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Silver and Gold

Chapter Text

PART ONE

 

“In all the time I’ve served you,” Heimdall said, “have I given you any reason to doubt my loyalty?”

“If you had, I would not be standing before you now.”

“As you say, my king.  But now I must dissent.  You are making a grave error.”

“Sometimes I think I made a grave error coming back from Jotunheim with him in my arms,” Odin said, looking down the length of the bridge.  His eyes, frost-pale, gave away so little that only Heimdall and Frigga would ever have known he did not believe what he was saying.  No, the All-Father did not regret having brought his youngest child to Asgard.  Which made what he was doing now all the more perplexing, and all the more troubling.  “I had thought him a solution, which is not a thought worthy of the wisdom with which I am credited.  Children do not make things simpler, that is not their nature.  And I did not anticipate…”

“That you would care for him?”

“That I would love him,” Odin said.  “As much as my true son.”

And your daughter?  But that was even more dangerous to voice than criticism.  In any case, he knew the answer: Odin would never love another child as much as he had loved his Hela.  He would not risk his heart that way.  It was a pity, because the princes would never understand it.  They would yearn open-handed, reaching for what would never drop into their grasp.

“If he is your true son, then keep him as such,” he said instead.

Odin shook his head.  “But he is not my son, Heimdall.  And I do neither him, nor Thor, nor myself, nor any of us any favor by hiding that.  I have mistreated him, to raise him as a prince of Asgard when I intend no more for him than the throne of Jotunheim.  When Laufey dies, and Loki must go to claim his birthright, how will he do it?  With pride of his own place, and with loyalty to us?  Or with bitterness at receiving only second-best?  A king is not jealous of another king, but a brother may well be jealous of another brother.  I’d thought to forge an alliance from the cradle on, give Thor and Loki reason to love each other too well to quarrel, but already they compete with each other.  What happens, then, when Thor must win?”

“Then the younger prince learns that life does not owe him victory.  That is all.”

“Believe me,” Odin said grimly, “that is a lesson no member of this house will ever learn easily.  He is too much my son for that by far.”

You are trying to stop Loki from becoming Hela, and that is a noble cause, but you cannot keep him from being your daughter by making him not your son.

“I will not put the might of the Frost Giants behind an enemy to Asgard,” Odin said, “even if it is my own son.”

“Then relinquish hope of Jotunheim.  Keep the peace as you have kept it for these last few years.”

Odin scoffed.  “Through the flimsy assurance of Laufey’s fear?  Through our possession of the Casket?  He has too much steel in him not to raise his sons to rally against us, and sooner or later, war will come.  As for the Casket, what has been stolen from them could easily be stolen from us.  What is the Vault but a lesson in the folly of believing anything safely kept forever?  No, Heimdall.  I was a fool to take Loki in hand as though he were a tool, but having done so, I cannot go without using him, not when I know what it might bring us.  He is a resource of the throne, even as I am.”

“He is eight,” Heimdall said.  “He will think he’s being dragged from his home as punishment for cutting his brother.  My king, he will not understand.”

“That is another matter,” Odin said.  “His magic—it needs to be controlled.”

“Who better to teach him than his mother?”

“She will teach him, she will not restrain him.  She loves him too well to do so.  And so, I’m afraid, do I.”

“Then you have made your decision already,” Heimdall said.  “You do not ask me to take your son, your majesty, you command it.”

Odin looked ancient in that moment: his age was not in his face but in his heart, where Heimdall did not often look.  Oh, he would live long enough, perhaps even another millennium, but he had spent his best years on conquest, had turned to governance too late to know how to do it lightly.  A king who cared for his realm less might rule it better, might withstand more; a man who knew less of the weight of his own soul might not think it so necessary to crush a weed beneath his heel before it even truly grew.  What was best in him had brought him to the worst and most primitive handling of his children.  This infanticide disguised as abandonment disguised as fostering.  Or, in Hela’s case, as imprisonment.

“Would you make it a command?” Odin asked.

“For your sake, I would have taken him as a babe, and done so willingly.  Had cataclysm come to us, and you and the queen both been lost, I would have raised him as my own.  But to agree now and to rip him from his father, mother, and brother, from his position, from everything he has known—yes, your majesty.  I would have you command it of me, because otherwise my answer would not serve you.”

For a moment, he thought that he might have convinced Odin to turn away from this madness; or, failing that, that Odin would walk away, would at least lift this responsibility from his shoulders by turning to another member of his court.  There were many pampered lords and ladies who would have taken on a boy who, what?  Would be treated henceforth as some royal byblow?  Maybe it was cowardice that made Heimdall prefer even that.  He did not want to be the knife by which Odin cut out his son’s heart.

But Odin said, “Then, Gatekeeper, to take custody of Loki Laufeyson is the express command of your king.”

Heimdall bowed his head.  “Then it shall be done.”

“You ask much of me,” Odin said, and there was a kind of controlled fury in his voice.  “Of all in Asgard, it is only you to whom I would ever dare entrust him, a child so precious to me, and you make me force him upon you.  He is a gift, Heimdall.  I pray you will grow to understand that.  Your heart cannot be so cold as to make him feel that his unwelcome in your house.”

He left then, not telling Heimdall when or how he might expect to acquire this gift of a son.  It reminded Heimdall of nothing so much as when he had been looking so deeply into the stars that, trying to bring his gaze back to Asgard, he could not fix his eyes upon anything without it blurring into its own constant whirl of matter and space.  The details grew inconsequential.  But Loki, whether Loki Odinson or Loki Laufeyson or Loki Heimdallson, could not be allowed to vanish.  Not to Odin’s eyes and certainly not to his.  He supposed men had become fathers with less notice than this but not, in all likelihood, of young princes, Jotun boys in Aesir skin, whom their would-be fathers had always found a little wearisome.  He would have to learn fatherhood quickly.

Well, he thought dryly, unless I turn at once and give him away to someone else, I will not serve him to ill on the first day, not in immediate comparison.  It was a mildly treasonous thought, but a true one.  Whether Loki knew it or not, Heimdall would be his third father.  He was determined to be the last.


Odin brought Loki to him shortly after dawn the next morning.  Loki’s small face was pinched and white, his eyes not just red-rimmed from crying but still swimming with tears, though the night and the long walk to the Observatory must have taught him better than to shed them.  Odin would not have liked it.  Though, Heimdall was forced to admit, perhaps no father would have: to have made his child cry was something most men would wish to run from.

Heimdall knelt.  “It is a hard morning for you.”  He did not say “my prince,” because there was no use in pretending that title still held true, but he did not say Loki’s name, either, because that would only pour salt on a fresh wound.

“He is brave,” Odin said, and with a touch that was clumsy but nonetheless almost reverent, he combed his fingers through the hair of the boy who was no longer his son.  “Loki, trust what I say.  What is happening is no fault of yours.  It is only something that has happened, without cause or blame, like a sickness.  I will never cease to love you.”

“Then why are you doing this?” Loki said.  The cry sounded like it was being torn out of the very fabric of his soul.

“Because it must be done.”

Do not say “for the good of Asgard,” Heimdall thought, or you will only teach him, here and now, to hate everything about this place.

But he erred if he thought Odin so foolish.  Instead of saying anything more at all, Odin only pressed his palm against the back of Loki’s head and then bent down to kiss him, a thing he did with great tenderness.  Then, all too quickly, he was gone.  Asgard’s capital was small, almost intimate, a dense cloud of glory, but Heimdall knew they would now learn exactly how easy it was to be kept away from the royal family if the royal family wished it to be so.  It would be some time, he had no doubt, before either of them saw Odin again.

Heimdall said, “Did you sleep at all?”

“Why is he doing this?” Loki said.  His tear-stained face was turned in the direction of the city, but he did not run toward it.  He had been raised to do as he was told, after all.

“I don’t understand it myself,” Heimdall said honestly.  “He believes you will be happier this way.”

“But I’m not happy!”  Without the need to impress his father with his restraint, Loki was crumbling again.  “Will he come back?  Will he change his mind?  Will Mother come?”

He answered the questions carefully, in the order Loki had asked them.  “I believe he will come back to see you, though perhaps not right away.  I don’t think he will change his mind about—the way things are to be.”  He has changed it once, which is already an admission of failure; he will never change it back again.  “And the queen, I know, will visit you.  Often, I’m sure.”  But she would not change Odin’s mind any more than Odin would change it himself, and she would not go against him so totally.  That was not the way of their family, he knew.

“And Thor?”

“There is no force in the Nine Realms that could keep your brother from you,” Heimdall said.  “I have seen all the dangers of the universe, and I know that to a certainty.”  He had tried, very precisely, to not say “your father” or “your mother,” but he could not rob Loki of his brother, not yet.  Not at least while that could grant the boy a small, unsteady smile.

Loki looked around the Observatory and then, suddenly, he was no longer a rumpled, grief-stricken child but a perfectly composed one: he had dropped a glamour over himself, hiding under it as a less gifted child might have hidden under a blanket.  Heimdall saw no reason not to let him, if it made him feel better.

Loki said, “Do you live here?”

“No, I have a home in the country.”

“But you’re always here.”

“I have always needed very little sleep, and I’ve grown to need less and less.  Most of my life has been spent in watching.”  A thing that was now done: a vocation reduced, in the span of minutes, to ordinary work.  He would need to see that the cottage was even still suitable for habitation.  It would be nothing like the palace, but that might be for the best.  A stately manor home, though Heimdall could have easily bought one, would only be a pale shadow of Odin’s great halls.  Better to have something that could be no reminder.  A small place dappled with sunlight and the green and yellow patterns of leaves.

He had never left his post in the daytime: not once in so many centuries.  But if there were a day to do it, this was that day.

“Come,” he said, offering his hand to Loki.  “Let me take you there and show it to you, I would like to.  You will need rest.”

Loki’s hand felt very small inside his.  “Am I going to live with you now, Heimdall?”

What would be more terrifying to a child: uncertainty or finality?  “If you are to stay somewhere that is not your home, would you like to stay with me?  I would like you to.”

Loki considered this, and let go of the glamour—surely without meaning to, because even at eight, the boy was nothing but pride and the longing to impress—in doing so, as if it took all his concentration, but then he said, “Yes.  Thank you,” with the perfect manners of the prince he no longer was.

Chapter Text

Heimdall’s rooms in the countryside were freestanding.  He knew they must seem miniature.  There was no library and only one bed.  They were the accommodations of a craftsman, not the second most powerful man in Asgard.

And they were dusty.  Cobwebbed.

Heimdall sighed at the state of it and took off his coat and began to clean.  Loki observed him with an attention to detail that bordered on fanaticism.  He must have been only peripherally aware that cleaning was a task at all, let alone one that Heimdall would stoop to perform himself.

The airing-out of the house stirred up spiders and beetles.  Heimdall watched to see if Loki would cringe from them, but he did not.  Instead, he let a beetle trundle its slow way across his hand.  When it was halfway over the path of his knuckles, he crushed it with his thumbnail.

“It would be unwise to make a habit of that,” Heimdall said.

Loki dropped the beetle’s corpse as if it had bit him.

“Make a habit of killing and you will grow into someone you will not like.”

“It was only an insect,” Loki said.

“It was an insect,” Heimdall agreed.  He let Loki hear the word he’d omitted.

Was he growing sanctimonious?  Should he not let the boy rage?  On today of all days, surely he had the right.  And Loki had begun learning the violent arts of Asgard before he’d even stopped dribbling milk down his shirtfront.  Odin had parted from his daughter enough to teach his sons that knives and axes and hammers may be tools too, but not so much as to not teach them that they were weapons first.  As were the princes themselves.

Loki disconcertingly picked up on this train of thought.  “You kill.”  His tone was accusatory.

Of course.  All children disliked hypocrisy.  And the statement was so simple as to be inarguable.

“You have me there.”  He took down the draperies.  “I could use your assistance with these.”

Loki seemed for some incomprehensible reason to find this an acceptable answer, or at any rate an acceptable diversion.  He nodded and allowed himself to be heaped with heavy, dusty fabric until his arms trembled.  Heimdall sent him outside to throw them over the clothesline.

“You do not have a laundry?” Loki said.

No, and until now, he had forgotten why not.  “Clothing dried by sunlight smells pleasant.”  He hadn’t thought of that in years.

He handed Loki a wooden racket.

“You’ll enjoy this, I think.  We beat the dust from the drapes and the rugs.  Swing as hard as you can.”

Loki took to the task with a savagery that twisted his face into a mask.  He thrashed whatever Heimdall put in front of him—first the curtains and then the rugs—until his arms and legs were shaking and his fingers could no longer easily grip the handle of the racket.  He was silvery with dust and kept sneezing.  Tear-tracks formed the cleanest spots of his face.

“That’s enough for now,” Heimdall said gently.  “There’s only so close they’ll come to being what they once were.”

Loki’s voice was a croak.  “I know what you’re really talking about.  I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’ve always been very clever.”  And of course he knew.  He was a remarkably gifted sorcerer for his age, and magic worked on symbols.

“Not clever enough to be kept,” Loki said.

He disappeared—quite literally—before Heimdall could even try to contradict that, and allowed himself to be first scryed and then seen only an hour later.  And then only by necessity, because he’d fallen asleep on the sofa.  Somewhere in the intervening time, he had bathed.

Heimdall had no notion of what to do with him.  He had never thought of having a child—for centuries, his life would never even have permitted it.  His gifts gave him a little insight, enough at least to know something of what Loki was feeling, but they gave him no advice.

He made them a small supper from the garden that had run a little wild in his absence and kept it warm until Loki woke.

Heimdall needed no special skills to read the boy’s face as he first blinked at the room around him.  Confusion, then remembrance, then grief and horror.  Lastly, determination.  He would not bow to his feelings, however big they were.  He would do his best now not even to acknowledge them, as if they were at the bottom of some dark cavern inside his soul.

Watchers disliked hidden things.

Loki sat at the table and said nothing.  He ate two mechanical bites and then put his spoon down, his face pale and rigid.

He said, “Why did you take me?”

Heimdall had steeled himself for many questions, but not that one.  He had no notion how to answer it.

Loki continued, “If you hadn’t taken me, he would have kept me.”

There was a chance that was even true.  Odin had, after all, said that it was only Heimdall he would trust to foster the boy.  The All-Father’s mind was a labyrinth, however, and another candidate would have been found eventually around some corner of that maze—of that Heimdall was almost certain.  Odin did not back down easily from what he had decided.  Even when what he had decided was ripping out half his own heart.

Maybe even especially then, because he would not want to seem a coward.

Half his heart, but all of the boy’s, Heimdall thought.  There’s no end to the pain this will cause.

He could not say, I tried to refuse.  I was commanded to take you.

He could not say, I want this little more than you do.

“I had—and have—no desire to hurt you,” Heimdall said.  “Never in a thousand years would I have gone to the All-Father and advised this action.  But it was his will.”  A gentler word, at least, than order.  “I would not have torn you away from them, but I would not thrust you away from me, either.  I have sometimes been your teacher.  Believe me that I would be your friend.”

“You prefer Thor,” Loki said.  “Everyone prefers Thor.”

If it was true that Heimdall’s opinion of the youngest prince had sometimes not been flattering—inasmuch as he had had one at all—his opinion of the older was not so much higher as to excite comment.  Loki had an unpalatable streak of dishonesty, yes, and he could be cruel, which was to say that he did the same damage as his brother but was more conscious of it and sometimes more enticed by it.  But Thor was arrogant and careless and, besides that, loud.  The princes had ever been each other’s shadows, and it was strange for him to think of one of them without the other, strange to consider them separately.

“I have always valued you and your brother equally.”

Loki gave him a look so deeply, scornfully incredulous that it aged his face by ten years at least.  Heimdall might have laughed at it if the circumstances hadn’t been so appalling.  “That’s impossible.”

“One may like winter over summer or summer over winter, true,” Heimdall said, “but that does not make it impossible to think both are the right seasons for their time, and like both.”

“I like autumn,” Loki said, presumably to be difficult.  “Who is autumn?”

“You’ll have to decide yourself and tell me.”

Loki stirred his food but did not begin again to eat it.  Heimdall watched his spoon move.

He said, “When you’re tired, the bedroom is yours.”

“No,” Loki said without inflection.  “I would like the sofa.”

Because it was temporary, Heimdall supposed.  There would come a time when he would have to push back against whatever pretending Loki was doing to get through this, but that time was hardly now.  He nodded.  He doubted he would sleep, being so unused to it, but if he did, his bones would be not ungrateful to Loki’s self-deception.


Will it be any simpler today?

Heimdall could answer himself there: That is a fool’s question.  Today it will be even harder, and tomorrow harder still.  It will go on getting worse until some morning far from now when it will be better, a little.  But it will not go on getting better and better the way it will go on getting worse and worse.  A scar is always a scar, an amputation always an amputation.

He opened his eyes to the pale, peach-colored light of an Asgardian dawn.  He was surprised he’d slept, though on reflection it seemed fair enough that the last day should have exhausted him as much as the last century.

He would need to return to the Observatory today.  Asgard had never gone unguarded for long: she had always had too many enemies for that.  How pleased those enemies would be to learn that the Gatekeeper had acquired a son, young and scared and needy.  It would be better for now if no word got out of his fostering the child.  But he was not sanguine about that.  Not even Odin could force a whole city to hold their tongues.

Though Odin had, assuredly, done better than most.  It was not every king who could come back from frost-bitten battle with an infant in his arms and convince his people the babe was his own by blood as well as affection.  Gungnir and Frigga both had worked that particular forgetfulness, Heimdall imagined.  But with each passing year, Loki had become more himself.  Memories of him were no longer wet clay—a pale and bawling babe in the All-Father’s arms, how else could it have gotten there but by the queen?—but hard and fired in their own particular shapes—the tagalong prince, he has Frigga’s own magic, not one thing he does is ever his fault.  Those memories might break and be lost completely, but they would not bend.

Which meant Heimdall would spend the whole of the day answering questions.

He would not have Loki overhearing them.

The boy was up already.  He’d tucked himself onto the window-sill and was conjuring grass-green butterflies just outside.

“Do they live, do you think?” Heimdall said as a greeting.  “Or do they only seem to?”

“They fall when I stop thinking about them,” Loki said.  “They wouldn’t do that if they were alive.”

“It’s independence that makes us live?”

He was thankful Loki was the kind of child to wrap himself in words for comfort, as though they were blankets.  Most would not have put up with these questions, at this hour especially, but Loki wrinkled his brow over them, thinking.  Heimdall had meant it when he’d said Loki was clever, but that was no compliment, only a fact.  The pleasure Loki took in bending that cleverness to a task—faint now, to be sure, but there all the same—was, however, praiseworthy.  Most people did nothing.

Loki finally said, “Not all independent things are alive, but all living things are independent.”  Heimdall almost smiled at the childish neatness of that, the perfect structure of it pulled directly from his rhetoric and logic teacher’s lessons.  “A rock is independent—if you leave it be, it stays.  It lasts longer than people.  But it’s not alive.  But anything alive keeps existing whether or not you care about it.”

A slight flare of danger there.  Heimdall didn’t know that it would be good to push that chain of reasoning further.  No good would come right now of them discussing abandonment.

So he said, “Would you like breakfast?”

His voice was maybe a shade too enthusiastic.  Loki gave him the irritated look of someone who knew he was being manipulated but could not see why.

“Yes?”

So Heimdall made them porridge.  Loki stayed as close to him as a shadow.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Loki said.

“You’ll not need to see me do it too many times to pick it up,” Heimdall said.  Though his experience of the princes was that teaching one of them a new skill led inevitably to something blowing up; he resigned himself to coming home to find the walls of the cottage spattered with a slurry of oats.  Dealing with chaos was to be expected.  Stranger was the thought of coming home at all.

“You’re going back to the city,” Loki said.

“Yes.”

It was as if the two of them had been playing a game together and Heimdall had upset the board and scattered the pieces.  Loki could, perhaps, deny why he was where he was.  He had been underfoot often enough in the past—the location had changed, but the rhythms of their conversations hadn’t.  But now Heimdall was leaving and would not return for many hours.  Loki would be alone in an empty house, and there was no precedent for that.

Was the boy too young to be left alone?  There were so many things Heimdall didn’t know.  He couldn’t imagine thrusting Loki upon an unsuspecting neighbor.  He hadn’t even spoken to any of them in years.

He had no resource other than Loki himself, and Loki’s face was now chalky and tight with the effort of trying not to cry.

With great discomfort, Heimdall said, “Come here, if you would,” and wrapped his arms around the boy, who shuddered against him like a fish pulled up onto land, all thrashing muscle and wet.  For a long moment, it only intensified the sound of Loki’s sobs, as if the semi-privacy of having his face pressed against Heimdall gave him some necessary permission to fall apart.  But eventually the sounds and shakes both eased.  Long, draggy sniffs began, and Loki wriggled away from him and produced a handkerchief from out of thin air and wiped his face.

He said, very stiffly, “I’m sorry, Heimdall.”

Heimdall shook his head.  “It would be unnatural for you to do otherwise.  You should not apologize.”

Loki received that information cautiously, as if Heimdall would snatch it away from him without notice.

“I realized,” Heimdall said, “how little I know you.  How little we know each other.  I’m sorry for that.”

“You should not apologize,” Loki said.  It was as close to a perfect, mocking impersonation of Heimdall as his as-yet-unbroken voice could manage.

It was good to see the old streak of brattiness in him.  He did not reprimand it.

“I have to trust you, Loki, as I hope you’ll trust me.  I don’t say that that will be easy for you.  But you have that independence you spoke of—enough stone in you to outlast changes.”  He put his hand on Loki’s head.  “But living, in your case.  Whether or not it feels like it right now.”

Loki ignored all that.  “Why must you trust me?”

“Because I don’t know children,” Heimdall said frankly.  “Not beyond what I’ve seen of you and your brother and your—”  Sister, he almost said.  “Friends.”  It was a believable conclusion, even if he’d had less dealing with the other children of Asgard than with the royal family.  “I need, a little, for you to tell me how to care for you.  With no lies.  Not when the matter is important.”

Loki said, “You should say no lies altogether.”

“I can forgive some lies,” Heimdall said.  Somehow this seemed safer to him than a flat warning against them.  As strange as the idea was, it gave Loki some untouchable areas of independence, as it were.  He used lies to shield himself, and he was in need of a shield just then.  And it was a way of extending his trust in a way that Loki could not mistake.

Also, Loki would lie to him whether he forbade lying or not.  He didn’t want to make a rule the boy would routinely break; that would make all other rules seem breakable as well.

He served the porridge.

“You know what is important and what is not,” Heimdall said.  “Don’t you?”

A tentative nod.  Silver-tongued or not, Loki was still a growing child, and his mouth at the moment was occupied with his breakfast.

“Truthfully, then, are you old enough to be left alone while I am in the city?  I’ll come back each night.  I can ask someone to look in on you for luncheon,” this occurring to him only now, “and to keep you company awhile, if you wish it.  I could take you to the Observatory with me, but I’m reluctant to do it.  There will be people.  Questions.  Or I could find someone to stay with you all day, or find someone with whom you can stay.  Those are the choices.”

He will say he wants to come to the Observatory, Heimdall thought.  It made a bleak picture in his mind.  If it were within his authority to shut the Observatory to guests—but of course it was not.  And he was in no mood to ask favors of Odin.

But Loki, to his surprise, said, “I am old enough to be alone.”

“You’re very young,” Heimdall said.

“You asked,” Loki said.  “You asked and I answered.  Truthfully.  I won’t set fires or flood the house or eat anything that’s not food, are there more requirements than that?”

“What will you do if someone comes and knocks?”

“Not answer.  I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

“Answer if it’s noon,” Heimdall said.  “That will be your luncheon.  Otherwise, yes, let them go away.”

This was, it occurred to him, Loki’s first real lesson in being something other than royalty.  A prince might, if eccentric, cook his own food or clean his own rooms, but he would not under any circumstances be allowed to refuse all guests.  Royalty belonged to the people.  Loki now belonged only to himself.

No.  He belongs to me as well.  It is my responsibility to remember that.

Being gone, Heimdall knew, would be no holiday for him.  All day long he would feel this new obligation like it was an ill-fitting clasp for his cloak: it would pull up tight against his throat and make him feel the weight it carried, make him feel as though he were suffocating.  Nothing to be done about that.

He cast a last, critical glance around the cottage.  It wouldn’t do for them now, would it?  It had been a fine retreat for one man who seldom used it, but however picturesque, it was a cramped place to raise a child.  He still wanted something simple—something that would discourage comparisons to the palace—but the simplicity could not be this small.  Loki would need a bedroom of his own.

And that only for a start.  There was no apparent end to the arrangements he would have to make.  Loki would need a tutor: at least that would solve the problem of his time alone.  Books.  A training master.  Toys—did children of that age still play with toys?  He suspected this was not an area in which he could expect Loki to answer him honestly.  Hardest of all, he would need friends.

One thing at a time.

He said, “The garden is good for exploration, if that interests you.  It’s grown up a little wild in all my time away, and you may well stumble upon things I know nothing about.  There are books on plant life on that far bookshelf there.  And all the books I have are yours to peruse.”  He had nothing entirely inappropriate for a child, thankfully.  There would be books Loki could not understand, but not books that would disconcert him or lead to impossibly awkward conversations.  “I have paper and charcoal, if you enjoy drawing.”

“Thank you.”

He wants me gone.  So he can cry?  Rage?  Just be alone?

It seemed as though there should be one last thing to say.  But he couldn’t yet honestly say the words all children longed to hear in goodbyes.

In place of that, he said, “My work will go differently now.  I’ll not leave you alone at night.”

“So you said.”

“I won’t be distracted, or forget you.”

“Thanks,” Loki said.  Eight year-olds should not have such vast reserves of sarcasm.

So that was how he left things.  He hardly felt good about it, but that only fit with his opinion that the day wouldn’t bring much good feeling in any case.

That was only confirmed when he reached the city.  He wasn’t even at his post before someone waylaid him.

“Heimdall!”

It was unfortunate that his duty meant everyone knew him by sight.  He halted but summoned up his most forbidding demeanor.  Question me overmuch, it was meant to say, and I, who see everything, will ensure you do not live to see another morning.

It worked at least a little, because the man who’d hailed him recoiled a step or two.  “Ah.  I don’t mean to keep you—”

“No,” Heimdall agreed.  “I’m sure you do not.”

“Is it true that the All-Father banished Prince Loki?”

“No.”  Whatever all this was, Heimdall was certain it didn’t count as banishment.  “And questions about the All-Father’s decisions had best, I think, go to the All-Father.  Otherwise it begins to seem like you’re fomenting rebellion.”

That sufficed to get him to the Observatory, which at this hour was still mercifully empty.  He settled into his most familiar position, standing and straight-backed; over time, his body had learned to hold this for longer than would ever have been possible for anyone else.  He had been truthful when he’d told Loki he’d gradually starved away the need for sleep, and he could have gone on and on with the list of what he no longer needed or else needed only whispers of.  He could have stood this way, unmoving, for a year.  He wouldn’t even have grown excessively bored, though he had often had cause to be grateful for company.

Now, all he wanted was quiet.  Quiet and comfort.  The Bifrost gave him that, curling up in his mind like a dog at his feet.  He wanted only to skim his attention out along it like a rock on a still pond, seeing what he could see, not even truly thinking.

...Except he still needed to find someone to visit Loki at midday.  He had promised not to grow distracted.  If he began breaking promises this early, he’d never gain the boy’s trust.

I could go myself.

Desert his post?  But it would only be for an hour—what more would an hour matter, with as much time as he would be absent now that Loki was in his keeping?  And wasn’t the boy his post as well, now?  He was more fragile than Asgard and had fewer defenders.

That thought settled the question.  Until he could find someone he trusted not to rile Loki further, he would come during the day himself.  He did not entirely need the Bifrost to see beyond—he could split his attention a little, at least for the journey there and back.  It felt reasonable under the circumstances, but he couldn’t shake his dislike for having to either neglect Loki or be cavalier with his work.  It was made an easier choice only because he knew which one would be his wish.  To watch was as much an instinct with him as to breathe; his role as Guardian had always been inseparable from his soul.  To guard Loki was less rewarding and more thankless.  He therefore had to choose it more, deliberately, so he would not unfairly choose it less.

Would he grow to love the boy?  It was hard to know.

Heimdall liked him—liked him almost despite Loki’s best efforts to wrap himself in thorns and chilled courtesy.  He was interesting, a compliment rarely given to children.  He could be talked to, puzzled over, bargained with.  He was a choosy, mercurial creature, unhappy by nature or at least by long establishment; that made his rare flashes of joy startling and even stunning.  Loki, occasionally achieving contentment, was a sight indeed.  Heimdall could recall seeing him curled up on a bench in the Observatory, toasty-warm himself but watching the gray lashings of rain outside.  He’d had a small smile on his face, then, relaxed and easy.  He’d been like nothing so much as a purring cat.  If it were always so, it would be no challenge at all to love him.  If it were always so, Odin would never have noticed the discontent that had so perturbed him.

That was a loathsome idea, true or not, and one that would never cross his lips.  He wouldn’t tell Loki that all would be different if he’d only been happier.  It would be easier and more merciful to slide his sword through the boy’s heart.

My son, he thought.  It did not yet feel true.  But there was something there: a foundation that could be built upon.

Into these reflections crashed—as was his wont—Thor.

Thor burst into the Observatory as though all the horrors of Hel were at his heels.  “Heimdall!”

Good boy.

He knelt quickly and caught an armful of Thor, who, at whatever age, was boisterous in both his happiness and his rage, and in either case prone to hurling himself against someone to prove it.  There was no prize now for guessing which.  Thor was doing his level best to pummel him.  Heimdall let him exhaust himself in it and then he held Thor at arm’s length and spoke to him steadily.

“He is safe with me.  You know that.”

“Bring him back.”

“I haven’t stolen him,” Heimdall said.  “What did your parents tell you?”

“Not to come here, not to trouble you.  I wasn’t supposed to leave at all.”  He didn’t explain how he’d gotten out: neither of the princes had ever troubled themselves with that.  They took for granted that they would get around whatever was meant to restrict them, and then they simply did.  “Father said Loki couldn’t live with us anymore.  And then he said it was too complicated to explain and he went on and on about the future, how we would be kings together.”

“Your father strives for that, yes.”

“I don’t care what we’re going to do hundreds and hundreds of years from now,” Thor said.  “I won’t be king at all, ever, if he doesn’t bring Loki back.”  His chin was up high, his eyes flashing: he meant that.  That certainty faltered as he added, “Let them get rid of us both.  I don’t care.”

He was lion-brave.  He did care, but there was no dishonor in that, and much honor in him coming here and saying all this; that he was a faithful brother augured that he would be a faithful king.

“If it were at all within my power to give you what you seek,” Heimdall said, “believe me, I would.”  To Thor, he was more brutally direct than he’d been to Loki.  “The All-Father forbids it.”

And he’d spoken of gossip as stirring up rebellion?  Turning the prince against the king was very nearly open treason.  Though if he could spur on Thor to appeal to his father, then there was a chance—

Do not play Odin’s own game against him, he cautioned himself.  You will lose.

No politics, then.  No tangle of schemes.  He put his hand on Thor’s shoulder.

“He is not any less your brother for living in a different house.  Your father cannot choose that for you.  A bond doesn’t break just because someone says it must.”

Thor rubbed at his eyes.  “We won’t break.”  As though he’d been given a personal challenge.

Heimdall could see Thor’s tutor in the distance—the woman had spotted them and was running over while trying to keep up the pretense that she was only walking.  It made her awkward and paradoxically slower, which brought Heimdall enough time to say, “When you have freedom to roam again, we will arrange a visit.  And you’ll have that freedom all the sooner if you don’t vex and frighten your parents by running away.  Do you understand?”

“You swear you’ll take me?”

“On Asgard and my honor.”

Thor judged that acceptable, though maybe only because he could see that his tutor was almost upon them.  He said urgently, “Tell Loki I won’t break it.”  Then he thrust something soft into Heimdall’s hands.

Whatever it was, Heimdall hid it by reflex alone, as if dealing with these two children had given him their distrust.  It was small enough that he could conceal it in a fist, and he was, luckily, the kind of man who could easily wear an expression that didn’t look at odds with a clenched fist.

Thor’s tutor joined them at last.  What was her name?  Vigdis?

“You are supposed to be inside,” she said to Thor.  “You’ll end by getting me beheaded.”

Thor rolled his eyes.  “We haven’t beheaded in anyone in four thousand years.”

“Good, then you do remember something from your lessons.  Would that you were ever there to learn them, you might be very passably educated.”  If she took in Thor’s reddened eyes, she said nothing about it.  “I don’t want to have to speak to your parents about this.  You’ll return now and we’ll pretend you never left.”

“Yes, Lady Vigdis,” Thor said.  His head wasn’t down: this was only a temporary compromise.

From the resigned-but-wry look on her face, Vigdis knew it.  “Off with you, Your Highness.  I need a word with the Gatekeeper myself.”

As soon as Thor was gone, Heimdall said, “He’s only angry and confused.”

“Only?  He’s angry and confused and frightened and heartbroken and a thousand other things.  Those boys have never lacked for feeling.”  She pressed her lips together.  “Loki is with you, is he not?  I think I’ve been told even less than Thor, as though I wouldn’t mind one of my two pupils suddenly going missing, as though I wouldn’t have questions, or dislike not being able to answer his.”

Without waiting for a response to any of this, she held out a book.  Her face was stiff with defiance, as if she were already girding herself for battle; as if Heimdall would refuse to take it.

It did in fact pose a little difficulty to accept it without revealing whatever Thor had already given him, but he managed it.  It was thick and gilt-edged but very battered, its corners softened into curves.  It was a history of the Nine Realms and to Heimdall’s recollection a somewhat dry one.

“It isn’t much,” Vigdis said.  “But I heard he left with nothing, and this is all I had of his.  He seemed to like it.”  Her eyes were dry and her voice plain and unsentimental, but her gaze lingered on the book.  “It’s not very good,” she added suddenly.  “It’s an… intentionally middling text, I suppose.  You give them the battles with Surtur and the conquering of the Frost Giants in gory color to catch their interest and then you start easing them into things like peace treaties and grain shortages.  And right in the middle, this, neither especially entertaining nor especially complex.  I was going to graduate him to something more difficult in just another month, something I thought he would like even more.  It’s like allowing them to have wine without mixing it with water.”

Heimdall briefly bowed his head to her.  “I will give it to him.  And I’m sure you have his thanks just as you have mine.”

“I’ll bring you more books for him,” she said.  “As I get them.”  She hesitated and then said, “Tell him to not let all this make him dull.”

He almost said he thought there was no danger of that, and then he realized that this was as close as she was going to come to asking him to tell Loki she missed him.  He nodded.

“Then I’ll return to the prince I have left,” she said tartly, and did so.

When he had his privacy again, he was finally able to look at what Thor had given him.

A little cloth cat.  Handmade lovingly but badly—the stitches were so wide that they’d let some of the stuffing escape—but not so badly he couldn’t tell at once what it was.  Big-tailed and russet-colored, like a forest cat, and unless he missed his guess, it had originally been much rounder, much more full of fluff.  Time and handling and flattened the little creature and bent one of its ears.  It was missing two whiskers.

At noon, he bore both cat and book home with great carefulness.

The house was still standing, which was something.  He found Loki sitting on the window sill again.  No butterflies this time.

Loki’s face wore no expression.  “You came yourself.”

“There was no one I wanted to ask.”

“You have status,” Loki said, as though explaining this to him.  “You have rank.  You order someone to go and they’ll go, you don’t have to ask.”

“Even so, there was no one I wanted to order.  I didn’t know who you would like.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He slung his pack down.  “It does.  What would you like for lunch?”

“Food.”

“All out of food.  Will refreshments do?”

It at least brought a little life back into the boy.  “You’re making fun of me.”

“Not very much.  And,” he added, remembering this particular retort from his own childhood, distant though that was, “you started it.  The pantry is bare at the moment, though, so it was as much truth as jest.  We could see what we can find in the garden or I could take you somewhere.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Loki said instantly.

Heimdall could have cursed himself bloody for saying something so thoughtless in the first place.  Of course Loki wouldn’t yet want to go out into the wider Asgard where he would be some tragicomic curiosity: the prince who had lost his crown, the son who had lost his parents, the child who had lost his home.  It made no sense to keep Loki out of the city and yet drag him all over the country, visible as a deer in a very avid hunt.  That this place had held peace and quiet for him didn’t make it free of eyes and ears and, worst of all, mouths.

None of that changed the fact that Loki would have to leave sometime.  He couldn’t stay in Heimdall’s cottage forever, a silhouette painted on the window, always watching for someone else to come to fetch him.  He would have to walk into a world that for him would now always be fashioned just a little out of knives.  He would have to learn to bear those cuts as the cost of being what he was, who he was.  It was an ugly and appalling thing to ask of anyone, let alone a child, but he would have to ask it nonetheless.

But not yet, surely.  He had done hard and bitter deeds before, so he did not think he was a coward, but he couldn’t—wouldn’t—right now take away what Loki still had of armor.

“No,” he said.  “That was ill-considered of me.  We’ll stay here.”

But Loki wasn’t listening.  Somewhere in his head, a storm had picked up, blowing his terror around and around without dispelling it.  “I don't even need to eat anything.  I’m not hungry.  I don’t want to go out.”

The window at least boosted Loki up to the height where it was easier for Heimdall to gently raise the boy’s chin and cause their eyes to meet.

“I said the wrong thing.  A stupid thing.  Of course you don’t want to go out somewhere.  I’ll replenish our supplies by tonight so we’ll have more choices in the future, but for now, why don’t we just repeat last night?  Unless you disliked it.”

The look on Loki’s face said he had no memory of all of what he’d eaten last night, but he said, “Thank you.  Yes.  Thank you.”

I would that you were not afraid of me.  You weren’t before.  Not that I’d like you to again make yourself into a horse to stampede halfway across the Bifrost bridge before you could be corralled and coaxed back into being a boy again—and how did the queen manage that, again?  It might be useful to know.  I don’t court trouble, but I’d choose it over terror.

But you couldn’t ask a rabbit not to run from you.  Not if it had good reason of late to fear heavy footsteps.

He’d intended to give Loki the book and the cat at the end of his visit, with the idea that that would grant Loki the freedom to react to them however he liked, since Heimdall’s back would be turned, but now Loki might need a distraction more than he needed freedom.

He chose the book first.  “I met the Lady Vigdis today.  She wanted you to have this—she said you liked it.”

Loki received the book in total silence.  Then there was a soft, wheezing creak as he opened it and the cover settled into its new position, relaxing along its already broken spine.  He flipped gently through its pages.  Heimdall could see some of Loki’s own handwriting in the margins.  There were other parts he’d underlined or annotated only with massive question marks.  Then Loki started letting the pages whir off his thumb in a skimming buzz, and Heimdall saw why: he, or perhaps Thor, had drawn pictures in the corner.  The turn of the pages made a little ink bird fly down and snatch up a mouse.  He’d gone to the trouble of finding red ink for the mouse’s blood, too, which showed a certain level of commitment.

Another such series showed a warrior waving a sword around until he accidentally cut off his own head.  A third, less bloodthirsty and strangely melancholy, showed a sunset.

“Did you do those yourself?”

Loki shook his head.  “Thor.  Instead of paying attention, Lady Vigdis says.  He surprises me with them.”  There was an agonizing pause.  “He surprised me with them.  Would surprise me with them.”

“He may surprise you yet.  Lady Vigdis met with me because she’d been chasing after Thor.”

Loki looked up, his thumb pressed hard against the setting sun.  “You saw Thor?”

“He slipped his leash, as the two of you so often do, and came to accost me for stealing you.”

“He knows you didn’t,” Loki said.  He squeezed his eyes shut.  “Father—the All-Father—the King—he told him.  You didn’t steal me, they gave me away.”

“Shh,” Heimdall said gently.  But he had nothing to say to follow it.  What Loki had said was true, and any refinement Heimdall could make on it—that they had given him up rather than away, that it had cost them something to do it—seemed beside the point, irrelevant to this child with his face scrunched-up with misery.  So instead he said, “Thor did not give you up, and won’t.  Don’t let go of him, either.  When I can, I’ll bring him here to visit you.”

He took out the cat.

“He sent this for you.”

Loki opened his eyes, making tears roll down his face.  “My cat?”  His voice so incredibly young.  No philosophy here, no sense of irony.  He took it, rubbing circles into its matted cloth fur with his thumb.

“Did he make that for you too?”

“When we were little.”

“He says he won’t break the bond you have,” Heimdall said.

Loki remained still for a moment and then dug his fingers into the toy, making more stuffing bleed from its side.  “He’ll forget.  He always forgets.”  He ripped out one of the cat’s few remaining whiskers and held it up to Heimdall, brandished it like a sword he was ready to fall on.  “He gets what he wants and now he has everything.”

But then his face wobbled and he broke, bending forward as if his stomach suddenly hurt and trying to push the whisker back into the cat’s face, where it would not go.  His sobs were noisier and more frantic than Heimdall had ever heard them and this time he didn’t ask Loki to come forward to him, he just held him, Loki sliding shakily off the window sill and into the circle of Heimdall’s arms.

“Shh,” Heimdall said again, more sensibly this time.  “Shh.  We’ll fix it.”

“I broke it, I hurt it.  Don’t tell him I hurt it.”

“I won’t.  I never will.”  He patted Loki’s back, unsure what else to do.  “He’s telling the truth, Loki.  Whatever happens, you will always have your brother.”

“I want my mother,” Loki said in a small voice.

There was no possible answer to that.  Frigga was no hostage to another’s choice; she had agreed, of her own free will, to go along with what her husband decreed.  She could else have spirited Loki away.  Would that have been better or worse?  Only witches knew the outcomes of things, but he thought… better.  Even that would have been better than this, for it at least wouldn’t have ended in this.  This orphan whose parents yet lived.

“I know.”  What a useless thing to say.  “I know you do.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until the next day that Heimdall knew what story Odin All-Father had given out to explain his abandonment of his son.  A delay uncharacteristic of Odin, truthfully, because he was by long habit a man who liked to have his justifications inseparable from his confessions.

Heimdall had never judged him for this before.  It was that quality that had heaved them out of the generations and millennia of conquest and bloodshed; had Odin not needed to be good, the Aesir—and Heimdall among them—would have eventually eaten up the Nine Realms like locusts glutting themselves on a harvest.  Give your ambitions vaulted ceilings and you allow the possibility of hiding your secrets among the rafters.  That was what it was to be a king, what it was to have any power at all.  Control.  Concealment.  They’d owned the Realms because the darkness between the stars was clear glass to those who held the Bifrost, and Heimdall was Watchman rather than king because it was only Odin, and before him only Bors, who had been able to hide from his gaze, who had constructed a palace that could abide even his attention.

Now, though—

Now he thought that, watch Loki though he might, he would never own him.  And now he thought that if Odin’s decision to slip this foundling son of his into Aesir skin had brought them here, the lies and secrets had lost their gilt edges, had lost their feeling of necessity.  For the first time, he wondered where honesty would have put them.  In a weaker place, no doubt.  But all the same.

All the same, he could not hear the story of Loki Odinson without a chill going through his blood.

“Loki is still a prince,” Odin had said to those who’d finally summoned the courage to ask him.  “Still a prince, but not of Asgard, no.  He was born to hold another realm, one Heimdall alone can teach him to see and understand.  Loki has always had great magic—that has made him older than his years, old enough to bear at last the weight of the truth, that he is not, and never has been, a son of my blood.  I brought him up joyfully.  I grieve to see him go.  But I cannot raise two kingdoms in one household, and what must be done, must be done.  He will, I staunchly hope, always be a friend of Asgard, always be our devoted ally.  When he comes into his power, we will forge an alliance greater than any the Nine Realms have ever seen.  And until that day comes, he is under the protection of the crown and Mjolnir itself.”

Only then, it was said, had Odin’s perfect control faltered.

He had said gruffly, “Loki will always be beloved of this family,” and that was both the kindest and the cruelest part: that Loki would always be beloved, that he was no longer of that family.

It had a certain finesse, Heimdall had to admit.  Odin’s gravity forbade impertinent questions about what realm exactly Loki was supposed to someday rule, leaving people to debate it amongst themselves—Midgard, perhaps?  Or, considering Heimdall’s role, some place yet unknown?—and giving them no grounds to suspect Loki’s true form and heritage.  The speech explained and yet said nothing.  All it did was create the impression of immense mystery around this Loki, this exile prince of Somewhere, this boy the All-Father already spoke of making into an ally.  As if he were not a boy at all, but merely pending power.

It was clever.  And it exculpated where it needed to, and it did that through the only real lie in all of it, the only part that Heimdall could, even to himself, admit to disliking.  Loki was not older than his years.  Loki was a child.  A prince, yes, and that distinction had ever made its bearers peculiar, but a child nonetheless.  Young enough to sleep with a cloth cat underneath his pillow for safekeeping—Heimdall was careful not to let on that he knew this—and young enough, very certainly young enough, for all of this to turn him steadily and decisively to hatred and rage.

His scant collection of pottery dishes had not survived Loki’s second day alone.  That was fine: let him smash things.  The cat still had its remaining whiskers, and he judged the cat to be a better indication of Loki’s mind.

Still, did he speak of the damage or not?  When would he go from dealing with immediate, moment-to-moment panic and parenting in a more common sense?  Or was that all parenting was?

I have neglected to make enough friends, he thought, tired enough to find all this something of a joke.  I have no one I can interrogate on these matters.

He said, “I don’t mind you breaking things.  Not now, anyway.  But if you break them, at least pick their pieces up off the floor.  I’m older than you are and less inclined to spend half my time stooped down.”

Loki stared at him, a mulish message clear—What if I don’t?  What would you do?—but while he would probably test that idea someday, he didn’t add to the immediate complications.  He bent and started picking the shards from out of the rug.

Heimdall studied his process and then got down to help.

Loki started snatching up the pieces like a bird starved for seed.  “I can do it.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?” Loki said, snottily and senselessly.

Fine, then: Heimdall sat back and watched him.  He didn’t even interfere when Loki accidentally cut his thumb open on an especially sharp piece.  Loki sucked the blood away, wincing, and went back to his work, leaving little bloodstains on the carpet, small red circles.

Moment-to-moment panic.  His now, not the boy’s.  He’d prefer it if Loki would smash things and cry, because at least he knew how to deal with that.  Anything rather than this mean, intractable misery.  He wished he could break through it, but anything he could think to bring up would be something Loki would reject while in this mood.  He might even have hidden the cat under his pillow to hide it from himself, from his next fit of spite.

“Do you watch me when you’re not here?” Loki demanded out of nowhere.

“No.  Should I?”

“You watch me all the time when you are here, so it only makes sense that you’d do it when you’re not, since you still can.”

“I turn my attention to those who ask for it, or to enemies of Asgard.  Or else across entire worlds.  I’m a gatekeeper, not a spy, and least of all would I spy on you.  Though if you call out to me, I’ll always answer.”

“You worried about me being alone.”

“I did,” Heimdall said patiently.  “And you said you were capable of it, and I trusted you.”

“I could have been lying.”

“We’d established you wouldn’t lie when it mattered that you not.  And besides, you made a good case for yourself.  I don’t know what danger you could plausibly put yourself in that you wouldn’t be clever enough to find your way out of.”  That seemed dangerously open.  “Not, at any rate, in this house.  In that span of time.”

“I don’t understand you,” Loki said.

He no longer sounded as strident.  It was like a seam had burst and the anger had, at least for the moment, spilled out of him.  All that was left was defeat, and Heimdall wasn’t sure that was better.  Loki just waved his hand and magicked the shattered dishes out the open window and into the rock-bed in the garden.  Clever.  Heimdall hadn’t even known the boy had noticed it was there.

“I’m sorry for breaking your dishes.”  Listless.

“Did it help?”

Loki considered the question and then shook his head.

“That’s a shame.  If we’re going to have to make new ones, I at least wish the old had been spent on something useful.”

“You know how to make dishes?”

The strangest things intrigued the boy.  Dishes, porridge.

“I am no potter.  Given clay and a wheel, I could make a disc or two, but only very, very misshapen ones.  Very lumpy.  But we have wood outside, and I’m handy enough with that.  For someone who hasn’t done it in a hundred years, at least.  Bind me up and take me to a physician if I cut off my hand by mistake.”

“I’ll do my best,” Loki said gravely.

Heimdall couldn’t tell whether or not he was smiling.  Probably not.  It was probably weeks too soon to hope for that.  But he would settle for this flash of interest, for the way Loki had at least briefly escaped his own unhappiness.


“Could you stand to meet someone new?” Heimdall asked.

It was some days after the wholesale destruction of his crockery.  Loki had watched him craft the new set, his attention careful enough and serious enough that Heimdall had decided to explain what he was doing as he did it: here the examination of the wood grain, here the sanding away, here the rubbing-in of the linseed oil to stain it.  Heimdall gifted him a knife good for whittling and Loki pointedly ignored it for an entire day before taking it up and spending, so far as Heimdall could tell, most of his day trying to make things and cutting his fingers doing it.  He was valiantly striving for a horse and coming closer to a dollhouse’s table.

Heimdall generally held back from offering him advice on it.  He was hardly an expert himself.  And, though still less of an expert on Loki, he was beginning to be able to tell when Loki would take guidance and when he would sooner bite the fingers off any hand outstretched in help.

Now, hearing his question, Loki looked up from where he’d been puzzling out the neck of his misshapen horse.  “Why?” he said suspiciously.

“Because I would like to stop leaving you alone during the day.”

“You don’t have to come here at noon,” Loki said.  “We have food now, I can find something on my own.”

“I didn’t say I’d like to stop coming here for your luncheon,” Heimdall said with fraying patience.  “I said I’d prefer for you not to be alone.”

“I like being alone.”

“Nevertheless,” Heimdall said.  He was aware that this was not exactly an argument.  But he didn’t want to command Loki to tolerate company: didn’t want, this early, to tell him he must do anything.  The house had the atmosphere of always simmering on the edge of outright warfare between the two of them, held in check only by his caution and Loki’s remaining courtesy.  At his most rational, Loki didn’t blame Heimdall for their situation.  At his least—and as a child, he had more “least” than “most”—he was exuberantly willing to strike out at anyone at all.

“Nevertheless,” Loki mocked.

“Don’t do that.”

“Don’t do that.”

Heimdall raised his eyebrows.  “This is beneath you.  Beneath, in fact, anyone who is no longer a toddler.”

He had at first been grateful that Loki had kept his more irritating qualities.  Even now, he thought it boded well that the boy hadn’t let himself be molded into some perfect, toothless son.  He just wished Loki would deploy his skills for annoyance more selectively.

He regretted it as Loki tucked his knees closer to his chest, wrapping his arms tightly around them, like compressing himself into the smallest possible ball would keep him from being noticed.  “I take it back,” he said, which was more worrying than any pettiness.  It was just as small, just as young, but more powerless.

“I don’t look to hurt you,” Heimdall said softly.  “Either by taking away something you value or by scolding you.  Would you accept a compromise?  Mornings to yourself and afternoons with company, or the other way around?”

Loki hesitated and then moved his chin just a little.  “Mornings to myself.”

“Thank you.”  He grazed his hand over Loki’s head, unsure of himself, but Loki didn’t seem to mind it.  And should he content himself with a single victory or press on?  He needed to raise the question of the house.  Warily, he did.  “You’re cramped here.  I’d like to see you with your own bedroom, space for your own books.  For that horse, when you’re done with it.”

He expected open revolt.  Loki was, after all, still sleeping in the front room, and Heimdall, still unused to slumber, would sometimes get up in the night and find that the boy had migrated from the sofa to the rug in front of his bedroom door.  It couldn’t have been comfortable, and would have been even less so if Heimdall had stepped on him, but he still would not take the bed.  Heimdall suspected he was locked in a battle with himself over it, one wherein defeat was admitting that this was all permanent.

But to his surprise, Loki said, “You mean… make the cottage bigger?”

He hadn’t, actually, considering the time and work of it; a new home would be the easier solution.  But there was a rare strain of hopefulness in Loki’s voice that he couldn’t turn away from.  “If you like.”

“There’s space off the west wall.  Or to the front.”

He wasn’t considering the back, though Heimdall owned more land in that direction: so he did like the garden after all, and wouldn’t see it turned up and paved over.

“It would be your room,” Heimdall said carefully.  “You can decide.  We could build up as well as out, if you like that better.  Think it over.  And while you’re feeling agreeable, come for a walk with me so we can introduce ourselves to neighbors and see if one of them would be willing to look in on you in the afternoon, or else host you.”

“I didn’t know you meant right now.”  But Loki did uncoil from his seat and stand.  His face was stiff and white, his mouth immobile, but he was trying and Heimdall was proud of him for it: it would have been easier to not.  And even easier than refusing would be to comply only with viciousness.  Loki’s fear of this was concealed—badly—but not festering.

“I’m not sociable myself,” Heimdall admitted.  “Else I would know them already.  But I believe they will be kind.”

“And if they are not?”

“If they merely annoy us, I would remain polite and ask that you do the same.  If they are truly uncivil…”  He did not know.  If they destroyed what little equilibrium Loki had obtained, he didn’t entirely trust himself to govern his anger.  “In that case you will wait for me outside while I speak to them in a way children are not generally permitted to hear.”

That was the first smile he was sure of—small and fleeting, but there.  “I know all those words.”

“Because you eavesdrop,” Heimdall said, opening the door and ushering Loki out into what remained of the sunlight.  It was coming up on autumn, the days shortening and the air taking on a bite, and Loki shivered minutely before summoning himself a long, bottle-green coat.  It was a good thing he had a gift for that, because his clothes, if they were coming, had yet to come.  He had been cycling through the same few garments he kept in the nowhere-space his magic let him reach into, and Heimdall had laundered them without saying anything about it, but the season was changing and Heimdall was tiring of holding his tongue.  He would need to seek an audience with Odin to ask why Loki’s clothes hadn’t been sent after him.

Clothes and books, at least, he decided.  He had bought Loki a few books, but in each case it had been like handling a bomb, not knowing whether he was going to give the boy something he already associated with his old home, something he’d already owned.

Once, he would have spoken privately with Odin as a matter of course, but no more: the All-Father avoided him and did not seek his counsel, trusting only that Heimdall would reach him in case of real danger to Asgard.  Once, he’d been Odin’s right hand and closest advisor.

And once he had not dreaded their conversations as he already dreaded this one.

Well.  He would have to take things vexation by vexation.  Hadn’t he already decided that?

“Pick a direction,” he said to Loki.

“Left.”

They turned left.

“You really don’t know them?” Loki said.  “Any of your neighbors?”

“I know I have them.”

Loki looked, of all things, disapproving.  “Father says you should know everyone in—”  He stopped.

Heimdall, seeing the way the child had gone still and pale, like some soapstone carving, was reckless: “If he is still your father to you, he is still your father.  You can call him that in my hearing and I’ll tell no one.”  He didn’t know what Loki had been telling himself to get through the days, but he suspected it all still rested on a great and willful forgetting.  He was with Heimdall, whom he’d known his whole life, and if he could only lose track of why…  He shouldn’t give Loki permission to deny the truth, but he couldn’t bear the look on his face.

But Loki said, “No.”  The word as final as death.  “He isn't.  He gave me away.  I hate him.”

It was treason to hate the king, or at least to profess that hatred, but Heimdall said nothing.  He only thought, It would be cleaner if you did.  It would be easier for you.

Victory enough, most likely, that Loki didn’t go on to say he hated the queen and the prince as well.  Even Odin himself might agree.

For some time there was nothing but the sound of their footsteps on the path and then Loki said, “Who am I supposed to be?”

That had too many possible answers for Heimdall to feel confident in any of them.  “What do you mean?”

“When you introduce me to people.”

“They may already know who you are, more or less.  And by now they’ll know what the All-Father told them of your departure from the city.”

Loki turned his face up to him, questioning.  Heimdall hadn’t realized—though he should have—that the story Odin gave to the public could be different from the one he’d given to Loki in private.  And he hadn’t realized Loki was old enough to think of that himself.

He could not have Loki hearing it from anyone else, that was certain.  Though he hated that every time things between them seemed easier, there was something new to stumble over or some fresh bruise to discover.  He said, “They will know you for a prince, though not of Asgard, and they will know you are under the protection of the crown, though in my keeping.  They won’t know what realm Odin intends for you, for that he has not yet proclaimed.”  Weasel words that allowed him to obscure that he still knew, but this conversation was chancy enough already.  “They’ll know you have considerable skill at magic, which may work to your advantage, putting them on their best behavior.  No one wishes to be turned into a frog.”

There would be no second smile today, apparently.

“What did he tell you?”

“That he loved me,” Loki said bitterly.  “That he wasn’t and couldn’t be my father, even though he wanted to be.  It’s a lie.  He’s a liar.  He’s king, he can do whatever he wants.”

“That’s true only of the worst of kings,” Heimdall said, less because he wanted to defend Odin and more because he wanted Loki, if he did inherit Jotunheim, to rule it well.

“If I’m not his son, whose am I?  Or am I the queen’s bastard?  Loki, son of no one?”

This time it was Heimdall who halted.  “Never think you come from no one.  And there’s no shame in knowing only your mother—I knew only mine, numerous though they were.  I’d take the word ‘bastard’ off your tongue if I could, but not because you are one.  That I don’t know.  Only because it’s seldom used for anything but cruelty.”

Loki heard all of this and none of it.  “Then I’m not her son, either.”

“You are her son if she claims you so, or you do.”

“You always say that.”

“Truth is often boring in its consistency,” Heimdall agreed.  “But I can’t change my thinking just because you’re tired of it.”  He studied the branches of the trees: here gnarled, here strangely smooth, bark like paper, bark like half-molten steel.  “I will not give you up.  You may be sure of that.”

“I’m not.”

Heimdall could hardly fault him for that.  “All the same.  So that is who you are supposed to be, and you are young enough that others have made choices to shape that answer.  Who you are is your choice alone.”  He didn’t know what to do with the boy except constantly weigh him down with profundity and sometimes try to persuade him to laugh.  A clumsy strategy but not, maybe, a bad one.  Loki seemed the kind to need both philosophy and jokes.

And he did absorb this with a solemn look on his face and a period of silence until they came up upon the first house.  Then fear took over.

“I don’t want to,” Loki said quietly.

“I know.”  Heimdall put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.  How small he was, how narrow, how light.  The world didn’t seem made for children so young, so ready to break.  “But will you?”

Loki exhaled through his nose and for an instant, he was the prince Heimdall had always known, clever and needy and sometimes insufferable.  “What do I get if I do?”

Heimdall smiled.  “My thanks and the satisfaction of knowing you haven’t been a brat.”

“Really, though.”

What do you want? Heimdall almost asked, but that would have been a phenomenally ill-chosen question under the circumstances.  “Cake.”

“What kind of cake?”

“How far do you intend to push this?”

Loki folded his arms and raised his eyebrows.  “You’re the one who wants me to have company.  I want to be alone so—so I don’t have to see anyone.”

Heimdall didn’t miss the pivot he’d done, but he was for the moment less interested in it than the fact that Loki was at least deliberately acting like a child, and not a child whose life had been dashed on the rocks.  He didn’t want to veer away from this game—and it did feel like a game—into, again, questions of hurt and lies.  “Almond.”

“I don’t like almond cake.”

“Yes, you do.  And carefully consider whether or not you want to argue that you’ve changed your tastes completely, because that could mean looking at no almond cake at all in the immediate future.”

In the end, Loki agreed to almond cake with strawberries, though this didn’t stop him from hanging off Heimdall as close as a shadow while Heimdall knocked at the door.  Heimdall looked down at him.  “No answer means no cake,” he said, while really meaning, I won’t let them wrong you, you have my word.  He should not think an eight year-old would understand, though if one would, it would be this one, who seemed to think in corkscrews.

The man who answered the door was made mostly of wide shoulders and an enormous red beard.  “Gatekeeper,” he said, pleasantly enough.  “What brings you by?”

“I’m sorry,” Heimdall said, “I don’t know—”

Loki coughed, or, more accurately, used the cough as a thin disguise to say, “Volstagg!” very loudly.

Volstagg’s mouth contorted with holding back a laugh.

“Volstagg,” Heimdall said, with equal restraint, “I know I’ve not been much of a neighbor, but having Loki—as you see—has brought me here more often.”

“I do see.  Hello.”

“My lord,” Loki said, dipping his head.

“I’m no lord,” Volstagg said.  “My name will do just fine, and I believe you know it.”  He laughed.  “Which does impress me, I’ll admit.  This being the most I’ve ever talked with a prince.”

“I’m not a prince anymore,” Loki said swiftly.

Volstagg eyed him, curious, but then shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.”  He added to Heimdall, “When it comes to kids, you choose your battles more carefully than you do as a fighter.  You’ll learn that if you haven’t already.  What’d you do to get him here?  Because if I were him, I’d be cowering in a corner.”

“I don’t cower,” Loki said, offended.

“I said he could have cake,” Heimdall said.

“Good boy,” Volstagg said to Loki, approvingly.  “Never hurts to get the upper hand where you can, does it?  And I’m sure you don’t cower.  Heartiest apologies.  Anybody could see you’re not that kind.  I’d invite the two of you in but it’s a damn madhouse in there and no mistake.  Come and sit out here with me and we’ll get to know each other a little.”

Heimdall could never have duplicated that rough-and-tumble good nature, but he liked it; Volstagg was a fixture of Asgard even if he was no one Heimdall had really spoken to before.  Good battle and good beer and good wives or husbands made men like him, and Asgard had all those things in abundance.  So, with a glance at Loki to make sure the boy wasn’t startled by this—far from it, some of the tension had even bled out of his face—Heimdall let Volstagg usher them to the base of a huge tree.  Volstagg took a seat in the fork of its roots, careless of the dirt, so Heimdall followed.  He saw Loki glance up at the branches; Volstagg saw him, too.

“You can climb that if you like,” he said.  “If my youngest can manage it, you can.”

“May I, Heimdall?” Loki said.

A good day for them, Heimdall decided, despite all the trouble of it.  “You may.”

Loki scampered up the tree with the agility of a squirrel and then, when he could go no higher because the branches were too thin to support him, frowned until his forehead wrinkled and then became a squirrel so he could go higher still.

Volstagg, watching him, whistled.  “That’s apt, for a boy his age.  But then I always did hear he could do… things.  The queen tutored him herself, didn’t she?”

“She did.  He seems to have been a worthy student.”

“I will not ask what passed to leave you with him,” Volstagg said, his rumbling voice a little lower now.  “Royal business is royal business and I know enough to leave it alone unless I’m told about it.  What you’re here for, though, that I’m curious about.  Looking to make him some friends?”

“That’s more of a long-term hope,” Heimdall said, watching Loki’s tiny claws dig into the tree bark as he skittered around on the treetop.  “I don’t know how much use he has at the moment for society.  And children are not known for their tact—and this one’s not known for his restraint.  If they offend him, or if he doesn’t like them, I’m afraid he’ll show it.  Adamantly.”

“Stabbed Prince Thor, didn’t he?”

“In play.”  He was surprised by the defensiveness in his voice.  “No worse than either of them would get on the training field.”

“Except it wasn’t on the training field,” Volstagg said.

No.  And that did matter, and Heimdall knew he couldn’t pretend otherwise.  Loki’s penchant for bloodshed was no worse than that of any other Asgardian boy his age; the trouble was that he was indifferent to circumstances, to unwritten rules.  He didn’t understand that his tricks and lies weren’t seen as cleverness but as untrustworthiness, sneakiness.  The little god of lies, Heimdall had heard people call him.

“He’ll learn what’s better at some times than others,” Heimdall said.  “But all of which is to say no, I didn’t come here to find him playmates.  I’m looking instead for a neighbor who might be willing to drop by in the afternoons on occasion to make sure he’s breathing and hasn’t burned the house down.”

“I can do that,” Volstagg said.  He looked up.  “And test the waters by bringing over someone his own age, at least a time or two.  If that’s all fine by you, little squirrel.”

Loki chittered at them, clambered down the tree, and then groomed himself for a moment before transforming back.  “Yes, thank you.”

He was visibly tired, his hair askew no matter how much he’d pawed at it in squirrel-form, his magic not translating perfectly across bodies, and Heimdall thought that meant it was time for them to go.  He thanked Volstagg and bid him farewell—Loki politely did the same—and the two of them set off for home.

Loki said, “I will not burn the house down.”

“Ah, you say that now, but if it somehow seems opportune…”

“I will not.  I know…”  He hesitated.  “I know what not to do.  I don’t want to hurt anyone.”  A recalibration: “I can keep myself from hurting anyone, if I need to.  Thor’s just bigger, so I thought it didn’t matter.  Is that why the All-Father—”

“No.  That had nothing to do with it.”  He doubted this was true, but falsehood or not, saying anything else would be pure cruelty.  “The All-Father does things for his own reasons and always has.  He does not do anything for now: he aims always at the final consequence of his actions and trusts that he sees it well.  He often does, and has saved Asgard in doing so, but it makes him hard to understand.  Sometimes it makes him hard to forgive.  And he forgets that others don’t look at their lives that way.  What he did is not because of you.  And,” he added, because he doubted this going on much longer would work well for either of them, “I had promised you cake.”

“I’m not hungry.”  Loki targeted a rock and kicked it.

Well, he had been right enough, though he’d waited too late to change the subject.  He tried again.  “What do you—”

“Who are your mothers?” Loki said, apparently preferring his own questions to Heimdall’s.

“I have nine.”

“That seems unconventional.”

“Somewhat.  It was done more often then, when I was young.”  When there had been Hela, the King’s Executioner, shining bright in her darkness, and the Valkyries, the Throne’s Protectors, clothed in steel and gold.

“Didn’t you need a father?”

“To be born, yes, but not to be raised.  Nine mothers is enough for any child—you can imagine how little mischief I was able to get up to.  I suppose they taught me that close watching prevents much harm, or at least Mother Freydis always took credit for my profession, having once stopped me from burning my hand on the stove.”  He hadn’t thought of that in years.  “She is still alive and may tell you the story herself.  Freydis, Hallsa, and Brynn—they are who is left of my family.  They’ve settled off Asgard.”

“Why would anyone settle off Asgard?”

“It’s a wide universe,” Heimdall said dryly.  “More people live elsewhere than here, especially when you put them all together.  And they’d lost much here.  To be so often widowed… I believe they only wanted another place, one with fewer memories.”

It had been many years since he’d seen last seen them.  He had not minded that until now, thinking of it, but had only taken for granted that that was the way of the lives they had all chosen: their choice to leave Asgard, his choice to give his life to it.  He saw them on the rare occasions they returned.

“Do you visit them?” Loki asked, as if hearing Heimdall’s thoughts.

“Who would open the Bifrost for me to return, if I did?”

“I don’t know.  Someone.  You turn a sword around, I think somebody else could do it for a change.”

He was surprised into a snort of laughter.  “All-Fathers preserve us, I hope others think more highly of my work than you do.”

“I’m sorry, Heimdall,” Loki said, but it lacked the despondency of his usual apologies: there was a bright flash of humor there underneath it all, like a bit of gold seen in a muddy riverbed.  “I’m sure it’s a very heavy sword.”

Heimdall gave him a light, playful cuff against his head.  “Brat.”

A very good day, he thought again.  Maybe it was lucky for him that Loki’s moods flowed faster than mercury.  This normalcy was fleeting, but the pain that followed it could be banished, too, if less easily.  Maybe it meant that there was hope for the two of them after all.

Chapter Text

So: Odin.

Heimdall had asked for a private audience and the All-Father, knowing that no grievance or request of Heimdall’s now would be fit for public consumption, had wisely granted him one.

The king had aged centuries since Heimdall had last seen him, as if his ravens of Thought and Memory had scored those new lines deep in his skin with their own sharp talons.  He had much to think of, no doubt, and much to remember.

If having children aged you, giving them up must age you all the more, and Odin now had given up two.  Grief had exhausted him and guilt had poisoned his blood.  He had, within the last few weeks, grown old.  And for all the anger Heimdall bore him, he still could not stand to see him so.  What good did your plan do, All-Father, he wanted to ask, except to me?  And even now I might turn back the clock and restore the boy to you, for his good and yours, were it within my power to do so.

“My king,” Heimdall said, bowing his head.

“How is he?”  Odin’s voice was mangled.  No more the polished statesman who had put his story on the record, no more the ponderous king who had thrashed his way through the obstacles, however beloved, between him and the future he had chosen.  Only a father now, a father who missed his youngest son.

“How would you have him be?  It is a day of wonders when I can get him to smile.  He is frightened and furious and heartbroken.  He doesn’t understand your choice and I cannot explain it to him.  If he finds out now where he’s from, what he is… all he will know of his people is that they are called monsters and that his punishment for being one was to be thrown away.”

“That is not true.  That is not what I have done.”

“It will be true to him,” Heimdall said.  “I need time to make it not so, if that can ever be done at all.”

“Yes,” Odin said.  He half-covered his face with his hand.  “I understand that.  You will have all the time you need.  Very few know the circumstances of Loki’s birth, and if any breathe a word of it without your assent, they will neither breathe another, nor ever breathe at all.  My position on this is absolute.”

In that regard, at least, it must be pleasant to be a king: to know without question that you could kill anyone who hurt your child.

Or the child you would no longer claim.

“I did not come to accuse you,” Heimdall said, more quietly now.  “Though my temper leads me to that.”  And I would have trouble begging your pardon for it.  “I wanted to ask for Loki’s things.  His clothes, his books.  His toys, if he has them.”  He still had not resolved that last issue to his satisfaction.  “And whatever else there is.”

“His mother—”  Odin caught himself.  “Frigga wept when we first tried: wept to see him go out with nothing but wept to try to fill a trunk for him.  I thought—if it were done all at once, swiftly, the pain would be less, but there is no way to make it less, it seems.  She cannot let him go.  Nor can Thor.  And that… that was what I wanted, more or less.”

Of course it was.  Heimdall should have known better than to think he’d found a fault in Odin’s plan.  The fault was in the conception, not the execution.  Of course Odin had known that Loki’s mother and brother would not truly leave him.

“I am king,” Odin continued, “and an old king at that, I am meant to die and fade away, meant to become only legacy.  Loki’s attachment to the queen, to Thor—that is the future, not his love for me, if there is even any left.  Their love for him… they will remain loyal to each other, I think, no matter how long a time, no matter how far apart.  Loki will want, now, to see Thor seated on the throne of Asgard.  Anyone rather than me.  And he will love his brother for not leaving him.  He will love his queen.  Or did you think I did not know, Heimdall, of Thor’s visit to you?  Of Frigga’s to Loki?”

Frigga’s to Loki?

“Of the latter, even I do not know,” Heimdall said.  “So I could hardly have suspected your ignorance, in truth.  I had thought the queen in the palace.”

“Frigga has ever had the gift of projections.  I know she goes to him.  She could hardly not.”

In the mornings, which Loki had wanted to himself.  Heimdall nodded.

“Smuggle Thor to him as you would,” Odin said.  “Let him think he is getting away with something.  He has the peculiar obligation of a would-be king, that he must learn to trust his own decisions, to care for those in his protection.  As for his belongings, it will be a hard day for you, to bring those to him.  I was right to think it should have been done at once—not that it might be easier for us, but that it might be gentler to him.  I regret that.”

“Why do any of this?”

“I have told you.”

“You have told me as my king.  Tell me now as the father of my son’s brother—why do you make them into tokens leveraged in a game that will never end?  Why drive them to hate you, when I know you love them?  Why savage them to torment yourself?”

“For Asgard.”

“Asgard is strong, you have made it so.  Can it not live without the blood of children?”

“I don’t know,” Odin said.  “It never has, has it?  The difference is that now it is my children it requires, not those of the Realms, not even those of our people.  Those who would rule must pay for it.  This is the cost.”  He touched his eyes, which were dry, and Heimdall saw him hate himself for it: it was a hatred tempered by a pride that was itself tempered by disgust.  “I suppose you think me mad.  Like Hela.”

“Hela was never mad,” Heimdall said.  “She only learned her first lesson well and, excelling at it, chose never to learn another.”

“Loki is like her, you know.”

“A little, yes.  He is also much like you.”

“He would be, wouldn’t he?  No child ever favored me so much as my firstborn: to be like Hela is to be like me, there is no difference.  Why fear her except that I knew what she would become, since I’d become it myself?”

“And you are not mad,” Heimdall said, ignoring this.  “But yes, your fault is the same as hers.  You chose your kingship over your fatherhood once.  Now you do it again.  It may be right in one case and wrong in another.”

“That is not your decision to make,” Odin said with a little bit of his customary sharpness.

“No.  But you gave me the boy, All-Father.  You cannot be surprised that I find it hard to turn away from his happiness.  After all, I am not king.”

“You are not,” Odin said.  “But neither is fatherhood your highest calling, as I understand it, and as I understood you would understand it.  You are Asgard’s Gatekeeper, you are sworn to her first, to her and to the crown.  You should have more sympathy, Heimdall.  You could someday be faced with the same choice.”

“That is another thing,” Heimdall said, his sympathies unchanged.  “The city will need a second Gatekeeper, if I am to be so much away.”

“It will be a challenge to find someone capable.”

“Not at all.  From what I understand, it’s a mere matter of turning a sword around.”

Odin smiled.  Perhaps he heard something of Loki’s own joke in Heimdall’s voice, because now, of all times, was when his eyes shone bright with unshed tears.  “Wouldn’t it be a paradise if it were all so simple as that?”  He shook his head.  “Choose someone to instruct at least enough to relieve the weight of your absence.  And I will send you Loki’s things.  There will be a message in them, no doubt, from Thor.  Maybe from Frigga, too.”

“Do you not wish to send him some word?” Heimdall said.  “To see him?”

“Yes,” Odin said.  His voice was soft, heartbroken, inarguably sincere.  “It destroys me to not.  I think I would now rather hold him in my arms than have anything else, any other wish at all.  I long to persuade him I love him and mean him no ill.  But as king, I cannot.  And as father, I do not deserve to.  I sold my son to buy Asgard’s future.  What right do I have to ever see his face again?  What right do I have to beg his forgiveness?  I have committed so unnatural a crime that my spirit revolts against it.”

“But you still believe in your reasoning.”

“As you say.”  Odin spread his hands out.  The smile on his face was now desperate and ghastly, horrible to see.  “And it is too late now to do anything else.  You know that as well as I do.  To try to undo that choice now… it would only be another earthquake beneath his feet.  I would only hurt him more, and I have hurt him enough already.”


If there were messages hidden in the ebony chests that were delivered to Loki a few days after Heimdall’s call upon the palace, Heimdall saw them not: only the evidence of them in the way that Loki brooded afterwards, disappearing and reappearing with his face noticeably pinched and tear-streaked.  Heimdall didn’t know if it was right to ask.  He did not want to dash the fragile peace that was between them.  Did not want to put an end to the sight of Loki lying on the rug with one of the newly-arrived books, alternately reading it and flipping the bottom corner so that one of Thor’s phoenixes combusted and reformed before his eyes.  He was not a spy, or so he’d told the boy.  He couldn’t claim that and then use information he’d gathered elsewhere.

Why will you not tell me about the queen’s visits?  The question he most wanted to ask.

No: Why will you not trust me?

Though that was pointless.  He knew why Loki did not trust him, and it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with everything else.

So instead, he asked, “Do you enjoy Volstagg’s visits?”

“Well enough.”

About philosophy, Loki would chatter on like a magpie; about himself, he was noticeably taciturn.  But today, for some reason, for some quirk in his mood, he was more willing, because after another moment, he laid his book face-down on the rug and said, “He brought his daughter today.  Or one of his daughters, I’m not actually sure.  That house is like a rabbit-hutch.”

Heimdall meant to say something about his rudeness and instead laughed, which wrung a quick, half-embarrassed smile out of Loki.

“Her name is Gara.  She is older than I am, but still not grown.”

“One could be quite a bit older than you are and still not be grown,” Heimdall said.  He held his hand off the ground at approximately Loki’s height—well, if he were to be honest, at a little bit lower than Loki’s true height, just to see that highly offended scowl of his.  “Did the two of you play together?”

“We sparred.”

He was surprised.  “She used a sword?”

“I used daggers.”

Ah, yes, he’d almost forgotten that Loki preferred those.  He had no notion of why, since, slight though the boy was, he had more than enough strength for a sword.  Knives were more usually women’s weapons and he must have been teased for taking them up—but Frigga herself had taught him to wield them, and evidently that love and those lessons withstood any jeers.  He realized Loki was waiting, cautiously, for him to have an opinion about this, so he said only, “I hope no one lost any fingers.”

An eye, he had almost said, but that would have been a grave error.

Loki relaxed a little.  “Aren’t you going to ask who won?”

“Should I?  I had no wager riding on it.  But yes, if you like.  Who won?”

“I did.  She was taller and so she had the greater reach, but I was quicker.”

You were also trained by the best fighting masters this world has to offer, Heimdall considered pointing out, therefore putting a girl who has never been allowed in the ring at all at something of a disadvantage.  “She was a worthy opponent, then, I take it.  I hope you were gracious to her.  If she had skill enough to challenge you, she might once have made a fine warrior herself.  Fight with her often and both your skills will improve.”

Loki considered this and nodded, but there was a strange cast of disappointment on his face—he had been hoping, Heimdall realized too late, that Heimdall would congratulate him on his victory.  Before he could try, though, Loki rambled on, his words a smokescreen between them.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Volstagg said to him the next day, when Heimdall sought his advice.  “For one thing, the feelings of children bruise as easily as butterfly wings—like it or not, whatever you do, you’ll wound him to the core once a week at least.  And more than that when he’s in his delicate years and he’s got his growing pains.  For another, you could have done a lot worse.  You didn’t scold him for fighting a girl at all, did you?”

He shook his head.  “I am old enough to remember the Valkyries.”

“Then you’re old as dirt and Odin himself, but I’ll tell my Gara you said so.  She idolizes them.  And she was glad to fight with him and will do it again if it’s not a bother.”

“It’s not.  I’ve been meaning to get him a training master, but I’ve been meaning to get him a dozen things.  If I engaged one, I’d welcome Gara joining his lessons.”

“You would?”  Volstagg looked both pleased and worried, which Heimdall was beginning to recognize as the look of parents whose children had just been given an opportunity.  “I’ll tell her so.  Then Loki may share her tutor, if you’re still looking for one.  He’s no Lady Vigdis, but he’s bright enough.”

“You have my thanks for that, and for everything else.”

Volstagg laughed and gave Heimdall’s shoulder a hard smack.  “You’re doing all right with him, to my way of thinking.  It’s not like he’s going to have fallen much behind in his schooling, that one.  And he said the two of you are adding on to the house?”  He didn’t wait for an answer on that one before going on to recommend half a dozen paint colors.

Loki, as it turned out later that night, disapproved of all of them.  “It’s my room.”

“I know it’s your room,” Heimdall said.  He was developing a headache.  “I won’t choose for you, they were only suggestions.”

It wasn’t that he couldn’t follow why Loki was putting so much weight on it.  This was the step-by-step construction of the new, and newly permanent, part of Loki’s life, and of course it was understandable that the boy was obsessed with each and every detail of it.  But it was making for slow progress, and the slowness of that progress was all the more noticeable now that the rest of the house was littered with Loki’s clothes and books and inkwells.  How he managed to get ink-stains on everything, Heimdall didn’t know.  Why he hadn’t magicked them away—he had to think that was sheer petulance.

He rubbed at his head.

Loki, to his surprise, got quiet.  Then suddenly he shoved one particular paint color at Heimdall.  “This one.”

It was one of the ones he had already rejected.

Heimdall pushed it back in his direction.  “You don’t like that one.”

“I do.”

“You don’t.  You don’t have to say you do just because I’m tired.”  A decision worth it for Loki’s cautious smile.  “Though if you don’t pick something by tomorrow night, I’m going to paint everything beige.”

The smile stayed, though Loki’s gaze grew more serious.  He said, abruptly, “Thor sent me a letter.  Folded up in one of my books.”

Heimdall had handled soap bubbles less chancy and fragile than this moment.  Whatever Volstagg had said, he felt sure that this talk, at least, had to be gotten entirely right.  “Oh?”

“He said that in a week’s time he would have free rein over the city again.  That was when the books and things first arrived, so… tomorrow, now.  He said you told him that you would bring him to the house.”

“So I did.  I promised you both.”

“But he said that if you had changed your mind, or if I thought you’d changed your mind… to not tell you.  He would find his way back here himself.  But you haven’t changed your mind, Heimdall, have you?”

