Thor kept his centre of gravity low, joints loose as he crept closer to the enemy. He gestured silently, and Sif nodded to show she and the warriors three would follow his lead. The four of them ducked behind the cover of the rocks as Thor leaned in.
"I told you I could get you into Asgard," said a voice, a small voice, and less monstrous than Thor would have ever guessed from a Jotun. But it was the tiny one speaking, the runt surrounded by four of his stronger countrymen. "I made no promises as to where. Asgard is a wide realm, for all it's smaller than Jotunheim. Did you think I would bring you direct into Odin Allfather's treasure room -- I can't, wait, wait!"
He had been talking quickly, fearfully, and his words sped into a tumble of excuses as his allies' faces darkened. "Our patience wears thin, Trickster," growled one of them. His arm iced over, frost forming a weapon. Thor had heard from old warriors that Jotnar could do that. "Your bragging has proven false!"
Another grunted agreement. "Can we even be sure this is Asgard?"
The little one, the trickster was backed against a tall boulder, but his shoulders were still square, his eyes darting between the faces of his confederates. "I assure you, this is the Realm Eternal." Insolence crept into his voice, despite his obvious position in the pecking order of this group. "I know these hills. The citadel of Asgard, and the Allfather are only so far as an hour's journey from here. Are you so impatient, great warrior, for blood?" The small frost giant pointed to illustrate his words. Thor scoffed. If the little thing knew these hills as well has he claimed he would know that the citadel was less than an hour's journey in the opposite direction.
The creature pushed through the intimidating crowd of bodies, and Thor lowered himself in the shadows. None of the Jotnar spies saw him. "No, if I could do that I'd have the casket myself," said the little one. "You would do well to remember that without me you are stranded here, on the mercy of the Aesir. Show a little more care."
One of the bigger creatures grabbed the little one by the throat. "You can still work your magics with broken legs, can you not?"
The jotun rolled his eyes, no doubt with some clever remark on his tongue, but before he said another word there was a sound behind Thor. A scuffle then rattle of a dislodged stone. Five pairs of blood red eyes snapped up to follow the noise, and Thor didn't even look to see which of the warriors at his back had been so clumsy. He launched himself from the shadow, Mjolnir in his hand, and the battle was joined.
It was a fond familiar rage that whited out the larger world and brought Thor's enemies into sharp relief. He relished the feeling of bone crushed beneath his hammer, and the slick squelch of icy flesh bursting. The giants fought, of course they fought, but even as Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif broke from the cover of the rocks behind him the fourth Jotun fell beneath his weapon. The last, the runty one had slammed its back against the farthest boulder, with nowhere to escape, and Thor advanced. Wipe this last one out, and then tell his father that the monsters were in Asgard.
"Mercy!" the small Jotun cried automatically, "I surrender!"
Thor bared his teeth and lifted his hammer. No mercy for monsters. He heard one of his friends, no matter who, call his name, but he was stopped in his tracks by the Jotun in front of him-- The monster flinched back from death in Thor's hands and a paleness and red flush broke across its skin. The blue faded away like an illusion until the creature that cringed against the rock could have been Aesir.
Green. His eyes were deep sparkling green.
"Please," he gasped. "I surrender. Let me face the justice of your court, Odinson, not your hammer."
"Thor." Volstagg was at his shoulder, hand on his elbow. "He can do you no harm."
Thor blinked. The... Jotun... was smaller even than Thor himself. Unarmed. He swallowed the hot rage of battle. Blue spread again across the Jotun's skin and green turned back to red, like he couldn't hold the transformation. This Jotun, Trickster he had been called, trick-skin, this was the one who had led its larger allies into Thor's realm. Odin would want not just news that he had been stopped, but answers. He looked into the creature's red eyes, and the creature looked back apprehensively.
"Your ally said you had magic," he said at last, and the Jotun's shoulders slumped momentarily in relief. He smiled.
"He spoke facetiously. I am no threa--" The strip of filthy material Thor shoved into his mouth was soaked in giants' blood, torn from Thor's cape.
"That is for the Allfather to decide," he growled, and took the Jotun by the back of his neck. The citadel was less than an hour's journey from here.
