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all the king's horses and all the king's men

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The first time Loki was aware that he was not of the Æsir was when he was first learning magic, alone, with his mother in attendance and when the teacher despaired that a son of the Allfather was learning magic and not a daughter, Frigga took the maid aside and told her, in whispers, that Loki was not like Odin's other sons.  She told the maid that Loki was different, in blood and skin, and should be taught as such.

The look on Frigga's face when she returned to Loki with the maid and knew that he had been listening is burned into his memory.  She was not so much angry as she was upset, that Loki had heard things that he should not have heard until he was older, if at all.

He was nine, then, still a child, and didn't understand what it meant when he slept with his parents that night and, in hushed tones, jǫtunn and Jǫtunheimr were repeated, and he didn't understand.

The second time was when he was 15 and Thor was turning 18, becoming a man in their world.  He was not often allowed to attend the feasts of the Þing in the Þingstead, but because it was his brother being inducted he was allowed.

It was not a place he had often been; as a son of Odin he was there for all the normal feasts, but when the Þing met, he was ushered out with the rest of the women and children and told to spend time in his chambers - most of which he spent either watching his mother turn magic or studying to fine-tune his own.

This time, though, the Þing met and Loki wasn't told to leave, though the rest of the young ones were, and his mother got to stay as well.  Thor was inducted and given Mjǫlnir to begin his study. It would not become his until the time was right, of course, but it was a good gift nonetheless.

Thor brought it up to the table and set it there, letting Loki flit his fingers over the hilt and the steel, and because it was a magic thing - much like Loki is - it sang to him, sang to his magic and the sparks that he could normally control made a bridge, and it made Thor laugh with glee at the skill his brother had, no matter what other people thought.

The Þing, though, was not wholly amused; they called Loki's skill under the heading of seiðr, that his behavior made him ergi and it could not be tolerated.  Frigga was aghast; to call a son of Odin anything other than a prince was unheard of, enough to be accused of being níðingr themselves; to call him such thing was unfounded and she demanded her weregild against the Þing.

They, of course, retracted what they had said about the second son of Odin, but the damage was done - by the next morning, all of Asgard knew that Loki practiced seiðr, and they began to call him seiðmaðr behind his back, where no one would allow the words to get back to Odin.

It was enough, though, to lead Odin to tell his younger son that he also practiced magic, and taught him enough that Loki felt as though even he was different, there was nothing wrong with being able to cast and shape-shift.

The third time that he was truly aware of his differences was when he was 17, a few months shy of his entrance to the Þing.  The powers that be decided that there needed to be more fortifications around the wall of Asgard, to keep out those unwanted, and that none on Asgard would do well enough.  They found a lone hrímthurs that was available, and he said that the would build their fortifications - but only if he was allowed to use his stallion Svaðilfari to assist him.

Of course, the Þing had no objections and allowed the builder to begin his task, but then the hrímthur gave his other condition: if he completes it in less than 3 seasons, as his payment he would receive Freyja, the sun, and the moon. The Þing agreed, but of course began trying to figure out how to stall the hrímthur from completing the fortifications in the time allotted to keep Freyja safe - as well as the sun and the moon.

With the help of the stallion, the builder does miraculous work, which Loki likes to watch - he likes watching the completion of the walls, if only because it proves that the Þing was not as infallible as they made themselves out to be. The horse works twice as the hrímthur can, hauling rocks twice his size. Three days before the end of the third season, the wall is nearly finished and the gods have no way of stopping the builder and his horse, much to Loki's mirth. When they find him rolling with laughter on the floor outside the Þingstead, they blame him for the problem - not that it's his fault that they're so stupid.

Despite the threats of Odin and Frigga, they tell him that if he finds the situation so funny, that Asgard would lose one of it's best women, that he should find a way to stall the builder and if he cannot, it is on his death that Freyja would be lost to Asgard. Still young, still a child, Loki agreed, because what else is there to be done, what else could be done with the entirety of the Þing at his throat? He would distract the horse, whatever the outcome.

As the builder prepared for another night of building, Loki paced in the forest, fretting - how would he manage to distract the mighty horse? Svaðilfari cared not for any man or woman, and even when they came to mock him he continued to work.

This is not to say that Loki is unintelligent; if he cannot distract the stallion as a man then it lends to thought that as a mare he would be able to draw Svaðilfari away from his task.

The change from man-shape to other-shape is never a pleasant one, but turning larger is nice; for once, he can strong and large and not at all vulnerable to the taunts of the people.

