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The Stranger I know

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“It is a wise man that knows his own child“

- William Shakespeare

 

 

 

 

 

The day Kratos notices it, it doesn’t feel like a revelation, sudden and harsh like a punch to the stomach.

 

The moment Trickster laughs and bows his head forward, nodding in agreement to something Atreus said, strands of shoulder long auburn hair parting over his neck and revealing the familiar etching (blue, almost black, instead of the gold she had usually used – this is different, Kratos, this color carries meaning just like the gold does, you would know if you would listen to my stories, you stubborn man), the slowly-becoming-more-familiar-runes that Atreus has been so dedicatedly teaching him in the last months still only making sense to Kratos because once upon a time, Faye had explained their meaning to him before gently carving them onto their son’s neck –

 

“Steady mind”

 

Its’ right there, right in front of his eyes, the same color, the same familiar-unfamiliar runes, just… not on a boy’s neck.

On a man’s. Years older than Atreus should be, than Atreus is right now, because Atreus is right next to the stranger who doesn’t seem all that strange anymore and…

And it should feel like a revelation, shouldn’t it, but instead…

 

It feels like a confirmation, like a final piece slipping into its supposed place and fitting perfectly.

 

Because he knew, didn’t he, Kratos thinks as he keeps his eyes trained on that tiny crack in an otherwise absolutely perfect seeming disguise. Because deep down, the stranger that appeared in their lives with the suddenness of a thunderclap in an otherwise calm summer night had never been a stranger, not to him, not to Kratos.

Because he would never have trusted a stranger who refused to show his face, would never have let him come so close.

Because “You can call me Trickster, I suppose” would never have been enough to satisfy Kratos’ need for an answer to the question “Who are you?” otherwise.

Because he would have recognized him anywhere, anytime and Kratos’ heart had recognized who was hidden behind the mask and the added years and the sheer impossibility of it all before his conscious mind really could grasp it.

 

There was simply no way Kratos could ever not recognize the clear blue eyes so similar to hers, even hidden in the shadows of a mask, twinkling at him when the younger man got excited while talking about something that had caught his interest.

No way could he ever not recognize the way the younger would tip his head just a tiny bit to the right while soaking up new information. Or the way he paced when thinking, feet carrying him in useless circles while his mind wandered far ahead of all of them.

The sudden jolt that would go through him at the proposition of adventure waiting ahead of them, as if it took all the experiences and years as a warrior to stay still and not jump ahead in his impulsiveness like he had done in his younger years.

The way his hand would wander to his chin while muttering about different options, talking out loud until he would snap his fingers in sudden understanding and rush off, having found his own path, calling for Kratos to follow him.

 

(And Kratos would follow, because he always had, always would, be it to stop him and tug him back into his protection, or to support him in any way he could. Because wasn’t that what he was supposed to do? Wasn’t that what a-…)

 

“... father?”

 

Kratos blinks, fond memories and musings receding as he is met with two pairs of curious, if not worried blue eyes.

Even with one of them crouching to be the same height as the other and wearing a mask, Trickster and Atreus look like twins in the way they gaze up at him.

 

(Really. How did the younger ever think he wouldn’t notice?)

 

Kratos grunts, not knowing if more amused or exasperated at that thought, but it just ends up assuring Atreus that he’s listening.

“Are you alright, father?” The boy frowns, worry evident in his young face. “Did you hear something?”

“No, boy,” Kratos finds himself saying, even though his focus was never on the ancient, rotting temple around them or on possible enemies that could be approaching. “I would have said so.”

“Oh…”

 

“Probably…,” Trickster shifts, easily gliding from the crouch he was in back to his feet, nearly the same height as Kratos himself as he stands. “…we’re starting to bore you with our stories?”

(- and by all the gods, there is a sort of fierce pride swelling in Kratos’ chest, now that he knows, now that he sees… he had grown up so well -)

Another grunt, this time of acknowledgment. “You talk almost as much as the Head.”