Odin could feel his stomach sink as the captured Jotun was brought before him. He was small, smooth of face, closer to grey than a healthy blue and there was dark silken hair on his head. But Odin could see the echo of his sire in him. Laufey's child had both hands shackled behind his back, heavy dark chains that glimmered in the light, and at his throat--
Odin's one eye widened as he recognised the leather-and-chain collar with runes burned into its surface. It was intended to bind seidr. The Odin's blood ran cold to think that Laufey had a seidmadr for a son.
And that son had come to stand three feet away from his own son. Thor held the prisoner's chains and spoke his case - Loki, son of Laufey, overpowered and captured in the hills of Asgard, by Thor Odinson. Pride warred with bone deep terror in Odin's mind, and the caution won out. He waved Thor to sit at one of the long benches safely at the base of Hlidskjalf. As Thor removed himself from the Jotun's presence with bad grace, Odin observed the man in his chains.
"You are the prince of Jotunheim," he said.
It wasn't intended as a question, but a faint bitter smile touched Loki's lips where he bent his head. "I think not."
"You think me a fool?" asked Odin. "You bear the marks of your father's house, I recognise them on your skin."
They curved around Loki's skin, darker indigo against the icy blue of his face, and down his neck to disappear under the modest tunic. "These are his marks," he agreed. "Or so I have been told. Once I was even told so by the man himself. Meeting him, and the five minutes I spent in his presence, was the highlight of my life." He paused, smiled again. "Or so I have been told."
"And did you believe it?" The question passed Odin's lips before he quite gave it permission.
Loki froze, his eyes cast downwards. "Laufey is my benefactor and my king," he said carefully. "I am loyal to the crown and every value and virtue upheld by crowns in all realms. I was truly honoured to stand before the lord and master of Jotunheim." He licked his lips, ordering his words. "And I chose... reluctantly... to return to my journeys through the realm."
Disowned then. Did Odin believe it was by choice?
Seeing his hesitation, Loki flashed him another smile as bitter as the first. "The Jotnar have a tradition, when it comes to their weakest children. A sacrifice is asked with each fimbulvetr, a child left for the elements to take, and children of kings are far from exempt, see. The king gave me to Jotunheim. And though I was inconsiderate enough to survive, I am nevertheless pleased to be hers."
Odin had heard of the tradition. Fimbulvetr was a legend, whispered of with every harsh winter in Jotunheim, a terror of unending winter that had never yet come to pass. Not so long as giants kept offering up their defenceless young, it would seem. "If you were sacrificed to the winter, how did you survive?"
Loki grinned brightly. "Tenacity, Allfather."
The collar around his neck gleamed.
Odin looked down on the little giant from his heights. "In Jotunheim there is no such thing as a Seidmadr, nor is there any passage or text that would teach you the art. I made sure of this before you were born. How can one so young as you open a way from your Realm into mine?"
The tiny Jotun licked his lips and hesitated as though he considered the question a trick. In many ways it was. At least as much as any question from the Allfather. He gave a good approximation of deciding on honesty. "There were ways open to me for as long as I can remember," he said softly. "Space seemed riddled with them, like worms through dirt. When I found them, and discovered their purpose-"
"How?" interrupted Odin.
"How else? I walked through them. And on the walk I studied them, and at the end of the walk I found myself in the sun for the first time in my life. My people are consigned to ice and darkness, but I found paths to walk into summer. And as I scratched against the walls of them I realised that I could do this too. I could create a path of my own, that would not cost so much to walk."
His shoulders straightened out of their - feigned - submissive slump as he spoke, and the chains at his wrists and throat clinked softly. Odin pictured him, a child he must have been, finding one end of these forbidding passages - something unknown to him, and no recourse to learn what they were... and choosing to walk through. A child with the presence of mind to watch his surroundings even as he did not know whether he would survive the trip. And learn enough to recreate--
"Did you?" he asked hungrily. "Were you successful?"