He trots out from the forest and at first, Svaðilfari ignores him as he has ignored everything else, but soon his attention fades from moving the rocks to the mare nickering at the edge of the forest line. Rather suddenly - to Loki, at least - he tears at his tackle and then is free, chasing after Loki-mare and Loki leads him away from the wall and into the forest, high into the hills where it becomes clear what's going to happen.

The math plays itself out in his head and Loki is terrified and my god, is this what the Þing meant to happen to him, to get him out of the Þingstead and out of the way, unable to step up to his place in the world?

He skids to a stop in the middle of a meadow and Svaðilfari halts next to him, nickering and nuzzling his neck - and despairing, crushed, Loki allows the inevitable to happen.  Svaðilfari does not hurt him, and does not force him to anything - but Loki knows now that this is what they planned for him, that this is, at the least, his punishment for laughing at his superiors.

He does his duty and he knows - as any mage would know - that this shape is now with child - with horse? Gelding? He doesn't even know the right term for the beast in his womb and Svaðilfari remains by his side for the night, leading him to sweet pastures and clean water and knowing somehow that Loki doesn't know what's going on, that Loki isn't really a horse.

How the creature knows is beyond him, really.

Svaðilfari doesn't leave him for two full days, but by the time he does the time to finish the fortifications has nearly passed, and Loki lets the stallion go.  He remains in the pasture - after all, what good will he do in the court if he's not even a man, and it's not as though he can get out of his horse-shape while carrying a foal - because it's safe, and warm, and quiet.

He knows enough about horses that he'll be stuck in this shape for near a year, less if his magic helps the foal grow, but he doesn't want to push it.  What matters is how long he'll be able to stand being a horse.

It gives him time to gaze at himself, explore this horse form.  He's flat grey, not that rare but attractive enough, he supposes.  Better than being bay or chestnut.  He likes rolling on his back, scratching the places that he can't reach with his teeth, when rubbing against a tree is far too harsh on his skin.

He decides halfway through his gestation, after a very long night, that it's time to speed up the process so that he only has to suffer one season longer rather than two.

When the foal comes, for all intents and purposes it looks and smells and tastes like a normal horse; that is, at least, until it begins to stand and Loki notices four extra legs and panics, darting away for a moment until the urge to tend to his first child becomes overwhelming.

Sleipnir, he nickers, Sleipnir, and the foal looks up at him from atop eight wobbling legs, and Loki thinks that there could not possibly be any room left in his heart for another child.

Sleipnir is still dark, but the lightness around his eyes tells Loki that he'll be a grey, too, hopefully one as attractive as his father is.  He teaches Sleipnir what Svaðilfari taught him - how to eat, to sleep, to find sweet grass and water, how to gambol around the pasture and have fun, even though with his additional legs he has to learn how to do things in his own way.

When Sleipnir's half a season old, Loki decides that it's high time for them to return to Asgard - to the city and the people - and he shifts from his horse-form for the first time in a long time.  Sleipnir rears away from him, pacing the edge of the meadow, until Loki beckons him over with apples and soft words.

For a second Sleipnir won't come, won't take the apple, and then he gets close enough to smell Loki and it smells like his mother, like the horse he knows the best, and Sleipnir knows.  He nickers and rubs against Loki, searching for his mother, and Loki shifts back to his horse form to show his son that they are one and the same.

He begins to lead Sleipnir back to Asgard and when they get close enough to see the golden spires, Loki becomes his normal form again and Sleipnir follows, knowing that it's just his mother in a different shape.

Odin meets them at the gates to the stable and watches as Loki leads Sleipnir to a stall, gives him fresh water and a sweet hay, kissing him on forehead.

"I did not imagine my first grandchild to be a fantastic horse," Odin tells him.

"I did not expect my first child to be forced upon me, much as I love him."

Odin winces, but does not apologize.  "What have you called him?"

"Sleipnir is his name."  Loki winds his fingers in his son's forelock, brushing it from his eyes.  "It is a good name."

"True.  He will grow to be a strong mount."

Loki presses another kiss to Sleipnir's head and slips him an apple magicked from his pocket.  "Would you ride your grandchild to battle?"

Odin shrugs and turns to go, calling over his shoulder, "If my sons ride to battle, why not my grandchild?"

The fourth time that Loki marks his difference is after his brother and his friends ride to Jǫtunheimr and, rather than his skin cracking and breaking as Volstagg's does when the jǫtnar manage to touch them , his darkens to blue and scars rise from his wrists, tracing over his fingers until they dance along his entire forearm.

He has to kill that jǫtunn so that there are no rumors of what has been seen, but it tells him that there is something different, that he is different, that he is one of the jǫtnar that he has always wanted to kill, that he is one of the monsters that he has been raised to kill and fear.