“No.”  He said it at once.  “No, you know I haven’t.”

What you don’t know is that I was never intended to.

Damn Odin to the gates of Hel itself for putting him in this dishonest of a position.  The least he could have done was lie to Heimdall as he had lied to everyone else.  He wanted to give Loki his brother.  He did not want to be one more chess-piece on Odin’s board, maneuvering Loki to claim his opponent’s king—or crown, as it were.  But it would be worse to confess it all and say that Loki was being allowed to keep Thor, allowed his visits with his mother, that Loki’s heart and loyalties were being molded to precisely the shape his one-time father required.

It did not matter, did it?  Thor and Frigga would not have let the boy vanish.  Thor, at least, didn’t even know that the plan that had separated them was the same plan that was now reuniting them.

“I know,” Loki said.  He rubbed at his eyes.  “You are—thank you.  I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.”

“It’s fine.”  He flicked a lock of Loki’s hair out of his eyes and said, reflectively, glad to have something more banal to think of, “You need a haircut.”

Loki looked down.  He muttered, “That’s what Mother said.”

So they’d not finished with their profundity for the evening after all.  Heimdall strove to keep any expression at all off his face, to show neither surprise—the lie—or lack of surprise—the troublesome truth; he only waited for Loki to continue.  The boy’s downcast eyes, in any case, made Heimdall’s reaction irrelevant.  Whatever he did, Loki was determined not to see it.

“She sends illusions of herself here sometimes,” Loki said.

Heimdall wasn’t sure he liked that word in this context.  “Projections.”

Loki shook his head so adamantly it was more like a thrash, something meant to do him injury.  “Illusions.  It’s like she’s here but she’s not.  It’s a trick.  Projections are messages.”

Unless Frigga’s sudden appearance in the cottage freshly deceived Loki each time into believing that this time she had come in the flesh, Heimdall could not see the difference, unless that was the difference, unless Loki each time had a wrench of hope and disappointment.  Or else an illusion was a projection whose insubstantiality felt like a betrayal.  And it would.  How much comfort could come from a mother Loki could not touch?

“I know it is not enough,” Heimdall said, “only a crumb, but I am glad you can see her.”  With a sour taste in his mouth and something like dread in his heart—he could see far, but he could not see the future, could not see what trouble he was tempting—he played the cards he had been dealt.  “I am glad she has not surrendered you to the king’s wishes.  And I’m glad you told me.”

Loki nodded, his head still down.  “I wasn’t really lying.”

He would most likely regret this, but he agreed: “No.  Keeping quiet is not the same thing as lying.”

That, of all things, got Loki to look up.  He had a kind of half-smirk on his face.

“I know,” Heimdall said.  “I’ve opened myself up to trouble, and you’ll be quite inventive.”

They decided upon the haircut that night—”So you will not terrify your brother by seeming half wild beast”—and Loki settled down at Heimdall’s feet while Heimdall examined the scissors as, in this context, an unfamiliar instrument.

“How vain are you?”

Loki tilted his head back.  “Why?” he asked with the utmost suspicion.

Heimdall ruffled his hair.  “No reason.”  He thought now how strange it was that he minded doing this—not because it was beneath him or because he disliked the thought of doing it badly but because he had gotten used to showing what little affection Loki would accept by messing with this particular rat’s nest.  And some small part of him wondered if Loki would allow that less once his hair was short again.  He wound a strand of dark hair around his finger and said, “Of course, if you would not mind looking a little older than your years, you could begin growing it out for good.  It will be a mess for a while when it’s at an awkward length, but you’ll settle into it.”

“Long hair,” Loki said thoughtfully.  “Like a warrior?”

“Why not?  You won your most recent bout, did you not?  It’s a victory worth celebrating.”

Heimdall had almost forgotten how Loki’s sudden bursts of happiness looked: like the sun all at once breaking through the clouds in its full force and glory.

“You think it notable?”

“I do.  And I thought to get you a training master willing to instruct both you and Gara, if that suits you.”

“Training masters don’t teach girls.”

“The one I hire specifically to do so will do so, if he would like to be paid for it.”  He frowned.  “Or I may engage a training mistress, instead, if you would like to use the daggers more exclusively, and if Gara has no strong preference for learning the sword.”

“I can do that?”

Use the daggers as his best weapon, Heimdall supposed he meant.  “I don’t see why not.  It’s true your enemies will sometimes have longer-range weapons, but that would be equally true if you had a sword in your hands.  War is not usually waged on the terms we’d prefer.  And—”  And the soldiers of Jotunheim often fought with knives, he almost added, but that would have been catastrophic at this stage.  He recalibrated it slightly.  “The fighting styles of the Nine Realms have many variations.  That you can fight, and fight well, matters more than how you fight.”

“Other people don’t think so.”

“I suppose not.”  Because Loki had not moved from his place at Heimdall’s feet, Heimdall started to braid his hair, though it wasn’t quite yet of a good length for it.  “You must remember that I see more of the universe than most.  Asgard, to my mind, shouldn’t put itself in the path of being fairly accused of thinking provincially, and yet, if its people neither travel to the other Realms, nor read of them, nor think on them, it is unavoidable that they should be so.  But you needn’t be.”

“I will read,” Loki said.  “Can you teach me how to see between the worlds?”

His hands stilled.  He had not thought of that, truthfully, and he did not know what the king would think of it, but he intended to abide by whatever he said next: “Yes.  But you would have to come sometimes to the Observatory, when you are ready to learn.  And even aside from that, I can take you traveling, or at least arrange for you to go in the company of Volstagg or his wife.”

“I thought you couldn’t leave Asgard.”

“Because there is no one to turn the sword around?  As it happens, I’ve sought out an apprentice who can master what is, whatever you think, my craft.”  He paused.  “Which means I could take you sometime to meet my mothers after all, if you would enjoy that.  Once my substitute is trained.”

“Please,” Loki said, with the scrupulous manners he fell back on when he was confused but uncertain he wanted to be cruel or annoying.  Heimdall thought he could guess the reason: it was still one more commitment to their permanence, and Loki had been asked to give more and more of those lately.  Brave boy.

Heimdall resumed his braiding, which Loki sat patiently still for.  “Are you nervous for tomorrow?”

“About seeing Thor?”  The scoff was overdone, a no exaggerated into a yes.

“He loves you very much.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Loki said, but Heimdall had the feeling it was mere reflexive, childish contrarianism: the stuffed cat, after all, still lived beneath Loki’s pillow, its pulled-out whisker carefully glued back in and individually petted each night with a single finger when Loki thought Heimdall’s gaze elsewhere.  “He thinks I’m a pest.”

“No one goes out of their way to see a pest.”

“I would,” Loki said, nonsensically but perhaps truthfully—it was indisputable that he was sometimes odd, a little perverse in his decision-making, and it seemed possible indeed that he would hide himself away from pleasure and actively seek out discomfort.  “Perhaps he’s glorying in the fall of an enemy.”

“I’d think him less spiteful than that.  And you are not his enemy, last I knew.”

“If I were not his enemy,” Loki said, “Odin would not have had to send me away, would he?  If I were a friend, what harm would it do for me to go on under the same roof?  Sif is raised in the palace.  Hogun too.  But I’m here.”  There was an unbearable logic in his voice, a cold and youthfully arrogant satisfaction that he had proven himself to be nothing, that he was unafraid of pronouncing the whole world without value.

Heimdall stroked his hair, untangling the braids he had started and letting them fall loose again.  “You are no one’s enemy but your own.  Which would make you mine too, I suppose, were I more fond of paradoxes, because I’d like to defend you against yourself.  I will, however, settle for getting you to leave off bruising your own soul.”

“But I’m right.”

“No, only sharp-witted enough to succeed in cutting yourself.  I told you, Odin’s reasoning is seldom within our purview.”

“I know, though,” Loki said, and now he was not being argumentative: the words seemed like they had been dug up from the very pit of his heart.  “I know.”  He turned his head and laid his face against Heimdall’s knee, hiding his tears even as the sudden damp heat gave them away.

Heimdall kept on talking to him, speaking steadily, no longer trying to persuade him of anything.  Now he only wanted to give Loki enough words that the words all on their own would form a barricade to protect him, a buttress to give him stability, a ladder to let him escape.  He told Loki stories.  First myths and legends—this is the tale of how the Bifrost was built, in a time when even time itself was young—and then stories only he knew—and all my mothers wanted to know immediately how I had managed to come back with a bloody nose just from picking berries, which was hardly something I wanted to explain, since I couldn’t tell them about the cat

He talked until Loki drifted off to sleep.  He didn’t know exactly when that had happened, only that he gradually noticed that the Loki’s breathing had grown smooth and peaceful.  The sense of accomplishment he felt at that was hard to describe even to himself.

He picked Loki up—the boy stirred very briefly, succeeding in kicking off one shoe—and laid him down on the sofa and covered him with a quilt.

“My mother Brynn made this,” he said softly.  “When I first left home.  She said it would keep me safe from nightmares—may it do the same for you.”

He gathered up the papers with their streaks of paint and stacked them neatly.  Then he stepped out into the garden, where the darkness was black and soft as velvet, though it lacked that warmth.  He could smell the perfume of the drying flowers—soon their scents would be sealed away by the frost.

“My queen,” he said into the night.  He did not bother to look in the direction of the palace: Frigga would hear him or not and come or not, as she was able and as she wished.  “I would speak to you, if you have a moment.”

He distantly felt her mind turn towards him and in another moment she stepped out of the shadows, pearlescent, illuminated by magic.  Heimdall had no need for her to be there in body and so this was, by Loki’s standards, a projection in truth, not an illusion, not a trick.

It would be an illusion, he decided, if she did not look in person as she did here, so heartsore and weary, her eyes reddened at the edges, her cheeks caved in.  He would not forgive her a pretense of sadness, grief magnified to impress upon him how much she cared.  But he was, he knew, being monstrously unfair, for he had seen her love for Loki in a thousand gestures.  He had little right to judge her for complying with Odin’s plan when he had done so himself.  Husband or no, Odin was still her king, just as he was Heimdall’s.

He bowed to her and she to him.

“He told me you pay him visits,” Heimdall said.

“I do,” Frigga said.  Her chin was raised, a fighter refusing to cover herself from any coming blow.  “I will not stop.”

“I would not ask you to.  I’m glad of it.  I ask you only to come entirely, when you can, because to see you and not touch you—not be embraced by you—I think it takes a toll on him.”

“You would have me?”  Her voice broke.  “You would let me in, Heimdall?  After what I have done to him?”

“You are his mother,” Heimdall said.  “He adores you.”

Her eyes were bright with tears.  “He no longer calls me that.”

“He called you that to me.  He is angry, but he is still yours, my queen.”  And now he wished that he could put his hand on hers, though they had never touched: that he could reassure her.  How peculiar for her to be the mother of his son and the two of them to have such distance between them.  “Indeed, he hid the truth from me until tonight out of fear that I might somehow stop you.  As though I could.  I hope I could not.”

“I do not know,” Frigga said.  Her smile, like Odin’s, was hard to look upon.  “I have allowed myself to be denied in so many ways of late.”

“Do you believe in his plan?  The king’s?”

“I do.  I wish I didn’t.  It would be easier on both my pride and my heart to think my youngest son happiest and safest in my own keeping.”  She looked behind him, towards the cottage.  “He sleeps.”

“Yes.”  He could not help but ask, “Do you see if he dreams?”

Her smile softened.  “He does.  His mind is quiet, and that is rare for him.”  Their eyes met.  “You love him.”

He said again, “Yes,” though he could not elaborate on it further.  It had become the bedrock fact of his life, such that she might as well have said, You have blood in your veins.

Chapter Text

Loki was a bundle of nerves when the morning came, which meant Heimdall awoke to the smell of scorched porridge.  Loki had tried to cook it while standing on a stool.  It had not gone well.  Most of it, though thankfully not at scalding temperatures, appeared to have gone down his shirtfront.  His hands were shaking.  So were Heimdall’s, once he took it all in.  He yanked Loki well back from the open flame, checked him for burns, and shuttled him off for a bath.

“What did we say about burning the house down?” he called out to Loki’s back.

“I didn’t burn the house down!”

“You could have burned yourself down!”

“You are being completely unreasonable,” Loki said, and slammed the door behind him.

Heimdall decided they were having fruit for breakfast and he was not cleaning the kitchen.  Let Thor’s first impression of them be that they lived in squalor, if that was the bed Loki had made for himself; if Loki felt strongly this should not be so, he could roll up his sleeves and neaten everything before his brother arrived.  It wasn’t that he had no compassion for Loki’s fears, it was that… the kitchen really was appalling to look at and he was temporarily inclined to let that take precedence.

Loki came out of the bath toweling off his hair and scowled.  “You left it like that?  What are we going to do about breakfast?”

“Eat a pear,” Heimdall said.  “I have the Observatory to go to and your brother to fetch back to you.  I cannot spend more time away from my post today than I am already.”

“But it’s messy.”  He was actually turning his nose up at it, which Heimdall might have found entertaining under other, less stressful circumstances.

“Then clean it.  You shouldn’t do things if you can’t deal with what happens when they go badly.”

“You’re angry with me,” Loki said.  His voice was suddenly small.

Heimdall exhaled.  “A little, yes.  It scared me to think you might be burned, and in any case, I’m not overly fond of—this.”  He gestured to the porridge-splattered kitchen.

Loki pressed his lips together.  “I will clean it, then.”  He sounded quite magnanimous about it.

“Before I arrive with Thor.”

“I don’t know when that is.”

“Then you should get it done early, don’t you think?”

“You are still angry with me.  I apologized.”

He hadn’t, actually, and Heimdall was thinking of saying so, but he did not much like how this morning was going.  He sighed and said nothing.

Loki said, “You won’t… you’ll still bring Thor, won’t you?”

“Yes.”  He said it instantly.  “Even should you enrage me—which you have not done, I am only annoyed—I would not use separation from him as punishment.  I promise you that.  It will be the same with your mother.  Come here.”  It was the first time he’d put an arm around Loki when Loki wasn’t actually crying—though he was perhaps on the edge of doing so—and it felt awkward.  “All I asked of you, ever, was that you not blow up the kitchen, and what did you do this morning?”

Loki’s smile was tentative but real.  “Blew up the kitchen?”

“And there you have it.  The sole source of my anger, and my scolding you for it and having you clean it, the sole solution, aside from a walk to cool my head.”

“I am sorry,” Loki said.  “I just wanted to do something.”

“You’re forgiven.  Next time you crave activity, consider weeding the garden.”

It was a better note to end on, and he left Loki with a pear in one hand and a dishrag in the other, industriously if inefficiently scrubbing at the mess he’d made, but whatever good feeling he had mustered up faded quickly as he headed for the city.  He could not rid himself of the image he had of last night’s conversation in the garden.  He had dreamed of it, uneasy dreams: knight and queen posed by moonlight, maneuvered around the board.  Peaceful.  Predictable.  For all their doubts, for all their love, they kept their secrets, they spoke in the dark.  They buried Odin’s gameboard under the soil of the very garden he’d told the boy to weed when his frustration mounted.  Loki was too smart to not someday dig it up.

And too smart to not then see how little difference there was between a pawn and a king, both allowed to advance only in inches, both moved by someone else’s hand.

That was what Odin could not see: that one of his chess pieces could become his opponent.

It was a problem for which Heimdall had no solution.  He did not have that kind of mind.

Then I must develop it.

And become the All-Father’s opponent himself?  Perhaps, if need be.  He could not be trapped in the movements already plotted for him.  Odin had planned them with Asgard’s future in mind, not Loki’s, and Heimdall… Heimdall’s own loyalties had grown more complicated of late.  He would not have his world die, but his life and sins did not have to be justified or redeemed by the shining of her walls and the length of her future.  He did not have Odin’s burning need to be good.

This is treason.  To even think of trying to outwit his plan, to think around the corners of it, to unmake the glory of his greatest warprize, the prince of Jotunheim… whatever rebellion he foresaw from you, it was not this.  Because love of his son never convinced him to slacken in his duty, so why should it convince you to do so in yours?

Because I told him so, Heimdall thought, as if in argument.  Because I told him already that I needed to be Watchman less and father more.  I am the eyes of Asgard, but I am not her heart, and do not need to be the life-blood of her.

Pretty words, easily thought very late at night or very early in the morning, in the uninterrupted quiet.  When they had no immediate cost.

He had gone centuries without changing at all and now he was demanding much for himself—it almost irritated him.  When he reached the Observatory, he took up his post with alacrity and great commitment.  Let him watch anything, if only it would be clear, not half-veiled in mist and unformed possibilities.

He turned his gaze toward Midgard.  Its population centers had shifted since he’d last given it close attention, but they did that often—and the architecture had changed, which happened more frequently still.  Last he’d looked, the roofs of their great buildings were all straight lines—angles but no arcs—and now he watched domes rise like bread in an oven, watched spires scrape the belly of the heavens.  He decided he liked it.  There was war there too, of course, but they tended toward it, their mayfly lives bright flashes of invention and artistry, yes, but also of greed and hate; they all acted like children.  He felt more of a kinship with their walls, which would outlast them.  In any case, they were no threat.  It might be a good world to use to introduce Loki to the Realms—pitiful as their weapons were, they could scarcely harm him, so it would be safe there.

No, that was misguided.  He would be safe, but he would not be encouraged; Heimdall could hardly begin there to teach the boy that it was no misfortune not to be born of Asgard.

Jotunheim—but he did not like the thought of Jotunheim.  There was such a risk there—if it went badly, everything would go badly.

But perhaps his caution would damn him, in the end; perhaps he would leave everything too late.  There would have to come a time when he stopped thinking in days.

“Heimdall!”

He knew the voice at once, of course; unlike the last time he’d heard it, this time it was not in a shout, only an urgent whisper.

He returned his attention to the world around him and saw Thor looking up with defiance from what seemed to be some kind of loosely assembled pile of sacking that he seemed to think qualified as a disguise.  It made him look like a heap of badly-done laundry.

Heimdall would not insult Thor’s sense of urgency by admitting that it might not be necessary—that Odin would scarcely be expending all his resources to find his wayward son—and really Thor might not be wrong to be cautious.  Odin knew Odin’s plans, but that didn’t mean Lady Vigdis did, or the palace guard, and any of them could take on the responsibility of seeking out their prince and fetching him home.

“Remove this,” Heimdall said, flipping up a corner of Thor’s makeshift cloak, “because it only makes you look more conspicuous and it will slow you down.  And then we’ll be away.”

Thor did not argue and only tore the cloth away and let it fall to the ground.  “Then we’re away.”

They walked swiftly, and Thor, having some height on his brother, had long enough legs that Heimdall did not have to slow his pace so much as he’d grown accustomed to doing.  But they still had breath to talk, and talk Thor did, in a rush, as if his lips had been sewn shut the entire time Heimdall had gone without seeing him, and he needed now to say everything at once.

“It isn’t right.  You can’t make someone not a prince.”

“He’s still a prince, just not of Asgard.”

“You can’t make someone not of Asgard!  There is no precedent for it, I have checked in every one of Lady Vigdis’s books and she has very many books.”

“Our histories are not always complete.”

Thor ignored this.  “You can banish someone, but you can’t change what they are, what they’ve been.  No matter how many lies you tell.”

“Your father has not lied to you, exactly,” he said, though he could have no real notion of whether or not this was true.

“It isn’t just him, it’s everyone.  Heimdall, you don’t know the things they say about him—they wouldn’t say them for you to hear.”  Thor said it with a child’s rage at being small and underfoot, no matter what royal blood ran in his veins; he was talked over and told he could not understand and could not yet be forbidding enough to stop it.  “That Father’s exiled him as punishment, that there’s something wrong with him, that he’s a bastard, that he’s a—a Frost Giant.”

Heimdall stopped dead.  “They say that to you?  That Loki is Jotun?”

“Yes!  No matter how much I tell them not to say such filth about him.”

Had Odin not promised him this would not happen?  He’d said few even knew the truth of Loki’s birth, but… it occurred to Heimdall that they need not know in order to suspect, and they need not even suspect in order to gossip.  Loki had been “born” around the time of their conquering of Jotunheim—that would be all the proof some would need in order to wag their tongues.

And Thor was right, they would not have said it to Heimdall himself, not when he’d made it so clear how little he would entertain such questions.

He had guarded the cottage so well he had forgotten the city.  A fire that started there could spread to their hermitage, if the wind were right.  And sooner or later, it would be.

“Have you spoken of this to your mother and father?”

Thor lowered his head.  “Father says I’m not to speak to him of Loki at all, and with Mother—it only upsets her.  And I wouldn’t tell her that.  Sometimes they say she… lay with one of them.  Horrible things, that there are Giants in her bloodline and blood will tell, that she sullied Father’s bed by bringing Laufey into it.  I’ll remember their names and have each and every one of them before me on the day of my coronation.”

Heimdall spared a moment—he could spare no more, though Thor deserved it—to pity him, that he should at this age look ahead to his crown with that ache in his voice and that he should want it not so he could have glory or the folly of endless desserts and no bedtime but so he could have, and deliver, justice.  Still, he said, “You’ll do no such thing.  Ascend intent on settling scores and you’ll make yourself into a monster.”

“They’re saying Loki’s a monster.  And our mother a whore.  What would you have me do?”

He spoke slowly, as if holding on to each word as long as he could would by some miracle give him hours or even days in which to think.  “Your mother has never broken her vows to your father, I am sure of it.  For that matter, she and Laufey of Jotunheim have never been on the same world together, so still less have they ever been in the same room.  It’s absurd, and patently so, and no person of any sense or character would think otherwise.  They will talk, but fools will always talk, and no king or god will ever change that.  Make your love and trust for your mother clear—that is all you can do.”

“It is not all I can do,” Thor said.  “I can challenge them if they do not stop their tongues.”

“Yes, by all means.  Challenge them.  They will either laugh themselves sick at you, which would be bad, or they will accept and then lose on purpose because you are a prince and a child, which would be worse, and still harder on your pride.”

“Why can’t I help him?”

It came out as a cry, raw-voiced, and Heimdall hated himself for having caused it—it and the desperation in Thor’s face.

“You can help him,” Heimdall said.  He forced himself to sound calm.  “You’ve done so already.  Under no circumstances are you to tell him I told you so, but he sleeps with the cat you gave him.”

Thor’s mouth contorted, trying to hold back tears, laughter, or both.  “Truly he does?”

“He does, and you’ll say nothing about it.”

Thor hitched his chin up just a little in a half-nod.  He at least sounded a little better when he said, “That… that Loki is illegitimate… I can understand why they would think it.  It is wrong, but it isn’t senseless or evil.  Thinking Loki is a Frost Giant is both.  We need to do something to quash this rumor, not just be quiet and hope it goes away.”

He was so loyal and so good-hearted as he proclaimed the truth of his brother’s own life something abhorrent.

Heimdall was exhausted with being patient and reasonable, with having to defang the snake that had sunk this poison into Thor’s mind one tooth at a time, but there was no way around it, or at least no way he could be confident would work.  “Why should it be evil to say someone is Jotun?”

“The Frost Giants are our enemies.”

“Are they?  I’m unaware of any war we have with them.  We’ve been at peace there for some time.”

“Don’t pretend not to understand me,” Thor said.  There was a hard, unyielding intelligence to him, just as there was to Loki—it hid behind his bluff good nature and his disinterest in his lessons, but his was a mind made to rule.  And he, even more than Loki, had been raised as a prince, had been made different by it.  “The Frost Giants are monsters.  You know it.  We ground them into the frostbitten wasteland of their Realm and we claimed their treasure, so they are not even strong monsters, to be admired for their skill at war.  If I am king and they come to me, I will be fair, but I will not let anyone say that my brother is one of those… blue nightmares.”

“Listen to yourself,” Heimdall said.  He had never been rough-handed with either of the princes, but now he was tempted to grab Thor and shake him.  “Your words shame you.  I don’t pretend not to understand you, my prince, I pity how damned ignorant you’ve grown, when once you asked me to show you the worlds, when once you and your brother would beg me to tell you stories.  Are you too old now to listen?  Jotunheim is a cold realm with people who look differently than we do, it is inhospitable and, no doubt, after slaughtering a great many of their people, we would not be very welcome there.  But they have warriors, and strong ones—to lose to Asgard is no dishonor, no slight, or do you think us so weak that only the weak could not defeat us?  They have honor as we do.  They have crafts and art and songs.  It is foolish—inexcusably so—to think otherwise.”

Thor looked at him in silence.  It was as if someone had drained all the blood out of his face, as if Heimdall had cut his throat instead of given him a lecture.

Thor said, “It’s true, isn’t it?”

“All I’ve said?”

He didn’t know why he even allowed himself the momentary relief of thinking that was all Thor meant.

“Loki is—that,” Thor said.  “A Frost Giant.  Jotun.”

It was at least the first time he had the proper name.  Such a small hope to hold, like a pebble in his hand.

Heimdall said, “He doesn’t know,” and just like that, he made a conspiracy between the two of them.  How ugly it felt, to discuss Loki’s life and what Loki himself was allowed to know of it.  There was evil, if Thor was so eager to find it.

“But you know,” Thor said.

“Yes.”

“And Father and Mother?  Always?”

“Of course always.”  It did him no good to be mad at Thor, of all people, but apparently he was.  “How could they not?”

“But how can he look Aesir?”

“How can he become a snake?”

“He doesn’t know,” Thor said slowly.  “Why?  Why wouldn’t they tell him?  Why wouldn’t they tell us both?  Why wouldn’t you tell him?”  He answered the question for himself, “Because he thinks as I do.  We’ve both had nightmares about them.  Our nurse told us these stories… why did they let her tell us those things, if they’re not true?  Are they true?  But Loki...”  He shook his head and looked straight at Heimdall, his gaze unwavering.  “He is still my brother.  He is still of Asgard.  You can’t take those things back.  Father can’t.”

“No.  He is yours, no matter what.  And ours—Asgard’s.  If he wants that.”

It was the first time, he suspected, that Thor had been asked to absorb the idea that someone might not want that, and to his credit, he did so silently and carefully.

“Loki is Aesir at his heart.”

“Loki is Loki at his heart,” Heimdall said.  “You know no other Jotuns—and nor do I, for that matter—to say what it would mean for him to  be at heart what he was at birth.”

“But they are not monsters.  You have seen enough to know that.”

“The galaxies are sadly bereft of monsters,” Heimdall said.

“Sadly?”

“Monsters would make things more convenient.”

“I don’t know what to say to him,” Thor said.

“Of this?  Nothing yet, I would think.  I don’t want him to—to believe that he is all you would have thought a moment ago that he was, if he were not your brother.”

Thor flushed.  “I should cut out my tongue.”

Heimdall shook his head.  “Save it, rather, to tell others what you truly learn of Jotunheim, when you do learn it.  Save it to speak with respect of the other Realms.”

“Yes.”  He took the weight seriously.  “I will be an ambassador for my brother’s kingdom.”

Ah, so he is his father’s son too, already seeing where the lines of power go.  But that earnestness, that is not in Odin All-Father.  There is more fire in Thor, more warmth; our prince of summer.

He was probably bestowing upon Thor the zeal of the fresh ideologue, sending him back to the city with his conversion as obvious on him as a fresh coat of paint, but he could not regret it.  So long as Thor did not overwhelm Loki, Heimdall cared not if he overwhelmed everyone else.  He seldom had cause to be grateful that Loki lived a life of such seclusion, but he had it now.  It would give the masses time to learn the new royal opinion of Jotunheim and its people… if indeed they would learn it at all.

“You’ve grown since I last saw you,” Heimdall said.  He could not keep the wistfulness from his voice, though he could not explain it—not because he did not know, but because it would hurt too much.  Pain had made Loki younger, bitterness and responsibility had made Thor older.  Their hearts had perhaps never been closer, but the gap between them had widened.

Thor at least was young enough to not take his meaning.  “Not very much.  Only I did have to get bigger boots.”

Heimdall smiled.  He said, ‘We are making very poor time, don’t you think?”  All this had made his heart hurt and set his mind into a turmoil—the clock would tick so much faster now, they would have so little time to decide what to do—and he could use, he thought, the simple pleasure of seeing Loki and Thor reunited.

Thor said, “I could run, if you’d point the way,” and there again was that youth, still: a glow of excitement that no amount of upheaval could take away.

Heimdall pointed.

Thor ran to meet his brother.

Heimdall could not keep pace with him: it was when he crested the hill, Thor far ahead of him, that he saw the reunion.

Loki must have heard or sensed something because he came flying out of the cottage.  The two of them crashed into each other with such force that Loki would have fallen had Thor not caught him; it might have been a mistake but for the fact that they looked as if they’d never meant a thing so much.  Loki turned his head into the crook between Thor’s shoulder and neck.  Thor could have been breaking his bones and Heimdall knew it would make no difference to them.  He walked down to them slowly, giving them their time.  Let them have nothing of grown-ups for this little while.

“You’re here,” Loki was saying.  It sounded like he had said it many times.  “You’re really here.”

No illusion.  No trick.  No dream.

Thor, his voice thick, said, “And you’re not a snake.”

“And you’re not a frog.”

“The day is young,” Thor said.

Loki giggled, a sound Heimdall had not heard from him in… not even weeks.  He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard it, ever seen Loki so unguarded.  It was such a young sound, delicate as soap bubbles.  “Well, I’m glad you’re here, so I’m sure I’d make you into a bullfrog, at least.  You would be most intimidating.”

Thor croaked at him and Loki burst into laughter, his head still against Thor’s shoulder.  They finally, reluctantly separated.

“See?” Loki said.  His face was tear-streaked but he was smiling nonetheless.  “You already know all your lines.”  He saw Heimdall close and his smile stiffened a little, grew wary, but did not go away.  It must have been strange for him to see his old life and his new in such close quarters.  But he said only, “Heimdall, may I show him the cottage and the garden and everything?”

“An all-inclusive request,” Heimdall said.  “But yes.  Did you clean the kitchen?”

Thor turned around with an ill-tempered look on him.  “You have him labor?”

He’d been spending too much time with Loki: he had the nearly irresistible urge to roll his eyes.  “On occasion.  I haven’t buried him in a salt mine, I assure you.  He won’t break his back cleaning up his own disasters.”

“It wasn’t as bad as that,” Loki said.  “But yes, I cleaned it.  And weeded.”  Heimdall could see the truth of that in the rings of black dirt under the boy’s nails, and he knew what Loki was telling him, in his own offhanded, deliberately vague way: I have been afraid, but you did it after all, you brought him to me.  He said confidentially to Thor, in an undertone designed to still be overheard, “He has no servants, brother.  Not a single one.”

“None?  Heimdall, are you poor?”

“I am glad you’re enjoying your jest,” Heimdall said.  And, in truth, he was: they were only ever allowed to be rude in play, and sometimes not even then.  It pleased him to see it.  “Scamper.  Don’t turn each other into frogs.”

“Thor couldn’t turn me into a frog,” Loki said confidently.

“If I could, I would stomp on you.”

“If you stomped on me, I would deliberately get my guts all over your boots and ruin them.”

“This is a baffling game,” Heimdall said.

They ignored him.

“Then I would change my boots.”

“Then I would haunt you.”

“But I wouldn’t fear you.”

“But you should,” Loki said in exasperation.

Thor laughed, as though he hadn’t heard mere minutes ago that his brother was a creature who had once given him nightmares: it was true.  He wouldn’t fear him.  “But I don’t.  Checkmate, brother.  Show me your garden.”

“Heimdall’s garden,” Loki corrected.  It was reflexive, but he looked changed after he had said it, as if he were weighing it to see whether or not he still thought it true.  There was a sliver of a moment when Heimdall thought he might take it back, but then he did not.  His features had stiffened slightly, like plaster coming to set.  It was the face of a boy who would rather crack, and maybe even break, than give in.

And he feared he would see it again in his dreams.  Loki dry and immobile.  Loki shattering and turning to dust.

“Well-met, Heimdall!”

Volstagg.  Heimdall had forgotten to tell him his visit wouldn’t be needed this afternoon.  He lifted his hand in greeting.  He assumed the tall girl in Volstagg’s company, her hair in whip-thin braids, was Gara.

“And Prince Thor,” Volstagg added.  He bowed and elbowed for his daughter to do the same.  She had gone as red as a beet, redder even than her hair.  “We didn’t know you had company.”

“Thor’s visits here will not always be conveniently timed, I’m afraid,” Heimdall said.  He wanted to invite them to stay for luncheon—it would only be polite, after all they had done—but it seemed ridiculous, cruel even, to force company into what little time Thor and Loki had together.  “But I’m sure he is glad to meet you.  Loki, would you make introductions?”

It was a position of authority—an aristocratic one, the granting of the presumption that Loki knew them all the best and could even find some poetry for them on the tip of his tongue—and Loki preened at it.  He did not look like the first verses of a tragedy, not then.  “Certainly.  Thor, this is Volstagg the Valiant, and Gara Volstaggsdottir, who is formidable with a blade.  Volstagg, Gara, this is my… this is Prince Thor.  Odinson.”  All the delight had bled out of him, but he made himself keep going.  “He is destined to wield Mjolnir, a great hammer, and he can… and he can make thunder and lightning.”

Volstagg, thank the All-Fathers, intervened.  “Beloved by the weather, are you, my prince?  That’s quite the skill.”

“Loki shapeshifts,” Thor said.

“You can shapeshift?” Gara said.  She had her father’s good cheer and good timing.  “You didn’t tell me that!  What can you become?”

“Anything,” Thor said.  “My brother can become anything.”  He said “my brother” very deliberately, as if daring Loki to challenge it.  “Can’t you?”

Loki smiled a thin little smile.  “Perhaps.  But Heimdall has ruled out frogs.  You must choose something else.”

“Not frogs,” Gara said, thinking it over.  “Um, ferret—no, fishing cat.  Oh, a Frost Giant!”

“Jotuns aren’t animals,” Thor said immediately.  He looked at Heimdall: Stop this.  “Brother, become a ferret.”

“My range is not confined to animals,” Loki said, giving him an incredulous look.  “And Jotuns are nearly so, anyway.”  He was still smiling, still trying to carry himself lightly.  “Be careful, though, because I could fall prey to their bestial urges and try to lay waste to you all.”

“They don’t do that!” Thor said.

“They might a little,” Volstagg said, a restrained chuckle in his voice.  “At the very least, Loki, I’d say it’s an advantage you’d have in a fight, being able to shift to one—all blue and red-eyed and horrible, a terror to your enemies.  It isn’t proper fighting, of course, but—”

“Proper fighting is whatever causes you to win,” Gara said, which made her father frown.  “Loki, will you?”

“I will have to be rude, I’m afraid,” Heimdall said, casually stepping between Loki and their visitors, as if he could shield him from… what?  The well-meant kindness of his friends?  His agreement with them?  “I don’t know how often Loki will have these visits with his brother, or how long they will last when he does.  I should have come to tell you, and I will in the future, but—”

“But for now you need us to be on our way,” Volstagg said easily.  “Understood.”  He looked over Heimdall’s shoulder and his mouth quirked.  “You’ve got your hands full anyway, as I can see.  Your highness.  Loki Red-Eyes.”

Gara laughed.

“What?” Heimdall said, and turned.

Loki had done it anyway, of course, because he had wanted to show off.  He stood there, ice-blue with crimson eyes.  There was a confused little smirk on his face, as if he thought this a good joke, if only he could decide which of them he was playing it on.  He bared his teeth and growled.

“Change back,” Heimdall said.  “Now.”

“Go easy on the boy,” Volstagg said, surprised.  “He’s only playing.”

Loki looked at Thor for some deciding vote, and, seeing the milk-paleness of Thor’s stricken face, restored himself to his own form—or to the form that Odin All-Father had decreed for him so long ago.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m sorry, Heimdall.  I didn’t mean to displease you.  But you have to admit it’s funny.”

“I have to admit your skill,” Heimdall said, striving to keep his voice mild, “but not your sense of humor.  Now, go on and show your brother the garden; see if there’s any late fruit the two of you can shake down.”

“Come on, brother,” Thor said, tugging at Loki’s elbow, and Loki went with him, but not without a backward glance at Heimdall that was more thoughtful than Heimdall liked.

“Sorry for barging in,” Volstagg said awkwardly.  He wanted, Heimdall could tell, to again bring up that Heimdall need not have snapped at Loki as he had, but he couldn’t decide whether or not it was his place.

Heimdall shook his head.  “I had little notice of Thor’s arrival, but I had enough that I should have thought to tell you, so I am sorry for not.  And I’d like him to be able to get to know you both—it’s just that this is the first time Loki has been able to see his brother since… everything changed for him.”

“Absolutely understood.  Besides, getting introduced to a prince is no mean compensation for a stroll to a neighbor’s, is it, Gara?”

“No, Father.”  But a girl who, in the teeth of custom, wanted to go into battle was not a girl who would quail at the idea of being rude, so she was the one who said, “Why did you get mad at Loki for being a Frost Giant?  He wasn’t hurting anyone.”

“Neither were the Frost Giants,” Heimdall said.  He had not meant to call them that, but it had slipped out.  “If Thor and Loki are someday to rule, they’ll have to trade and talk with every kind of person in the galaxy.  I don’t want them to dismiss any out of hand, no matter how many stories they hear about them.”

“Still,” Volstagg said.  “I didn’t go through the skirmish we had with Jotunheim, but it was fierce.  You can’t blame those two for harboring misgivings about the giants in particular.  War might come to us from that direction again, and in our lifetimes.  They say Laufey steams and seethes over that Casket of his being in the Vault.”

“I am sure he does,” Heimdall said.  “And if there is war, the princes will fight bravely.  But until then—”

“Diplomacy,” Volstagg finished with a grin.  “I hear you, Heimdall.  Better you than me, to rear up boys while having to be that guarded with your words.”  He then turned the subject to the tutor and fighting instructor they had spoken of, and Heimdall tentatively agreed to Loki beginning to go to Volstagg’s house each afternoon.  If he behaved himself in the more trying environment—and Volstagg made it sounded like he lived amongst a hurricane of flung-about cookies and boots—then they would have their academics there and their lessons in battle at Heimdall’s.  Gara positively glowed at the mention of the latter and darted forward and hugged Heimdall as she and her father took their leave.

Left alone, Heimdall took a deep breath.  He could hear the birdsong and the distant sound of Thor and Loki diligently attacking the fruit trees with the fervor of any children given permission to thrash something around.

You must tell him.

He had to.  If only because he could not let Loki become a cruel jest, putting on his own original skin and thinking it was a costume.

It was the wrong time, but there would be no right time.  And if it went on much longer, Loki would not forgive Thor for knowing what he did not, and would not forgive Heimdall for letting it be so.  If he thought already that Loki was growing brittle, that he would break before he would bend, it was more likely to get worse than better.

I should have told him before I loved him, Heimdall thought.  It would have been easier then.  I would have minded his hurt, but not so much as to let it make me a coward.

He walked back to the garden.

Loki called out to him, “We have several apples and still more pears.  Thor knows how to make a tart.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” Heimdall said.

Thor looked wounded by this.  “You cut them up and put them in pastry and bake it, is that not right?”

Heimdall smiled.  “Essentially.  But there are details we may be missing.  I’ll find a recipe and we can try it.  My mothers must have passed on several that I’ve neglected to use.”

He had not realized until Loki had come along that his centuries of solitude had carried with them, from time to time, a loneliness.  When he had first become Asgard’s Gatekeeper, he’d been grateful for the quiet the Observatory had brought—silence had always been a scarce resource in such a crowded home.  But now he remembered other things.  The smell of browning butter.  Mother Freydis teaching him to use her astrolabe.  Mother Dagmar trying in vain to wash the ink out of her cuffs—she had sometimes worked as a scribe and her sleeves had always been blackened at their edges.  Battle-scars, Mother Hallsa had called those stains.  Yes, they would have had something written down somewhere, preserved for their son and the grandson they had not known they would someday get.  They had all cared for their legacies.

There was comfort in thinking of them now, as if he could feel some hand settling down on his shoulder.

“Recipes are on the bottom of the dark blue bookshelf,” Loki said authoritatively.

“Thank you.  Even I didn’t know that.”

“Well, Loki is uniquely equipped to see the lowest shelves of things,” Thor said.

“I am one inch shorter than you!”

“I know,” Thor said comfortingly.  “It must be very nice when you fall to have so little distance to go before you hit the ground.”

Loki tackled him and they fell to the ground—in the interest of fairness, Heimdall observed that both of them made a little oof of surprise as they hit it, with no discernible difference based on the disputed inch of height—and wrestled.

They were naturally bound to fight to a draw—both had been schooled in combat since they could walk and both had the typical Asgardian disdain for surrender and discomfort and so would bounce around regardless of their accumulating bruises.  Heimdall had seen their skirmishes before and always been amused by them and the way they would eventually just tire themselves out and collapse, each claiming victory.  But things were different now.  They could no longer love each other lightly, if they ever had.

Thor had been training all this time, while Loki had not.

And Loki was less willing than ever to lose.

Heimdall saw the very moment the fight turned.  Thor did not remember his advantage enough to be careful of it: he pinned Loki against the ground with all the exuberance of a puppy and all the hardened skill of a budding warrior, held him there with a grip Loki hadn’t yet learned.  His eyes were bright and there was a grin on his face.

“Yield, little brother.”

“Get off me!”  Loki slammed his head forward, cracking his skull against Thor’s and sending Thor reeling back with blood running from his nose and a daze in his eyes.  Loki pounced on him, driving him forward with blow after blow, no longer grappling but hitting him in earnest.  “Get off me,” he said again, though Thor was no longer on him, no longer doing anything but backing away and trying to fend him off, “get off me, I hate you, why do you always have to win?  I have nothing!”

Heimdall hauled him back.  Loki turned berserker in his arms, smacking one hand backwards into Heimdall’s eye.  He kept trying and failing to conjure up a dagger: it kept slipping away into silver mist.  He was crying in frustration, his face a horrible purplish-red, crying and howling.

“Loki,” Thor said.  He pinched his nose to stop the bleeding.  “Loki, brother, please.”

I am not your brother!”  Screaming this seemed to have exhausted him and he slumped forward.  Heimdall turned him around, intending to embrace him, but Loki twisted away from him and stalked a few paces away.

Thor sat down on the ground.

Heimdall turned his attention there and saw at once how tempting that would be, if he were called upon to parent them both—it was clear which of them was the easiest child.  “Is your nose broken?”

“No.  Only bloodied.  And my head hurts.”

“I should think.”  Heimdall examined him and thought it unlikely that the dizziness would last—all the same, he couldn’t trust Thor to make the walk back to the city on his own.  “I’ll have to escort you back.  If you get confused, you’ll wander off the path and wind up who knows where.  I’ll see you to a healer, as well.”

“Now?”  Loki’s voice was small.  “But I thought—”

“He cannot stay longer now,” Heimdall said sharply.  “You may have given him a concussion.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Did you not?  It seemed to please you in the moment.”

Loki’s face crumbled, as if his tears had dissolved him entirely.  Heimdall thought—hoped—he would say something, some apology, however poor, or some plea, however selfish.  But he only sucked in his breath and stood there a moment, his legs stiff but wobbly, stilts in wind; then he took off running back into the cottage, tearing open the door as if he wanted to rip it off his hinges.  Heimdall listened for the sound of breaking crockery or glass but heard nothing.

“Will I not get to say goodbye to him?” Thor said.  His eyes were wet now too.  “Heimdall, why did you drive him off?  We were having fun, just… before.  He didn’t mean to hurt me.”

“But he did,” Heimdall said.  His problem is not apathy.  Far from it.  But this truth did not seem helpful to Thor, who only went on looking as if he’d soon cry, so Heimdall said, “He changes.  What he does, what he means.  But his love for you—whatever else happens, that is constant.  It isn’t a question of meaning or not meaning, it’s only true.”

So he believed, at least.  It would be a fine thing if believing it made it so.  He was entitled to hope for that, if nothing else.

“His temper.  Is it because he’s—”

“No.  His temper, like his heart, is his own, exacerbated at the moment because of what’s been done to him.  He has good reason to be fitful and break some things, but your head isn’t one of them.”  He wanted to ask Thor not to tell his parents about this, but there was something repellant in asking a child to lie about his injury.

Thor nodded with his hand up to his forehead, as if trying to hold his head together: despite everything else that was happening, it made Heimdall smile.  “Can I go in and talk to him?”

“Yes, but just for a moment, because I do want to get you back in case he hit you harder than you think.  And if he comes at you in a fury, don’t try to reason with him, just come back out again.  He may need more time to come back to himself.”

Hobbled by injury, Thor could not, this time, run to his brother, but he set off quite deliberately.  Heimdall watched him enter the house—no knock, because what older brother knocked at his little brother’s door?—and found himself holding his breath, hoping that no sudden blast of magic would propel Thor back out the doorway and make a fool of them both.

But minutes passed, which gave him some comfort.  Though he supposed it was always possible there’d been a murder.

Then Thor emerged, wiping at his face sufficiently vigorously to get both blood and tears on his sleeve.  He came to Heimdall and said, “He says he wants to see you if you’re not too angry with him.”

That was neatly-done, he had to admit.  He wondered what level of anger would disqualify him and make it his own fault that he’d intruded against express instructions.  But he sat Thor down in one of the garden chairs—”Do not budge from this spot”—and went inside as requested.

Loki was lying facedown on the sofa, his misery total.  Heimdall couldn’t laugh at it.  He’d rather this than the blood streaming from Thor’s nose, if Loki were feeling what he was feeling—and how could he help but feel it?

He crouched down by the sofa and rubbed at Loki’s back.  Lacking much experience, he treated Loki like a puppy and hoped the boy would not be able to extrapolate that.

“You promised you could keep yourself from hurting anyone,” Heimdall said softly.

“I know.”  Loki burrowed his face further into the cushions.  “I was angry.”  He rolled over just a little and said, with real earnestness, as though he had not known this and so Heimdall certainly had not, “I am not very good at losing.”

Heimdall smiled a little at that, but it was a smile that quickly faded as Loki said, “And I lose over and over.  Things keep… going.  Being taken away.”

“And then they’re given back to you, a little, late, and you’re asked to be thankful for them.”

Yes.”

He had no answer for this and no cure.  It was true—it was even deliberate—and Loki’s resentment of it was natural.

Odin had not foreseen that all this pushing and prodding might shape Loki to be capable of love but not of loyalty.

“You are in an impossible situation,” Heimdall said.  “I wish I could give you advice, but I can’t.  All I can tell you is that I don’t want you to lose, and I don’t expect your gratitude for that or for anything else.  I don’t want to ask anything of you right now that’s not concrete.”

“Don’t burn down the kitchen.”

“And don’t head-butt your brother.”

“It hurt,” Loki admitted.

“I’m sure you’ll have an excellent bruise to show for it.”  He drew his thumb across Loki’s forehead experimentally and watched Loki wince.  “Sorry.”

“I don’t know why you did that when you just said that you knew it would be sore.”

“Morbid curiosity.  And it occurred to me it might be useful to know how thick your skull is if you’re going to go around slamming it into things.  It seems sound enough.”  He combed his fingers back through Loki’s hair.

“I ruined everything,” Loki said.

“No.  There’s nothing here that can be ruined so easily as that.  He’ll come back, we’ll try again.  But I do have to take him back to the city now.”  He said “the city” deliberately, rather than “the palace” or “home,” though he wasn’t sure it lessened the sting.  “Will you be all right to stay here alone?”

“I stay here alone all the time.”  He turned his head so that Heimdall could more easily get his fingers through the tangles at the back, which seemed like more of an answer than what he’d actually said.  “I won’t try to make a tart, if that’s what you’re wondering.  Cleaning the kitchen was boring.  Heimdall?”

A hmm in answer.

“Are you going to send me away?”

“No.  Not ever.”  He unraveled a knot.  “I’d promise you more if I could, but I can at least promise you that.  I won’t send you off or let you be taken, and there is no law of Asgard that could compel me to.  By all rights, when I took you, you became my responsibility, and that cannot be changed from without, only from within.  So you have the law on one side and my guarantee on the other, for whatever it’s worth.  I’m sure I’ll anger you, lecture you, appall you, and bore you, but I won’t leave you or cast you off.”  Another knot undone.  “Now rest.”

And somehow, without meaning to, he had again lost the opportunity to confess what he knew.

But Thor was waiting outside—and Thor’s patience was uncertain—and Loki was already overwhelmed.

There will always be a reason to hold your tongue.  It will always seem more practical; your silence always very pure in its intent.

“Loki,” he said.

“You’ve just told me to rest.”  But Loki opened his eyes all the same.

“There is something I’ll need to tell you, and sooner rather than later.”  And something, though he did not say this, that he knew he would never tell—the truth of Odin’s tacit permission of Thor’s rebellion.  “Tonight, if you wish it.”

“Tell me now.”

“It’s not something I can say quickly.”

Loki took this in.  There was little trust in his eyes.  “Then tonight.  Promise.”

“I promise,” Heimdall said, hoping that in doing so he was not burying all hope of future peace.  He wanted the high drama of these days to be over and done with.  He was more accustomed to peace than war, but it was war and trouble he’d always looked after and war and trouble he knew without gilt or haze or cynicism; he had to go back to his youth to find any firsthand experience of domestic life and so he knew the risk was he was idealizing it.  But he wanted that world of ordinary things and wanted to see Loki within it.  He wanted some time—some years, even—for their only concerns to be prosaic.  Apples, whetstones, rocks in the garden.  Goldenrod, snowshoes, the length of hair required for a braid.  The way the stone walls of the cottage held the autumn chill so that, walking around the house as he had earlier to meet the boys in the back, he had felt the cold seeping from the wall like water.  He hadn’t realized that these things, along with happiness, were what a parent most wanted to give a child.  The substance of life; a succession of days.

Not the fate of princes.

Chapter Text

“You should tell your parents that you know,” Heimdall said when he returned Thor to the palace.

“Why?” Thor said.  He had at last left off scrubbing his face clean and it was reddened but no longer bloody; aside from the smudge-like bruise and the cautious, slightly slow way he was moving, no one would be able to tell that anything had happened to him.  “They’ve told me nothing all these years.”

“It’s not the same.”  Not that he didn’t have an investment of his own, now, in excusing parents who hid things from their children.  “And even aside from that, you’ll get no answers if you don’t allow yourself to ask questions.”

Thor nodded.  They had walked to the marble archway on the least-trafficked side of the palace and now lingered there, waiting for some resolution that would no doubt be centuries in coming if it ever came at all.  Then he said, “He likes that garden, you know.  He doesn’t usually do that kind of magic.”

“What kind?”

“Trying to make things grow.  He said he could spell the flowers to be pretty but it wasn’t the same, so he’s—”  He stopped and gave Heimdall a pitying look.  “You didn’t actually think he was weeding, did you?”

Heimdall ignored this, mostly because he disliked the idea that Thor would go on giving him that condescending there-there look if he admitted that yes, he had thought that.  “What kind of magic does he usually do?”

“Shapeshifting, projections, illusions.  Those daggers of his.  You know, combat magic.  He’s very good at it.  Mother said…”  He swallowed.  “Mother said that they would wind up calling him the god of mischief someday.  But they won’t now, will they?  They only call you a god if you’re in line for the throne of Asgard.  Not of Jotunheim.”

“You aren’t truthfully gods in any case,” Heimdall said.

“But they won’t,” Thor said, hewing close to his own point.

Which Heimdall could not deny.  “No.  Your brother keeps your love, but it would be a lie to say Asgard itself was enamored of him.  They never despised him—taking time or energy to despise a child of his age would only make a fool out of whoever would attempt it—but he is not like them the way that you are.  They won’t give him his title as a favor.”

“You shouldn’t keep on letting him fight like a girl,” Thor said, as if that would solve everything.

“You said yourself he’s skilled with those daggers.  Why should he leave off a weapon he has a gift for and take up one he does not?”

“Because it isn’t what people do.”

“It isn’t what people do on Asgard,” Heimdall corrected.  “But he may not always be here, and it is not Asgard’s approval which he may need, ultimately.  He will need friends here, but I think he’ll get them on his own merits.  If he gives up on stabbing people, that is.  When you are not a prince of Asgard, when you will not be king of Asgard, it doesn’t matter whether or not you receive its public adulation.  Thank the All-Fathers.  I don’t know that I would have gotten it myself.”

“You’re different from how I thought you were,” Thor said.

“How so?”

“I don’t know.  Funnier.  You talk more.”  He shrugged, his mouth curving up suddenly in a smile as hard to resist as his brother’s.  “You don’t spend all your time holding a sword and staring out at the horizon.  Do you miss that?”

“I miss the stars,” Heimdall said truthfully.  “The way the cosmos wrinkles around them, black velvet full of jewels.  I miss the calm of it, and how certain I was that I did well.  But I had rather have your brother than my sight or anything else that comes with it.”

Thor hugged him as he bid him farewell.  Over his shoulder, walking away, he said, “I’ll tell them, since you want me to.”  It reminded Heimdall of the mutual oaths he and Odin had taken to each other a lifetime ago.  Of fealty.  Heimdall believed in such things.

Then there was nothing more for him to do but go home.  He delayed it a little, visiting the Observatory for a quick confirmation that all was well and then stopping to buy a scarf that Loki would not need for months, but time was relentless and bore him on to the trap he’d laid for himself.

Loki had returned to his usual perch at the window-seat, the better, Heimdall assumed, to see him coming.

I could turn around and run, Heimdall thought, only barely tongue-in-cheek.  Or I could invent something for him—that I have put off telling him that he has custard in his hair.  That I pretended to be serious in order to better tease him about it.

He disliked his past self intensely for putting him in this position.

He went inside.

Loki surprised him by first asking, “How does Thor fare?”

“Well enough.  Your bruise is worse, I think, and I’d venture now to say that he’s not concussed.  But you understand I had to take him back.”

“Yes, Heimdall.  I understand that you don’t want me doing those things.”  Ah, so he had left behind genuine contrition and moved on to sarcasm—or would have, had he not asked after Thor before anything else.  He did not make clean breaks.  “You had to punish me.  And look after the crown prince of Asgard.”

Heimdall raised his eyebrows.  “Do you plan to continue in this vein much longer?”

Loki made a face and then said, “No.”  He swung his legs down off the sill.  “What did you need to tell me?”

“Sit on the sofa,” Heimdall said, going there himself.

Loki didn’t budge.  “I am comfortable as I am.”  Stiff-bodied and far away, he undoubtedly meant.  “Tell me.”

No cataclysm, however hoped for, came to stop him.

“I know what realm the All-Father intends for you,” Heimdall said, “and why.”

Loki gripped the edge of the sill, his knuckles going white.  “Where?”

Heimdall could not answer his questions simply, and not in the order Loki might like.  Instead, he told the story of Loki’s first adoptions as best as he could, as best as he remembered or indeed had ever known it.

“We were at war,” he said, “but the war was nearly over.  You’ve never seen the chaos of those times.  Both sides had had heavy losses.  I was weary down to my bones—never mind seeing between the worlds, I could barely see my way to my own bed.”  He smiled, not as part of the story, but just at the memory: “And then Odin came to me with you in his arms.  You were a very noisy babe, very vocal in your opinions.  I thought at first that I’d dreamed you, that you were proof of my exhaustion.  But then—”

He had to say it.

“I realized what he had done.  Where he had come by you.  By now you know you are not his by blood.”

“I am not his in any way,” Loki said quietly.  “But yes.  And I am not hers, either… not by blood.”

“No.  You were found.”

“Where?”

“Odin thought you might someday—”

Where?”

Heimdall said, “On Jotunheim.”

All the blood rushed out of Loki’s face and he slid forward, his legs gone rubbery.  He slid down to sit against the wall.  He looked so small.  His skin was gray.  “On… on Jotunheim?”

Heimdall too sat down on the floor, though he could not bring them quite eye-to-eye.  “You were only a newborn, Loki.  Odin found you in a temple—I know not why you were there, but you were alone.  Half-starved.  Odin picked you up and you… changed.”

“No.”  Loki closed his eyes.  “I don’t believe you.  I’m not that.  I’m me.”

“You’ve worn this form for so long now it has become your own,” Heimdall said softly.  “It is not a lie.  You are yourself, inside and out.  But you are—or were—Jotun, Loki.  As well as Aesir.”

“I’m not.”  He tucked his knees up to his chest.  Tears had gotten into his eyelashes.  “I’m not, I’m not a monster.”

“You’re not a monster.  Jotuns aren’t monsters.”

“Yes, they are!”  Now Loki looked at him, and his anger was a blaze, as hot as an open oven.  “Yes, they are!  You’ve just finished telling me that they left me to die!  An infant, starving, on the ground!  To be rescued by an enemy king!  Don’t touch me!”

For Heimdall had reached out to hold him.  His own eyes were burning.  “Laufey left you there—you are heir to the throne of Jotunheim.”

“I spit upon the throne of Jotunheim.  I damn it.”

“The whole world did not leave you there,” Heimdall said.  He could not stand this.  He felt like his chest would crack open from the pain of it.  “There is nothing wrong with you.  There is nothing wrong with what you are.  You were hurt, grievously, by Laufey alone.  Only him.  The throne—the throne would be what you would make of it.”

Loki was shaking, shaking to the point where his teeth were almost chattering.  “Laufey abandoned me.  Father abandoned me.  There is something wrong—there must be something wrong with me.  What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing.  Nothing.”

“No, I—I’m not like Thor.”

“You do not have to be like Thor.”  This time Loki let him touch him, briefly; let Heimdall move some of his sweat-soaked hair off his face.  Though their eyes did not meet.  “I don’t want you to be.”

“I hurt him,” Loki said.  “When I—when I stabbed him, or today—I hurt him because I’m a monster, I’m a Frost Giant—”

“You are no monster, Loki, I swear to you.  Not every fault spells out darkness.”

“I’m going to be sick.  I want to… I don’t want to be that.  I want to cut it out of me, can I cut it out of me?  Heimdall, please.”  He was sobbing now.  “Heimdall, please help me, I can’t do this, I can’t be this, please.  I want my mother.  Mother!”  His voice cracked.

Frigga was there in an instant.  “Heimdall, what have you done?”

“Told him,” Heimdall said, with a sudden rage he hadn’t known he was capable of.  “Only undone what you and the king spent years doing.”

“Loki—”

Loki reached out to her and his fingers skimmed through the insubstantial light of her arm.  He went into a full-blown howl, like his very heart had been torn out of him.  “You’re not here, you’re not even here, you’re never here, I hate you.  I hate this.”  His face was so tight with agony that he looked grotesque, corpse-rigid.  He looked away from Frigga, looked away from Heimdall.  And then, at last, and only in heartbroken surrender, he collapsed against Heimdall and let Heimdall embrace him.  He had cried himself out of words.

“You are no monster,” Heimdall said.  “Shh, Loki.  You’re safe.  There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“I am coming,” Frigga said.  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Heimdall wasn’t sure how long a time it was before she arrived.  The minutes had softened and melted like wax.  He’d just been holding Loki and rocking him a little, saying nothing but nonsense, and then suddenly the queen was there.  She knelt down beside Loki, her skirts wide on the floor, and hugged him tightly.  Somehow Loki was transferred entirely to her arms.  Heimdall was left to the side, adrift.  Unsure.  Fearing he had just done irrevocable harm.

“I’m tired,” Loki said finally.  It must have been in the small hours of the morning.  In truth, Heimdall thought he’d fallen asleep long ago.

“Of course you’re tired, sweetheart,” Frigga said.

“You really came.”

“I’ll always come when you need me.”

Loki’s mouth became a straight line and then a wobbly one.  “No, you won’t.”

Frigga’s tears returned—no, Heimdall saw now that they had never left off, not really.  The queen simply cried more gracefully than most, her pain nearly invisible to those who would not look for it.  “I am your mother.”

“All right,” Loki said.  It was not yes, but it was not no, and as such it was kinder than Heimdall might have feared.  “But you won’t.”  He looked at Heimdall.  “Thor knew, didn’t he.”

“No,” Frigga said at the same time as Heimdall said, “Yes.”

Loki closed his eyes.  “You don’t lie to me,” he said to Heimdall when he opened them again.  “Not so often.  So he knew.  That makes sense.  Thor’s sudden defense of Frost Giants.”

“He only knew this morning,” Heimdall said.  “Not before.  He heard gossip and asked me about it… and guessed, before I could tell him or not tell him.”

“All of you knew,” Loki said.  “He knew and didn’t tell me.”

“He didn’t have much time—”

“He knew!”  It was a sudden scream, yet not very loud, because Loki had worn out his voice by now.  “And didn’t tell me!”

They bore the truth of this, as they were bound to, and Loki shakily accepted their silence.

“I’m tired,” he said again.  “I’m going to bed.”  And he lay down on the sofa, not bothering with blankets, and pressed his face against the cushions, hiding whatever tears there were, muffling whatever sounds he might make.  Heimdall thought they would never again see him as expressive and open as he had been tonight, in all his grief and rage.  The revelation had torn the skin off him; he would not let anything else expose the heart of him so.  He would choose scar tissue instead.

Frigga walked from the cottage and stood underneath the stars, which were growing dimmer and dimmer as the morning light began to pale the sky.  Heimdall joined her, as if to bear witness to something.  Their own sorrow, perhaps.  Her tears lingered on her face like traces of frost.

She said, “I always thought there would be more time.  Centuries, really, before he would even come of age.  Time enough, I thought, to imagine how to tell him.  To imagine how to make him see that he is my son.”  She exhaled.  “He will not call for me again.  Not like that, not in distress.  —Hela's mother took her own life, you know, when Odin took away her child.  When she knew she would never see Hela again.  I knew that when I married him.  I thought—I admired that he was capable of such a choice, capable of acquiring peace at the cost of tragedy.  But I am sick of peace, Heimdall.  I don’t know how different it is from war, if this is what it costs… but I am his wife, I am the queen of Asgard, and I can see as he sees.  That I weep now for my son so that thousands of mothers won’t weep for their as they fall in battle against Jotunheim.  But I cannot bear it.”

“Loki loves you,” Heimdall said.  “Needs you.  Thor loves and needs you too, and so does the king.  And the realm.”

“Have no fear, Gatekeeper,” she said with a ghostly smile.  “I will not have it be said of my husband that he destroys his wives; I’ll not fall by my own hand.  Only let me stand here a while.”

Heimdall watched the sunrise with her.  When the light first turned its pearlescent pink, Frigga extended her hand and let it catch her fingers, warm her skin.  She had at last stopped crying.

“He will forgive me someday,” she said.  There was an ache in her voice.  She looked at him.  “I will not lie to him, not again, but I take no vow against lying to myself.  Or requesting a lie from another.  He will forgive me, won’t he, Heimdall?  It will be hard, but—but someday things will be as they were.”

“I need not tell a lie to say that he will forgive you,” Heimdall said.  “I am sure of it.”

“But that is not all I asked.”

He touched her hand.  “And all between you will be as it was.”

There the lie came more easily than he had expected.  He understood too well how much she needed it.

She left him—left from one son who needed her to another, and how Heimdall did not envy her for having her heart thus cut in two—and Heimdall went inside.  He was weary as well.  He could have done without sleep, but he could not have lived through another such day.

He picked Loki up off the sofa and carried him into the bedroom and laid him down there, pulling the covers up around him.  Loki stirred, but only a little.  Heimdall fetched Brynn’s quilt for him once more.

“You’ll be more comfortable here,” he said softly, “and I hope you will sleep deeply.  I will not go to the city today.  I’ll be here when you wake.”

Chapter Text

Loki came out of the bedroom at a little after noon, very groggy, rubbing his eyes with one hand while keeping the quilt tight around his shoulders with the other.  His face was wiped clean of expression.  All he said was, “Asgard’s enemies could be at the gates while you sit here drinking tea.  Odin would strip you of your title if he didn’t need you to look after his war-prize.”

“I have considerable faith in my own skills,” Heimdall said.  “Asgard is safer under my occasional attention than it would be under most people’s constant vigilance.  Would you like some breakfast?”

“No.  I’m not hungry.”

Heimdall hesitated and then bargained.  “I’ll let you have cake.”

“I said I don’t want anything.”

“You didn’t have any dinner.  You have to eat something.”

“Then don’t ask me if I want breakfast!  If you’re going to make me eat anyway, just tell me to eat!”  He had both hands on the quilt now, his fingers so stiff they looked like claws; it was like he was trying to cocoon himself.  Even shouting had not put any color in his cheeks or taken the slackness from his face.  He went into the kitchen and began slamming cupboards open and closed until, in the cooling cabinet, he found a soft cheese; he began to eat it with his fingers, which were still garden-dirty under the nails.  He got halfway through before his face suddenly contorted and he ran to the sink and gagged and spat in it.

Heimdall gave up trying to be careful with him and figure out what was best.  He put his hands on Loki’s shoulders as Loki heaved into the sink, gentling him as he would have done with a scared horse.  “Go out into the garden and sit there.  I’ll be out in a moment.”

Loki wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.  His eyes were a little glassy.  “Can I take the quilt?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t want it to get dirty.”

“It knows dirt,” Heimdall said.  “We used to use it sometimes for picnics.  It can survive being laundered.”

Loki took this in slowly and then nodded and shuffled off, his steps made small by the tightness of the quilt.

Heimdall rinsed out the sink.  He let the water run over his hands for a moment—water always made him think of the Bifrost, its simultaneous directness and diluted waywardness, its power, its ability to either rescue or destroy.  It soothed him.  It contained no worries.  He sighed and shut it off and gathered up bread and jam; poured a mug of milk.  So he would have a picnic again, would do as a parent what he’d not done since he was a child, ages and ages ago.

Loki looked up when Heimdall joined him on the spread-out quilt.  “I drink tea,” he said.  He sounded mildly injured that Heimdall had presumed otherwise.  “I don’t drink milk, I’m not a baby.”

He had to bite his tongue to keep from saying that yes, he did know that Loki sometimes took a tablespoon of tea in his milk and looked very pleased of himself for it.  “It’ll be easier on your stomach.”

“Should I not eat… glass and thorns and babies?  Is that not my heritage?”  He turned his head, giving Heimdall a clear view only of his ear, and further hid his face by taking a long drink and tilting the mug up almost parallel.

Heimdall’s heart broke for him.  At that moment, were he Odin, with Odin’s power, he would have anyone who had ever so much as whispered such things to Loki flogged to pieces.  “I have been to Jotunheim, Loki.  At their tables, you’d find no glass, no thorns, no babies.  Not even lamb or veal, so far as I can remember.  They favor fruit.”

“And molds and mosses,” Loki said, a clear challenge in his voice.  “And blood.  Lady Vigdis told me that, I know it’s true.”

“True enough.  But mushrooms are eaten here, are they not?  If we were more familiar with the molds and mosses eaten by the Jotuns, we’d call them by their proper names—we would know their truffles, even.  And it’s no stranger to drink an animal’s blood than to eat its flesh.”

“It’s disgusting.  It’s filthy.  It makes me sick.”

“I can’t say I’m inspired to try it myself, but I don’t have the stomach for it.  Neither, in your current form, do you.”

“You have an argument for everything,” Loki said quietly.  He tore away a piece of bread and spread jam on it with one fingertip, ignoring the knife entirely.  “So very, very reasonable.  Tell me the worst thing you know of a Jotun, and don’t slather it with treacle talking about how, oh, you know bad things of the Aesir, too.  Just tell me.”

“I have no reason to fight with you there.  I’ve told you already.  The worst I know of any Jotun is that Laufey left you, his infant son, crying and starving on the floor of their temple in the middle of a war.”

“The All-Father took me so that I might go back and claim the throne,” Loki said.  “That is what he said—that I would claim the throne and be an ally to Asgard.”

“That is his hope.”

“I don’t want to,” Loki said.  “I don’t want to leave home again and go somewhere strange and awful, and drink blood, and always be cold.  I don’t want to see Laufey unless I am there with a dagger in my hand to kill him.”  He frowned, his eyes dropping half-closed, and a dagger bloomed into his hand, the same trick he—thankfully—had not been able to accomplish yesterday when trying to get Heimdall to let go of him.

“Where do those come from?” Heimdall said.

That is what you’re interested in?”

“I don’t foresee us resolving your feelings about Jotunheim or your birth in a morning, let alone a single question, so at the moment, yes.  You do it well, I’m just curious as to how it works.  Does it come from the same space as your armor, or do you make them anew each time?”

Loki vanished the dagger and looked at him almost suspiciously, as if Heimdall would steal his trick and peddle the spell from one end of Asgard to the other, and then said, “I make them each time, but they do not last.  It’s like with the butterflies—they aren’t independent.  Magic can’t make something real out of nothing—you even have to use a little bit of yourself to get something like this.  It makes you tired if you do too much of it, though Mother says I’ll get stronger as I go.  You really don’t know this?”

He shook his head.  “The magic to see is very different.”

“And that is the natural direction of your magic?”

He had such a bossy, professorial voice when Heimdall could get him going, and could keep himself from smiling at it.  “It is.”

“Well, then you probably couldn’t learn to make things now, not when you’re old.  Not if the magic is so different and you can’t find a way to make it the same.”

“But you can still change your magic?”

Loki seesawed one hand.  “I have a natural direction, too.  Everyone does.  I can… persuade it, translate it.”

“Thor said you were trying to make the flowers grow.”

Loki looked sheepish.  “I was trying to convince them it’s spring.  But they can tell I’m lying.  So lately I have just been watching them—trying to learn to see what they’re doing underground.  It is a botany lesson.”

“And practice,” Heimdall said.  “If I am to teach you to see between the worlds.”

Loki pressed his thumb down into the bread and left a deep indentation there.  “The All-Father won’t let you teach your skills to a Frost Giant.”

“He has never cautioned me against teaching you anything,” Heimdall said.  “And besides that, my skills are my own, to teach to whomever I choose; they are not the All-Father’s property merely because they often use his instruments.  I wish to teach you, so I will.”

Loki looked at him sideways, trying to sniff out some lie, and then he said, “When were you going to tell me?  You must have had some plan, you could not have just thought that I would come of age and you would hand me Jotunheim like a bauble.”  He abandoned the piece of bread he’d been halfheartedly eating and stretched out on his stomach; folded his arms and rested his head on top of them, his eyes averted to the ground and hidden besides.  “I hate it.  It’s like there’s something wrapped around my heart that I can’t get off.  I am… wrong.  All of me is wrong.  Of course I can do tricks, I am a trick.”

“You’re no such thing.”  But he was frustratingly aware that there was no argument, no amount of calm, no amount of reason that would take away what Loki felt.  It hadn’t done so last night—He knew!  And didn’t tell me!—and it would not do so now.  “I didn’t know when to tell you.”

“But you told me once Thor knew.”

“Yes.”

Loki lay still for a moment and then said listlessly, “He’s so stupid.  Taking up arms for the Frost Giants just because he found out I’m one.  That changes nothing.  Heimdall?  Can we go somewhere?”

“Where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know.  Somewhere.”

He made the decision on impulse.  “Yes.  If you can abide company, I can take you to meet my mothers.”

Loki sat up.  “I thought you couldn’t until you had your apprentice.”

“No, I shouldn’t until I have my apprentice.  But I think this falls under special circumstances.  And, as you pointed out yourself, I have been absent often of late, what harm would one more day do?  The Bifrost knows clear threats and summons without my help—the Observatory will announce them to anyone with any sense in their head—so I can be spelled for a while.  I am derelict in my duty anyhow, or so I’ve been told.”

A half-hearted smile—no, quarter-hearted at most.  “Are you going to tell them what I am?”

“It would be easier if I could, with your permission.  Otherwise I’ll be besieged by questions about if I’ve married, when I married, why I did not invite them, why I did not notify them of your birth, why their one grandchild has been unfairly withheld from them all these years.  They’ll be more forgiving of me if they know you’re a recent acquisition.”

“I am not their grandchild,” Loki said, frowning.  “You are not my father or uncle or anything.  I just live with you.”

Heimdall ignored the thorn this pushed into his heart.  He didn’t know that it would do any good now—if ever—to try to coax Loki into looking at him differently.  Hadn’t the boy had enough of being pushed from father to father?  “No matter what you say, I’m sure they’ll take you as such.  You have no competition for the role and should probably prepare yourself for being thoroughly spoiled.”

Loki did not appear convinced of this, but he lifted his chin a little in a kind of half-nod.  Partial, like the smile, but something Heimdall felt he could build upon.

“Who are you going to find to turn the sword around?”

“To stand guard,” Heimdall corrected.  “In this case, turning the sword around would be secondary.  Ordinary passages are far more difficult to open up than ones where your passenger is in distress—that’s when the Bifrost often acts with its own experience, as I said.”

“If it’s only for security, you can take the matter to the palace guard.  Ivar is competent.”

“I should hope they all are.”

“Well, Ivar is the most so.”

He bowed his head gravely.  “I shall take your recommendation.”  Loki flushed a little at the compliment and condescended to eat another bite of his breakfast.

Then he said, “Wait, does that mean we’re flying?  I’ve never flown before.”

“Have you not?”

No, because there’s always been someone to open up the Bifrost for me.  I’ve never been on a ship before.”

“You’ll like it,” Heimdall said brazenly, because, though he couldn’t know, he thought Loki would.  Passengers—and royal passengers especially—could command the Bifrost and its keeper, but they could not control it; traveling by it invariably made them cargo, however precious.  A ship—well, Loki would hate the slowness of it, but he would like the view and the freedom.  Or, alternately and less promisingly, the sensation of flight and sometimes-wobbly adjustments of onboard gravity would make him queasy and he would spend the whole trip locked in the bathroom.  It would probably be one of those two things.

Besides, going by ship meant going, not just being gone—it would let Loki leave Asgard behind, lightyear by lightyear, and there might be some solace in that, in gaining distance he could see and feel.

“Freydis, Hallsa, and Brynn,” Loki recited.

“Yes.  You might tell Brynn you’ve been enjoying her quilt.”

Loki nodded, his fingers absently stroking a square of it.  He said, “I’m sorry about your other mothers.”

It surprised him that Loki would have thought to say it—often, Heimdall knew, his three mothers still seemed like too many, such that no one saw the hole left where the other six had been.  Only their family had felt that absence and how it cut so deeply as to have scored their bones.  He wished he could have brought Loki to them all, that Hilde with her smithy-burned hands could have hoisted him up onto her shoulders, that Svanne could have fallen all at once into trying to teach him her mother-tongue, that Gunndis could have shown him how best to make the flowers grow with no magic but the earth’s own, and on and on.

“Thank you, Loki,” he said softly.  “That’s kind of you.  They would have liked your company very much.”

“You can tell them.  About me.  If you have to.”

“It won’t make a difference to them,” Heimdall said.  “They’ll think no less of you.”

“They ought to.”

“Thankfully, they aren’t governed by an eight year-old’s idea of what they should and should not think.”

He saw just the tip of Loki’s tongue before Loki seemed to decide that sticking it all the way out in response to this would have been childish enough to half-prove Heimdall’s point.  Loki finished his milk instead and made a game show of looking defiant and disapproving with upper lip still wet from it.  He said, “I don’t… I don’t have to go to the palace with you to find Ivar, do I?”

Sometimes keeping up with his thoughts was like trying to follow the path of a bumblebee.  “No.”  And in fact he’d rather Loki didn’t, considering he would have to appeal to Odin himself for the loan of the guard—but Loki surely knew that and was just omitting it.  He would, this time, remember to tell Volstagg that they had changed their plans.  “I’ll return with a ship.  Pack some of your clothes—we shouldn’t be gone quite a week.”  He’d let Loki make his own estimate of what that meant—the boy was neat as a general rule but could reduce his garments to wrack and ruin if truly inspired, so it was impossible to know what he would need.

“Should I pack for you too?”

All-Fathers, this would be a mistake on his part, given the strangeness of Loki’s free-floating sense of humor, but…  “If you would not mind.”

“I wouldn’t.”

A terrible decision.  “Then yes, thank you.  If you have time.”  He stood up but then hesitated.  “Stay out here as long as it serves you.  If we need be, we can always pack up when I return.  Go to Volstagg’s if you need anything, or—or call your mother.”

“I won’t do that,” Loki said, his voice as hard and faceted as a gemstone: whichever way Heimdall looked at it, he could see the glint of some emotion that opposed another.  “I don’t want to talk to her.  She doesn’t come when I ask her to, not all the time, she can’t even hear me if she’s doing something else.  She only hears me if I scream.”  He said that with such total, flat confidence that Heimdall knew he had screamed for her before, not only just last night; Loki had unraveled in ways he had not seen.  “Or if you’re there, because you…”  He paused, searching for the right word.  “Amplify it.  And I don’t want to go to Volstagg’s, why should I go to Volstagg’s?  To turn into a Frost Giant to amuse them and tell them I am one to terrify them?  And,” he added before Heimdall could try to say anything about this, “the little children will be around, and the little children are annoying.  I only like Gara.”

He could find now gentle way to say, I’d rather you be irritated by a herd of toddlers than stay here gnawing at your own hurts.  Or worse.

“I can be alone,” Loki said.  “You always think I can’t be, but I can.”

Heimdall studied him.  “I do trust you,” he said.  “It’s no different from not wanting to leave you alone if you had a broken leg.”

“Yes, it is,” Loki said, and he would take no argument on it.

Chapter Text

His talk with Volstagg was brief but painless—

“I figured him for getting a little poleaxed by the prince turning up,” Volstagg said.  “But you’ll get your boy’s feet back under him again.  Sending him off to be petted by his grandmothers will speed it along, no doubt, and give you a break in the bargain.”

—but no fit rehearsal for his talk with the king.

Once again they spoke alone.

“You have told him,” Odin said.  “I had imagined you would wait longer.”

“I’d intended to.  But Thor guessed.”

“Thor guessed because you did not govern yourself,” Odin said sharply.  “You allowed a child to hedge you into an admission you’d no wish to make—it is incredible to me that I thought fit to trust you with my son.”

“With respect, my king, he is no longer your son, he is mine.  And I might have concealed the truth a little better had I not found Thor speaking of the Jotuns as though they were animals.  He is still in your keeping, All-Father.  Perhaps you should have governed what views he heard.”

Odin sighed.  He looked no better than when Heimdall had seen him last—rather worse, in fact, with his eyes bruised from lack of sleep.  “And when I have you executed for impertinence, Gatekeeper of Asgard, whose son will Loki be then?”  He rubbed his temples.  “Believe me, Heimdall, I am well-aware of my own failings, and require neither your notice nor your judgment of them.  Even when prefaced with that mealy-mouthed ‘perhaps,’ which I like even less than outright criticism.”

“I spoke out of turn,” Heimdall acknowledged.  He did not add, Though you began it, but did reflect that the remark occurring to him at all was yet another sign that he’d been spending so much time in Loki’s company.  “In any case, the matter is told.  It made for a hard night.  Here as well as there, I’m sure.”

“My queen has secluded herself.  And my son does not speak to me.  Is this the cost you hoped I’d bear?”

“No.”  And however vindictive his mind could turn when confronted with Loki’s grief and pain, this was true.  “I would not wish that pain on them, nor the knowledge of it on you.  And you are my king, and have been for nearly all my life.  You have my loyalty.”

And my love, he would have added once, in younger days, when his heart had been softer and his faith in the throne more absolute.

“I suppose if you live too long in the shadows, you start to grasp at them,” Odin said, which was as close as he would likely come to an apology.  “Gossamer things.  You have ever been solid, Heimdall, stalwart and true.”

He could always tell Odin’s exhaustion—or his deflection—from the way he would slip into platitudes.  Heimdall merely inclined his head, unwilling to give thanks for a compliment given under circumstances such as these.

“But you did not come to tell me that Loki now knows the truth,” Odin said.  “Last night left its mark, and even if Thor had not told me all, I think Frigga would have.  So why have you come?”

“To borrow one of your palace guards to stand at the Observatory for a few days.  Or more than one of them, in watches, if they’re not accustomed to such hours.”  He paused.  “Loki mentioned a man named Ivar.”

“Yes, he gave Loki a piggyback ride when he was younger and consequently it seems Loki would die for him.”  Odin brushed his hand beneath his eye, half-chuckling.  “To cry at that, after everything…  Do you intend a longer absence?  And such an immediate one as to forbid you waiting for your apprentice?”

“I’ve promised Loki a trip.  To my mothers’ home on Ingberg.”

“I had almost forgotten your mothers,” Odin said, and for a moment, they could have been any two men, a little aged, a little weary, surprised by memories of their youth.  “What a childhood passion I had for Svanne—much to your chagrin, as I recall.  She humored me enough for a dance, once.  I haven’t thought of that in a century at least.  Yes, go see them, take him, it will be all to the good.  Give them my regards, if they don’t immediately want to poison me or damn me for a brat for the means by which I gave them their grandchild.”