Loki blinked. "I, ah... It depends on your definition of success, Allfather. I opened a pathway, sure enough. And it has its start in Jotunheim, and its end in Asgard. But..." Again, he licked his lips. He grimaced, and made to gesture with his hands, aborted by the chains. Speaking now of his own cleverness, he seemed more animated than before. "Perhaps it would be easier to show you what I did, than to tell you. It defies the constraints of language, Allfather."
Odin almost laughed. "I feel sure it does. Perhaps your command of language would be greater had you been tutored in Asgard?"
Loki's eyes narrowed, just for the barest of moments, and Odin felt a sudden grief for his education in such a wasteland. A waste. But Loki lifted his chin. "I'd wager I can make language dance for me better than you, Allfather. Tell you what, I'll make you an offer - Play at questions with me." Odin sat back in his throne, fingers steepled, an raised an eyebrow. There was a mutter of dissent from the benches at his side. Odin felt the same friction at the thought that a Jotun runt, even a runt of a Jotun prince, might demand such of the wisest of Aesir, but he pushed it aside. For Loki he could make an exception.
The runty prince, for his part, seemed altogether too practised at ignoring the scandalised whispers. "If you win, I'll show you where my pathway is hidden in Asgard. If I win? I go free."
"And who is to decide the winning conditions?"
Loki's smile turned into a distinct smirk. "You always know who's won such a game. If you're making bones about who the winner is, you already know it's not you."
Odin found a considering smile on his face, and before he could fully control himself he had risen from his throne to approach the chained frost giant. It was a strange sort of exhilaration. No other prisoner had made him forget protocol like this, and he was close to considering Loki's proposition. But-- "I would have to be a fool to accept a challenge from you. To wager and allow you to choose the conditions yourself?"
Loki snorted laughter as Odin walked a careful circuit around him. "Why would I wager if I already knew the outcome?"
"Oh, you did not intend to cheat?"
Loki's eyes followed him. "Of course I intended to cheat. I just didn't know how yet."
A strange exhilaration indeed. Odin turned smartly and returned to his throne. "We will not wager at questions, for I am certain that whatever method you found to cheat would be insidious to the extreme. But another wager. Escape your bonds, Loki Laufeyson."
"Laufeyjarson," corrected the prisoner quickly. "The king is my dam. Not my sire." But his sharp eyes turned considering. "If I escape my bonds, you'll allow me to go free? Forgive me if that seems a redundant mercy."
Laufey would have needed to be pregnant during the war, would have given birth on the battlefield. Loki's appeal and mystery grew wider by the moment. "Every eye in this hall is upon you now, Laufeyjarson. For the next five minutes, no one will raise a hand to stop you. If you escape, you are free."
"Five minu-- do you know how heavy these are?"
Loki shook his chains. Odin smiled tightly. "Time," he said, "is wasting."
Loki pulled his lower lip into his mouth, biting it half bloody, then set into action. He ducked to the floor, rolling his shoulders and arching his back enough that he could slide his bound wrists underneath himself and wriggle until they passed his legs. With his hands bound in front of him, he crossed to the nearest long table, hoisted himself up and sat amid the untouched feast.
He lifted the chain to his mouth and blew frost over it - it was audible, the crackle of it as it coated the metal. Then he took up one of the jugs of hot wine where he sat, the too-hot liquid that had been left to cool for later consumption, and poured it over the frost until it steamed. He repeated it again and again, icy breath followed by near-boiling wine. Three minutes gone before he jumped back to the stone floor, bent to place the chain at his feet, and stamped down with one foot.
Odin frowned at the fruitless endeavour. Ice and fire might weaken metal, but not enough to--
There was a startling crack and the chain came apart. Loki spared the throne a quick smile, and dug from his shoe a small rock which he held up to Odin's gaze. A rock from the ground of Jotunheim, caught in the heel of his boot. That would do it. Loki sat at the bench with his knee to his chest and threaded the loose end of chain through the leather collar at his throat. Bracing himself, he pulled. He let out a whine of pain as he did, and for a moment it was uncertain which would break first, the collar or his neck. Then with a sound like a distant siren song, the collar snapped into shreds.
Odin regretted its loss, but others could be commissioned.