 

Quick amusement flashes over Atreus’ face, quickly swallowed back down with a snort, while their companion has no problem laughing aloud, mirth not covered in the slightest by the ever-present mask. “Only almost?! I need to try harder!”

“Sorry, father,” Atreus is quick to add, nudging his older friend as if to admonish him, even though he looks still too amused for that. “We weren’t trying to bore you, it’s just… this place is so great! Could… could we, just, explore… a little bit more? Just, until sundown… there could be more old texts to be found? And I’m sure Mimir wouldn’t mind terribly to wait a little longer until we return, even though he always complains when we leave him with Brok and Sindri, he’s having fun teasing them, I know it, and it’s still day out and… we can leave as soon as you say I would just like to…”

 

Kratos lifts a hand, and Atreus falls still immediately, eyes wide and hopeful, energy barely contained in his fairly-bouncing young body.

“I see no harm in staying a bit longer,” Kratos declares, not giving into the urge to let the corner of his mouth twitch upwards as Atreus gives a whoop of joy and all but flies ahead, towards where the dusty hallways of old vanish around another corner they have not yet turned. “Don’t go too far, Atreus!”

“Thank you, father!” It’s all the answer he gets before his son has vanished in the bowels of whatever this place once had been.

 

Perhaps he should have listened to the stories the two had been exchanging, then he would know if there were any old surprises of days past that he should be looking out for.

 

“Don’t worry,” as if he has read his thoughts, Tricksters shifts next to him, his arm brushing the older one’s in a reassuring gesture, gaze sweeping over to where Atreus had vanished before returning to Kratos, eyes softening. “He will be able to handle himself should something happen, you know.”

This time, Kratos hums. “I know he can.”

 

(The pride in his chest is burning - )

 

Kratos’ gaze returns to Trickster – the stranger who is oh-so-familiar, the boy, no, the man who is almost the same height as him, the man who can call lighting down and set fire to the air with a few sharp words, the man who trades riddles and stories back and forth with Mimir until even the wisest of them all has talked himself hoarse, who fights alongside Kratos with an ease as if they have never done anything else than stand side by side in battle…

 

(- fierce, bursting like a star -)

 

… the man who is a warrior but so unbelievably gentle beside the battlefield, who meets Kratos’ bristling harshness with a kindness unparalleled as if everything about his harsh words is endearing and not to be taken as an insult, who plays harmless pranks to Brok and Sindri even they have to laugh at, who snickers at Kratos’ horrible abilities at storytelling but asks for more every time, who laughs aloud and with so much joy everyone around him smiles back, who tells stories with wildly gesturing hands and the gleaming eyes of an innocent child…

 

(- before it mellows down into something much softer, warm, but not as sharp as the pride had been.

He had grown up so well.)

 

This time, Kratos doesn’t fight the urge, let’s some of the warmth in his chest spread until one corner of his mouth curls upwards as he says, softer than before but with no less sincerity. “I know you can, Atreus.”

 

There is a pause so long one could think his quiet words have gone unnoticed, the world still around them.

Then a tension appears along Trickster’s frame, muscles stiffening, and blue eyes widen behind the curved eye slits of the mask, head snapping around to stare at the older man. A sharp intake of breath-

 

Kratos meets the flurry of motion with crossed arms, eyebrow raised, and waits – the warmth he had been feeling still present, if not stronger than before at the blundering display.

 

(How had he ever thought he wouldn’t notice?)

 

- and all breath leaves Trickster in a whistling sound, shoulders slumping… before he starts laughing. Quiet at first, just a chuckle, before he bursts into full-blown laughter that shakes his whole body and has him gasping for air. He has to bend over, place his hand on his knees as his side starting hurting from it.

He laughs and laughs and laughs, and Kratos lets him, understanding that all the tension of this game of hide and seek the younger man has been playing with them just now finds an outlet finally.

 

Finally, Trickster calms, takes deep breathes. He straightens slowly, and manages to speak while shaking his head, words hoarse, but full of mirth, “They should have made you the God of Seeing through All Lies or something similar. It would be… much more fitting.”