He had not expected such easy assent: he had saved up arguments for naught.

He had forgotten Odin’s ancient, childish infatuation with his mother Svanne, yes, but more than that, he had forgotten—and he had some contempt for himself for doing so—that Odin too loved Loki.  Of course he was bound to see the benefit of shuttling the boy away for a few days, to comfort and kindness and strangers.  It was only when his love clashed with his kingdom that that love began to seem like cruelty.

“I will remember you to them,” he said.  “I do not swear to take responsibility for any poisoning or damning that may occur afterwards.”

Odin shook his head, the ghost of a smile on his face.  He was quiet a long time, long enough that Heimdall almost thought he’d been silently dismissed, and then he said, “I have been thinking I will visit Hela.”

He couldn’t exit on such a line.  Though really, he thought, Odin’s sense of timing was peculiar.  “Have you?” he said inanely.

“For that I will need you in residence and at the top of your powers and attention.”

“I can imagine.”

Heimdall had never feared Hela, but he had never loved her, either; he had been too rarely in combat to have a soldier’s loyalty to his general, though he knew there had been those who would have gone wherever she pointed them, who would have waded through blood to bring her her heart’s desire, who would have set their own lives on the funeral pyre to please her.  But that love was not his.  Still, he had known enough of fear, and who was worthy of it, that he had watched her carefully.  Even as an enemy, she merited his respect, though he could show it only in his wariness.  No, he would not chance an open door between him and Hela Odinsdottir with him at anything less than his full strength.

“I suppose I don’t have to ask what inspired you,” he said.

“No.  I suppose you don’t.”  Odin looked at Gungnir carefully, as if he might see some answer hiding inside it.  “I don’t know that it will do any good, my talking to her.  For years and years, before her imprisonment, we talked, and no good came of it, no peace.  But nonetheless I think I owe it to her.  How did Loki take the news?”

There had been no pause, but Heimdall seldom expected one from him.  “I’m sure the queen told you.”

“Yes, but of this morning.  How did he take it after a night’s rest?”

“He’s trying.”  It was all he could think to say.  “He is in a great deal of pain, but he hasn’t yet let it drown him.  But he hates Jotunheim, my king.  He thinks it is a realm of monsters.”

“Scrub that censorious tone from your voice,” Odin said.  “I never used that word.”

No, nor ever refuted it.  Though he could follow the logic of that, much as he hated it.  Asgard had gone so quickly from triumph and conquest to peace and prosperity, had become a golden age of song with little to sing of.  They trained their warriors still, and there was little measure for a man except how brave he proved himself in battle… but, nowadays, so few wars.  They sent their boys off into skirmishes, peacekeeping ventures that required bloodshed as peacekeeping so often seemed to; they gave them fights that they could boast of.  Some few, truly exerting themselves, still sought out adventures, quests that took something from them and chanced giving nothing back.  But those were rare, and all else was paltry compared to the old epics.  The war with Jotunheim had left its mark and people spoke of it still.  Take away their aggrandizement of it—heroes against monsters! golden valor! hot blood on plains of ice!—and it was like taking wine from their cups.  The All-Father had, Heimdall thought, eyed the mood of his people and let the slights against Jotunheim grow.

All well, if not good, until they came to this: Loki and the father he would remember as having never defended him, never argued against him being some kind of devil.

“And you,” Odin said, “you have had words against the Jotuns in your time.  Or do you forget that?”

“I remember.  We need not fight, your majesty.  You asked and I answered, that is all.  He hates his blood and I don’t know what to do about it.  Not yet.  When he is older—when we can make peace enough to keep him safe—I want to take him to Jotunheim, to see it for himself.  When he can see between the worlds—”

“You intend to teach him?”

“I do.”

“And when he looks on Jotunheim and despises it?”

“How can he hope to rule a world he does not know?  Has not even the slightest acquaintance with?  That would not be us installing a king, All-Father, that would be us conquering Jotunheim.  If that is your plan, I would know it, for it may change mine.  Besides,” he added far too belatedly, “he may not like it.”  Though he thought this unlikely.  He had, in truth, never seen anything on Jotunheim that would rival Asgard in beauty, and Loki would go in looking to be displeased.  He would have to hope time and intimacy would alleviate that; would have to concede that the mere sight of the world would not.

Odin looked at him a little loftily, as if he knew all that Heimdall was telling himself.  Perhaps he did.

They were in a stalemate, each looking at the other and thinking, You hurt him.

But Heimdall was not king, and so had to give way.  He lowered his head.  “He may well despise it.  I believe time will change that.  In any case, my king, he needs activity; I’m arranging tutoring and weapons training for him, but he needs something more, something untouched by his past.”

“Something of yours,” Odin said.  “Your mothers.  Your gift.”

Heimdall regarded him steadily.  On this, he would not yield.  “I have a claim, do I not?”

“Yes,” Odin said, as if he had not given it to him.  As if Heimdall had stolen it.  “You do.”

Things between them had been briefly easy, and he wished to recapture that: it would do him no good to incur Odin’s wrath, and they had been friends of old.  He said, “You may tell Thor that Loki says he’s stupid.  I think that may well put his mind at ease.”

Odin’s pain crumbled away into grief, like erosion beginning a landslide.  Yet he smiled.  He said, “Yes, I think it may.”

That left only to speak to his mothers and give them some warning of what to expect.  In the quiet of one of the palace gardens, Heimdall closed his eyes and looked inward.  When he had found the right direction in his heart, he opened his eyes again.

His mother Brynn stood before him in the garden.  She looked the same as ever—bird-boned and sharp-eyed.  She rarely smiled with anything but her eyes, but they were bright now, joyous.  “My wayward son.  It’s been a long time since you’ve come to me like this.”

“I wanted to see you clearly,” Heimdall said.  No holographic projection of her would do, not now, and he didn’t want to chance any static blurring what they said.  “But just to see you at all, right now, is—I’ve missed you.”  He wanted, in fact, to put his head down against her narrow shoulder and give up all his cares to her.  She was not the one he had come to most for comfort but she was the one he had come to most for answers, and he badly needed answers: Tell me what to do, Mother.  I don’t know how to take care of him, help me.

“We always miss you.  We can be there for you in an hour, if you like.”

“No, this time I thought I would come to you, if you would have me.  Us.”

“Heimdall, if you’ve married and not told us—”

“No,” Heimdall said.  He could feel his humor alongside his exhaustion.  “But I’ve gotten a son without telling you.”

Now she truly smiled.  “I thought you looked tired, and no wonder.  Nine of us when you were born and we still had no sleep for all your squalls.  No wonder you want to visit and thrust him into our arms.”

“Oh, I’m tired, but not from caring for a newborn.  He’s eight.”  To somewhat forestall the questions, he added, “His name is Loki,” and saw Brynn’s expression change just a fraction.  She had not been absent from Asgard so long she did not know its royal family.

“Like the youngest prince?”

“Entirely like the youngest prince,” Heimdall said, and did his best to explain.

She interrupted halfway through.  “Do you mean to tell me,” she said in her thin, whippy voice, “that Odin, king of Asgard, after snatching him up and raising him to call him father, forsook my grandson?”

No one had ever raged quite like Brynn.  That more than anything, he realized, was why he had called out to her rather than to the others.  He had needed her anger, like her quilt, to warm him.


Loki liked the ship, Heimdall could tell from how closely he watched each flicked switch, each movement of the throttle.  That magpie look of his, bright-eyed and curious: it would serve him well.  He did not come to trouble through ill-attention or carelessness but through active, closely-observed choice—perhaps it wasn’t the best thing that could be said of his character, but it augured an aptitude for the kind of magic Heimdall intended to teach him.  Loki’s little forgeries and illusions would not have been half so convincing if he hadn’t known each small detail of their originals.  Yes, he would see far, if Heimdall had any gift at all for teaching him.

“Can I fly?” Loki said.

He had chosen the right time to ask, at least: they had left the atmosphere and Heimdall could spy nothing in the immediate vicinity that they could run into.  And Loki, he was fairly sure, couldn’t reach the hyperdrive control from the pilot’s seat.

Briefly,” Heimdall said.  “If you give me your word you’ll be out of that chair at once if I tell you to be.”

“I promise.”

Heimdall stood and let Loki move into the seat.  “Hands here and here,” he said.  “Hold it lightly.  If you put too much pressure on it, you’ll wind up moving us up and down.  Good.”

“I know sometimes you can get them to spin in a circle—”

“No.  Under no circumstances.”

Loki complained about this for a bit, but his hands stayed in place and their touch stayed light; Heimdall knew nothing of teaching piloting, but he thought this might be something to be proud of.  And Loki kept up a sustained interest in it even though, in the end, he was doing nothing but keeping them level, a task that could well have bored him, especially as he was a child who grew bored easily.  So he did better when he chose his own tasks.

At last Loki surrendered the piloting back to him, saying with a flicker of embarrassment, “My hands are getting sweaty.”

Heimdall took his seat again.  “You did that very well.  Though I think it took a decade off my life to watch you do it.”

Loki’s lips twitched, as if he were acknowledging a passing smile, one he had a vague acquaintance with.  He folded up his legs underneath him so he wouldn’t have to sit with them dangling down and not quite touching the floor.  “How far is it to your mothers’?”

“They live on Ingberg, which is—”

“‘A cool-climed world with many beautiful and peculiar native flowers.’  We had to learn a brief description of each world in each Realm.  Do you want to know the description of Jotunheim?”

He had the feeling he did not.

“‘Icy and inhospitable to life, Jotunheim is the realm of the Frost Giants.’”

“If it’s a realm of anyone, I would think it would evidently not be inhospitable to life.  And in answer to your first question, it’ll only be another hour or so.”

“It’s lucky they’re close.”

Heimdall had traveled by ship so seldom that he had never thought before of the distance; either he opened the Bifrost for his mothers and their passage to him was near-instantaneous or they were apart.  But now he wondered if they had chosen a nearby world in the hope that he might do as he was doing now.  If they had asked, he would have come, of course…

“Yes.  It’s lucky.”

Loki raised his eyebrows but left this bland response alone and began conjuring soap bubbles which he sent over to Heimdall in great flotillas.  Heimdall could live with this so long as all they did was nest briefly in his hair before popping back into non-existence, but Loki gradually developed a distinct preference for putting them straight in his eyeline.  Space turned into a series of pearlescent rainbows.

“No more of that, Loki.”

“But I’m bored.”

“Find another way to entertain yourself.  I’m convinced your ingenuity is up to the task.”

“Fine,” Loki said in a frostbitten tone that promised that he intended to make Heimdall sorry for saying so.

He might as well intervene before the boy’s plans for mischief progressed.  “Shall I tell you a story?”

Loki’s answering look amounted to I cannot stop you.

“Once there was—”

“No,” Loki said.  “Something about you.  About your mothers.”

He was so seldom asked to talk about himself.  He had been in service to the king, and his concerns had been the king’s concerns, and his conversation more about what he had seen than what he had done; ever since taking on Loki, he had been preoccupied with him, his moods, his future, his heart.  It took him a moment to begin—his history as dusty and cobwebbed as the cottage had been.

“When I was young—”

“How young?”

“Around Gara’s age, I suppose.  I don’t remember precisely.  The older you get, the less it seems to matter.”

Loki regarded this evidence of adult apathy with clear distaste but said, “All right.”

“I was, of course, considered far too young for battle.  And I got my growth rather late, which did not help: by the time it came, I had it all at once and shot up like a weed, and I judged all the aches in my bones and the constant new clothes as an acceptable price to pay for at last getting my height and beginning to look like a man.  I was on the cusp of getting out of childhood and impatient with it.”

The ages of the Aesir, roughly, were childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age, and though the speed at which one moved through them varied greatly, the confines and blessings of each station were absolute: youths might go to war—though it was rarer now than it had been in those days—but never children.

“It was expected in those days that all boys—and all the girls who wished to be Valkyries—would make an attempt to sneak off-world with a war party.  They never succeeded and it was never intended that they should.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“These things often don’t.  But as soon as you started to show the first and lightest shadow of maturity, the clock started ticking—you were to disobey the orders of all your elders and prove your courage and thirst for battle by striving to get to it centuries before your time.  The discipline necessary for war would come later—this was just a test of your mettle.  You were to try, fail, and be punished.  At least once, often twice.”

“When you knew it was impossible?”

“Oh, we all thought our own try would be the exception.  But in any case, we knew the adults were watching us to see what we did.  Be grateful this is no longer the tradition.”

“It’s stupid,” Loki said, with an earnestness that suggested he thought Heimdall might not know this.  “It’s bafflingly stupid.  I’d be embarrassed to do something I was meant to fail at and then get punished for it.  And why should they punish you for it if they wanted you to do it?  It doesn’t make any sense.”

Heimdall smiled.  “Remember this the next time you decide Asgard’s opinions are the truth against which all else should be measured.  But you do understand the idea, I take it, however lack-witted you consider it.”

Loki reluctantly nodded.  Of course he understood, Heimdall thought, it was Odin’s Asgard distilled—kindness and cruelty and contradictory plans within plans.  That had still been in the Age of Conquest, but the seeds of transformation had already been there waiting to sprout.

“Then you can likewise understand,” Heimdall said, “that a crucial part of the game was pretending not to know there was one.  It had to be at least a little reasonable to think you might succeed at sneaking off unnoticed—as I said, we all believed we would be the lucky one to make it.  But if you are small for your age, you aren’t allowed such illusions.  If I tried to join the war party, it would be obvious that I knew that they would find me out at once.  So I was supposed to wait, years and years, until I got my growth… but meanwhile, my friends were already making their attempts and taking their beatings and being accorded a kind of respect.  I was jealous.”

Loki understood that too, certainly.  “What did you do?”

“Oh, in my infinite wisdom, I decided that there would be some other way to prove how eager I was to barrel into harm’s way.  If any warrior would know me at once for a boy, I thought, a beast would not.”

For the first time that day, he saw Loki’s cares leave him.  He wriggled around in his seat to face Heimdall.  His mouth was tight with barely-suppressed laughter.  “Oh, Heimdall,” he said pityingly.

“I did live to tell the tale,” Heimdall said, somewhat inclined to defend his honor.

“What kind of beast?”

“A gray panther of Usepp, and it took some doing to contrive our encounter, so I expect you to be impressed.  He had been in the royal menagerie and had escaped and started living in the trees, which was a nightmare for those living near the woods but a great opportunity for me.  I armed myself with my practice sword—a little sharper than yours, but not by much—and went out to slay him.  Of course, the palace guard were also on the hunt for him, and, unlike me, they knew something of tracking, but I did not let that discourage me.  I spread rumors that the panther had been seen on the far side of the forest.  The guards, too trusting by far, went off there, and I had the prime territory to myself.

“It took me hours to hunt the panther down, and in the end I succeeded only because he began to hunt me.  It was dark by the time we found each other.”

Loki leaned forward.  “What happened?”

“The panther leapt down from the trees.  I moved just in time for him not to land on my back—if he had, he would have gotten its teeth into my throat and that would have been the end of me.  As it was, we fought on the ground.  I only thank the All-Fathers the panther was light-colored enough that I could make out his shape—his shape and his teeth.  I hit him with my blunted practice sword over and over.  His cries were like nothing I’d heard before or since—more angry than hurt, but scared, too.  Poor thing, he had been in the menagerie half its life, I was probably the first two-legged prey he had ever come across.  I kept hoping he would run and he must have kept hoping I would, but we both stood our ground… until a blast of magic knocked us apart.  The palace guard had found us at last.  I went sprawling and knocked my head into a tree.  The panther did likewise, and that was the last I knew of any of it until I woke in my bed with all nine of my mothers glowering down at me.  I was scratched and bruised and bloodied, and they weren’t in the least bit pleased about it.  And for many years I was considered too foolhardy to be trusted in any good company of warriors—Heimdall the Reckless, they called me.”

“And the panther?”

“A battered old campaigner by the time I was through with him.  The guards managed to corral him and return him to the menagerie.  I visited him sometimes and we eyed each other with respect—it pleased me then to be respected by someone, even if it was only the cat.  When I was old enough, and when I had gained back enough trust from those who mattered, I bought the panther myself and took him off-world, back to Usepp.  Fed him skinned partridges until he could hunt on his own.  For all I know, you’d see his children in those woods still.”

Loki, discarding all potential lessons in the story, said, “I would like a panther.”

“You may have a cat,” Heimdall said, “of ordinary size.”

He saw Ingberg, coolly blue-green, come into view.

“Look,” he said to Loki.  “Our destination.”

They set down in a field of long aquamarine grass, each stalk rough—Loki crouched down to investigate it and informed Heimdall that the grasses had husks to them, like corn—but fine as hair.  His mothers’ home lay in sight, but Loki dragged his feet, probably more interested in delay than in botany, whatever he told himself.  He said, “How did you know where they lived, if you’ve never been here before?”

“I looked and saw.”

“I think,” Loki said, “that people must find that immensely annoying.”

“Undoubtedly.  But I did not pry overmuch—and I spoke to my mother Brynn to tell her we were coming.”

Loki understood enough of what that conversation must have consisted of that he slowed down still further.

Despite his best efforts at dawdling, they did indeed reach the house.  Even having never seen it before, it was familiar to him, with its dark blue door and its clumsily sculpted white stone pillars: he knew their tastes well enough that he could pick out the instigator of each decision, and it made him homesick for a house he had never entered before.

Loki’s hand stole into his as Loki looked studiously elsewhere: Heimdall was genuinely unsure whether Loki was seeking out reassurance or, having picked up on Heimdall’s own strange nervousness, was seeking to give it to him.

Heimdall knocked.

The door, naturally, opened at once.

It was Hallsa.  She had, without him knowing it, grown old—her once thick auburn hair had thinned and gone gray, her once solidly built frame had shrunken and caved inward.  But no amount of gauntness in her cheeks could hide the brilliance of her smile upon seeing them.  She swept Heimdall into her arms—even diminished, she still topped him by an inch at least—and then bent down to Loki, who seemed to be trying to disappear into Heimdall’s side.

“Hello,” Hallsa said.  Heimdall suspected it took all her restraint not to embrace him at once: Hallsa had always been boisterous in that way.  Brynn must have cautioned her that Loki might be skittish of it.  “I’m Heimdall’s mother Hallsa.  You must be Loki.”

Called upon to show his manners, Loki straightened up.  “Yes, Lady Hallsa.  It is very good to meet you.”

Hallsa clucked over this—no need to be so formal and so on—while effortlessly herding the two of them back into the house to where Freydis and Brynn were waiting.

They both looked the same.  His mind’s eye had not deceived him about Brynn and time had not taken away the truth of Freydis.  Freydis was the one who had borne him and the one he most looked like, though his hair had always been more like Gunndis’s.  He had always gone looking for himself in his mothers, as if he were an assembly of pieces that had broken off of each of them.

Loki bowed as if he’d been taken into a foreign court.  “Lady Brynn.  Lady Freydis.  I’m honored to meet you and I appreciate you offering me your hospitality.”  He paused and then said with sugary innocence, “Heimdall let me fly the ship.”

The resulting chorus of disapproval lasted several minutes.

Heimdall wasn’t sure whether or not to be impressed at Loki’s patience—unusual for so young a child—in foregoing his how-dare-you-tell-me-to-entertain-myself revenge until it was most opportune to take it, but he was quite sure either way that he didn’t want to encourage this sort of treachery, so in the midst of the uproar, he settled for giving Loki a stern look.

Loki looked back all round-eyed and guileless: I don’t know what you could be referring to, I have never done anything wrong in my life.

When it was finally, grudgingly granted by Heimdall’s mothers that he had not deliberately endangered Loki’s life, they all settled down.  Loki was given a glass of sparkling juice and a plate of sweets that Heimdall hardly thought he deserved.

“How long can you stay?” Freydis asked.

“A few days, I think,” Heimdall said.  “Up to a week.”

She smiled.  “You’ve never been a few days anywhere since you first stood in the Observatory and took up the sword.  I never thought I would live to see you in this house.”

“Let alone live to see him with a son,” Hallsa said.  “Loki, we’re so pleased to have you.”

Loki pushed a little cake around on his plate, leaving a trail of caster sugar.  “Thank you, my lady… but I am no one’s son.  Though Heimdall is very good to me.”

Brynn interceded, speaking with unusual softness.  “If that is so, you could still have grandmothers—I see no obstacle to that, if you would like them, and the three of us are more than willing to take up the role.”

“We have, until you, been inflicting cakes and birthday presents upon children in the neighborhood chosen by lottery alone,” Freydis said dryly, and this against all odds wrung a smile out of Loki that seemed to surprise even him.  “Will you not intercede to spare them our attentions?”

The smile stayed, but the agreement still did not come.  “I am sure no one would wish to be spared any of you.”

They did not press it.  Loki, having finished his snack, bore with the conversation and answered questions with the utmost politeness—yes, he was eight, yes, he enjoyed his lessons—but grew quiet as their talk went on.

“You can go outside and play if you like,” Heimdall said to him quietly, “so long as you stay close to the house,” but Loki shook his head.  Soon he curled up and leaned against Heimdall and went to sleep that way.  His hair had tumbled down into his face and his breath constantly pushed up a lock of it and then pulled it down again.  Heimdall really did have to remember to tie that back on occasion if he were going to let Loki continue to grow it out—it was at an awkward length at the moment.  He flipped that particular piece back behind Loki’s head and then sighed as it immediately fell back to its chosen spot.

“His sleep is true,” Hallsa said.  Her eyes, normally ice blue, had turned the peculiar shade of cornflower that they only did when she used her gifts.

“Can you gentle his dreams?” Heimdall said, thinking of Frigga.

“I can nudge them.  But they will always be his own.”

“And I don’t know how much cause he has lately for good dreams,” Brynn said.  “Poor boy.”

“He seems like yours already, though, Heimdall,” Freydis said.  “So much so that I’m surprised he ever belonged to anyone else.”

“He belonged to Heimdall,” Brynn said.  “I will not grant that anyone who would thrust him away ever had a right to him.”

“Brynn will soon go against Asgard in open revolt,” Freydis said.  “I will of course say nothing of the superiority of Vanaheim, as it’s far from relevant here, though no lord or lady of Vanaheim ever did anything so infamous.”

“And now that nothing has been said of Vanaheim…” Hallsa said.  “But, son, it is true that the two of you look well together.”

Heimdall only nodded, trusting them to understand what he would say if his throat did not feel so tight.  When he did speak, it was to say, “I worry that I will botch the raising of him—his position is such a mess, and I’ve never even been the father to an uncomplicated child, I’ve never even served as an uncle or an older brother.  He is… breakable, Mothers.”

“He does not seem so broken,” Brynn said, looking down at her grandson.  “Our family’s always been strong.  And I would hope that the worst days of his life are already behind him.”

“The damage done can last a long time,” Hallsa said.

Freydis just echoed Brynn: “But our family has always been strong.”

Heimdall did not want to give him up, but his mothers persuaded him to carry Loki into one of the empty bedrooms.  It was a house of many empty bedrooms—only the three of them had moved to Ingberg, but they had, Heimdall thought, not been accustomed to smaller places.  He remembered when he had been young and awake in the night from a bad dream; he had wandered down the halls trying to decide if Freydis and Svanne would let him sleep with them, or Brynn would, or if Hallsa and Hilde and Gunndis would have any room at all…  And then of course sometimes they would not be where he’d thought they were.  He had thought it unfair that when he did not want a mother at all, he had nine of them everywhere, on guard against any mischief; and when he did want nine, he could not dependably find any particular one.

He said, “He’ll wake up and not know where he is.”

“Then he’ll venture out and find you,” Freydis said, steering him out.  “But let him sleep, Heimdall, and let yourself trust he’ll be well.  You’re both exhausted.”  She stroked his hair.  Oh, Heimdall thought, so that’s how I came by that.  “And we’re so proud of you, my son.”

“Heimdall of the Nine,” Brynn murmured, “and Loki Heimdallson.  I think that’s a quite acceptable set of descendants.”

It was the first time Heimdall had heard anyone say that aloud.

“Loki Heimdallson,” he said, testing it.  “Prince of Jotunheim.”

Loki Heimdallson, Prince of Jotunheim, had filled his traveling chest with three shirts, nine mismatched socks, and a dead bird that, when Heimdall touched it, turned into a clutch of damp leaves and a very confused earthworm.  He couldn’t say he had not effectively predicted this.  To his credit, Loki at least had crammed his own chest full-to-bursting with what he had deemed actually essential to Heimdall as well as to himself, though he still for some reason seemed to think Heimdall required an excess (and odd number) of socks as well as a small tin of leather-polish, two separate razors, and some dried seaweed wrapped in paper.

“Well,” Freydis said, seeing all this laid out, “at least you won’t lack for footwear.”

“This is more or less how you used to prepare for trips,” Hallsa said.  “The books, in any case.”

For their five or six day journey, Loki had packed thirteen books.  Possibly this was the only thing that had prevented him from adding even more socks.

“He’s bright,” Heimdall said.

“I would think so, to drop you into a trap the moment you’d arrived.”

“You knew he did that on purpose?”

“Of course I knew he did it on purpose, that doesn’t mean you should let an eight year-old fly a ship, Heimdall, really.  He could have been killed.”

“How?” Heimdall said.

Hallsa considered the exact cause of death an insignificant detail and waved the question away.  Freydis smiled a little at this and twined a long strand of Hallsa’s hair around her finger: there was a tenderness to the gesture that made Heimdall’s throat catch a little and made him feel Hallsa’s age all the more.  He’d had cause lately to be alert to how breakable things became when they were loved.

“Is he really going to rule Jotunheim?” Freydis said.

“The king intends it so.”

“And you’ve been too often in his counsel if you can no longer give a straight answer.”

Brynn had once said, She’s all smiles, but fence with Freydis and you’ll be on the ground bleeding in a moment and find she stabbed you with a sewing needle right where you were at your weakest.  Brynn, being Brynn, had said this with the utmost fondness.

“A harsh cut,” Heimdall said, acknowledging both the hit and the fairness of it.  “But I can’t know the future, Mother.  Whatever answer I gave you would only be a guess.”

“But he is Jotun,” Brynn said.

He felt a ripple of defensiveness: “Of course he’s Jotun.”

“I’m only asking,” she said in exasperation.  “If you gave me a duck and told me it was a tiger, I’d ask then, too.”

“Those are quite specific animals, Brynn dear,” Freydis said.

“My point,” said Brynn, “is that with all Odin has been up to, I wouldn’t put it past him to be lying about it.  He knows the boy’s a shapeshifter and can become what he chooses—for all we know, he’s been sitting around on the throne of Asgard thinking this is an opportunity he doesn’t intend to waste.”

Ah, so not fear of Loki but only treason to Odin; that took away the sting.  Heimdall shook his head.  “I stood on the bridge when Odin brought Loki back in his arms.”

“Then I don’t see why he shouldn’t rule Jotunheim,” Hallsa said, as if being Jotun at all were the only qualification and obviously any grandson of hers would be up for the task.

“He may not want to,” Freydis said.  “I wouldn’t.”

Brynn raised her eyebrows.  “I can’t imagine you declining a crown.”

“If he doesn’t want to rule Jotunheim,” Heimdall said, “then he will not have to do it.  That’s no brave stance on my part—no one can force anyone else to be a king.  If Odin sits Loki on Laufey’s throne, Loki can, if it pleases him, stand up and abdicate.”

“It can be hard to refuse when you want to be loved,” Hallsa said.

Loki no longer wants to be loved by Odin, Heimdall almost answered, but then it occurred to him that there was not the slightest chance that this was true.  And what could he do about that?  He would not have Loki live in that misery, in the hope that the sun of Odin’s attention would shine upon him.  He would not have it, but he had no faith that he could stop it, either.  Loki did not love him.  And the people Loki loved—his mother and his brother—would always be loyal to Odin.  Loki would always be one step away from being reunited with his family, and he would always feel that, would always feel how easily the gap could close, if Odin would only restore him to his rightful place.

His heart felt frozen.  He said, “It is not my task to decide whether or not Loki will wear a crown, it is only my task to make sure that if it falls into his hands, he will neither dishonor it nor let it dishonor him.”

“He’s eight,” Brynn said.  “I think it’s more your task to make sure he doesn’t go out in public in dirty clothes.”  She kissed his temple.  “Now sleep.  If you get cold, put on some of your many, many socks.”

And sleep he did, better and more deeply than he could ever remember doing before.  He woke to the sound of a mouth harp, warm and rollicking as a summer wind, and for a moment he thought Svanne was alive again—it had been her instrument.  But when he rejoined his family, he saw that it was Hallsa who had been playing.  She stopped as he came in and gave him a wide smile, her eyes a little starry with tears.

She said, “Svanne would butcher me for playing that so ill.  It’s been so long.”

“I’d forgotten she taught you.”

“I don’t think she would tell you I learned.”

“I liked it,” Loki said.  “I’m sure the Lady Svanne is honored by your song, Lady Hallsa.”  He was lying on the rug, drawing on a piece of paper he’d lain flat on one of the hearthstones.  Heimdall had given him charcoal and paints when he had first come but had never seen him touch them.  He wished he could see what Loki was working on.

“Thank you, sweet,” Hallsa said.

Loki turned a slightly accusatory glare on Heimdall.  “You slept forever.  Like a bear in winter.  You told me you didn’t need to sleep at all.”

“I do not need to sleep often.”

“Well, now you sleep every night.”

“I’m sorry to have so disappointed you.”

Loki considered this and graciously said, “It doesn’t matter,” and went back to drawing.

Freydis, only just restraining a laugh, swept up in a rustle of skirts and declared that they all must be hungry.  Loki moved his paper carefully away from the hearth and then trailed after her like a hound hoping she would drop a bit of food.  Heimdall walked over to see the abandoned drawing.

It was a wintry landscape—a hard thing to convey in only black and white, even for a child who had had drawing lessons all his life.  Loki had dealt with the problem directly enough by drawing a few trees without their leaves and then writing “snow” on the portion of the page dedicated to the ground.  The sketch had only one figure, cloaked and off at a great distance.  Loki had not given him a face but only a long shadow that dribbled across the snow as though it wanted to run off the page.

Odin?  Laufey?

Him?  He hoped not him.  He did not want to think he cast so great a shadow in Loki’s mind.

They supped on roast pork and apples and crusty bread and Loki ate so much, and drank so many glasses of cider, that Heimdall acquired all the necessary recipes.

“You ought to get a cook,” Bynn said.  “Or a wife or a husband, but that search would take up more of your time.”

Loki stifled an evident giggle by taking another enormous bite of bread.

“To bring in a cook for two people seems a luxury.”

“So far as I can see, you have no other extravagances.”

Loki swallowed hastily and messily so he could contribute by saying, “He doesn’t.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Heimdall said.

“I didn’t.”

“I’m arranging with a neighbor to share the cost of a tutor and a fighting mistress, and I don’t yet know what the cost of that might be.”

Loki held his mouth open for a discomfitingly prolonged period so Heimdall could see it was empty and then said, “I don’t want a cook anyway.  The cottage is too small for there to just be another person in it sometimes, it would be awkward.”

“You can’t still be in that cottage,” Freydis said.  “It only had the one bedroom.”

Heimdall half-expected Loki to enjoy himself by sadly explaining that he had naught but a sofa for his comfort and that his belongings were almost all still in boxes, but he must have decided the brazen perfidy of his first disclosure—”Heimdall let me fly,” and the joke was on him if he thought Heimdall would now do so again—had already punished Heimdall enough for the sin of putting a stop to his bubbles.  He said, “It is still the same cottage, yes, Lady Freydis, but we are building new rooms onto it.  It is a project.  I am trying to choose a color for the walls.”  He even—good, loyal boy—left out that the walls were not yet there.

The cottage’s renovation then became their subject for the remainder of dinner, and at the end of it, the five of them had undoubtedly built it up into a manor—at one point Hallsa had been speaking quite seriously of a bathing pool—and Loki was falling asleep onto his plate.  Heimdall nudged him up and to the bathroom and then to his bedroom.  Brynn had already laid another one of her quilts across the bed.

Loki said, “I like them,” and began patting around for a nightshirt like one might come up to him like a friendly dog.  Heimdall sighed and fetched it for him.

“Your packing was suitably eccentric,” he said.  “By the way.”

“Thank you.”  Loki yawned an enormous yawn and then said again, “I like them.”

“I’d hoped you would.  They like you as well.”  Love you, he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure Loki would want to hear that now.

“I’m sorry I told them about the flying.”

Heimdall scoffed.  “No, you’re not.”

Loki smiled.  “Not so very much, no.”  He went on holding the nightshirt in his hand and then said, “You’re just next door, aren’t you?”

“Yes.  To your left.”

“Thank you,” Loki said, and Heimdall had no idea whether he was being thanked for taking the bedroom next to Loki’s or for bringing him to Ingberg or for having likable mothers or for having Loki at all—for having him and not minding that he sometimes was not sorry.

It felt strange to say, “You’re welcome,” when he didn’t know what they were talking about, so he just bent down and briefly kissed the top of Loki’s head, which he had not done before.  He remembered, too late, that it had been what Odin had done when he’d bid Loki farewell—but Loki had no tantrum, no tears.  For some reason, this was safe, and Heimdall felt that was a very good sign, like the light of dawn on a far horizon.

“Good night, Heimdall,” Loki said.

Chapter Text

Heimdall started the next morning by nearly stepping on his son’s face.

Loki came up off the floor like some sort of dust-storm: “What are you doing?”

“What am I doing?  Why are you sleeping in front of the door?  You have a bed!”

“I had a nightmare!”  Loki seemed to realize that he’d been shouting and wrapped his arms around himself, subsiding into angry silence.  He looked a sight—a red crease on his cheek from the pillow, his feet trapped in a tangle of quilt.  He’d made a little nest there in front of Heimdall’s door and for the life of him, Heimdall couldn’t tell why.  He’d known Loki sometimes wound up sleeping on the rug near his door at home, but he’d always thought that only meant that Loki had been sleeping poorly on the sofa and gone roaming in the night for some other berth.  Giving up on a bed was another order of restlessness altogether—and why would the floor be any more reassuring to him?

Brynn opened a door down at the other end of the hall and peered blearily out at them.  “It’s too early,” she said.  “Loki, you’re on the floor.  Don’t be on the floor.”

“Yes, Lady Brynn.”

“Good boy,” she said, and closed her door.

“Brynn never did like mornings,” Heimdall said.  “Evidently that has not changed.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Come in and entertain yourself by matching into pairs the thousand socks you packed for me.”

Loki grudgingly accepted this peace offering and moved his quilt and pillow into Heimdall’s room and then sat cross-legged on the floor before his trunk, pairing up socks; Heimdall remembered the Loki he had first inherited, the one who had studied doing one’s own cleaning as some kind of foreign custom, and felt a strange twist in his heart.  Loki was still recognizably a prince—Heimdall thought he always would be—but he was now just the littlest bit alien to that role as well, now more accustomed to the practical than the ceremonial.  A prince in exile.

Heimdall said, “What did you dream?”

Loki did not turn around: he appeared to be trying to tell the minute difference between two shades of black.  He said, “The panther got you.  These socks look exactly alike but they’re not.”  Almost no pause between the two sentences.  The edges of his ears were bright red.

He was surprised that story had been enough to give Loki a nightmare—Asgardian children were all reared on tales of horrors and slain monsters.  “The panther’s bones have long since turned to dust.  Though I know it can be hard to remember such things in the dark—”  It can’t come back to hurt you, he almost said, but then he realized that in Loki’s dream, he had been the one to get hurt.  So Loki had placed himself in front of Heimdall’s door, had played Gatekeeper.  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He didn’t even know if that changed the meaning of all the other nights Loki had spent on the floor.

Loki said, “Who do I live with if you die?” and Heimdall was relieved to have a straightforward question, as morbid as it was.

“You would live here, I should think.”

“You can’t make your mothers adopt me.”

“I have never made my mothers do anything.  But I know them well enough, and I know they would take you and have joy in it even in their sorrow for my death.  Is that what worries you?”

Loki shook his head.  “Just that the panther got you.”

Heimdall knelt down beside him and picked up one of the socks.  “If you hold it up to the light, you can see the difference in the weave even if you can’t in the color.  Though if I wear mismatched socks, it won’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.  And I am not Heimdall the Reckless anymore, you’ll remember.”  He lightly whacked Loki’s hand with the sock.  “Aside from letting treacherous, disloyal children pilot ships for me.”

Loki laughed a little and leaned against him.  “But I flew well, didn’t I?”

“You did.  Stop showing talents for things or I’ll bankrupt myself getting you tutors.”

Another small rumble of a laugh.  “You keep saying you’ll get me tutors but you never do get me tutors.”

“We’ve been busy, don’t you think?  And is that why you lugged a small library here with you?”

“Someone has to make sure I’m educated,” Loki said haughtily.

“Well, we can both soak in lessons while we’re here.  I can start teaching you how to range out your sight and my mothers can teach us a little about how to care for our garden.  And we can learn how to make a tart so we can show your brother the next time he visits.”  It seemed impossible to him that Thor had been at the cottage only the day before yesterday—it felt like they had both aged years since then.

Loki was quiet a long time and then he said, “Why is it so important to you?”

“What?”  He knew what Loki meant but was curious how he would say it.

“That Thor and I be brothers.”

“Because you love him and he loves you.  Neither of you invited this separation—neither of you even gave your permission for it.  And I think you would be quite lonely without him.”

Loki balled a sock up in one fist; stared at the floor.  “I didn’t pack my cat.”

“It will wait for you.”

“Of course it will wait for me, Heimdall,” Loki said, annoyed.  “It’s made of cloth.  It’s not like it will run away.  I only… could you look?”

“Of course.”  Though it was not as effortless as he would pretend.  Loki would know that if he thought about it—even the most insubstantial of his illusions must still have spent a little of him, a drop out of an ocean.  Gazing without the aid of the Observatory was a slight strain; gazing without even sharing a world with it was a much greater one.  But it could be done and he would do it.  He parted the black space between the stars.  It was like trying to make out the shape of a mountain’s peak through its haze of dust and cloud—effort and imagination cleaved together until at last the image resolved itself.  Heimdall came back to the realm of ordinary things.

“Your cat is underneath the sofa.  Attracting dust, I’d venture, but otherwise fine.”

Loki hugged him.  It was sudden and brief, but it felt like the first time he had done it when he’d not been in the middle of falling apart; he looked slightly ashamed of himself afterwards, as if he’d done something more than usually childish.

Their stay on Ingberg passed all too quickly.  They made tarts and pastries, with Loki eating so much raw dough in the process that he was up half the night with a stomachache.  They gathered in honey from Freydis’s bees.  Brynn stole Loki away and took him on a long ramble through the hills to show off the storied beautiful and peculiar native flowers, and Loki came back with red lavender in his hair and wildflower bouquets for Hallsa and Freydis in his arms.  He still sometimes drifted to Heimdall at night, protectively lying in front of the door in his nest of bedding, but he had at least started giving himself permission to do it inside the door so it was easier for Heimdall to see him before he trod on him.

Heimdall took him to a nearby lake so he would have an object to scry into—that was rumored to make it easier at the beginning.

Loki did not take to it right away and his resentment and anger at that could have made the lake itself boil.

“Your temper won’t help you,” Heimdall said.  “You can’t see outside yourself when you’re in a rage.”

Loki hissed at him through his teeth.  There was a real viciousness to him sometimes, and it came on with a snake-like quickness.  It worried Heimdall a little, and all the more because he had seen it from time to time even before all the upheaval.  It was a part of who Loki was, part of how he reacted to fear and frustration, and the changes had only made him more vulnerable to those things and more determined not to feel them.

Heimdall tried to keep calm enough for the two of them.  “Stop if you need to stop.”

“I don’t need to stop!”

“You need to stop rather than throw a tantrum.”

“I am not throwing a tantrum!”  He stalked off along the shoreline of the lake, shakily breathed there, far from Heimdall, and then came back.  His face was still red.  “I am not throwing a tantrum.”

“Not anymore,” Heimdall agreed.  “But you’re still vexed.  Try not to be.  Breathe it out.  Scream it out, if you like.  The lake will carry the sound and you’ll have the satisfaction of making the neighbors think we’re all being murdered.”

A flicker of a smile.  Loki wolf-howled across the lake as an apparent compromise.

“Good,” Heimdall said.  “Now they’ll only think their children will be eaten by wolves.”

“Wolves are not native to Ingberg,” Loki said.  “I’ve been reading the atlas and it has a whole section on animals.”

“Then you can work on finding me a wolf.  And it’s fine if you don’t do it today or tomorrow or even while we’re here.  Remember, you’re wearing a new path for your magic to take.  Even when I try to part your hair in a different place, it falls back to where it wants to be.”

“Lady Hallsa says you just don’t know how to do anyone’s hair but your own.  When she does my braid, it always stays.”

Heimdall rapped his fingers against the back of Loki’s head.  “It won’t stay if I tug it out and throw you into the lake.”

“You wouldn’t,” Loki said complacently.  “It would make the scrying surface all bumpy and it’d take forever to calm down again.”  But he had calmed down, and he settled down at the edge of the lake.  Heimdall sat down beside him, trying unobtrusively to watch his eyes and what happened to them.  No real change would come for years and years, if it ever came at all—some Gatekeepers served all their lives with the eyes they’d been born with—but that did not mean that nothing would happen.

He could feel something lining up, like the right wind beginning to blow, and something changed in Loki’s face: calm interrupted by excitement… and then nothing.

“It’s all right,” Heimdall said.

“I know.”  Loki bit his lip.  “I can feel it now, though.”

“That’s good.  I can tell, too.  How are you thinking about it?”

“That I could see the lies if I wanted to, I could see all the things that weren’t—the wolves of Ingberg—and so I can reach whatever else there is, whatever true thing…”

Something about this put a bittersweet little twist in Heimdall’s heart.  “Good, Loki.  You’re clearing the path, and I think that will work excellently.”  He ruffled Loki’s hair, dislodging the fledgling braid just to prove a point to Hallsa.  “But for now, I’m hungry, are you?”

Loki glared out at the lake as if it had personally failed him and then nodded and stood.  “Yes, thank you.  And I want to finish my drawing.”

“The winter one?”  He kept his voice casual.

Loki didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about Heimdall knowing that, however, and Heimdall supposed that, Loki being Loki, he would have hidden it if he had wanted it hidden.  “No.  Norns, Heimdall, I finished that days ago.  This one is going to be a gift for Grandmama Brynn.”  He said the name carefully.  “And then I’ll make them for Grandmama Hallsa and Grandmama Freydis.  Is it Grandmama or Grandmother?”

“Whichever you like will please them, I know.”  He held his eyes closed a moment.  He was so glad they had come.  (He supposed he did have a slight preference for Loki’s lilting “Grandmama,” if only because it was the first version he had heard.)

“I don’t understand wanting grandchildren,” Loki said contemplatively.  “Most children are not very likable.  But…”  He shrugged.  “I will say it if they wish it.”

Was it only a concession, or was it something more?  He knew where his hopes for their future lay.  He knew they did not lay in the fireplace, which was where he soon discovered the corner of Loki’s winter drawing and the ashes of the rest of it.  One path refused, one line of thinking burned, though Heimdall could not be sure what.  But he took comfort in the fact that Loki now drew at all, that before their week was done, he had drawn the promised gifts for his grandmothers and also plans for the cottages and diagrams of the flowers, which he enclosed in a letter for Thor with the instruction that they be given to Lady Vigdis and NOT PASSED OFF AS THOR’S OWN WORK (thus forcefully indicated).  There was reassurance.  Though full relief, like the wolves of Ingberg, still remained illusory.

And soon it was time for the two of them to go home.

“You’ll be taking me to Jotunheim someday,” Loki said as they were leaving.  His voice was a little listless.  He had already hugged Freydis, Hallsa, and Brynn and left tears on their skirts, for all he would deny it; he sounded as if he wished for their arms around him still.  Heimdall sympathized entirely.  He was alone with his son again, and he did not know what to tell him, except the truth—what he could give of it.

“Someday.  When you are a little older.”

“Will you make me wear Jotun-skin?”

“That is your decision, not mine,” Heimdall said.  He thought of the clutter that tended to pile up around Loki’s books and reconsidered.  “Once you have a bedroom, I will probably make you clean it.  But I would certainly not command your shape.  And it would just be a visit, you know.  I will not take you there and leave you, I promise you that.”

Loki nodded.  He seemed to believe this, at least a little.  He said, “I like it here.”

“So do I.”

“We can come back?”

“Often, once I have my apprentice, and I’ll hurry to acquire one.”

“Along with—”

“Along with your tutor and your fighting mistress and your bedroom, yes, I neglect you, yes, you’ll tell your grandmothers on me.  Don’t think you’re flying even a minute on the way home.”

Loki smiled, and some of the seriousness dropped from his face.  He looked his age again.  “But Heimdall,” he said, in an exaggerated, puppyish way, “you never let me do anything.”

And Heimdall laughed but did not miss how closely Loki watched the planet as it dropped away from them, as if he were trying to memorize its colors to see it again in some still lake on Asgard.

Chapter Text

PART TWO

 

“Again!”

Unburdened by the weight of swords and shields, Loki and Gara moved as smoothly and rapidly as water; even now, Heimdall still had trouble seeing all the times their blades met or were eluded.  The bark of steel against steel was sometimes the only sign a blow had been stopped.  Volstagg had started off by saying that it gave him apoplexy to watch his little girl spinning around out there with only the daggers in her hands to protect her, but now he watched as avidly—and often as pointlessly—as Heimdall, each of them fully partisan for his own child while courteously trying to avoid open smugness when the other was made the loser.  Really their spectatorship consisted of much debate over what exactly was happening and how on earth Lady Ragna could judge it.

“Guard your left better, princeling.  Gara, it’s fine to use your height while you have it, but you soon won’t, so don’t grow too reliant on it.  Peace, both of you.”

They parted, both of them damp with sweat.  Now was the time Heimdall and Volstagg could fairly evaluate them: Loki had a long but thin scratch on his cheek and Gara’s training tunic was cut across the belly, though she didn’t appear hurt.

“First blood to my girl,” Volstagg said approvingly.

“Yes,” Heimdall said.  He could afford to be gracious.  “Well done to her.  Of course it’s unfair to count that shredded tunic as a killing blow on Loki’s part when a drop of blood was not quite drawn, I agree.  Even though to cut through a tunic with a training dagger is a harder feat.”

“This,” Lady Ragna said, “is why I so often banish fathers from training grounds.  Leave off, the both of you.”

“Gara won, though,” Volstagg said.  “Not that you didn’t fight admirably, Loki.”

“Thank you,” Loki said dryly.

He and Gara shared a commiserating look common to children whose parents have been embarrassing them and listened in respectful silence to Lady Ragna’s dissection of their fight and instructions for the practice they would do before her next visit.  Then came the chorus—”Yes, Lady Ragna”—and both of them bowed.  Lady Ragna left for the city with a last stern look at Heimdall and Volstagg.  The evening wound down into tea and talk while the children ran off the last of their adrenaline and collapsed exhausted onto the grass, and Volstagg and Gara left as the twilight came in.  Loki came up from the meadow once his friend was gone, giving a horse-like shake that sent the sweet, dry grass flying everywhere.  The cut on his cheek had clotted.

“Will I really be taller than Gara soon?”

“Most likely.  You go through clothes so quickly these days that I won’t be surprised if you are taller tomorrow.”

Whenever Loki had to ask a question he did not like having to think of, he always looked anywhere but at Heimdall; lately he had taken to staring at the horizon.  The habit was pronounced enough that Heimdall was curious if Loki had started using his Observatory gazing to calm himself, but he—such was the family resemblance—couldn’t think of a way to ask.  “Will I go on growing and growing?  Become a giant?”

“No.  In fact, though I suspect this will also bother you, I think that if you ever take on your Jotun form, you’ll stay the same height—tall for an Aesir boy, small for a Jotun one.”

Loki made a face.  “You’re right, I don’t like that either.”  But he dismissed it.  “How was your day?”

“Things are as they were.”  But Loki wanted a story—Heimdall could tell—though he thought he was too old now to ask for one, so Heimdall smiled and said, “I tracked a great storm across the oceans of an uninhabited world, when I should by rights have been looking elsewhere.  But you should have seen the height of the waters.  They would have soared above all the walls and spires of Asgard—and then down they came, with the sound of endless thunder.  Your brother in his worst mood wouldn’t have been able to equal it.  There’s awe and beauty to such things when you stand far away and you know no life will be lost.  It’s rare to have such a chance to find wonder more than terror.”

“You must often see disaster that leads to death,” Loki said.  “Do you turn away, if it can’t come to us?”

“Sometimes.  It can be hard to watch.  And I can never tell whether I’m making light of their passing or respecting it as I should when I do bear witness to it.  It’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself eventually, and perhaps decide anew each time.”

“You wouldn’t make light of anything grave.”

“I hope not intentionally.  But it feels sometimes that to see and then move on—as I must move on, for Asgard and for you and for myself—is heartless.”

Loki shook his head and said, with a wisdom Heimdall had to admit he’d earned, “You have to be able to move on.”  He picked pebbles up off the ground and began throwing them, targeting, with impressive precision, the garden’s sundial, as if what he wanted was to knock them out of course of time.  “Thor came by this morning.”

If he’d waited so long to say so, there was a reason for it.  And while it was not unheard of for Thor to visit Loki without speaking to Heimdall first, it was unusual.  The delay and the secrecy together gave him some cause for concern.  He waited for Loki to continue.

Loki’s expression clearly said, I hate it when you do this, but he did go on.  “He is going to Vanaheim for his first diplomatic visit.  That’s because Vanaheim is unlikely to be alienated by him stepping on someone’s foot, I’d imagine.”  Loki’s occasional scornfulness over Thor being given responsibilities at his age never failed to amuse Heimdall, though from time to time he tried to hide it.  Though, yes, he did think that growing pains alone should disqualify a prince from the games of high-stakes politesse.  “He wants me to come with him.  He doesn’t have the All-Father’s permission for it, but he thinks Odin will be persuaded by your arguments.  And that you’ll be persuaded by mine, I suppose.”

“I might be if I heard them.”

“If we’re princes together, if we’re to be equals, I need diplomatic experience too.  Even if we’re not yet telling anyone on whose behalf I’m supposed to be…”  He waved his hand.  “Being diplomatic.”

It was the first time Heimdall had heard him express any indication at all that he would ever want the mantle of king of Jotunheim.  If this counted—all Loki had admitted, technically, was that he wanted to stand alongside Thor, heir and heir, equals.  He might do that for a very long time before kingship ever came up.

“And you’ve said yourself I need to be acquainted with the other realms and worlds.”

“True enough.”  But I thought I would be there to show them to you, not that you’d be off with Thor and whatever servants, however canny, Odin will dispatch with him.  “I’m not convinced you and Thor don’t urge each other on to trouble, however.  How do I know there will be a Vanaheim left after the two of you have come and gone?”

Loki was not in the mood to be teased.  “There will be.  Besides, at least I haven’t gone off to fight a panther.”

He would have to learn not to give Loki so much leverage on him.  But he had a point—Loki was near the end of his childhood, and in long ago days, this would have been the time when he would have been expected to prove himself.  It wasn’t the worst idea, sending him off to Vanaheim to do a spell in a foreign court.  Loki was right that the location had been picked carefully—the understanding between the two realms was old, and there wasn’t much chance of incident or misunderstanding.  The court of Vanaheim would know to give them dignity but little import.

“Besides,” Loki said, “it would make Grandmama Freydis happy.”

“Brynn would tell you it will make her insufferable,” Heimdall said.  “But yes, she wouldn’t miss her chance to glory in her favorite grandson—”

“I’m their only grandson.”

“—passing a stay on her homeworld.”  A faint hope occurred to him.  “Perhaps you could squire her there, I don’t think she’s been back in many years.”

Loki looked like he would die of embarrassment at the very thought of that, so Heimdall let him off from refusing outright, saying he was sure Freydis would want to wait to go with all of them.

“Will you speak to the king?” Loki said formally.

How Loki spoke of Odin changed with the day.  When he was best disposed to him, and hardly thought of him, he called him the All-Father, and seemed to forget that he was anything other than someone connected to Thor, connected to his mother—a mutual acquaintance.  When he was feeling sour, he called him Odin.  “The king”—that was Loki’s attempt to shame Odin, even when Odin was not there, by offering him this frosty, distant honor where there had once been real warmth.

Heimdall doubt Loki meant that as a threat to him, but it worked as one all the same, against his better judgment.  He often feared that Loki would withdraw from him—it was when Loki was in retreat, licking his wounds and brooding over them, that he grew both ill-tempered and unkind, vicious to others and poisonous to himself.  He’d like to spare Loki that and spare himself the pain of seeing it.

“I’ll speak to him.  When does Thor leave?”

Loki mumbled something.  Heimdall had the sinking feeling he knew the answer.

“Don’t say tomorrow, Loki.”

“In four days,” Loki said sheepishly.

“The next time I see him, I’m going to have to speak to your brother very, very sternly about the importance of planning ahead.  And how long is the trip?”

“Just a month.”

A month?  But Loki hadn’t been on his own for more than an afternoon since Heimdall had taken him in.  Heimdall had been with him for each of their trips to Ingberg, even, and there Loki was with his mothers, whom he had no trouble trusting.  He was willing to believe that Loki did need, for the sake of his confidence and schooling, time in a foreign court, but a month?  With only Thor for support?  They still broke into open quarrels sometimes—the ordinary fights of brotherhood made brutal by their bizarre circumstances—and the mending could be slow.  It was unfair to expect Thor to always be placid and forgiving and unbothered; unfair to expect him to be perfect so that his little brother might be more comfortably flawed.  Thor, too, was a boy, and would sometimes act like one.

“You already said you’d talk to Odin,” Loki said.

“And I should have asked the duration first.”

“But you didn’t.”

“Loki, I would be fair to you, but I won’t go so far as to be boxed into letting you spend a month on Vanaheim because I didn’t think to ask a question.  And,” because he could see Loki gearing up to argue, “pressing it right now will not persuade me you have the maturity for such a trip.”

Loki glared at him and then let his eyes go unfocused again, reaching out for something he could now at least partly grasp.  He was learning at least as well as Ivar, and Heimdall instructed Ivar for several hours a day.  Loki said, “What would persuade you?”

“Your calm helps,” Heimdall said, because it might be best to tell him so.  “But mostly I just need time to think.  You haven’t been away from home before for that long.”

“Neither has Thor.”

“No, but presumably he’ll have had more than four days to prepare for it.”  Though that response did him no good—all it would lead to was Loki blaming Thor if he were left behind.

“More than four days,” Loki said, “and the royal tutor and the court and Odin.”  His voice was level: this was not whining or lashing out but only honesty.  It was the same way in which he’d said, You have to be able to move on.

The trouble was that he wasn’t wrong.  Thor would always be one step ahead of his brother.  His advantages were so clear and numerous that they were undeniable and that did, as Odin had planned, reduce their rivalry: Loki was too cunning to compete when he had such a small chance of victory.  Loki could accept the loss of what had been stolen from him—to do otherwise would admit his hurt—but he would fight tooth and nail to keep what he did not yet have.  Ambition was another, bitterer word for hopefulness.  Loki would pit himself not against Thor—or so Heimdall believed—but against the abstraction of the All-Father.  The king had named him a prince, but not of Asgard, and Loki would force him to live up to the first part of that as thoroughly as Odin had the second.

But it was not Loki’s right to Thor’s status that Heimdall questioned, only Loki’s temper.  Only his balance, when there would be so much trying to knock him off it.

“Promise me something,” Heimdall said.

Light flared up in Loki’s face.  “Anything.”

“No, not anything.  I want to believe you when you say it, I want you to mean it.  Promise me that if you’re struggling, you’ll lean on your brother, and if you’re struggling with your brother, you’ll call to me.  You know I’ll hear you if you do, whether I’m in the Observatory or not.”  Though he thought he would be there nearly always.  What good would an empty house be to him?

“I will.  I promise.”  It would have been more convincing if Lok’s excitement hadn’t seemed like an avalanche about to roll down on him, but it was perhaps convincing enough.  “I won’t fight with Thor.  He’ll be my brother and my ally.  Vanaheim won’t know what hit them.  What a model of cooperation we’ll be, Heimdall, I swear.”

“I will settle for Vanaheim finding the both of you dull as dirt,” Heimdall said.  “And you can save that grin of yours, because I have no idea whether or not the All-Father will agree.”

“He’ll agree,” Loki said.  The smile was in his eyes even if he dutifully kept it from his mouth.  “You’re very persuasive.”

“Am I?  What have I persuaded you of lately?”

“To make dinner, of course.”  Loki held out his hand and helped Heimdall up off his seat on the low-slung wall.  “You have been working all day and must naturally rest.”

Heimdall laughed.  “I might scold you for how shameless that was, but since I’ve already agreed, I suppose I should just admire how extravagant you are in your gratitude.”

Loki offered him a very formal bow.  He said, “I’m practicing diplomacy.”

Chapter Text

A private audience with Odin had never meant the inclusion of the queen’s presence, let alone the prince’s, but there Thor was, smiling an I-will-not-be-denied smile and wearing his most formal attire.  Ah—more practice for diplomacy.  So Thor was being put through his paces even in these last days.  That suggested Odin’s intentions for the visit were serious even if the location suggested his execution would be cautious.

Heimdall bowed.  “My king.  Prince Thor.”

There were boys Heimdall had known that he would have despised as princes, but Thor Odinson was not one of them.  He laughed too little—except around his brother—but his heart was good and his will was iron.  Heimdall would be astonished if the Vanir had anything other than love for him; he loved the boy himself.  Though that half-apologetic little smile Thor was giving him, as if to say that surely they were still friends, surely Heimdall could put aside any irritation at being given only four days notice, couldn’t he?—that was slightly less lovable.  Heimdall raised his eyebrows and Thor blushed.  He might as well have put up a sign on his face that said, Don’t tell Father, which Heimdall had no intention of doing.

“Gatekeeper,” Odin said, his voice sonorous.  Their relationship had been good of late.  At his coldest, Heimdall thought, He is forgetting Loki, that is why it is easier for him, that is why it is better between us, but he had no way of knowing if that were true.  “What brings you?”

“Prince Thor’s coming trip to Vanaheim, my king.”

“And so you came to wish him well,” Odin said, smiling.

“He always has my good wishes—and my trust.  I have no doubt he’ll be toasted in all the halls of Vanaheim.”  Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you?  “But I came to ask if Prince Loki might accompany him.”

“And how would you propose introducing Loki Laufeyson, Prince of Jotunheim, to the Vanir?”

Heimdall met his eyes.  “As Loki Heimdallson, prince in exile.  As far as saying that he is of Jotunheim, why not?  It will become known at some point—we have seen the proof of that.  Let it become known where all can see that he is the beloved brother of the prince of Asgard.”

“I agree,” Thor said immediately.

Odin did not look as if the opinion of his still-beardless son was of great consequence to him.  “And give news to Vanaheim before it has been given to Asgard?”

“Asgard whispers already.  We have seen the proof of that too.  Confirm it, then.”  He thought Loki would be amenable to that, he prayed he would be, because he could think of no other solution.  “Or treat it as naught, if you prefer, as neither a dread thing to be hidden nor a secret to be bared.  We raise the prince of Jotunheim.  That is not the business of any particular citizen of Asgard’s unless they’re planning to contest him for the throne.”

“But why should Loki go to Vanaheim?”

“Because he is a prince,” Heimdall said.  “I’m given to understand that that is required of princes.”

“Exposure to other realms, yes, but Loki has traveled before.”

“Not under his own governance.  And not in a position of state.”

“An unacknowledged position,” Odin said.  “It is not just that I have not announced Loki as the heir to Jotunheim, Heimdall, Jotunheim itself has not done so.  And Jotunheim, despite the tension between us, is still our ally.  How do you think they will react to us issuing a galaxy-wide proclamation—in effect—that we intend to someday either unseat Laufey or oust his chosen successor?”

There was nothing he could say to that except, “They will take note of him sooner or later.  We won’t give him his seat with the subtlety to avoid that.”

“Sooner or later, but not now.”

“When, then?” Thor said.  It was loud enough to qualify as an outburst, and Heimdall could already read the resignation in Odin’s eyes: Best he get this out of the way now, in private, than on Vanaheim.  “When is my brother to have what he deserves?”

“He deserves nothing,” Odin said sharply.  “No one is born deserving.  Loki’s own father deemed his birthright to be nothing more than cold death on colder stone.”

“Loki’s father deems it nothing of the kind,” Heimdall said.  He was not slain by Laufey’s hand and he will not be maneuvered about by yours.  “And it is a question of what Jotunheim deserves, All-Father.  A king who has been as prepared for the role as we could make him.  If it’s not yet time to openly call him what he is, send Loki to Vanaheim as a prince under the full color of your authority and let them speculate about his birth all they like.”

“They’ll think him my bastard,” Odin said, but at least now he sounded amused.

“He won’t say so,” Thor said.  “He never does.”

“No, I trust he won’t invoke my name as protection, even with the consolation that it might somewhat disgrace me.  But… yes, I suppose I can give him the banner of it for such use.  But believe me when I say this, my boy, if Loki goes to Vanaheim and by his presence there starts a war with Laufey and all his sons, it will be on your head as much as well as his.”

“Yes, Father,” Thor said.  His mask of solemnity could not quite hide his delight.  “Thank you.”

Odin took his son effectively thanking him for putting the weight of the war dead on his shoulders as well as anyone could, which was to say he looked incredulously at him for a moment and then shook his head, saying to Heimdall, “Children.  They hear but one word in every ten.  Thank the All-Fathers I’m sending him to Vanaheim, where I trust they will not take offense.  How fares your son, Heimdall?”

“Well, my king.  He takes his lessons with Volstagg’s children—the older ones, that is, or he would be so bored the mischief would destroy half the countryside.  As it is, he is kept occupied, I think, and his tutor has nothing but praise for him.  And his skill in battle would not be cause for shame even in one twice his age.”

“So long as he fights with daggers.”

“Anyone may have a preferred weapon,” Thor said.  “I defeated him nearly always when we both fought with sword and shield, but now he sometimes disarms me and gets one of those daggers to my throat.”

“It’s strange,” Odin said, “how often you seem to see Loki, no matter what prohibitions I place on you.  Sometimes I wonder if I am king at all.  And I am speaking to Loki’s father, Thor, not to his erstwhile, self-proclaimed brother.”

Who knew by what effort Thor kept his expression diffident.  He would not jeopardize the prize he had just won, but the crash of thunder outside was immense.

You push him too far, Heimdall would have told Odin.  It was what he hadn’t been willing to risk himself—the trying of Thor’s restraint beyond endurance.  Maintain your lie if you will, but do not make it cost you your son’s love.

But Odin ignored the thunder; ignored the storm.

They traded pleasantries a while longer and then Thor, bowing to his father though his neck seemed too stiff to bend, gained permission to escort Heimdall out.

“Four days,” Heimdall said to him the moment the door closed and put them out of Odin’s hearing.  “I could say that to you a thousand times and not tire of it.  You never plan, Loki never ceases to, and between the two of you, I can be sure of spending the rest of my life with a headache.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry.”

“Give some thought to what it might be like for Loki to have this possibility raised and then dashed—as it nearly was, for the All-Fathers know I have no idea how to deal with Laufey—and then immediately lose you for a month.”

“I know.  I will.”

At least he now sounded like he meant it.

Heimdall sighed.  It was difficult to stay angry with Thor.  He said, “At least you kept your anger at your father out-of-doors.”

“I can’t stand to hear him act as though we have all given Loki up as he has.  I am far from the only one who proclaims Loki to be my brother—he does, you do, Mother does.”

“I know that.  What is more, your father knows it too.  He spoke in a temper.”

“Well, he shouldn’t have,” Thor said.  But all his storms were summer storms, made to pass quickly.  “Vanaheim, Heimdall!  I’ve only ever been there with Father and Mother and a whole slew of courtiers, and I never thought Father would send me—us—there so soon.”

“Yes, you’re young for it.  Who is he sending with you?”

“No one, it’s just us.”

Evidently he would spend much of this conversation sighing.  “As far as servants, my prince.”

“Oh.  Right.  Huw and Alarr.  I don’t know if he’ll add another one for Loki to dress him and whatnot.”

“Loki dresses himself,” Heimdall said.

Thor snorted.  “Not for formal dinners he won’t, have you seen what we’re expected to wear to them?”

“No,” he said, his voice dangerously level, “because I was only just now told about any of it.”

“I said I was sorry,” Thor said.  “You have to learn to live in the moment, Heimdall.  Come to my chambers and I’ll show you—I have a present for Loki anyhow, now that it’s all settled.”

Thor’s chambers had more of windows than they had of walls, all the better to let the room glow with sunlight until it looked like the lit end of a candle; the windows were no doubt ensorceled within an inch of their lives to not allow trespassers.  They were like their owner—warm, rambling, and grand even as they were unprepossessing.  Loki’s bedroom, which they had worked out and readied so carefully, was a mere knothole in comparison, shabby and dark.  Heimdall knew the difference was nothing more than a trick of light and wealth, but he felt it all the same.

Thor went rummaging in a trunk and came up grinning with a paper-wrapped package in his hand.  In lieu of a proper box, he’d drawn on the paper, sketched various animals.  Loki would keep it, if he were in a good enough mood; keep it and pretend he hadn’t.

“What is it?”

“A surprise.”

“I’ve seen the surprises the two of you give each other.  I still don’t even know how Loki found that much purple ink.  You don’t have to tell him, but I want to know what I’m bringing home before it bites me or explodes.  Or both.”

“Your doubts shame you,” Thor said.  He might have copied that exact air of haughtiness from Loki; it was a rather inept forgery that made him look as though he might be about to sneeze.  “It’s a set of Vanir daggers.  They do theirs curved, you know, like hooks.  I thought he could wear them while he was there.  Especially since the Vanir might not know what to make of him—it will at least show them he’s trying.”

Shamed by his doubts indeed.  “You do your family proud,” Heimdall said softly.  “It is thoughtful of you, and I know Loki will like them.”

“Certainly.  Loki likes anything stabby.”  He closed the trunk and went to his wardrobe.  “Now wait until you see this and you’ll know why I think Father might send an extra manservant for Loki.”

Heimdall had seen the formal costume of the Vanir before—

—but they had apparently undergone an upheaval in fashion since then.  Thor was holding up an array of pearls and diamonds and quilted white satin strung together with so many loops, buckles, and ties that Heimdall couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  He would wager it was a coat, but he would not wager much.

“All-Fathers,” he said, whistling.  “You’ll need more than one servant to get you into that, you’ll need a whole battalion of them and a tailor besides.”

“Mother says they look well once they’re on.  But I don’t see how they could be worth the trouble.”  He rehung the possible jacket.  “What do you know of the Vanir, Heimdall?  Lady Vigdis has taught me all she can from books and Father and Mother have told me stories, but you see first-hand—not the written truth nor what royalty is given to see, but all.”

“You overrate me.  I don’t watch Vanaheim often—our relations with them have been too peaceful for too long for me to fix my gaze there long.  Else I would not have been as surprised as you by the sight of that… confection.”  But Thor could never accept that someone he respected really did know as little as they claimed—his life had thus far not supported this—so he only waited patiently for Heimdall to give in and tell what he would.  Then he could field-dress it for what would be useful to him.  Heimdall had to respect that stony patience of his when it showed itself, so he went on to say, “The Vanir live in a more scattered way than the Aesir.  Their cities are beautiful but delicate, made to be mobile; disassembled and reassembled as they move with the seasons.  Their architecture is therefore often more wood than stone—in order to be lighter.  They make beautiful carvings in their walls, turn them sometimes into intricate lace.  They’re a peaceful people who live quietly, deliberately close to the earth; they have long lives as we do, but they are more attached to change, they build things intending them to fall apart.  They know more about magic than we ever have, though they have taught us some, not in return for our protection but just because of our friendship and kinship.  They’d teach us more if more of us were able to learn, no doubt, but Asgard has always been better at growing warriors than magicians.  All of this must have been in your books.”

“Yes,” Thor admitted, “but you tell it better, and if I just listen to you, I don’t have to go digging after footnotes.  But you must know something that wouldn’t be written down by a scribe.”

Must he?  Well, so he did, but most of what he knew that was ignored by the scribes were not things that he could in all good conscience pass on to a child, even one who would soon be old enough to discover scandals firsthand.  Then he thought of something fitting.  “Indeed I do.  They train their horses to do tricks.”

“What kind of tricks?”

“They bow to new acquaintances.  And they can count—not very high, admittedly, but high enough to be sometimes useful in reporting the numbers of a scouting party.  Though I think the Vanir train them for the joy of it rather than the use.”

Thor looked as though he planned to immediately storm the stables with an abacus.  “It will be an excellent trip.  I wish you could come.”

“I wish so too.”

“You really can’t with Loki there,” Thor said.  “We can’t have Father and Mother either.”  He looked up, his eyes suddenly solemn.  “I won’t let him come to any grief, even by his own hand.  If I have to, I’ll dunk him in the stream until he comes to his senses—and if he’s not the trouble, I’ll fight and best whoever is.”

Fight no one, Heimdall ought to have said.  Make friends, and teach him the trick of it.

But there was something in Thor’s serene confidence—his faith that obviously he would be able to deal with whatever chaos, inside or out, might swallow up his brother—that touched him.  So he held his tongue.  After all, he was of Asgard, too, and of an older Asgard than Thor Odinson.  He had been born in the fourth year of a war of conquest that had glutted their coffers with gold and painted their hands with blood; he had soldiered long enough to know that the justice or injustice of a battle could not slow the sword speeding for your throat.  The fight was part of him, down deep in his marrow.  He was proud of the boys’ ferocity, their capability.  He couldn’t deny that.

He said only, “I know you will,” and Thor smiled—in this moment completely content, which was a look Heimdall could not remember Loki wearing, and one that therefore made his heart ache a little.  “I don’t like to lose him for a month, but if I must, I’m thankful he has you to look after him.”  For that matter, he was thankful Loki would be there to look after Thor—when left unchecked, the prince of Asgard tended to barrel into things headfirst.  Perhaps they would check each other’s excesses.  Provided, of course, that no situation offered the kind of trouble that appealed to them both.

Though, regrettably, that was most kinds of trouble.  It might be best to keep his hopes muted.  At the very least, then, one could see that the other did not die accidentally strangling themselves in their dinner clothes.

Chapter Text

When Heimdall returned home that evening, he found Loki outside in the garden, his back against the scaly trunk of a sheltering tree; he was pushing his way through a Jotun grammar text that he only ever took out when he was alone.  He’d had Brynn buy it for him on Ingberg, not even wanting any bookseller on Asgard to recall Heimdall paying for it, and he would not consent to be tutored in it or even share it with Heimdall, who might have at least been a conversation partner for him.  He just laboriously went through it over and over again with the aid of a massive, broken-backed dictionary (another Ingberg acquisition).  He seemed relieved to put both aside when he saw Heimdall.

“Well?”

If Heimdall had had news to upset him, he would have given it at once, but as it was—

“Hello, Loki,” he said.  “How were your lessons?”

Loki’s sigh of disgust seemed to have been fetched up from the soles of his boots.  “Hello, Heimdall,” he said dutifully.  “My lessons were informative, we did poetry, Gara knocked me down in sparring but that’s only because I tripped on a rock, I scryed in the pond and saw a Midgardian beast like a black and white bear, how was your day, did you talk to the All-Father.”

He laughed, ignoring the pang like a snakebite in his chest.  No, he did not think he’d come home often, if at all, on the days Loki was gone.

“I did.  Your victory is assured.”

Loki barreled into him, undignified as he only ever was when he forgot himself, and Heimdall dealt well with having the air knocked out of him and put his arms around Loki unusually tightly.

Loki came away from the hug grinning.  “I knew you could do it.”

“I’m gratified by your confidence, but it wasn’t at all simple.”  He went slowly through the particulars Loki would have to remember—he would be announced to the Vanir as a prince, reared on Asgard but not yet ready to claim his kingdom.  Yes, people would assume he was Odin’s son from the wrong side of the sheets; the more adventurous might speculate he was Frigga’s and that Odin was an unusually indulgent husband to have granted royal status to his wife’s bastard.  He did not use all these words as such, but he knew, sadly, that those were the words Loki would use in his own head.  Bastard, wrong.

“I know that will be hard for you,” Heimdall said, “but you must bear with it rather than tell them the truth.”

Loki blinked at him, looking genuinely confused.  “Of course.  Why would I ever tell them the truth?  They couldn’t possibly like having a Frost Giant in their midst, sleeping in one of their beds, supping from their plates.”

Every time he thought they had taken some small step forward in this matter, he found them back at the beginning again.  He kept his voice steady.  “The truth would be no problem at all for the Vanir—they’ve been friendly with Jotunheim for time out of mind.  There may well be Jotuns in their court already, living there in a quite commonplace way.  It would do you well to get to know one or two of them, if you could.  Your lips are to remain sealed on the subject because we do not want a war.”

“A war?  —Oh.  Laufey.”  He shook his head.  “I wouldn’t worry about it.  Why would he go to war with Odin over a boy not yet ready to claim a throne when he could just send someone to kill me?”

The frankness of that speculation and the easy, unbothered way in which Loki offered it horrified him and made him want to immediately lock Loki within his own gates and refuse to let him to go Vanaheim or anywhere else, but he made himself swallow.  “I did not think of that, in all honesty.”

“Well, you wouldn’t.  You wouldn’t kill anyone my age.”

“I hope you wouldn’t either.”

“Not if I were grown,” Loki said, which was, Heimdall supposed, fair enough—children were far from sentimental about the childhood of their fellows.  “But I would bet my own head that the All-Father thought of it.  It’s good of him to be considerate enough to avoid having me murdered.”

“Loki.”  He didn’t know why he was scolding him.  Probably for the slight admiration in Loki’s voice when Loki had realized that Odin’s mind had gone where his own had.

Loki had the decency to look abashed—he seemed, however belatedly, to realize that Heimdall might not like hearing him coldly dissect the probability that he would be killed.  “I’m sorry, Heimdall.  I do promise that I’ll stay out of trouble.”

“Yes, I’ll believe that particular transformation when I see it for myself.”  Since he could hardly tell Loki that Thor would look after him, he said, “You should at least try to keep your brother out of trouble.  You know how Thor is.”

This was the kind of shameless manipulation that he ought to have been above, but he was too practical to be bothered by it, especially when it was so effective.

“Yes,” Loki said, with a world-weariness that suggested his brother was the great trial of his life and was already turning his hair gray, “I know how Thor is.  Don’t worry, I won’t let him go into anything all bullheaded.  I am responsible.”

“I know you are,” Heimdall said.  This was true in its way.  Loki could survive on his own devices very well and he could certainly behave appropriately if he were in the mood to do so—he might give offense deliberately, but never by mistake.  And he was possessive of whatever duties and rights were given to him; he would not neglect them.  It was as if he were carving himself out of marble and was determined to have no chip or imperfection.  The danger was not that he would grow sloppy but that he would embark on the wrong course altogether or else smash it all to dust in a fit of pique.

He was too smart not to know how much the trip to Vanaheim mattered, and he cared too much to do anything so important ill.  Heimdall did not trust him to stay out of trouble—it would have been nonsense to trust a child his age that far—but he trusted him to avoid blunders.

“We’ll have to pack.  I have no notion how many clothes you’ll need, but the queen will have some for you, no doubt—Thor showed me something the Vanir require for state dinners and it’s a nightmare, certainly not anything we already have on hand for you.”

“I would like to see Mother before I go,” Loki said, with the slight diffidence he usually took on when speaking of Frigga.  “So that is just as well.  Though I don’t like the sound of this garment.”

“You’ll like the look of it still less.  But this—this may be of some consolation to you.  A present from your brother.”

He took out the paper-wrapped gift.  Loki, ever pleased with presents, admired the sketches and even pointed out several in particular that he liked especially well; he slit the paper open carefully to preserve its art and then cast it aside with feigned, unconvincing carelessness.  The box was wooden and not a bad gift in and of itself—a rich black wood, elegantly carved.  Loki lifted the lid.  His mouth fell open.

“They’re beautiful.”

Thor had chosen even more carefully than he had explained, for they were not only twin Vanir daggers, well-crafted and fine, but in Loki’s own chosen colors, their hilts black and green.

“They are the kind carried by the Vanir,” Heimdall said quietly.  “He thought you might like to bear them into the courts of Vanaheim.  And,” this to cut the mistiness in Loki’s expression before Loki himself turned against it out of some odd spite, “that you could always use something else ‘stabby,’ as he put it.”

“They’re less stabby than ‘cutty,’” Loki said, handling one of them and giving it a sideways swipe through the air, luxuriously slow, “but I like them very much.  What a thoughtful brother.”

He handled his words as he handled his daggers, well-aware of how they could wound, but careful for now that they did not: yes, his tone implied, he felt the distance between his station and Thor’s that meant that Thor could hand down such gifts to him that he could not repay in kind, but for right now, he bore that difference well, wryly rather than hatefully.  It augured well for the trip.


Loki had relaxed his self-imposed seclusion over the years, but between his lessons and his antipathy toward the hotly inquisitive eyes of Asgard, he still ventured into the city only rarely.  And when he did, he would stick to Heimdall close as a burr.  He’d made a little nook for himself in the Observatory—”Loki’s perch,” Ivar called it—and he was capable of tucking himself up in it for long, slow hours, watching Heimdall watch the universe.  He would play with Thor if Thor came by, but their play was likewise confined—games of tag played in endless, dizzy circles.

And he had never, to Heimdall’s knowledge, come alone.  But now here he was, two days before his scheduled departure.  He was in his best clothes, though they were of a wool that must have been stifling in this heat, and his usually mobile face was stiff.

“Loki?”  Heimdall broke his concentration away from the Bifrost and motioned for Ivar to step into his place.  (“Hello, Prince Loki,” Ivar said first—that Ivar seemed to acknowledge no difference between Loki now and Loki as he’d known him before was one of the things Heimdall liked best about him.)  “Has something happened?”

“I was summoned,” Loki said.  “To the palace.”  He swallowed.  “I haven’t been there since… before.”

All-Fathers damn Odin, testing the boy to see whether or not he would break.  Loki would soon have to bear the pressure of a royal court, with all the memories one might entail, and maybe it was only fair that Odin should know whether or not he could withstand it, but there was no reason for it to be done like this, all at once, all by surprise, and all without Heimdall’s consent.  Loki already showed the strain of it.  The freshly-brushed clothes, the hair braided back so tightly it must have been already creating a headache for him, the almost scalded look of his hands and neck from some hot and hurried scrubbing.  If Odin thought it so important that his cast-aside son know how to comport himself in court, perhaps he should have made a more regular habit of inviting him there.

Heimdall exhaled.

“I’m sorry,” Loki said.

“Why are you sorry?”

“You look angry.  I interrupted you…”

“I am the furthest thing from angry with you,” Heimdall said.  “I’m exceptionally angry that this was sprung on you like a trap.”

“Well.”  Loki shrugged.  “The All-Father.  It’s what he does.  How am I to someday be his sword to cut down other kingdoms if I remain untempered?”  He wrapped his arms around himself.  “The message did not say that I should bring you with me, so I only… I only stopped by first to see that I looked acceptable.  I don’t really remember—what people wore.  And I didn’t know whether…  I don’t know my rank.”

No, of course he did not.  In the royal family, his place had been clear enough: the youngest son, one of the two crown princes of Asgard, not the gilded favorite but still anointed, still high above the rest of the city.  In the country, his place was likewise clear, because all who dealt with him did so straightforwardly and on his own merits.  To Volstagg and his family, to Lady Ragna, to Heimdall’s mothers, to the various shopkeepers, he was only Loki—a clever, funny, volatile, imperious prankster of a boy.  (Some of them, Heimdall thought, had forgotten, mostly or entirely, that the changeling child in their midst had ever been anywhere or anyone else.  Asgardians lived long lives, but they made a habit of having short memories: it made things easier, better-preserved their ideas about themselves.)  They had even established who Loki would be on Vanaheim.

But not who he would be when finally once again in the presence of Odin.  Not who he would be when his footsteps were echoing in the corridors of his one-time home, when he was passing people who used to bow to him and who now would not know, anymore than he would, what they should do.

Ivar cleared his throat in a quiet, polite way.  So much for continuous attention to the Nine Realms.

“Yes?” Heimdall said.

