one day.
"This," Thor said, nodding toward it. "He doesn't have one, because he learned to use them late. I think he's too ashamed to have one commissioned now, but would never admit it, so instead he pretends to have no interest at all. But I've seen him in the ring, when he would sneak down with Volstagg after supper. Loki is... surprising. I never expected to see such skill from him."
Odin stepped up beside Thor, nodding again. "There is little your brother can't do, once he can bother to get started," he agreed. "Often, that seems to be the most difficult part."
He reached for the sword and handed it to Thor, before taking a step back to give him room. The sword was perfectly balanced, and weighed next to nothing. As Thor gave it a few practise swings, the blade sung as it sliced through the air in a way he had never felt before.
"He'd love it. It's perfect," Thor said reverently, handing it back.
"Lævateinn," Odin said, putting it back in its place. "Forged by Völundr centuries ago to be unmatched by any other. It will not break or bend, and is said to be undefeatable."
Thor chuckled and nodded. "Yes, that is Loki all over," he said. "Even in defeat, he somehow still manages to come out the victor."
"Let's just hope he manages to stay that way," said Odin, the weariness once again heavy in his voice. Thor looked at him, trying to read what he could from the old man's face, but it was never a skill he'd acquired.
"Father, he will come home?" Thor asked, hating to sound so desperate. "When you go to Heimdall, it is not just for news of the other realms, is it?"
Odin sighed. "No," he said. "Heimdall watches, but Loki hides himself well. He's found ancient dark elf magic that not even I can unravel. But sometimes, he loses his hold on it and gives us glimpses. We know he is on Midgard, and we know he is alive."
Thor knew there was more he wasn't being told. A lifetime next to Loki had at least taught him to tell when he was being kept from something. Whatever Loki was doing on Midgard, he was in danger, and Thor knew it.
"Perhaps I can go there. Bring him home and put an end to this madness," he said.
"No," Odin repeated, more harshly this time. "You will do no such thing. It's bad enough he treats Midgard like his own personal plaything. The last thing Asgard needs is a war with the Olympians over this along with everything else. The only thing keeping Muspelheimr and Vanaheimr from marching on us now is their belief that Loki is missing as well. If you go there as well, I would no longer be able to claim ignorance in this, or to the other pantheons."
Thor glowered, but accepted Odin's command. He still remembered the members from that horrid pantheon when he was a boy, doing nothing but eating everything in the palace by day and defiling Asgard's animals and terrorising the women by night. If their was the Olympians' idea of diplomacy, Thor would hate to see how they waged war.
"If there is one thing I've learned, Thor, it is that you cannot keep Loki any place he does not wish to be, and you cannot make him leave anywhere he wishes to be," Odin said, turning and holding his hand out to lead Thor out of the vault and back up to the throne room. "He is there because he wants to be, and will leave only when he is ready."
Thor hesitated briefly before falling into step beside Odin. "Will you at least tell me what he is doing there?"
Odin paused at the base of the stairs and looked at Thor, studying him like he would an enemy general. "No," he said finally.
Thor silently accepted that answer as well, knowing it was one he would never get out of Odin. He simply had to trust his father to know that whatever Loki was doing, he was safe doing it. Loki would come back. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Thor was certain.