Loki caught one of the shreds, shreds of a powerful artefact, and froze it to solid ice with his breath. The heat wave ripples of the collar's destruction hung around him as he worked at the shackles with the ice shard lock pick he had created. Odin leaned unconsciously forward in his throne as he counted down the seconds. Loki would not make it.
He had his lip between his teeth, worrying at it as he worked, when Odin tapped Gungnir against the stone with a final clamour. "Time is up, Loki," he said as the echoes died away.
Loki cursed. "Wait, wait!" he cried, holding his hands up. "I have other tricks! What if I..."
And he vanished.
Odin shot from his seat, and there was a collective gasp from the gathered Aesir. Thor, at the bench where Odin had sent him, gave a half-shout of what might have been anger or shock. It was impossible. Inconceivable that Loki might have--
"What about this, Allfather?" called down a voice, slightly breathless. "Is this close enough to freedom to please you?"
Loki was seated in the well of a high window, a hundred feet above Odin's head, his feet braced on the opposite casement. In his hands were the battered remains of his bindings.
"It is not possible to transport your body within these walls!" Odin burst out without proper thought. Loki smiled.
"Is it not? Well, I suppose I must have done something else then."
"How did you do this? One cuff should have been enough to bind any magic within you."
"It wasn't." Loki hung the broken and twisted manacles from one finger, and let them fall. It was almost two full seconds before they clattered against the floor.
"How did you do it?" Odin asked again.
"That information has value, Odin. What will you offer me for it?"
"Perhaps your life, Jotun!" Thor spoke up, standing now on the bench like many others. Loki's nose wrinkled in distaste.
"Rude," he remarked. "I thought I had already won that?"
Odin had no intention of letting Loki go. His foot was hanging half out of the window, half in the wind, and Odin would not let him slip his reach.
"Five minutes came and went, Jotun, and still you wore Aesir chains!" Thor said.
Loki leaned forward in the casement. "Ah, but did I? Which are you pleased to believe, Thor Odinson - your eyes or me?" Thor spluttered, and Odin joined Loki in the amused smile. "You seem to be having trouble deciding. Allow me to help; if you feel doubt, you should always elect to believe me."
"Return to the ground, Laufeyson, or--"
"Laufeyjarson!" Loki cut across the threat. "And I don't feel like it. Why don't you come up here instead?"
Thor let out a growl of stung pride and without waiting for permission he sprung from his place at the benches towards the foot of Loki's wall. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of mounting the vertical ascent. Odin let him. There was enough ornamentation up the wall that he might manage the climb.
"Loki Laufeyjarson," he said. Loki glanced up from watching Thor as though he were being reminded of where he sat. "I have erected barriers and wards against any seidr in this hall save my own. Seidr may not be used for travel nor attack." Nor to control or influence or a hundred other things that Odin didn't care to mention. "What trickery did you employ here? I know you did not transport yourself."
"Your barriers!" grinned Loki. "I admired your barriers very much - they were indeed fine. I waved at them as I passed them by!"
Odin let just a little thunder creep into his visible eye. Instead of sobering, instead of showing fear, Loki's smile widened at the sight. His hunger was unmistakable. "You did not," he told the man flatly. Loki just shrugged like he'd been caught in an inconsequential lie.
"No, you are right. I did something else."
Loki Laufeyjarson was playing to his audience, spinning a performance for the Aesir that would guarantee he was remembered. But this was for Odin alone to hear. I did not outperform you in a feat of magic, he did not say. I out thought you.
Thor was, by now, close on halfway up the wall and closing the distance as fast as he could. He jumped from the shoulders of a statue to a torch bracket. It barely took his weight, with much protest, and Thor grunted as it came half away from the wall. Loki, watching Odin intently for his reply, swung back down to look.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Do you need me to climb down to meet you?"
"No!" Thor rasped, pressed against the wall. "Do not move, Laufeyson! You stay where you are!"
"As you will," Loki shrugged and added, "Laufeyjarson. You hoard your seidr close to the chest, then."
This he called down to Odin, who kept an inviting silence. Keep Loki talking and Thor would bring him back.