“I certainly don’t know what knowledge the king holds,” Ivar said, “or what knowledge the two of you have amongst yourselves, but I would say that, to the ordinary attendants, Loki, whatever else he might someday be, is for now the son of Asgard’s Gatekeeper, and as such is nobility of the highest rank on that alone.  Such a boy would have a perfect right to the palace, and anything short of open disrespect would be allowed to him.  Certainly he could wear what he liked.  Minus obvious holes or stains.  I think you present yourself very well, Prince Loki.”

Loki stood a little straighter.  “Thank you, Ivar.”

Yes.  Thank you, Ivar.

“Only the truth,” Ivar said.  He patted his pockets and came up with a squashed bit of lavender-flavored honey candy.  “Here.  Pop it in your mouth as you’re going in and you’ll look like the cat who got into the cream and you’ll drive the curious mad with perplexity.”

Loki giggled and caught the candy when it was tossed to him.  “I like that.”

“I thought you would.”  Ivar took up his stance again.

Loki looked at his back and said to Heimdall, “His eyes still don’t look like yours.”

No, and Heimdall didn’t think they ever would.  Ivar’s gift, well-honed by his years in the palace guard, was attentiveness—he could stay alert for the longest and dullest of stretches.  He could not see into the universe at his own choosing, but he was supple-minded enough to let the Bifrost nudge his mind where it chose, which made him an apt enough second.

“He needs the Observatory to help him see,” Heimdall said.  “It works differently.”

“I do see better here.  And when I’m around you.”  Loki was fidgeting with the candy, rolling it back and forth between his fingers like a pebble in a magic trick.  “Would you… could you keep an eye on me while I’m inside?”

It was the first and only time Loki had ever asked such a thing of him, and of course it had to be a time when Heimdall could not help him.  “I’m sorry,” he said, with all his heart, “but the palace can’t be scryed into even with my eyes.  The magic there is old and strong and has always kept it off-limits.”

“Of course it has,” Loki said, with such disdain that Heimdall would have laughed if he had not so much agreed with it.  He squared his shoulders.  “Then I should go, shouldn’t I?”

“Invited or not,” Heimdall said, “I will still come with you if you wish it.”

Loki shook his head.  “It’s a test.  I won’t fail it.”  He held out his hand to Heimdall; the gesture of a soldier about to die saluting an old commander.  “I’ll come by when it’s all over.”

And off he walked, his head held up arrogantly high as if daring anyone to question his path, so unerringly set now for the palace.

“Not that it’s any of my business,” Ivar said, “but if I were going to cast off a child, I wouldn’t keep pulling him back to me like a toy on a string.”

On any other day, Heimdall would have cautioned him to be careful saying such things, but he felt like he could have torn the Observatory down around him in his anger, so he just nodded.  His hands ached, longing to do violence.

“It will be the first time he has seen the king since Odin bid him farewell.”  The tension showed in his voice: a steel cord stretched to its breaking point, already starting to fray.  In two days now I will lose him and Odin sets a hive of hornets swirling in his head.  Does he hope Loki will cry off and stay home?  Because I could have told him—had he cared to ask—that Loki would sooner die.  “The All-Father has never come to him, not even when… not even when Loki most needed him.  He wanted to, I know, but he restrained himself from giving Loki what would have done him good.  He doesn’t see such a need to restrain himself from doing what will do Loki ill.”

And he doubted Odin had any joy in this, either.  He didn’t feel charitable enough to say that, however.  He wished he hadn’t even thought it, since it distracted him from the crystal-hard clarity of this rage.  He cast it off.  He refused now to have anything but tunnel-vision.

“I can follow him,” Ivar said.  “If you want, Gatekeeper.”

He did, but it would do no good: Ivar could not keep at Loki’s heels without Odin noticing.  And, for that matter, without Loki noticing.  Heimdall was willing to have his son resent him if need be, but not when it would do no good, not when Loki most needed to be calm, and not when he had all but promised to abide by Loki’s own decision to go alone.

“I’m grateful for the offer, but—”

“But it is all-advised,” Ivar finished for him.  “I understand.  In any case, I have no wish to incur the wrath of your little tiger cub.”

This provoked a smile, as it was surely intended to.  “And how much wrath do you suppose you’d incur if I told him you called him that?”

“Please don’t,” Ivar said hastily.  “I like my extremities intact.”

Heimdall took up his position again, allowing Ivar to go scrounge up a luncheon for the two of them.  He tried to lose himself in the stars, but could not, so with little guilt—he was still too angry for guilt—he turned his eyes to Vanaheim.  He looked upon their preparations for Thor’s arrival—no one had told them to expect two princes, and why did that not surprise him?—and upon their latest capital, with its ceiling of willow trees and its walls braided with goldenrod.  It would be sweetly scented.  But sound would travel—it was not a place built for privacy.

Do you ever feel like a spy? Ivar had asked him when Heimdall had first started teaching him to bend his mind to the Bifrost’s will.  Or at least more spy than sentinel?

I probably am more spy than sentinel, he’d answered.  I see things that I have no right to witness.  I pry into the lives of our allies as well as our enemies.  What should terrify you is that even then there are things that escape me.  The universe is wide.  I can rove as spy and stand as sentinel and still see war break upon us like a wave.

Would Loki, in this peaceful but open bower, bring war down upon them?  Was it worth the risk?

Oh, now how you are tempted to hide behind Odin’s robes and say it is not your decision.  Is he not your son?  You could refuse.

And break his heart.  And betray his trust.

A small price to pay to save his life, if Laufey does think to try to take it.

What is his life without his heart?

Still his life, Brynn’s slightly acidic voice said.  He would have time to grow a new heart.  He’s done it before.

He had broken away from the sight of Vanaheim and was alone in the darkness, perilously close to the howl of the Void that was said to drive men mad.  He turned from it, sped on to Jotunheim.  To Laufey, his son’s first father.

What did he think?  What, if anything, did he plan?  And what had he heard of the youngest prince of Asgard, the boy the same age as the Jotun-Aesir peace?  Of that boy’s disinheritance and peculiar position?  Of the whispers that swirled around him like phantoms?

Heimdall had looked on him before, of course, but not with the paranoid suspicion that would uncover a thousand secrets in a glance.  He could not trust this stay, but he could not resist it, either.  If he could not blast away the thorns that surrounded Odin, then he would have Laufey laid bare to him.  He swept his mind through the halls of what passed, now, for Laufey’s palace, through the streets of what passed for his kingdom.  He didn’t know what he expected to find; didn’t know what he would have feared to see.  He saw Laufey’s surviving children.

When he looked on this as the kingdom that might kill his son, he saw nothing but nightmares, demon-eyed and ice-hearted; he saw every prejudice he would have scrubbed from Loki’s mind.  He fell back into himself, his breathing ragged.  He did not deserve his title if he would use what he saw to push the realms further apart.  Perhaps Laufey did scheme.  He had paid out his loss to Odin in blood, wealth, and pride; Odin had taken his Casket, his firstborn, and the very walls of his home.  He was a man cold enough to leave a weak child to die.  He may well be Heimdall’s enemy, for reasons decreed by both character and fate.

But Laufey’s children, Laufey’s people—he could not hate them.  Loki was one of them.

“I can look no more today,” Heimdall said.  “I am agitated, unfit for it.  I see with clouded eyes.”

“I can stand for you,” Ivar said, stuffing the last slice of cold beef into his mouth.  Heimdall hadn’t even known he’d returned, but he could now see the food Ivar had brought for him, wrapped in paper.  Ivar always bought enough for two even though Heimdall only sometimes ate.

Heimdall hadn’t known he’d been lonely before he’d had Loki.  But his life had become very crowded of late—not just Loki but Thor and Frigga, and Volstagg and Gara, and Ragna with her daggers and Vigdis with her trunks of books, and Ivar with his loyalty and kindness.  And his mothers, given back to him when he hadn’t known he had let time take them away.

There’d been no one to stand for him before, so he had thought it was obligation to stand always.

Now he said, “Thank you,” with real gratitude, and took Ivar’s place on the bench.  “Do you like doing this?”

“Watching?  More or less.  I couldn’t do it for days on end the way you used to.  The Bifrost makes the inside of my skull itch, and it yanks me about—I cannot ride it like a horse the way a true Guardian would.  But even led by it, you do see some incredible things.  Things you never see inside the palace walls.”  His voice had softened, but now he seemed to be girding himself to say something.  “I’m not your successor, I know, Gatekeeper, but I will always be glad you chose to teach me.”

“Why should you not be my successor?”

“Because Loki will be,” Ivar said.  “Is that not your plan?”

“Oh, a hope, perhaps.”  He rubbed at his head.  “He has the gift, of that I have no doubt.  He’ll see far, if I can teach him to understand what he sees, if I can calm him enough to trust his worth by his own reckoning of it.  And Thor would appoint him to the post if Loki wished it.”

“You think that better for him than a crown?”

“It’s not that simple.”  He thought Loki could be brought up to wear a crown as well as anyone: he was sharp-witted, attentive, naturally political, and capable of fierce love.  The people wouldn’t adore him, but his gift for pageantry would make them like him (assuming Jotunheim liked spectacle with the same fervor as Asgard) and his skills would make them respect him.  But Loki didn’t have the gift for people that would let him rule in anything other than isolation.  What Loki most needed, the throne would least allow.  “But in the end it won’t be my choice, it will be his, and I’ll only—”  He stood.  “There he is.”

“Go meet him,” Ivar said suddenly.  “I’ll keep watch.  Go and meet him as he comes.”

It would embarrass Loki a little, but he could live with that.  Heimdall nodded and left.

Someone had cut off Loki’s hair.  The tight braid he’d come to the city with was no more—his hair was now a boy’s cut, not a youth’s, barely clearing his earlobes.

And his face and hands had been marked with green and silver in dots and dashes.  The paint irritated his skin, flushing it up ugly and red around the colors and and making him clash with himself.  His ears had been pierced with thick little gold studs.

“What happened to you?”

Loki shrugged, his shoulders stiff.  “Nothing that won’t grow out again or get fixed when I come home.”

“Loki.”

“Now I don’t look like a prince of Asgard,” Loki said.  “I look like a prince of wherever the fuck would do this” and Heimdall should have known he knew the word, of course, but it was the first time he’d heard him say it.  “It’ll mislead Vanaheim, apparently.”

“You liked your hair long.”  And so did I.

“I like going to Vanaheim.”  His jaw was set.  “Do we have to talk about this right here in the street?  I want to go home.  My skin hurts and I want to take a bath.”

“I should like to see you draw a bath for yourself,” Heimdall said, momentarily distracted by the thought of Loki even trying such a task.  He may have been shooting up through his clothes a little more each day, but he could still fit comfortably in the big copper kettle they used to heat the bathwater.  “Soak yourself in the pond or else wait for me to get home.  You won’t like Vanaheim very well if you have to go there red and scalded—which you almost look already.  That paint needs to come off, I don’t care what the All-Father says.  It’s giving you a rash.”

“It isn’t paint.”

“Ink, then, I don’t see the difference.”

“There’s a quite a difference if it goes in with a needle,” Loki said.

Heimdall stepped closer to Loki, putting his hand under his son’s chin to turn his face up—an operation, he was suddenly aware, that he would not have in his arsenal much longer.  Time would intervene to say more and more that Heimdall should take care of him less and less.  But not today.  Loki’s eyes met his: half-defiant, half-scared, entirely in need of something, if Heimdall could determine what.

“They tattooed you?” he said, taking care to keep his voice level.

“Please don’t be mad at me,” Loki whispered, his defiance vanishing entirely.  Heimdall had seen this happen to him before: Loki would go on and on and on at almost the same level of strength and then he would drop, he would simmer forever and then explode without warning.  His emotions always seemed sudden unless you knew how to look for them, and even Heimdall only knew about half the time.

But he knew now.  And if Loki had hit rock-bottom faster than usual, who could blame him?

“I’m not mad at you, Loki.”

“I let them do it.”

“I know.  You want to go to Vanaheim.”

“I have to.”  He rubbed at his cheek as if to wipe away tears that hadn’t yet come and winced as he put pressure on one of the fresh tattoos.  “I can’t lose now, Heimdall.  I’m not going to, I won’t.  A healer can drain the ink out when I come home again.  They didn’t do anything we can’t undo.”

“Would you have let them if they’d tried?”

“No,” Loki said, but his eyes gave away the lie.

Oh, he would have words with Odin about this.  He would wait until Loki and Thor were on their way so that Odin couldn’t rescind his permission—losing the trip now would go through Loki like a spear—but he would do it.  You think that for our sons and my oaths and the love I once bore you I will not make your life hard, my king?  I have power of my own.  This anger was white-hot, the heart of a star, the only thing suitable for forging a weapon that could harm a king of Asgard.

And now he did commit treason.  Well, let him die for it, then.  Odin should never have laid his hands and his plans on Loki, not like this, not without Heimdall there to protect him.

Something in his face must have given all this away, even as accustomed as he was to keeping secrets, because Loki all of a sudden hugged him and pressed his forehead hard against Heimdall’s chest.  “Don’t get in trouble.”

Heimdall settled his hand on the back of Loki’s head, feeling his newly-shorn hair.  “Rich words coming from you.”

“Well, I know what I’m talking about.”  Loki pulled back a little and gave him a strangely shy smile.  “I don’t want to come home and find you in a dungeon.  Thor and I would have to engineer a jailbreak.”  It did seem like now that he was thinking about it, the prospect intrigued and excited him.  “I wonder if the dungeons are entirely—”

“I think those thoughts should stop right where they are,” Heimdall said.  He gave Loki’s hair one final ruffle.  “Are you sure you want to go straight home?  You can spend the rest of the day at the Observatory with me if you like.”

“If you aren’t going to let me have a bath, I suppose it doesn’t make any difference if I go home now or not.”

He liked how Loki said that as if Heimdall had barred him from all baths forever, as if such a thing would even have been possible: Loki was unshakably snobbish about baths, at least for the country boy that he now half was.  Volstagg sometimes called him the prince of soap and water.  If they had not fixed on the cottage as their home, they might have found a house near hot springs—as it was, a full reworking of the cottage’s plumbing to allow them hot water was perpetually on their list, always somehow falling behind “build another bookshelf” and “make another set of dishes after Loki destroyed the last.”

Loki’s bedroom, at least, was now extant.  Heimdall was proud of it and already felt it haunted by Loki’s coming absence.  A whole month without seeing Loki waiting for him in the window like a cat…

“And I have yet to get you a cat,” Heimdall said.

Loki didn’t seem to regard this as a non sequitur—perhaps to him it was just Heimdall being reminded of one failing by another.  Heimdall did not let him have a bath, Heimdall did not let him have a cat.  “That’s true.  And Ivar’s sister’s neighbor’s cat had kittens a fortnight ago and I’m sure we could have had one for the asking.  But you can’t get one while I am gone.”

“No,” Heimdall agreed.

“Because I don’t want it to bond with you first and like you more.”

“Certainly not.”

Loki’s agreement to stay at the Observatory seemed to have been predicated upon this guarantee, though the issue of the cat had not been raised at all when Heimdall had first asked him, because it was only then that he nodded and trotted off to the Observatory, greeting Ivar again in a hard, imperious voice that all but dared Ivar to say something about either his hair or the marks on his face and hands.

Thor couldn’t have been there for that, Heimdall thought.  If he had been, Heimdall would have heard the thunder, he had no doubt of that.


On the eve of Loki’s departure for Vanaheim, they did not go within a mile of the city.  Heimdall wanted Loki to have these last memories of home to carry with him, pinned to his clothes like a sachet, laid beneath his clothes like a clutch of lavender to help him sleep.  They worked in the garden, where Loki explained to him in long, unbroken speeches how to care for the flowers and the vegetable patch.  He never trusted that Heimdall knew anything about it already—”It had all grown up wild when I got here,” he said, and no amount of Heimdall pointing out that that was because he hadn’t been at the cottage at all, to tend to it or neglect it, ever mollified him.

Loki scryed up the black-and-white Midgardian bear for him.  The color of lake water flickered in and out of his eyes, too restless to settle.

“Do you think it a threat to Asgard?” Heimdall said, his hands on Loki’s shoulders.

Loki giggled a little before he reined himself in and became the picture of seriousness.  “Quite possibly.  It has a certain girth to it, doesn’t it?  It could come through the Bifrost and lay waste to us with a single swipe of its paw.”

“Oh, so you think me a traitor, opening the Bifrost for such a dangerous creature.”

“Not at all.  Maybe Ivar is on duty.  Maybe Ivar has conspired with the bear and has been betraying you all along.”  He tilted his head.  “Maybe Ivar is a fellow bear, shapeshifted.  Maybe you and Thor and Mother and the All-Father are the only true Aesir in all of Asgard.  Volstagg is clearly a bear, after all.  He’s not even wearing an especially convincing disguise.”

That was not entirely implausible.  “You’re sure I am Aesir?”

“I am sure you’re Heimdall, at least.”

“It’s true that it might have been a challenge to find various mothers to collaborate with me on such a lie.”

Loki shook his head, though what he said next didn’t sound like argument: “I am just sure that you’re Heimdall.”

The image of the bear broke on the surface of the pond, cracked like an egg, and Loki turned to face him.  He smile was uncharacteristically uncertain.

“You’ll do very well on Vanaheim,” Heimdall said.  “I have faith in you.  You’ll be thoughtful and well-mannered and clever and they’ll probably not want to give you back to me at the end of the trip, so you had better be prepared to fight your way home if necessary.”

“I’m prepared.”  Loki exhaled.  “I am just nervous.”

Heimdall had some idea what it had cost him to admit that and some idea of how nervous Loki would have to be before he would call it that—his mind was probably clawing rat-like at the inside of his own skull.  “I’ll always be able to see you if you need me, you know that.  And I would like it if you’d call to me even just to say hello.  I’ll miss you.”

Loki shook his head again, no doubt thinking that he was being very wise and lofty, able to see clearly and without sentiment that his absence did not matter: “No, you won’t.  It’ll probably be nice for you to have some time alone.  You never asked to be saddled with a child.”  Where did he pick up these phrases?  He had a thousand ways of implying he was nothing.

“I will miss you,” Heimdall said again, very firmly.  “There’s nothing about a month of you being gone that I like in the least, except that it pleases you.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.  Home won’t be home without you.”

“Hm.”  Loki turned a rock over and over again with the toe of his boot.  “I’ll miss you too, then.”

The phrasing made him smile, though not without sadness.  “Would you not, if I didn’t miss you?”

“I would have,” Loki said.  “I just wouldn’t have said it.  Do you mind me being Loki Heimdallson?  On Vanaheim, I mean.”

He had decided long ago to let Loki determine when, if ever, they would have this talk, but even with all that time to practice, he felt no confidence he would manage it well.  Loki was still toying about with the rock.  Muddy belly, clean back, muddy belly, clean back, over and over until there was no difference between the two sides at all.

“I am proud to have you be Loki Heimdallson,” he said.  “I would like it if you thought of yourself that way, on Vanaheim and Asgard and wherever else you go.”

“It’s a good name,” Loki said noncommittally.

Should he press?  A good name, but not yours?  Or leave it there?  Did Loki need space or did he need insistence?  But Loki could not take anything told to him for granted, or at least not easily.  Odin had told him he was his son and then he had told him he wasn’t; it would be a long time before Loki let himself believe that story again, no matter who told it to him.

So Heimdall said only, “Yours—whenever you want it.”

Loki nodded and then coughed.  He said, “On Vanaheim they’ll think I’m Odin’s get from the wrong side of the sheets.  I’m trying to avoid the word ‘bastard’ since you don’t like it.”

“You avoided it for one out of two sentences, anyway.  And yes, I’m sure they will.  I know you don’t like it when people think you’re Odin’s, but—”

“What I do not like,” Loki said, enunciating each word precisely, “is that everyone is then going to think that you’re just Odin’s… clearinghouse for his bastards (sorry, Heimdall) when you are the Guardian of the Bifrost.  It makes you seem like an—an afterthought.  If I say Heimdallson and they hear Odinson, they think Heimdallson means nothing, but it does.  And then if you should ever have children, they’ll be presumed off-world to be Odin’s as well.”  He paused.  “Are you going to have children?”

“I’m satisfied with the current one, thank you.”

Loki stepped wide of that remark, as if he couldn’t touch it without getting burned.  He said only, and worryingly seriously, “I would have to fight anyone who belittled you.”

“No, you would not.”

“I will not stand by and let people say things about you.”

“You will stand by and let people say things about me or you will not go to Vanaheim at all.  If you have petty scuffles with the Vanir over my honor, you’ll cause a diplomatic incident.”

“They would not be petty,” Loki said, “and they would not be scuffles.  They would be proper duels over proper causes and I would win them, but,” he held up his hand, forestalling Heimdall’s objection, “yes, I understand your point.  I’ll be careful.”  That sounded much more like a promise to not get caught than a promise not to make trouble in the first place, but he let it go there.  He would put his trust in the Vanir’s manners and Loki’s sense of self-preservation more than in any wrung-out acquiescence, in any case.

“Write to me sometimes,” Heimdall said.  There was a soreness in his throat.  “Transmissions between Vanaheim and Asgard are secure enough.  And write to your grandmothers or they’ll worry about you.”

“If you promise Grandmama Freydis will not—”

“I promise Freydis will not come to Vanaheim and embarrass you in front of an entire royal court.  Brynn wouldn’t let her, anyway.”

“Grandmama Brynn says she can’t stop Grandmama Freydis from doing anything.”

“I’m sure she did say that,” Heimdall said dryly, “while she was in your Grandmama Freydis’s earshot.”

Loki’s mouth quirked upwards on one side.  He had at least left off toying with that damned stone.  “And you’ll write too, Heimdall, won’t you?”

“Of course.  I’ll have to keep you informed on the doings of your bear, for one thing.  A dangerous creature like that will need all our watchfulness to contain it.”

The smile stayed, but Loki lowered his voice for his next question, as if someone else might overhear: “What if I do everything wrong?”

Heimdall tangled his fingers in Loki’s hair, still marveling at its shortness, and how quickly Odin’s plans for his one-time son had erased the most visible mark of Heimdall’s time with him.  It worried him.  He was a watchman, not a politician, and he traded in what was real and not what was symbolic, but… it worried him, this reminder of how easily Odin could reduce Heimdall’s influence to nothing.  But he would not have Loki worrying about it.

“You won’t.  You care too much and you try too hard to ever be in danger of that—you won’t make many mistakes, and when you do, just dust yourself off and go on.  Don’t think that not doing everything right means that you’ve done everything wrong.  You’ll do well, Loki, I know it, and I’m already proud of you.  Watchful little prince.  Do you know what you remind me of?”

Loki shook his head.

“The gray panther.  My shadow creature that I wanted everyone else to leave alone.  Scratchy, clawing thing, with those bright green eyes.  Entirely able to maul someone to pieces if you liked, which is another reason I’d prefer you didn’t try.”  He tugged at Loki’s hair.  “I’d like to set you free on Usepp and let you run wild a while, with no concerns at all, instead of seeing you off into yet another menagerie where you will have to mind what people think of you.  You deserve more.  Thor knows it, I know it, your mother knows it…  You should not be moved about like this, from cage to cage.  You should be free to choose.”

“But I am,” Loki said, frowning.  “I chose Vanaheim.  I’m choosing to go to Vanaheim.  And this would mean that when we first met, you were trying to kill me so you would be impressive to people.  That’s why you wanted everyone to leave the panther alone.”

“It isn’t a perfect fit,” Heimdall admitted.  “I also don’t expect to have to leave skinned birds lying about for you to learn how to feed yourself.”

“I should hope not.  What do you want me to be free to choose, anyway?”

“Who you are.  Where you go.  What you do with yourself.”

Loki looked at him a long time.  Finally he said, “The All-Father already decided who I am, where I’ll go, and what I have to do with myself.”

“It’s not the All-Father’s decision.”

“That’s treason.”

“Yes,” Heimdall said.  “I’ve thought that enough times myself, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”

“You don’t go around telling Thor he should be free to choose.”

“Thor has the privileges of his rank.  You do not.  And you’re the one being asked—being told—to leave your home.  The All-Father made choices for Loki Odinson, for Loki Laufeyson, and perhaps he had the right to do it.  But I don’t allow that he has the right to make them for Loki Heimdallson, and I’ve said already that you have the right to that name.  No one else can decide who you’ll become.”

“Thank you,” Loki said.  “I’m glad to have all this to consider the night before I go to Vanaheim.  You’re as bad as Thor.”

Heimdall recognized a sidestep when he heard it, and he let the matter go.  Loki was right—he’d chosen a bad metaphor and a worse time to deploy it.  “That’s vicious slander.”

“Heimdall the Reckless,” Loki said.

“Why do I ever tell you things?”

“I don’t know,” Loki said, frowning a little.  “But you keep on doing it.”  He moved close to Heimdall’s side and let Heimdall put an arm around him.  They looked out at the water.  Heimdall wished he could persuade the pond to show them far-off times instead of worlds.  He’d never had any doubt about his ability to see Loki safely to other places, but he had to trust in the future like everyone else.  He couldn’t say he liked it.

Chapter Text

PART THREE

 

Loki couldn’t sleep.  He kicked all his blankets off.  He pulled all his blankets back up.  He kicked them off again.  Left side, right side, back, stomach.  Nothing worked.  And his pillow had developed a spiteful mind of its own and started delighting in forcing his head and neck into actual contortions.

He wasn’t a child anymore and it was unthinkable that he should act like one—on the night before Vanaheim, no less—but…  If he stayed restless, he wouldn’t sleep late in any case.  He could wake before Heimdall and Heimdall wouldn’t have to know.

He had not done it in years—well, he had not done it in months—but he gathered up his quilt and the demonic pillow and crept from his room to make a new bed on the rug by Heimdall’s door.  He liked the rug.  Grandmama Gunndis had made it—he supposed she was his grandmama even though she hadn’t lived for him to meet her—out of the family’s worn-out clothes.  Heimdall had sat with him once and named the origins of as many of the scraps as he could, telling stories of him as he’d done with the constellations when Loki had been very young: all nine of the wedding dresses (Hilde’s perplexingly like burlap, Freydis’s the color of fresh cream, Brynn’s green silk, and on and on) and the tunic Heimdall had worn when Bors had sworn him in as Guardian of the Bifrost and Gatekeeper of Asgard, yes, but also aprons and old nightshirts and a scarf that Grandmama Svanne had loathed.  No matter how many times they spring-cleaned and beat it, it always smelled like dust and pine; always smelled like Ingberg even though it had never been there.  It was soft to the touch and hideous to the eye.  Heimdall must like ugly things, Loki had decided a long time ago, because the cottage was pretty but he had left it so messy and let the garden grow so wild and he had liked this awful tan-peach paint for the kitchen.  And he liked Frost Giants.

Maybe Frost Giants all made rag rugs.  Maybe he would find that out on Vanaheim.

He knew he should try to meet the Jotuns who lived among the Vanir—Heimdall had said so—but he didn’t want to.  What if they could tell he was one of them?  The Jotun books Brynn had gotten for him had taught him how to buy fruit—the books spent a lot of time on fruit, which he supposed substantiated Heimdall’s claim that Jotuns liked it—and how to talk about the weather, but they had not gotten into biology and scent and things.  Or Jotun morals, if they had any.  Aside from apparently “don’t steal fruit.”

Don’t steal fruit, do leave unwanted children out in the cold to die.

This is not going to help you sleep.

Heimdall had said he didn’t have to go to Jotunheim if he didn’t want to.  But what else was there for him?  He didn’t want to be prince of Jotunheim, but that was all he was, that was all he had.

And besides, who knew what the All-Father would do if Loki smashed his plan to flinders?  Who knew what he would do to Heimdall, if he even knew Heimdall said such things?

“Father is not a monster,” Thor had said to him once, very softly, as though lowering his voice would make the words more acceptable.

“Of course not,” Loki had said, his voice dripping honey and poison.  “The Aesir are not monsters.  The Aesir are perfect.  Asgard is the shining Realm Eternal, and all the monsters live on Jotunheim.”

But it had not been one of the days when Thor would be riled, which always left Loki feeling somehow flat, somehow at loose ends, alone with himself and the brambles in his head.  “I am only saying that he would not hurt you for no reason.”

“I don’t especially care what his reasons would be.”

Whereupon Thor had let it go.

Loki knew what Thor had meant, but he really didn’t see how it mattered.  Odin had swatted his life flat, a fly beneath some massive hand, and he could do so again; assurance that it wouldn’t happen because of cruelty might change Loki’s opinion of the king (it didn’t) but it wouldn’t make him less afraid (if he were afraid, which he wasn’t, he was only cautious).  Odin had a use for Loki, so he wouldn’t kill him, even if he made Loki wish he were dead.  But Heimdall wasn’t destined for some allied throne, and that meant Heimdall had to be even more careful than Loki.  If anything happened to him while Loki was gone—

He turned on his side and settled his back firmly against Heimdall’s door.  Nothing was going to happen tonight, anyway.  He wouldn’t let it.

He had to keep Thor out of trouble, he had to keep Heimdall out of trouble…  Mother could look out for herself, at least, and so could his grandmamas.  Maybe women were better at it.  If you had to do everything in the shadows, you saw lurking dangers more clearly.

Though he really, really hoped Heimdall didn’t ever learn that Mother had assented to them doing his tattoos and his ears.  Loki had never said it had only been Odin, he had just known that Heimdall would think it and hadn’t corrected him.  It would have felt too strange for Heimdall and Mother to be angry with each other—but it would have been less dangerous for Heimdall to be angry with Mother.  But then what if Heimdall had said Mother couldn’t visit anymore?

Heimdall wouldn’t say that, you idiot.

But Loki still couldn’t tell him the truth, not when he would be leaving in a few hours.  He wanted Heimdall to miss him like Heimdall had said he would, and Heimdall might not if he were disappointed, if he knew that Loki had just lied.  Well, omitted.  It was the kind of thing that they could have talked about under normal circumstances, he was almost sure, but they weren’t in normal circumstances, were they?  He nodded against his pillow, satisfied by this.  Mildly, anyway.  It still wasn’t enough to lull him to sleep.

Grandmama Brynn had said that fools went around talking about how people should count sheep when they were tired but couldn’t doze off, but that what you really had to do was pet sheep.  Loki hadn’t thought of that in years, but now he closed his eyes and petted sheep.  Fluffy, like the rug, but wilder-smelling.  Musty.  It’s working, he thought drowsily.  I can’t ever, ever tell Thor about this, it’s so embarrassing.

The sheep became black-and-white bears that mooed like cows—Volstagg had a cow, Loki had milked her even though princes didn’t do things like that—and then Heimdall was gently shaking his shoulder.

Loki opened his eyes.  Everything felt fuzzy.  “I was going to be up before you,” he said.

“A laudable ambition.  I’m glad you slept, even if it was out here.  I was worried you’d be so tired this morning you would spend your first day in Vanaheim in a single continuous yawn.”

“Well, I might now that you’ve put the idea in my head.”  He sat up.  “I wish you hadn’t said that.  Say something ridiculous instead.”

“Be sure not to spend your first day in Vanaheim turning everyone into jackrabbits.”

Loki nodded.  “That would be disruptive, wouldn’t it?”

“Vanaheim and Asgard would go to war for a thousand years over the terrible jackrabbit incident.”

“You don’t have to go overboard with it,” Loki said.

Heimdall looked tired, now that Loki thought about it.  Maybe Heimdall, too, had had trouble sleeping—though Heimdall still did not really need to sleep, as far as Loki knew.  He felt Heimdall had always been unclear on this point and that the truth was that Heimdall did need to sleep but had often foregone it all the same because he hadn’t had Ivar to stand watch for him or Loki to give him an excuse to come home.

“I have to go to Gara’s,” Loki said suddenly.  “I… I said I’d have breakfast with her before I left.”

Heimdall had been smiling but now the smile went away.  “I’d thought you would be here until it was time for me to take you to the Bifrost.  That’s only a few hours, Loki.”

“Yes, I know, I know how time works.  I’ll eat quickly and come right back, I promise.”

“You could have mentioned this yesterday.”

“Every moment I stand here talking with you about it is making me later,” Loki said.  He didn’t know why he was being unpleasant about it except that he needed Heimdall to let him go before Volstagg went off to do whatever Volstagg did in the mornings.  Still, if he wanted Heimdall to miss him, this was certainly not going to help.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to be difficult.  I just really, really have to go.  I’ll come right back.”

Heimdall sighed.  “Fine.  Just not in your nightclothes.”

He knew how to dress himself just as he knew how to tell time, but at least this time he had the good sense not to say it.  He threw himself quickly into his training clothes, which would be best for a run, and sprinted off to Gara’s, where he hammered on the door.

Gara’s mother answered.  “Oh, hello, Loki.”  She sounded surprised, as well she might.  “I thought you and Gara said your goodbyes at your last lesson.”

“Good morning, Lady Alse, and yes, we did.  I needed to see your husband, if I might.  It’s very important.”

Lady Alse did not look as though she thought that likely—that was probably what having so many children did to you, Loki reflected, it made you very careless of them, like the way he and Gara could always get more sweets out of Volstagg because he never remembered what he’d given them in the first place—but Loki put on his grandest and most princely expression and Lady Alse heaved up a sigh even greater than Heimdall’s and went to fetch Volstagg.

Who did not, on appearance, look grateful to have been fetched.  “Norns, Loki, do you know what time it is?”

Loki ignored this as irrelevant.  It was morning, and if Volstagg’s family wanted to snore half their lives away, that was their business, but they couldn’t expect Loki to know that and adjust his whole day accordingly.

“And aren’t you going to Vanaheim today?” Volstagg said.  He scratched at his beard.  “You’re not going to ask for Gara’s hand or anything silly like that, are you?”

“Don’t be appalling,” Loki said, making a face.  “Why would I do that?  And if I did do it, you as her father should be enthusiastic about it—I mean, she would be a queen eventually.”  Of Jotunheim, admittedly, but Volstagg didn’t know that and didn’t have to.

“Many thanks for the wise counsel, my prince,” Volstagg said, in a voice that heavily implied that he was making fun.  Well, at least it had woken him up, if nothing else.  “I’ll bear that in mind when the two of you are a little older.  If you didn’t come for that, what did you come for, rousing me up out of my bed at half past dawn?”

“You have to look out for Heimdall.”

“I think your father can take care of himself, Loki.”

Volstagg always called Heimdall that and Loki had given up on trying to correct him, however strange it sounded.  “No, he can’t.  He didn’t sleep or eat until I came to live with him.  I don’t want him doing that while I’m gone.”

Volstagg’s face softened into something less ursine than usual.  “All right then, little watch-pup, I’ll see to him for you.  And what in blazes happened to your face, since we’re chatting?”

“I got tattooed.”

“I can see that, but why?”

He had no wish to talk about it, so he only shrugged, as if it were normal in his world for grown-ups to descend upon him, tattoo his face, and leave without explanation and he had become quite inured to it.  But Volstagg had patience that his demeanor didn’t hint at it and he simply waited Loki out until Loki said, “So I’ll look very much like I’m from some world that does such things as a matter of course and no one on the world I’m actually meant to claim will realize the All-Father’s plans and cut my throat.”

“And you wonder why a man might not want his daughter to marry into that,” Volstagg said.  He whistled.  “You’re a brave lad, though, there’s no mistaking that.  I hope no one ever does kill you before your time to reach Valhalla, Loki, because we’d all miss you sorely.  And that cool head of yours means you’ll make a good king someday—especially when there’s danger afoot.”  He ruffled Loki’s hair, which wasn’t something he’d done before and which Loki was only inclined to tolerate from Heimdall, and then said, “You got your hair cut too, didn’t you?  I swear it used to be longer.”

Loki found Volstagg’s inattention to this perversely heartening even though he had liked his hair longer.  If Volstagg, who wore his down past his shoulders and cared greatly about fighting prowess, hadn’t noticed the cut right away, maybe that meant that most people wouldn’t, or at least that they wouldn’t notice it and jump to the conclusion that he’d gotten it chopped off for some humiliating defeat.

He claimed the haircut as part of his disguise, took a hunk of bread and some cheese that Lady Alse forced upon him along with an enormous mug of milky tea, said farewell to Gara again (regrettably conscious this time that they were apparently being studied for signs of courtship, so they only waved awkwardly at each other from across the room), and ran back home.

“See?” he said, coming to a skidding stop right before Heimdall’s place on the bench.  “Back in a flash.”

“So I see,” Heimdall conceded, making space for him.

But he still looked a touch mournful, so Loki wanted to amuse him.  “Volstagg thinks I want to marry Gara.”

“Tell him I’m not giving my permission for that,” Heimdall said with a faint smile.  “You’re both far too young.”

“Yes, it’s ridiculous, but I still think he could have been a little happier about it.”  He put his finger on the arm of the bench and let a passing ant trundle its way onto him: he let it down onto the ground.  “Did you ever marry?”

Heimdall shook his head.  “I courted here and there, in my youth, but it never came to the point of making an offer.  Or accepting one, for that matter.”

“You’re not too old yet,” Loki said.  “Mother said she’s surprised you’re not besieged by admirers.”  She really had said this, though his only purpose in repeating it was to subtly incline Heimdall in Mother’s favor, should he find out the truth about the tattoos and things while Loki was gone.  “That you are handsome and well-positioned and not poor and that many women like nothing more than a lonely man with a child in tow.  And that some men like it too, for that matter, so whatever your choice, you could certainly have it.”

“Your mother is kind-hearted.  It makes her forget what an odd creature I seem to most in Asgard.  Yellow-eyed and with a job that means I have likely already taken in some of their secrets.  A touch too foreign from all I’ve seen, some would think.”

Sometimes he thought that Heimdall was right and that Asgard really could be excruciatingly provincial about such things; sometimes he could almost think he was not too ashamed of not being Aesir.  But only sometimes, and only fleetingly.  Thinking Heimdall was too foreign just for knowing things about other places was openly idiotic; there was no real comparison between that and disliking Frost Giants.  “Well,” he said loyally, “that’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard and I’m glad fortune has spared you from a life joined to anyone who would ever think it.”  Though having said that, he hoped Heimdall wouldn’t do anything rash and get wed while he was gone.  It would be almost as bad as coming back to a new cat he knew nothing of.

“Volstagg and Lady Alse probably wouldn’t let their daughter marry a Frost Giant,” Loki said, just to change the subject.  He wanted to see if Heimdall would argue the point.

“Gara’s a strong-willed girl,” Heimdall said.  “When she’s of an age to marry, I’m sure she’ll make her own choice.”

At least Heimdall didn’t ask if Loki really did want to marry Gara.  Heimdall usually did understand what Loki meant, even when Loki himself didn’t.  On Vanaheim he would have to explain himself all the time, maybe even to Thor.  He had not lived cheek-to-jowl with his brother in years.  He hadn’t been a prince in years, really.  He should never have agreed to this ridiculous plan of Thor’s—Thor never thought anything through, Thor never thought about what couldn’t be done.

Heimdall palmed the back of Loki’s head, steadying him.  “Can you make an illusion for me?”

“Why?”

“Because while you’re gone, I’ll see only real things.”

Since Loki had started scrying, he’d learned that the universe was stranger than anything he had ever made fantasia of, was full of crawling glow-worms and leviathans and winged men and stars that burned indigo, black-and-white bears and black-and-white horses and black-and-white beaches, pits of fog and clouds that rained down ambrosia.  But maybe if you were Heimdall and you had seen everything twice over, there was some magic in seeing what couldn’t be seen otherwise, even if it wasn’t so special in itself.  So he held out his hand, very theatrically, and made Heimdall a field of peach-colored roses.  They looked a little like the ones Mother grew in her garden, but Heimdall wouldn’t know that, not if he couldn’t see inside the palace.  The garden had always been for family only.

Loki swallowed down the knot in his throat and put his hand back at his side.  The roses stayed and would as long as he thought about them.  He wondered if he could manage to keep them in the back of his mind all month long, so that Heimdall would have them the whole time.

“Thank you,” Heimdall said.  “They’re very beautiful.”

“They’re just roses.”

“Nothing is ‘just’ anything.”

Loki sighed.  “Do you save up these words of wisdom hoping I’ll say something to provoke them?”

“Of course,” Heimdall said without missing a beat.  “While you’re gone, I’ll have to write them down.  The first night you’re home again, I’ll sit you down and read them to you.  Pages and pages.”

He could almost picture that and he started to say so but then he saw that Heimdall had closed his eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Heimdall said, opening them again.  Loki didn’t see what there was to dislike about the golden color, he never had.  They were just Heimdall.  “You’re growing up.  I was just thinking I’d have to be sure to tell you things while you’ll still listen.”  He tugged at a lock of Loki’s hair.  Loki wondered if he minded there being less of it.  Heimdall had been the one to notice right away that it was gone.  “As much as you ever do listen.”

“I listen!”

“Mm,” Heimdall said.  He sounded skeptical.  “Thirteen sunfish in our pond when I told you they’d attract herons says you don’t.”

“Just because I don’t always do what you think would be best,” Loki said, rolling his eyes.  “I still listen.  And thirteen down from fifteen isn’t so bad and the herons have to eat like everything else.”

“I’m unconvinced they have to be fed from our garden.”  He nodded at the roses.  “You’re sustaining these a while.”

“It doesn’t take much energy to leave them there once I’ve put them down.  I thought maybe I could try to keep them up from Vanaheim.  I’ve never tried to sustain an illusion over that kind of distance or while I’m sleeping but…  I don’t know.  I can try.”

Heimdall didn’t ask him why he would want to.  Instead he said, “You’re good-hearted, Loki,” though Loki had never thought of himself that way and no one had ever said so before.  He had always felt his heart as something painful, uncomfortable to him and unbearable to others, something so cold that it hurt, something only the truth of his birth had contextualized for him.  Thor was warm and he was cold.  Even Heimdall had said that once: summer prince, winter prince.  That his heart, though cold, could be good—that was something he had not thought of before.

Mother for spring, then, Loki decided, and Heimdall for autumn.

He said goodbye to the cottage bit by bit.  It was hard now to remember how shocked he had been by it when Heimdall had first brought him there: now it was like a beloved dog curled up at his feet.  They had made this place together.  He had shed blood on its grass practicing his fighting and he had bemoaned the weeds in the garden and smelled the fresh golden sawdust from the newly-hewn beams of his room.

Home.

When he had gone back to the palace, it had not felt like home.  There had been no ease, no recognition.  Its walls and windows and corridors were like boots he had long since outgrown.

Though it was the first time outgrowing a thing had made him feel small.  He had tried to remind himself of what Ivar had said—one way or another, whatever name he wore, he had a right to go to the palace without suspicion, without disdain—and he had indeed used the candy as a prop, letting it dissolve tucked into his cheek, letting the sweetness give some truth to the rubbery smile he’d put on his face.  But there had still been no triumph in his return, and no comfort either.  It had taken everything in him not to slink about like a thief.  He had been invited.  He was of notable rank.

The tattoos and the pierced ears had been nice, at least, in that they had distracted him on his exit, made him aware of the burn and throb and not of the eyes on him.

Mother had absolutely agreed to it to protect him, Loki had no doubt about that.  Heimdall shouldn’t be angry about it, but though Heimdall was angered by few things, those things were unpredictable.  And it was strange to him that Heimdall should be upset on his behalf when Loki himself wasn’t even upset.

He banished the thoughts; leaned into the sustaining of the roses outside.  He could do this.  He could keep them in mind—like when you had a song stuck in your head to the point where you awoke already humming it.  That was what he needed to do for the roses, he understood that intuitively.

His bedroom was lined with bookshelves that he had already filled to overflowing.  He added a few more texts to his trunk, wrapping the more delicate ones with the broken bindings in the padding of the gauzy, bewildering, intriguing garment Mother had given him, the Vanir one that he was supposed to need so much help getting in and out of.  There was a lot of it, certainly, and it would cushion everything well.

He moved around the cottage touching window sills and hearthstones and the edges of pie plates until Heimdall, in an unusually gruff voice, said, “It’s time to go.”

Loki took one last look around.  He didn’t have to keep this in his mind continuously, he supposed—it was independent, it would be here whether he thought about it or not, Heimdall would be here always too—but knowing that did little to make it feel true.

Heimdall said, “Are you nervous?”

“Yes,” Loki admitted.  “You’ll really look in if I ask you to?”

“Always,” Heimdall said with no hesitation.

“And not if I don’t?”

There he paused and then finally shook his head.  “I won’t swear to that.  I won’t keep you continuously in view, I’ll give you your privacy, but… I can’t promise my mind won’t drift to you while I’m looking between the worlds.  And it can be hard to look away from what you really want to see.  But…”  He glanced at a clock.  “We have a moment, I suppose.  Turn your back to me, and I’ll turn mine to you.”

Loki did so.

Something brushed against his mind, feather-light but warm: it was like a cloud moving out of the way, the sun briefly touching down on him.

“Do you feel that?” Heimdall said.

Loki didn’t speak but nodded, just to test his theory of what all this was, and Heimdall laughed.

“Yes, I can see you.  This is what it feels like when I turn my gaze your way.”

“It tickles,” Loki said, though that wasn’t it exactly.

“So if you haven’t asked for me and my eyes have found you all the same, you’ll at least know it.  And you can tell me to leave you alone.”

And he would—he always did, when Loki asked him to, unless the circumstances were truly extraordinary.  Loki felt quite adult for recognizing that distinction and allowing Heimdall to have it.

He couldn’t say anything soppy about it, though, so instead he said, “Does my face look stupid?”  He didn’t mind his hands so much: his hands weren’t him in the same way.

Heimdall seemed almost reluctant to say no.  “I won’t say it suits you, because I’ll be too glad to see it gone, but it doesn’t spite your features and the last of the redness has gone.  They’ll probably say you’re striking.”

“We’re going to be late.”

“Yes.  Most likely.”  Heimdall’s hand touched down on his hair.  “You’ll do well.  I trust you.”

Chapter Text

The walk to the bridge felt uncannily long, as if the miles were melting like wax.  Heimdall’s strides were shorter than usual too, which further slowed them.  It was as if he were saving his breath for something, but only, apparently, to drop further pearls of wisdom and sentiment on Loki’s head: “Remember to write your grandmothers,” he said for the hundredth time, and, “Try to stay cool-headed when you know Thor will not,” and, “If the Vanir have traditions you don’t know, being polite covers any amount of ignorance, if they’re at all worthy of your courtesy,” and, “The two of you ought to rely upon each other,” and, “Please tell me you packed your toothbrush along with your thousand books.”  So much for trust.

Then, all too quickly, they were there, and there was no more privacy.  He should have said his goodbyes back at the cottage, when his every move wouldn’t have been studied by the onlookers crowded around to wish their precious Prince Thor a good trip.

“What’s he done with his face?” someone in the crowd said.  “It’s barbaric.”

Heimdall looked ready to slay the lot of them.  He lowered his voice to be for Loki’s ears alone and said, “Don’t listen to them, and if you tie their tongues in knots I won’t reprimand you for it, provided you undo it before the Bifrost takes you.”

“I was told to keep a cool head,” Loki murmured.  “But I appreciate the offer.”

They passed through the crowd and into the Observatory, where the swarm at least lessened, though its intensity was unchanged—Ivar was here, and Thor, of course, and Mother and Odin.

Someone must have warned Thor about the pierced ears and the tattoos, because though he flattened his lips together at the sight, there was no rumble in the distance of a sudden summer storm.  “Brother,” he said, challenging his father—and why did they all have to call Odin All-Father?  He was no father of Loki’s-to say something about it.

“Brother,” Loki said back.  “Mother.  My king.”

He liked Ivar very much, but Ivar, for the purposes of all this, was furniture; merely a key that would turn to unlock the door to Vanaheim.  It would not be royal to acknowledge him, but then, somehow, Loki did—he did it because Heimdall would have and in fact already was, was in the midst of it to the point that Loki speaking interrupted him.  “Ivar.  It’s good to see you.  Take care of Heimdall while I’m gone.”  He might as well enlist all the help he could.

Ivar’s smile was strangely sad.  “I will, Prince Loki.  I wish you and your brother the safest and best of ventures.”

There was a silent little beat at the end of that—Ivar should not have been openly saying that Thor and Loki were brothers, no matter what they said amongst themselves, no matter how much he heard of it, and if Loki knew that, Ivar himself surely knew it.  But Odin did not reprimand him, though the look on his face said he’d noticed.

“This is an important day for you both,” Odin said.  He spoke as if Thor and Loki were the only two in the room, and it made Loki’s whole body ache with some awful, childish nostalgia, because once Odin had told them stories in that same confiding voice, once he had rocked Loki in his arms after a nightmare and sung to him that way.  But those days were gone.  He must have been a more agreeable baby, he thought, grown into a disagreeable child.  Mercifully, Odin gave up his pausing and went on, drowning out Loki’s own thoughts.  “You will acquit yourselves as princes worthy of the honor the Vanir will show you.  You’ll be received in state many times in your lives, but this will always be the first.  Treat it with respect, for you’ll remember it often.  You are perhaps too young to have moments where your own choices will mold your lives, but that is the cost of your role.  I know the two of you will live up to that trust.”

Then he smiled.  Loki turned away.

“Thor, my son,” Odin said.  “Will you come bid me farewell?”

“Yes, Father,” Thor said.  Loki couldn’t blame him for that, but he did.  At least Thor had the decency to sound restrained about it—Loki was glad this was making him miserable.

Mother took him in her arms, as if to shield him from the sight of it.  It was a long enough hug that he should have been embarrassed by it, but he was too starved for her to give it up: he was still sorry when they parted.  She murmured against his hair, “I love you, sweetheart.”

He needed to say goodbye to Heimdall, too, even if doing it in front of Odin made him so horribly aware of everything he said and did.  Loki hugged him, stiff and awkward.  “I’ll miss you.  I’ll try to make you proud.”

“You make me proud now,” Heimdall said.

It made no sense: all he was doing was standing here.  Waiting, yet again, to be swept away.

It was Ivar who turned the sword around, the better for Heimdall to stand still and watch him go, swept up by sharp, rainbow-colored light.  Roses, Loki thought, looking at him.  Roses, roses, roses.

In the midst of the shower of crystal that was travel by Bifrost, Thor grabbed his hand.  Loki realized suddenly that he had been off-world more often than Thor.  Heimdall had told him to look after his brother and he supposed he should—he held Thor’s hand back hard.

Thus entwined, thus brothers, they touched down on Vanaheim.

They were in a small wooded clearing, drenched with pale early morning sunlight.  Loki was only thankful they were not surrounded.  His heart was beating like a rabbit’s.  He and Thor hastily let go of each other’s hands.  He wished he couldn’t tell that their reception party—two high-born ladies and a stone-faced guard in back of them—wanted to smile at this.

Bows were exchanged.

“We expected a single prince,” the taller of the two women said.  Of course her attention settled on Thor, Loki thought bitterly: he was so much more what one would expect for the role, and why not?  He was the only true one.  “Which of you is Thor Odinson?”

“I am, my lady,” Thor said.  “With your permission, I present to you my brother Loki Heimdallson, proclaimed a prince by the authority of Odin All-Father.”

Loki bowed again.  He had to accept the introduction, he thought, because certainly he was nothing without it; even with it, he would be more a curiosity than a fledgling king.  But he would have to take it—Heimdall would want him to take it—because it would be useful for whatever came next.  “I am honored to meet you, ladies.  And I apologize for the lack of notice.  The All-Father’s plans were suddenly amended.”

There was a beat while the Vanir women waited for one of them to further clarify the nonsense of all this—what land was Loki a prince of, exactly?  How could he be called Thor’s brother?—but they realized soon enough that the nonsense would have to stand.

“We are always pleased to have guests,” the tall woman said graciously, “let alone princes.  We are honored to have you both.  I am Helga, steward of Vanaheim, and this is my consort, the Baroness Illmay."

They exchanged more honeyed greetings—being royalty, Loki assessed now with a somewhat jaundiced eye, involved saying the same thing over and over again until you were bored with it—and finally they were able to establish that Huw and Alarr would arrive in this same location in about an hour and that, being servants, they could be likewise received by servants.  Ceremony only existed at the top.  Where, apparently, it ossified.

Then he realized that he had misunderstood and the Vanir were more flexible than he had thought.  He should have remembered that from what Heimdall had said of them and their bent-willow houses.  They were not trapped in their courtesies like flies in amber, they were only stalling: the expressionless guard had slipped away during all this and it was her return they were waiting for.  Which meant that wherever she had gone was relevant to them—

Gone to prepare him chambers equal to Thor’s, he realized.  All their arrangements had been thrown into upheaval; of course they would need time to correct them.

“And should we hold court in this clearing,” Lady Steward Helga was saying, “would we soon find your Huw and Alarr materialized on top of us?”

Loki was well-disposed toward them now, but that did not mean he had to tolerate that.  “No,” he said firmly.  “Certainly not.  Heimdall wields the Bifrost sword,” unless Ivar had it, of course, but he didn’t think getting into all that would help anything, “and he would never make such a mistake.”

Lady Steward Helga had a curious look on her face.  “Then we’re quite safe.  That’s excellent.”  She turned her head and saw her bodyguard’s return: her painted-on court smile melted into genuine relief.  “May I show you my court?”

“That would delight us, my lady,” Loki said.

The court—Lady Steward Helga seemed to use the word interchangeably to refer to her palace, her capital city, and her attendants and nearest citizens—was strange and beautiful.  Its walls were made of wood cut fine as wafers.  They did not have windows as Loki understood them, but were instead punched throughout with elaborate patterns and murals that let light in in the shape of fruit trees and mountain ranges.  The palace or city or whatever it was wound around the landscape and seamlessly incorporated it.  Floorboards became grass.  Columns grew scaly with bark.  Loki had never seen a place so at ease with itself.  Asgard was an assertion, firm and inarguable; Vanaheim was a song.  He did not know what it suggested except another way of life entirely, and suddenly he understood what Heimdall had meant about the importance of seeing other places.  It was like the top of his skull had been lifted off and there was now a cool breeze moving through him.

“Your home is lovely,” he said.

Thor nodded in quick assent.  “Most beautiful, my lady.  Only…”

Loki tried frantically to communicate with his brother on a soul-deep level, to meet him mind-to-mind: Don’t embarrass us, you idiot.

“Only?” Helga prompted mercilessly.

“Only how do you keep out the bugs?”

Loki blinked.  That was actually a good question, and one he had not thought of, though there was no need for Thor to know that.

Helga laughed.  “We don’t, Prince Thor.  The insects are as much a part of Vanaheim as we are.”

Oh.  He revised his opinion of Vanaheim accordingly downwards.  He might tolerate Heimdall’s little lectures on why he should not squish bugs at random—he could still make himself burn with shame remembering how Heimdall had looked at him when he had killed that beetle, so long ago now—but Heimdall certainly let him move their many-legged intruders outside the cottage and had never reprimanded him for slapping at a bee as it stung him.  There was appreciating the beauties of nature and then there was just letting moths crowd around your lamps for no reason at all.

“How charming,” he said.

“We do have netting for visitors,” Helga said.  “We can tack some up in your rooms if you are squeamish.”

Thor gave Loki a look that, Loki was willing to bet, would translate to the opinion that they now could not accept the netting, not if it meant defining themselves as squeamish.  It was a trap.  Loki sighed deep in his heart and gave Thor the tiniest nod.

“No, thank you, lady,” Thor said.  “My brother and I wish to experience the… full glory of Vanaheim.”  As Helga and the Baroness Illmay passed before them, Thor fell back a few steps, dragging Loki with him, and added in a whisper, “Which will apparently include spiders crawling across our pillows at night.”

“Centipedes in our socks.”

“Have you ever become something that small?”

It was a ludicrous time to have this conversation, but their hosts did not seem to mind the barrage of whispering occurring behind their backs, so Loki answered anyway.  “No.  I can’t.  I don’t fold up that small.”  It was an imperfect way of saying it, but it was the closest he could come to what it felt like to transform himself.  “I can’t become anything remarkably big, either, because there’s not enough of me.  Rat is the lower limit and horse is the higher one, from what I’ve tried.”

“I wish you could turn yourself into a dragon,” Thor said wistfully.  “Think what it would be like in battle.  And I could ride on your back.”

“No, you certainly could not.  I would roast you if you tried.”

“How could you, if I were behind you?”

“I’m sure I could bend my head around.”

“Well, I suppose we’ll never know,” Thor said.  “Since your skills aren’t up to snuff.”

Loki bared his teeth.  It was excruciatingly unfair that he couldn’t tackle Thor to the ground without injuring their reputation as emissaries.  “I’ll make you pay for all this, you know.”

Thor grinned at him.  “I know, brother.”  He raised his voice.  “Are all cities on Vanaheim of this ilk, my lady?”

Helga fell back in step with them, though her consort continued to range ahead.  She wore loose skirts and had a long stride.  Loki wondered what it was like to be such a silent companion, always present and honored but always lesser, and then could have rapped himself on the knuckles for stupidity.  He would have to speak with her, if he could find the chance for it.  They would understand each other—could commiserate—and besides, she was very grand, and he liked that.  She reminded him a little of Vigdis and a little more of Grandmama Brynn.

“All cities on Vanaheim—what we have of cities—are similar in form, yes,” Helga was saying.  “Though of course the court is more elaborate.”

“Naturally,” Loki agreed.

“As the weather cools, we’ll relocate the court to the south, and much of this will decay.  Even the parts of it we love.  Nothing on Vanaheim is made to last forever, except that which was not made by our hands at all.”  She touched her forehead in a gesture Loki knew vaguely from pictures—the Vanir worshipped an overarching concept of the universe, unified and holy, usually represented as a young woman with very long hair.  They frowned intensely on the Aesir tendency to figuratively dub their royals gods and goddesses, never mind that Asgard still paid heed—or at least lip service—to the Norns, to the All-Fathers.  He and Thor would have to remember not to mention it.

Jotunheim had religions, probably.  Most worlds did, of course, but he had not considered it before.

“All things must end,” Loki said.  He remembered what he’d said to Heimdall.  “You have to know how to move on.”

“Yes, Prince Loki.  That exactly.”

“They’re wise for children,” Illmay said to Helga.  Not so silent after all.  She had dark eyes—a strange brown that was almost red—and now she stared at them, not rudely but not politely, either.

“We are almost grown, my lady,” Thor said.  “And my brother is considered especially bright.”

He loved and hated it when Thor said such things.  It was flattering but always made him feel like a dog or a child, something that could be praised because the expectations of it were different.  “Thor tries hard to convince everyone of that, my lady,” he said, “because I learned to read a little faster than he did.  If he’s to be surpassed even in one area, it must of course be by someone exceptional.  But really we are of a kind.  And of course pleased with your appraisal, though, yes, we are almost grown.  By Asgardian standards.”

“You’ll find Vanir boys and girls of your age childish, I’m afraid,” Helga said.  “Of course, none of them have had your experiences or, I’m sure, your level of education, your exposure to politics.  For which I’m sure their parents are quite thankful!”

“Children on Asgard are entirely juvenile,” Loki said.  He added, “In the main,” only out of loyalty to Gara, even though she hardly qualified—she was even older than he was.  The little Volstaggsons and Volstaggdottirs were all annoying in the extreme.

Helga smiled.  “I hope that you have enough patience from dealing with them to be patient with the children of our court, as well.”

“Of course, my lady,” Thor said.  “And Loki exaggerates—we both have friends our age on Asgard.”

You have friends our age, Loki thought.  Whatever their names are.  He almost wished he could think that it was only because Thor was the crown prince, but truthfully, he doubted it—Thor was simply irritatingly likable, exactly what everyone always wanted from a prince, a son, a friend.  Which was perhaps not what one wanted from a brother, and yet he was the only one Loki had, and Loki was unwilling to give him up.  Though he was willing to bite him if necessary, no matter how old they were.

The tour wound down and they were shown to their chambers, which were adjoining.  Loki’s were, he had to admit, virtually indistinguishable from Thor’s.  They each even had a woven basket of fruit and chocolates.

Tentatively, while Thor was off exploring his own room, Loki whispered, “Heimdall,” and felt that slightly prickly feeling descend on the back of his neck.  He smiled and closed his eyes and when he opened them again, Heimdall stood there before him—a little flat, as though painted on the wall, but there.  “Hello.  I have a room and it’s as nice as Thor’s.  Can you see?”

“I can.  It’s very nice indeed.”

He was lucky, he thought, to be able to hear Heimdall’s voice even though they were so far away from each other; Thor couldn’t hear Odin’s, though who knew if he even would have wanted to?  He cleared his throat.  He needed, he supposed, to give an official report.  Heimdall was Heimdall, but he was also an authority whose position was tied up with the Vanaheim venture; he would care to know how it was progressing thus far.  “We were received at court by Lady Helga, Steward of Vanaheim, and her consort, Baroness Illmay.  I haven’t met Lady Helga’s husband yet, but if she’s calling Illmay her consort and not her wife, I assume she has one about somewhere to get a legitimate heir on her.  The place is very beautiful and the people very polite.  You can tell they don’t know what to make of me, but they aren’t asking questions about it yet.”

“If they do, do you know how to answer?”

“Don’t say anything that will start a war,” Loki said succinctly, though he still thought it would be the height of foolishness for Laufey to resort to warfare when he could resort merely to murder, a nearly surgically precise cut.  He thought Vanaheim worth the risk of that particular loss, and it was his choice to make, wasn’t it?

Heimdall seemed to disagree.  “Or anything to get yourself killed.”

“Or anything to get myself killed.”  Probably.  He didn’t see how he could promise that, necessarily.  He strove to change the subject.  “Do you know they just let insects wander around their houses?”

“I’m sure you’re misinterpreting that.”

“I promise I’m not.  Thor will probably die of a spider-bite.”

Heimdall smiled.  “Only Thor?”

“I am sly,” Loki said.  “Everyone says so.  Spiders will respond to that in brotherhood and not bite me.  Probably.”

“Are you just standing in here talking to yourself?” Thor said, swinging in through their connecting door.

“Knocking is considered polite,” Loki said.  He turned to him.  “And no, I’m talking to Heimdall—what?”

“Your eyes.”  Thor touched around his own, as if he needed to verify that they were where he had left them.  “They’ve gone gold.”

For a moment Loki was overtaken by a pride so fierce and revelatory it made him feel almost ill.  It was like his heart was folding around the revelation to hold it as tightly as it could, so he would feel this new fact with every beat.

Then he realized the cause.  His lips felt numb when he said, “It’s just because Heimdall’s power’s closing the circuit, working off me so we can talk.  It doesn’t mean anything, it would happen to anyone he was talking with like this.”  He brought his attention back to Heimdall but couldn’t make himself meet Heimdall’s gaze.  It would be so insignificant to apologize for not being able to do it—of course he couldn’t do it.  He had no inheritance here.  “I have to go.”  He wrenched away from the connection, severing it.  He’d been rude, he knew it; he hadn’t even given Heimdall enough time to say goodbye and hadn’t even said goodbye himself.

Thor, oblivious to all this, flopped on Loki’s bed.  “You didn’t have to stop on my account.”

“You just come bursting in with no regard at all for other people’s lives!”  He got onto the bed himself and shoved hard at Thor’s shoulder, but pushing Thor was useless; Thor simply never went away when you wanted him to, he was just always there, immobile as a rock.  “Prince Thor.”

“Prince Loki,” Thor said, unruffled.  “But I’ll knock if you wish it.”

“I do.”

“Do you realize tonight’s going to be the first time we’ve been under the same roof since…”

“Yes,” Loki said icily.  “I made that connection on my own, thank you.”

Thor frowned.  “Are you angry with me?  Displeased with Vanaheim?”  He poked Loki in the side.  “Already eaten up by mosquitos?”

Look after your brother, Heimdall had told him.  Loki gathered in his temper.  “I am not, I am not, and I am not.”  He poked Thor back.  “When are we supposed to go out again, do you know?”

“I heard only what you did.  They’ll probably come to get us.”  He rolled around like a horse settling into a pasture.  Loki half-expected him to whinny.

“You’re getting all disheveled.”

“I’ll neaten myself before we go anywhere.  Don’t be glum, Loki.  We have a whole month and we can do whatever we like.”  He paused.  “As long as we learn how to be good kings while we’re doing it, of course.  But Lady Vigdis says that anything can be a lesson if you look at it in the right light.”

“It sounds very much to me that Lady Vigdis has given up entirely on teaching you.”

“Would that it were so,” Thor said, sighing and sounding amusingly adult, which made Loki poke him in the ribs again, much harder this time.  “Ow.  No, brother, she tries twice as hard to teach me now, and without you as a distraction, there’s no way to dodge her.”  He rolled over onto his back and laced his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling of woven branches and living green leaves.  “How is your garden?”

“You saw it the last time you were there,” Loki said.  Thor was inept at changing the conversation away from what he did not want to talk about.  Loki normally went along with that clumsy footwork of his anyway, but not now.  He smiled, his smile as bitter as citrus rind, and said, “I’m sorry my absence has inconvenienced you so.”

Thor made a small scoffing sound and kicked Loki in the ankle.  “Don’t be brokenhearted for my sake.  I’m sure I hardly ever even notice that you’re gone.”

That was so much more bearable than an apology would have been.  And then Thor let Loki knock him off the bed, which mended the injury almost completely.

So then Loki was lying on the bed on his stomach and Thor was sitting down on the ground, leaning back against the bed, his straw-colored hair blending in almost entirely with the quilt, which was interesting, though it made Loki sleepy somehow if he looked at it too long.  That might not be surprising, given how little rest he’d had the night before.  Their conversation drifted to their mother.  They spoke quietly.  The walls may have been thickened with vines for soundproofing, but that didn’t mean they could not still have ears.

“She told me about the piercings, and your face and hands,” Thor said.  “Did it hurt?”

“No, of course not.”

Thor relaxed.  “That’s something, at least.  I should have known she wouldn’t let them hurt you.  She felt badly about it all the same, though, you know, and she said you were brave.  She cried.”

“She needn’t,” Loki said sharply.  “I’m fine.  I understood.  She was going along with—with your father, and it wasn’t as though the idea didn’t have some merit.  The strength of Odin’s magic is too well-known for my looking Aesir to matter—if I am a prince of somewhere mysterious, then I might surely be in disguise, and if I look ordinary, then the ordinariness is the disguise.  Now at least I look strange—which means that either I am honest or that it is the strangeness, not the ordinariness, that is the disguise.  Though I wish they had trusted me to simply maintain a glamour.  I could have done it.”

“I still don’t like it,” Thor said.  “Father outwits himself when he thinks everyone else thinks as he does.  And if they do think as he does, then they’ll decipher his tangles nonetheless.  And in the end you’re hurt, and Mother weeps, and it’s all for nothing.”

He did not know that he could argue with that, but it was not where his mind was, either; he shared, reluctantly, the same calculus as Odin All-Father, a mathematics of action in which is own pain was inevitable.  Was in fact required.  “Still,” he said vaguely, “if Laufey is attentive to any of this, it may throw him off… though I wonder what he thinks happened to the child.”

“To you?”

He scarcely liked connecting the two, admitting that he had once been a newborn left to die on chilly flagstones.  A sacrifice to some war god, perhaps?  “I just don’t like to think he didn’t even notice me gone.  That he did not return to the temple at all after the ceasefire was proclaimed, that when he did finally venture in again, he thought, oh, a wolf must have carried off the babe, good riddance, and thank the Norns someone scrubbed the blood from the floor, how lucky.”

Thor tilted his head back.  “If he left you there, he is a villain.  If he did not care to come back and find you gone, he is a villain and a fool.  Each twist of the story would render him less and less deserving of your attention.”

“All the same.”

“When we’re grown, if you like, we can slay him.”

“I assume that’s more or less what’s intended, as opposed to—”  As opposed for waiting for him to die, he meant to say, before seating me on the throne, because certainly even death must be set to Odin’s timetable, but a sudden suspicion pierced through him.  It was such a shock of cold that it was like being speared with an icicle.  Yes, of course they were meant to kill Laufey.  Odin would not sit around waiting for the throne to pass to Loki naturally, especially when Laufey had sons of his own, true sons, to inherit.  They avoided war with Laufey now; why would they rush into it with some Jotun prince later?  You would need surgical precision to attempt this kind of coup.  You would need, say, a single assassin, one who could walk on Jotunheim without arousing comment.  A single assassin who could bring death to Laufey’s house in the space of a single night—and then claim the house as his own.

He was Odin’s chosen king of Jotunheim, yes.  He was also Odin’s chosen weapon.

But if Odin had always meant for him to slay Laufey, then…

If he left you there, he is a villain.

What an excellent way to kindle hatred.  The kind of hatred that would grow hot enough to forge a king-killing sword.

What if Laufey had not left him to die?

Why should he believe Odin’s tale?  Heimdall had not witnessed Loki’s rescue, only his arrival in Asgard.

He might have been snatched from a cradle, not the floor of a temple.  Maybe Odin’s fear was not that Laufey would find him and kill him but that Laufey would find him and claim him.

“Loki.”  Thor had reached up and grabbed his hand.  “I promise you, brother, it will be all right.  Whatever happens, we’ll face it together.”

He was the one who ought to be Odin’s son, Loki thought, because he could lie, and Thor could not; Thor, straightforward and good, should have belonged to Heimdall.  He wished he could say the same for himself.  He swallowed around the lump in his throat and said, “What if I were stolen?”

“No one’s going to kidnap you.  It’s not as though you can’t protect yourself, and—”

“I don’t mean now.  I mean what if Odin took me without Laufey first giving me up.”

Thor’s silence hurt his ears.

“Loki, he wouldn’t.”

“Oh, would he not?  Keeping families together is not the All-Father’s specialty.”

“He failed you—he failed both of us—but he is not a thief of children.”

“He abandons me, so of course he tells me Laufey did so first.  He would certainly not want me to think Asgard less noble than Jotunheim.  All this pain—my whole life—and of course he wants me to think it is Laufey at the root of it, Laufey whom I must oust to have what is mine.  You said so yourself.  By the stories we are told, he is a monster.  As are all Jotuns.”

Thor sprung up onto the bed and grasped Loki’s hands in his, both of them now.  His grip was appallingly tight.  “I will not let you say such things.”

“Yet we were allowed to hear them!”

“He could not have known all we heard,” Thor said.  Even now, they were quiet: it was an argument now conducted in harsh whispers—shouts that could not be voiced at their full volume, lest they bring all of Vanaheim down upon them in worry and fear.  And worse, gossip.  “No matter what they call him, Loki, he is no god, and he will tell you so himself.”

“He behaves as a god,” Loki said softly.  “He shattered me.  Yet you still call him Father, for all you say you love me.  If I asked you to choose between us, whom would you choose?”

“If you asked me to choose between you, I would tell you I can love you both.”  Thor’s eyes were wet.  “But if it ever had to be done in truth—not simply for one of your hypotheticals—if it really came to that—you, Loki.  I am his son by birth but your brother by choice, I have chosen you already, even when he tried to keep me from you.  I would choose you a thousand times.  Even though you are an unbelievable pest.”

Loki pressed his head against Thor’s shoulder.  “You sound like a play.”  His voice was thick, clotted.

“I know you don’t trust him,” Thor said.  “I know you have no reason to.  But trust me, for I promise you, if you find you have good reason to think your suspicions true, I will stand beside you in Father’s court and lend my voice to yours as you denounce him.  There are Jotuns here, are there not?  We could befriend some.  Surely the loss of a king’s son would be news they would remember, even if they were a world away when it happened.”

Loki rubbed his face dry on Thor’s coat and then pulled back.  He sniffed.  “Heimdall did say I should try to get to know the Jotuns.”

“Then so we shall.”  This, actually, was where Thor excelled at lying: he could look endlessly earnest while plotting mischief.  “I would hate to disobey Heimdall.  He’s almost an uncle to me, and very beloved.  We really must follow his advice.”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, they had no activities until luncheon, which gave Loki time to nap.  He did so restlessly, plagued by dreams he would never have admitted to, and woke with time on his hands.

He had brought his Jotun language books with him and so he burrowed into them, thinking to at least glean enough knowledge and social courtesy from them—Jotuns did at least have words for please and thank you, as well as a phrase that did not seem to translate smoothly with the All-Speech, something like you have brought me ice in summer that seemed as well to have a dirty variation that the grammar book coyly alluded to but did not actually print, which maddened him.  The Jotuns would understand him no matter what he spoke, and he them, but that did not mean it would not be courteous to try their barbaric tongue.  People liked it when you did that.

Thor was learning Groot, which Loki thought a complete waste of time: any language that the translators and the All-Speech flubbed that frequently was obviously too poorly constructed to be worth their attention.

At least the Jotuns were a comprehensible people.  So it could have been worse.  He could have secretly been a tree this whole time.

“Hello,” he whispered in Jotung.  “I am a sojourner here.”  They had, interestingly, a lot of words for that, with very finely shaved distinctions between them: a traveler from the north of Jotunheim, a traveler from the south of Jotunheim (they did not appear to value the east-west axis much, for whatever reason), a traveler from off-world, a traveler from Asgard specifically (why?), a trader, an immigrant intending to settle (whoever would?), a person looking to marry into an available family (what?), and so on.  This was the blandest of the words, roughly meaning that he was unfamiliar with the area.  It seemed to have the vague connotation of being lost, which he disliked, but there was no help for it.

“Hello, I am a sojourner here.  I seek to learn much—more—no, something about—”

He barely had time to shove the book under the mattress at the sound of the door swinging open.

“Thor, I said to knock,” he said, rolling over.

But it wasn’t Thor at all.  It was one of the servants he’d been very briefly introduced to when he had been at the palace.  Huw.

He had not been raised to snap at servants, and it was, in any case, their job to enter smoothly and quietly, their job to not be people.

“I apologize,” he said, standing.  “I thought you were my brother.”

Huw said, “I am here to dress you for table.”

It made it sound rather as though the Vanir were planning to eat him, but he did not say that, of course.  He only nodded and let Huw undress him.

It was strange and unlikable, having this done for him when he had been doing it for himself for years.  He was no longer accustomed to having hands laid on him like this.  And Huw had neither warmth nor the briskness of a servant who regarded this as a pure task uncomplicated by anyone else’s personhood.  There was a strange, chilly aggression to him as he wrenched Loki’s arms about.

He hates me, Loki realized.  It was possible he was over-dramatizing it—Heimdall said he was susceptible to that, though Heimdall never dramatized anything adequately, so how would he know?—but he thought not.  He knew hatred.

And he did not like being touched by someone who despised him.  He pulled away.

“Stay still,” Huw said.  “Don’t squirm like a child.”

His nursemaid had spoken to him so, and if Huw’s tone had been different, Loki might—might—have taken this as simply the impatience of an adult who did not know the degrees of childhood, who could not understand that this was obviously going to rankle, but Huw sounded so entirely, and so angrily, dismissive of him.  Loki stepped back further still.

Do not compete with me when it comes to hate, and still less when it comes to frost; I am winter itself, I have ice in my blood.

“Leave,” Loki said.  “I will dress myself, today and tonight and for the rest of this trip.  Do not enter my room again.”  He could bewitch the door not to allow it—well, maybe, his magic had changed its shape so much over the last few years—but he did not want to, he wanted his command to stand as law on its own.

Huw pressed his lips together.  “I serve the All-Father,” he said.  “Not you.”

“Then consider carefully whether the All-Father will give more heed to the tale you’ll tell or to the words of a prince.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Huw said.  Now, horribly, it was like he was trying to be reasonable; it implied that he thought Loki was being unreasonable, which Loki liked less than anything.  He would rather be hated than disregarded.  “You don’t want to look half-dressed when Prince Thor will be in his glory.  And you don’t know how to do this.”

Loki stood firm.  “I’ll figure it out.”

“Fine, then.”  Huw stepped back too, which meant there was now such a gulf between them that it looked, even to Loki’s impassioned eye, a little ridiculous.  “You are as petulant as they ever said you were.  I thought you would at least have been a little humbled—that it was a fall to dress you rather than Thor but that at least you were destined to be manageable—but you are not even wise enough for that.”

There was too much there for him to immediately parse, so he simply said, “I am not ‘manageable,’ no.”

Huw stared at him a moment and then turned on his heel and left.

Loki caught sight of himself in the mirror, pale-faced beneath those awful tattoos, white-lipped from where he had his mouth so tightly closed to keep from screaming with frustration.  He had grown careless, he had grown used to Volstagg and Lady Alse and Lady Ragna and Ivar, Asgardians who were kind enough to take his presence among them for granted, to take him as real rather than counterfeit; he had forgotten how much his position was dependent on sufferance, on the kindness of others.  The moment he had been cast out from the palace, all of Asgard had seen him fall.  They knew him now to have power only in proclamations—this is my brother, this is a prince—and not in reality.  Of course Huw had considered it a demotion to have to serve him, when he had expected to serve Thor.  Of course he had assumed Loki would be humbled.

And you, he thought savagely, you have been as foolish as he said you were.  You didn’t think to ask after the servants they would send with you.  A little humility, to think of that, to remember that they might have opinions, would have saved you from this.

It was what Heimdall would have said.  Well, it wasn’t at all what Heimdall would have said, not now, but it was what Heimdall had taught him.  He should have thought.

But he would not be called “manageable” by anyone.  Still less would he be destined for it.  He would set himself on fire first.  How was that for petulance?

He had no time to calm down.  He had to tackle the luncheon finery.  The protocol-required ties for it for lunch were only half as complicated as they were for as dinner and he was half into it already, so it would quite possibly be good practice for tonight—would be only a quarter as difficult. 

He closed his eyes and took himself to the lake on Ingberg.  The glassy stillness of the water.  Somewhere back behind him was his grandmamas’ house and he could smell the bread Grandmama Hallsa was baking.  Wrapped around him was a cloak Heimdall had worn as a boy, woolen and woodland green, and Heimdall was there just out of sight.  He looked into the lake and found the pond by the cottage, with its ripples from the herons that would skim down to inspect the sunfish, with its cattails on the far edge.  He could look back and forth between those two muddled silver discs forever.  If you scryed, you could always be somewhere else when you needed to be.  There was always a place where everything was calm.

He exhaled and opened his eyes again.  This garment would not defeat him.

Though his admiration for it had certainly lessened since he’d committed to getting it on by himself.

He looked closely at it, letting his shoulders relax.  Heimdall would be able to see the logic of it.  There was a true form of it somewhere, some shape it wanted to take, if Loki could—

He grinned when he saw it.  Huw could fuck himself.  Loki wouldn’t need his help.

He buttoned and snapped and tied himself the rest of the way into his clothes and then inspected himself in the mirror.  He liked the look of it, actually.  It was a malleable fabric, bewitched to read the body and contour itself to suit and shift its colors to flatter.  On the off-chance that it had opinions, he patted it on the shoulder and thanked it—very quietly, so as not to sound ridiculous—and then very nearly called out to Heimdall again, just so he could show Heimdall what he looked like.  But that was silly.  Heimdall would be busy, and Loki wasn’t a child, to go tugging at his sleeve at every moment.  Besides, he did not want to explain Huw’s absence, and at the same time did not want to minimize his own accomplishment by implying Huw had given more help than he had.  So he was alone.

Alone, at least, until Thor came barreling in, once again failing to knock.

“Can you believe these?” Thor said, gesturing to his shirt.

“You clearly didn’t reason with it properly,” Loki said loftily, for Thor’s luncheon outfit was stubbornly refusing to look decent on him.

“Was yours that color before?”

“No, and yours won’t be the color it is if you get it to work.  Alarr couldn’t do it?”

Thor shook his head.  “With many apologies, since he had practiced.  I can believe it.  How did Huw do yours?”

Loki’s mouth tightened.  “He didn’t.  Not past halfway.  Here, brother, I’ll fix you.”

He did so.  It was strange, he thought, that he did not mind this, though he rightly could, since it was menial; a servant’s task.  But he had gardened and cooked and cleaned and dressed himself for years now—had polished Heimdall’s boots for him when they’d started looking disgraceful—and in the cottage that was simply the way that life was.  You did things or else they did not get done, and the pride of doing something well was better than the pride that kept you from doing it at all.  And he did want Thor to look almost as good as he did, he supposed.

“There,” he said, watching as the shirt locked into place and slowly turned scarlet.  “Easy.”

“Yes,” Thor said doubtfully.  “I… see that now.  Loki, why didn’t Huw dress you more than halfway?”

“Possibly for the same reason Alarr did not finish with you.”

“You don’t say ‘possibly’ like that unless you’re lying.”

He knew that, of course, but he hadn’t known Thor knew it; that was annoying.  “He considered it a demotion to serve me rather than you.  I could make do on my own.”

“I’ll have words with him,” Thor said, starting forward.  Violet-white light crackled around his fingertips.