“As fitting as Trickster?” Kratos gives back, noting with satisfaction that it gets him another round of snickering.

“Now that you saw straight through me, it seems more embarrassing that I decided to call myself that. Trickster, the one who doesn’t trick anyone!”

“Hm. Atreus didn’t notice,” – oh, but even after knowing, it feels odd to think that there are two Atreus’ now – “Nor did the Head, or the dwarves.”

It seems important to tell him, that his frantic tries of hiding it from them hadn’t been all for naught.

 

The mask is still firmly in place, but it’s clear by the way blue eyes crinkle and soften that Trickster – Atreus, because it’s Atreus, always was, always will be no matter how much he ages and changes, Atreus, his son - is smiling behind it. “No. No, they didn’t, did they? Only you. Father.”

 

He doesn’t know what does it. Perhaps it’s that they are on the same page now. Perhaps it’s because of the way the word – father - sounds so different in that much deeper voice yet so achingly familiar. Perhaps it’s the warmth in those blue eyes that look at Kratos’ so full of love as if he’s not a Ghost, not a monster, not a man who never knew how to raise a boy properly all on his own…

 

Father.

 

He doesn’t know what does it but Kratos finds himself reaching out for the younger abruptly, wanting, needing to touch, pull, hold him just for a moment, just to make sure…

Just to show some of the warmth he felt.

 

“Heeeeey! Are you guys coming?!”

 

Atreus’ voice, loud and yet soft because of the distance between them, rattles them both. Kratos lets his half-outstretched arm drop, sees how Trickster flinches just slightly as if he had forgotten where they were, too, for a moment.

 

The moment is over, gone, and Kratos clears his throat – his hand itches still with the urge to reach out, he squashes it vigorously – and calls back. “Atreus?!”

“I’m okay!” The words come back instantly, faintly, but still brimming with excitement. “But I found something! You guys need to see this!”

 

With them standing next to each other, gaze fixed on the entrance Atreus’ voice is waving back from, Kratos more feels than sees the jolt going through the younger man next to him, but he recognizes it still. Barely contained energy, just held back at the last moment, before the younger could run off.

 

He almost rolls his eyes at it, but the warmth is back, lodged somewhere between his chest and his throat, and it makes it difficult to even pretend to be annoyed. So he grunts instead and nods to the doorway. “Go ahead.”

Trickster hesitates, even though his whole frame is vibrating with restless energy. “You sure?”

“You want to see it,” Kratos points out, trying to sound more exasperated than fond.

He doesn’t manage, if the amusement dancing in the blue eyes is any indication. “Are you really sure, because….”

“I said go.”

“… I felt like we were interrupted there…”

“Atreus.”

“… I mean, if you really want to hug me, I could wait a second longer, you know, it’s such a rare occurrence, it should be…”

Boy.”

“… fine, if you’re really sure, I will of course go ahead. We can continue this later.”

 

Kratos fairly growls and the younger instantly dashes off, taking off like the arrow released from the bow, racing down the hallway and around the corner, his laughter trailing after him and echoing off the old stone walls.

 

He really tries to, but Kratos can’t bite back the smile curling around his lips for the life of him. There is only darkness and stones to bear witness to it, so just this once, he lets it go.

 

He can’t fight it, can’t deny it, the feeling of happiness sitting like a glowing ball in his chest, making him feel light and warm for the first time in ages.

 

Because despite all his mistakes, past and present and future, despite the fact that he doesn’t believe in fate, despite knowing that the future could change at any time-

 

He knows, right at this moment, thanks to a coincidence and a trick of magic and time, that there is a realm, a time, a future, where he did right by his own flesh and blood. A future where Atreus grows into a man to make him and Faye proud.

 

Kratos is grateful he was allowed to see the proof for that.

And now more than ever, he will fight for that one future.

 

He will fight for Atreus.

 

Because that’s what a father does.