"You made sure there would be no Jotun Seidmadr, that there can be no magic but your own in your hall..." So Loki had seen the barriers at least. Odin had the feeling that he was being mocked, though he couldn't think why. To protect himself against rivals was only wise. Cautious. Hardly worthy of the sardonic lilt in Loki's voice. "What would it take, I wonder, for you to allow another flame to approach your sun?"
Odin smiled darkly. Never in a million years. But-- "It would take something profound to impress me, Laufeyjarson."
Up above, Loki's face broke like sunrise. He beamed. "Allfather! Profound is my specialty!"
A ripple of anger passed through the hall at his presumption, and Odin found himself hard pressed to care. The presumption was what fascinated and drew him. "Come back down here," he said, "and prove yourself, trickster."
Loki broke his gaze sharply, looking down to where Thor was bare feet away from his perch. "Odinson -- how fare you? Here..."
He went to his knees in the alcove, stretching down to offer his hand. Odin could see Thor glare. "Come on, reach for me," Loki's murmurs floated down, "Almost..."
Thor grit his teeth, but swung out from his handhold to grab at Loki's outstretched arm...
It vanished like so much smoke in his hand. Loki swirled into being at the foot of the throne and although he had seen it coming Odin was no closer this time to making out how it was done. Loki approached his throne with a grin and continued as though the stream of his thoughts had not been interrupted. "I assure you, Allfather, I know to impress. I have--"
There was a clatter from above, and loud swearing as Thor overbalanced, the loss of Loki's helping hand causing him to slip from the wall altogether. For a brief second even Odin caught his breath - a fall like that was enough to harm, if perhaps not kill. But his son slid halfway down the wall before catching himself, though the slam as his back hit stone was audible in every corner of the hall. Loki hissed sympathetically. "Are you all right there, Odinson?"
When Thor's reply was nothing more than a breathy growl, the Jotun cupped his hands to his mouth and called, "Do you need us to send help? I could come and fetch you but you see there's all these barriers."
"I'll kill you!" Thor spat, and very few creatures had made him this angry and lived to tell of it. Odin thought to call him off but before he ordered the words to do it Loki tipped his head to one side.
"I rather wish you wouldn't. Would it make a difference if I presented myself like this?"
He spread his arms wide and changed. The ice of him melted away, Laufey's marks retreating into his skin like a spring frost. Burnt away by the fire in Loki's eyes that left Odin breathless. Had Odin likened the boy to Laufey? He'd been blind. Loki's eyes were green, his skin the flawless porcelain of a man who'd never seen summer. It showed off the flush of his cheeks, and the scattering of bruises down his collarbone only made him that much more fetching. Loki was beautiful.
And his transformation only enraged Thor further. He pushed himself out from the wall to jump the rest of the way to the ground. His landing only just fell short of cratering the stones at his feet and Loki backed up half a step. Odin was able to see the look in his eyes at the moment he realised he'd pushed his luck too far. He savoured it. It was something he could imagine himself seeing a lot of.
"Thor," he said before it could go further. "Enough. Retake your seat."
Thor glared, and Odin frowned back. Thor had been growing more and more wilful since he became a man. But he was still Odin's dutiful son and as such he removed himself to the benches behind the throne. There would be talke later between Odin and his child, but for now he turned to Loki.
The Jotun with his white skin and green eyes gave him a nod of gratitude. "Well. Now that I have won my freedom, Allfather, I find myself quite at a loss for--"
"You have won your freedom?" Odin asked mildly. Loki hesitated, but smiled.
"I completed your trial, did I not? I cast off the bindings you placed on me, I passed by the walls of your seidr." He looked around himself at the court of Aesir. No allies, but Loki did not seem to care. "You told me I would go free."
"I told you that if you escaped you would go free. Clearly, Laufyjarson, you have not escaped." Odin looked to the guards and in a moment Loki was surrounded, a tight circle of spear points around his throat. Loki swallowed, but otherwise did not move.
"Cheat," he said quietly, and Odin returned the small smile.
They saddled up horses. Odin, Thor, a small retinue of guards to remind Loki of his status as prisoner. Odin knew, could see just how dangerous Loki was, but he would have ridden out alone with him in a moment.