Loki blocked him.  “You’ll do no such thing.”  This was why Heimdall had put him in charge, he knew.  He would stop Thor from doing anything rash, but he was, he had to admit, glad that it was still Thor’s first impulse.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  You can’t argue properly, you’ll just wind up electrocuting him.  And you can’t kill a servant for being rude about dressing me.  Is that how you want them to write about you?  Thor, the first of his name, slaughterer of the defenseless over petty slights?”

“You are here as a prince,” Thor hissed.  “He must treat you as one, or what does it say to the Vanir?”

“The Vanir were not in my bedchamber.  If they were, we have bigger problems, since we plotted murder in it.”

Thor made Loki rein him back a while, his nostrils flaring like a horse’s, and then at last he laughed.  “You might be right.”

“I am right,” Loki said.  “Try not to say it like it’s so unlikely.”

“And I would not have killed him.”

“Well.  More’s the pity, really.”

There was a polite knock at the door and, at their answer, a Vanir boy with a long dark braid came in.  His eyes widened when he saw the both of them and he bowed.  “I apologize,” he said softly.  “I did not think to find you both at once.  Prince Thor, Prince Loki, I have come from the Lady Steward Helga to escort you to to the great hall.”

“Thank you,” Thor said.  “What is your name, please?  We know so few people here.”

“Naftali, my lord.”  He looked up.  “I mean, your majesty.  Your highness?”

“We prefer to call him Thunderer,” Loki said.  “Depending on what we have for luncheon, you may find out why sooner than you’d like.”

The boy giggled and Loki decided he could be persuaded to find this particular child bearable.

“My brother jests,” Thor said, giving Loki what he no doubt thought was a stormy glare.  “Badly.  I would be honored if you would call me Thor.  You’re the first person our age that we’ve met, so if you don’t mind being taken as a friend—”

As though this child were their age!  He seemed barely into boots.  But he blushed at Thor assigning them all together and so Loki realized belatedly that this was diplomacy beyond ordinary politeness—this was something he had not yet learned.  He had only before flattered people on their merits as he recognized them, or else he had done it to use them, he had not done it to be nice—though he supposed being nice could be useful in the long run, if you were willing to take your time.

“And I am Loki,” he said decisively.  Don’t think you’ll win over everyone and leave no one for me, he thought at Thor.  I can make friends as well.  “Many thanks for coming to fetch us.  We’d have wandered forever and been thought dead without you.”

“The court is rather labyrinthine,” Thor said sheepishly.  “Ah—mazey, I mean.”

“I know what the word means,” Naftali said.  He sounded a little injured.

Point to me, Loki decided.  Or at least a negative point to Thor.  The child has taste.

Naftali was kind enough to confirm that they had both gotten their shirts on correctly—Loki would have immediately lost a great deal of capital with Thor if that had not been true—and then did lead them to the great hall, chattering all the while.  Once he had been (albeit falsely) assured that royals were just like anyone else, he was not shy at all.  He peppered them with innocent questions—How did the Bifrost work?  How many people lived on Asgard?  How long were they staying?—and then deposited them at their destination, his face bright and shining.

“Are you ready?” Thor said in a low voice.  He waited until Naftali was out of earshot.

“Does it matter?”

Thor smiled.  “Not really, I suppose.”

It was, Loki understood even before they opened the doors, a question Thor had asked only for his sake.  This part of the trip did not trouble Thor even a little; Thor took it for granted that he would be liked.  It was insufferable that he had no just reason to doubt this.

But, to Loki’s incredible relief, they were both liked, at least as far as he could tell.

The Vanir ate with long, thin wooden trenches, like tiny model ships, but Loki had practiced the use of them avidly during the time he’d had and he thought he did himself credit.  He saw with interest that some of the Vanir elders used a variation on the tool, shorter, tapered versions that were fitted to their fingertips with bands.  They held their hands over their food and made flicking motions to scoop up bites on these strange extended nails.  The food was also delicious, but far more comprehensible; Asgardian fare, or close enough, only chopped and pulped to be friendlier to the scoops.

But Loki talked more than he ate.  It was hard not to.

He had thought at first to mind that Thor was seated next to Helga while he had drawn Baroness Illmay, but soon he minded not at all.  When it was not necessary for her to sink into her lady’s shadow, Illmay was different; she had the subtle charm of moonglow, the luster of a pearl.  By the third such overwrought comparison, Loki was forced to admit that he had fallen in love with her, though he was old enough to know that this was a realization he should neither admit to nor indulge.

“We have arranged an infuriatingly full schedule for you, I’m afraid,” Illmay said.  “You’ll find yourself rushed from place to place.”

“Everything has been very restful so far.”

“Well, we are respectful of travel, since we do not have your instantaneous version of it.  There is no one on Vanaheim who would not think it appalling to not immediately give an off-world guest a chance to nap.  But from here on, we will run you ragged.  You’ll rest only when posing for your portrait.”

“Then I hope your artists are painstakingly slow, my lady.”

“Do you draw, Prince Loki?”

“A bit, my lady.  Not so well as my brother, but enough to please Heimdall and my grandmamas.”  He did not realize until he said that that it was, firstly, childish to mention sending pictures to his grandmamas and that it was, secondly, strange that he did not also send them to his mother.

But Illmay was charmed by this—had never had grandmothers of her own, had always been envious of other people for possessing them, would he pray tell him all about his?  So he did, and halfway through, he noticed that Thor had turned to listen to him too.  They had been allowed little glasses of jewel-bright wine but it was the attention that intoxicated him now, that made him giddy and funny and open.  He told them of Grandmama Freydis’s pride in Vanaheim—someone down at the foot of the table knew her and was instantly moved three spots closer to him—of Grandmama Brynn’s snappish wit and Grandmama Hallsa’s music.  From there he told them of the grandmamas he had never met, striving to give each the honor she was due.

“Your brother is most eloquent, Prince Thor,” someone opposite them said.

Heimdall had said this was often the Vanir way to give compliments—if you wished to praise someone, you praised them to another, who, free of the need to seem humble, could respond appropriate grace and agreement.  It became awkward, apparently, when it was a conversation of two, because they ended up making appeals to the heavens for divine recognition of how clever the other person was, how kind, how strikingly good-looking.

“He is,” Thor said.  “He is known as Silvertongue.”

Loki looked at him in complete disbelief: By whom, exactly?

Thor raised his eyebrows.  By all of Vanaheim now, brother.  You’re welcome.

He liked the sound of it—Loki Heimdallson, Silvertongue—enough that he was willing to in return push the attention back to Thor, who soon commandeered the room with the story of a hunting trip he had gone on with Hogun and Fandral.  (It was mentioned most deliberately that Hogun was Vanir and a close personal friend.)  Loki valiantly and successfully resisted the urge to declare that Thor was known as Boarkiller.  Instead, when Illmay said to him, “Your brother sounds most courageous,” he said simply, “Yes, my lady, very much so,” and thought himself most heroic.

“Do you not enjoy hunting, Prince Loki?” Helga said.

“I’m not sure, my lady.  I have never actually been.”

“How absurd.  Prince Thor, you must take your brother riding with you sometime.”

Thor’s face stiffened a little into a mask, one Loki thought he recognized from Mother’s own expression—or deliberate lack thereof.  “Indeed, my lady, I really must.  I have been remiss.  Do you hunt here?  Perhaps Loki and I could accompany you.”

Plans for this were made in a desultory way.  Illmay had not exaggerated the crowded nature of their schedule, apparently, because the rest of the meal was spent moving blocks of time around—if the glassmakers would meet with them on the third day instead of the seventh, they could possibly persuade the grand stable-master (here Thor’s head shot up, attentive) to accommodate having that appointment moved to the tenth, and so on.  Stewardship was more complex than kingship, by all evidence, because Helga seemed reluctant to simply issue commands, even to people who could not possibly have had any real rank.

No wonder it was said to be impossible to make Grandmama Freydis do anything.  It seemed like a dreadfully inefficient way to rule.

Then again, Heimdall seldom issued commands to him, and yet the cottage was smoothly run.  Maybe it would work on a very small scale.

Chapter Text

The hunt, as Loki explained in a dutiful letter to his grandmamas, was not without incident:

Pray do not worry.  Our injuries are not at all serious and I would not bother you with them if I did not need to excuse how poor my penmanship gets when I write with the wrong hand.  I would like to be ambidextrous.

I also wanted to write to tell you this before Heimdall could tell the story the wrong way.  He did not appreciate my version of events at all and I fear he would misrepresent them to you.  No matter what he says, I assure you I didn’t fall off my horse, not truly.  (His name is Sleipnir, he is a gray stallion lightly dappled with white, and the Vanir have made noises about maybe gifting him to me so I would really like Heimdall to not under any circumstances come here and talk about Sleipnir somehow being responsible for it.  Do tell him I consider Sleipnir a friend, and doesn’t he worry that I don’t have more friends?  I think this will sound better coming from you.)

In any case, it is all Thor’s fault.  (Thor sends his greetings as well.)  We were on a hunt with the Vanir, and as Grandmama Freydis already knows, it is their custom to favor small woodland game.  It is difficult to ride through the forest, but the Vanir horses are very intelligent and are good at keeping their footing and keeping their riders from being smacked off by tree limbs.  They are good at this, rather, until someone starts agitating them by asking them complicated algebra questions.  Sleipnir was only endeavoring to solve Thor’s equations (and of course being a horse he could not, though he is still much smarter than other horses; I think it unfair to have asked him) and he tapped his hooves in an unusual way and upset me from the saddle.  It is only a sprain to my wrist and Baroness Illmay has been most considerate in sending over healers.  (And Lady Steward Helga also has done so.)

The sprain does not hurt much at all and is only a slight inconvenience re: correspondence.

His sprained wrist ended his chances of dressing himself for more formal events and he was forced, against every bit of pride, to rely again on Huw.  Thor offered to share Alarr’s services or even to take Huw on himself, but Loki declined.  He was too skittish now to trust that Alarr would be any better.  And besides, at this point Thor would only bully Huw, and if one of them were going to do that, Loki at least wanted it to be him.

Huw’s exile from Loki’s quarters had not gone unnoticed; the Vanir had been chilly towards him in consequence.

Naftali had explained this to Thor, in a clear, piping voice that Loki, too, was meant to hear: “Everyone says Prince Loki is charming and courteous—”

For the most part, Thor was most gracious about accepting compliments on Loki’s behalf, and most respectful of the Vanir custom of delivering them to him, but in this case, he snorted, causing Loki to drive an elbow into his ribs.

Naftali overlooked the curious habits of his Asgardian friends.  “So if his body-servant displeased him, it is thought that the man must have done something very offensive indeed.”

“That is so,” Thor said, now entirely serious even as he went on rubbing at his side.  “If he were of proper standing, I would demand satisfaction from him in combat.”

“If he were of proper standing,” Loki said, “you would still be heir to Asgard, and so it would be suicide for him to declare intent to harm you, and besides that, I would not need you to do it for me, and besides that, your father hasn’t allowed retaliatory combat in the last six hundred years.”  Though that was not such a great stretch of time, really, and who knew what had changed the All-Father’s mind on it in the first place?  The history texts never said, but the texts were often annoyingly vague.

“I would fight him for you, Loki,” Naftali said.  “I could do it, couldn’t I?  Since we have the same position?”

Huw was fully grown and Naftali was younger than Loki and delicate-looking even beyond that, so Loki had no doubt how that combat would, well, terminate, but that did not change the fact that the offer itself was somewhat touching.  And he could perceive that, he was tempted to point out, without Thor glaring daggers at him over Naftali’s head to warn him not to hurt the child’s feelings.

“I am extraordinarily grateful for your offer,” Loki said.  “Brother, do you not think Naftali very brave?”

“Very brave indeed,” Thor agreed.  “But, Naftali, you really can’t fight Huw.  You really cannot.”

What Naftali could more reasonably do was dress Loki himself, but the court etiquette on this matter was, Thor had reluctantly told Loki, notoriously complicated.  It was more of their circumlocution and indirectness.  It would be breathtakingly rude, in their minds, for Lady Steward Helga to take it upon herself to send Naftali to Loki, because it would be admitting that she knew of the spat between him and Huw, and any Vanir noble would be appalled to have the internal workings of his household out in the open.  It did not matter that Loki already knew she knew.  As long as they both ignored the facts of the matter, politeness and privacy were satisfied.

Loki could ask, of course.  There was no social rule against that.  But it would be a strange and foreign thing to do, and Loki was strange and foreign enough without emphasizing it.

Tact on one hand, stubbornness on the other.  He wished he could have asked Heimdall about it, but he had done his utmost to keep Heimdall from finding out about the Huw affair at all.  He couldn’t catch him up on it now.

So it was Huw.

When Loki sent for him, Huw came at once.  That was something.

“I’d wondered,” he said, looking briefly at Loki’s wrist.

Loki ignored this.  He wasn’t going to have a conversation with him.  “I need the second formal dinner garment.  It was a gift they gave me here, so you might not have seen it before, but I can tell you how it fastens.”

“All right.  This one?”

He nodded and readied himself for Huw’s handling.  Huw was not so rough as he had been the first time: he unbuttoned Loki’s present tunic and took it off him with actual delicacy, sparing his sprained wrist any unnecessary wrenching-about.  And he did not need advice on handling the Vanir garment, which was good, because Loki was not at all sure that knowing how to do it himself meant he could have explained it very well.  When Loki was dressed, Huw took out a small brush and whisked invisible dust off Loki’s back and shoulders.

“You keep yourself clean enough,” Huw said.

Loki wanted to kick him.  “Did you think I didn’t know how to bathe?”

To his surprise, this put a dull, brick-red flush on Huw’s face.  “I—I did not mean it as an insult.  It was meant to be a compliment.  Most children are messy, and you’ve been living in the country, and…”

“Heimdall is an excellent guardian.  He wouldn’t let me go around covered in filth even if I wanted to, which I wouldn’t.  I think I am done with your services for now, thank you.”

Huw nodded but, even as he fell back, lingered a moment in the doorway and then said, bluntly and without preamble, “Why did you do that to your face?”

Loki reached for the field of roses.  At noon, when the sun was at its hottest and highest, their fragrance would perfume the cottage—unless, not being real, they did not have a scent in the first place.  He would have to ask.  “I didn’t,” he said, trying still to see the roses rather than Huw.  “The king and queen had it done along with my ears, at the same time as they cut off my hair.”  He was done trying to explain Odin’s reasoning, especially since he had no intention of telling Huw he was Jotun.

He only blinked the roses out of his eyes when Huw said, “As far as your hair goes, I can still get a braid in it, if you want.”

“It’s too short now.”

“It’s not.”  There was a trace of impatience in his voice.  “I just said I could do it.  It would at least keep it out of your eyes so you wouldn’t be shoving at it all the time.  Especially since you’re down to the one hand.  I don’t know why the Vanir don’t just mend that for you.”

Neither did Loki, frankly, but they had some bizarre superstition about spending healing energy on small hurts that would naturally correct themselves in time; it was more of their fixation on the passing-away of things, as if they could not ever count on their resources being enough, as if they were ever-ready for a war that never came.  Not being able to make the objection himself, he had some satisfaction to hearing it aired.  It got him, at least, to sit down for Huw to do his hair.  Whatever light-handedness Huw had used on dressing him was now abandoned, for he yanked Loki’s head about like Loki was nothing more than a doll, but at least this time the disregard seemed a fraction less deliberate.

And the end result, despite his raked and sore scalp, was worth it.  He had been feeling subtly disordered ever since the chop, and now he felt himself again.

“You like it,” Huw said.

“It’s acceptable.”

Thor, being Thor, could not resist making a pointed entrance just then, and of course had no subtlety: “Hello, dearest brother.”

“Hello.  I see you still haven’t sorted out the obscure custom of knocking before you enter a room.”

“My brother is so funny,” Thor said to Huw.  “I’m sorry—Huw, isn’t it?  Loki and I have been practicing the Vanir custom of complimenting someone only to their bystanders.  So, see, I cannot praise my brother directly, however much I love and value him, but I can say it to you and you can—and should—very heartily agree with me.  It’s what proper etiquette demands.”

Loki was not above enjoying this.  What a marvelous brother he had.

“So you see,” Thor said, “I say that my brother is so funny, and you, Huw, say…”

“Certainly he is, my prince.”

“That’s it.  You’ll be fitting right in in no time.  The Vanir are famous for their courtesy, you know, which must be why they like Loki so much, since he’s exceptionally noble in all his behavior, most generous.  Don’t you think?”

“I am sure Loki—”

“Ah-ah,” Thor said.  “Prince Loki, if we’re going to be courteous.”

Huw exhaled through his nose.  The look in his eyes asked how much further Thor intended to take this.  “I am sure Prince Loki deserves all the admiration he receives from the Vanir.”

“And he deserves it because…”

“Because he is generous,” Huw said mechanically.  “And noble.”

“Goodness, brother,” Loki said, “even secondhand, you’re making me blush.  Huw, I have no more need of your services tonight.  The garments can be removed one-handed.”

“And your hair?” Huw said.

“I will unbraid his hair for him if it comes to that,” Thor said, and all the red-blooded play had gone out of his voice.  “As I would dress him myself if the clothes would cooperate with me.  And when my brother dismisses you, Huw, you leave, you do not stay to question him.  His commands have the weight of my own.  I will not repeat them.”

Huw bowed quickly—far more in Thor’s direction than Loki’s, but with at least a hip cocked towards him in grudging acknowledgment—and exited.  He was probably grateful for the escape.

“I’m going to have him knocked down to scrubbing floors when we’re back on Asgard,” Thor said, still in the same cold-iron tones as before.  Loki had known Thor’s temper before—fierce and hot and brief as a summer storm—but not his wrath, and he had not known Thor was capable of this kind of anger.  How his enemies would fear him.  His eyes had a lightning glow to them just then, all white and violet, but then he blinked the light out and smiled at Loki, the fearsomeness ebbing away.  “I take back a third of those compliments now, by the way.  You are funny and I suppose you’re noble, brother, but you aren’t the slightest bit generous.  That whole enormous box of candy Heimdall’s mothers sent you and you gave me only one piece.”

“One piece was more than I was required to give you,” Loki said loftily.  “They are not your grandmothers.”

They ought to have left—for all they knew, them being late for dinner would be a black eye on the honor of all of Asgard—but Thor sat down in Loki’s strange cerulean puff of a chair instead and, toying idly with his boot-buckles and looking at nothing, said, “Why do you call them your grandmothers when you don’t call Heimdall your father?”

“I don’t know.”  His ears felt suddenly cold without his hair falling down around them.  Damn Huw, he thought uselessly, even when he was trying to help, he hurt.  “They wanted me to.”

“I think Heimdall would like it if you called him father.”

“This is stupid,” Loki said.  He was speaking too loudly.  “What does it matter?”

“I just thought since you were going by Heimdallson now—”

“I am not going by Heimdallson now, no more than I have my face tattooed now.  It’s just for Vanaheim, that’s all.  It’s just for show.”  He didn’t know why he was saying these things, or why he had to say them so quickly, like he was spitting hot coals out of his mouth before they burned his tongue.  “Heimdall deserves his own son, not someone twice cast-off that he adopted out of pity, some… some hand-me-down.  I wasn’t forced upon my grandmamas but I was forced upon him and he took me because he’s good, that’s all.  If he would give me his name, it’s only because there’s no one else to hold it once he’s gone.”

“Loki,” Thor said, now leaving off all pretense of fussing about with his boots, “you’re speaking nonsense.”

“Speaking of nonsense,” Loki said, forcing brightness into his voice, “did you know that Huw thought I’d done this to my face myself?”

Thor looked at him a long while but at last said, “I knew he was vile, I didn’t know he was a fool.”

“I’m tired of it, I think.  Of people making assumptions about me.”  He did not have the right kind of magic to strip the ink from his skin, but he could lay a glamour over it, seidr closing over the marks like scar tissue and then disappearing into his face, unnoticeable.  He looked at himself in the mirror.  “There.  That’s better.”

“Mother won’t be pleased,” Thor said.  “But it’s nice to see you looking yourself again.”

“I’ll take the glamour off before we go home and Mother will never even know.”  He turned his head.  “I might keep the ears.”

“They make you look like an elf.”

“Elves are known for their beauty.”

“I’m sure you’re very pretty, brother,” Thor said sweetly.

The ensuing scuffle made them late for dinner after all, and Loki could almost feel their hosts not asking about the bruise Thor had acquired on his jawline or the limp Loki had gotten from Thor stomping on his foot.  They focused instead on his face, which was considered much improved.  It was not, they explained, that Loki had been unpleasant to look at—certainly not; really most adorable—but that they had, no doubt through some fault of their own, not understood that it was merely temporary paint, and they thought someone had wrongly and permanently marked him with a very, very bastardized version of the Wishen-Bao tattoos, and, well, it had been distracting, seeing him going around with what amounted to a misprint stamped on his face.

Loki gripped his thin wooden scoop so hard he almost broke it; he tried to keep smiling and chattering on lightly, frivolously.  Inside, he seethed.  They couldn’t even have bothered to get the tattoos right?  He supposed Odin had not intended him to look Wishen-Bao, unless he thought to have that place sending assassins after him, but if they were sending a message written on his face, they should have made sure it looked like it was written in an entirely foreign language, not simply a familiar one with atrocious spelling.  Loki had not looked like the prince of an unknown world, he’d looked like a fool.  And however polite Vanaheim had been about it and however he spun the story of it in the aftermath, it mattered that he had gone around for days with I AM AN IDIOT emblazoned across his forehead.

He smeared a glamour over his mouth like a streak of greasepaint and left it there to impersonate a smile.  He continued to talk; continued to be polite.  He would not forfeit the visit and so let Odin win.

But when the dinner was done, he waved off Thor’s offer to help him unbraid his hair and picked it free himself knot by knot while trying as hard as he could to see the lake, the pond, the bear, anything.  There was nothing there.  Even the roses were unreachable and gone.  He had split his attention too much to keep them; had gotten lost and lost.  The All-Father hadn’t even had to defeat him, he had done it to himself.

He curled up on his side in his bed and tried to keep from crying.

Chapter Text

Loki dressed simply the next morning, nothing more than loose breeches and a tunic, for he could not bear Huw.  He had half a mind to go to the Vanir healers and demand, as their guest and an emissary of Asgard, that they mend him at once, never mind their concepts of unity and the flowing energies of the universe and the nature of emergencies, he hurt.  He was distracted from it only by the feel of Heimdall’s attention.

He knew he looked a sight.  His hair was wavy on one side from where he had failed to get it entirely free of its braid, his eyes were red and puffy, and he’d acquired a mosquito bite on one cheek; he must have scratched it in the night, for it had flared up immense and ugly.  There was no point in pretending to be in good spirits when a simple glance had already told Heimdall he was not.  He sighed and said, “Yes, all right, let’s talk.”

He did not consider the mirror.  He didn’t want to see the lie of his eyes turning gold.

At least being able to see Heimdall again was something.  Better than the bear or the Ingberg lake or even the pond at home.

“What ails you?” Heimdall said softly.  “Your wrist?”

“Are the roses gone?”

Heimdall hesitated before answering, which was answer enough.  “In the night, I think.”

“I’m sorry.”  He felt all hiccupy and ready to cry again; he swallowed that impulse down as best he could.  “I didn’t mean to lose them.  I thought I could do it but I got distracted.”

“I can still see them in my mind’s eye,” Heimdall said.  “Don’t be sorry.  I am in no danger of forgetting you.  But, Loki, please tell me what’s upset you.”

But he had no easy answer.  That his wrist hurt was not it, that he felt oppressed by having to deal with Huw was not it, that he still burned with shame over the tattoos was not it.  It was all of those things and the fact that he was having trouble scrying, which was the only way he knew to calm himself, the only way he knew to feel like he was home.  It was that there was nothing here that he could break, because all of it belonged to someone else.  It was that he would have to find time to see the Jotuns soon and his tongue still could not wrap around their barbaric words and what if he found out that Laufey had wanted him after all?  And what if the Jotuns were every bit as awful as he had ever feared, and then he had to know that down in his blood he was one of them?

The wrist would be the simplest thing to confess.  But to talk about the tattoos would at least be a little more honest.  He chose that.

“They were wrong.  They’re wrong.”  He traced one of the lines on his face.  “They look like Wishen-Bao markings, only badly done, and Mother didn’t know and you didn’t tell me.”

“What would your mother knowing have to do with…  Oh, Loki.  She was there, then.”

“It doesn’t matter.  You didn’t tell me how I looked.”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know.  Wishen-Bao is a small moon, of interest to Vanaheim mostly for their rocks, which they trade; they help purify water.  There has never been a war with Wishen-Bao.  I haven’t looked there in two thousand years.  Loki, think.  You know I would not have you put you in that position.”

He did know that, but he was not satisfied by it.  He wanted to hit something, and he didn’t want to be reminded that his only strikable target was blameless.  “And I can’t scry anymore.”  If Heimdall were angry with him, he could be fairly angry back.  And Heimdall had the right to know that Loki had failed.  He’d been giving something valuable and he had lost it.  “I can’t even see the pond.”

Heimdall didn’t look as though he properly felt the weight of Loki’s failure.  “It’s only natural for you to be out of practice.  It will come back again once you’re home, you’ll see.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

“It will.”

“But what if it doesn’t?”

“Then it doesn’t,” Heimdall said, as though Loki were being absurd.  “It will, but if it does not, then your magic will begin to express itself some other way, some other Loki-ish way that you will like.”  He reached for Loki before realizing that he could not touch him; he closed his hand an inch away from Loki’s head and let it fall back to his side.  “I will always show you whatever you want to see.  I know it’s not the same, but—”

But being able to see so far, even sometimes, was the only thing that marked him as belonging to Heimdall; the only thing that could not be stripped away as easily as a name.  Even Loki couldn’t hold himself together with words alone.  He didn’t know why Heimdall couldn’t realize that.

It wouldn’t matter to Heimdall, though.  Heimdall had no need for them to be tied together—why would he?

Loki made himself smile and he said, “No, you’re probably right.  It won’t even matter.  How are you?  How is Ivar?  How is the cottage?”  The last because he needed verification that Heimdall had been in it at all.  And he had been, apparently, because he gave Loki a dutiful description of how the radishes were doing, and that couldn’t have been from Gara or Volstagg; neither of them liked the garden much.  Ivar was well and quite insistent on taking equal shifts (good, Loki thought approvingly), something bolstered by Volstagg showing up suspiciously on cue to escort Heimdall home with him for supper.

“Why suspiciously?” Loki said.  “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re implying.”

“Of course not.  It would have nothing to do with your last-minute need to have breakfast with Gara when you’ve said before that no one in her family can cook.  Which I now must agree with.”

They really could not.  He didn’t know how they all managed to be so strapping.  Maybe the whole family, root to stem, lacked tastebuds.

“Well, I’m sorry to have subjected you to that,” Loki said.  “I didn’t tell him to feed you.  Not specifically.”

“I did take care of myself for quite a while before you showed up, you know,” Heimdall said, but he was smiling.

“I’m sure you think so.  An overgrown garden and a dusty cottage and no sleep.”

“I surrender.  I would not have made it another century without my Loki.”

Loki didn’t know what to make of this.  He wanted to cut the words into the inside of his skin so whatever he looked like, whatever happened to him, they would be there, but that made him grotesque, didn’t it?  He was so needy, so grasping all the time.  He was not Heimdall’s son.  He would rule Jotunheim someday: that was what he was for, that was what Heimdall was raising him for, except Heimdall had told him he didn’t have to, which didn’t make any sense.  It was as if Heimdall were bad at raising a prince, but Heimdall wasn’t bad at anything.

So what was he for then?  What was he?

“I need to finish getting ready,” he said.

“Fix your hair,” Heimdall said automatically.  “I—look forward to seeing you again.”  Which was, he supposed, a heavily-implied request to reach out more often.  “Write to your grandmamas.”

He considered this an injustice.  “I do.”

“And your mother.”

“I will.  Please don’t be angry with her.”

Heimdall exhaled.  Strange that Loki could hear his words but not the heave of his breath.  It emphasized how far away he was in a way that even not being able to touch him had not; Loki hadn’t thought of himself as especially clingy but he did pay attention, he did soak up what he could see and hear.  It pained him to have less.  “I won’t quarrel with her.  I believe her intentions were good.  But she should have spoken with me about it.”

Loki honestly did not understand this.  Heimdall always called Frigga Loki’s mother, but if she were his mother, then couldn’t she grant her assent without him agreeing to it first?  Heimdall had not sought her approval before saying Loki could go to Vanaheim.  But he would accept whatever answer would make this go away.  “I solemnly promise not to let anyone stab my face over and over again with a needle without someone asking you first.”

“Thank you,” Heimdall said, his mouth quirked in a reluctant smile.  “I hope that specific situation does not come up too frequently.”

“One never knows.  Life is full of surprises.  Goodbye, Heimdall.”

The gold was gone from his eyes when he turned back to the mirror.  At least the redness had gone with it.  Fix your hair, Heimdall had said, and he supposed he should listen.  He couldn’t go around looking unkempt.  He would spend the whole day being seen by other people and—and perhaps it was time he did what he had long been putting off.  Time he answered the question of what he was.  He placed his clear-skinned glamour back into place, covering up the mosquito bite for good measure, and summoned Huw after all.

“What did you do to yourself?” Huw said.

“Good morning,” Loki said pointedly.  Norns, I hate him.  I hope Thor does have him working in a scullery when we return home and I hope he scalds his hands every single day and gets lye blisters.  Loki was uncertain how sculleries worked.  “Why are you always assuming I do things to myself?  You were wrong the first time.  Someone smart would learn a lesson from that.”

“I meant that your tattoos are gone.  I doubt the Vanir got them off for you.”

Unfortunately fair.  “It’s just a glamour.”  He pulled it down so Huw could see the truth and then pinned it back up.  “I do hope that meets with your approval, because I want so badly to please you.  I need my hair braided again.”

He sat down and was surprised when Huw began the work without comment on how Loki only needed the braid put in again because he’d taken it out so ineptly.  He didn’t pull at Loki’s hair quite so much this time.  Perhaps they were growing closer.  Perhaps in time Huw would name some awful baby after him.  Perhaps he would save Loki’s life in some campaign, tragically dying for him.  One could always hope.

He just wished he didn’t know why Huw didn’t like him.  He wished he had the luxury of being confused about it, but he did not.  Huw’s dislike of him was simple and not even irrational: he had expected to serve the prince of Asgard and had instead been sidelined into serving an apparent bastard prince whom the All-Father himself had cast out like so much rubbish.  It was not something he could brag about to his friends.  And it was true he had not always been the best-tempered child, so the palace staff might have circulated rumors of him, stories that had grown in the telling.  Huw had said he was thought to be petulant.  Loki had not disproved that yet.  But now he did not want to.

He did not want to perfectly understand how some strange servant could be irritated by being stuck with him.  He was supposed to be a prince, that was why he was here at all.  But it had not often seemed true, over the years.  He could fool the Vanir, but he could not fool someone who had seen him disowned.  Most of the time he could not even fool himself.

Still.  He remembered something Ivar had said.

“Whatever you think of me,” he said now to Huw, “I am of the household of the Guardian of the Bifrost and the Gatekeeper of Asgard.  I am not nothing.  I am not no one.”

“I know that,” Huw said, retracting his touch from Loki’s head the moment he was done.  “There.  I saw a Vanir boy yesterday with that style.”

He wanted more of an answer to what he had said, but why?  So Huw could wrong him again and Loki could still have no retaliation but to continue to rely on him and hope Thor punished him somehow weeks from now?  They were in a stalemate.  And whatever he said, Huw could simply go on taking it as more petulance, more melodrama.  Huw did not like him but was trying, in his own grating way, to be considerate—to observe what suited him and think what he would like.  Heimdall had shrugged away the issue of potential wives and husbands thinking him strange, off-putting, foreign.  Loki could do the same.  It should be easier, because there was no way in life or Valhalla that he would be in danger of wanting to wed Huw; Huw’s distaste could only disappoint him so much.

“It suits,” he said.  “Thank you.”  There was nothing like good, icy courtesy.  It said all at once that Huw was not worthy of anything but his indifference and that Loki was so well-bred and well-raised that his indifference was reflexively polite.

Huw stood still a moment and then offered him the barest hint of a bow.  He said, “I will be back to dress you for luncheon,” and left.

This time Loki went into Thor’s room without knocking and found Thor still asleep, his mouth half-open against his pillow, dampening it.  Disgusting.  He flicked Thor’s ear.

“Villain,” Thor said sleepily.  “Did you have a bad dream?”

“Did I have a—Thor, it’s half-past eight in the morning.”  And it had been years—obviously—since he had sought Thor out after a nightmare, anyway, and he did not like being reminded he ever had; that he had once been close enough to do it as a matter of course and now was no longer.  He flicked Thor’s ear again.

Thor covered his head with his pillow.  “Stop that.”

“You’re oversleeping and I want to do things.  This is one of the only unscheduled mornings we have and I want to see Vanaheim and if I do it without you, you’ll only come haring off after me and cause trouble and I promised Heimdall I wouldn’t let you.”

“Oh, you promised Heimdall you wouldn’t let me,” Thor said into the mattress.  “Thank you, brother, that’s thoughtful.  All right, I’m awake, I’m awake.  Give me a moment.  Have Alarr bring me a cup of tea, will you?”

Loki rolled his eyes to the heavens but did as he was asked.  Alarr appeared mere moments later with an already-steaming cup of the sweet, strong Vanir tea.

“Speedy of you,” Loki said.

“His lamp was lit late into the night.  I’ve had the kitchen keep a kettle on for him since I first woke.”  He settled the cup onto the table by Thor’s bed and Loki watched with restrained amusement when Thor’s hand stole out from the covers to take it.  He spilled nothing, Loki had to give him that.  Slurping noises ensued.  Thor gradually produced himself, looking logy with sleep.  It occurred to Loki only then that royalty usually did sleep late.  People in the country rose early; people in the city stayed up late.  He had kept those hours himself once.

“Alarr,” Thor said, “an enormous, despicable rodent seems to have found its way into my room.  Could you please remove it?”

Loki transformed into a sleek, largish rat and climbed up on Thor’s bed to sit on his knee and twitch his whiskers at him.  Thor patted his head with a fingertip and poured a bit of tea into the saucer for him, which was nice.  Loki liked tasting things with different tongues.

“Prince Loki should do that trick for the Vanir,” Alarr said.  “They are well-versed enough in magic to appreciate the difficulty of it.”

“Perhaps not as a rat,” Thor said.  He passed Loki a sugar cube, which Loki chiseled at with his sharp rat-teeth.  When it was down to nothing, he concentrated and resumed his own form.

“Perhaps not,” he agreed.  “But perhaps as something.”  So Alarr, he thought, was kind.  He could be trusted.  If Loki were inclined to reward Huw for being just barely tolerable, he would switch their servants around after all.  “In any case, Alarr, thank you for the thought.  If I do transform for them, you may pick the beast.”

“As long as it’s not too large or too small,” Thor said heartlessly, “for my brother has his limits.”

“I despise you,” Loki said.

This went on for a bit, during which Alarr dressed Thor—he chose Thor’s clothes to match the informality of Loki’s, Loki noticed with appreciation—and brought them some of the folded Vanir pastries that were stuffed with egg and cheese and cured meats and, Loki dearly wished Naftali had not told them, certain insect shells that added a crunch.  They ate swiftly, the better not to think about it.  When Alarr whisked the plates away and left them alone, Loki waited a beat and then said, “I want to find the Jotuns today.”

Thor frowned, grave at the request for gravity.  “Are you certain?”

“We said we would.  But fine, I’ll do it alone—”

Thor shook his head.  “I didn’t say I wouldn’t.  I only asked if you were sure.  I am at your side, brother.”

“Anyway,” Loki said, “of course I’m not sure.”


The trouble was that even if they contrived to run smack into one of the Jotun courtiers, they could not, from that unpromising introduction, jump into interrogating them about their king and whether or not, by the way, asking for no particular reason, just curious, he had happened to abandon a son.

“They are here,” Thor said.  “I’ve seen them about.  They are just never at our table, never in our hunting party.  It is wrong of Lady Steward Helga to keep them so apart from the rest of the court.”

“They are in some of the murals,” Loki said absently, for it had been had not to notice them, the violent splashes of blue amidst the green of the leaves and the flesh-tones of the surrounding Vanir in all those remarkably slapdash wall paintings—intuitional art, the Vanir called it, though Loki thought it probably meant that the artists didn’t want to invest much time in something that would only rot into the soil in a decade or so.  The painted Jotuns were distinct even in that sloppy style.  They always seemed to have something pink in one hand, but he did not know what.  “I think she separates them from us for our sake, not her own.  She thinks we would be repulsed by them.  I wish that had stopped her from having the cooks put gnat-wings and I don’t know what in the eggs.”

Thor looked like Loki had landed a blow directly under his chin, knocking him all askew.  “They can’t possibly think that.  We’re not that way.”

“Who are ‘we,’ brother?  You and I?  Or Asgard?  Ask yourself how much soup would dribble into beards and onto beautiful gowns, jaws dropped with dismay, if your father sat Frost Giants down at his table.  Well.  I suppose he’s done it already, but you know what I mean.”

“Maybe people are better than you think,” Thor said.

“And maybe they are worse.  Anyway, you know I’m right.  The Vanir have no reason to think we’d take kindly to the Jotuns, and the Jotuns themselves may want to avoid us.  Your father laid waste to their home and stole their treasure, I can’t imagine they want to adopt you.”  He forced his mouth into a smile.  “I am by far the most adoptable of the two us, apparently.  So introductions are out—we can’t ask for one, that would be strange—”

“No, maybe we should.  If you’re right, the Vanir are going about thinking we are disgusted by the Jotuns.  Maybe asking for an introduction is just what we ought to do.”

“You are thinking like a prince,” Loki said, “and I need you to think like a spy.  You can mend Aesir-Jotun relations once we’re finished.”  And good luck with that.  The Norns’ own strength couldn’t uproot all that hatred.  “Pretend to be a more subtle person.”

“I am Loki,” Thor said, half-closing his eyes.  “I think myself clever and tricky but once I turned into a fish and then couldn’t turn myself back and had to have a sorcerer fix me.”

“Fish are very difficult!”

“I should have eaten you with a wedge of lemon.”  He opened his eyes.  “Actually, that’s an idea.”

“I don’t think it is.”

“Calm down, little fish, I don’t mean frying you for dinner.  I mean—fruit.  When we were in the marketplace, I saw Jotun fruit stands, I know it.”

“They are obsessed with fruit,” Loki said witheringly.  “It’s because it’s so hard for them to grow it, probably.  Heimdall looked for me when I asked and he said they have these enormous greenhouses and steam tunnels and solar runes on the roofs of caves.”  He had said they were impressive, technologically, and beautiful, but Heimdall always tried to say such things about Jotunheim.  Loki had settled on a peculiar twist of thought where he did not specifically think Heimdall was lying, since Heimdall would not lie to him, but where he thought that the truth was not necessarily the most important thing.

Thor also considered the botanical arrangements of Jotunheim not the most important thing, clearly, because he waved all this off with, “However they came by it, they had it and were selling it.  We could buy some.  ‘Oh, hello, how are you, I’ll have a bag of these and two of that,’ and then we lure them into conversation.”

“I’m sorry,” Loki said, “I don’t know that I quite have it.  Could you go through the part about how to buy fruit just one more time?”

“I liked you better as a fish,” Thor said.

But their strategy was decided, more or less.  Loki had one last stealthy look at his grammar and dictionary and then they headed out.

Naftali bounded after them like a rabbit.  “Where are you going?  You’re not scheduled for anything, are you?  Can I come with you?”

“No,” Loki snapped.  “It’s private.”

It was like he’d hit him.  “I’m sorry, Prince Loki.”

“That’s well-done, brother,” Thor said, glaring at him.  “Naftali, Loki is only in a mood.  It has nothing to do with you and he’s quite sorry.”

“I am,” Loki said.  He conjured up a piece of candy, thinking of Ivar—wait, did Ivar think him perpetually aggrieved, perpetually in need of consolation?—and offered it to Naftali, who took it with visible caution.  It was absurd to think of it this way, but… he did not want to be like Odin, so skilled at pulling back affection, too caught up in a scheme to mind what it broke.  “Truly, I promise you, it was ill-temper and nothing else.  I slept badly and I am angry with the people who put those Wishen-Bao markings on my face telling me they meant nothing and would just be… bold-looking.  Fashionable.”  There was really no entirely sound reason he would have let someone do this, so now he just sounded dim and gullible.  Lovely.  “Thor has promised to take me out alone because I don’t have to be polite to him.”

“And indeed, he never is,” Thor said.

“But,” Loki said, feeling he did not really need Thor’s support on this, “if you tell me something you’d like, I can bring it back for you.  Or a surprise.”

Naftali brightened.  “I don’t know that I want anything, but I like surprises.”

“Then you shall have a surprise.”

That at least got them free of the court.  Guards were offered and declined—“Really,” Loki said to Thor under his breath as they left, “do they think we can’t defend ourselves?”—and then it was just the two of them, side-by-side.

Thor said, “Do you really think the Vanir will give you Sleepy?”

“His name is not Sleepy, it is Sleipnir, and I hope so.”

“Father should have gotten you a horse already.”

“I don’t want Odin’s horse, I want my own.”

“Well, Heimdall should get you a horse, then.  You live in the country, you would have the grazing space for it.”

“I’m sure he intends to,” Loki said, feeling strangely defensive on this point.  It was one thing for him to tattle to his grandmamas on how Heimdall had still not gotten him a cat and it was another thing entirely for Thor to go around saying Heimdall should have done something he had not.  “He is just forgetful when it comes to animals.  Everyone has blind spots.”  He ran one fingertip in circles over the hilt of one of his Vanir daggers.  “Do you think they’ll tell us what we want to know?  What if they don’t?”

“I hope there is naught to tell.”

“That Laufey abandoned me and it was not even noteworthy?”

“Don’t twist what I say, Loki.  I hope it was not a kidnapping.  I—I believe it was not a kidnapping, I do.  I’m only saying that if it is a thing they do routinely, they might not think it historic—and, knowing it is not done elsewhere, might not want to tell it to strangers in any case.”

“If they do it routinely, they are barbaric.”

He could tell Thor wanted to go off on one of Heimdall’s well-considered discussions of barbarity being in the eye of the beholder, but evidently infanticide was a bridge too far for him, so he said only, “Well, you don’t go around leaving babies out to die, which means Jotuns don’t do it by nature, anyway.”

“I don’t have a baby to leave out to die.”

“If you had one, you still wouldn’t.”

“I might,” Loki said defensively.  “Babies are noisy.”

“Fine, I take it back.  You are moments away from snatching infants from cradles and scattering them about the countryside hither-thither.  It must be an unbearable compulsion for you.”

“Maybe it’s so unbearable that it started early and I tried to steal myself and that’s how Odin came to find me.”

“Mystery solved,” Thor said.  “You must feel very silly now, brother.”  And as they reached the top of the hill and saw the marketplace laid out below them, he reached over and took Loki’s hand with an odd matter-of-factness and no embarrassed flush in his face at all.  Loki wondered what it was like to have so little fear what someone would think; to know that you at least would go on thinking well of yourself.  “I will not let anyone steal you again, not even you.  Whatever happens, whatever we find out, swear you know that.”

“All right, I swear.”  He wrenched his hand away, embarrassed enough for the both of them.  They were too old to be swearing meaningless oaths.  What they found out could shape the future for them both.  He couldn’t bind Thor to a promise Thor had no business making.  “Let’s go down.  The sooner we do it, the sooner it’s done.”

He felt better for having the daggers on.  He could have pulled a number of more straightforward ones out of thin air if he had needed them, but the weight of each of these to either side of him was a strange comfort.  A step-by-step reminder that he could not be trapped here, however much it felt like the valley was closing in around him.

The Vanir marketplace was a marvel.  In another time, Loki would have been glad to stop at nearly every stall: he had funds enough to bring presents back home and he had had yet to choose them.  Here he was now, walking by treasures.  A mouth harp case, colored glass padded with silk, for Grandmama Hallsa; a lavish Vanaheim globe for Grandmama Freydis; a set of fine, soft gloves and slippers for Grandmama Brynn, whose hands and feet were always cold.  One of the paintings for Mother, maybe.  And something for Heimdall, of course, though he hadn’t even come close to deciding what.  Heimdall was a difficult person to surprise.  But here, he might have found the perfect gift, had he not been bound to keep walking, on through the crafts-folk, so uniformly Vanir (was Jotunheim’s culture too base to produce art?), and into the midst of the farmers and gardeners and orchard-keepers.

And here were the Jotuns of Vanaheim.

They were giants, yes… but up close, neither quite so large nor quite so fearsome as he had thought them from a distance and from the stories.  They were more than usually tall and their proportions matched their heights, but they were hardly of a size to pick an Aesir child up in one hand and crunch his head off with a single bite, which was an occurrence that had featured regularly in their nursery tales.  They mostly did not have hair, and Loki, who was vain of his hair, thought that far more notable.  But he supposed the Frost Bare-Skulls did not sound so very frightening, and the name must have been chosen to terrify.

It was hard to be afraid of people peddling fruit.  But these could well be the nicer Jotuns, the ones who went fruit-mad while the others all sucked up baby-blood.  No matter what Heimdall said.

“I thought they would be taller,” he said to Thor, keeping his voice low.

“You’ve seen them before,” Thor said.  “They’ve been in the court.”

“Yes, but not up close.”

“And further away, they would look even smaller—maybe you’re the one whose tutor has given up.”

Loki elbowed him but did not bother trying to explain what he meant.  He didn’t think he could.

Here he was.  He might as well brazen his way through it.  He gave himself no more time to think but walked right up to the first fruit-stall and said, in clumsy Jotung, “Please I want to buy fruit, that fruit.  Will you sell me that fruit?”  He added retroactively, “I am a sojourner here and seek to learn something about Jotun culture,” because he might as well say what he had learned best.

Thor intervened and, to Loki’s shock, intervened in Jotung, though his was even more lumpish than Loki’s.  “Please to fruit yes.  My brother.”  He smiled in a manner grown-ups tended to find winning.

The Jotun—man?  Loki could not be sure, but the garb was masculine in cut, though the frillier Vanir standards made it harder to tell—smiled back and, picking up one of the immense Vanir melons, produced a sudden dagger of ice from their own hand, halved the melon, and split it between Thor and Loki.

“For free,” the Jotun said.  “Because I can never hear my mother tongue enough.  But you may use the All-Speak, little princes, because otherwise our talk will be short.”

The ice-dagger was a useful trick, Loki had to admit.  And it had chilled the melon.  If you wanted to whip up a quick fruit plate, no doubt a Jotun chef would be an asset.  He took careful bites of the cool pink flesh of the melon, complimented the Jotun on its quality, and then, social niceties taken care of, said, “You know we’re princes.”  There went whatever hope they had of doing this slowly.

“I have been in the steward’s court.  Even if I had not, gossip would surely have told me.  Prince Thor, son of Odin.  Prince Loki.”  One long blue finger pointing at each of them.  “I am called Fridunn.”

A feminine name, at least on Asgard, but Jotung had no gendered pronouns at all, so Loki didn’t even know if they thought it signified.

“Well-met, Fridunn,” Loki said.  “My brother and I realized we know nothing of your people but our own stories and histories.  And my—my guardian says that those often lie.  He said I should meet you myself.”

“I am only an orchard-keeper and a merchant, little prince.  Ill-fit to be an ambassador.”

He would just as soon not be called “little prince” all this while, but he needed Fridunn’s good will too much to protest against it, and he did not think the woman intended any mockery by it.  “That you know Jotunheim is all I ask.”  He thrust a handful of money forward.  “Please, we will buy out your stall, give you whatever you would have made this afternoon, if you will talk to us.  I know you have no reason to.”

Fridunn tilted her head but took the money and swiftly counted it.  She closed up her stall within a minute and led Thor and Loki on a circuitous route to the forest that would, Loki thought morosely, end no doubt with them being murdered, stabbed with icicle fingers.  To ingratiate himself, he said, “You left your fruit.  Thieves will be at it when you could sell it twice-over.”

“I’ve been paid for it now,” Fridunn said.  “Let the birds and the poor have it as a hunger-offering.”

Thor raised his eyebrows at Loki.  See?  She’s nice.

I’m surprised she makes a living, Loki thought.

Fridunn’s home was like nothing else Loki had seen on Vanaheim.  He was stunned into silence.  In a world of the ephemeral, the Jotuns of this forest had half-created permanency, but in a manner that was still in accord with their host’s principles of nature and decay.  There was no gold here and no painted splendor.  They had shaped a home from the native stone, building along a cliffside, and they had polished that wall until it gleamed.  He had not really realized before that unpainted stone had patterns embedded in it like woodgrain.  He saw them now.  The ice, layered with its own blue and violet and crystal, gave them a wet shine like embossing.

He said, “It’s beautiful,” and there was something in his voice that was like an ache.  “It’s—it’s splendid.  How do you keep it from melting?”

“Someone always stays home to keep the hearth,” Fridunn said.  And she could not have said hearth, because that wouldn’t make any sense, but that was the closest the translation seemed to come.  “The Casket would have frozen it in place and made it so it would not melt for a whole year, but we do not have the Casket now.”

“Well, you were trying to take over Midgard,” Thor said tentatively.

For a second, Loki only thought that he had the most atrocious timing—why bring that up now?—but then he saw the look in Thor’s eyes and realized that it was only that Thor had not forgotten their true purpose here.  Sooner or later, they would have to get around to discussing the war and what the end of it had stolen away from Jotunheim, and now was as good a time as any.

But this ice-shaping was interesting.  The books always said Jotuns didn’t build, and he supposed that was technically true, because this was carving and magic, but… this was not scavenging.  It wasn’t as though they were living in the bones of a beast or in a cave.  And the magic involved was considerable.

Fridunn led them inside without refuting Thor’s charge.  She sat them down at a table made of stone.

“You don’t make your tables of ice as well?” Thor said, knocking at it.

“Things would be forever sliding off if they did,” Loki said.

The cups were made of ice, though, so they held them carefully.  Thor tugged his cloak more tightly around himself.  He said, “Why did you want to take over Midgard?”

“Since when has any Asgardian cared about the reasons of Jotunheim?”

“Since now,” Thor said, lifting his chin.  “I am not my father.”

“Nor your sister?”

Thor frowned.  “We have no sister.  You’re mistaken.”

“Perhaps,” Fridunn said.  “Once we heard that Odin had two sons, and now I see before me only one.  And the other, the one I would have taken for Odinson too, seems stripped of his name.”

“I am Loki Heimdallson,” Loki said evenly.  “My guardian is the Gatekeeper of Asgard, the Guardian of the Bifrost, the All-Seeing, he of the Nine Mothers.”

“He seems to have enough names for you both.”

“Yes, he’s entirely sufficient.  I am Thor’s brother, by my oath and heart, but Odin is not my father, and we have no sister.”

Though it occurred to him that he might.  People spoke of Laufey’s sons, but not of his daughters.  Did he have any?

At least they were only counting on Fridunn to know his history, not theirs.

“We come to you fresh as snow,” Thor said in awkward Jotung.  “We would hear what you have to say.”

Fridunn looked at them with her flat red eyes, the color of dried blood.  It was strange to think that somewhere else in this house was another Jotun, sending out frost enough to keep the walls upright and well-formed; strange to think that anything so savage-looking, with those saurian ridges of bone, could make something so lovely.  She said, “We were threatened with genocide, or near enough.  Not by Asgard—those days were done—but by another.  We found a hidden path to Midgard, one unknown to our enemy.  We thought to take it and make the place habitable to us.  We sought refuge, not conquest.”

“A refuge that might have wiped out the world you sought to claim,” Thor said.

Fridunn nodded, without so much as a flinch or a hesitation.  Loki felt a cold admiration for that.  “We did not know the Midgardians to mourn their passing, but they were rumored to be a hardy people, in the main.  Many of them would live.  But many would die.  Our own survival came first.”

“But you weren’t destroyed,” Loki said.  “The danger never came to you.”

“The danger never came because Odin All-Father came instead.  We were threatened with the loss of half our people and in war against Asgard, we lost a third.  Our king bargained with our enemy, who was at length persuaded we had suffered and bled enough for now.”  Fridunn made a gesture with her lips that was not quite a smile, not quite a frown.  “Of course, no such loss came to Asgard.  Who would bring war on the Realm Eternal?  And by then, we had no need of Midgard.  We did not need to run… and we had so many empty houses.”  She looked at Thor.  “Your father would not have known, for all that’s worth, little prince.  Laufey would not have told him.  We do not run for help, and still less would we run to the Aesir.  Odin was never named Jotunheim’s protector, for we would never have had him.  He did claim that role for Midgard.  He sealed the oath with our blood.”

“But that spent blood bought you safety,” Loki said.  “Your enemy relented—and with less suffering than he would have taken from you.”

“Yes.  If we must lose, by all means, it is more survivable to lose to Odin.  We have not been thankful.”  She drank.  “I trust to your honor, in telling you this, but of all that is said of Asgard, it is not said that they break promises.  And you did ask.”

“We will not say your name in my father’s hearing,” Thor said.  “You have my word on that.  I will swear by whatever you like.”

“Laufey bargained for Jotunheim,” Loki said.  His hands were not cold; the cup did not melt in his grip.  And he did not care for these little matters, not when he still had a secret to unearth.  “You said he claimed you had lost enough.  Had he losses of his own, to argue so persuasively?”

“Well,” Fridunn said reluctantly, “there was the child.”

Thor leaned forward.  “What child?  I have always heard Laufey had many sons, but had not heard any had fallen in battle.”

Fridunn shook her head.  “We don’t speak of it.”

No, no, no.  He wouldn’t have any of that.  “You have already spoken of it,” Loki said sharply.  “It’s no good stopping now.”  Thor touched his elbow, trying no doubt to rein him in, but Loki shook him off.  “There’s no story you can tell us that will be worse than what we’ve heard of you all our lives.  We’ve heard you eat infants and make their blood into soup.  Unless you turned Laufey’s child into porridge, it won’t be any more distasteful than that.”

“Gracious,” Fridunn said.  “No, I imagine not.”  She folded his hands together.  “Laufey had a newborn.  A weak child, a premature birth.  Thin-skinned still, thin-blooded, he would not bear the climate.  In another time, we could have kept him alive a little while, at least, but not in the midst of a war—not in the midst of a war we had no way of knowing was almost at its end.  To care for him would have kept the king from those he could save.”

“So Laufey left his son to die,” Thor said, his voice hard.  “How noble of him.”

“No.  He did not leave him to die.”

Loki felt his whole chest squeeze unbearably tight around his heart.  “What did he do, then?”

“He went to… put the child out of its misery.  To do it in the temple, so the babe would die in a sacred space and be borne out at once to the gardens far away.  But the gods took pity on our king and spared him the act, transforming the child into an ice-snake instead.  That is why we no longer eat them, why it is a crime to kill one.  Though I think it only rumor, truthfully, the fantasy of a king who had lost many of his people and was about to lose his son—”

Kill his son,” Thor said.

“Would you prefer him to have left the child to die slowly of the cold?”

Yes, he would have liked that, he thought, he would like that still: to feel less and less and then nothing at all, to be wrapped up in nothingness that would carry him away.  He felt each thought was a marble that rolled away as he tried to pick it up.  So he had not been loved and then stolen.  He had been half-loved, half-wanted.  He had not been worth keeping.  He had known that about himself already, but now he knew it was the legacy he had been born with.  Now he knew that was just who he was.

“Why not leave him to die of cold?” Loki said.  His voice did not shake; he could at least be proud of that.  “They say it is comfortable, I think.  One simply falls asleep.”

“Not Jotuns.  It is the embrace of winter turning against you.  They say it is agony—what it would be like for you sun-loving creatures to be burned alive.  All of Jotunheim would have heard the child’s cries as it neared its end, but Laufey would have spared him that, had the gods not done it for him.  Or had a madness not overtaken him, allowing him to do it quickly, without feeling the motion of his hands.”

Somehow Loki endured the rest of the visit.  If he could be thankful for anything, he would be thankful for Thor, who carried on a conversation with Fridunn in a voice that was hardly his own but was at least not noticeably stricken.  Thor asked questions: what were the seasons like on Jotunheim?  Had the Jotuns rebuilt from the war?  Could Fridunn please tell them more about the gardens?  There was no way of knowing what Fridunn thought of all this, of these two princes who appeared to intently quiz her about a murdered child to only then move on to the colors of Jotun sunrises.  Loki could not care what she thought about it.  He wanted to be rid of himself.  He did not want anything but that—to just be gone, and be no more forever.

As they stood to go, Thor thanking Fridunn politely, Loki summoned the last of his Jotung and said, “You have brought us ice in winter,” and he smiled, his lips stiff.

“Summer,” Fridunn corrected with a faint smile.  “To bring you ice in winter wouldn’t be a comfort, it would only be more of what you had already.”

“And who would want that?”  He felt bright and glittering, a hailstorm, a blizzard, something made up of a thousand sharp pieces.  “This has been so very informative.  Thank you.”

“We were glad for the opportunity to speak with you,” Thor said.  He held Loki’s hand now, disregarding how odd it might look to Fridunn, and he squeezed it tightly.  “I hope that we both live to see a friendship between our worlds, made by conversations like these.  And I know I’m going to pronounce it wrong, but—’a good meeting to end a long work trip, thank you.’”

Neither of them spoke until they were a half-mile from Fridunn’s home.  Then Loki broke away from Thor and sat on the ground, his back against a smooth-barked tree.  Thor knelt down before him.

“Loki…”

Loki could think of nothing to say.  He stared out past Thor and saw nothing, too.  Nothing and nothing and nothing.  He had done this to himself.  He could have gotten to know Fridunn and the fruit-sellers, which was all Heimdall had ever asked of him; he could have come home speaking of winter magic and houses carved of ice and stone.  Instead he had made his mischief.

“You turned into a snake as a newborn,” Thor said encouragingly, though his brow was furrowed with worry.  “I’ve never heard of anyone doing that ever.  You must have more seidr on hand than nearly anyone living.”

Loki unsheathed one of his daggers and laid it across his knees.  The blade had a low gleam to it in the mellow afternoon light, so serenely filtered through the leaves.  What color was Jotun blood?  He could ask Odin.  Odin would certainly know, since he’d spilled so much of it.  He drew his thumb across the edge.  Nothing but red, even when he looked closely.

“Don’t do that.  Please.  I beg you, brother.  It is not so bad as it could be—Laufey did not want you gone, he only—”

“Do not talk to me of Laufey.”  He couldn’t get his voice above a whisper.

“Father only tried to save you,” Thor said, but Loki could bear that even less.

He stood and almost fell.  He looked around wildly, as if someone—Heimdall—would come to help him, but there was no one.

What had Fridunn called it when she had left her wares for the birds and for the needy?  A hunger-offering.  Loki ought to have been a hunger-offering himself, ought to have stayed still for Laufey to snap his neck there in some Jotun temple, where his soul could fly to strange gods and strange gardens.  He could have made something happy once.  A mouthful of meat in the belly of a wolf.  He had blood running down his thumb, blood splattering the quiet, mossy forest floor.  He had cut himself more deeply than he’d realized.  He could do it more deeply still and put an end to things.

“Loki, please give me your daggers.”

“Why?  They were a gift.”

“Because—because I do not like how you’re looking at them.  And you’re bleeding.  Let me fix your hand.”

“I am well beyond fixing.”  But although he did not hand over the blade, he did sheathe it once more at his side.  The bloody thumbprint, would that forever stain the hilt, or could the leather grips be cleaned?  Volstagg would know.  Volstagg knew these things, because of the children.  Heimdall was forever asking him about laundry.  Blood must come clean out of leather or they wouldn’t make soldiers’ clothes from it as often as they did.

“Thin-skinned and thin-blooded,” Loki said, “but my blood looks the same as yours.  But I am not Jotun now, of course.  I wonder if it’s literal or figurative.  Figurative, I would think.”  He concentrated and did what he had not done since Gara had dared him to do it so long ago.  Jotuns aren’t animals, Thor had said then.  But they are nearly so, Loki had answered.  He saw sunlight differently with these eyes.

Thor was unflinching.  “If you wish to wear that shape, brother, I will walk back into the court with you, arm in arm.”

“Is this me?” Loki said.  “It feels different from another transformation.  Like I’ve turned myself inside-out.  But am I becoming what I would have been, or just becoming Jotun the way I would become a bear or a fish?”  He took out one of the daggers again.  He felt better with it in his hand.  “And does my blood run so thin?  Would I have died in agony in the cold, had Laufey and Odin not so kindly saved me?”

Thor took the dagger from him.  Loki did not fight him.  He had no fight in him now.  What was the point?

“If you wish to see blood, I’ll shed it for you,” Thor said.  “I would have died in the cold along with you, back then.  It is nothing against you that you would have died without shelter.  Everyone dies.  Do you need to gauge the thickness of my skin alongside yours?”

“No.  Please.”

Thor held the dagger tightly.  “I will not let you hurt yourself.”

“I need to not be,” Loki said, and then he swallowed.  The sentence seemed finished.  “I need that.  Thor, please.”  Why were they begging each other so?  They were not courteous with each other.  That was not what brothers were for.  “You don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t!  Laufey did not hate you!  Father did not steal you!  I know it hurts to hear what almost befell you, but—”

“He gave me up.”

Thor stilled.

“Laufey did not love me enough to keep me and did not even hate me enough for me to be well-rid of him, did not hate me enough to earn me hating him, no, I should be kind, I should understand, he wanted to spare me, just like your father would not see even an enemy’s child die of the cold but would not keep me either, would not love me, not like he loved you, no, no one has ever wanted me, they let me go to be a snake or someone else’s son and they don’t care, they don’t care.  They are not monsters, I am just not worth keeping.  I thought… just maybe he might have cared for me.  That there was some part of the tale where I would come home and they would have been looking for me.  But there wasn’t anybody.  I was nothing, I am nothing.  They just don’t eat ice-snakes.  And I get to come with you to Vanaheim.  I’m allowed to live.”

“You are my brother,” Thor said.  He was crying, and Loki had not seen him cry in so long, not since they were very little children, not since they were first parted and Thor had refused to let go of his hand until Odin had pried up his fingers one by one; then they had all been crying, even the All-Father.  “Loki, I care for you, I want you, I would look for you.”

“You shouldn’t say I’m your brother,” Loki said softly.  “You are the golden prince of Asgard.  You have nothing to do with me.  Look at your life and look at mine, look at where we have both come from, what has been intended for us.  We are not the same, Thor.  We never have been.  We’ve lived longer apart than we have together.”

“I don’t care.  I know you’re my brother.”

It hurt too much to hear.  He had kept Thor tied to him for so long, because he had not understood himself, had not known the gulf between them, but now he did—it was wrong to keep Thor bound to him this way.  Why should Thor be his brother?  Why should Thor want to be?  He should make Thor see that Thor owed him nothing—that Thor had no need to hold onto him when the rest of his family had all let go—but he couldn’t make himself say it.  Yes, he was thin-blooded, he was not strong.  He slumped wearily against Thor, his head against Thor’s shoulder, Thor’s arms tight around him.  He could neither argue nor bear it.  His hand was sticky with blood.

He wrenched himself away and, slipping into the shape of a rabbit, sprang off into the woods.

Chapter Text

It was dark when Heimdall found him.  The moons of Vanaheim were blue-silver and full and the stream Loki had found shimmered restlessly beneath that uncanny light, running like quicksilver; it was comforting somehow to be near water, even the wrong kind of water, water no calmer than him.  What predators there were left him alone—he smelled wrong, he knew, he smelled two-legged still.  Maybe he would be a rabbit forever.  People liked rabbits.

He could not stop his nose from twitching—it seemed to come with the form.  He caught scent of Heimdall before he ever saw him and he had not realized that he knew that sort of thing, had not realized he could tell by that alone.  Pie-crust and ozone and the sweet wild grass of Asgard.  He had been in the garden, had been by the pond, had that marshy soil still on his boots.  He was like home and Loki moved towards him without meaning to.  Heimdall smiled when he saw him, but it was a sad smile, like a crease, a worry line.  How did he know Loki in this shape?

Heimdall sat down, leaning back against a stargazing stone.  “Six rabbits,” he said, “if you want to know.  Six that I have spoken to politely, as though they were you, only to have them hop away in fear or defecate in front of me.  I did not know if I would know you when I saw you, so I talked to them all, but—I know you now beyond a doubt.  You don’t have to change back yet if you don’t want to.  Only come a little closer, if you would.  It’s hard to make you out in this light.”

Loki hopped closer.  He couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to.  He took care with his injured paw.

“Thank you.  It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?”

Heimdall was not supposed to have come.  He and Thor were supposed to handle all this on their own—but he had handled nothing.  And he didn’t know why Heimdall was bothering with him.

“I have always loved Vanaheim,” Heimdall said.  “Freydis took me here often when I was a boy.  But it’s the kind of place it’s hard to return to, because it has no fixed center.  The court was never the same from season to season.  I don’t know that I’ve ever set foot in these exact woods before now.  It makes Asgard seem small.  And I could never decide if I would rather have much to explore or if I would rather know where I was, where I was going.”

Loki would like to know.  He was not an adventurer.  You could never get up to anything interesting or clever or funny or if you didn’t know how everything was set in the ordinary way of things.  He twitched his nose at Heimdall.

Heimdall patted his leg and so Loki nestled up beside him.  It was a little chilly, he told himself defensively, and Heimdall was warm.  Heimdall petted his fur, which was a strange but not disagreeable sensation.

“You’ll have a nice life as a rabbit,” Heimdall said.  “I’ll build you a hutch.  Volstagg will come over and feed you from the garden.”

He did not understand Heimdall’s sense of humor, and still less did he understand the times in which Heimdall chose to use it.  He shivered back into his own body, Heimdall’s hand now on his back.

“Why are you here?” Loki said.

“Because I was worried for you.  It took me an hour to wring enough of a story out of Thor to even piece together why you were missing.”

Loki nodded.  He had not considered this.  “You looked for me and didn’t see me.”

“No doubt I would have soon enough, but no—when you had not returned to court by dinnertime, Huw called to me and asked me to find you.”

Huw told you?”

“Yes,” Heimdall said, sounding a little puzzled.  “He told Lady Steward Helga that you were ill and wished to stay in bed, so your absence wouldn’t be commented on unfavorably, and he fetched me here.  He didn’t know anything of where you had spent the day, so I had to have it out piece-by-piece from Thor, else I would have been here sooner.  I intend to have quite a talking-to to your brother about when to be loyal and when to ask for help.”

So Huw had covered for him with the Vanir and contacted Heimdall and not even, it seemed, to make sure Loki was dragged back from Vanaheim by his ear.  What fickle moods that man had.

“And Ivar sent you this,” Heimdall said, handing him a square of caramel.

Loki did not want to be so easily bribed, but he had missed lunch and dinner and not eaten anything even as a rabbit, and he was hungry, so he took it.  He said, “I never mattered,” and the sweetness of the caramel did nothing to ease the pain in his throat.  “Not even enough for anyone to be cruel.  They all meant the best for me, and they all let me go.  They had other sons, stronger, easier to love.  Everyone always rids themselves of me.  Even Mother.”

Heimdall said, “There is no one in the Nine Realms, or anywhere else, that matters more to me than you.”  His eyes were not darkened by the night; they were only as they always were.  “Loki, you are my son, the only one I have ever had or ever wanted.  I came by you strangely, but that does not mean I will let you go.”  He ran one fingertip along the braid Huw had put in Loki’s hair, still somehow in place throughout everything.  “I love you.”

Loki shook his head.  “You can’t.”

“I can.  Whatever you think, I find it very easy.”

“But they gave me up,” he said.  His voice broke.

“They did.  You have been through so many things I would have kept you from.  But you are so loved now, Loki, I swear that to you.  By me, by your grandmamas, by your brother, by your mother, by Ivar, by Volstagg, by Gara.  And I will never, ever, ever give you up.  You have no notion how much I miss you, how much it pains me to have my heart a world away.  You’re so young, and already I run into times I can’t protect you.  I do not call that fair, however often Volstagg says it is usual.”

Heimdall did not lie to him.  He knew that.

It was only that it would kill him to claim Heimdall and then lose him.  He trusted him so much that he could not trust him now.  He buried his face in Heimdall’s shoulder.  He was so tired of crying.

“I wish I were your son,” he whispered.  “I wish you were my father.”

He kept it so faint that Heimdall would not hear it.  He loved Heimdall, and did not want Heimdall to know that he could not afford to believe him.


Heimdall returned him to the Vanir court; at some distance from it, he stopped and put his hands on Loki’s shoulders.  The moonglow clung to him, blue and silver as jewelry.

“If you want to come home, I will have you there in a heartbeat,” Heimdall said.

He did want that, he wanted that more than anything, but he shook his head.  It wouldn’t do.  If he ran away, he was nothing but a failure, a child shirking what few responsibilities of princedom had fallen to him.  Vanaheim had been kind to him.  The court deserved more from him than his sudden disappearance in the night.  “No.  Thank you.”  He took a deep breath.  “I am sorry if I worried you.  Does… does the All-Father know you came here?”

“No,” Heimdall said at once.  “And I trust Ivar not to tell him.”

Loki hugged him, pressing his face hard against the slightly rough fabric of Heimdall’s tunic.  “It’s only another fortnight.  And I have done well, I think, until today.  I’ve tried to be… like you.”

“Oh, Loki.”  Heimdall held him tightly.  “I’m sure you’ve done very, very well.  And I think it was brave of you, and fair of you, to try to find out what Jotunheim thought of their missing prince.  I think you would have a place there, if you chose to go.”

“I don’t want to think about that now.”  But he knew what Heimdall meant.  Yes, there was an angle to it, beyond assassination, beyond plot, there was a legend about him and that alone would buy him some good-will; really, if he wanted to, he could probably convince Laufey he’d been off living as an ice-snake the whole time.  Odin would be pleased, he did not doubt that.  They would paint him on the ceiling: Odin’s hand on his shoulder, extending him to Laufey like a gift.  And Jotunheim would be beautiful to him, he knew that now.

But all he could feel inside himself at the prospect of any of this was a vast emptiness.

“The All-Father has a purpose for me,” Loki said.  “This… would live into that.  Would fulfill that.  What would your purpose for me be?”

Heimdall only shook his head.  “I have no purpose for you, Loki.  No plans.”

“You must.”

“Then you should have told me that earlier.  You’re the only child I’ve ever had, perhaps I missed something.  But I’ve only tried to teach you what I know—and a little of what I believe, I suppose.  To give you the points of a compass you could use to find your own way.  That is what my mothers did.”  He smiled.  “If I continue to use them as a model, to be sure, I’ll never leave off giving you advice, no matter your age.  And speaking of your grandmamas, I promised this to Freydis: hold up your wrist, please.”

“Oh, thank the Norns,” Loki said, forgetting all his other problems and putting his broken wrist up at once.  “The Vanir are nice people, but this nonsense about living with pain… I don’t want to live with pain.”

“I’m sure Thor doesn’t want to live with you in pain, either,” Heimdall said absently.  “It tends to put you in an appalling mood.”  He wrapped a healing band around Loki’s wrist and rubbed his thumb against it, turning it a salve-colored blue.  The ache eased at once.  Loki sighed and didn’t even protest the lie about his moods.  “There.  Don’t tell your gracious hosts.”

“I will not.”  Something occurred to him.  “Doesn’t Grandmama Freydis believe in conserving magic?”

“Grandmama Freydis is even more impatient with pain than you are.  For all she praises Vanaheim, you’ll notice she doesn’t live here.  Here, you must have hopped on something sharp, let me fix that cut for you as well.”

Loki looked across the darkness at the glowing lights of the Vanaheim court, hoping turning his face away would hide the brief flush of shame.  “I should go.  I’ll have to sneak in.”  That was something of a cure: he wasn’t above feeling some happiness at the prospect.  He hoped he wasn’t rusty—Heimdall had such an obvious and unfair advantage in terms of catching him out that Loki had not kept up his skills as he should have.  The thrill of mischief was a small consolation when held up against everything else, but it was consolation nonetheless.  “I am sorry if I worried you,” he said again.  “I’ll be fine.  Truly.  It’s not… it’s not like I didn’t already know.”  And he felt silly for having done what he had done earlier, with the daggers, which he did not even want to think of now.  Obviously Thor had not told Heimdall of it.  That was something  “I’ll be fine.”

“And you will call to me if you are not,” Heimdall said.  It was a command, Loki could tell, the same way that not burning down the cottage had been, ages ago.  Heimdall didn’t ask much from him, really, but he asked this.

Loki would have felt churlish not agreeing.  “Yes.  And I will call to you if I am not.”

Heimdall leaned down a little and kissed him on top of his head, which felt babyish but not unpleasant.  “I’ll watch the garden for you.”

“Remember to eat and sleep,” Loki said, because this was not unilateral responsibility, they had obligations toward one another.

“On my honor,” Heimdall said solemnly.  “Go on.  I’ll call the Bifrost down once you’re safely inside.”

That was just as well.  Loki did not want to actually see him go.

His talents had not deserted him: he did manage to creep back into the court unnoticed, silent-footed and alternately glamoured and veiled, until he made it to his quarters and shut the door behind him.  Heimdall must have been following his progress, because it was only then that he looked out his window and saw the silver sheen of the Bifrost come down.  Anyone less well-informed might mistake it for a trick of the light.

Thor came in, a whirling dervish, and shook him.

“I am happy to see you too, brother.”

“Do you have any idea how worried I was for you?” Thor said.  “You could have been snatched up by a hawk.  You could have been eaten by a wolf.”

“I think under those circumstances I would have simply transformed back.  That would have conquered the hawk, certainly.”

“It isn’t funny!”

“And you still have one of my daggers,” Loki said.

“Yes, and I’m sorry I left you with the other one.  Loki, why did you run from me?”

“I don’t know.”  Or at least he didn’t know enough to explain.  He had no intention of apologizing for it, though, because he had already told Heimdall he was sorry (twice, even) and he had a finite store of contrition.  He could not even bring himself to thank Thor for not telling Heimdall about him testing the thickness of his blood; he could not thank him for it without acknowledging that it had happened.

He should not have done that, he knew.  He just did things sometimes, harsh and sudden things, but he thought he had been better lately about keeping still.  At least he hadn’t stabbed Thor, that was something.  That would have made for a more irritating aftermath.

“I won’t do it again, though.  Probably,” he added.

“And that nonsense about you not being my brother.  Take it back.”

“I take it back.”

Thor sighed.  “Do you want to sleep in my room tonight?”

“No.”  Yes.  A little.  Heimdall might have calmed him, but he could still feel nightmares circling him like crows over carrion.  But he had hidden the little cat away in the same inter-dimensional pocket as his armor, and no one would know if he happened to take it out tonight.  “But I do want to sleep.  I’m filthy, but I think I’d only fall asleep in the bath and drown myself.”

“Then I’ll talk to you in the morning,” Thor said, managing, a little impressively, to make this sound like a threat.

Because this was what he wanted to talk more about.  He wanted to dwell at length, with his perfect brother, on how unwanted he had always been and how whatever love had come to him had always been tinged with pity.  That sounded like a wonderful conversation to have over breakfast.  But he assented to this, if vaguely, and dealt with Thor’s hug good night, which likewise felt like something of a threat, perhaps to choke the life out of him if he ran off again.

He had to tell Huw he had returned.  A note would do the trick, but he was too curious to leave it at that.  He had no idea why Huw had bothered involving himself with any of this, unless he’d had some complex intention of getting Loki subjected to one of Heimdall’s stern, disgustingly reasonable lectures, unless he had thought that maybe proving Loki truant would mean that anything Loki said about him later would seem like a petty try at revenge.  Probably that.  But then why not go the extra mile and lower him in the Vanir’s estimation?  It was possible, of course, that Huw was just bad at executing this sort of thing.  It was hard to know.

But seeing Huw himself would at least give him some idea, so he summoned him.

Huw arrived with Alarr’s own promptness, though the thin lips were his own.  “You’re back.”

“As you see.”

“You’re filthy.”

“I know that.”

Huw clicked his tongue, an expression of irritation that reminded Loki rather disconcertingly of Grandmama Brynn, and said, “Let me get you changed for bed.  These clothes will need to be laundered.  I can have a bath prepared—”

“All I want is to sleep.”

“Then in the morning I’ll have the sheets laundered as well.”  His voice implied that Loki had so much muck and dried sweat and foulness about him that it was doubtful any amount of soap would ever rescue the bedding, that the death of this fine linen would be on Loki’s head.  He maneuvered Loki out of his soiled clothes and into his nightshirt so swiftly that Loki didn’t even have time to explain that his wrist was healed now.  He undid Loki’s braid as well, and brushed out his hair.  Servants were lovely, Loki thought sleepily, even rude ones.  He could stand here doing nothing and things just happened.

In this state of mind, he gathered up the will to thank Huw for having told Lady Steward Helga that he was ill.  That had been helpful, and calling Heimdall for him had been something more than helpful, no matter why Huw had done it.  After a moment’s hesitation, he included thanks for that as well.

“I don’t intend to ask where you were,” Huw said, setting the brush down.  “And I doubt you’ll tell me.  But whatever happened was enough to make Prince Thor almost sick with worry—Alarr made his excuses for him, since he couldn’t eat dinner either—and so I thought it might be serious.  I knew the Gatekeeper could find you.  Let me wash your face at least, you look as though you’ve been…”  He stopped, but not soon enough that Loki could not complete the thought on his own.  He looked as though he’d been crying.

Huw washed his face with a soft cloth and warm water, oddly gentle.  And surely this was a level of involvement one did not normally have from a servant, though of course it had been a long time since he’d had much experience with them.

“The Gatekeeper,” Huw said, “didn’t seem aware I had ever been out of your service.”

That was a question, even if it didn’t sound like one.  “No, I didn’t tell him.”  He wasn’t going to go into why.  Let Huw think, if he liked, that Loki had held off only so Heimdall wouldn’t think dismissing Huw a tantrum on his part.  “But he healed my wrist.  So I will be less needy now.”

“You were not especially needy before,” Huw said, which from him was practically a plea for forgiveness and a declaration of undying loyalty.  “I assume, under the circumstances, that you’ll want breakfast in bed tomorrow.”

“Yes.  Thank you.”

Huw only nodded.  It wasn’t until he was at the door that he turned back and said, “Good night, Prince Loki.”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, he had scarcely any sleep at all and instead woke, dazed, to Huw attempting to shove him into one of the Vanir shirts.

“What are you doing?”  He strove to rub the sleep from his eyes.  “I thought you liked me a little more now.”  Which was certainly not something he would have said if he’d been properly awake.

Huw, thankfully, responded only to the first bit.  “Baroness Illmay has summoned you for a private breakfast.  Just you, mind, not you and Prince Thor, so pray remember that you were supposed to have been ill all yesterday.  I would say you should try to look peakish but you do, rather.”  He sniffed Loki: Loki understood the purpose of that but still found it an extraordinarily undignified thing to be subjected to and thought Huw could have done it a little more surreptitiously.  “I’ll find some scent for you.”

A quarter-hour later, Loki smelled like a pine tree and had his cheeks scrubbed to shining pinkness.

“Your, ah, glamour,” Huw said.  “It isn’t up.”

“Oh, right.”  He pulled it into place.  “There.  Why does Illmay want me?”

He attempted to ask it casually, but damn him if Huw did not very slightly smirk at the question.  So he had not hidden his little infatuation as well as he’d intended to.

“She didn’t say.  Perhaps to see if your health had improved.”

“Not from being yanked out of bed at five in the morning it hasn’t.”

“It’s half past six,” Huw said.  “She inquired about you in the small hours of the morning and this was certainly as late as I could let you sleep.  And if it matters, that Vanir servant boy who is always following you around asked after you twice yesterday.  Either I made your illness sound so dire it seemed you were at death’s door or he’s just impertinent.”

“It’s only that I promised him a present,” Loki said absently, before realizing he obviously had not come back with one.  “Ah.  Can you…”

“I’ll find something,” Huw said.  He seemed perilously close to rolling his eyes.

“Something nice that I didn’t obviously own already.”  He would not entirely put it past Huw to give Naftali a pair of his old boots and consider that the height of generosity.

“As you like.  There, you look passable.”

He decided Huw must be related to someone, maybe the nephew of someone on Odin’s own household staff.  It was the only way to explain how anyone that blunt and ill-tempered had his position—though probably he was more reticent with people who mattered more than the cast-off prince.  That was only natural.  It was, he decided, a survivable situation, so long as they both diplomatically accepted a certain amount of rudeness from each other.  It had a strange kind of honesty to it.