Thor is enraged that he was not allowed to kill the monsters that ruined his coronation and he tells Loki as much, and for the first time in centuries, since the first time that Odin ran Loki's eight-legged son into battle, Loki cries.

Thor can't, for the life of him, figure out why Loki is sobbing on the edge of Thor's bed, half of his armor missing, and what he should do about it.

He sets upon approaching Loki as if he were still in horse-form, resting one hand on Loki's shoulder and the other going to his knee, kneeling in front of his brother.

"Would you kill your brother, then, Thor, to banish the race?"

Thor scoffs at Loki's words, as he always does when Loki says something so patently ridiculous.  "You are no more jǫtunn than I am, brother."

It sets Loki off and he has figured out, in the scant hour since their return to Asgard, how to drop the glamor that must have been placed upon him, and then he's shining blue and the scroll-work of scars traces over his skin, frost riming the armor he has left on, and the bed, and the floor.

Thor doesn't remove his hand, but just huffs quietly.  "None of your tricks, Loki, we haven't the time for them."

And then Loki grabs his wrist, and Thor's skin cracks and breaks under the frost of Loki's skin, so cold, and Thor pulls away - only to have Loki change back from his true form and heal the wound on his wrist.

"It's not a trick, Thor.  Odin has lied to us both - I am no more Æsir than I am your brother."

"We are not brothers?  Why would father lie to us?"

Loki shifts back blue, watching as the blue blossoms over his palms and spreads from there.  "Why does Odin do anything that he does?  Because it serves his purposes."

They both watch the blue consume him, and the scars rise.  Loki glances in the mirror, and jewels are set in his temples, blinding blue, and his eyes are red as the apples of the orchard before they burnish gold.

"Why would Odin hide Fenrir away from me?  Why did he pin him to the rocks where he cannot move and I cannot find him?  Why did Odin make Jǫrmungandr hold his own tail, become the World Serpent, and be the cause of Ragnarök? Why would Odin cast Hel to Niflheimr as just a child, and make her administer board and lodging to those sent to her, those who die of sickness or old age and do not make it to the halls of Valhalla?  Why would Odin do any of those things?"

Thor reaches to press his fingers to Loki's face and Loki flinches away.  "If you touch me, you shall also be taken away, as my kærr. Who knows what Odin will do with you?"

"Then let him banish me, because I will still have the memory of it, and that even Odin cannot banish."

Before Thor can touch him Loki turns pale, plain, and Thor frowns.  "I would have you as you are, brother."

Loki looks at him, doubtful, but lets the blue sweep back over his skin and with a movement Thor can touch him without being harmed by his skin.

It's different in this form, as though there's a veil between Thor's hand and his sense of touch - perhaps that is how the jǫtunn survive the cold on their wasteland of a planet, but it makes everything more difficult than it normally would.

Thor is still warm and angry from the earlier fight and it seeps through Loki's bones, making him melt into the furs on Thor's bed as Thor takes from him his armor, his tunic, his breath.

The delay in the heat from Thor's skin makes everything slow to build but explosive, like a pot just waiting to boil over but when it does it scalds everything, makes everything wet, and Loki can't help the sobs that wrack him as Thor brings him more pleasure than anyone else ever had.

When it's over, and Loki's still strung out and heaving wet sobs, Thor curls behind him and pulls him close, whispering sweet things into his ears and telling him no matter what, no matter the future, they will always have each other.

He presses a kiss behind Loki's ear and whispers, "If you could bear me a child, would you keep it?  Keep it safe from our father?"

"More than anything," Loki whispers, curling his fingers with Thor's even as the tears continue to fall from his eyes, freezing as they run over his skin.  "But I have never borne a child, from all our couplings.  So do not dare to hope for it."

Thor licks the shell of Loki's ear, watching as Loki blushes almost purple, fascinated at the change that the simple blue of his skin makes.  "I hope enough for the both of us, Loki."

Loki chuckles wetly, letting Thor press kisses to the patches of his skin that are not scarred, and tracing over the patterns with his tongue, beard rough and scratchy.  "You ridiculous man."

When Thor is banished, thrust to Miðgarðr for his sins, Loki can do nothing but watch, and wait, and bide his time.

He knows, for all of Thor's sweet words and promises, he will not return as Loki's kærr, he will not be the same.

Loki knows that were he to bear Thor a child, it would change nothing - Thor will still learn to love the world that he has fallen to, and he will never regard Loki as sweetly as he once did.

There were three times that Loki thought that he was different, and the fourth made it true.