Loki, for his part looked deeply sceptical at the beast he was offered, and watched Odin and Thor mount their own horses with intent eyes before he would consent to clamber into the saddle. Belatedly, Odin realised he would never have ridden a horse in Jotunheim, but he seemed determined enough to pretend he was an expert that Odin didn't care to tell him he was holding himself wrong.
To spare the horse the frostbite, Loki remained in his Aesir form for the ride. Thor tried to bind his wrists again, but Odin refused. Loki needed his hands to ride, he said. For his part, Loki made every motion as though he would have accepted the new manacles, and only the steel in his eyes betrayed his true feelings. He gave simple directions, and they made their way through the hills to the hole he had cut in reality.
Soon enough he and Odin were riding abreast a short distance from the others, where they could talk without being heard.
"The number of people in these realms that have bested me," he said mildly, "could be counted on one hand with only the most scant need for deformity." Loki smiled at the jest. "Those who have bested me in my own hall are in even shorter supply."
"I would be honoured," Loki said, "were it not for the fact that here I sit, surrounded by your guards. Leading you to the secrets you bartered for. I feel, Odin Allfather, distinctly bested."
Odin would have laughed aloud. "Don't treat me like a naive fool, Loki. My victory was only by your grace."
Loki's mount conveniently stepped in a dip in the path. It didn't stumble enough to threaten the jotun in its saddle but Loki's knuckles whitened on the reins and he didn't reply.
"My pride is wounded, frost giant." He smiled to soften the words. "Tell me your secret, to balm the sting."
Loki watched the bobbing horizon with a vague eye. "It's a trick I am loathe to give away," he said distantly."One that saves my skin no less than once per moon. Sometimes far more."
Odin said nothing. Only waited. Loki could pretend at reticence all he wanted, but Odin could already feel the answers pressing against the small giant's lips. Tell me, Loki. Who else but I will truly appreciate your brilliance?
Loki was silent, winding his hands into the reins, and he watched the path in front of them for long enough that Odin was compelled to say, "It must be useful indeed."
White teeth on his lower lip, the bob of his throat as he swallowed, and finally Loki gave a casual shrug. "It's an illusion. Invisibility upon myself and a clone image cast at the same time. So the clone distracts you -- with insolent words, or running in the wrong direction... or picking un-pickable locks as you watch in fascination-- while I escape unseen."
The confession was murmured in flat tones, and Odin returned the favour by nodding blithely as though he had said nothing of import. The least he could do was protect Loki's secrets from his retinue. And it was ingenious - casting two unrelated spells simultaneously was feasible if difficult, but this was a use Odin had never even considered. And never thought to ward against.
"You were out of that window before anyone in the hall could have stopped you."
Loki grinned. "Yes."
"And you returned." Before I commanded it.
"Yes." Loki gave every impression of being absorbed in the work of riding. He still held his heels too high. "It's past this ridge," he announced.
As they dismounted Odin could see the thing, a haze hanging in the air half again as tall as a man. About as tall as a grown frost giant. And it was wrong.
Loki had been right - whatever was wrong with it, it defied language. It felt like a hole in the skin of the world, bleeding, oozing, and it inspired an antipathy in him that he hadn't felt since the days of the war. It wasn't right that a work of seidr should revolt him as much as the seas of blood shed then.
The guards and Thor hung back from the distortion that split the air. Odin didn't think they even knew they were doing it, but even his most magic-blind son couldn't miss the stench of it. Loki was looking up at it with mirth sparkling in his eyes. "It's a mess, I know."
"A man could go mad on this path."
"I've been through it twice," Loki grinned. "It's not so terrible, once you get used to the feeling that you're being watched."
"By yourself. Or, perhaps, what you could have been. It felt like Loki was looking at me, and he was disappointed." Loki kicked his heels at the stony ground. "It's even better on the inside, come on, I'll show you--"
He was almost childlike in his enthusiasm, just grateful to have someone who saw his accomplishment. Odin was grateful that the open path from Jotunheim to Asgard was impassable to any but its maker. "You'll forgive me if I decline, Laufeyjarson," he said with a lopsided smile.