He knew where the baroness’s private parlor was, but he had never been inside.  He knocked and wished his hands would leave off sweating.  There should be some benefit to being made up of frost—maybe he could cool himself—

But Illmay opened the door before he could try.  “Prince Loki.  I’m delighted to see you well again.”

“I am delighted to be well enough to be in your company.”

“I thought a quiet, early breakfast might be the right thing for this morning,” Illmay said, and Loki was not so enamored of her that he could keep from silently noting that no one had asked him what he thought of an early breakfast, quiet or not.  “Light fare, nothing that will preclude you from joining the main table later if you like.”  Pears, he noted, pears and peaches and some of the melons that Fridunn had been selling.  And a very little bit of a toasted bread with thinly spread butter.  Yes, he would certainly be able to eat again.  He had not had dinner last night, had not even had a proper lunch…  He felt most put upon.

He heaped his plate and tried not to devour everything too messily.

“So you are feeling much better,” Illmay said.

Loki, having disappointed his own hopes, swallowed the half of a peach he had in his mouth and said, “Yes, my lady.  Thank you for your concern.”

She watched him closely with those rust-colored eyes.  “You are an inquisitive boy,” she said at last, “but the divine knows you are well-mannered.  You don’t ask as many questions as you might.  But if you were to be rude, if you were, for this morning, to merely be a boy and perhaps my friend, what would you ask me?”

Loki’s wariness overrode his hunger.  “I hope I am your friend, my lady.  But I try not to be rude to my friends, only to my family.”  That was something Volstagg said.  “Maybe you could tell me what you think I might be wondering, so I do not misstep or become too familiar.”

Illmay sighed and Loki saw suddenly and—to his regret—dispassionately that she must be rather lonely to need an intimate conversation with a boy when she ought to have friends of her own, when she certainly had a woman who was nearly a wife to her.  As if she had heard that thought, she said, “I think that you might wonder why I am Helga’s consort.”

“If anyone is to have a consort, my lady, I would not wonder at all at them choosing you.  But yes, since she does not seem to be sworn to anyone else… why does she not marry you?”

Illmay picked at the melon rind.  She said, “Because the steward of Vanaheim may consort with whom she pleases, Prince Loki, but that doesn’t mean she can wed a woman who is one-quarter Jotun.”

Loki froze.  Her eyes.  Of course, her eyes.  He had rhapsodized enough in his head about their rare and strange color; he might have guessed.  And what did it mean that he had thought her eyes lovely?  Why did he think Jotun things beautiful when they were not on Jotunheim itself?  “I did not know that about you, my lady.”

“It is not really spoken of,” Illmay said, with a trace of bitterness.  “Everyone is too open-minded to speak of it, naturally.  And they would know better than to talk of Jotunheim to Asgardians.”

So he had been right—they had been kept from the Jotuns deliberately, to maintain peace and civility at meal-times.  He might as well say something.  “My brother and I—we wish Asgard and Jotunheim to be friendly.”  That felt so mealy-mouthed, so tepid, so insufficient.  Odin wished the worlds to be friendly, too, but that didn’t mean he wanted Frost Giants using up his salt.  That didn’t mean he had wanted everyone to know he’d briefly brought one up.  That didn’t mean Thor would be allowed to marry a Jotun if he liked.  Maybe for politics, but not for love.

“You and your brother went to the market yesterday,” Illmay said.  “You spoke to a Jotun merchant named Fridunn.  One of their hearthmates is a distant cousin of mine, very fond of telling me what I miss by being far from the ice.  They let me know that they too knew the princes now.  Well-behaved for Aesir children, they said, but strange.  Quite interested in hearing about Laufey’s lost child, the one who vanished on the day of Odin’s conquest.  Jotuns aren’t good at judging Aesir ages.  They wouldn’t know how to estimate the year of your birth.”

He had failed.  Utterly and completely.  He had revealed himself, had revealed the All-Father’s hand, and now his choice would be taken away from him, he would have to go to Jotunheim.

Illmay said, “Your glamour is remarkable, I think.”

He made himself stay steady.  There was no point in denying it.  A rumor was as good as its confirmation.  “It isn’t a glamour, it’s a complete change in form.  I can… shift.”

She nodded.  “I suppose that makes the most sense.  What are your plans, Prince Loki?”

That she thought to ask at all gave him a sliver of hope: she did not take his intentions as being carved in stone.

“I have none, my lady.”

She did not seem to believe him on this any more than he had first believed Heimdall.  “But you are a prince.”

“Yes, but right now I have the best possible arrangement.  I get to have the title without the responsibility.”  That was less funny than he had meant it to be.  Was it true that that was what he looked for, to shirk duty?  He should be serious with her—this was maybe the only chance he would have to talk to someone as in-between worlds as he was.  “I am from Jotunheim, my lady, but I am not of Jotunheim.  I haven’t been there since the All-Father took me.  I hadn’t even spoken to anyone from that world until yesterday.  And Asgard is not a font of information about its enemies, even Heimdall admits he does not know that much about Jotuns, and Heimdall knows nearly everything.  I don’t even know… you said hearthmate, what is a hearthmate?”

To his surprise, this brought about a small but real smile.  “Jotuns do not live alone.  We are not made for it—we are larger than the Aesir, but more delicate in constitution.  The cold can kill us.  The heat can kill us.  So we have evolved to need each other very much.  Your hearthmates are the companions of your heart: they protect you, they give you solid ground, they give you structure, reassurance.  Helga is mine.  You can get by with only one, if… if they are generous with you and if you can learn to need only a little.  And of course sometimes you get hermits and oddities who have no one at all, but they are rare.  Generally to be separated from your hearth, to be kept apart always—that is the worst of punishments.”

Loki understood that, but a knot in his throat kept him from saying so.  He nodded.

Illmay went on.  “I should tell you I felt especially cruel snubbing that manservant of yours and I was very grateful to see you’d reinstated him—I know the Vanir and the Aesir are different, but I would never do that to a Jotun, would never leave them not knowing where they stood.  That sort of neglect is shameful, but I know here it is something of a required cruelty.”

She was happy to talk about this.  It was like she was an uncorked bottle of champagne now frothing up everywhere.  So he had been right—she was lonely.

“That’s why you liked my stories of my grandmamas,” he said.  “Their arrangement… it is Jotun-like, to have that crowded of a hearth?  But you three-quarters Vanir, doesn’t that overpower the rest?”

“I can’t answer for my blood,” Illmay said.  “Only for my soul.”

That clarified nothing.  Why would she think of herself as Jotun when she could just as easily—more easily, even—think of herself as Vanir?  He could not comprehend it.

So the Jotuns were pack animals, then.  No, he should not say that.  Pack… creatures?  A pack species.  They flocked.

But he did not need people.  He did not have hearthmates.  And he was wrenched about all the time, so he thought Illmay was being a tad extreme.  What harm had it done him?  Who did he rely upon now?  But he remembered, a long time ago, explaining to Heimdall why the butterflies he tricked up out of light died the moment he stopped thinking of them.  It made him wonder how the butterflies felt about that lack of independence.  Though of course if they could have had opinions on it they would have probably swarmed him out of revenge, so he was thankful they couldn’t feel.

“My soul is not Jotun,” he said.  “I answer for that.  I’m not Loki Laufeyson.  But… but I would hear more of Jotunheim if you would tell it to me, my lady.  I would like Thor to hear it too.”

“You trust him.”

“Yes.”  He wasn’t an idiot.  Thor could have cast him aside long ago; if he had not then, he never would.  “And can I trust you, my lady?  To tell no one of this, not even your hearthmate?”

“Vanaheim has always kept Asgard’s secrets,” Illmay said.  She held out her hand to him.  “And I have always kept Jotunheim’s.  Let us be allies and friends.”

Loki shook her hand.  It made him feel older to do it: he had come to Vanaheim for reasons that now seemed extraordinarily petty, as mild and childish as blunted training swords, but this was real.  He had made an alliance.  And to be Illmay’s friend was a more serious thing than to be all calf-eyed about her, which he knew was neither, as Lady Vigdis used to say, advisable nor appropriate.  He had done something worthwhile.

And if he had not been polite to Fridunn and reasonable on the subject of Jotuns, Illmay might never have confided in him.  Why should she?  She had not confided in Odin, certainly.  And she had not confided in Thor, either, though Thor was acceptably polite.  He had needed to be Jotun to be told that she was Jotun too.  Being Aesir alone would not have sufficed.


“Why did you learn Jotung?” Loki asked.  “I thought you were only taking Groot.”

It was not their last night on Vanaheim, but it was the last night in which they were at all free.  After this, there would be the ceremonial presentation of their portraits (Loki was excited for this; Thor maintained that he already knew what he looked like), the fireworks show, the ceremonial presentation of the lacy folding screens that had been made especially for them (Naftali had seen these but refused to tell them any details), the breakfast given in their honor, the luncheon given in their honor, the banquet given in their honor, and then the “parting in friendship.” The Vanir liked ceremony, which Loki thought very sensible of them.  What was the point of having a court at all if you didn’t do things with it?

But that didn’t mean he did not appreciate this pause.  The two of them on a hill overlooking a primrose-filled valley on one side and the woodland court on the other.  He thought he could make out the Jotun ice-house if he squinted.

Thor was endeavoring to whistle on a grass stem.  Loki had tried for five minutes to teach him before giving it up as hopeless.  There had to be some advantage to living in the country out amongst cows and things, and he rather liked having a skill Thor couldn’t quite master.  Thor blew again, his cheeks puffing out.

“Hopeless,” Loki said, sing-song.  Thor kicked him.

“I was learning Jotung because I thought it would be nice to learn the language spoken on my brother’s homeworld,” Thor said, “but since you’ve decided to be entirely horrible, I think I’ll forget it.”

“Something-something ice,” Loki said.  “Something-something fruit.  Unnecessarily complicated description of how you know someone.”

“And now it’s engraved on my brain.”  He tossed the bit of grass aside.  “I don’t know why anyone would want to whistle on a grass stem anyway.”

“I suppose Prince Thor of Asgard can buy a thousand golden whistles.  It must be comforting to be able to compensate so lavishly for not knowing what to do with things.”

“I will buy a million golden whistles and chuck them all at your head.”

“I’ll duck.”

“I’ll wait until you’re asleep.”

“Coward,” Loki said scornfully.  “Attacking a sleeping foe.  Do you suppose it’s because they have hearthmates?”

He truly did love his brother, and one of the reasons why was that Thor seldom fell behind him in conversation; somehow, Thor always knew exactly what he was talking about.  “All the words about how they know someone?  Probably.”  He rolled over onto his back and folded his hands behind his head, looking up at the sky.  “That’s Jotunheim,” he said, pointing, as if Loki didn’t know.  “Is it useful for you?  Having those words?”

His first impulse was to say no.  He was Jotun but he was not odd like they were, he did not need to be a square of Brynn’s quilt stitched up against other squares.  But some of the words were perfectly understandable concepts and you couldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“It is not inconvenient,” he said carefully, “to be able to easily indicate these things.  That there are people you like but do not know and people you know and need but do not like and people who are essential and people who are one or two degrees removed from you but essential to someone who is essential to you.  That last one takes an age to describe if you don’t use Jotung.”

“It’s like cartography but with people,” Thor said.  “Name someone and I’ll see if I can remember the Jotung word for what our relationship is.”

“I fail to see how this will be any fun whatsoever.  Fandral.”

“Friend.”

“Sif.”

“Friend.”

“I am already bored.  You’re friends with everyone.  Alarr.”

“Fr—all right, trusted and well-liked servant.”

“But not trusted and well-liked servant who can be given the keys to the wine cellar?”

“Show-off. I don’t have a wine cellar.”

“Odin does, I’m sure.  More than one.”  He found Asgard in the sky.  “Me.”

“You?  I would certainly not give you the keys to a wine cellar.”

“Ha,” Loki said flatly.

Warrun-ma-ki,” Thor said.  Brother—well, sibling—with the suffix for one who was a hearthmate and the suffix for one who was regrettably some distance away.

“I am not ki now,” Loki said.  “So it is just ‘brother who is a hearthmate.’”

“I wish you were not ever ki.”  He pulled up another grass steam but this time did not make any attempt to whistle on it but just held it.  “I’m going to miss you.  I have not had such a good time as this in years and years, not since you left.  It isn’t home without you.  Everything is cold and forced and no one is happy, it’s like Father sent you away and we kept your ghost.  I don’t even like being there.”

He had not ever thought that the palace would be different without him.  He had thought that they were happier, that they must be—perfect, golden, shining, Aesir.  But Thor made it sound as though someone had come along with thick black pitch and gone over his face in all the paintings, had come along to smash his chair to pieces at the table, had left gaping holes and dark spaces wherever he had once been, had made his absence a presence all its own.  He missed Thor and Mother—in the very bottom of his heart, where he could not seem to uproot it, he even missed Odin.  But he did not look around the cottage for them.  They had never belonged there, so they could not be missing from it.

The cottage was not empty.  Ingberg was not cold.

Loki felt a strange sort of pity.  So he had had more happiness than Thor, in a way.  He had lost everything and Thor had only lost him, but he had gained and Thor had not.  And Thor, who did not need Jotung words because everyone he met was simply and uncomplicatedly a friend—

Thor was lonelier than he was.

“You should come to the cottage more,” Loki said softly.  “Heimdall wouldn’t care.  He’d like it.”

“Father wouldn’t,” Thor said.  “But I could always neglect to tell him my plans.  You’re sure you wouldn’t mind?”

“Of course not.”  He hesitated, trying to decide if there were a less pathetic way to say what he was thinking.  There wasn’t.  “Only don’t make Heimdall like you more than me.  Or even just as much.”  Which he had never thought possible anyway.  He used to get told all the time that he and Thor were loved exactly the same, and look how that had turned out.

“My brother is so generous,” Thor said to the sky.  He did not sound entirely sincere, which Loki thought unfair.  “I will not take your mantle from you.  Have more faith in yourself, Loki, I can’t even whistle on a piece of grass.”

“You are pitiful in that way,” Loki agreed.

This all ended with Thor shoving a handful of grass down the back of Loki’s shirt and Loki agreeing that Thor could receive half of any gift sent to him by any of his grandmamas except Grandmama Brynn (Grandmama Hallsa was the one who sent the most sweets and also the one who sent him the most frequent packages, but Grandmama Brynn was Loki’s secret favorite and he would not be disloyal).  Then they ran down the hill and rolled around in the primroses, glad of the chance to be messy and unobserved and unroyal for once.  Loki went back to court with silky yellow petals all in his hair and Huw actually half-smiled at this before combing them out.

“Do you want to keep them?” Huw said, looking at them scattered all over the vanity.

He did not actually sound sarcastic, so Loki said, “What would I do with them?”

“You could press them in one of your books, if you wanted to dry them out.  I wouldn’t use any text you were very fond of, though, in case it stains the pages.  My sister used to do it.”

Loki could not remember any servant ever before mentioning anything about having family at all and was intrigued enough by this, if not by dried flower petals—even knowing what he would do with them, he still didn’t know why he might want to do anything with them—to sacrifice a somewhat boring saga to the cause.  He laid the petals out on a page and closed the book, squeezing the covers together.

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Mm,” Huw said noncommittally.  “Just leave the book like that a while, maybe with some other books on top it, and the petals will dry out.”

The purpose of all this remained elusive, but the purpose of Huw telling it gradually clarified as Huw cleared his throat a little and said, “I shouldn’t have been short with you that first day.  You were not wrong to send me off for it, and I was wrong to call you petulant.  You’re not really.”

This was an amusingly bad apology, but Loki had heard better-phrased ones he had cared less about getting.  He said, “I know it’s not what you wanted.  Serving me instead of Thor.  But you didn’t have to be cruel about it.  You’re lucky I broke my wrist, because I would have kept you away otherwise and Thor would have thrown a snit about you when he got back.  But he won’t now.  I asked him not to.”  He brushed a little smudge of flower-dust off the vanity.  “Because you braided my hair and you called Heimdall when I needed him.  Why did you do that?”

Huw looked almost embarrassed.  “I thought something might have happened to you.  Alarr said I should contact the All-Father but I thought, all things considered, you would prefer I speak to the Gatekeeper instead.”

“Very much so.”  So it had been a violation of protocol, of sorts, for Alarr to have advised against it.  Loki was a prince, and the only person you informed of a missing prince was a king or queen, but Huw had told his guardian, as though Loki were an ordinary boy who had maybe been lost in the woods.  So him being neither fish nor fowl, neither prince nor not-prince, had worked again in his favor.  And this was not a talk a servant would ordinarily have with a prince, either, it was more like talking to one of Gara’s older brothers, who thought Loki’s strangeness made him a little interesting but who thought he was, after all, still young and therefore slightly insignificant.  Gara’s brothers would have talked to him about their sisters.  Obviously.

As if to confirm this, Huw said, “In any case, it worked out,” and changed the subject at once to Loki’s clothes for the next few days and the challenge of fitting green and gold ribbons in his hair as the height of Vanir finery demanded.


Loki’s portrait omitted his tattoos.  He’d had them when he had first started sitting for it, so it must have been altered or hastily redone—but the good thing about the slapdash Vanir style was you really couldn’t tell either way.  His portrait could have been of a mossy landscape seen at night by a full moon; Thor’s could have been of a bloody battlefield at sunrise.  He was exaggerating a little, but not by much.  Maybe he would give it to Grandmama Freydis, she might like that sort of thing.

(“Well,” he said to Thor in one of their stolen moments of whispered privacy between banquets, “you said you already knew what you looked like.  Their art is… not repetitive, I suppose.”

“I think you actually resemble yours,” Thor said.)

The fireworks show lived up to their expectations.  Naftali thanked Loki six or seven times for the magical sound-only firecrackers he’d given him—when burned, they made sounds like sheep and cows and very out-of-tune harps and did not explode but only fell apart into a kind of goopy, glowing ephemera; Loki knew nothing of these but gathered they were what Huw had rustled up.  Not terrible, given Naftali’s delight, but Loki felt enough guilt at fobbing the child’s present off on Huw that he let himself be coaxed into briefly turning Naftali into a very excitable lizard.

“I was so low on the ground!” Naftali said.  “And I could taste the air!”  He flung his arms around Loki, completely heedless, and Loki, having no idea what to do with this sudden bundle of servant boy, patted him awkwardly on the back and waited for the moment to end.  “When you come back next time, will you turn me into a snake?”

Would there be a next time?  But he was smiling already; he did not even have to make himself try.  “A snake and a stag and a black-and-white bear.  No matter how much we get scolded for wasting magic.”

“There isn’t enough Naftali to make a bear,” Thor said.  “He isn’t taffy, brother, you can’t just stretch him out as you like.”

“I’m the one who explained that to you!  Fine, an unusually small bear.”

“I wish the two of you weren’t leaving,” Naftali said, looking as though he wanted to go ahead and get that promise about being made into a bear put into writing.  Smart boy.

“So do I,” Thor said, and this won him an armful of Naftali, too, but Loki had gotten hugged first, and so he was clearly the favorite and Thor could go spit.  Loki raised his eyebrows at him to indicate this, but Thor’s smile at him over Naftali’s head was innocent of rivalry and strangely sad.  So his streak of melancholy had not been a one-time thing, then, talked out on the hill and made to vanish.  He went on feeling that way.  Loki did not like knowing Thor was unhappy—well, most of him did not like it.

So he said, “It’s your turn for a trick, brother.  Make some lightning.”

Thor looked embarrassed.  “You know I can’t always.  Usually I have to have Mjolnir.  Or be angry.”

“I can help you there,” Loki said brightly.

“No,” Thor said.  “No, Loki, please.  Please don’t help me.”

“Everyone!” Loki said, pitching his voice to carry.  “People of Vanaheim!  My brother, Prince Thor of Asgard, is going to call down lightning from out of the sky to join your fireworks, as our peoples are joined together!”

Naftali giggled, his hand over his mouth.

“I hate you,” Thor said through a clenched-teeth grin, lifting his hand to wave a little to the now eagerly-awaiting Vanir court.  “I’m going to pour lemonade in your shoes while you’re sleeping.”

“What an oddly specific threat.  See, you look angry enough now.”

Thor did not deign to respond to this.  Instead, he closed his eyes, letting white light crackle a little around his fingers, and then he whispered something Loki couldn’t hear enough to understand: a brilliantly violet burst of lightning split the sky, looking like a crack in an overturned bowl.  The applause was hearty and immediate, and Thor relaxed into a smile, though he still kicked the back of Loki’s ankle the moment Loki gave him the chance.

The lacy folding screens were received with more gladness of heart than the portraits, for the Vanir puncheon art was something Loki genuinely did like.  And it was as if almost every detail of their stay had been somehow transfigured into this pattern of wood and air and light.  Baroness Illmay had even had a snowflake added to Loki’s, unobtrusive and undespised, no bigger than a fingernail.

Usually people who listened so closely were spies.  And he was sure Vanaheim had some about, but not ones, evidently, who were shy about revealing what they had learned, not ones who would act from start to finish as though an ally could not be trusted.

Loki knew he should not be naive.  Vanaheim was not free from intrigue or unhappiness.  Helga could not wed Illmay, the rules of society could be unforgiving, and what was said on the outskirts of the settlement could make its way to the high court in under a day; Illmay was keeping secrets.  But still this was a world that had been made differently from Asgard.  Their rules and customs and beliefs did not twine ivy-like around the stake of war.  They had stewards but not kings, fireworks but not laser cannons.  They looked more often to something beyond themselves and they did not view loss as dishonor but as something to be accounted for in stored-up magic and the acknowledgement of decay.  The whole structure of it was different.  The shape of their minds was different.

And now he knew that Jotunheim, too, must come with its own shape.  And there you had biology to contend with, too.  He was not Aesir, even if he were Asgardian.  He still did not think he liked that, still could not think of it without feeling as though some gravity shift had thrown him off-balance.  Laufey had tried to kill him.  Jotunheim chose each day to live under his murderous hand nevertheless.  He could not think much of that.

But at least the circumstances of his birth were no longer all he really knew.  Hearthmates, stone-and-ice houses that would last a year even in temperate climes if they were built with the long-vanished Casket of Ancient Winters, red eyes that were fine enough when he did not have to immediately think them monstrous.  A woman who would look Vanir and yet choose to call herself Jotun.  A need for people.  A need to know how they all fit together and where that left you.  Melons chilled because they were sliced with daggers made of ice—and those daggers made more or less as he had always made his own, as if the movement had been in him from the start.

“What do you think of?”

He looked over at Thor.  “The usual, more or less.  We have had a profitable trip.”  In time he would be able to trap the memory of his time sobbing in the forest, looking at the blood—thick or thin?—on his blue arm; he would be able to cordon it off in a bubble.  Irrelevant.  The important thing—he tested this idea out warily—the important thing was that Heimdall had come for him.  Heimdall had said he loved him.

And Thor was still his brother, and he knew now that he should try harder to be Thor’s.  Warrun-ma-ki.

The Vanir did indeed give him Sleipnir, a single immense gift to counterbalance the many smaller ones they had for Thor, whose needs were less obvious—a small black kitten (unfair, Loki’s own would have to be vastly superior), a set of paints whose colors could only be manufactured on Vanaheim, a beautiful hunting horn, firecrackers.  Naftali gave them honeycomb candy his parents had made and tried very hard to look as though none of this upset him.  Alarr spent a suspiciously long time saying farewell to a married couple who cried openly at him going.

There was nothing left to do.

He and Thor bowed low to Helga and Illmay.  Loki deferred the words to Thor; he felt unusually speechless.

“The divine knows your hospitality has been all we could have ever asked for,” Thor said.  “And we thank you for your patience, for we know we have sometimes required it.”

There was no way in the Nine Realms he was coming up with this on his own.  Mother must have scripted it for him.

“They have been good and gracious guests,” Helga said to her gathered people.  “And we are always honored to have visitors from Asgard, and always pleased to make new friends.”

Loki wished Illmay’s role—or lack thereof—would let her say something in all this, but so many eyes were on them.  She smiled at him, though.  And smiles, even on Vanaheim, could be direct.

Helga, with genuine warmth, said to her people, “Prince Thor and Prince Loki!” and a wave of applause broke across the crowd.  Mostly it was polite, Loki suspected, but—he thought that they had not embarrassed themselves, had not excessively inconvenienced their hosts.  They would not be missed, except perhaps by Naftali, but their absence would not be cause for celebration.  He was sure it wasn’t the worst diplomatic visit in Asgard’s history.

The Bifrost fell down around them like rain.

“Your glamour!” Thor yelled at Loki over the roar of their transport.  “Your face!”

Oh, Norns bless him.  He erased the glamour, restoring the sight of the unfortunate tattoos, and not a moment too soon, because his boots were on the floor of the Observatory in the next instant.

Mother swept him and Thor both into an embrace and Loki’s heart hurt with how much he loved her: he knew now why he sometimes tried to save himself from that, from the intensity of it, but he did not have that reserve in him now.  He kissed her cheek.  He was glad she was not crying, glad she was not flushed with shame or anything like.  He did not want to always make her feel guilty.  But now her eyes were clear and starry and she was laughing with delight at seeing them both, exclaiming over how much they had grown, which Thor said was impossible—

And Loki kissed her again but broke away then to see Heimdall, because he did not want Heimdall neglected.  Ivar was the one in the armor today, so Heimdall actually got to look like himself.  Loki hugged him hard.

“I missed you,” he said very quietly.  He hoped Heimdall would understand that—would know that Loki had missed him even though he had seen him not so long ago.

Heimdall said, “I missed you too, little panther,” and Loki really wished people would stop calling him little, he was quite grown, or nearly so, but aside from that, it was nice.  It was good to be home.  Good to clasp hands again with Ivar, who was grinning in an unguarded way that did not entirely fit the dignity of his position but that made Loki feel warm inside.

There was Odin, of course.  For better or worse, the All-Father was part of his home.  Not his hearth, not so close as that, but part of Asgard—just as Loki was.  And it was Odin who had made him so.

Loki bowed to him, though not so low as he might have, and said, “All-Father.  I hope Thor and I upheld your name, and I thank you for—”  The words soured in his mouth.  He was trying, but did trying have to be so hard?  He swallowed.  “I thank you for inviting me along on this visit.”

There.  Odin had not invited him along, so that was both a relatively polite thank you and a relatively clever twist of the knife; that was about as much of a peace offering Loki wanted to make at the moment.

Odin’s one eye was so old, he thought, and so strangely sad.  He said, “I trust you and your brother absolutely, Loki,” in a grave voice.  Loki did not miss the concession that had been given there.  He did not like the love and gratitude he felt at it, did not like that he would still lick crumbs from Odin’s hand.  But he would.  He did.

A hunger offering, Fridunn had called it, to leave the fruit for the birds, for the beggars.  A kindness.

It would be nice to know the difference between kindness and condescension, kindness and manipulation, but his heart did not much care; his heart went on feeling what it would.  At least he was only hungry, he thought, looking at Heimdall, at Mother, at Thor.  At Ivar and even at Huw.  He was not starving or alone.  He had a place.

Chapter Text

PART FOUR

 

No one had come right out and said that Grandmama Hallsa was dying, but Heimdall had not raised Loki to miss such things.  She had been gaunt and gray all the time Loki had known her, but lately she had been gaunter and grayer still, and now she looked like some heavy-handed sculptor had come along and molded her down until there was nothing left of her but bones.  When the grandmamas had sent a missive for Heimdall and Loki to please come visit as soon as they could, Loki knew.  Hallsa had asked for them, son and grandson both.  It was time.

“She might live,” Gara said tentatively.

They’d found a little cave, up where the glaciers had been years and years ago, before their meltwater had made the pond: they had taken to using it for private conversations, though Gara remained skeptical that Loki, in Heimdall’s care, could ever have such things at all.  It was a tiny place that required them to sit knee to knee.  That made it awkward to have any strong feelings.  Loki looked away from her; pretended to study the striations in the dark rock of the cave wall.

“She won’t.”  He didn’t want to go through it all—how even if she got better now she wouldn’t keep getting better, she wouldn’t stay that way.

Gara was too practical to keep vain hopes, even for someone else’s sake; she nodded.  “I lost my grandmother when I was little.  Mother’s mother.  Before you ever came to live here.  She sewed my baby dresses for me—she put lace on everything—and she was the first one to give me a play-sword.  She designed ships, but she never flew them.  She said she liked making things but then got bored with using them.”  She knocked the toes of her boots against his.  “And half of that’s from stories Mama tells, because I was too young to remember.  And I wasn’t paying attention.  At least you’ll have your own stories about Hallsa.”

He didn’t want to say what he was thinking—that some small part of him was thankful it wasn’t Brynn.  Heart of ice.

“Excuse me,” Gara said, “that was perfectly good comforting.  You’re supposed to be soothed.”

He smiled.  “I’m soothed.  You’ve fixed all my problems.”

“Not likely.”

She bumped his feet again.  He stepped on her toes.  She kicked him.  Scrapping was difficult in such close quarters and Loki was half-sure that Gara only initiated it because it tended to wind up embarrassing him in one way or another.

“Is that going to happen to you every time?” she said now, looking down with imperious boredom at the front of his trousers.  The effect was slightly spoiled by the hint of a smirk, but that didn’t mean Loki was fond of it.

“Only if you go around rolling on top of me.  It isn’t personal.  And drawing attention to it is… immodest.”  He endeavored to shift into a position that would make his problem less obvious.  “I know you have an entire army of brothers who have gradually sapped you of finer feelings, but you don’t have to be crude.  Excuse you, Lady Volstaggsdottir, I’m a prince and I deserve to be treated with respect.”

“I was wondering,” Gara said, and the whole tone of her voice had changed, grown softer.  “Are you really going to go claim a kingdom one day?”

Panic tensed him, but there was no real way to run, not packed in as tightly as they were.  And she was, though he hated to admit it, better than him at close hand-to-hand combat: she could keep him pinned in the cave if she wanted to.  Not that she would want to, why should she want to?  Gara wasn’t an enemy.  He looked through the cave wall, on and on and on, through the hazy walls of the palace; he let the miles upon miles of Asgard blur into a quilt beneath him.  He only came back to her when he was calmer.

She’d gotten used to his little dips in and out and was just sitting there waiting for an answer, her hands on her knees, her square face serious.

“Did I tell you,” Loki said, “that I don’t even need a raindrop or anything to scry into anymore?  I can just look.”

“You’ve told me one thousand times.”

That was unnecessary.  “No,” he said, keeping his voice as even as hers.  “I don’t think that I will.  I can’t just uproot Asgard from my heart and that life is… closed.”  Jotunheim believed Loki Laufeyson dead—well, dead or eternally roving around as an ice-snake, which was ridiculous.  Let him stay that way.  He didn’t want to go enmesh himself in Laufey’s grief and rage and confusion.  He didn’t want to be Odin’s catspaw.  “Why?”

“Apart from the fact that it’s this giant thing that you never, ever talk about and you’re supposed to be my best friend?”

“Apart from that, obviously.”

“Apart from that,” Gara said, “I was hoping that if you did, you’d take me with you as a shieldmaiden.”

Oh.  He had genuinely not thought about that—that she might look upon him sitting a throne as an opportunity.  “You’d leave Asgard?  Really?”

“Not to go just anywhere.  But if you were going to be king… if you’d let me carry a sword, I’d swear it to you.  I would be your Valkyrie.”  She looked away.  “I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

“Swear yourself to Thor,” Loki said.

She blushed, which was irritating.  He didn’t have any special feelings for her that way, but he still thought the least she could have done was have a crush on him rather than Thor.  “I hardly know him.”

“I don’t think that’s a requirement.”

“I’ll think about it.”

That was something better than a crush, he supposed, if she would follow him all the way to another planet but shied away from committing too soon to joining Thor’s retinue.  Of course, she didn’t know where she would have been going—but then again, she hadn’t asked.  She had never asked once, in all their years of growing up side-by-side.  He scrutinized her: familiar Gara, gray-eyed and broad-shouldered and only an inch shorter than him even now that he’d gotten all his height.  Her hands scarred from daggers and hot stoves.  She would probably make a good Valkyrie or captain of Thor’s guard; he supposed she would probably even make Thor a good wife, though he shouldn’t marry her, because it would mean saddling himself with a disgusting number of brothers-in-law.  Either way, not being her lover, not being her king, Loki could do nothing but be her friend.  And he had only one thing to offer her, then.

He said, abruptly, “Do you want to know where I’m from?”

“Of course I do.”

“You never asked.”

“You wouldn’t have said,” Gara pointed out.  “And when we were little, Mama said it would be such a discourtesy to get onto you about it that she’d have to have me thrown in the dungeons for a hundred years, and then you were just… Loki.”  She laced her hands together and cracked her knuckles, which she only did when she was fidgety.  “I think—I think if it were something you didn’t mind, you would have told me a long time ago.  You don’t ever have to tell me if you don’t want to, now that you’re not going to be useful for my career.”

“What a beautiful moment you just smashed to flinders,” Loki said.  Before he could think better of it, before he could talk himself out of what an awful idea it was to say it now when he was pinned in with her face, when he would have to see the way she looked at him change, he said, “I’m the prince of Jotunheim.”

“But you don’t—”  It was like seeing a stone skip across the surface of a pond—a brief disruption, but nothing more than a skidding across the surface, the sheer consequence of impact.  She nodded.  “Because you’re a shapeshifter.  You can be—both Aesir and Jotun, because you can change your shape.”  Then she covered her mouth, finally looking appalled.  “Shit, I asked you to do it once.  Like it was a party trick.  I’m sorry, Loki, what an ass I was.”

He felt almost incandescent with gratitude, like he’d been hollowed out so light and nothing else could shine through him, that she would even think of that, that she wouldn’t mind it besides that.  “You weren’t.  I didn’t even know then, anyway, so who cares?  You truly don’t… you don’t think I’m a monster?”

“No!”  She came up upon her knees, her thighs now against his shins, holding his shoulders and looking at him more intently than he could like—they were all so earnest, Volstagg’s lot, they were all like Thor, and Gara was only more cunning until she got hot under the collar, whereupon her blood ran true.  “You are my best friend.  I would tear anyone limb from limb for suggesting such a thing.”

Because you are not remembering your father thinks I am, Loki thought, but that was the only faint cloud across the moment: he actually snatched at it to shield himself from how overwhelming the rest of it was.  She was the first person he had told who had not already known.

“All right,” he said, uncomfortable with the level of gratitude he was feeling.  “Get off me.  Heimdall’s calling me.”  He wasn’t, but Loki could get away with that because Heimdall’s calls to him, when they came, were most usually silent.  Gara nevertheless gave him a look that said she knew perfectly well that he was lying.

But she did slide back, clambering out of the cave and giving him a hand up.  “When the time comes, tell Heimdall we grieve with you, and will sing his mother home to Valhalla.”

There was a lump in his throat.  He had almost forgotten Hallsa, and what did that say about him?  Bad enough to be a little glad in his heart that Brynn was still safe, worse to have gotten so distracted by himself that he’d let his grandmama slip his mind.  He nodded, bowing his head to her for a moment, an old childhood gesture he would have thought he’d forgotten long ago, one too formal for the country.  Gara didn’t react to it, though, and that disconcerted him.  Maybe he always went around trailing his old self behind him like a peacock’s tail.  Old manners, old arrogance.

He took off, beating a quick path back home, and caught Heimdall still packing and surprised to see him.  “I wasn’t looking for you.”

“I told Gara I’m Jotun.”

Heimdall raised his eyebrows and then said, “Good for you.”

“You don’t want to know how she reacted?”

“I think I know her well enough to guess and you well enough to tell if you’ve just had your heart crushed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear about it while I finish up here.”  But he hesitated and then said, in a slightly stiffer voice, “You should put in something formal to wear, if you haven’t.”

For the funeral.  “I have,” Loki said quietly.

Heimdall smiled.  “Of course you have.”  He palmed the side of Loki’s head briefly, which Loki thought he was too old for but allowed nonetheless because no one was around.  “I shouldn’t have doubted you’d think of it.  Now distract me, Loki, if you would, and tell me about your talk with Gara.”

So Loki did, leaving out certain details—the cock-stand, obviously, was not something he wanted to discuss, and it wouldn’t distract Heimdall from his pain and worry to tell him about anything they’d said of Hallsa—but keeping in Gara’s dream of becoming a shieldmaiden.  At the last moment, he left out her little blush at Thor’s name, deciding it would be ignoble to mention it.

“She didn’t think me a monster.”

“You are nothing like a monster,” Heimdall said.  “You have enough rage when you’re worked up, but alas, too few teeth.”


Hallsa was sleeping when they arrived and the mood of the house was forcibly jovial, as if some dentist wrenching up teeth had accidentally caused the patient’s mouth to stretch into something like a smile.   Pastries were pushed upon them and Loki was taken to his room as though he did not know the way.

He had, yes, been planning to ask Brynn to procure another Jotun text for him, but he found he did not have to: she had stocked the little bookshelf in his room with a library of them.  They were children’s books for the most part—“Easier sentence structure for a beginner,” Brynn said—but without a common theme.  There were illustrated histories, books of folklore, sagas, and a cookbook.

“Wherever did you get all of them?  I looked a little on Vanaheim and their shops had some, but not like this—”

“I went to Jotunheim,” Brynn said calmly, as though people often did that.  As though you would go to the market to buy a bundle of carrots and then incidentally swing by Jotunheim.  “Close your mouth, Loki, you’ll catch flies.”

“But you can’t have.”  He looked around for Heimdall’s support and was irritated to not find him.  “Heimdall!  Grandmama Brynn has lost her mind!”  He remembered at only the last moment to pitch even this call low, to not wake Hallsa, to not disturb the pretense of it all.  He knew well enough how to pretend that things were fine.

Brynn was still unruffled.  “I’ve done no such thing.  It’s not a thriving hub for tourism, I’ll admit, but it’s not inaccessible.  You wear a heavy cloak and gloves and put up with a few stares and that’s all there is to it.  You were bound to want more, we reasoned, and the local pickings are slim.”

“What’s all this?” Heimdall said, coming in and shaking water from his hair, a wet towel still in his hand.

“I could have gotten a data-file,” Loki said, content to ignore Heimdall now that he actually had him in sight.  The knowledge that he’d been in the bath had excused his absence; Loki could be gracious.

“This makes for a better present.  Now you have more furnishings in here, too—I’ve often thought this room was a little bare.  Heimdall, you are dripping on my floor.”

“Grandmama Brynn,” Loki said—it surely did not count as tattling if the person you were telling on was so much older—“went, by all accounts on her own, to Jotunheim, and bought me books.”  He pointed at the shelf.

“That seems reasonable enough.”  Heimdall leaned over and kissed Grandmama Brynn’s cheek.  “Thank you, Mother.”  He slung the towel over his shoulder and began inspecting the books without even waiting for Loki’s permission—he did not seem to be trying to read them, because so far as Loki knew he couldn’t, but was only examining the paper and the matte-textured bindings, all a uniform blue-green.  “Do they import the paper?  I don’t think the trees I’ve seen there would account for a print industry.”

“You and Freydis,” Brynn said, rolling her eyes, “one can see the Vanir streak in you, always going right to the nature of things.  She has ascertained that the pages are native Jotun cloth stiffened and substantiated with vat-grown cellulose.”

“Have you looked at these yet, Loki?”

Loki could not help feeling this encounter had gotten away from him somewhat; it had become somehow churlish for him to still be put-out about Grandmama Brynn risking herself on Jotunheim.  “No,” he said sulkily, “because someone charged in and started hogging them before I could so much as open one.”

Heimdall was unmoved by this accusation.  “I wouldn’t be in here at all if you hadn’t started shouting.”  He held out a thin volume.  “Can you read a little for me?  I’ve never heard you speak it.”

He could refuse, he knew—but Heimdall pressed him so seldom.  And he did not want to seem ungrateful to Brynn.  He took the book reluctantly, hoping that it would not be something complex enough for his mangling to do it even greater harm than usual.  When he got a look at one of the pages, he almost smiled.  Wish granted, then.  It was not an unbearable thing to read aloud.

Heimdall listened with his eyes closed, consciously, Loki knew, pushing past the influence of the All-Speak to hear the Jotung itself.  “Thank you,” he said when Loki was done.  “It has a pretty sound.  What did it mean?”

“You really don’t know?  You truly weren’t letting yourself understand as I read it?”  Heimdall shook his head and Loki supposed he must believe that; Heimdall had a strange sense of humor but not this strange.  Loki did a rough translation of the text—such as it was—and recited it: “‘My parent gave me a red ball.  I like playing with my red ball.  I am so happy my parent gave me a red ball and not a blue ball, because red is my favorite color, but I will paint half of my red ball blue so that I can share it with my sibling, because their favorite color is blue.’  Riveting.  It’s a book for teaching children how to read.  And who paints half of a ball?  Do you think that’s a cultural difference or do you think the book just isn’t very good?  Anyway, blue is an idiotic favorite color if you live on Jotunheim, it’s just ridiculous to have your favorite color be a flesh tone.”

“I had no idea you were this opinionated about favorite colors,” Heimdall said.

“I am this opinionated about everything,” Loki said.  He meant it as a joke, but he didn’t think they both needed to find it as funny as they did.

He was nevertheless coaxed into reading the rest of the book aloud.  The narrator and their sibling managed to bounce their ball up the snout of some kind of mammoth and ran away, but their parents and hearthmates were able to find the ball in the snow later and identify it as theirs because of the blue and red coloring.  This at least resolved his question about the cultural difference: he was now certain that it was just that the book was not very good.  No matter what happened on Jotunheim, he was sure there could not be so many mammoth-snot covered balls lying around in snow that the color of one deserved to be a crucial plot point.

“It’s strange, though,” Brynn said.  “When you translate it yourself, you don’t translate it the way I hear it when I let the All-Speak write it over in my head.  Not consistently.”

He knew what she meant and was proud of himself for having worked it out, putting it together from a few things Illmay had said.  “It’s because they don’t gender anything.  The way the All-Speak converts it, you hear a lot about brothers and sons and fathers and kings because Asgard defaults to the masculine.  Also, I added in that bit about the cat and the spinning wheel just to try to make it more interesting.”

“Show-off,” Heimdall said, smiling.  “You’ll have to teach me a little sometime, if you’re up for that.”

He thought he could be.  It would not be an awful way to spend an evening.  He shrugged and changed the subject, which wasn’t hard: none of them, he thought, cared very much what they talked about as long as they were not talking about the fact that Grandmama Hallsa was so sick.  He talked of his correspondence with Illmay and Naftali; Naftali had been taken into Lady Steward Helga’s own service and she had made, by all accounts, something of a favorite of him.  He was, in Loki’s opinion, in danger of being spoiled rotten, except he could not seem to rot: there was no cure for his sunny temper.

Loki did not understand that, personally.  He was holding too tightly to his book.

Heimdall must have seen something in his eyes, because he put his hand on Loki’s shoulder.  “Come on.  Walk down to the pond with me.”

They were not yet there when Loki said, “She could get better,” and he hated the wobbly edge in his voice, a sword being waved around at nothing in particular.

“She could.”

“But she won’t.”

“No,” Heimdall said, exhaling: it was late autumn on this part of Ingberg and his breath made a fine frost in the air.  “Probably not.  I should have told you back on Asgard, but I knew you knew, and i thought—I thought if I saw her face-to-face, I might see some spark I’d missed from farther away.  And I didn’t want to make you start grieving for nothing… if she were only just ill.  I’m sorry.”  But his voice was distant, not like usual, and Loki almost wished he’d said nothing, that he had let Heimdall stay a little longer in the pretense that none of it was happening.  He had made Heimdall admit it.

“She’s your mother,” Loki said, which to him seemed more real than saying he forgave Heimdall for wanting to tuck away the truth.  He would have told almost any lie for his mother.  It wasn’t different with Heimdall just because he had more of them—it wasn’t easier just because he had already lost six.  Six.  Loki had never really thought about the number before.  He rubbed Heimdall’s arm, not knowing what to do.  He said, “You don’t have to do anything about me.  I won’t make a scene about the books or anything.”

Heimdall raised his eyebrows and somehow that let a tear spill out.  Loki couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen him cry before.  “Because you hate to repeat yourself?”

“That’s not fair.  I’m trying to be nice.”

“Yes, you are.”  He ruffled Loki’s hair.  “You are more than nice.  I’m glad to have you with me, Loki.”

All the other times, he realized, Heimdall had been alone—he’d had his mothers, but they’d had their own grief.  Not that Loki wouldn’t have his share too, but… it wasn’t the same.  He could look after Heimdall.  He wanted to.

Chapter Text

Hallsa woke around dusk.

Loki still did not know what she was dying of.  “It’s her time,” was all Heimdall had said, and of course Loki understood that even Aesir died of old age—it still saw you into Valhalla, life itself was battle enough for that, and Hallsa was no coward, to cry off from the shadow at the last moment—but he did not understand how it happened, how she could have slipped day by day, with no real cause but the days themselves, to this, when the last time he’d seen her she’d had flour in the creases of her hands from making bread and she had told him a bawdy joke that she’d promised him would outdo even what he heard from Gara’s brothers.  It had not been her time then.  Why now?

If you died run through with cold steel, shot through with fire, at least you would know what killed you.

But Hallsa did not seem bothered by it.  She had not cluttered her bed with relics and potions.  She had one of Brynn’s quilts—their wedding quilt, Loki realized, they had told him that once—laid across her and she had her mouth harp beside her in the case he had bought for her on Vanaheim.  He had not heard her play the last time he had visited and now he could see that she did not have the breath for it.  He should have asked sooner.  The chance was gone.

“Look at all of you crowded around,” Hallsa said, her voice still drowsy.  Fond.  “If I don’t die now, it’s going to be so awkward for you.”

“We’d bear it,” Brynn said.

“I know, darling.  I know you would.  But I don’t think it will come to that—I think it will be easy.  A boat going out—you’ll send me across the lake, won’t you?  I would like that—Brynn, will you kiss me?  Freydis?  Thank you.  I remember the first time I kissed you both—Norns, how much prettier we all were then.  Heimdall?”

He took her hand.  “I’m here, Mother.”

“We could never have done better than you,” Hallsa said.  “My beautiful son, who sees all the galaxies set awhirl, all the lynchpins and all the turns, and who still cares for the small alongside the grand.”

“Right now my gaze is only here,” Heimdall said.  He leaned down and pressed his lips gently to her temple.  “And I had the best teachers when it came to my cares.”

She shooed that away—it was nothing more than a twitch of her fingers, but it was a familiar enough gesture that Loki recognized it.  Hallsa always disclaimed herself.  “And where is my grandson?”

Loki swallowed.  “I’m here, Grandmama.”  He stepped a little closer to the bed and made himself take her other hand; Heimdall nodded at him.  Her skin was crepey and thin, her veins soft and palpable.  She was a little cool, as if some system somewhere had already started shutting down.

“I am so thankful you came to us.”  Her voice was nothing more than a whisper now.  “It was one of the happiest days of my life when you first called me your grandmama.”

“You are my grandmama.”  He squeezed her hand tightly.  Surely he could not hurt her now, surely nothing could.  “I love you.”  He had said the words so seldom—often in the very earliest days of his boyhood and then almost never since then—and now he wished he had not held them back.  He had signed his letters to her that way, at least.  It didn’t seem like enough.

“I love you all,” Hallsa said.  Her breath had quickened.  She spoke with more pauses, but with the individual words rushed, as if she were fighting to get out what talk remained.  Her eyes had shifted to cornflower-blue now, as she burned the last of her magic for this moment with them.  “I was never a warrior, mind.  This was always what I hoped a good death would be—with you all around—only I did not think it would come so late.  I’ve been so lucky.  So lucky in love…  Heimdall?  It’s coming now.  Where do I look?”

“Anywhere should do,” Heimdall said, his voice thick.  “You know where you’re going, Mother.  Out across the lake, on and on, with our love to swell the sails and stir the water…”  He exhaled.  “She is gone.”

Freydis sank her hands into Hallsa’s long unbound hair and let out a keening sound that made Loki’s blood run cold.  Vanir grief—he had heard of such things but he had never seen it.  They accepted death, but that did not mean they greeted it quietly.  She was sobbing, her chest shaking, and it was only when Brynn gathered her in her arms that she stilled.  Brynn stroked her back.

“Oh, my honey,” Brynn said, “I know, I know.”

Heimdall was part-Vanir, but he did not grow loud in his mourning.  Loki would not have known he was there if he had not been hyper-alert to him—across the width of the bed, he saw clearly the tears on Heimdall’s face.  His eyes had grown dimmer than Loki had ever seen them.  They could have passed for a strange kind of hazel.

Loki went around to him and hugged him.  He didn’t know what to say.  Loki Silvertongue, speechless.  Perhaps the Vanir had it right, perhaps they should howl.  But Hallsa had had the death she wanted, if there had to be death at all.  He did not try to say that or anything else.

He could not fathom what he would have done or felt if it had been Mother in that bed.  And he knew even less what it would have done to him to have it be Heimdall.  He could not disentangle himself; he was bound to Heimdall more tightly than a panicked cat, more fiercely than the survivor of a shipwreck.  He needed to hold on, to feel the solidity of him even as he knew it was fragile.  Passing.

And if Loki lost him, would he even see him again in Valhalla?  Was he Asgardian enough for their hall of the dead?  Surely Heimdall would petition to have him let in—surely.  And Hallsa and Brynn and the grandmamas he had never met would surely not do without Freydis, merely because she was Vanir.  The Realms Beyond must be spacious and free.

“We’ll bathe her,” Freydis said.  She wiped her hands under her eyes.  “Heimdall, Loki, there’s no need for you to help—Hallsa was particular about her dignity.  We can send her off tonight.”

Loki could not stifle his surprise.  “Tonight?”  But that had been in his books on the Vanir, too: they dealt with their dead quickly.  “Yes.  Tonight.  That’s better.”

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Freydis said distantly.  “It’ll all be all right.”

“Come, Loki,” Heimdall said, shepherding him out the door.

Loki remembered his duty and went: he took Heimdall to the edge of the lake and sat him down on the slate ledge that served as something of a dock.  He had had his first lessons in farsightedness on this shore; he had woken up early on his visits, many mornings, to come out to this ledge and sit there staring at—and beyond—the water.  He stretched out his hand now and brought up a vision of water lilies on the surface.  They were the Ingberg breed, delicately yellow.  Grandmama Hallsa’s favorite.

“They’re lovely,” Heimdall said.  “She would like that.”

“I should have done it for her.”

“You are doing it for her now.”

“Gara said that all her family would grieve with you.  With us.”  He wanted to do something to make the moment better, but there was nothing to be done—time and time alone would get them from one minute to the next.  “I am so sorry, Heimdall.”

“Were it not for you, I might not have seen her except right before the end.”  Heimdall leaned forward, prodding one fingertip through the insubstantial petals of a lily.  “I went so long without visiting them—nothing in my life had changed for centuries, so I had no news, no reason, I thought, to pay a call here, when I had my duty and surely all was well and as it had ever been.  And then I had a son.  And loving you woke me to the truth that they would want to see me again.  If each and every one of your days followed the same course sunrise to sunset, I would still find you quite worth my attention, you know.”   He tapped the back of his hand against Loki’s arm.  “And once I had shown you to them, I would have been accused of every cruelty under every sun if I kept you away too long.  You gave me so much more time with her than I would ever have had otherwise.”

That was something, at least.  He said, in as withering a tone as he could manage so that he might make light of it, “So I was a topic of conversation as noteworthy as, say, a new coat of paint in the Observatory.  Excellent fodder for talk.  I’m pleased to have been of service to you.”

“You were, and are, a brat.”  Heimdall looked down at the water.  Loki vanished the lilies so he would have a clearer view of it.  “She taught me to swim.”

“I’ve never seen you swim.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”

“No, only that you might be horribly incompetent and trying to hide it.  I can swim.”

“You can turn into a fish,” Heimdall said.  “I took it for granted that you could swim.  I’m half-tempted to push you in, but—”  He stopped suddenly, as if he had run out of words.  After some time, he went on, but in an entirely different direction.  “I meant to do better for you than this.”

“Better for me than what?”

“Unless I miss the mark, this is the first death you’ve seen.”

Yes, Loki thought, but I have had greater grief than this, if Grandmama Hallsa will forgive me.  I have enough life now to know that it has not ended because the light has gone out.  He could not say that.  If it would be indecorous for Heimdall to fling him into the lake, it would be still worse for Loki to come over all truthful when truth was probably the last thing wanted at a death-bed.  Yet he was honest enough: “You don’t have to take care of me or make jokes because you think I’ll like them.  We don’t even have to talk.  Don’t worry for me, Heimdall.”

He imagined what it would have been like—Hallsa, young, and Heimdall, younger still.  Younger than him.  Hallsa teaching him to curve his hands to better cut through the water.

Odin had taught Loki how to swim in one of the palace pools.  He still remembered that day—how badly he had wanted to learn this lesson more quickly than Thor had and how nervous it had made him.  Odin had not scolded him for his fidgeting.  He’d been patience itself even when Loki had gotten water all up his nose and had come up choking and splashing wildly, drenching everything in sight.

He must have loved me then.  Why did he stop?

Did it matter?  He had stopped.  Why dwell on it, when no amount of reflection could make any difference?  There was no way for even the most piercing kind of farsightedness to take him inside Odin’s heart: it was the best he could do to know his own.  He thought for a while about how noble and tragic that sounded and he fancied that he made a very poignant picture, sitting side-by-side with Heimdall, gazing out at the water.  A good and loyal son—if you did not look too closely or know too much.

Heimdall had taken him at his word—they went several minutes without a sound passing between them.  Then Heimdall said, “How do they mourn on Jotunheim, do you know?”

He did, actually, because Illmay had written to him of a funeral she had been to.  They burned their dead—somehow they did not crumple on their own into light but had to have help—but first they pushed them out onto the ice in some quiet and sacred space.  He said all this to Heimdall, leaving out only its source.  “But we can’t do that for Grandmama Hallsa, obviously, because she wasn’t Jotun and we don’t have a sledge or ice and I don’t want—I don’t want them to burn her body.”

“No, nor do I.  But I would like it—and I think she would like it—if you would cast an illusion of ice for us, just for a moment.”

“Why?”

Heimdall sighed, and Loki immediately regretted balking: it was as he’d thought before, Heimdall asked him for too little for him to quarrel about it.  Though he was starting to think that was a deliberate, irritatingly clever trick, though Heimdall was being careless to call in that overall indebtedness twice in a day.  He liked thinking these things, though, because it gave his mind some ice of its own, letting his thoughts skate along.  He did not have to think about Grandmama Hallsa or Odin or his own coldness or anything else.

Illmay would have grieved harder than this, and she wouldn’t have thought it was the Vanir part of her that let her.  So this was something that was wrong with him, uniquely wrong with him, that he sized up what losses he could bear.

He crouched down and touched the water, sending out this new illusion across the surface.  The lilies now seemed to be frosted, suspended on the blue-white ice like flowers made of marzipan.  If this were Jotunheim, they would push her out from this ledge, probably.  This lake would qualify as a sacred space—Grandmama Hallsa had been fond of it, had waded out in it even when the others had all thought the water too cold.  She would like the ice as much as the lilies, Heimdall was right, she—

Loki surprised himself by making an ugly, inelegant choking sound, a sudden outburst of tears.  He’d thought he was fine.  “I’m sorry!”

“Why are you sorry?” Heimdall said gently, putting an arm around his shoulders.  “She loved you.  You have every right to mourn her.”

“I wanted to look after you.”

“You do,” Heimdall said.  “Shh.  Look, the birds are trying to work out where the ice has come from.  The fish are spared a while.”

“She died well,” Loki said, his voice still a little strangled.  “Didn’t she?  Does that matter for women—for people who aren’t warriors?”

“It mattered for her.  For everyone, I think.  It’s how I would want to go.”

“Don’t say that.”  He wrapped his arms around himself.  “I don’t want to—I don’t want you to—”  Why was he shaking?  It wasn’t cold, however believable the ice was, however much he almost trusted he could put a foot against it.  If they pushed their dead out on a sledge, burning, the ice would melt.  Illmay hadn’t said that, but suddenly Loki understood it.  The cold would thaw.  Mourning would warm the frost of grief; let you crack and break.  That was… good.  That was good.

And he was useless, he thought bitterly, to just be crying and shivery when Heimdall needed him.  He wiped his eyes.  “Don’t die,” he said, with pained straightforwardness.  “You aren’t allowed.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Heimdall said.  “Loki, as much as I feel old around you, I’m not in my last years.”

That was true, probably.  Intellectually, he knew that, and even more, he knew it was unbearably childish to whine about his parents dying when he was too old to be shocked or appalled by it.  He was always years behind; he was never where he was supposed to be, was never doing or feeling what he should.

“I am glad I knew her,” he said.  “I’m glad I got to love her.  And that we were here.”  He plucked a stray thread off Heimdall’s tunic.  He could do that much.

And, he thought but did not say, I want to go to Jotunheim.  Soon, perhaps.  Though he hardly knew what had persuaded him.  He edged his toe out over the ice after all, but it really was nothing but water: his foot sank straight through.


Thor came for the funeral, held two days after the actual dissolution of Hallsa’s body on the lake: more Vanir customs.  He did not come in full cloak and armor as a prince of Asgard but in plainly funereal blacks and reds, one of the many mourners and without distinction.  Loki’s brother, no one else.  He came with their mother, and it took Loki too long to understand that Frigga was there in her own right and for her own reasons.  She bore his misconception with a pallid smile, but he saw the hurt he’d left on her, like a bruise on her cheek from a blow, and he was sorry for it.

He loved her more than he knew how to say, but he could not seem to rid himself of the assumption that he was not—was never—her priority.

Distracted though he must have been, Heimdall saw the glassy fragility between them, and pulled Loki aside for a moment.  Grief had put bags under his eyes.  Grief, it seemed, was unimpressed with Loki’s caretaking; he had thought he was doing everything right, but nothing was better.

“Do not fight with her,” Heimdall said.

That was unfair.  “I’m not,” he said, stung.

And Mother never fought anyway—she was like the All-Father that way, so was it so wrong of him to forget that she was not like him in all ways?  They were both above such things, at least with him.  Mother handled him with kid gloves, never forgetting that she had wounded him, never relaxing in his company, never doing anything but bearing his anger with cool regret until he wanted to scream.  And Odin—Odin simply kept a gulf between the two of them that made such things impossible.  Heimdall had told him once that Odin could not forgive himself for what he had done.  Loki felt it disturbingly convenient that that guilt seemed to mean Odin was obliged to keep as far away from his mistakes as possible.

“I’m not fighting with her,” Loki went on, “I just thought she was here to keep Thor company, not to pay her own respects and certainly not to pay them on my behalf, and—”

“I cannot do all this with you now,” Heimdall said, and though his voice was even, Loki thought he was truly angry, which was more unfair still.  “I cannot hear a long story.  I’m only asking you, Loki, to please behave with a little compassion.  She is the only mother you have.”

Loki thought of a thousand unkind answers to this but swallowed them down.  It was vile to suffer through such a talking-to when he had done absolutely nothing wrong, but he looked again at the exhaustion stamped on Heimdall’s face and went on holding his tongue.  It wasn’t like there was no reason for Heimdall to suddenly become unreasonable on the subject of mothers.  It wasn’t like Heimdall could understand his own position—nine mothers, nine, to always adore him, nine mothers for one son—and—and, well, if he went on in that direction any longer he would say something after all.  He nodded and vanished as soon as he could; too angry to look beyond, he went into his bedroom and screamed into a pillow, stopping only when Thor interrupted him.

There was no rule of compassion and polite behavior that said he had to be nice to Thor.  “What.”

“I’m sorry for your loss?  And you’re getting spit all over my pillow.”

“Find another place to sleep, then.  Or don’t stay the night.”  He regretted the words the instant they were out of his mouth: he wanted Thor to stay.  The house felt empty and immense of late, haunted by Hallsa’s absence when to be haunted by her spirit would have been preferable.  Everyone simply drifted around.  He hadn’t realized exactly how much Hallsa did—how bare the cupboards were without her, how parched the air was of music.

Luckily, though irritatingly, Thor simply ignored this.

“What’s upset you?”

“Can you think of nothing?”

“I can think of a lot of things, but none that would seem to make you howl like a wounded beast.”

“Heimdall scolded me for being unkind to Mother.”

Were you being unkind to Mother?”

“No,” Loki said through his teeth.  “I was not.  He was being wildly unfair—just because he regrets not having spent more time with one of his mothers does not give him the right—and it’s an entirely different situation.  Grandmama Hallsa would never have—I don’t want to talk about it.”  He ran a comb through his hair and looked with dissatisfaction at the result.  “He says he’s glad to have me around and then he goes and—”  He slammed the comb down on the chest of drawers and felt it snap in his hand.  He had not lost control like this in a long time, and if it had been anyone other than Thor, he knew how he would have looked.  The slavering monster Frost Giant.

He insisted on his right to this house.  He had a place in it.  He would not be shoved off to the side—

Whoever tried to do that? a calm voice inquired of him.  Succor your rage all you like, but Heimdall said nothing to disown you.  Try to see things clearly.

Not all injuries were the same old injury.  He could be complex: his spite and temper could be persuaded to hold numerous grievances.  That thought at least put a wan smile on his face.

It was just barely possible that Heimdall’s shortness with him was not such a thing as he had been making it.  It had been wrong—he would die defending that notion—but it shouldn’t have been enough to provoke him to do what he’d just done and the fact that it had worried him a little in a cold way he did not like.

It’s just as well I don’t want to rule.  I’d do it badly.

Not that thinking that didn’t make him want to do it more than he ever had before.

He settled the broken comb down flat, the two pieces of it neatly aligned.  You could almost think that nothing had happened to it.

“Can’t you mend it?” Thor said.  He seemed to care not at all how it had been broken, seemed completely undisturbed by Loki’s fit of temper, and Loki loved him for it.

“Not anymore.”  Once he could have, though weakly, because it would have been an extrapolation of illusion-magic to persuade the comb to look and act whole at least for a time, but the years and the direction of his practice had worked an alchemy inside him: he was not the boy he had been.  His skills were different.  Maybe, he thought, growing up was about shedding the lives you would not lead until there was only your true future left.  He couldn’t decide whether that was comforting or distressing and so he asked Thor his opinion of it.

“It’s neither, it’s just wrong.  That’s not what life is.”

“Of course, I come to you for all my philosophy.”

“You asked.  Don’t sulk just because you don’t like the answer.  It’s not my fault you have these single revelations and then spin whole theories of the universe off of them.  There’s always more future.  Maybe you lose the chance for some things, but it’s just ridiculous to say you come down to only one thing.  At any moment a tree could fall on you or you could kill someone or invent a new kind of magic.”

“At any moment I could I sock you in the jaw,” Loki suggested.  “That feels inevitable.”

“You could try, brother.”  Thor’s smile was sunny, bright as buttercups.

He knew, Loki suspected, that the clothes Loki wore now were the only suitable ones he’d brought with him, and the Bifrost, familiar though it was, was not to be treated so lightly as to zap him home again in time to change before the ceremony.  And he would not go to Grandmama Hallsa’s funeral sticky head-to-toe with a glamour to hide torn clothes and bloodstains.  He glowered and Thor only smiled more widely in response.

“Other people have better brothers,” Loki said.  “Gara has better brothers.”

“It must be difficult for you.”

“It is,” Loki said.

When it came time to stand at the shore and send out the raft filled entirely with Grandmama Hallsa’s favorite flowers—all expensively procured from Ingberg’s greenhouses, he would guess, for they were all wildly out of season, and who had managed that, who had had the head for it?  Grandmama Brynn?  Heimdall himself?—Loki found himself awkwardly placed between Heimdall and Mother, with Thor out of sight to Mother’s left.  He had expected there to be some transformation in all this, but instead there was only the ache of standing still for so long and the eyestrain of watching the raft burn out on the water.  Mother’s face was bone-dry and Loki, whose own tears had been unpredictable at best, understood a little that it was hardly a queen’s duty and hardly anyone’s joy to attend the off-world funeral of a low-ranked woman she had never even met, a woman dead not through any special tragedy but only through the ordinary workings of time.  She would not have come for Hallsa and might not have come for Heimdall; Thor’s grief was secondhand and faint and had not required her support.  No, she truly had come for him.  He believed that now.

He took her hand in his and briefly leaned his head against her shoulder.  Her lips met his hair, soft as a butterfly’s landing, and she squeezed his hand as they watched the smoke roll out over the lake.

Was that enough?  It would have to be: this wasn’t the time for anything else.  He reoriented himself so he was nearer Heimdall, whom he had abruptly forgiven without realizing it.  Heimdall put one arm around him.

Freydis sang an old Vanir ballad, soft and strangely-wrought, each individual note long and separated from its fellows.  Brynn was weeping so much her face seemed half-eroded by tears, its rockiness softened away to nothingness, and Loki had never expected that; he went around Heimdall to her and she wrapped her arms around him and held him like he was the last piece of jetsam to stop her from drowning.  One more note and then still one more.  His head was aching.

Yet he didn’t want it to be over, he discovered only as it was ending, because now that it was over, they were in a life where Grandmama Hallsa would figure less and less, a life that would gradually be built up without her.  One more future gone.  Still some left.

Chapter Text

PART FIVE

 

Loki was fidgety and ill-at-ease—rubbing his thumb and forefinger in little circles on his napkin until the fabric began to pill, drinking more wine than was his custom when it was just the two of them.  (Heimdall had few illusions about what Loki got up to with Thor and Gara, but there was an unspoken agreement in their household that he would not mention these little bouts of youthful debauchery so long as Loki kept them quiet and harmless—or harmless to everything but his own head the next morning, anyway.)  But now Heimdall watched his son softening at the edges as he helped himself to glass after glass of the sour yellow wine.  He was welcome to it, certainly.  It was a disappointing vintage.

“You have something on your mind,” Heimdall said.  “Would you tell me?”

“Yes.”  Loki drained his glass, eyed the bottle again, and then pushed back a little from the table.  “I intended to, you know.”

“I know.  I wouldn’t say I persuaded you with lengthy argument.”

Loki smiled: of all the sights in the universe, that was still Heimdall’s favorite, still the one he would choose as his last glimpse of life this side of Valhalla’s gates.  “No, I think I’ll have to persuade you, if anything.  I—Illmay wrote to me with an invitation to visit her family.”

There had to be more coming.  He had sent Loki off for several stays on Vanaheim, sometimes in Thor’s company and sometimes alone.  He had even slowly broken himself of the habit of waiting through each day of those absences with the feeling that the air around him was about to break like glass; he no longer half-held his breath waiting for another summons that would tell him Loki was lost.  He’d wear the terror of that evening like a scar across his chest his whole life, no doubt, but the years had at least let the wound close.  Loki wouldn’t have been nervous about asking.

“Her family on Jotunheim,” Loki said.

On Jotunheim.

So that was why the consort of the steward of Vanaheim had taken such an interest in the fledgling prince of nowhere—Heimdall, like all parents, liked to think it was clear to one and all that his child was exceptional, but even he would have had to concede that it was unusual for a baroness to keep lengthy correspondence with a mere boy, however bright and personable.  But if she were Jotun—at least in part—that explained it.

“Did you know?” Heimdall said, and then shook the question off.  “No, naturally you knew.  You had all these facts on Jotunheim and I suppose you had to come by them somehow—I thought you had scryed there, but you had details your eyes alone wouldn’t have given you.  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“She kept what she knew about me a secret.”  There was a little flush on Loki’s cheeks.  “I botched things a little for her to have even found out about me, I’m sorry, but she never told anyone.  We would have known by now if she had.”

That was no answer.  But that Loki clearly thought it was told him the rest: Loki had worried Heimdall would think that Loki had acquitted himself poorly on Vanaheim, that he had spilled the only secret he had been obligated to keep.  He could not seem to make the ground solid enough for Loki to trust it.

“It doesn’t sound like you botched anything,” Heimdall said, keeping his voice even.  “It sounds as though you made a friend—an impressive one for any age, let alone the boy you were.”

Loki straightened a little in his chair.  “Yes, I am impressive, aren’t I?”

“Though you’re most noted for your humility.”

“Humility is for people who lack talent,” Loki said.  “And you, I suppose.  Maybe your eyes do all the bragging for you.  I wish—”  He cleared his throat and looked away for a moment.  “Well.  It’s an invitation.  She would have me there under whatever guise I’d like.  Jotuns can’t tell Vanir from Aesir, she could just say I’m a friend from her own court.  You could come too, of course.  I… would like it if you would.  I know that’s childish and you have your work and—”

“I would be honored to keep you company on such a trip,” Heimdall said.  “I would trust Ivar with the Bifrost and a good deal else.”

“He’ll be your successor, probably,” Loki said, with a trace of bitterness in his voice.  “Won’t he?”

He thinks the same of you, Heimdall almost said, but at the last moment he held his tongue.  He could not box Loki into following his path—he could give it as one choice out of a thousand, that was all.  “He doesn’t see very far on his own.  The Bifrost aids him, and he’s attentive and apt, but no, I don’t think so.  True Gatekeepers are rare, of course, and someone of Ivar’s talents has held the title before, but I don’t think he’d be content to permanently hold a post he can’t master.  Besides, I’m sure Thor will appoint him high up in the palace guard when the time comes.”

Loki took all this in but let the subject lie.  They had this conversation every few years.  “It would only be a week’s visit.  A week on Jotunheim, I mean—that’s, what, eight days here?”

“More or less.  That’s not much time.”

“We’re going to be staying in someone’s house,” Loki said.  “We can hardly invite ourselves over indefinitely.  I suppose we could find other accommodations, but that doesn’t go well with the cover story.”

“I only mean it won’t give you very long to acquaint yourself with the world.  I’m sure we could find some pretext to extend the stay if you wished it.”

“I might wish to shorten it.  I have no idea.”  He met Heimdall’s eyes with sudden willfulness.  “I won’t meet Laufey,” he said, as though Heimdall had insisted upon it or even suggested it.  “I bear him no ill-will—I bear him only a reasonable amount of ill-will—but he went to the temple to kill me and so far as I am concerned, his claim to me died then and there.  I’m sure he’d rather think his son a happy ice-snake off on the tundra than Odin’s pawn anyway.”

“You’re under no obligation to seek him out, certainly.”  And he couldn’t deny that it pleased him to hear Loki decisively reject the possibility.  He would have aided Loki if that were what Loki wanted, but he didn’t think he was obligated to mourn the fact that it was not.

“I wonder if she’ll bring Naftali.  I should ask.”

“Loki,” Heimdall said quietly.

“Mm?”

“I cannot take you to Jotunheim without informing the All-Father.”

Loki pressed his lips together until they made a straight bloodless line.  “No, I suppose you can’t.  Norns forbid anything escape Odin’s attention.”

Once, long ago, Heimdall had been called Odin’s other eye, as though all the sights he saw made up the wisdom Odin had gained when he had made that famous gouge in his own face.  No one had called him so of late.  He wondered if Loki could ever understand that—that the world he had lived in for so long was a world that had been disrupted, split apart, ruptured by Odin’s certainty that all this grief was for the best.  It would have been so easy, he thought, for it to have been otherwise.  Yet if he could undo all the years, he would not mend his friendship with the king, restore the queen’s son to her arms, reunite the royal family.  He would choose this path, even with all its pains, every time.  He could not believe it was not right for Loki to have become his.  He wished Loki had no cause to hate Odin, but he was glad Loki had no cause to call him father.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it,” Loki said irritably.  “I know you have to tell him.  I wouldn’t want to be dragged back to Asgard in chains and humiliation.  I don’t blame you for it.”

“I didn’t think you did,” Heimdall said, surprised.  “I was only thinking.”

“Of what you’ll tell Odin?”

“No, just of change.  Which makes me sound—and feel—very old, so I’d just as soon change the subject and think of that.  Would you like to come with me to the palace?”

“Not especially, but I should.”  He spotted Edda down by his ankles and scooped her up onto his lap.  She protested it with a short little yowl—Loki was usually quite respectful of the cat’s sense of independence—but condescended to accept some petting.

They had gotten Edda as a kitten and Heimdall had been convinced, with history obviously on his side, she would grow.  She hadn’t.  She was a perfectly formed miniature of an ordinary cat, hardly bigger than the wet-eyed newborn she had been when Loki had chosen her.  Loki fiercely defended her whenever anyone brought this up.  “She’s healthy and spirited and extremely bright.  She can open cabinets.  She’s only stealthy, which is sensible of her.”

Now Heimdall said, “You could button Edda into your tunic and take her to court with you.”

Loki smiled.  “She’d scratch me bloody.  And if she attacked the All-Father, which she would, you know how she is about strangers, some idiot guard might kick her.”  He scratched the cat’s chin.  “Yes, you would claw up that mean old king, wouldn’t you?  Of course you would, good girl.”  He pursed his lips.  “I could ride Sleipnir.  Remind him of the alliance I made with the Vanir—that I have a little bit of political capital of my own.”

“I wish you didn’t have to think like that.”

“But I’ve had to think like that my whole life,” Loki said.  He was surprised enough that he paused in his attentions to Edda, who rewarded his betrayal with a swat to his hand before springing off his lap to hunt for mice.

“I know that,” Heimdall said.  “I have been here for most of it, you’ll recall.”

“Hmm.  I think I remember you made me dinner once or twice, yes.  Something like that.”  Earnestness changed the whole shape of Loki’s face whenever it came upon him—always rarely and fleetingly.  It was impossible to miss his sincerity when he knew he was being sincere.  “Thank you.  I like your way of life much more than I like Odin’s.  I wouldn’t mind giving up all the angles—except I’m good at them, and I like that.”

“Don’t think you’re only good at one thing,” Heimdall said.

“You know me,” Loki said.  “Do you really think that’s ever going to be my problem?”

No, it was true that was hard to imagine.  But that Loki might slip into thinking himself fated or doomed for some particular outcome—good only for that one eventuality—that was not.  But he had probably heaped on enough advice for one night.  Loki, like Edda, would only claw him and run away if he started to feel smothered.

So he said only, “Riding Sleipnir would be a good idea.  And subtle, so far as points go.  Besides, it will save us the walk.  I’ll borrow a mount from Volstagg.” 


Over the years, the way Loki was received in the city had subtly changed.  He had grown from a pale, disgraced child stripped of his crown and family and into a tall, lean young man, the Gatekeeper’s own son and a mysterious prince in the bargain, sworn brother to Prince Thor, and—so the rumors said—a sharp-eyed sorcerer and a capable fighter, despite his womanish weapons.

“He has… something of a following,” Ivar had told Heimdall.  “Among the girls who think Prince Thor would be too obvious a choice for their first infatuation and among the boys who find him easier to romanticize in their minds than their own constant companions, whose smells and ill-humors they’re stuck with.  And then his looks are good, so there are those who just like him for being comely.”

“You’re telling me my son has become—”

“A heartthrob,” Ivar said brightly.

Now, riding into the city side-by-side with Loki, Heimdall could see a little of that attention: a few telling blushes and smiles.  Loki had a series of conquests in his near future, no doubt, which meant Heimdall would soon not be able to turn his gaze to the house during the days at all, lest he inadvertently intrude where he least wanted to.

A strange thing to think about.  You were eight just the other day.  You slept with a stuffed cat.

 

But Loki’s admirers did not constitute the only change in their reception.  The city had simply turned over its collective opinion of him, very gradually, to one of respect and vague fascination.  Like Heimdall himself, Loki was considered neither fish nor fowl, neither Asgardian nor other.  Loki bore their eyes on him lightly.

“I know they have changed their minds about me,” Loki had said when Heimdall had told him this.  “But their earlier opinion was nonsense, and then they didn’t even change their minds because of me, they just… changed them, which is also nonsense.  The whole thing is nonsense.  Illmay says that looking for approval from the populace is a trick your mind plays on you when you don’t think you have a home.  Well, I have a home, so there.  Let them think what they like.”

“Though,” he’d added a moment later, “it’s nice to be properly honored.  Even by idiots.”

All in all, a Loki-typical tangle, but at least it meant that he no longer dreaded coming to the city, and at least it meant that they were received at the palace with unstinting courtesy long before they reached the king and queen.

Loki seemed to be scanning the halls as they made their way to the throne room, briefly examining and then subsequently dismissing the passersby.

“Are you looking for someone?”

“I’ll need to take a servant with me,” Loki said.  “Illmay said so.  The Jotuns actually don’t tend to have them, but the Vanir do, so I—we—will need someone for our cover.”

“And you’re choosing anyone with a likely face?”

“No, I’m looking for Huw.  You remember Huw.”

Heimdall was unlikely to forget him.  He owed Huw a great debt for fetching him when Loki had run off on Vanaheim; any other outcome would have been disastrous.  “A sound choice.”

“Is it?” Loki said, rolling his eyes.  “But it seems to be the one I’m making.”

He did not, however, find Huw before they reached the throne room.

As always, they had a private audience with the royal family.  There were occasional publicly staged events where Loki’s status, ambiguous though it was, was reaffirmed, but every conversation of theirs that mattered passed in a locked and guarded room.

On the dais, Thor was not the boy who had moved about his kitchen three days before, frying eggs for their dinner because cooking was still a novelty for him, teaching Loki a raunchy warrior’s song that Heimdall pretended he did not hear; in this room, he was Asgard’s prince.  In but a few years time, her king.

Heimdall bowed to him as much as to his parents; he thought Loki did as well.

“What brings you here today, Heimdall Gatekeeper?”

“That is Loki’s story to tell, my king.”

Odin’s one slightly clouded-over eye turned Loki’s way.  “Do you have a petition for me, Loki Heimdallson?”

Why does he make sure to say that?  The last four times we’ve been here at least, he’s given Loki my name.  Is it to throw up another barrier between them, all the starch and pomp of formality?  To distance himself by refusing to pretend he has a claim?  To please me?  To grate at Loki?  Knowing Odin, it could be all those things together, and more I’ve not thought of.

If Loki were troubled by the appellation, he said nothing of it.  “Yes, my king.  I would, with all respect, ask that I be allowed to visit Jotunheim.”

“Jotunheim!” Frigga said.

Thor, judging by his reaction, knew all this already—of course he did.  If they had been brothers in the same household, they might have been close enough to be quarrel; set apart from each other, he and Loki went together hand in glove.  Odin’s ill-conceived plan had had its occasional tragic virtues.

“Yes, Mother,” Loki said.  Heimdall silently approved of him calling her that even when he was trying to curry favor with Odin.  “Jotunheim.  I would go neither as silently as the thief of a throne nor as audaciously as the claimant of one.  On my first trip to Vanaheim, I befriended a woman who has some Jotun blood and whose ties to the world are strong.  She plans now to visit her family there for a week and would bring me along as her guest.”

“Who is this woman?”

“Baroness Illmay, All-Father, the consort of the Lady Steward Helga.”

Odin smiled, a thing that changed the whole shape of his face.  “I had wondered, Loki, if you would find out that bit of her family tree.  Does the Baroness know the content of your blood?”

“To have told her without your permission would be tantamount to treason.”  His voice was bland.

Odin’s smile only deepened, creating craggy notches to either side of his mouth.  “And you, a sensible boy, would never have done such a thing.”

“You honor me,” Loki said.

“You wouldn’t go alone,” Frigga said.  “Surely not.”

The mockery—the total innocence that was his favorite version of mockery—slid at once from Loki’s expression and he gave his mother a sincere second bow.  “No, I did not intend to.  Heimdall has agreed to accompany me, and if you would allow it, I would borrow a servant of your household, someone amenable to the trip.”

“I wish I could come with you myself,” Frigga said.

Loki looked so young then, the adulthood that was almost upon him just a thinly colored glass wrapped around the light of his childhood, still not yet snuffed out.  “I would like that.  But I will bring you back all the tokens I can carry.”

“And all the tokens your brother can carry,” Odin said.

The walls reverberated with the sound of his voice and even though Heimdall knew it must have been some trick of Gungnir and Odin’s own will, he still felt the weight of it, of words made into proclamation.

Odin went on without waiting for any of them to answer.  “You will take Thor with you to Jotunheim.  That is beyond discussion.”

“Father,” Thor said, “I hardly think I would be unknown there.  Anyone could identify me and—”

“When I said this was beyond discussion, Thor, you were included in that.  You will travel with Loki to Jotunheim, under whatever excuse you like—I trust you to be reasonably diplomatic.  And you’ll stay with him, on your honor, for the whole duration of the visit.  With the two of you both away, I have business I’ve put off for too long.  That will be the only time to accomplish what I need.”

“Then let Thor come away with me to Ingberg sometime,” Loki said.  “Or Vanaheim or anywhere else.  We can stay as long as you like.”

“No.  Have you all taken leave of your senses, that you don’t hear what I say?  That you argue?”

Loki, at least, seemed to have come apart entirely from his earlier control.  “You will endanger Thor, you will jeopardize my position, you will compromise Illmay’s own ties to her family, and all for the sake of a reason you won’t even tell us?  You are the one who has taken leave of—”

“Loki!”  Heimdall grabbed his shoulder, gripping it hard enough to hopefully shake him out of this fervor—justified it or not, it would end by hurting him more than Odin.  “Your temper runs away with you.”

There was a flicker in Loki’s eyes, a sudden silvery flash of lake water, and then he exhaled, though the muscles in his face stayed so rigid Heimdall could have outlined each one.  He was no less angry—but he was calmer and that would have to be enough.  Surely Odin could be satisfied with his restraint, since he was certainly not acting in a way liable to excite much else.  Loki was quiet now, waiting for what would happen next.  Waiting, as he had not waited since he was a child, for the next blow to fall, for his life to be shaped without his consent.

Heimdall was the one who spoke.  “You don’t have to explain yourself, my king.  We all know that.  But you already talk of passing your crown to Thor in the coming years—shouldn’t this moment teach him something besides submission?”

“You are being rash, my dear,” Frigga said in a low voice, her hand on her husband’s arm.  “I believe I know what you’re thinking of, but you cannot leap this way, heedless—you cannot correct one fault by indulging in another.”

Odin would not snap at her, however much her words stung.  Heimdall wondered if he had always been that way—if Frigga’s gentleness had been the reward he had taken for changing Asgard, the consolation he had seized upon for losing Hela, and her steel had been his punishment—or if he simply felt that, having taken one son from her home, he could not risk hurting her again.  Would that the same constraint had kept him from goring Thor’s heart out, because Thor was now looking at him with such confusion, such shocked anger.

Thor would learn something from this scene, Heimdall knew.  But it would not be submission.

Had Odin decided at long last that he was tired of begrudging love and would prefer outright hatred?

No.  That iron will was wielded with an unsteady hand.  “My sons—”

Loki flinched, as if Odin had struck him.  “I am not that, my king.”

All those years, and Odin had never once made that mistake, not even in the earliest days.  Was it a mistake now?  Or had it been deliberate?  Loki, Heimdall would knew, would think it purposeful, both intentional and manipulative, meant to direct him to some particular reaction, meant to test him.  Loki was young yet, and when you were young, the objects of your fear were omnipotent, omniscient, and unfailing.  Loki would not think that Odin had slipped, by accident or by weakness, to what was still his own truth.  That the boy he had lifted from the frozen flagstones on Jotunheim was his, to love as well as to abandon.

Heimdall pitied him.  What Odin wanted was now beyond his having; what he felt could not be shared.  And he had done it to himself.

But all the pity there was could not keep Heimdall from thinking, If this is how you love, All-Father, Loki really was better off in my care.  Frigga knew it from the start—you could never have protected him from the worst parts of himself.  Inconstancy, boastfulness, bluster, chill, and bloodshed.  You have those faults as much as he ever did.

Such silence.  No one could fathom following Loki’s words, it seemed.

No one, of course, but Thor, whose training in diplomacy could not withstand his own family.

“If you send me with my brother to Jotunheim,” Thor said, “I will only leave it again.  At once.  I will call the Bifrost and Heimdall or Ivar will conduct me where I choose to go, or, if they won’t be drawn into treason, I will simply take a ship somewhere.  Or barricade myself in my rooms here and not go anywhere at all.  Loki, you would prefer that, wouldn’t you, to me coming with you?”

“It isn’t that I object to your company,” Loki said.  His smile was weak: well-honed love, well-honed tension.  “I would like it, even.  But yes, you would be recognized, and then I would be—boxed in.”

“Boxed into your own claim?” Odin said sharply.

“I don’t go to make a claim, All-Father.  I go to—reconnoiter.”

Now it was as though there were none in the room but the two of them, speaking rapidly with the familiarity not of family but of old foes:

“And leave your brother walled up alive on Asgard?  Leave him to learn nothing of the people we hope will one day be his closest allies?”

“That is his will, not mine.”

“You made no move to dissuade him from it.”

“I have never dissuaded Thor from anything.  Nor have you, or he would not be my brother at all.”

Odin refrained, still, from the worst cruelty: he did not tell Loki that it had been his design all along for Thor to have held on so tightly.  “How goes your magic?  Has Heimdall claimed every last drop of it, or do you still have some of your own skills left?”

“I have learned well from Heimdall,” Loki said.  “If you are asking if I can still cast illusions to give weight to a lie, yes, I can.”

“What a split at the heart of you, to see what is real and create what is not.”

“It is an understandable split.  I learned the lies early and came to Heimdall for the truth.”

“Now you err,” Odin said with a hard-lipped smile, “for it was your mother who taught you your first tricks.  And I’m sure you don’t mean to hurt her.”

“It was not my mother who put me in this skin,” Loki said, looking to her without apology.  Heimdall knew that was a gamble on Loki’s part—all he knew was the Jotun rumor that he, as a babe, had become a snake; he did not know how Odin had found him or what shifting he had already been capable of.  He might have cloaked himself in this form that Heimdall knew so well.

But Odin made no reply and so Loki’s point was won.

“There,” Loki said.  “So I did learn it from you after all.  I always suspected.”  He frowned.  “Who do I look like?  Why did you pick these features?  I don’t suppose I have to ask why you made me weaker than Thor, but why the hair, why the eyes?  I’ve always been curious.  I don’t look like you.  I don’t look like Mother.  Poor planning on your part, unless you wanted me to look like the cuckoo I was.”

Heimdall took him aside.  That Loki went with him at all was, Heimdall thought, the greatest profession of loyalty Loki had ever given him, because Loki did not easily walk away from a fight he was winning.

He touched Loki’s mind and felt Loki respond to it, silver glazing over his eyes.  They met, sight-to-sight and soul-to-soul.

What?

You will regret this later if you go on this way, Heimdall said.

I don’t think so.  It feels exceptionally good.

You’re angry.  That’s fine.  But in another moment, you’ll become cruel.  You don’t want that.

Yes, I do.  With him, I do.

Well, Heimdall said, not liking the adamantine certainty in Loki’s mind on that point, false though it might have been, I don’t want that for you, will you accept that?

Loki actually made a face, which was refreshingly, reassuringly childish.  Fine.

Thank you.  He broke the connection and the silver ran from Loki’s eyes—but slowly.  Mercury falling.

And Heimdall realized only now that he could have told Loki why he looked the way he did.  He looked, of course, like Hela.  Odin had made his youngest child resemble his eldest, and he had cast out the one only a little more gently than he had cast out the other.

“I apologize,” Loki said.  He could not summon up a bow, but he dipped his head.  “My mouth runs away from me sometimes.”

“Even now?” Odin said.

That was a test, a prod to see if Loki would rise to the bait.  He didn’t, and Heimdall had never felt a greater triumph on his behalf.  “Even now, All-Father.”

Odin was proud of him too.  Heimdall could tell.  Through the cracks in that craggy face, light seemed to shine through.

“I asked after your illusions, Loki, because if you could still cast them, that solves your problem without burying your brother alive or committing treason against me when I am, much to your regret, still your king.  Put a glamour on Thor and maintain it for a fortnight.”

“You didn’t trust me to do that with myself when you first sent me to Vanaheim,” Loki said cautiously.

“You were a child then.  You’re almost a man now.  I think a little more highly of your concentration.”

“I want to still be handsome,” Thor said, trying, Heimdall was sure, to finish off the breaking of the tension.  “You aren’t allowed to make me hideous, brother.  No pig noses, no facial birthmark shaped like genitalia.”

“Damn,” Loki said.  “That rules out all my plans.”  He turned to face Odin.  It was the first time, Heimdall would say, that he truly looked at him without the shadow of all the intervening years falling between them and obscuring everything.  It would not be a constant thing—he had known that from the beginning, he had told himself that Loki would not ceaselessly get better and better—but in this moment, his son belonged to the future, not to the past.  And he was hopeful rather than angry.

That was Thor’s effect on him.  Heimdall would never stop being grateful for that.

“All-Father.”  Loki bowed.  “If the glamour suits you as a condition, Thor’s company suits me as well.  Let him learn, as you said, of those he would have as allies.”

“Prettily phrased.  But no more a lie, I think, than anything else that’s been said here today.  You have my blessing to travel to Jotunheim, Loki Heimdallson.  But—”

They had been so close to making an escape with something like an accord.  Now Loki tensed up, his body moving unconsciously—Heimdall hoped—into his opening fighting stance.

Odin’s gaze was cool, deliberate.  “You spoke of being boxed in to your future.  You are royalty, Loki, even if you are not of Asgard.  And to be of royal blood means your destiny is as narrow as your responsibilities are wide.  I expect you to remember that.  Complain in your heart, resent me if you must, but when the time is right, you will take up rule of Jotunheim if your king commands it done.”

Loki’s only answer was a bow.

To Heimdall’s surprise, Odin allowed that to stand.

Chapter Text

Loki’s calm lasted until they were back in the corridor, whereupon he summoned up an ice dagger and threw it at the wall, causing slippery shards to scatter across the marble floor.  At least there was no else around.

“He is a tyrant.”  His voice was all seethe, like the rattle of a pot that was boiling over.  “He thinks to tell me what my fate is?  To tell me how, and in whose company, I might try it out?  And tell me this, Heimdall, how can I be king of Jotunheim and yet have the king of Asgard be king of me?”  He held up a rigid finger.  “It doesn’t make sense.  It defies logic.  He defies logic.”

“You did well in there,” Heimdall said.  He was unwilling to mount any defense of Odin, but he hoped he was not so unwise as to egg on Loki’s rage.  “He saw that.  And you have the permission you required.”

“A permission I should not need.”

Heimdall lowered his voice.  “If you do not wish to be king of Jotunheim, then you may perhaps be a citizen of Asgard, and if you are a citizen of Asgard, it will be incumbent on you, Loki, to not commit treason.”

“Perhaps I’ll go to Ingberg and live there.”

That actually made him laugh.  “You would find it too quiet for your tastes, I think.  As you would find Vanaheim too busy.”

“Well, if you’re going to be impossible,” Loki said under his breath, “there’s no need to discuss it at all.  Fine, I acknowledge the need for Odin’s permission—I sought it and now I have it.”  He kicked a shard of ice across the floor before waving his hand and vanishing the remaining pieces.  He offered Heimdall a wan smile.  “All the work I put into controlling my feelings and I still seem to have them.”

“I should hope so.  Anything else would be a horror.”  He chafed Loki’s shoulder briefly—strange how it worked when children grew, how the kinds of affection they would accept narrowed and lightened until sometimes any touch at all seemed to aggrieve them.  Once, Heimdall had had free license to muss Loki’s hair, to hug him, to haul him about like a disobedient puppy; he had had the most permission to touch him when he had been least comfortable with it.

I failed him in those early days.  I should not have let him be so much alone.  I should have treated him more like the child he was, and less like the political agent Odin tried to make him.  He must have been so lonely.

Now, he said, “You wouldn’t want to be so lifeless as that.”

“A statue carved out of ice.”

From the way he said it, Heimdall suspected there was some Jotun legend about that that he didn’t know, which of course meant he had to tread carefully around the subject, because All-Fathers knew Loki would take anything unfortunate as either prophecy or insult when he was in this kind of mood, so easily bruised.  So he sidestepped statues entirely.  “You are better off for having feelings in the same way you’re better off having a horse.  You rein Sleipnir in, you don’t rid yourself of him.”

Loki’s smile grew a little more real.  “Do you ever tire of teaching me things?”

“No,” Heimdall said honestly.  “I don’t like to think that one day you’ll catch up to me.”

Loki shook his head.  “No, now that I shall never do.”

“Generations vanish if you live long enough.”

“You didn’t stop being your mothers’ son just by still being alive,” Loki said.  “So you won’t lose me.  And I’m depressingly sure that you’ll always have some kind of higher ground from which—Huw!”  As notably poor punctuation to his promise Heimdall wouldn’t lose him, he darted off, stopping a man Heimdall’s memory hazily confirmed to indeed be Huw.

“Prince Loki,” Huw said.  “You’re taller.”

“Yes, that generally happens.”

He narrowly held back on chiding Loki not to be rude—it had been a long time, of course, since Loki had had any servants of his own, but he ought to have remembered that they had a claim on his courtesy.  But pointing it out publicly would only embarrass everyone involved.

And to his surprise, he was the only one bothered by this.  Huw just rolled his eyes, which Heimdall would have imagined unthinkable for a member of the palace’s staff, and said, “I imagine you’re here for a reason.  Another diplomatic trip?  If you’re returning to the Vanir court, I would be pleased—”

Loki shook his head.  “I’m going to Jotunheim.”

There were so few reasons to go to Jotunheim—there were so few reasons any Asgardian would have thought of, Heimdall corrected himself—that this disclosure alone meant something and went no little way towards resolving some of the mystery that followed Loki like a train.  And Loki would of course have factored that into his choice.  Though whatever hope he had of Huw’s silence did not seem to show in how avidly he watched his face.

Which, even to Heimdall’s keen gaze, showed little reaction.  “I see.  I’ll pack a cloak.  Something fur-lined, obviously, and maybe magicked as well.  I hope you intend to go to a part where they’re at least having some excuse for summer.”

Loki smiled, proof enough that winter still brought its own sunshine.  “I have no idea, actually.  We’ll be guests of the Baroness Illmay’s family and I didn’t ask which side of the world they lived on, though my best guess would be it’s close to Laufey’s court, where it is—spring, I believe.”

Yes.  Arguably.  A very early spring that, with all its snow and sleet and brutal winds, might easily be mistaken for winter.

“Well, that’s something,” Huw said.  “Send me word of the dates.”

Loki nodded.  “Thank you, Huw.”

Huw gave him a slight but not entirely insulting bow, nodded to Heimdall—“Gatekeeper”—and continued on his way.

To Heimdall’s mind, it had been a strange encounter, but Loki didn’t seem inclined to justify any of it, so he let it go: there was a difference, he supposed, between rudeness and disrespect, and he would let Loki draw that line where he wished.  “What glamour do you intend for Thor?”

“I thought his idea of a tattooed vulva—”

Loki.”

“—it’s the correct anatomical term!—and a pig nose was quite a good one, so I’m sorry he ruled it out.  I’ll probably just make his hair brown and sort of sharpen him, pull all his features forward.  I could give him some kind of rakish scar, he’ll like that.”  He turned his head to Heimdall.  “And you?  Will you have me cover your eyes with some other color?  I’m sure your reputation’s preceded you.  And you fought on Jotunheim, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Heimdall allowed, though it bothered him now to think of the number of Jotun soldiers who had fallen beneath his sword.  War was war, and he had not killed them for being Jotun but being opposite him with swords of their own, but still, he had killed men who looked the way his son might have looked, if he had never become his son or even Odin’s.  “I doubt I conducted myself so fiercely that they tell stories about me.  But yes, they may have heard of the eyes.  What color would you make them?”

“I thought—”  Loki cleared his throat.  “I thought maybe the color of mine.  Or, or I could make them look however they looked before you came into your full power, or make them match one of your mothers’.  Or maybe you would want purple eyes, for all I know.  Your choice.  Obviously.”

Heimdall could not stop this from twisting at his heart: he wished Loki had found all that easier to say, that he might have said it more briefly.  “I think your first instinct was best.”

“All my instincts are good ones,” Loki said.


Heimdall had expected the second summons from Odin and received it the following day: he would come alone this time, the command ran, and what he heard within the palace walls, he would never speak of outside them.  He had anticipated that as well.  Odin was fond of packing secrets within secrets, bitterness within bitterness, and using one to conceal the other.  Crack the shell of Loki Heimdallson—a secret himself, but a brittle and breakable one, made to outed one day or another—and you would find, of course, Hela Odinsdottir, the source of his looks and the source of his fate.  And, Heimdall could guess, the source of his king’s seeming caprice in sending away his heir.

“When you first considered visiting her,” Heimdall said, “you told me you would want me here for it, to guard the door.  Have my powers weakened, my king, that you no longer think that a caution worth taking?”

“Loki has infected you with his own tendency to show off,” Odin said, not looking up from the tip of Gungnir.  It was like some haze moved about it that he alone could see.  “You can’t resist telling me you already know what I’m thinking.  You are right about my plan, of course—it is time and past time it was done—but wrong about your role in it.  I’ve thought it over all these years, Heimdall, and I have come to believe that you are the keeper of princes as much as you are the keeper of our gates.  I would like to have two of you—Ivar, eager puppy though he is, does not really qualify—one to guard Asgard and the other to guard our boys, but as I do not… as I do not, I have made my choice.”

He did not entirely understand.  “Your majesty?”

There was little salt to Odin’s life these days, perhaps, if having outfoxed his own sworn man could give him that cold flicker of muted joy.  “If Hela breaks my will when we stand face-to-face one more, if she escapes through some crack in the door, I might trust you to stop her, but it would be a gamble.  But to keep the two princes hidden away in a place where she would never think to look, to raise them the rest of the way to manhood that they could defeat her themselves and restore Thor to his kingdom—I would swear on every stone of this place that you could manage that.  You have done a good job with Loki, but you know that.  Your smugness on that matter has long been clear.”

“I do not call it smugness,” Heimdall said.

“When you stand in my court and feel yourself above me?  Your success above mine?”

“Not above.  Opposed to.  I have often been angry with you, but never, I think, condescending.”  He smiled.  “I take a risk in saying so, I’m sure.  Anger is a crime where superiority is not—that is only wrong.  It’s an error in logic for a man to imagine himself above his king, but an error in fealty to rage at him.  But I think you would prefer that, or you would not take the pleasure you do in riling Loki, simply to see him hot rather than cold.”

This won him Odin’s gaze, at least.  “Do people find your insights grating, Heimdall?”

“Often.”

“So I am not the only one, then, who would rile.”  Odin gave him a faint smile, but in another moment it was gone, and his only concern was the plan.  “And now you know your duty.  I hope you’ll have no chance to practice it.  Even if Hela gains a victory over me, she may be foolish, and waste it.”

“She was always a shrewd tactician,” Heimdall said.

“Anger undid her,” Odin said quietly.  “In the training fields, in battle, and perhaps now.  If she raises her hand in her prison to slay me, well, she had best choose her moment wisely.  We are bound together, she and I.  Blood of my blood.  Only my will keeps us apart.  My death would open the door between us—but it would not be between us if we were both on the same side.  Her window of opportunity will be very small.  That is my consolation.”

“And if she passes through it?”

“Then as I said, you know your duty.  I hope you find Jotunheim hospitable, Heimdall.  The three of you may be there for some time.”

Chapter Text

PART SIX

 

Only those in their traveling party—and Ivar, naturally—were permitted to know their destination.  All others, by royal decree, were to know only that they were all going in a party to visit Baroness Illmay, with whom Loki had been long acquainted.

“I don’t understand why your father can’t keep a secret without making it so official,” Loki said to Thor.

“I don’t understand why we must act as though I didn’t meet Illmay at all,” Thor said.  He was, to Loki’s eye, hungover, having had a going-away party of sorts the night before, as though his friends were sending him off to glorious battle rather than on a short holiday.  “Everyone is always talking about her as though she’s only your friend.  I was there with you that whole first time, she could well have invited me.”

“Ah, but she didn’t.”

“Each time I think the two of you have outgrown your bickering,” Heimdall said, “I’m reminded afresh that in fact you have never grown up at all.”

This was patently unfair, as Loki had intervened to convince Thor his porridge bowl needed to be washed out—he had neither left it to the flies nor to Heimdall’s own attention and labor—and that was how Heimdall measured maturity generally, if his sometime comments to the effect on how Loki could not possibly be so old as he seemed if he left unwashed dishes and abandoned cups all around.  But he held his tongue on this point.  He was, after all, about to drag Heimdall away for a week of paranoia and violent shivering on a planet Heimdall had last stood on while fighting for his life.  Loki could think it possible he owed Heimdall a quiet breakfast in exchange for that.

Thor had joined them at the cottage this morning to keep up the pretense that they were off on nothing more than a jaunt, a peaceful visit with so few diplomatic implications that their going didn’t even merit a formal send-off in the Observatory.  Instead, they would just walk there together—and simply go.

Whenever he thought about it, Loki’s stomach tightened a little more around the scant amount of porridge he’d managed to convince himself to eat.  He scraped his spoon around his bowl one more time and then took it to the sink.

He looked out the little window there, out across the back lawn to the pond.  Gara had promised to feed the sunfish while he was gone and to look after Sleipnir and Edda, who was passably fond of her and so had only ever once scratched her to the point of blood.  (“Doing battle with your cat is not what I meant when I said I would be your shieldmaiden,” she had said when grimly accepting the duty.  “You had better bring me back something truly excellent from Jotunheim, or we’ll have words.”)  So all was taken care of.  He had nothing left to do but go.  Leave summer for winter, the familiar for the unknown, his true home for his supposed one.

“What if I don’t like it there?” he said suddenly.

“Then you have a miserable visit in a friend’s house,” Thor said, scarcely missing a beat.  “Which has happened many times before and will happen many times again.  We’ll endure it and come home and send Illmay a very polite thank you.  Besides, you will like it, probably.  You liked their houses well enough on Vanaheim.”

He didn’t know why it mattered.  Whether he loved Jotunheim or hated it, he had no intention of being its dead prince reborn.  No intention even of ever taking a house, however beautiful, so far from his home.

But he did not want to come to it and find it detestable.  And he did not want to come to it and find it paradise.

He could have explained the first fear, but not the second one.

“If you don’t like it,” Heimdall said in his low, reasonable way, “remember that what you’re seeing is only the smallest sliver of a world and its people.”

“Yes, but I won’t remember that,” Loki said.  “Realistically.”

Heimdall chuckled.  “Then I’ll remind you of it.  And we should be going—and all the sooner to give you a fixed opinion over a hypothetical one.”

They walked to the city in unusual silence.  The flowers were clotted with the warm hum of bees—Lady Alse would gather in good honey this year and perhaps she would give them some for their toast.  He could smell the wild grass and clover and the somehow spicier scent of the trees.  He couldn’t imagine ice and tundra yielding up this kind of sumptuousness, this sensory richness; surely Jotuns were starved for it even on their own terms, or they would not devote so much of their lives to greenhouses and steam tunnels and half-make a religion out of fresh fruit.  They knew what they lacked.  He wondered if they would have Asgard if they could, as they would have had Midgard—sluiced over with just enough frost to make it homey for them.

Laufey had tried to use the Casket of Ancient Winters to make Midgard into a second Jotunheim, but Jotuns lived and worked on Vanaheim as though the temperature there, only a little cooler than on Asgard, was naught to them.  Or perhaps they’d suffered in ways he’d not known.

If Laufey had been willing to see his people living in perpetual discomfort, if he had taken them to Midgard not in conquest but in refuge, would there have been a war?

Somehow Loki thought so.  The battles of that war were relived in every tavern.  If Asgard had not needed war, it had nonetheless liked it well enough.  And Odin—like Laufey—provided for his people.

Thor would not do that.  Better king?  Worse king?

Better, Loki decided, less with logic than with loyalty.

“What are you thinking about?” Thor said.

“How stupid I’m going to make your face look,” Loki answered cheerfully.  “Tell me, would you rather have a slack-jawed, drooling look or more of a shifty, rodent-like demeanor?”

“Would you rather I ground your smirk into the dust here or wait until we’re on Jotunheim to do it in the snow?”

“Snow, obviously.  It would be colder but less dirty.”

“Speaking of the cold,” Thor said, all too casually, “are you going to—you know—while we’re there?”

He did know, and he didn’t think he would get much pleasure from wringing the words out of Thor.  “Change?  Maybe.”  He wanted at least to do it in front of Illmay, to see if she could tell him whether he had turned to his original form or whether that was gone forever now.  “Why?”

“Oh, I wanted to tell you not to wear green if you did.  You clashed horribly last time.  Why do you think I’m asking, brother?  Because I want to know, that’s all.  People do occasionally want to know things without having a reason for it.”

“Slack-jawed and drooling,” Loki decided.

Huw had reached the Observatory already and was standing sullen guard over their luggage, which had been sent in the night before; Ivar looked notably glad to be rescued from his company.  Loki had never seen Ivar dislike someone before and it was interesting: it was almost like his features were unsure how to arrange themselves to express anything besides pleasantness.  Leave it to Huw.  Though Loki would give him that he had in fact dressed warmly.  He was rounded with coats and cloaks and looked like a more fearsome bear than Naftali, despite Loki’s best efforts, ever had.  Of course, in the relative balminess of the Observatory, his face had gone pink and sweaty.

“Prince Thor, Prince Loki.  Gatekeeper.”

“You look warm,” Loki said brightly.

“Hello,” Ivar said, throwing himself in front of any rejoinders to that like it was his duty to prevent an assassination.  “All prepared?”

“As we’ll ever be,” Heimdall said.  “Loki, if you’ll supply our disguises?”

He did so, casting the gentlest and lightest of glamours to obscure the true, gifted color of Heimdall’s eyes with his own simpler shade and then a firmer spell to make Thor boringly unlike himself, brown-haired and wide-eyed.  It wasn’t until he had done it that he realized he had made Thor look more like him, too.  They all had a family resemblance now, which he prayed they wouldn’t notice.

“That’s well-done,” Ivar said admiringly.  “I should come to you if I’m ever needed at a masquerade.”

Ivar knew where they were going, and though he knew the truth behind it no more than Huw did, he was just as much in a position to guess—better, really.  But his manners were the same.  And as he was calling up the Bifrost and bidding them farewell, he said—with what seemed like genuine wistfulness—“I wish I could keep you company, Gatekeeper.  The skating there must be sublime.”

“I could take you,” Loki said, with awkward haste.  “Some other time, I mean.”

“I’d like that very much, Prince Loki.”

As soon as the cascading sound of the Bifrost’s power filled the room, Thor whispered, “You like him.”

“Don’t be stupid.”  His ears were burning.  “He’s like family.  And shut up.”

He would have wished for a better note to leave on, but at least it meant that he arrived on Jotunheim full of embarrassment rather than dread—that might count as a slight improvement.

He felt the cold before anything else.  This was no gentle picture-book snow, with a snowflake settling playfully on his cheek, but a wet bluster that the wind swept into them with all the force of a rainstorm.  Some of it squirmed under his collar.

“I wouldn’t call this spring,” Huw said under his breath.

Ivar had set them down in front of the manse where Baroness Illmay was staying with her family.  Loki brushed aside Huw’s complaints and his own distaste for the weather to take in the view of the house, which put the one he’d seen on Vanaheim to shame.  Here, you could see at a glance that this was somehow what the ice had wanted to become all along.  The windows were made of panes of ice as translucently thin as leaves, the walls of blocks that crystallized minerals had turned blue and, in small trapped bubbles, the color of rainbows.  The snow softened its harsh angles, making it inviting as well as grand—well, when you could look at it without the flurries driving wet needles into your eyes, in any case.

Loki raised his hand and knocked.  The sound was muffled and disappointing.  He tried again, harder, only to succeed in getting a little bit of snow rained down on them from the lintel.

“What if you cause an avalanche?” Thor said.  His nose was pink and he was huddled up with his hands thrust up into his armpits, none of which stopped him from sounding excited by the prospect of them all getting buried alive in snow and a collapsed house.  “Maybe they don’t have knocking.”

Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall a Jotung word for knocking, but he was too cold to think if he’d ever read a book where someone had to dramatically seek entrance.  Probably he had.  Jotuns were very fond of melodramatic family sagas full of long-lost cousins.

“There’s a panel,” Heimdall said, and he swept away a bit of snow with his hand and pressed something.  Chimes sounded, rather atonally.

Someone opened the door in the next instant: Illmay.

“Loki!” she said, delighted.  “You’ve grown so much!”  She embraced him and then ushered everyone in.

It was still chilly inside, but the house’s walls at least put a stop to the wind and the downpour.  Illmay wore furs, so they would probably need all their own and as many woolens as they were carrying to stay comfortable.

“Thank you for inviting us to share your family’s hearth,” Loki said formally.  “I present to you—are we alone?  Good—my brother, Thor, prince of Asgard, my guardian and—and foster father, Heimdall of the Nine Mothers, Guardian of the Bifrost and Gatekeeper of Asgard, and Huw Ragnarson, trusted servant of the royal house of Asgard.”  Of course, she already knew Thor and Huw, but she was, whatever she thought, more Vanir than Jotun, and she was bound to enjoy the extra touch of ceremony.  Besides, she needed to be tipped off to Thor’s new face.  “For the sake of this visit, Thor can still be Thor—there are so many Thors—but Heimdall, just in case, will be called Volstagg.”

Why had he introduced Heimdall as his foster father?  He had never done so before.

But this was Jotunheim, where one’s relationships were delineated so precisely.  Even foster father, he thought, was not exactly right, only as close as he could come.

“I am honored to meet you, Lord Heimdall,” Illmay said.  She bowed.  “Loki has always spoken so highly of you.  No one could do a thing without being told that Heimdall could have done it twice as well in half the time.  And Thor, it’s a delight to see you again, even with a new face.  And Huw.”  She couldn’t seem to come up with anything polite to say to that, so she only smiled warmly at him.

“Will me being Thor be a problem with Loki being Loki?” Thor said.  “It’s true what Loki said, there are many Thors on Asgard and Vanaheim, but far fewer Lokis, and with both of us taken as a set—”  He looked sideways at Loki.  “I mean, you have told her, brother, haven’t you?  Given all she already knows?”

“Have I told you that he and I were raised together in one household,” Loki said to Illmay, “is what he’s asking.  Odin brought us up side-by-side for some years.  Eight.”  He swallowed.  “I think I mentioned that.”

“You did, yes.”  She put her hand on his arm, though her words were now only for Thor: “I’m afraid Loki’s tenure with your parents was short-lived enough that Jotunheim never heard his name.  Rumors of a second prince, yes, but his name, no.  Most people now assume—I’m sorry—that if there was a child, it died in the cradle.”

“Better in a cradle than on a temple floor,” Loki said.  The words felt like chips of ice on his tongue.  He made himself smile: why should it hurt?  An old wound in the heart should have the decency to behave like a scar and ache only in the rain; he would far rather have a fresh complaint.  He shook his head and the smile gained a little life.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m talking nonsense.  How is Helga?  How fares the court?  In your last letter, you didn’t say.”

“The court is well.  Helga is well.”  Illmay readjusted one of the furs laid across her shoulders and then suddenly broke out into one of the widest, most sparkling smiles Loki had ever seen.  “I saved the news, knowing I would see you in person: I carry her child.”

“And you came to this climate?” Huw said incredulously.

It was unfortunate that this was the first response.

Heimdall, accustomed to this kind of announcement, rallied instantly and congratulated her.  “And I’m sure the Lady Steward thanks you heartily for allowing her to forego the aches and pains.”

“I’m spared those yet, but I understand my back will begin to ache and my feet swell—Loki, as a friend, I expect you to be solicitous when I complain to you.”

“Always.”  He kissed her cheek.  “I’m so pleased for you.  I would have thought—”  That Helga would not have risked her people’s sensibilities by placing her own heir in the belly of her quarter-Jotun consort, frankly, though maybe that only mattered to the Vanir if the child were legitimate?  Which this one obviously could not be, with the father unnamed and the birth-mother not even Helga herself.  He corrected himself.  “I would never have thought it possible to see anyone so happy.”

“I consider myself a trailblazer in the field,” Illmay said.  “The divine knows I have long wanted a family—perhaps that is why I seized upon you so avidly.”

“Beg pardon,” Loki said, laughing.  “I recall thinking I was very grown-up.”

“Oh, you were!”  She turned to Thor.  “Your brother was so excruciatingly polite and spoke so properly!  Lord Heimdall, neither of them ever appeared to be quite real, I kept forgetting they were not carved out of marble and gold: it was such a relief whenever one of them would turn up with jam on his cheek or an unbuttoned cuff.”

“In close company, they have not entirely lost their childhoods,” Heimdall said fondly.  “Then or now.  Though I am sure they tried very hard to impress you.”

“We’re being made sport of,” Thor said to Loki.  “I don’t care for it, brother, do you?”

“Not in the least.  I think we should both snub her unforgivably when it comes to presenting the child with birthday gifts.”

“And Huw is right,” Thor said.  The words must have been quite bitter for him to spit them out so quickly.  “It is cold, and I should like to adjourn to put on something warmer, if I might.”

Illmay begged their forgiveness for having dared to imply that she had ever known them in their boyhood and escorted them to their rooms, which were, she said, freshly constructed, built of that winter’s ice and “painted” with dye to have jewel-toned panels in the walls and floor.  Thor and Loki were confined to a single chamber, albeit one with two beds, but Heimdall and Huw each had their own place.

Huw had the decency to wait until Illmay had left them to complain of this, but complain he did: “It’s a completely upended hierarchy.  Prince Loki and Prince Thor should each have a room, above all else, and then the Gatekeeper in the third room.  Properly, if there’s no more space, I would have a pallet on Prince Loki’s floor.”

“I don’t want you to sleep on my floor,” Loki said, horrified at the notion.  “I’d much rather share with Thor than with you.”

“That isn’t the point.”

“Jotuns have a different understanding of hierarchy,” Heimdall said, as gently as though he were telling a child that there were no fairies spreading dream-dust across his pillow.  “They determine it far more by age than by what we might think of as status.”

Huw found no consolation there and stalked off grumbling about it.

“He was a curious choice on your part,” Heimdall said.

“I trust him,” Loki said.  “More or less.”  He used to sleep on Heimdall’s floor sometimes, lying in front of his bedroom door like a rug: he wondered if Heimdall remembered that.  Norns, he hoped not.

“Also,” Thor said, “he can’t possibly have very many friends, so even if he does learn something to Loki’s detriment, who would he tell?”  He opened his trunk and began to rummage around for warmer clothes—a moment later, he looked like a bear that had fattened itself for the winter.  “Heimdall, you must have fought the entirety of the war during a heat wave for our men to have been able to move at all.”

“Oh, you get used to it, from what I remember.”  He clapped Thor on the shoulder.  “And refrain from those comments when our hosts are in earshot.”

“Of course,” Thor said, clearly wounded.  “Loki, what do you think so far?”

“Of the quarter of an hour we’ve been here and the single house we’ve seen and the one person, whom we already know, with whom we’ve conversed?”

Thor found mittens now in addition to everything else.  “Well,” he said.  “I can see you’ll be a delight to share a bedchamber with.”

“Go sleep on Huw’s floor if you feel so strongly about it.”


Their hosts did not come until evening.  Even summer nights on Jotunheim could be cruel, and all work and travel, as much as was possible, ceased before sundown: everyone returned home at night to gather around a fire.  Still, that was a reason for them returning, not for them having been gone, and Loki suspected that Illmay’s solitude this morning had been something she’d engineered.  The long afternoon had given them all time to reiterate their cover stories, such as they were.

They were all Vanir, so they would have to remember to emulate Illmay’s habits as much as they could.  Thor and Loki were brothers—Illmay’s position was that they could scarcely pass as anything else—and orphans in the company of their guardian, Heimdall-as-Volstagg.  Easy enough, provided they all remembered to praise the divine and offer only second- or third-hand praise.  And be bad painters, should that come up.

The household was four, with Illmay making a temporary fifth.

There was Oddvar, who was tall even for a Jotun and as thin as a splinter.  He—they, really, Loki supposed, that was probably a more accurate translation of the actual Jotung, whatever the All-Speak thought—was a builder-mage, their profession was casting the spells that helped to shape the rock and ice that made up Jotun houses.

Oddvar’s partners were Egil and Trine, whom Loki had difficulty telling apart, since they both wore next to nothing and talked in the same sing-song way.  He thought Egil was the one with the slightly darker skin, closer to cobalt than azure, which meant Egil was the skald and Trine was—of course, the divine forfend that they manage to go a moment on Jotunheim without fucking fruit coming up—the orchard-keeper.

And then, strangest of all, though he could not have explained why he found it so, there was a child no more than a few months old.  There was a swirl of fine black hair still on its head, and it was Loki’s understanding that Jotuns ordinarily lost theirs before their first birthday.  (Yet another reason to keep this form as much as he could—he was partial to his hair, thank you very much, and hadn’t spent all those years since Vanaheim growing it back out for nothing.)  The babe was called Einar, and they were a silent child, large-eyed and curious, and very fond of bright colors, as their parents were only too happy to explain at length.  Everyone took turns dangling little strips of painted silk in front of the baby’s nose, which must be what passed for entertainment when you couldn’t go out at night.  Or, he was forced to concede, when you were burdened with an infant at all, because Gara said her own parents became boring whenever there was a new baby.

Their evening meal was a stew of dark red organ meats accompanied with some of Trine’s ice-plums, which would have to be the sweet promise for them, a reward for choking down the stew.  On Asgard, much of the meat that had gone into this pot would have been called offal, yet the Jotuns used it—to the point of even serving it without apology.

He would say that at least they did not eat bugs, like the Vanir, but they probably would if the bugs presented themselves.

I suppose they don’t have much choice in the matter.  It’s amazing they evolved at all in this place.

But past his revulsion at the mere idea of it, the stew was tolerable, if gamey.  He stirred through the mess of it, trying not to look down, and ate.

“We’re pleased to meet any friends of our cousin-by-honor,” Oddvar said.  They smiled.  “As you can guess from your own shivers, it’s rare for the Vanir to come to Jotunheim.  Even Illmay shivers, and they have some of our own blood in them.”

“I do not shiver much, cousin,” Illmay said.

Trine rolled their eyes.  “Because you wrap yourself in furs.  If we could not see your face poking out from there, we would hunt you and throw you in the stewpot.”

“Trine,” Egil said softly.

“My partner thinks you’ll return to your home spreading rumors of our kettles overflowing with our neighbors’ flesh,” Oddvar said, with a look at Egil.  “But no friend of our cousin’s would do such a thing.”

“Nor any person who understood a joke,” Trine said.  They patted Heimdall on the hand, presumably because he was closest.  “Egil is excruciatingly serious, though, he only sings the saddest songs.”

“Will you sing?” Thor said.  He scraped his spoon against the bottom of his bowl with every indication of enthusiasm for its contents and, finishing it, turned to share carefully-cut bits of his plum with the babe.  “For us, sometime?  I would like to hear Jotun songs.”

Not if their doorbells were any indication, he wouldn’t.  But Loki grudgingly seconded that.  He was not, however, going to be driven by Thor’s lead to give up any of his sweet, jewel-bright ice-plum to a child who could scarcely appreciate it and who at any rate hadn’t known they were slogging through a butcher’s refuse bin.  He ate it down to the pit.

Years and years ago, he had thought Fridunn’s reference to their hearth a metaphor, and a strange one at that—why would a race of cold creatures speak of fire in the same breath as they spoke of home?  And on Vanaheim, no doubt, he’d been right.  They must have been on the edge of their heat-tolerance there already.

But on Jotunheim, they had hearths in truth.  There was a massive stone fireplace at the center of the house, near the table where they ate.  Loki had stripped his gloves off during the meal and his fingers, as if having resolved their quarrel with the frosty air, had warmed to the point of easy flexibility; he laid a hand against one of the large, flat stones and felt the heat in it.

“How do you keep the house from melting?”

Oddvar seemed one of those people delighted to talk about their work.  “Once we would have done it with the Casket of Ancient Winters—”

That seemed a popular refrain.

“—but King Odin of Asgard, the Destroyer, robbed us of that.”  As though the Destroyer were Odin himself and not merely one more treasure stashed in the Vault.  Fair enough.  The Destroyer partook of Odin’s own will.  Maybe without his intentions in its limited mind, it would have trimmed topiaries.  “So now we make do with what weather magic we can all sustain.”

“On Vanaheim—back home—I met a Jotun fruit seller who said they needed someone to always be in the house so it would maintain its shape.”

“We’re not so bound as that, thank goodness.  No, everyone in the settlement gives up a portion of their magic… like a tax.  And it keeps the ice as cold as need be while we inside keep the fires as hot as need be.”  They smiled.  “Being a builder and an ice-mage is an exercise in chasing perfection.”

“So one can’t live alone,” Loki said.

“It is hard,” Oddvar said.  “And strange.  But it’s not unknown to have hard and strange people, though I’m thankful not to know any myself.”  They pushed their bowl away.  “Egil, I would join the the boys of Vanaheim in requesting a song, if you do not need to rest your voice.”

Egil smiled.  “I am rarely so engaged, more’s the pity, that I need such rest.  Let me fetch a drum.”

They did and they all moved to what passed for the parlor, though it lacked somewhat in furniture.  Trine and Oddvar and Illmay all reclined against furs.  Heimdall did not hesitate before doing the same and he gave Loki a look that suggested he follow suit, so he did, very reluctantly, even though it made him feel ridiculous.  Back to sleeping on the rug again after all, then.  After all this time.

Egil returned with their drum and sat unselfconsciously down in the center of the loose circle they had all made.  They struck up a rhythm, almost punishingly straightforward—tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

The song… none of them had to ask what had made Egil think of it.  It was a song of strange and hard people whom one would not wish to know, yet in Egil’s low, persuasive voice, Loki was drawn to them nonetheless.

The song was a story—Vanir songs had only sometimes told stories, but Jotunheim, so far as Loki could tell, was like Asgard in that it married music to voice only to tell you something, to preserve a memory that, without rhyme, would have been lost.

Once there were two lovers, Egil said, one whose skin was naught but scars and the other whose heart was naught but stone—except that they loved their lover.  No one could say why the hard-hearted one had only enough softness for this gnarled and disfigured creature, who was kind but not surpassingly kind, wise but not astonishingly wise—bereft, then, of the consolations in stories told to children, where nothing was taken without something being given in return.  Their love, Egil said, was like a flower that had grown in the ice.  There was no cause of it and no way for it to live, yet there it was in bloom.

The two lovers lived alone, for the scarred one had been driven off from their settlement and the hard-hearted one had never chosen the company of others.  They were happy and their bed was warm.  (Jotun songs were very frank about such things.)  Eventually a child came, and the child was beautiful and good.

But there was no room in the hard-hearted lover’s affections, and they began to resent the time their lover gave to their child.  Though they had not despised the babe, only not adored it, they came to hate it, and then, by and by, to hate their lover, for having in the end wanted more than their love.  The flower that had grown on the ice had been discovered to have craved soil and sun all this while; it would have had an easier life if it could have.  So the hard-hearted lover learned.

They went out into the wastelands of ice.  They could not live on in jealousy and hatred, but they knew that if they died, the child would one day go on and find a hearth and bring their remaining parent along.  For the child’s sake, any hearthmate would learn to overlook the scars of the parent.

And so the hard-hearted lover allowed themselves to perish in the cold without, knowing now that they could not melt the cold within—only free their family to find warmth in their absence.

There Egil’s song ended.

Thor clapped cautiously and then said, “A little dark, isn’t it?”

Egil inclined their head.  “It is a winter song.  I should not really have sung it in spring, but—I cannot tolerate it in the winter, myself, when there is so little light.  I need a good dawn to console me.”

“What do you take from it?” Heimdall said.  His voice was quiet.  Somewhere during all that, he had put his hand on Loki’s shoulder, and he had not yet moved it away.

Did Heimdall think he needed comforting?  He did not, or at least he didn’t think so.  It was a story of parents that made his own look almost refreshingly normal; he would as soon be congratulated as comforted.  It made him ache, but it did not make him remember.

“It’s a contentious issue in our house,” Egil said.  “I feel for the scarred lover, who had to awake to find their lover gone, and all because they could hold two loves in their heart instead of only one.  Oddvar—who is a stodgy traditionalist—thinks it’s about the reunion, the way the parent and child can eventually come back as two to the community that had turned them out when they were one.”

“And I simply don’t like it,” Trine said.  They tickled the baby’s chin.  “It remains to be seen what Einar will think of it.  Either way, it is a sad song, Egil, and a winter one, as you said, so I demand a spring tune, please, something hopeful.”

Chapter Text

In company and in strange novelty, this trip reminded Loki of his first visit to Vanaheim.  But when you visited as an uninvited tagalong without the gilt of royalty about you, your hosts were conspicuously less interested in keeping you entertained from moment to moment.  Illmay’s relations were not at all rude, but they hadn’t built their days around squiring Loki about Jotunheim, either.  He had nothing he needed to do.

And that reminded him of home, more or less: that same feeling that the time was his to make of it what he would.  Freedom and threat all at once.

So he slipped out the next morning after breakfast and went deep into the sculpted ice gardens he’d found east of the house.  Oddvar had made it—looking about within its labyrinth, Loki found black rock statues of Trine and Egil and one half-formed, almost underbaked-looking one that he supposed was intended to be the baby.  Babies often had that mushy look to them.

He had worn his furs outside, but when he reached what he thought was the center of the maze—a round little enclosure with walls of orange-tinted ice that made it look like he was surrounded with frozen firelight—he shrugged them off and stood there shivering.  It was madness to do even that, but he went ahead and did more—fumbled at the buttons of his woolen clothes and stripped them down too.  He tugged off his boots and stood barefoot in the snow.  His teeth were chattering so loudly it was impossible to think.

Suppose he died here.  It would be absolutely humiliating, but it would quash all Odin’s ambitions so thoroughly he was almost tempted to lie down then and there.

No, he thought vaguely through the milky confusion of it all.  There’d be a war.  I’d be a prince again—a prince of Asgard dead on Jotunheim.  Something would have to be salvaged from it all, something would have to make him feel better.

Thor would say he was being unfair.  Well, Thor was probably sitting by the nice warm hearth right now drinking hot tea, not freezing his balls off for reasons even he couldn’t parse, so to Hel with Thor.

He overruled his body, severing his mind from it with a brutal chop of his seidr.  You are not Aesir.  You feel the cold, yes, but not this badly, not in midmorning when the sun is high.  You will not succumb to this.  Your biology is a trick, that’s all.

He wanted to twist into some more habitable form—never mind being Jotun, he’d settle for being a seal, all blubber and whiskers—but he didn’t let himself.  If he chose it consciously, he wouldn’t be sure he wasn’t just making the shape up.  He wanted to know what he would have looked like if he had stayed Laufey’s son.

Which meant he had to fall into it—the truth as the last refuge of a failing system.

Getting in the way of all that was the fact that he didn’t really want to die—was rather against it, in fact.  It would be an awkward thing to do to his hosts and an unpardonable thing to do to his family.

But at last he felt an impulse, some internal weakening of the knees.  Collapse coming.

Loki let it.

He felt relief spread out across him in patches, like some kind of infection, like a flower blooming.  (What words would he reach for there?  He could find them both right at hand.)  He watches as his hands, already blue-tinged from the cold, became blue in truth.  Tiny markings—raised scars of some kind?  Filigree?  Ridges?—heaped up.  His hair was still the same length.  He looked for the turtle-bite on his left calf, the one he hadn’t magicked away because it was an embarrassment to have no scars at all, and it was still there.  He was still himself.  He had still lived his whole life—this change had erased none of it.

And he was still cold, dammit.  The shift to a Jotun form—his Jotun form—had muted the weather but not deafened his nerve endings to it entirely.  He snatched his clothes up from the snow, cursing himself for having dropped them there in the first place, and burrowed back into them.  If Jotuns ever properly awoke to how bloody freezing their world was, they’d at least start to hibernate through the winter like bears.  It would be more fitting.

There.  Now he was comfortable again.

“It suits you,” Thor said from behind him.

Loki refused to jump.  He wasn’t going to dignify that kind of unwarranted surprise attack with the response Thor obviously wanted.  “Do you think so?  I never thought blue was my color.”

“Your wardrobe is rather monotonous, true.”  Thor circled around him.  It was strange to look at him and see a stranger’s face, but at least that made them a little even.  “What does it feel like?”

“Not half as warm as I’d hoped.”  He blew on his hands.  “I mean, I knew they could still catch frostbite or die of exposure, but you do see pictures of them in loincloths.  Must only be in the summer.  Or I really am a weakling.”

“Well, I’m just as glad to not have to see you in a loincloth, personally.”

“Why did you follow me anyhow?”

Thor shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It seemed like something to do.  And Heimdall—"

“I don’t like it when you and Heimdall conspire against me.”

“Some conspiracy,” Thor said gently.  “Two people worrying about you and taking a moment to say it.  No wonder you have no plans to put together an assassination, brother, you’d wind up with something very grandiose.  Anyway, I was actually saying that Heimdall was all buried in books and Illmay had gone back to bed with a headache.”

“And you failed to see the excitement in spending the morning with Huw?”

Thor snorted a laugh that reminded Loki of Sleipnir.  “Somehow, yes.  Is it easier for you to make those ice daggers now?”

“It was never especially hard.”  He summoned one up.  “I can’t tell a difference.”

“Do you want to spar?” Thor said hopefully.

“What, ice against steel?  No prize for guessing how that ends.”

“It is magical ice, though.  Doesn’t that make a difference?”

Loki sighed.  “I suppose we can find out.”  He called up a mate to his dagger and took up his familiar first position, which felt the same in this form as it did in his usual one—Jotun and Aesir muscles both, by custom, being honed mostly for war.

Suppose, he thought, that he had been born healthy, or even born frail but in a calmer time: would it have come to this, not in play but in deadly earnest?  Loki Laufeyson, taking in Odin-the-Destroyer stories with every suckling drop of milk…  Thor would have been his enemy.  The son of a man who’d put his boot on the neck of Loki’s world.  They would be trying to kill each other.

It wasn’t like he’d never thought of that before.  But it was fresher here, with the bite of the cold air on his blue skin and an ice dagger in each hand, with Thor looking like a stranger to him.

The ice didn’t shatter when he blocked Thor’s blade.  Seidr prickled on his palms, a different sensation than his usual magic—biological rather than personal?  Was that what was freezing the ice past breaking?

Thor scored a hit on him, cutting across his arm, and Loki hissed with pain and irritation, shaking off the hurt and twirling that dagger around to make the movement look like showmanship rather than recovery.

“It’s rare to land a blow with you, brother,” Thor said, grinning.  “And me with the disadvantage of being so bundled up I can hardly move.”

“Yes, you’re a legendary warrior for managing to give me a scratch when I’m in a different body.”

“I wouldn’t say that necessarily makes a difference.  You wind up in different bodies all the time.”

They fell back into silence.  The world broke down into fragments: the rainbow shine of a flurry of ice kicked up by Thor’s boot as he spun backwards, the muffled thock of frost-dagger and sword, the angle of Thor’s strike, the burn of his own cold-stiffened muscles.  He slid against the ground and split himself, leaving an illusion behind like a long shadow; it distracted Thor for perhaps a second, but that was enough time to land his own blow.  The sharp edge of the ice cut through the padding of Thor’s furs like they were soft cheese.

“I’d say we’re evenly matched,” Thor said.

“I’d say I won,” Loki said, raising his eyebrows.  “The ice—”

He bit off the rest and flung himself back into his Aesir-form just as the crackling sound of footsteps in the snow resolved into Trine, coming around the last turn of the labyrinth.  His furs were still down on the ground where he’d left them, wet and snow-crusted now, and without them the cold sliced straight to his bare skin.  The thick layers of fleece and wool felt as thin as paper.

Trine hurried towards them and yanked his furs up and tucked them around him; they were treating him like a child, but what could they be expected to think under these circumstances?  They pulled the furs in so tightly that Loki might have been a grape and the furs the grape-skin.

“Do not test the cold,” Trine said.  “You’ll always lose.  Don’t take our teasing of Illmay to mean that we think your bodies ought to be able to stand what ours can.”  They clucked their tongue and brushed snow from Loki’s shoulders.  “The last thing we need is dead Vanir on our doorstep.  You’ll bring Asgard down on everyone’s heads.”

“Surely not,” Thor said.

“If your guardian went to Steward Helga, and she complained to Odin the Destroyer?”  Another click of the tongue.  “It doesn’t bear thinking about.”

His blood was quickening a little now, his body warming, so he could answer them without his teeth chattering.  “I was unforgivably stupid and will never do it again, I assure you.  But H—he, my guardian, I mean, would not misunderstand the fault, I promise you.  He would not blame you, nor would Lady Steward Helga.”  If nothing else, Helga sparking off war on Jotunheim would make her romance with Illmay rather awkward.

“And I could testify to Loki’s stupidity if he froze to death in his small-clothes,” Thor said, entirely too cheerfully for Loki’s taste.

“It wasn’t my small-clothes.”

“I remember it differently.”

Trine shook their head in the kind of mild exasperation Loki knew painfully well from Heimdall, and, to his surprise, Thor’s mouth twitched in an aborted smile.  So he had gotten trivial and immature on purpose, then, to hammer in that they were just boys, naïve and foolhardy, nothing that Trine needed to examine more closely than that, nothing anyone needed to question.  Loki envied that tactic.  He couldn’t have intentionally played the fool or the child—he felt the stakes were higher for him, somehow.  He’d rather change his shape than change himself.

“In any case,” Trine said, “I sought you out because I thought you might want to see the state gardens.”

And here he’d been thinking that no one would be making arrangements for them as lowly, title-less guests.  He hadn’t factored in their hosts being polite.  That was inconvenient.

But he would like to see the gardens.  Coming to Jotunheim and not seeing their fruit trees would be almost like going to Ingberg and not seeing his grandmamas—he couldn’t neglect what he was fondest of and most familiar with.

He bowed.  “We would like that very much, thank you.”

And it might let him slip a few ice-plums in his pockets to have later if they insisted upon ladling out offal all across his dinner plate again.

The Jotuns used sledges for trips of any distance—Trine’s was a blazing red-orange, the color of Surtur’s own flames, metal-framed and covered in layers upon layers of drum-tight oiled cloth.  It was a clever way to deal with lumber scarcity, Loki had to admit, but he was unnerved by the thought of going over a crag in it and suddenly having the floor of the sledge torn away.  He voiced this less as a worry and more as a point of abstract mechanical interest, as if he were in the habit of constructing sledges in his spare time and wanted advice.

“These hearth-sledges keep mainly to well-smoothed paths,” Trine said, giving him several small reassuring pats on the shoulder like he was a dog nervous in a thunderstorm.  “We aren’t breaking a new road.  Sledges that do are much sturdier, true.”

They were pulled along by harnessed beasts with shaggy white fur—in motion, they made it look as if the snow itself had come to life and was churning up ahead of them.  Their breathing was an extraordinarily loud and constant huffing-and-heaving that made conversation on the sledge impossible unless you shouted.  Trine, who was fond of the beasts and evidently more used to their noise, seemed to be trying to explain their nature to Loki and Thor; Loki caught it in fragments.  Enormous lungs and mix otters’ blood with their feed and that one is Razor.  Otters’ blood?  He rather liked otters—they got them sometimes at the lake on Ingberg, reddish-furred ones with inquisitive eyes.  He had been an otter before.  Well, that was the risk you took in becoming anything so small: many people would handle whatever could be handled, turn it to whatever mundane usefulness there was.  Kennel-food and cat’s-paw princes.  Odin had been quick to cast him out when he was small and harmless—Loki would present more of a challenge to him now.

Odin wanted him to rule this world.  In the end, would he do it?

To go along would mean doing what Odin wanted, something he was loath to do; to resist could mean living an eternity under Odin’s rule, for he’d no way of knowing of when Thor would come into his kingdom.  And whatever he’d said, he could not really think of leaving Asgard for anything but duty.  He had friends elsewhere—family elsewhere—but—

Asgard was home.  The cottage, the pond, the Observatory, the Bifrost, the bridge.  The color of the sunshine and the particular scent of the atmosphere.  Thor and Heimdall.

Mother.  Still.

He wanted bedrock.  Vanaheim was lovely in its impermanence, its understanding that everything must pass eventually, its total mutability; it appealed to him.  But his heart was with Asgard and its monuments, its wrought iron and hammered gold and brutal attempts at immortality.

And maybe too—though he approached the thought only sideways—with Jotunheim and its fiercely, magically maintained structure, its unmelting ice.  The tenacity, the damned insistence on living somewhere obviously, to his mind, unlivable.

He’d spent his whole childhood not knowing what was going to happen to him and now that he could properly act himself, more or less, he still didn’t know what would happen, because he didn’t know what he would do.  Not entirely.  That was possibly more annoying, though at least faking certainty was easier than faking power.

And even if he didn’t yet know what he would do, he knew what he wanted.  He looked at a cloudless patch of sky and exhaled until his own breath made the cloud for him, misty and fine and close, like the surface of water—

The sky parted for him.  The sights he found there flickered around, unsteady and temporary, waiting for his attention to fix.  He could consciously choose a place to look or he could spin about wildly like this, but he didn’t have Heimdall’s instincts; his gaze wasn’t pulled in any particular direction for any particular reason.  And he could not search.

What far-sight he had was an impressive party trick, not a trade.  Insufficient.

He still loved the scraps of it he had.  He paused upon one of the vistas—a desert landscape baked such a golden-brown that he could almost taste the dusty heat of its air.  A lizard as long as Loki was tall trundled along the ground, its silver scales iridescent in the harsh light.  It noticed him—animals were often better about that than people—and regarded him with its bright pinprick eyes in their silver-bubble lids.  It stuck its tongue out and, not tasting him, seemed satisfied that he was no predator.  It went about its way, leaving a trail of three-toed footprints.

There was a time when he had not noticed or cared about such things.  Heimdall had given him this, passed it down like an heirloom—the ability to see the universe as immense and fascinating and uncontrollable, to see your own piece of it as intimate and precious and chosen.

The wind began to sweep the lizard’s prints away.  Loki let it sweep him out too; he could feel the sledge coming to a stop.  He squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment and then opened them again.

Trine had driven them down into the tunnel system that housed the gardens.  It was dark where they were, but he could see the shine of solar runes up ahead.  Light for the trees but no light for arriving visitors, as if the fruit and plants were more important than the people.  Bizarre.

The dark made the white beasts more distinctive.  They were heavily-muscled and almost rubbery in their movements.

Thor got out immediately and started roughhousing with them.  Unbelievable.

“What are they called?” Loki said, dismounting from the sledge.  “I couldn’t hear you before.”

Trine said something the All-Speech insisted on translating as, “Big bear-dogs.”  He frowned, trying to hear around the automatic clarification—harsti?  Maybe.

Big bear-dogs did seem accurate.

“What a nice big bear-dog,” Thor said, grabbing the lead one by the scruff and rolling around with it.  “You are a nice big bear-dog.”

“Your ears get used to the noise of them,” Trine said to Loki.  “I can almost hear my own thoughts now.”

They surprised him into a laugh.  “That must be nice.”

“But you seemed to do well enough with that, at least.  I looked over and you were leagues away.”

Further than that.  “We all have our talents.  Mine is being half-elsewhere.”  He nodded at Thor.  “His is communing with lower lifeforms, apparently.”

A water trough ran along either side of the tunnel, letting them tie up the big bear-dogs to drink while they went inside.  Loki studied the arrangement, retroactively putting something together: he’d read that anyone on Jotunheim who stole a sledge paid their life for it, but the sledge could be improvised where the dogs could not, so it must be the dogs that really mattered.  Or else they were considered as a whole and a sledge wasn’t a sledge without something to pull it.  He didn’t want to ask Trine—it wasn’t the kind of question that felt right for an idle Vanir youth on a strange holiday visit.  It had too much study behind it.

A good reminder before going into the orchard proper.  It wouldn’t pay to be too curious.

He separated Thor from the dogs with some difficulty—“You have slobber all over you”—and then Trine took them deeper into the tunnels.

This might be the only world in the Realms where you gained light as you went further in.

“But this is magnificent,” Thor said.  He sounded very earnest and, unfortunately, very surprised.

It felt like the scratch Thor had dealt him during their sparring, no worse or better than that, and he didn’t know why he bothered to let it hurt him at all.  Asgard had many such sights, why shouldn’t Jotunheim have at least one?  Why should it be such a revelation?

But he felt stunned by it too—this?  Here?  He could not stop looking.

The glow was whiter.  He’d expected sunlight more or less equivalent to what was outside, but this was not that, no, it was as silver-white as his mother’s winter crown, as silver-white as winter itself.  The bark of the trees was sable-black, their leaves silver like foil.  The colors of the blossoms and fruits were shockingly vivid in contrast, even down to the browning fallen petals decaying against the floor.  He saw the plums they’d eaten last night and dozens of varieties besides that.  One thick-trunked tree bore cream-and-pink-striped melons, which shouldn’t have been possible, and melons the size of Loki’s own head, no less.  Those branches were reinforced by careful windings of wire.

He looked up.  Each rune was circular, but he could hardly pick one out in isolation from the others, because they all seemed to come in clusters, collections—no, constellations, that was it.

“They’re stars,” he said.

Trine glanced at him, unmistakably pleased.  “That’s right.  Each rune has a companion on the exterior roof of the caves and it has its companion in the sky—they draw starlight down and then conduct it through the caves.”

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Thor said.  His voice was softer now.  “I didn’t know there were such places.”  He pulled off his glove and held up one hand, letting the starlight play around his fingers.  It seemed to recognize him, light to lightning, and cleaved briefly to his bare fingertips before losing interest.

The shadows were softer and fuzzier here.  It felt somehow like being underwater—a sub-world with its own distinct flora and fauna and light.  He crouched down and touched the ground, finding it neither quite stone nor quite soil but something between the two, a heavy, velvety powder.  He wondered if he would be able to take one of their fruits home to Mother.  It would be something to pluck away some bit of this place and carry it in his pocket.

The orchard-keepers wandered about, clothed in white, but Loki could see other visitors, including one stocky man who looked vaguely Vanir and who looked back at him and Thor with frank curiosity.  They’d have to make sure not to meet him.

“We can go deeper in?” he asked.

Trine gestured.  “As far as you like.  Vegetables grow further on.”

“Could we pick something?  It would be an honor to take home such a gift.”

“Each visitor can select one fruit, though the starving can take what they need.  The vegetables are—less impressive, and one takes them as one needs to.”

“What happens if you try to take more than one fruit and you’re not starving?”

“Justice,” Trine said, briefly and ambiguously.

Loki imagined heinous punishments—thumbs pulled off of hands, those odd Jotun bone ridges shaved down smooth, people forced to swallow hot coals—and found it both barbaric and satisfying.  At the moment he felt he could have gotten savage himself about someone harming this place.

“Who does it belong to?”

“It’s for us all—one of the royal gardens.”

So Laufey was in some vague way responsible for all this.  Interesting.

“It’s good that they have public resources,” Thor said quietly as he and Loki walked through the orchard.  Trine had gone off to talk to one of their colleagues.

“Yes, he has a lot of public spirit, being willing to leave his child to a cold death to not inconvenience his people in a time of war.  Very community-minded.”

“It’s not the best first thing to know of someone,” Thor said.

“I wish you wouldn’t try to get me to understand him.”

“I wasn’t,” Thor said pointedly.  “I was talking of Jotunheim itself.  I’d wager I like Laufey even less than you do, brother, in the end.  I can’t forgive what he did to you.”

“Well, you wouldn’t know it from how you talk.”

Thor shrugged.  “I can’t stop being grateful to him either.  If he hadn’t left you, Father wouldn’t have found you.  If Father hadn’t found you—”

“I’ve been thinking of that.”  They stayed close, speaking is little more than whispers.  “I could have been a stranger to you.  If everyone had done what they should have done, I would be Laufey’s, or at least Odin’s.  I would not have you or Heimdall.  We are what they made us and I don’t know what that means.”  He heard the way his voice shook and clenched his jaw, willing the anger away, trying to look past it.  “I don’t want to be grateful to anyone.”

“Mm.  Remind me not to give you any more birthday presents, then.”

“That’s clearly different.”  They were used to moving in and out of this conversation—it never really ended, only subsided—and so he said, “Look at this one,” and Thor allowed him to leave Laufey behind.  “What do you think these taste like?”

The fruits he pointed to were rose-colored and shaped like large teardrops.  Their skins were spiny and the tips of the spines darkened to blue.

“Mulled wine,” Thor said.  “They had one at the house, I ate it before I came to get you.”

“The only one and you ate it?  You couldn’t have saved me half?”

“I didn’t know you wanted it!”

“It’s genetic, apparently,” Loki said forlornly, running his finger over those blunted blue spikes.  “Also I’m hungry.”

In the end, he chose not the mulled wine fruit but one he remembered reading about in one of Brynn’s books: a stone fruit called a sweet-wish.  It showed up often in his books, though the way the authors always wrote about it had half-convinced him it wasn’t real.  Nothing should feature in so many overbaked metaphors.

Thor eyed the enormous melons but selected another ice-plum instead.  They made their way back to Trine slowly, scuffing their feet along the dense, grainy floor.  If he carried some of it back in the treads of his boots, perhaps he could persuade it to tell him what it was made of and whether it might be duplicated elsewhere—though he could not truthfully imagine this orchard standing anywhere but here.  Like the melons, it was held in its impossible position by entanglement and care, supported a thousand different ways; torn apart from that, it would fall and break like a dream.

“Did you know these looked this way?” Thor said.

Being surprised by things he rightly should have figured out made Loki irritable.  “Did I seem like I knew these looked this way?”

Thor ignored this.  “It would be a jewel of any Realm.”

Loki could hear the implied question in his voice—will you make it yours?  And abruptly, with no fanfare, he knew that he would not.  No, he would not.  He loved these trees, so needy and generous, and he didn’t know that mixing love and power had done either of his kings any good.  And he could live without a proper claim on what he loved, he was sure of that.  The decision fell into place, like he had finally made it to his true form after all.

He said, “Yes, it would,” very quietly.  He knew Thor would understand him even though, coming within Trine’s earshot, he couldn’t say everything he meant.  “I don’t know that anything else on our visit could possibly equal it.  We’ll have to remember it for our letters home.  For the rest of our lives at home.”

Thor looked at him, intent as a hawk, and then reached over, cupping his hand around the back of Loki’s head, brushing his thumb roughly across Loki’s neck.  “I am glad to not have to write you,” he said.  “It makes me happier than anything to think of having you close, if that’s what you want.  It’s good, brother.”  And once they were back into the cavern’s opening and Trine was harnessing up the bear-dogs again, Thor held the ice-plum out to him.  “Here.  As an apology for eating the spiny one earlier.”

“I’m not giving you half of mine,” Loki said, but he still took Thor’s fruit, and split it, and passed half of that back, even unasked for.

It felt like a symbol or a pact and moreover, he thought, really did make him seem generous despite the fact that he was, as he’d warned, tucking the sweet-wish away in his own pocket, well away from Thor’s reach and still his own.  For later.  For something, even if he did not know what.

Chapter Text

It was like walking on untested ice, easing out step by step, waiting to see if the seemingly solid ground would crack beneath him; Loki kept poking and prodding at his decision.  It held firm.  He would not claim Jotunheim—let Odin throw him in the dungeons for it if he wanted, let him rage about wastefulness.  Odin might have wasted a son on this ill-advised gambit, but Loki had wasted nothing, least of all himself.

He lay on his back in bed, spinning the sweet-wish fruit around and around in his hand.  It had a slightly pebbled rind, blue-violet in color, and a long and unusually sharp stem, which figured a lot in the stories about it, something cheery about wishes cutting the wisher and feeding on their blood.  He had already sliced his finger on it, and slicing through Aesir skin—even feigned Aesir-skin, in his case—was no small feat.  It had closed up immediately, of course, but it still gave off a low and persistent throb, like it was scolding him for paying attention to such silly tales.  Well, Lady Vigdis had told him long ago that you could learn as much about a place from its myths as from its history—she’d sent him Asgard’s fantasy sagas sometime after he’d moved from the palace to home.  He would tend to believe her over his own skepticism.  More or less.

There couldn’t be anything properly magical about it, of course, or it wouldn’t grow in plain sight for anyone with a reach to pluck it down.  But the stories still clustered about it, bright as the foil leaves on the trees, and set it apart.  He couldn’t decide when to eat it or whether he even should eat it at all.

He’d promised something to Mother.  Though not this, he didn’t think.  He couldn’t see surrendering it in that way, holding it up as an offering instead of out as a gift.

And in the meantime, clearly he’d just keep cutting himself on it.  Norns.  He sucked on the fresh wound on his fingertip.

Enough.  He left the sweet-wish in one drawer of his wardrobe and went out into the hall to see if he could walk off some of his restlessness.

He could hear the baby crying distantly.  Egil was singing to it, what Loki guessed was a summer song.  It felt like an intrusion to stand and listen, even though being the cause of a song was the height of the babe’s usefulness thus far.

To his surprise, he found Heimdall in the outer rooms, eating—

“Where in the Nine Realms did you get pastry?”

“I packed it,” Heimdall said.  He broke off a corner.  “Here, a bribe to keep you from running and telling your brother.”

“I don’t need to be bribed to hide your treachery,” Loki said, but he took the piece anyway.  He hadn’t thought he could crave bread so much even in such a short time, but they really had no good grain sources here, and he missed it.  The buttery layers melted in his mouth.  “I hate you for having planned ahead.”

“Your packing foresight always was limited to books and socks,” Heimdall said, smiling a little.  “I remember.  I’m sure your feet are warm, if nothing else.”

“Very.”

“What keeps you up, little panther?”

Little panther.  He hadn’t heard that in years now, and he meant to roll his eyes and didn’t quite make it.  “You’re feeling nostalgic, I see.”

“Parents often are, I think.  If you ever have children, you’ll surprise yourself with how many memories you’ll hold close.”

He couldn’t imagine children—sticky-faced, mewling brats, as a whole—though he supposed if one came to him in at some tidy, manageable age, he could see the appeal of being one link in a strange chain: his grandmamas, Heimdall, him, whoever would come after.  He settled down in the chair opposite, regarding the crinkled, sleepy lines at the corners of Heimdall’s wrong-colored eyes.  Loki could read him well enough when he tried and he cursed himself briefly for not having paid more attention before.  Something was weighing on Heimdall.

He approached it indirectly, saying lightly, “I count you fortunate in skipping over my infancy.  Do you hear that bawling?”

“I’m sure it’s as natural for Einar to cry as it is for you to be rude.”

“That doesn’t change the point, does it?”

“I wouldn’t have minded having you sooner.”  He offered Loki another broken-off piece of pastry.  “I’d have all the more memories for it.”

“Something’s troubling you,” Loki said, as indirection had only brought him directly to embarrassment, a flush warming his face.  “I wish you’d tell me what it is.”  He was aware of a slight echo: weeks back, Heimdall had said more or less the same thing to him.  Jotunheim seemed to be the crucible for both their worries, one way or another.

Heimdall regarded him.  Not quite calmly, and that was a worry in and of itself.  Loki wished he could see his eyes, his real eyes, even just for a moment, but it would be a foolish risk—anyone could walk around the corner any moment.

“We’ve talked before of treason,” Heimdall said quietly.  “I have done it in my heart, as have you.  I told someone that before we left, though not in so many words.  He knew it already, of course.  I think we surprised him in other ways, but not in that one.”

Odin.  It tested Loki’s composure to hear about him in the dark.  In broad daylight, he could pity him—it felt satisfyingly rude—and even have a kind of rudimentary respect, but the dark made a child out of him in this one matter.  Heimdall did nothing carelessly, but especially not this, so it must matter.  He inclined his head just a little, a half-nod.  Yes, he understood.

“To tell you what worries me now would be graver than that,” Heimdall said.  “Worth my life, perhaps.  You can see why I’m kept awake.”

“I can,” Loki said.  He tried to sound as if his chest hadn’t pinched very tight.  He didn’t think it was fair—he had resolved things, had he not?  Why did Odin, damn him to the lowest pits of Helheim, keep interfering in that?  He listened to the singing, Egil’s voice slow and thick now with sleepiness, reminding him of Edda creeping across the floor, thinking that if she kept low she would not be noticed.  Everyone was in a skulking mood, a mood that begged for calm.  “I don’t see much sleep ahead for myself now, certainly.”  He had crushed the bit of pastry flat between his fingers.

Egil sang on.  Another reason to resent the babe.  It would find sleep easily enough in the end, once it condescended to try.

He couldn’t ask Heimdall to tell him anything that would mean risking his execution.  If Odin commanded Heimdall’s death, Loki would have to rise up and go to war with him after all, and it would be inconvenient, and he might lose.

He had accepted, or tried valiantly to accept, that Heimdall would sometimes know secrets he could not divulge; that was the nature, surely, of time and guardians and rank.  But it still always felt like there was a rat scrabbling around in his chest whenever he thought of it.  He couldn’t forget that the older secrets had come close to destroying him.

“Is it about me?” he said softly.  “About Thor?”

“It affects you both.  You’re not the object of the secret, though.”

“I don’t have another unrevealed identity coming, then.”

The barest smile.  “No.  You’ll have to be satisfied with the ones you have already.”

“I am,” Loki said.  He stretched out his legs underneath the table.  “I’ve been thinking of that.  Satisfaction is not in my nature—”

“You don’t say.”

“—but I am not a natural creature anyway.  I’ve found what I’m looking for, Heimdall.”

Every muscle seemed to still; Loki couldn’t even see the twitch of a pulse at Heimdall’s throat or the movement of a swallow.  He might have been a statue.  “Jotunheim?”

He knew the train of Loki’s thoughts so well ninety percent of the time and this was where he missed it?  Loki shook his head, exasperated.  “Home.  And whatever it takes to have the life I want.  Though it is—remarkable, this place.  In its way.”  It sounded like the faintest of praise, but he did not know how to say what he had really found—that Jotunheim existed outside of his opinion of it.  “The orchards are very beautiful.  I’d like to show them to you before we go, if whatever trouble there is will permit it.  I don’t see why I should have a holiday of self-discovery terminated early just because I’m naturally clever—what?”

Heimdall took his hand.  His eyes, Loki noticed with a wave or horror and acute embarrassment, guilt and love, were wet; the gathered tears shone yellow in the candlelight and made him look more like himself.  His grip was as firm as ever.  Loki could remember a hundred thousand touches; their life together suddenly felt very long, so long that it was strange he’d spent so much time thinking of what little had come before it.

“I will be glad to see whatever you would like to show me,” Heimdall said.  “And I’ll not let you lose anything you’d want to come home to.”

He did not want to cry as well.  They weren’t a weepy family.  “What an ominous reassurance.”

“It is,” Heimdall admitted.  “But dealing with royalty makes you traffic in foreboding pronouncements.”

He wouldn’t be royalty much longer.  He could hardly see Odin letting him keep whatever shadow title or status he had now once Loki had scuppered a lifetime’s worth of cold-eyed gamesmanship—possibly fair.  Would he have a title?  He couldn’t help but feel that he should have some token acknowledgment of status, a lordship perhaps.  Well, Thor would give him one, undoubtedly.  Someday.  It was a nice distraction to think of it, since the prize he wanted most might always be out of his reach, a sweet-wish on the highest branch of a tree.

With difficulty, he abandoned thinking of himself.  “I could make repeated, charming guesses about what’s bothering you.  It’s not treason to guess accurately, or if it is, no one’s ever told me.  Though I’ll grant you that O—our mutual friend,” there was no point in speaking too plainly when they were still off-world and unguarded, “has a gift for going orders of magnitude beyond my speculations.  Would that be true this time?”

Heimdall considered the question seriously, which was either complimentary or worrying.  “Most likely.”  He squeezed Loki’s hand again—Loki hadn’t realized until then that he hadn’t let it go.  He didn’t need coddling, of course, but if it made Heimdall feel better, he could allow it.  “But I swear to you that if it comes to the point of needing telling, I’ll tell you, regardless of consequence.”

Loki nodded.  He still doubted he’d sleep.  “Should I not tell Thor that there’s nothing to tell?”  Why spin him up for nothing, really?

“I unfailingly factor in that you will tell Thor everything, even when the everything is, as of yet, nothing,” Heimdall said with a dryness that Loki thought was a trifle unfair.  “Now go to bed.  You’re just young enough that I can still tell you that—or just goodhearted enough to pretend for one night.”  He released Loki’s hand and smiled at him.  “I’m proud to call you my son.”

He flushed—he never refused the word, but he could not think it justified, not yet, not when it was so unearned—but nodded.  “Good night, Heimdall.”

He escaped back to the room, passing by the winding down of Egil’s song.  The babe was still making small hiccupy sounds, so maybe they were just giving up on trying to pacify it.  Could he—

He hardly had any business trying to soothe a colicky Jotun infant to sleep.

It was a technical problem, however, to make illusions that were specific to one person’s eyes, and that appealed to him.  He leaned against the cold, damp wall and concentrated, seeing past the door before him and into the large bedchamber.  (They didn’t even have a separate nursery?  It was ludicrous.  Three people and a child in a single room—the very thought of it made him shudder.  His standard of minimum habitable space had changed over the years, but not that much.)  The run of thought had clouded his eyes and he had to lull himself back into peace, looking and looking.  Egil rubbed their eyes.  Trine slept on, impressively, curled on the very edge of an enormous bed, their bare feet sticking out from underneath the infuriatingly light sheet.  Oddvar put an arm around Egil’s waist, stroking one hand up and down Egil’s hip.  Was this what Heimdall saw on a daily basis?  These mundane little intimacies?

He turned his concentration to the babe.  Little Einar.  Heir to an ice-blue world of orchards and horrible suppers.  He could hardly link to it the way he did to Heimdall, but he could gradually feel its perspective, cranky and uncertain.  Poor thing.

Far-seeing plus illusions—peculiar and intriguing.  If he managed it badly, he’d create quite an uproar, and being booted from a house in the middle of the freezing Jotun night would at least distract Heimdall from his other concerns.

He twitched his fingers, sending a slide of innocent spectacle into Einar’s vision.  Horses and big bear-dogs and fruit, toy-sized birds and freshly bloomed flowers.

No screams from his hosts, thank the Norns.  But no real cessation in Einar’s whimpering, either.  A half-victory?

Then he heard a small giggle.

He’d known he was good with children.  He proceeded smugly to his bedroom, blocking his ears against any crying he might possibly hear starting up again behind him.  He wanted to believe that that one thing had been simple.

Thor was turned over on his side, snoring in a snuffly way.  Loki tapped his nose, which had gone almost worrisomely cold.  Should they be sleeping under insulators of some kind?  He stabbed at Thor more insistently.  “Thor.  Wake up or I’ll cut your nose off.  You’ll thank me for it, it’s clearly succumbing to frostbite anyway.”

“I’m going to smother you,” Thor said sleepily.

“And after that touching speech earlier about how happy you were I’d be staying close?”

Thor opened his eyes a narrow slit; given the inadvertent styling he’d put on Thor’s glamour, Loki had to hope that he didn’t also look this bedraggedly contemptuous when awoken.  “I am happy, brother.  Joyous, even.  I’d be even more so if you’d let me sleep.”  He rubbed at his nose.  “It is cold, isn’t it?”

“Something’s wrong,” Loki said.

Thor straightened up.  He became princely before he was even sitting up properly, as if he’d shuffled some of the muddying glamour off him like a blanket; Loki felt an old, unwelcome twist of jealousy.  Thor would go on that way, a beacon shining out from wherever he was, and Loki himself would stay in the shadows.  He tried to remind himself that he liked the shadows—and that Thor would never have them, their freedom and quiet.

No one had ever asked Thor who he wanted to be.  All Thor could do was fulfill his role well or badly.

“What’s happened?” Thor said.  “Is it the baby?”

“What?  Why would it be the baby?  Why would I care if it were the baby?”  That sounded a tad unconscionable even to him.  “I’ll have you know I soothed the baby to sleep, probably.  It’s not Einar, it’s Heimdall.  And—your—you know.”  He clapped a hand over one eye.  “Him.”

“You’re not saying his name now?”

“We’re taking risks enough speaking as we are,” Loki said.  “We hardly need to go around saying that.”

“True enough.”  He took a leather thong up from the bedside table and bound his hair back; rucked up the blankets above his shoulders to huddle under them and made room for Loki to sit beside him.  “Tell me, then.”

Pressed together, their arms made a welcome seam of warmth.  There was regrettably little to tell, but he disliked the idea that he’d woken Thor mostly because Thor was his brother, one of the few people he felt better for seeing when he had the acrid taste of fear in the back of his throat.  He felt like he was growing younger, and not by intention, at the same time as he was growing older, to be craving comfort this way and allowing himself to do it.  Heimdall had said he was proud of him.  Loki exhaled and was surprised when his breath made no fog: it was warmer here than he’d thought.

“Loki?”  A note of worry in Thor’s voice now.

“I’m gathering my thoughts.”  And a note of waspishness in his.  “It’s hard to explain.”