Loki gave a guilty start. "Oh. Oh, of course." He laughed. It was a genuine sound, careless of his position and the danger that the King of an enemy race should still have been to him. Loki Laufeyjarson, who let his guard fall where it will, just because he knew he could escape anything.
Odin had no intention of letting him go.
"If you had won your freedom," he asked, ignored the quirk of the Jotun's lips at if, "where would you have gone?"
"Wherever I please."
"And what would you have done?"
Loki's soft green eyes crinkled at the edges. "Whatever takes my fancy."
"Would it please you to remain in Asgard?" Odin recognised a terrible decision, an impulsive offer, but he didn't even want to take the words back.
The rip in the fabric of the world seemed to take up all Loki's attention. Odin heard the intake of breath and saw his eyes go wide. The angry red light of the passage was reflected in them. He was silent for a moment, then he shook his head.
"I bow to no one," he said. His smile was gentle, and did nothing to soften the steel of his voice. "Not to my own king. And, Odin Allfather, I will not bow to the king of my enemies."
Odin's eye narrowed. "You do not bow even to your father?"
Loki tilted his head, humming high in his throat. "The Jotnar are a... once mighty race. But there is none among them like me. None to match me." And none to be a fit companion, Odin thought. Loki grinned. "It does grow so frightfully lonely."
"Stay in Asgard," Odin said again, "and you will not be asked to bow."
The turn of Loki's head was dismissive, the derisive snort enough to hide the hunger in his eyes from anyone but Odin. "I'm sure a Jotun in your court would be made to feel most welcome."
"We would endeavour to welcome you in the manner to which you are accustomed, wanderer," Odin returned. Then he caught his breath. It shook in his chest.
"I am accustomed," Loki drawled, "to dirty straw and dusty roads, and rat-eaten food and freedom. Did you think I would jump at the cha-- what's happening to you?"
It had come on suddenly, more sudden than it had in centuries. Not since Odin had walked battlefields unable to care for his own frailties. He cursed the greying of his vision and his short sightedness. "It is--" he gasped out, and his knees buckled under him.
Loki's white hands caught him, cool but not cold. "Allfather--" Loki cursed and Odin felt the hands convulse against his shoulders as the Jotun prince hesitated. Then-- "Odinson! Somebody!"
Just enough breathless panic. Odin grasped at Loki's hand as he was borne clumsily to the ground, gripped it so that anyone with eyes open could see he wasn't the victim of a Jotun plot. Loki had his arms around his shoulders as Thor approached at a run.
"I swear, I didn't touch him!"
Thor's hand came under Odin's head just as his eyes slid closed. Odin knew better than to try opening them. "It is the Odinsleep. It is nothing you did Jotun, nor anything you could have stopped." Thor's hand was on Odin's face, prising his good eye open. Odin always hated that - light was too bright when he had already succumbed. "Father? Father, if you can hear me, you're going to be all right. We'll get you back to the palace..."
Loki's hands slipped away, replaced by Thor's steady grip and Odin wanted to reach for him, catch his wrist. An answer first, I need an answer! "You there!" called Thor. "His horse! Bring it... Here, Laufeyson, help me lift him..."
There was a silence, and Odin's heart sank. "Laufeyson? Laufeys-- Jotun, where are you?"
Odin didn't need his faculties or to move to know. Loki had been behind him out of sight. Loki's portal had been behind him out of sight. He let himself sink deeper into the Odinsleep and lamented how close they had come.
It was of course not the last time they were to meet. Odin went wandering, as he could never quite convince himself not to, and in a tavern in Vanaheim he found a young man in flame red curls and a ragged coat playing at cards. Cheating at cards, and outrageously enough that nobody he cheated could quite pin down what he had done. Somehow, the youth must have thought this state of affairs would last. Odin sat cloaked in the corner and watched the growing discontent under the brim of his hat.
Just before it reached danger, he caused a convenient distraction, and as Loki's victims ran off he slid into the now empty chair opposite the youth. "I recall you were once better than this, Loki."
The green eyes opposite him narrowed, and Odin was thrilled to notice Loki's body tense. Being recognised through a disguise likely did not often go well for him. Then Loki gave a quiet ah. "Allfather," he greeted. "I am better than this. Do you know how long it took me to work them to the level of violence?"
Odin expressed regret, and helped him find another group of drunken would-be-warriors fit for his purposes - whatever they may be - and laughed silently at the wildness of him. Loki was gone in the ensuing chaos and Odin returned to his throne and his duties.
Years passed. The Aesir had war against the Vanir. Odin himself was obliged to ride into battle, and across the blood and smoke of magic and fire he spotted a dark head of hair in the sea of warriors. A soldier of fortune, using illusions and decoys in a most dishonourable way.
He fought for the Vanir. Odin caught his eye across the field and he fought for the Aesir without missing a step.
Loki grinned at the carnage he caused, and his inconstancy turned the tide of the skirmish. He was gone again before Odin could find him. And though he perhaps should have begun to fear at this early hour, Odin missed his presence.
The war won, Asgard's warriors turned back to quests for their own glory. Thor and his warriors returned from Muspelheim burdened with treasures and tales and gleefully calling, "Father, look who we have found!"
Loki had his arm around Thor's shoulder dressed in dusty leathers and long hair. "I have been found!" he agreed cheerfully. He was thin and bruised, with rings of burns all down his forearms to match those on the Lady Sif. He happily shared the sensational stories of how they had received them. Many stories, each more unlikely than the last as Sif looked on in amused exasperation.
Odin trapped him into a promise to stay a night, then two nights, then three. They shared secrets together, playing at riddles and lies. Odin taught lost magics to the son of his ancient enemy, and Loki taught Odin new magic never before practised. It frightened the old man in him and behind locked and barred doors Loki swallowed his fear like it was nectar.
He left Odin's hall in the early morning before anyone could extend further invitation.
Odin Way-weary left his hall again, for the seas and shores of Midgard. There he met a pirate captain with poison-green eyes and a heart made for trickery. Loki's ship was crewed almost entirely by sea witches, and he was waiting eagerly for the day they betrayed him. Odin watched him on the horizon until he threw away control for the privilege of anarchy, and he swung on deck in time to save Loki from himself.
They rowed away in the darkest hour of the night and once they were safely on Odin's boat in lantern light, once Loki had told his stories with gleaming eyes and a lying tongue, Odin asked him to come home. They shared blood together, and brotherhood, and at last Loki agreed to stay.
Asgard celebrated the Allfather's new brother with feasts and fighting, the way they celebrated everything. Loki accepted congratulations from his new nephew and invitations from Thor's warriors. And he slipped away from Odin's hall in the early morning with a smile.
And a wind began to blow in the Allfather's heart as he knew he could never hold his brother down.
From the throne Hlidskjalf, Odin saw every corner of the nine realms. He saw the great winter spread across them and strangle and poison all light and warmth. He saw the dragon begin to awaken. And he saw a cave under a tree, and a snake and a devoted wife who held a bowl of venom in her hands.
He saw his brother, saw him at last.
A creature he should have killed before he ever let it into his house. The man he had loved, who made him love him before he knew what he was.
Thor was at his elbow, low voice imploring him to come away, look away, that he had to take action to protect the tiny people of Midgard who Thor loved so well. But Odin could not look away. The bowl in Sigyn's hands was close to overflowing. She drew in shaking breath. "Loki," she whispered. "Husband, wait for me. I'm sorry."
Without waiting for a reply she was gone and Loki was left to the tender mercies of the serpent. Odin needed to hear him scream. He devoured the ragged cries like they were all he needed to sustain him.
They wound down while the venom still fell on his face and neck. "Odin!" he called, breathless, tired. Odin's hands curled into claws on the arms of his throne. "I feel your eyes on me. I feel... Was I not your brother? Am I not still?" Odin wanted to look away. "I will find you yet, brother. I will come back to you, crowned in blood and poison, and heart-beating chains. Rest yourself, oath-breaker, and wait for me."
You deserve this, Odin thought. With Thor's anxious eyes on him, all he said was, "I will wait, Brother."