“Couldn’t you have gathered them before you woke me up?”

“He can’t sleep.”  He fidgeted with his hands, flicking cold sparks out from his fingers.  “That’s not that strange—he went centuries on catnaps before I came along, as far as I can tell, so sometimes he just isn’t tired, even though he lives more normally now.  But he was bothered.  I could see it.”  He looked at Thor fiercely, as if Thor would challenge this.  “So I asked, and he admitted it—as far as he could when it concerns that other person.  He said it would be treason to say anything more.  The kind where they take your life in such a way as bars you from Valhalla.”  That was as Asgardian as Odin and so almost as dangerous for anyone to overhear.  He couldn’t make those slips.

Though realistically, anyone hearing this would be within their rights to have them dragged off for interrogation even without a wrong word or two.  This was foolhardiness at its finest.  An hour of peace in a garden didn’t mean that Jotunheim was an unfailingly hospitable place, especially to its enemies.

And he was also going around saying Heimdall.  Shit.  Well, the damage there was already done, so he saw no reason to switch to “Volstagg” now, not when they were alone.

“Treason to tell us,” Thor said.  He pressed his teeth against his lower lip, thinking.  “About you?”

“I asked that.  If it was about me or about you.  If that particular person were waiting somewhere to pull the ground from beneath my feet again.  He said no—but that it concerned us all the same.”

“About Mother?”

“It wouldn’t be treason to tell us if she were sick.”  He didn’t like even raising the specter of that possibility—she could not go, and could certainly not go like that, fading away like Grandmama Hallsa, turning shapeless and waxen in her bed like a burning candle; she was strong.  Not remotely old.  “Not worth execution, anyway.  If he were to divorce her, or get rid of her—”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Thor said, the words falling down hard, Mjolnir squashing a worry.

Loki raised his eyebrows.  “Wouldn’t he?”

Thor tensed and Loki could see him make himself relax.  His calm wasn’t as innate as his frustrating nobility.  He said softly, “I had so many nightmares after you went away.  Sometimes he sent me off too, but those were easier to bear than the ones where he made her go, where I just woke up and one day and didn’t have a mother.  He told me I’d never had one, never had her and never had you, and that we weren’t speaking of it.  And I’d lose… bits of myself.  He’d tell me I’d never had a right arm, never had my eyes.  I still have those dreams sometimes.”

He didn’t know what to do.  He squeezed Thor’s arm.  Still there.

“He didn’t ever really say that,” Thor said.  “About you.  He could have kept us much further apart than he did.”

“I am not grateful for that either,” Loki said.

“No.”  Thor rubbed his eyes.  “I am just confused by him.  Always.  And you’re right, I can’t trust that he won’t be doing just what you said.  I just… find it hard to think about.”

He’d grown over the years to be glad Odin was not his father, but more because of who Odin was to him; now he thought who Odin had been to Thor was reason enough in itself.  And Thor was the one Odin doubtlessly loved.  He thought again of the orchard; love and power and ownership and how poorly they mixed.  No, he didn’t want to be king of anything.  He could feel the potential for it to turn to poison in his veins.

Thor would not be like that.  But very few people were Thor.

“I had nightmares too,” Loki offered.  “That Heimdall would make me leave.  That he’d be made to leave me.  That you or Mother would… let go of me.”

“Never.”

“I know.  They were just dreams.”

“Do you still have them?”

“No.”  That seemed like the better answer, like he would be better himself if that were actually the answer.  He shifted around on the bed.  “Then suppose it’s not Mother.  I agree it’s unlikely—there’s nothing wrong with her.”  Not faulty, hastily acquired stock to be repented of in leisure.  “He loves her.  You’ve no other family—or none that would affect me, anyway, so don’t pull some distant cousin out of the woodwork and think you’ve solved anything.”  Something froze him up.  “It’s not Heimdall.  It’s not something—he would have been able to say if it were something—”

“It’s not Heimdall,” Thor said, and Loki was pathetically grateful for that unearned decisiveness.  “He’d have told you.”

Still.  Maybe if something had happened to Ivar and Asgard was left unguarded—

But if that were true, they’d be headed back already, on a ship if they had to.  Heimdall loved him, but there was love and then there was sitting out a realm-threatening crisis while your ward wandered about exploring his heritage, and Heimdall wasn’t stupid.  Or that careless with other people’s lives.

The fear felt right, though, just—wrongly-angled.  He turned it over and over in his head and his mouth went dry.  “What if he’s stepping down?  Not Heimdall.  Your father.”  And that was another slip, dammit.

Thor’s immediate response was to laugh, but then he closed his mouth.  His eyes disconnected—more clearly than ever becoming paint obscuring the truth of him.  It was like his real self wore an expression that Loki’s magic, however flexible, couldn’t approximate.  “He couldn’t.  I’m not even of age yet.”

“There have been younger k—younger people with that job before you.  It’s rather the problem with hereditary positions.  And you’re almost of age, it wouldn’t be that strange.”  And it might make some belated sense of why Odin had insisted that Thor accompany him, despite that being a ludicrously bad idea that they were proving bad at every turn because apparently they couldn’t keep the Asgardian royal family from coming up in conversation.  “Maybe that’s why you’re here at all, so he can wrap things up quietly before he turns it all over to you.  And so you can familiarize yourself with this place before it’s too risky for you to go here.”

“He has looked older,” Thor said.  To Loki’s surprise, there were tears in his eyes.  Why so much of that tonight?  “Older than he should—much older than he did when we were young.  If you look at the portraits painted when we were little, the ones that are still hanging—”

“The ones without me in them,” Loki said, a little more bitterly than he’d intended.

“—you’d hardly know him, he’s changed so much.”

He owed Odin some small part of his attention—for bringing him to Thor and Mother, for handing him over to Heimdall—even if he suspected the good he’d found there was not what the All-Father had intended.  And he was of Asgard, he’d chosen that, so Odin was his king.  Was due his loyalty.  That hung over him, a sword above his outstretched neck, something he would have to remember.

Unless Odin was king no longer.

Most of his problems—most of his worries and fears, even—would simply evaporate.  Thor would never force him into the wrong skin or exile him from home.  There would be no executions for treason.  Heimdall would not have to bear the price for Loki’s own strike for independence.  He felt lighter suddenly, almost floaty.

“Well, that would certainly solve everything.”

Thor almost hissed at him, spinning sideways and taking Loki’s hands in his, pressing them hard enough that Loki’s bones ached.  “Loki, I am not ready for that.  Not now and not so suddenly.  Hear me, brother.”

He could not think of the last time Thor had needed anything from him, let alone something so complicated as his assent, and he hated being the subject—now there was a word—of that direct, intense gaze.  Thor’s eyes were blue again.  Somehow he had burned away Loki’s illusion, overpowered it with the strength of his own raw, less-channeled power.

“You could do it,” Loki said, looking over his shoulder.  “You’ve been honed for it your whole life.  You have diplomatic experience—”

“I have a few pleasant holidays on Vanaheim!  And here—for two damn nights.  What a storied history of meeting with other worlds.”

“You’ve done battle.”  That would be harder to refute.  Thor’s heroism was already revoltingly legendary, and destined to pale beside whatever he would get up to after he was properly of age.  “You’re the people’s hero, the god of thunder, and my brother.  Why doubt that you can sit in a chair and,” he waved his hand around, “drink wine and commission plays and deliver grave pronouncements?  You’ll be splendid.  And humility’s not your virtue.”

Thor shook his head.  “I’ve seen first-hand the damage a king can do if he’s careless.”

“So you’d leave the one who taught you that on the throne for centuries to come?”  He wrested his hands away from Thor’s grip and squeezed his shoulder.  “Come, now.”  He would not take no for an answer, dammit.

Thor exhaled.  “We shouldn’t speak of this here.”

“Don’t push me aside.”

“Norns, Loki, it’s not about you.”

“Yes, it is,” Loki said.  He kept his voice steady.  “Who controls my life is very much about me.”

It was like a slap; he could almost see the handprint it left behind on Thor’s cheek.  Loki’s head ached, as if they were squabbling children again, as if he’d resorted to another impulsive headbutt—the refuge of those who had their hands restrained, who felt they were losing.  He shouldn’t have said it.

“I’ll do it, then,” Thor said.  “You’re right.”

He was, and he wasn’t going to turn his back on a victory, but he had conscience enough to feel sheepish about it.  “With all my heart, Thor, you’re ready.”

He meant it, but he could feel how the words, said only after he had made it apparent his own needs were his first concern, lacked a certain conviction.  He would have pushed Thor to accept the throne under any circumstances, in any state of ill-preparedness, and now Thor knew it.

It couldn’t matter, surely.  He hadn’t done any real harm.  Thor cared for right and wrong enough that he would never let himself be maneuvered into taking the role if he truly didn’t feel he could hold it; he was a good brother, the best of brothers, but Loki was not the sum of his life.  Thor wouldn’t risk leading Asgard to destruction just to assuage his feelings.  Consequently: fine.  Everything was fine.

“We still don’t know,” Thor said.  “It’s only a guess.”

“It’s the only thing I can think of.”  He was optimistic as he said it, but then he remembered: “Heimdall said it might well be beyond my imagination.  It doesn’t seem to fit that I’d hit on it in a matter of minutes.”

“Maybe he has a low opinion of your imagination.”

“Then my feelings are hurt.”  He smiled.  Thor didn’t mirror it back at him.  “Should I let you sleep?”

“You might as well.  If either of us can.”  Thor stood, stretching, and walked to the window, pulling back the curtain and squinting at the dark sky.  “I don’t know how to gauge the light here.  But now I’m wishing it were morning, and morning on the last day, too, damn it all.  And,” he added, “my feet are cold.”  He wriggled his bare toes against the floor but didn’t move to go get back in bed.

“It’s madness for you not to be wearing socks.  I packed extras.”

“My feet are bigger than yours.”

“Then I’m sure the healers will enjoy the challenge of regrowing your toes.  It must be easier than eyes.”  Oh, excellent, he’d landed them back on Odin, what a joy that was.  He stood up too, leaving Thor his bed and slipping back into his own cold one, shivering against the sheets even as he pulled them up to his chin.  In eight days—less than eight days now—he could be safe.  Free.

Except Heimdall’s opinion of his imagination was not that poor.  He was certain of it.

He shouldn’t have woken Thor.

“Go back to bed,” he said.

Thor continued looking out the window.  The moonlight made his face look gray.  “In a minute.”

He was still standing there when Loki, groggy and guilty, drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Heimdall was not to be found in the morning—Egil, their eyes looking cavernous and exhausted, spooned porridge into Einar’s mouth and said they thought they remembered Heimdall saying he would look at the labyrinth.  Loki took it as a sign Heimdall wanted to be alone and reluctantly decided to respect it.  He would have liked Thor’s company, but Thor too had taken himself off somewhere.

He was left with Huw, who waited until the last full-blooded Jotun—to his knowledge—was out of the house before saying, “I have to think it would be best for you to locate him.”  He sneezed into a handkerchief and rubbed at his nose, which had gone unpleasantly pink at the tip.  “He shouldn’t be out there unaccompanied.  This is all much more civilized than I’d expected, but it’s still enemy territory and anyone who caught on to his identity would happily see him dead.  I’m surprised the All-Father let him come.”

Forced him to come is more like it,” Loki said.  “His faith in my ability to cast a glamour has clearly improved over the years.”

Illmay put down the small bone fork she’d been using to flake off bits of her fish—she’d claimed a sensitive stomach from her pregnancy, but Loki didn’t know how anyone could have a sensitive stomach and sit around eating something that looked like a cross between whitefish and an eel—and gave Huw a level stare.  “Jotunheim is as civilized as any other world, and more, I should say, than most.  The divine knows we have art enough here, and agriculture, and all manner of things.  Pray tell me what we all must do to earn your approval.”

Huw at least had the decency to flush.  It made his cheeks a dull, brickish red that clashed with the pink of his nose.  “I misspoke, my lady.”

Loki didn’t know why he felt called upon to defend him, except some sad inherited feudal notion—Huw was more or less his servant, there upon his request.  “I’m sure Huw has been as impressed by Jotunheim as he ever has been by anything.”

“I’ll get us more tea,” Huw said, presumably just for an excuse to be away from the table for a bit.

Illmay lowered her voice as he left.  “I disliked having to shun him, yes, but that does not mean I see why you had to bring him along here.”

“I trust him.”

“Do you not trust anyone more pleasant?”

“Yes,” Loki admitted, “but not among the servants.”  He had accidentally acquired Huw’s loyalty and so felt responsible for it, but he couldn’t say that without making the matter sound small, and it did not feel so small.  There were other people on Asgard who still called him a prince, but they did so out of courtesy and kindness; it spoke well of them but said nothing in particular about him at all.  Huw had been the first person to be won over by him—had, in some peculiar and prickly way, chosen him.  As much as anything else, it had made him feel a worth outside of titles and parents and positions.  He had earned the respect of someone vastly difficult, and he liked it.

Besides, Huw’s rudeness let him be rude in return, and that was satisfying.

“He shouldn’t have said what he said,” Loki went on, “but really, for almost anyone of Asgard, let alone for him, that was almost polite.”  He supposed at this point they had all been indiscreet enough that he might as well just trust that the walls did not have ears.  “You know the stories that are told there.  I was astonished he agreed to come at all—I didn’t even have to try to convince him.”

Illmay sighed and then waved her hand, dismissing Huw.  “But what do you think of it, Loki?  Now that you’re here?”

“I think it’s beautiful.”  He watched the light come back into her eyes.  She was by far the warmest thing in the room, so he left it there: he didn’t have to go on.  She must not hear her world praised very often.  He wondered if Helga had ever come here.

He let that answer suffice, suspecting it would be kinder than adding that he still found the cold bitter, the food (except for the fruit) repugnant, the long-ago attempt to overtake Midgard cruel and needless, the bony ridges and flat red eyes unattractive.  But he could have gone on from there, too, and said that their magic was startlingly innovative, their family arrangements soul-satisfying, their songs haunting, their language sophisticated and pleasant to the ear.  Their household insulation needed work, however, or they’d never succeed at getting off-world guests to stay for long.  He would recommend rugs.  And that did remind him—

“I would like to take a bath,” he said.  “If I might.”

There was laughter in her eyes.  “A very prosaic transition.”

“I don’t suppose I’m sweating at all in this weather, but still, if I go much longer without, the odor would be more prosaic than me asking after baths.”  A horrible thought occurred to him.  “Please tell me I don’t need to rub myself with snow or something equally appalling.”

“You don’t have to rub yourself with snow.”

“Thank the divine,” Loki said.  He should probably practice seeming more Vanir.

Huw returned with the tea and lay it out with quiet ceremony.  He glanced at Illmay and whatever pardon he found in her face must have satisfied him, because he sat down as well and helped himself to a cup.  “What are you thankful for, Prince Loki?”

“We don’t have to bathe with snow.”  He was amused by the intensity of the relief Huw showed at that.  “So how do we bathe, then?  I didn’t see any tubs here.”

“They’re public.  Built into the steam tunnels, around what few hot springs there are.”  She stroked the table with one fingertip and looked at a dial on it that Loki couldn’t read.  “It shouldn’t be too busy now, if you’d like to go.  Most people will be working.  You’ll look strange without an escort, but not remarkably so.  I’ll give you directions.”

The baths were within walking distance, although they’d be frozen stiff by the time they got there and would have to make sure to dry themselves very thoroughly before they left.  Huw somehow attached himself to the expedition, probably disliking the idea of ever having to go there alone, so before Loki knew it, they two of them were fighting their way through snowdrifts.  He tugged his fur cloak more tightly around himself and wondered if he could get away with becoming Jotun everywhere but his face.  It would at least be a little warmer.

Huw spoke through chattering teeth.  “I still think it would be best for you to locate Prince Thor.”

“How do you even know I can?”

“Like father, like son, I’d think.”

Loki’s boots snagged on something underneath the top scrim of snow and he came to a jarring stop, arms windmilling without any dignity whatsoever, before he resumed his pace.  There was a catch in his throat he couldn’t swallow down.  “I’ll take a look.”

“I’ll keep you from walking into anything more,’ Huw said generously.

Loki looked between the snowflakes and the glittering, fractal light that shot off of them.  He found Thor in what looked like a temple, where he was studying some kind of inlaid mosaic on the floor.  It was made of stones and gems and colored ice and seashells—where did they come by those?—and was very nearly as elusive in its meaning as a Vanir painting.  He could see Thor squinting at it.  Loki had forgotten to change the color of his eyelashes, which remained a slightly dusty brown-gold, but they went well enough with the rest of the glamour that he didn’t think it—

Oh.  It was a child.

A Jotun child, very young, younger even than Einar.  A child becoming a snake.

Him.

So that was where he’d been found.  Where he’d been left.  Laufey had a sentimental streak, didn’t he?  He’d slaughter his infant son, but he would build a really quite astonishingly elaborate memorial for him.  He’d make it unlawful to kill ice-snakes.  What honor.  What gentleness.

Thor crouched down and touched one of the cold blue stones, his brother’s cheek, and Loki wrenched himself, unable to bear looking any longer.

Huw’s hand was on his arm, holding him up.  “Prince Loki?  Prince Loki?”  There was a hard edge of panic in his voice and then Huw fumbled with the clasp on Loki’s cloak, uncharacteristically clumsy, and unlatched it; pulled the cord that held Loki’s shirt tight at his throat.  A flash of cold struck his exposed skin there, freezing with its own fire, like a brand.  “What is it?”

“I’m fine.”  He sounded clear to his own ears.  Entirely fine.  “Thank you for your prompt attention.”

“What was it?”

“You don’t have the right to all my secrets,” Loki said shortly.  He yanked his cloak back up and kept walking.

Huw fell in beside him.  “I know that.”  At least he was back to sounding crisp.  “But if you’re going to go around having fainting spells—”

“I didn’t faint.”

“—in front of people, you have to know they’re going to ask about it.”

“You are a terrible servant,” Loki said.  “You know that, don’t you?”

“I’ve heard it said.  Mostly since I made your acquaintance.”  He matched Loki’s strides even though Loki was the taller of the two of them now.  “I unbent with you—badly, I admit—and you didn’t seem to want me to bend back entirely.”  His mouth tucked into a frown of deep consideration.  “And I’m not really overflowing with good cheer anyway.”

“You don’t say.”  He knew he was echoing Heimdall.

“I’m capable of it, certainly.”

“Good cheer?”

“No, good,” he waved his hand around, “servitude.  Not service, I give you good service—now, at least.  But that silent gliding-about where I ask no questions and don’t exist properly.”

It occurred to him that he had not, before Huw, known any servants much at all.  He remembered Huw telling him about his sister pressing flowers in her books.  “I would tell you if I were allowed.  I’m not.”

“Ah.”  There was a stretch of silence interrupted only by the creak and squeak of their boots on the snow.  “Something to do with why the prince of nowhere, born the year the war ended, wanted to come to Jotunheim, of all places.  A complete mystery.  I couldn’t possibly imagine any secret there.  Truly it must be preserved at all costs.”

Loki bit down on his fist to stifle a helpless, hopeless laugh.  Of course Huw had guessed.  He’d known it was a possibility from the moment he’d asked him to come and he had, anyway, been paring down over the years the number of people in his life who did not know, but all the same, it rankled to be so easily found out.  “I hope that’s a fresh realization for you and you weren’t overwhelmingly horrified back on Vanaheim to find yourself pressed into service to a Frost Giant in addition to everything else.”

“No, not until you asked me to accompany you here.”  He flexed his hands in their wolf-skin gloves and looked only at his knuckles as he spoke.  “And I’m at your service.  As I think I said.”

It was a small warmth in the cold, but warmth all the same.  “Thank you.”

“So,” Huw said briskly, “what did you see that made you come over all pale?”

He didn’t know that he believed that Huw was a more traditionally good servant in other contexts.  He really didn’t.  “Laufey left me to die of exposure.  In a temple, during the war.  Thor’s there now, looking at this charming mosaic commemorating my supposed survival via transformation into an ice-snake.”

Huw looked around.  “There are snakes here?”

“That’s what you seized upon?”

“I don’t like them.”

“Thor does,” Loki said mercilessly.  “I turned into one for him once.  He loves them.  He probably brought one here in his luggage.”

Huw shuddered but otherwise failed to rise to the bait in any satisfying way.  “It’s also barbaric, of course, that you were left to die as a babe.”

“Thank you.”

“The All-Father found you?”

“That he did.”

Huw nodded.  That explanation seemed, for whatever reason, to satisfy him in its entirety.  Or he simply knew Loki’s patience was already at a breaking point.

They found the baths without any trouble, but that was the first and, Loki suspected, last bit of the day to go well, because of course, of course the Jotuns didn’t separate their bathhouses by sex when they either estimated it differently or hardly factored it in at all.

Loki was determined to not let his discomfort show—he would under no circumstances look more provincial than Huw—and so he held his chin up and didn’t pause at the single entrance even when he heard Huw mutter something under his breath.  What seemed like an oddly shuffling procession of Jotuns resolved itself into what he understood was something called a queue.  He knew the concept from Vanaheim and books but still found it bizarre.  They arranged themselves in chronological order by arrival and, by unspoken mutual agreement, proceeded one at a time to their destination—in this case, a small countertop of carved ice where they could lay offerings.  Ostensibly voluntary—the baths were public—but in practice, no one was actually bypassing it.  Loki dug around in his pockets and came up with some Jotun coins he’d traded Illmay for and scattered them across the counter.

On Asgard you did not pay for what was free.  Odin had gold enough without it.  Why didn’t Laufey?

Well, he had lost the war.  That had surely cost them—the Casket, most obviously, but probably much of their treasury as well.

His tutor had not covered much by way of economics, but Lady Vigdis would have done those lessons with Thor: Loki would ask him how it was all supported, what paid for the servants, what kept the streets clean.

And now, no matter how deeply he’d burrowed into statecraft in his head, the time had come for him to take off his clothes and go naked into a room full of Jotuns to whom he would look pasty, small, and of questionable bloodline.

Huw caught his hesitation.  “You could—”  He quirked his fingers.  “I assume.”

Loki shook his head.  “Too much of a risk,” he said, low enough that it was barely audible.  He pulled off his layers of clothing and made a heap of it on the available spot of stone shelf—fur and wool and, last and closest to his skin, linen.  He felt his face heat up even as gooseflesh washed over the rest of him.

Huw was undressing too with a distant, mechanical look on his face.

They hurried around the corner into to a room that was almost white with steam, and Loki buried himself in the water as quickly as he could, heedless of the splash it produced.

“In my eyes,” someone complained.

“Oh, they’re no bigger than a minute, they can’t be more than a child,” someone else said dismissively.  “Don’t be so rigid.”  The owner of that voice eased sideways through the water.  They were tall even for a Jotun, their eyes more orange than red, and their shoulders were remarkably broad.  Loki’s eyes drifted further downward than that and he felt an entirely unwelcome stirring of something that he decided to ignore as thoroughly as possible.

“Pardon me,” they said.  “You’re of Vanaheim, correct?”

They were addressing Huw.  Right, yes, they determined hierarchy by age more than rank; chronological by order of arrival queue in that regard, too.

Huw thankfully managed some of the courtesy he’d insisted he had.  “Yes, we are.  We’re friendly with the Baroness Illmay, a cousin of Egil and Trine and Oddvar, or at any rate with one of them, I couldn’t entirely parse the family relationships.  I am Huw and this is Loki.”

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” Loki said, still unable to get over the fact that he was having this conversation naked.

The tall Jotun’s name was Lor, and they proved both very chatty and very unable to discern, even after a quarter hour’s conversation, that Loki was not still in the schoolroom.  Huw, damn him, seemed entertained enough by this that he relaxed completely and probably made a new best friend.  Loki slinked off after a while to wash his hair under one of the little waterfalls.  He decided he preferred the magic and technology of Jotunheim to the people—though actually that was true of Asgard too, in the main.

He liked being warm here, that was certain.  The water smelled heavily and revoltingly of minerals, only slightly overlaid with a vaguely floral soap, but he would have breathed in an infinite amount of that foul-smelling steam to luxuriate in the almost-too-hot water and let his muscles loosen.  He lolled his head back and let it cover his ears, too.  He could still hear Huw in the background over the faint thunder of the waterfall and the glug of it in his ears, but he pushed the sound aside.  He reached out with his mind instead, peeling back the ceiling of the cavern and finding Thor again.

He was no longer at the temple, thankfully.  He was in Oddvar’s labyrinth—no, not Oddvar’s.  This was larger and grander than the one at the house, the sculptures in it more professionally shaped.

He watched Thor walk among the statues, taking them in.  Loki tried to tell what specifically he was looking at, but he’d pressed the matter too far: Thor straightened up abruptly and said, “Loki,” through his teeth.  “I can tell you’re there.”

Loki moved back under the waterfall so no one could hear him.  “I was only looking.”  He couldn’t talk to Thor in his head yet, the way he could with Heimdall, even when they did link minds this way.

“You’re a spy and a sneak, brother.”

“That’s hurtful.  I have profound gifts.”

“Oh, you do,” Thor said.  It didn’t sound like he had the same talents in mind.  “Where are you?”

Loki looked around, his vision briefly doubling to show him a forest of naked Jotuns.  “Nowhere in particular.  Where are you?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

This was an enlightening conversation.

“I’ll see you back at the house,” Thor said, and pushed Loki’s seidr away from him, sending Loki back to a wider focus on the garden.  He still couldn’t make sense of it.

He closed his eyes and sank down into the water, shaking his head to clear it.  He came up drenched and thoroughly back in the bathhouse.  By now he had to be so clean his skin would squeak if anyone touched him, so he swam back to Huw and Huw’s new dearest and fondest love.

“I’m going,” he said.  “You don’t have to—you can find your way back, can’t you?”

“Yes, but I’m not letting you go alone.”

“You can’t ‘let’ me do anything,” Loki pointed out.

“Obstreperous, aren’t they?” Lor said to Huw, all commiseration.  “I have little cousins of my own.”

“He is unmanageable,” Huw agreed, “but it’s not entirely thankless to have him in my charge.”  He straightened up, sighing as his chest and shoulders left the heat of the water.  “I enjoyed talking with you.”

“And I you, Huw of Vanaheim!”

“I hope you enjoyed that,” Loki said once they were far enough away from the baths.  He rubbed himself dry with one of the coarse towels that seemed to be reserved for common use, chafing warmth into his limbs as quickly as he could.  He pulled his clothes back on the moment they won’t stick to the dampness of his skin.  “And I am not obstreperous.  I have never been obstreperous.”

“No,” Huw agreed, which wrongfooted him.  “But you can see why they thought you were only a boy, flopping into the water like a fish.”

“Pardon me for not being accustomed to going about in the bare.”

“Oh.”  Huw paused in the middle of drying his hair, leaving it disheveled, in damp porcupine spikes.  “I suppose you wouldn’t be, after all.  You must have a bath of your own at the Gatekeeper’s cottage, and you’re always treated at least as a lord everywhere else.  There are public baths at home.  In the pa—in your brother’s house, even, for the servants.”  He went back to his hair and then clucked over the state of Loki’s.  “You shouldn’t have gotten that wet, you wear it too long for it to dry easily.”

Loki could not rid himself of the image of endless nude Huws swanning about the palace.  He stayed still and let Huw manhandle his scalp and eventually braid his hair so tightly it felt like his skin would pull back off his skull; Huw tucked the braid up under Loki’s collar, making it tickle his neck.  It was his much-voiced opinion that if Loki died of frostbite he’d only have himself to blame.  Being the object of his attention was like being petted with pinpricks.

He refused to admit it, but his head did feel unpleasantly cold all the way back to the house, and he couldn’t stop shivering even inside of his cocoon of furs.

It occurred to him that Huw hadn’t asked if he were going to take up the throne of Jotunheim.  He wondered if Huw had assumed he would or assumed he wouldn’t; he certainly didn’t think Huw would have refrained from asking on the grounds that it didn’t concern him.

Loki decided not to raise the question himself.  It would be depressing if he found out Huw understood him completely.

He stayed away from conversation on their trudge back, the better to hide that his teeth were chattering, and his first move on returning to the house was to plant himself in front of the fireplace.  Thor was already there, stretched out on the hearth like a cat, so Loki could pretend it was brotherly love that drove him there.  It seemed more dignified than a chill.

“You smell like flowers,” Thor said.

“I smell clean, thank you.  I went to the baths.  Where were you, if you’re going to condescend to tell me now?  What was the statue garden?”

Thor poked at the fire with a length of animal bone, stirring up a new flare of sparks.  The firelight had turned him red and gold and had brought out a sawtooth line of sweat on his forehead, close to his hair, and Loki loved him and wanted to say that he was sorry for trying to make Thor do what he wanted; he did, he thought, feel sorry.  Now, at least, if not before.  He remembered Fridunn, all those years ago, telling them about how coolly and unapologetically Laufey had planned to terraform Midgard to suit his own people.  Some of that was in him.  When it came to his own interests, he lacked for kindness.

“Thor—”

“It was a memorial of the war,” Thor said.  “The statues were of their dead, though I didn’t have time to see them all—you hardly could.  A third of the population.  Even a third of this region…  I thought, ‘I can’t imagine that.  It can’t be as bad as they say.’”  He turned his head a little.  “Why didn’t they ask us for help?”

“I don’t think they do that.”  Odin would not have been Laufey’s hearthmate.  He was outside of their clans and connections, a stranger and an enemy.  It was appalling and stupid, but their history texts were full of appalling stupidity.

“I didn’t want you to have to see it.”

Loki tilted his head.  “Why not?”

“Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”

No.  Not truly.  Not as much as the orchard had, not as much as the eternal feeling of the ice-dagger in the palm of the hand that could have been his own from birth.  As much as the winter song.  And not, certainly, as much as Grandmama Hallsa or even Heimdall’s other mothers who had died before Loki had even known him.  Thor was the one who involved himself in such things.

A more natural king, probably.

“I don’t know,” he said, feeling it out.  “They’re abstractions.”

He could not feel strongly about everything he saw, about everything that had little to do with him.  If Heimdall were as openhearted as Thor, he would have gone mad long ago and killed himself from despair.  The galaxies had more griefs than stars.  Loki was suited for the life he wanted, suited like a knife for a sheath, and yet he might not have it.

And that would be—would have to be—survivable.  Because everything else had been, so far.

He tried to concentrate on the deaths of millions, as Thor wanted him to, and as it seemed disgraceful to say that he couldn’t.  “I suppose I wish it hadn’t happened.”  He glanced around and saw no one.  “And to have happened like that—one part of me against another.  But then again, like we said, if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to be talking to you about it.  And I like being here.”  He stole the poker from Thor’s hand and stabbed pointlessly at the fire.  “Being your brother.  I shouldn’t have pushed you about him, I’m sorry for that.  Let’s pretend it never happened.”

Thor bumped his shoulder against Loki’s.  “That would be a neat and terrifying trick, brother, if you could cast a glamour on my mind.  And I forgive you, anyway.”

“I wonder if you could glamour someone’s mind,” Loki said, intrigued.

“Please do not go around brainwashing people and claiming I told you it was a fine and good idea.”

“I’m only saying it would be useful.  You might need dark magic on your side someday.”

“No, I’ll need you, and I won’t have you if you’ve gotten yourself thrown in the dungeon for sorcery and coercion.”

“Obviously I would coerce and ensorcel someone until they let me out of the dungeon again.”

Thor brushed aside the game, which was annoying.  “Aren’t you going to take after him, anyway?”

“Him who?”

Another glance about the room.  “Heimdall.  That noted non-sorcerer who uses his gifts for the good of the realm and doesn’t confound anyone’s brain out of their skull.”

“I was just thinking of that.”  He stabbed the fire again.  It failed to resolve anything in him.  “I’m not good enough.  I’m not him.  I’ve been trying to be and I’ll go on trying and I might stand there one day in a terrible-looking helmet, but I—”  He swallowed.  “I’m just not good enough.”

Thor obligingly developed a sudden overwhelming interest in the fire, allowing Loki to rub his eyes dry again.  “If you mean you’re not as good as he is,” Thor said, still watching the flames dance, “you don’t have to be, no more than I have to be ready to take on my father’s role.  You are my little brother, after all.  You’re still—searching for the right word here—a pipsqueak.”

“I will shove you into the fire.”

“Good,” Thor said cheerfully, “I’ll be warm.”  He dug his fingers into Loki’s arm, reaching him even through the layers of wool, shaking him like he’d shake a puppy by its scruff.  “Not being his equal now does not mean that you won’t ever be.  He has a few millennia on you, you know.  You don’t know what his skills were back when he was still all shrimpy and spotty like you.”

“I should have killed you in our battle,” Loki said reflectively.  “No one was looking.  I could have gotten away with it completely.”

“You and your missed opportunities.  You should live in the here and now, brother.”

“So you say, going about mourning the deaths of people neither of us ever knew.”

Thor’s smile faded, leaving just its ghost around his mouth, a certain flexibility to its corners.  “Whether it makes your heart ache or not, I rue it.  I don’t want us to ever come to that again.  I want murderers and slavers and monsters to fear me, not people sitting around a dinner table, people bringing up their children.”  He rubbed one thumbnail against a hearth-stone, making a low scratching sound that made Loki’s back teeth hurt.  “And I think we should bring back the Casket.”

He realized, disconcertingly, that Thor had grown to think differently than he had—they had never been especially alike, of course, but now their minds had been trained in such different ways.  He hadn’t thought of the Casket.  His politics were smaller and more intimate; Thor moved about whole civilizations in his head.  He could have been that, done that, had that.  He could see another version of himself, a shadow to Thor, weaker and darker but cast in the same mold, and he did not like it.  He could not take so much failure as that.  The prospect of it made his skin feel clammy.

He would have done badly as Thor’s shadow, being asked to care intensely and without pause or distraction for the cares of a realm, of all the realms.  No pleasant distractions, no sure companions, and little certain love.  And not even a grand destiny to make up for it.

No.  Thank you, but no.  He liked his life as it was.

“Don’t you think you’ll be lonely someday?” Loki said.

“Do you just—have some other conversation with yourself in your head while I’m talking?”

“Sometimes.  And yes, good, Casket, I’m sure they’ll be very grateful.  Thor, Ice-Bringer, all hail.  But when you do take the throne—”

“Do I worry I’ll be lonely?”  Thor chuckled.  Loki couldn’t tell how sincere it was.  “I’ll have you.  I’ll have Mother and Father and Heimdall, and I have friends, you know, Sif and Hogun and Fandral and, do you know Gara’s father drank me under the table at a tavern a few weeks ago?  My head still aches from it.  So him too, perhaps.”

“Subjects,” Loki said dismissively.

“Ah, if you’re going to be all Jotun and precise about things.  Warrun-ma-ki.”

Warrun-ma,” Loki said.  “I’m here.”

Thor smiled.  “That’s right.  I knew—”

But whatever he was about to say was cut off by Heimdall sweeping in.  He was wearing his travelling cloak again and the look on his face was not one Loki had ever seen before.  He came to his feet at once.  “What is it?  You look—”

“We have to go,” Heimdall said.  Huw came along behind him, lugging Loki’s trunk with him, and then vanished again, presumably after Thor’s.  His face had looked almost white.  “You two have been indiscreet—don’t think that’s escaped my attention, though it’s hopefully escaped that of our hosts—but I can’t afford to be, not now.  I’ll give you what explanation I can once we’re away.”

“I have to say goodbye to Illmay—”

“No, Loki.”  Heimdall put his hands on his shoulders.  “Not this time.  Not right now.  I swear to you it will be time for answers soon, but right now there is time for nothing.  Will you help me?”

“Of course.  Yes.”  He couldn’t think, his mind was whited out.  “I’ll collect whatever is left behind and we’ll be going.”

“Thor, you too.”

“Yes,” Thor said.  His features were so still it looked like he’d donned a mask.  Loki almost wondered if the glamour had gone faulty, some quirk of it awry because of his own stress.

But he could not fuss with it now, not with what Heimdall had said, so he went back to their chambers and gathered up what little Huw had not been able to deal with already.  He donned his furs again.  He slid the sweet-wish fruit into his pocket.  His hair was still damp at the nape of his neck, at the top of his head—nothing they’d done was so long ago.  What could possibly have happened?

He’s dead.  He’s gone.

No.  That was ridiculous.  He might look old, but he was nowhere near that.  The Odinsleep, maybe?  Would it come on so unpredictably?  And would it be an emergency if it did?

He came back to join them.  “Here.”  He shoved Thor’s cloak at him.  “I think that’s everything.”

“Come,” Heimdall said, gesturing them outside.  “Ivar can’t open a way for us unless we’re under open sky.  Apparently.”  The last word was just under his breath, a bit of irritation that made Loki feel somewhat better, as if things were normal still.

They stood huddled on the steps of the manse, just as they had when they’d arrived, only now they faced out, out towards Jotunheim.  Loki looked one last time at the tundra and the snowdrifts, the ice and the stone; the word home did not fit, but birthplace, he supposed, was neutral enough.  He could handle it being true.  He could say he was of this place and hold his head up as he did it.

Heimdall said Ivar’s name, just once, and then they were gone.

Chapter Text

PART SEVEN

 

Ivar had taken to them to the palace and a palace guard Loki did not know had taken them to a waiting chamber and then another palace guard he did not know had come and taken Thor away, leaving Loki and Heimdall alone.  Loki rubbed the velvet that upholstered the settee, wanting to work it down to the nap.  He was in the mood to spoil something.  He couldn’t think properly.  He didn’t like being scared and he had thought that they were past all this rushing around.  Sending an apology to Illmay was all he had to occupy him and, since he could tell her nothing, it was quickly done.  Now there was only the wait.

He said, “You promised me answers.”

“I did.  I’m only thinking of where to begin.”  Heimdall looked at the door.  “Thor will be talking to your mother.  She should tell him all, too, but whether she does or not, I will tell you.  I’ve spent too long keeping secrets from you and I’ll be glad when this last one is done with.”

His skin felt too tight around his bones.  “Then so will I.  Assuming you ever do it.”

Heimdall smiled.  He glanced at Loki picking through the upholstery and said nothing of it.  What he did say was, “Thor was not Odin’s first-born child.”

Loki’s hands stilled—sagged—collapsed.  “What?”  That Thor’s family history had been sand and not bedrock shouldn’t have surprised him of all people—he knew how easily these things were overwritten—but he had thought there would be an end to it.  There wasn’t, he saw now.  It went on and on, deeper and deeper.

“Thousands of years ago now.  He had another wife before your mother—you know that, I think.  There are still a few portraits.”

“He never spoke of her,” Loki said, but yes, he had known, the way he and Thor had known so many things as children; they had taken, he had always thought, the history of their family in as though through their skin, an absorption without thought or even cause.  So that history was particular.  Authored in a way he had not expected.  He was too hot; he took off his furs and undid his collar.  “I do remember the portraits.  She was—tall, dark-haired.  It seemed so long ago.  I assumed she died.”

“She did.  But first she bore him a daughter.  Hela.  Princess of Asgard… and goddess of death.”

Overblown.  But Heimdall did not sound as if he thought so.  What power would you have to wield, how absolute and uncontested, to claim such a title without provoking laughter?

“She deserved the name,” Heimdall said, answering him without him having to ask.  “She was the fiercest warrior in the Nine Realms, and this was in the days of the Valkyries, in the days of Stors Earth-Shaker, in the All-Father’s own prime.  Those who fell at her hand—I think they would outnumber all living creatures between here and Midgard.”

“In battle?”

“It was all battle then,” Heimdall said, “all glorious battle, and all slaughter and conquest.  We did not protect the Nine Realms.  We took them.”

He thought of Jotuns leaving coins for their baths.  Of Asgard’s free plenty.  He could have guessed, he supposed, if he had troubled himself to do it.  “Vanaheim likes us.”

“We’ve done them services since,” Heimdall said.  “And our realms have always been intertwined, really.  All the good you’ve heard of, all our generosity—that is true enough, even if it’s incomplete.  There is reason to love this world.  I do.  And I did then, though with less cause.  I believed in conquering these worlds I could then see only in fragments—disordered, unclear, chaotic.  I thought they would be better for Odin’s rule, even if they became half-barren before they submitted to it.  I don’t think so now, but I don’t want to deceive you about who I was.”

“Heimdall the Reckless,” Loki said, but this time Heimdall did not smile.  “What I think of you will never change.”

“My Loki.”  Heimdall’s eyes were warm and clear, his own again.

“What happened then?”

Heimdall told him: Odin, ever-fickle—that had been Loki’s own interpretation of it, at least—had changed his mind, had decided to glut himself on benevolence, to choose peace and stability over relentless growth.  Asgard would be preeminent as it always had been, but now it would be so for its shining greatness, its protection of the less fortunate, its unused strength.  Hela hadn’t liked the plan.  (Loki could sympathize.)  Dissent, revolt, war, imprisonment, and revised history.

He dug his thumb deeper into the velvet and felt the fabric split, giving way to him.  Good.  Something should.  “So Thor is the exception, then.”  His voice was light, airy, which was odd given how locked-up his chest felt, how breathless he was.  “The one that worked out and did not need to be discarded.  But he would have done that, if he’d thought it needed—”  His eyes burned.  Those dreams Thor had told him of—you never had a right arm, you never had a brother, you were never my son.  “Thor deserves more than that.”

“It may have been necessary,” Heimdall said, softly and sensibly, but Loki did not feel the need for sense, not now.

“You would never have done that to me.”  He was sure of it.  “Killed me, perhaps, if you’d needed to.  Imprisoned me, maybe.  But not hidden me.”

“No.”  Heimdall put his hand against the back of Loki’s head, very gently.  “Whatever you did, whoever else you became, you would always be my son, and I would never say anything else.”

Yes.  He—he would be that.  It was embedded in his name.  Carved into the foundations of him.

And he had space enough to breathe again.  “So what has happened?  Odin has decided he needs her after all?”  A horrible thought occurred to him.  “Norns, you’re not going to have to adopt her or anything, are you?”

“She’s somewhat my senior,” Heimdall said dryly, “so it would be unconventional.  No, Odin chose at last to visit her, and to do so when you and Thor were conveniently off-world, in case the visit gave Hela the opportunity to escape and—”

“Brutally murder everyone?”

Heimdall did not nod to that but did not contradict him either.  “If Hela overtook Asgard, I was to keep you and Thor on Jotunheim and out of trouble—which would have been a nearly impossible task—until you were old enough and powerful enough to defeat her.  But something has gone wrong.  The door to her prison—it’s no longer accessible to us.  The All-Father… believed that if Hela killed him within the walls of her sealed world, the door would be as a wall to her.  It is locked and his life is the key—wherever he dies, that is where she will be.”

“So he is dead, then.”  He could not process it, it was like learning the sky had gone.  “And Thor is king.”

“Perhaps.  I suspect your mother will summon me to the Observatory soon enough to see if the Bifrost can give me power enough to see through the wall, but…”  He sighed.  He looked bruised around his eyes.  No wonder he had not slept, with a possible cold eternity hanging over him, with dread.  “It may be the end of an age.  And Thor is very young to be king.”

Older than Loki, did that count for nothing?  He pushed it aside.  “He doesn’t think he’s ready.”

“That’s encouraging, if nothing else.  I’d worry more if he were eager.”

Good kings didn’t pursue their own selfish ends, yes, he understood that, but he could not stop thinking of the stricken look Thor had had when Loki had tried to box him in.  He didn’t like that he’d maneuvered so strongly to get a future that would have been his anyway if he’d only waited.  That he’d done it tainted everything.  He couldn’t be happy about any of this with it in his mind.  And Odin had helped teach him to read, once, guiding his finger over the words, resolving them into meaning.  He had been a part of home.  A dangerous part, true, but you didn’t dry up the water because it might flood.  He hadn’t wanted him dead.  Not consistently, at least.

And he had as well as told Thor that he would not be much use for sympathy.

“I’ve handled things badly,” he said.  “With Thor.  Trying to guess at your secret, when you’d already warned me I couldn’t.”  He pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Is this all of it, by the way?  The last enormous unspoken thing?”

“The last enormous one,” Heimdall said.  “Yes.”

“Norns.  What’s a petty one?”

Heimdall shrugged.  “I like your hair better long than short, for one thing.”

“I knew that.”  But this made for a distraction, at least, whittling down the minutes until Thor returned to them or else they were summoned too.  “What else?”

“More serious than that?”

“If you like.”

Heimdall considered the question.  “I entertain the notion of you following in my footsteps,” he said at last.  “Becoming Guardian of the Bifrost, Gatekeeper of Asgard.  But I don’t know if that’s what you want, and I don’t want to close a future around you like a trap.”

“You must be joking.”  He knew the laughter that threatened then was half-hysteria, the snapping back of a tension finally broken, but knowing that did nothing to stop it.  What a long and crowded day this was.  He held his fist against his stomach, against the rigid shaking muscles, and tried not to think of how far he sounded from sanity.  He blinked and his eyes were fringed with tears, and only that calmed him: he wiped them away.  Said again, “You must be joking.”

Something in Heimdall’s face had closed to him.  “I know it’s a burdensome task.  It removes you from many things, especially if you’re not careful—”

“No, no.  You think I don’t want it?  Did you hear me talking about it with Thor?  That particular indiscretion, not an hour ago?  Heimdall—it’s the one fate I’ve always wished for.  To stand in that place, to be your son, to be Thor’s eyes.”

Heimdall cupped his hands to either side of Loki’s face.  “Loki.  You are my son.  Whatever you do, whatever becomes of you.  I said it just five minutes ago.  If I should have said it more often, then that fault is mine.  If I have held back so far from controlling you that I have not made myself felt at all, then I am sorry.  But hear me, at least.  Whatever can be felt on my side is felt.  You’re more precious to me than any imaginable treasure, and I love you.  There is nothing else you need to do or be or have.  You are my son.”

They had had this conversation once before, with this same intensity; he remembered it, but not so clearly.  He had been muddled then, with tears and uncertainty and longing, and he was probably still muddled now and he could not keep his mind still, but all the same—

“All right,” he said.  His voice was thick.  “I… believe you.  In theory.”

“In theory,” Heimdall repeated.

“What I don’t earn has a way of vanishing,” Loki said.  His throat hurt.

Heimdall’s tone grew gentler.  “I don’t.  No more than your brother.”

No.  No, he didn’t.  He never had.  Loki exhaled.  “Then—fine.  You are my father.”  He looked away, blinking quickly, trying to forestall any embarrassing tears.  “Not my guardian,” he said, looking at the wall, “not my foster father.  My father.  And I am your son.  In truth.”

He looked back at Heimdall and saw—and was fairly sure he was not embroidering the sight in his own head—a happiness untouched by everything else that was happening around them.  Loki gave up even feigned nonchalance and leaned close, burying his face in Heimdall’s shoulder.  Heimdall held him tightly.  Everything felt solid and sure, the lines thick and trustworthy, and for once, Loki did not try to immediately see through the illusion of it, he just let this one sure thing satisfy and shape him.  He held his cynicism away at arm’s-length.

He was Loki Heimdallson, and that made the universe a safe, more comprehensible thing.  He felt braver for it.

Heimdall had never relinquished him.  Odin cast off children like soiled handkerchiefs, but Loki was not his, not anymore.  He was on solid ground.  Had been on solid ground.

“Suppose,” he said, pulling back just a little, smiling, “suppose you and I were to go to the Observatory now and scry out this door and where it’s gone.  Four eyes are better than two.”

Heimdall too was smiling, but he shook his head.  “If you’re to stay on Asgard, you’ll have to accept that sometimes you must wait on royalty.”

“They wait a lot on Jotunheim,” Loki said.  “In lines.  They stand about in order of arrival.”

“It’s a custom.  Not entirely unique to their world.”

“It’s strange.”  And he chafed at being back home and made to wait still, though at least he understood an order determined by rank, and he would accept—with irritation—that Thor and Mother both outranked him.  He wanted to do something.  He felt like some of Thor’s lightning had loosed itself from Mjolnir and was moving in jagged strikes through his veins.  He could not sit still.  He could move his mouth, at least.  “What do you think of Hela?  Would she kill him?”

“Yes,” Heimdall said without hesitation.  “She burned hot, and she loved him, but she hated him too, and her scruples were—few.  If she could deduce the underpinning of the magic that held her there, though, she would not kill him until it would free her.”

“Smart, then.”

“When it comes to strategy.  She was ever her father’s daughter.”

He had long seen the All-Father as a creature of brutal whims, capable of leveling a life flat because he’d had a bad dream—he was not shocked to learn he’d once leveled cities, too, while claiming that it was naturally for the cities’ own good.  But that Odin had grown gentler, more careful—he found that stranger and harder to believe.  And a less welcome thought.  It suggested that Odin, like Jotunheim, existed outside of Loki’s opinion of him.

He remembered the All-Father teaching him the beginnings of chess.  You already show signs of considering your strategies, my boy.  That’s good, that’s very good.

Pain lanced through him and his smile only widened, his lips stiffening.  “I am like her, aren’t I?”

Heimdall did not recoil.  Loki had never been able to disgust him.  “A very little, yes.  You feel fire and express it as ice—long enough at least to fool your enemies.  And then you break, and burn yourself in the bargain.  But I don’t think she ever did that.  When Hela broke, there was an inferno, but it did not touch her.”

But Odin had thrown him away because he had seen something—that very little bit.  That ice.  (And how understandable in someone of his birth, Odin had surely thought.)  He hadn’t wanted another rebellious child on his hands.

What did that mean?  That there was something foul inside him, dark and scheming?  That Odin only saw what he wished to see?

That Odin had sent him away so he would not ever need to imprison him?  That he did not trust himself not to repeat his mistakes?

He closed his eyes for a moment.  “I’m not going to go around raising up armies, in any case.”

“No, the life of military campaigns would not suit you.  You have to get up very early, for one thing.”

“That settles that, then.”  He went back to digging at the velvet.  He had wanted his epiphany clean and separate from everything else, and he had had it, but only for an instant, and now he felt nearly as muddy and twisted as before.  The All-Father had that effect on him.  But he had to concentrate.  This was what a hearth and family got you—tangles so densely crowded with obligations that you couldn’t wrest yourself from them for very long.  “And what do you know of the magic of her prison?”

“Only what I’ve told you.”

“No reason you can think of for the door to go except that he is dead inside,” Loki said.  He bit his lower lip, thinking.  That would seem to resolve it all, then.

Whatever else the All-Father had let go of, he had died trying to reach out for it again.  Loki hated him, now more than ever, and he could not stop his tears.

“Loki—”

“He used me,” Loki said.  He loathed crying and he’d been doing so much of it, he was like a child.  He cleared the tears from his cheeks with such harshness that he felt like he was scrubbing his own skin off with them.  “Jotunheim—going there—it was mine, and he took it up like a toy, like a tool for his own needs.  He used this—this one time I could go there easily and without incident—to serve him.  There is nothing about me—he never keeps his hands off—I waited years and years to be ready for this and he thought, oh, what an excellent time to visit my mad, murderous daughter—Heimdall—”

Heimdall pulled him close again, one hand rubbing steadily up and down Loki’s back.  “Shh.  It’s all right, Loki.  I know.”

“I wanted to understand,” Loki said.  “Jotunheim.  To see it.”

“We’ll go back.  Illmay would have you anytime, you know that.  Or the two of us could go together—we need no excuse to visit another realm.”  He pushed dampened strands of hair off Loki’s face.  “You know I am a keen traveler.  You can even go on your own sometime, if that suits you.  I saw nothing there to terrify.”

But he needed to show Heimdall the orchard.  He had promised he would.  He felt like he was in shambles.

“I can’t think,” he whispered.

“You’ve had an eventful day,” Heimdall said, and it was so dry and so very, very true that Loki couldn’t help but laugh.

He withdrew a little.  “Yes.  Indeed I have.  And I saw Huw naked.”

Heimdall’s brow furrowed briefly and then he said, “Ah.  The public baths.  I was wondering why you smelled like lilacs.”

“I had heard as a child that they didn’t bathe.  That the greatest threat in their army was the stench of them.  Of—us.”  He shrugged.  “I suppose someone disliked the scent of flowers.”

Or the idea of killing people rather than monsters, rather than pests.

Sometimes Loki thought the most appealing thing would be to burn the universe to the ground and then start over from there, but you would, he supposed, lose too much: sweet-wishes and rag rugs and pressed flowers and Vanir blades and kittens and people.

“I didn’t want him dead,” Loki said.  “Not really.”

“I know.”

The great doors creaked open and Mother and Thor were there between them, looking impossibly grave and pale.

Loki and Heimdall both stood.

Loki said, “It’s true, then.”

He could see the streaks the tears had left on Mother’s cheeks, white on white; Thor had not cried yet but would, Loki knew, because he had always let feelings rock him back fully.  It hadn’t hit him yet, that was all.  But time had not stopped to allow it.  The thin iron circlet that was Odin All-Father’s crown rested on Thor now.  He would wear it until the coronation, when his power would be so total that any symbol of it would be mere frippery.

His mind had outpaced itself.  He sank down to one knee, feeling ridiculous: it was a performance for no audience.

“My king,” he said.  “My queen.”

Heimdall knelt too, repeating the words.

“Get up,” Thor said, grabbing Loki’s shirtfront and yanking him back to his feet with a total disregard for ceremony.  Loki’s imaginary audience was deeply offended.  “Heimdall, you too.”  He hadn’t let go of Loki’s shirt, his fingers still knotted in it, and he said, “Brother,” and stopped.

Loki embraced him, trapping Thor’s hand between them, up against his heart; he held him tightly enough that it hurt, the pain sinking into his breastbone and feeling more like grief itself, proper grief, than his own had.  “I’m sorry.”  He was inadequate for this task.  All the words he had were too small.  He tried to remember what he had said to Heimdall after Grandmama Hallsa had died, but that was different—he hadn’t spent the night before Hallsa’s death driving home how much better he would be without her.

Thor showed no sign of holding an unending grudge.  He slumped briefly against Loki, their foreheads together, and then parted from him.

He looked to Heimdall.  “I need to ask you to look for him.  To the best of your ability.  Ivar is capable, but he’s not you.”

“Of course,” Heimdall said without hesitation.  “Loki was just saying the same thing.  He and I will look together.”

“Thank you.”  Thor took a deep breath.  “That has to be the first thing.  I don’t know what the second is to be, but that must be the first.”

“We’ll do this together,” Mother promised him.  Then she too embraced Loki and pressed her lips to his temple with a ferocity that surprised him—she was always so gentle.  He looked at her, not understanding.  He did not know her as well as he would have liked.

Perhaps there would be more time for them now, with Odin gone—

But he put that thought away.

“Do the people know yet?”

Mother shook her head.  “Only a few outside of this room, and I trust all of them to keep their silence until it is time to speak.”

The servants would know, Loki thought, or at least they would know there was a secret to be ferreted out—the All-Father’s own attendants could not avoided the fact of his absence, if nothing else—but she would have accounted for that.  So he had nothing at all to add and no way to help.

He nodded.  “Then Heimdall and I can go to the Observatory.”

Mother’s smile was faint but true.  “Ivar said your talents far surpassed his, now.  When I close my eyes, I can still see you playing in the fountain, conjuring up bubbles so you could see the rainbows in them.  You must be able to see a great many now, if you haven’t outgrown them.”

He remembered that.  She had used her own gift to keep them from bursting until their number had grown overwhelming—Loki hadn’t been able to manage that trick and couldn’t manage it even now.  His talent had never been for keeping things whole.  But she had always known how, or how, at least, to sustain the illusion of it.  Thinking of those days, her cool hands on his, helping him shape the bubbles out of seidr and air, he understood at last that Odin had used her too.  Her and Thor both.  He had planned for this exact moment, for the way they would hold together with loyalty and love—

And Mother had known it and Thor had not.

She would have agreed—she would not have stayed with him, loved him, if she had not—but she would have felt it.  The shadow of intention, of Odin’s long game, darkening everything between them.  Even this.  But this would be the end of it, if he were gone.  His plan could be consigned to dust, and things among them all could be… natural.

As natural as possible.

“What is it?” Mother said.

He wanted to hurt her—fairly or unfairly, he didn’t know.  She had loved him and tried not to use him, but he almost wished she had just given in completely, cultivated his childhood adoration of her so the brightest bloom of it never left.  At least he would have had her fully, instead of only when the part of her that wanted to see him won or the part of her that wanted to give him his freedom lost.  He wasn’t Thor, to forgive so easily.

He wanted to say, Of course you’d think of me when I was a child, that was the only time you ever knew me.

Something stopped him.  The fervency of the kiss, perhaps.  Or, in some strange way, the memory of Egil singing to the babe.

Loki shook his head.  “It’s nothing.  I remember it too.  And I haven’t outgrown them, no.”

“His tastes are as gaudy as ever,” Heimdall said.  His voice was like a hand on Loki’s shoulder, calming him.

“We should put it to bed,” Loki said.  “Unless I’m to be dragged into defending my taste.  Will the two of you come with us?  Thor, you’ll have to leave the crown, obviously.”

“Of course,” Thor said.  He took it off at once and handed it to Loki.  It felt strange in his hand—heavy, and colder than he had expected considering how long Thor had had it on.  He couldn’t think why Thor had given it to him and then he could: he vanished it up his sleeve in the same nowhere-space where his daggers lived until they were needed.

What would it have felt like on?

You could have found that out, on Jotunheim, and you chose not to.  Let it be.

Yes.  He was only scattered.  Everything had been coming apart and together in equal measure—paths of his life eliminated, others opened up new and shining.

Still, he felt the imagined weight of the crown in his keeping.  In the end, he would have to hand it back to Thor, who did not want it, at least not now, not in this way.  His coronation should have been a celebration, not a funeral.  Loki thought of that as he bore the crown down the long walk to the Observatory.  He would have been asked to help carry the body, probably, if there had been one.  If there had been closure for them instead of loose ends and unsaid words.

The sweet-wish jostled against his leg.  Who would he give it to now that nothing would taste sweet?

But then, they were not supposed to taste sweet, from what he remembered of the stories.  They were tart, imperfect things and the people who ate them were always dying tragic, meaningful deaths, and he couldn’t explain what ridiculous superstition—borrowed, worse yet, not even native to him—had led him to choose that sourness over something sweeter.  But he had done it and all this had come after and he didn’t know what to think of it.

Coincidence, obviously.  At best, the aroma of the plucked fruit, the fibers of its sharp stem, had some kind of chemical effect, sharpening perception, temporarily speeding up thought; no more magical than wine.

Still.  He had picked the fruit and known what he wanted—yes.  Had carried it around in his pocket and believed and known what he had spent years misunderstanding.

He had taken up a wish and put it in his pocket and Odin All-Father had died.

Lady Vigdis had said you could learn from folklore, that the stories people told themselves mattered.  Was this the tale he wanted to tell himself?  Was it the one he would have told if he had been Jotun completely, by understanding as well as by birth?

No, he realized, because he was misunderstanding them again, painting them as mysterious, inhospitable.  A myth could have meaning, could have roots in what was real, but Jotunheim, a place that let the poor take what they needed from the orchards, a place that mistook off-world visitors for children, a place obsessed with definition and accuracy—that world was real, not material for nightmares and fantasies.  And if they had a fruit tree that could overturn someone’s entire life, by magic or scent alone, they would have put a fucking sign on it.

But that did not mean the stories meant nothing.  It just meant they were telling him about wishes, the dangerous bitterness of them once they were in hand.

Insightful.  Grating, especially as an I-told-you-so from an inanimate object, but not without merit.

The apples of Idunn were said to give you eternal youth, and did nothing of the sort, but they were still fed to children anyway, in careful slices.  He had eaten one himself, paring by paring, off the blade of Odin’s own knife.  A wish for long life—Asgard being rather more optimistic about wishes.

The two halves of him.  He had honored Asgard’s story and he wanted now to honor Jotunheim’s too, because it felt especially important now to do everything right, to be more careful with his heart and its desires than he had been before.  He tried to remember what the people in the sweet-wish stories—the ones that had not ended in horrible death—had done.  How did you make it better, even as your hands were bleeding from it?  You couldn’t undo what was done.  The fruit couldn’t be returned to the tree.

But it could be planted.

“Wait,” he said.  He broke away from them and, waving off their questions without looking back, walked out until he found an unclaimed patch of soil.

Meadowland.  The air here smelled of clover and wild roses and the easy growth of things—what would this dark, rich soil make of the sweet-wish, which had grown ripe under a stone ceiling lit with starlight?  And would the fruit grow anew?  There was little accidental life on Jotunheim.  Did that mean that what survived was hardier?  Or, used to constant tending, could it not survive on its own?

Maybe it would become something new.

He turned up the soil with one of his daggers.  An idiotic use for a blade, but he couldn’t seem to conjure up a spade or shovel—evidently he was not the peaceful type.  He buried the fruit whole, not knowing what else to do with it.  Cut it open?  Find the core, if it had a core, or the stone, if it had a stone?  He did not quite know enough of botany to deduce its structure with a glance.

Perhaps he and Heimdall could have an orchard.

The flesh of the fruit would rot away under the ground, he decided, eaten at by worms; whatever needed to be exposed would be laid bare soon enough.  And maybe it would take root.  He had.  And it was hardy.

He brushed the dirt off himself and went back to the path, where the others were looking at him as though he’d gone mad.

“I thought you were going to eat that,” Thor said.

“If it grows, I can eat one every year.”

“Yes, you could.  Still strange that you chose to do it right now.”  He was almost smiling.  That was something.  “Come on, brother.”

He walked on, glad that they had waited, unsure of just what he had done.  All magic, all the underpinnings of the world tree, worked that way, by mystery and love and intuition.  He had to hope for the best.

Ivar bowed as they entered.  His face was ashen, no livelier than it had been when he had brought them home.

“I failed you.”  He might have been speaking to Heimdall or Thor or Mother; Loki, the one person in the room who had comprehensively not been failed, wanted to reassure him but could not.  “I tried to hold the door as it was, but—”

“The All-Father’s magic is greater than our own,” Heimdall said softly.  “And Hela—she was no locksmith, to make herself the key for her prison door, but she always had an enormous power for destruction.  It could be that either of them, or both, led to the door vanishing from our view.  Whatever spell-work it took to make all this happen, I couldn’t have done or explained.  And Odin knew your skills and choose to trust them, as I know you and trust you.  We should not talk of blame.”

Of course they couldn’t.  Because if they talked long enough, it would be Odin they would have to point to, and that was impossible.

“Heimdall is right,” Mother said.  “Odin knew the risks he took.  He felt he owed it to Hela to take them.”

“He decided his obligations late,” Thor said.  Even to Loki, he sounded harsh.  “And without trusting us.  Without explaining.”

“Explanations are not his strong suit,” Loki said.

It occurred to him disconcertingly that if Odin’s magic truly was as great as Heimdall said, then the All-Father might live his whole life buffeted about by the same odd impulse that had made him plant the sweet-wish; the air around him might be thick with prophecy and omen.  It would be like walking around seeing straight through everyone’s skin, seeing souls and muscles and skeletons, always looking past what was to what could be or must be.  If that were so, Loki almost pitied him.  He would not have wanted that kind of power.

“What are you thinking?” Heimdall said.

They were all looking at him.  He wondered what he hadn’t heard.  “Nothing.”

Thor exhaled, glanced at Heimdall, and then said, “I am acting king of Asgard, am I not?”

Mother nodded.  “I gave up what regency I had when I gave you the crown.  Asgard is yours.”

Then he could choose not to look, if he wanted, Loki knew, but he would not.  He would not be Thor if he could walk away.  But he didn’t know why Thor would want to confirm his rule, if not for that.

Thor said, “Then I want to do something before we go any further.  Before we have Father back, if we can do that.”  His voice shook on those words, but only a little.  “I can’t do anything he could undo so quickly as to make it meaningless.  Loki, whatever I do for you, he could change.”

“Yes.  I know.”  If Odin were alive, this was not a time of change, only a pause.

“But there is one thing I can do, something that can’t be undone without a war.  Another war.  The Casket of Ancient Winters is to be returned to Jotunheim.”

He kept his promises, even the ones he had made to no one.  And he had worried he would make a poor king.

“Their lives are shorter without it,” Thor said.  “Their roads and houses worse.  And aside from all that, it belongs there, where it was forged.  We had the victory, they should be able to have their pride.  It’s not peace if they hate you.  Only ceasefire.”

Loki said, “And if they try to take Midgard again?”  He didn’t think they would—not one of the better realms, honestly, small and rather out of the way, even leaving aside the effort it would take to terraform it—but he was curious what Thor would say.

“Then we fight,” Thor said.  “I love fighting.”  He really seemed to: from the sunny grin on his face, even thinking of it had made him forget where they were and what they were doing.  Fighting had a clarity to it, Loki supposed, even if their own fights never seemed to, even if they always came out unsure who had won or lost.  “And another thing, Loki, you’re to take it to them.”

“Why me?”

“Because then they will say that Loki Heimdallson brought the Casket back to Jotunheim,” Thor said, “without Odin All-Father’s permission.”  He shrugged.  “They don’t have to know that he wasn’t technically on the throne at the time to withhold it.”

Loki stared at him.  “You don’t want the credit?”

“I love credit just as much as fighting, brother, but you should be able to be received on Jotunheim as you are, not under false pretenses.”  His smile was truer now, if still a shadow of its usual self.  “I bet they make a song about you.”

So it wasn’t only that Thor considered them all, these great swathes of people, Jotuns with shortened life spans and hurt pride; Thor considered him as well.  As Loki had asked him to—all but demanded of him.  Thor would make him tolerable to Jotunheim, possibly even heroic.  And who, in all of this, was to look out for Thor, to safeguard his interests?

Everyone, perhaps.  The king was owed the duty and love of his people.  But Loki had no great faith in everyone.

“That is a plan worthy of all my hopes for you,” Heimdall said warmly.

For once Loki did not begrudge Heimdall’s attention being directed away from him.  It needed to be said and he couldn’t say it: he could not make himself swallow, let alone speak.  He reached out and, to his surprise, clasped Thor’s arm rather than pulling him into a hug.  He wanted that grip, the promise of a comrade-in-arms.

“It’s settled, then,” Thor said, looking at Loki’s hand on his arm.  Loki could see in his eyes the moment Thor forgave what had passed between them before: he was easily mollified.  Too easily, really.  “We’ll do it at once.”


In the light of the Casket, Loki’s skin was blue.  He caught Ivar looking at it as they prepared to send him off.

“There’s no way you didn’t know already,” Loki said.  “Everyone knows.  Huw knows.”  He shifted into his other form briefly enough for Ivar to see the whole of it and then back again.  “The only people who don’t know are, ironically, Jotuns.”  He turned his hand over slowly in the light and looked at the lighter inside of his palm.  He should have looked to see if his fingerprints differed, but his guess was they would not.  His height and size had stayed the same.

He redonned the thick, fur-lined gloves he’d worn coming home and picked up the Casket again, careful to hold it well away from his face so the shine wouldn’t reveal anything.

Mother said, “You’ll remember not to lift it up?”

She sounded so much like she was asking if he had remembered a scarf or some other cozy necessity that he smiled.  “I’ll remember.”

“I can accompany you,” Heimdall said.  But his tone suggested that he knew Loki would prefer to do this part, at least, alone.

“I’ll show you the orchard someday,” Loki said.  “I promise.”

“I never doubted it.”  Heimdall turned to Ivar.  “I’d like to be the one to open up the way for him.”

“And I never doubted that,” Ivar said.  He added, “Or you, Prince Loki.”

The Casket was rather heavy, luckily, so keeping hold of it at this awkward angle distracted him enough that he didn’t make a fool of himself getting emotional yet again.  “Yes, well, I remember blue was always your favorite color.”  And because he couldn’t have those be the last words he said before something so momentous, he added, “If I get credit for this on Jotunheim, Thor had better have it here, in the histories at least.  Thor the peacemaker.”

In time, Asgard would even learn to value that as it should.  If they were lucky.

“You’ll make sure of it,” Heimdall said.  His gaze was steady.  Fond.

He supposed he could at that.  He hitched his chin up in silent agreement and then said only, “You know where to put me down,” because he was, at the last moment, a coward—or a petty boy with a grudge—and didn’t want to say Laufey’s name aloud before he had to.

Heimdall did know, so when Loki opened his eyes again at the first harsh draft of cold air, he found himself some little distance away from the high, crenellated ice-walls of Laufey’s palace.  Close enough that he could easily make it there even with the awkward burden of the Casket, carried at such an uncomfortable angle; not so close that he materialized there with a Jotun spearpoint at his throat.  No, this way they saw him coming.  And they saw what he carried.

When he reached them, the two guards at the gate were wary, but they drew no weapons.  Not yet.

“Who are you?”

He wished he could push the hood of his cloak back dramatically, but he didn’t have free use of his hands, and he didn’t see how shaking his head from side to side to dislodge it would have any dignity.  He settled for conjuring up a little false breeze to blow back the cape and make it flutter.

“I am Loki Heimdallson of Asgard.  And I believe this belongs to you.”

But they would not take it from him themselves—that was no particular surprise.  Loki had gathered that they had some prohibitions about touching it; it wasn’t a tool, made prosaic by use and usefulness, but something more sacred and necessary than that.  After much debate—his arms were beginning to ache—they decided to take him directly to Laufey.

So they would come face to face after all.  He was surprised by how little curiosity he felt.  He had made himself bleed on Laufey’s account, all those years ago on Vanaheim.  To have been neither loved nor hated had made him hate himself so much he had wanted to cut the Loki away from himself, as if whatever was left behind would be purer, worthier, more deserving.  Heimdall had come then—Huw had called him and he had come—and Thor had received him even after Loki had run from him—and in hindsight all that mattered more.  Who was Laufey, compared to that?  A king he did not know.

Not his father.  Laufey had buried his son.

And he wouldn’t even have been a son, would he?  Laufey wouldn’t have thought of him so.  That moved the squalling babe in the temple even further from him than ever.  He could almost see them, another shadow, keeping pace at his side.  Loki was sorry for them, that they hadn’t had a chance to live, but not so sorry as to wish his own life undone.  He let the shadow uncoil and join its formless fellows.

He could be polite.  He would be polite.  He would scratch out a place for himself here—a fraction of a place, like Illmay’s, tenuously held and not always wanted, but insistently there all the same.  It wasn’t much, but he had so much besides it that it was enough.  More than enough.

The guards opened the throne room doors for him.

Loki walked into Laufey’s presence.

What he had to concede was that Laufey was a king.  He—they, only with Laufey did he have such trouble making that switch—wore power the way Odin did, not as a positive but as a negative, an absence, a lack of ordinariness that pulled your own inexorably in.  They sat there, warping the dimensions of the room.  Absurd to think that Loki could kill them and take up that power, that gravity well of command, simply by sitting in the same chair.  He was almost irritated that Odin had ever misunderstood it so badly.  He could not have thought Jotunheim a real place.

Still, Loki was a citizen of Asgard.  He had knelt for Thor; he would not do it for Laufey.

He bowed instead, still careful even now to turn his head so that the light from the Casket didn’t touch him.

“King Laufey,” he said.  “Your savior is here.”

“Is that what you are?”  They had a low rumble of a voice—not unamused, perhaps.

“What I am is a friend.”

Laufey shook their head.  “We have no friends on Asgard.”

“That may change.”

“And who are you to change it?”

“The son of the Gatekeeper of Asgard.”  It gave him a little gravity of his own, planting his boots more firmly where he stood.  “That will suffice for now.  You know Heimdall of the Nine Mothers—or you should.”

“Yes.  He killed many of my people.”

“In fair combat.”

“At the behest of the Destroyer.”

“Then it will comfort you to know,” Loki said, “that I am not here at Odin’s behest.  He doesn’t know my whereabouts—my father opened the way for me and I came.”

“To return the stolen Casket.”

“The Casket was won,” he said sharply, having no notion why he was defending Odin, “not stolen.  Seized, perhaps, if you prefer.”  He had been stolen, if you could steal what had been abandoned; probably not.  Refuse was free for the picking, and that was what he had been.  A hunger offering—and he supposed in some strange way Odin had been hungry.  “But I haven’t come here to debate politics with you, especially when there’s rather a lot going on at the moment.  I’m needed elsewhere.  You can have the Casket and use it to heal your land and help your people, or you can smash it to flinders, or you can use it as a paperweight.  I don’t care.”

He did—he hadn’t soothed the baby to sleep only to let it die sooner because of Laufey’s skittishness—but he couldn’t afford to overcommit himself.  He could not be Loki, prince of nowhere, shapeshifter, suspiciously well-informed on Jotun culture.  He had to pretend this was about ethics.  Altruism.

“You need this,” Loki said.  “We do not.  To keep it as a trophy to keep you under Odin’s bootheel is obscene.”

He could read the look on Laufey’s face.  Laufey thought he was naïve.  An idealistic Aesir fool who’d had tales of chivalry and charity crammed down his throat until he’d choked on them.

No.  I look around corners, and where there are no corners, I can invent them and make them very sharp indeed.  You don’t understand me, but I understand you.

For all Laufey’s power, Loki knew what he did not.

It forced him—his upbringing forced him—to be kind.  He set the Casket down at his own feet, pettily unwilling to walk it over to Laufey, no matter how much the voice in his head urged him to complete the gesture.  It could stay where it was, an offering for Laufey to accept or not, as it pleased him.

Loki stepped back from it, leaving it there.

He said, “You have a beautiful world.  If I live long enough, I’d like to come back and see more of it.”

Now Laufey’s eyes were opaque to him, flatly red-orange and absent of emotion.  He would not let Thor shift from presence to absence: he would keep Thor’s power as it was.  He had to.

Loki bowed once more.  Punctuation, as it were, so Laufey would go on and dismiss him.

Laufey said, “We will remember that you brought this.”

Loki had to admire the neutrality there.  Memory was all he had expected, anyway—it didn’t seem very Jotun to fall all over a stranger for the sake of a favor, but he would be less of a stranger now.  That was enough success.  Thor would have to be satisfied with it; it was a paltry thing to trade the Casket for, but Thor had all kinds of other noble reasons for offering it back.  It didn’t have to balance.  Things did not generally, in his experience, have to balance.

“Heimdall?” he said.  “I’m ready to come home.”

Chapter Text

“Did you get what you needed?” Thor said.

“What a philosophical way to put it,” Loki said.

“I can throw you off the bridge, you know.  I’m king, there’d be no one to convict me.”

“I’d simply turn into a bird.”  He examined the backs of his hands, remembering the way lichen-blue had spread across them when he’d touched the Casket barehanded.  He and Thor were sitting on the edge of the bridge, their legs dangling down.  It was something they hadn’t done since they were children, and he had never felt further from childhood than now, but everyone—Heimdall, Mother, Ivar—was leaving them alone to do it.  More accurately, they were leaving Thor alone until Thor chose to begin the search, and Loki was the only one not playing along.  He didn’t know that Thor should be alone.

He said, “More or less.  I had—”  He squinted more at his hands as if they were the problem, the source of his blurry vision.  “I had what I truly needed already, I think.”

It was coming up on night and the sky had turned almost indigo.  The stars were ebbing into view, as if Asgard were the shore where their light washed up.

He swung his legs back and forth under the bridge, feeling like he was swimming.  Treading water.

Thor had been a better brother to him than he had been to Thor.  Yes, Thor had had more opportunities for it, but when Loki’s chance had come, he had cast it aside.  He wouldn’t do that again.

He knew why Thor was delaying.  Once they looked—once they looked and saw nothing—it would be definitive.

Loki couldn’t do anything to make that not be so.  He picked up Thor’s hand from where it lay on Thor’s knee and, feeling awkward, kissed it briefly before relinquishing it again; an old gesture, older than either of them.  A sign of fealty.  He’d only ever seen it done in plays.  He thought Thor would laugh at him for it, but Thor didn’t, only flexed his fingers in and out, as if his arm had fallen asleep and he was trying to wake it up.  They watched the last bit of the sun fade out and then Thor stood, grabbing hold of Loki to pull him up too.

“What was he like?” Thor said.

“Laufey?”  He considered it.  “Tall.”

“Thank you, brother.  That’s given me a really clear sense of his person.”

“Snippy.  Mistrustful.  Powerful.  Not unlike your father.”  He hadn’t wanted to bring that up, but he couldn’t think of a clearer way of saying it.

Thor didn’t flinch away at the mention of Odin, at least.  “Does that mean you didn’t like him?”

For some reason the question surprised him.  “I didn’t really think about it.”

Thor actually did laugh at him for that.  “I don’t understand you, brother.”

“Yes, you do,” Loki said, irritated.  “You understand me better than anyone.”

They went back into the Observatory, and Thor ceased to be only his brother and became a king again.  He gave the order to look.

Loki went and stood by Heimdall.  Cold had come over him, like freezing rain running down his back; if he could do it, he knew what he needed to do, but he didn’t know what chance he would have.  And he didn’t know if Heimdall in particular would forgive him for it.  It made it harder to join their efforts together—too much of him knotted up with guilt and reluctance and dread—but then at last their powers fused together, ratcheting each other along.  Like two strands of ivy growing up along the stake was that Bifrost—

He had felt the intensity of the far-sight before, but not like this.  He saw colors without names.  This was more than looking, more than passively receiving what was there, this was—peeling back the surface of the universe to glimpse the workings beneath.  Tension screwed into his temples, giving him an almost-unbearable headache, but he couldn’t stop, not with all this in front of him.  Curiosity alone, even without any obligation to Thor, would have kept his eyes open.  He couldn’t turn away.  Not from this.

He saw the Nine Realms laid out like jewels, sparkling but small, and saw past that to the molecular level of things, the tiny chemical impulses of adrenaline and magical threads of seidr; size was irrelevant.  Everything made its own cosmos.

This could drive him mad, if he let it.  He was half-tempted to.

But he had a life he couldn’t walk away from—he could see that as well as he could see everything else—so he let Heimdall’s mind gently steer his own, let Heimdall provide this landscape with a compass of sorts.

They found Odin’s door—no, the place where it had been.

Absence, Loki thought dimly, remembering Laufey, remembering Odin.  He could see the place where the door was not and it drew his attention even more than a door would have.

But he could see beyond that, too.  In much the same way, maybe, that growing up had allowed him to see beyond Odin himself.  In both cases with Heimdall’s help.

It was a strain to make it out, but yes, there was something beyond the nothing.  It was only then that his eyes gave out and what he felt was a blind groping, seidr untethered from sense: rage so enormous and unchecked it could no more be criticized than an ocean, regret as deep, justifications meaningless.  Love that caught in the throat like poison.

Odin was alive.  No one else engendered such feelings, or thought themselves solemn for having them.  Loki would have known him anywhere—that he did not know him at all, really, had nothing to do with it.  He was partly the work of Odin’s hands as surely as if he’d had a mark of craftsmanship etched into his heel.  He knew.

He pulled himself back into his body, feeling like a fish hauled up onto the land.  He’d fallen.  The hard marble floor of the Observatory pressed against his back.

And his head was cradled in Mother’s hands.  He blinked at her, at her upside-down and worried face.

“I fell,” he said.

“I worried you’d convulse,” she said.  She moved her hands through his hair very gently, as if she feared to break him.  “That doesn’t… that can’t happen to you whenever you look, does it?”

“Certainly not,” Ivar said, in a tone Loki couldn’t imagine him ever having taken before with Mother or with anyone.  “The Gatekeeper would never allow him to keep doing it if it did.”

“That’s true.”  He righted himself, dropping his hand into Mother’s and squeezing her cool, restless fingers.  “But thank you for checking.  Is Heimdall still gazing?”

Thor nodded.  He snapped his fingers in front of Heimdall’s nose to no response.  “If I’d known he got like this, I would have been an absolute brat and a terror drawing things on his face and the like.  When I was little.  Though I suppose this is different—Loki, is it different?”

“This is deeper than I’ve seen him go,” Loki said.  He rubbed his head.  “Deeper and further than I’ve gone, certainly.  But… he’s alive.  The All-Father.”

Thor was on him in an instant, seizing him by the shoulders.  “You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

Heimdall’s posture changed, sagging slightly as he fell back into his own life, his own more limited natural field of vision.  “Yes,” he said.  His voice was rough.  “He is sure, and so am I.”

“Is he within reach?” Mother said.

“Yes,” Loki said in the same instant Heimdall said, “I’m afraid not, my queen.”

“Which?” Thor said.  He was at the very edge of his patience, Loki could tell, and coming off the fury of Hela’s little world, he could almost see the family resemblance, the way glory and courage could ferment into darkness and violence.  But that was not Thor.  Would never be Thor.

“Within reach,” Heimdall said quietly, “but not within recovery.  We can see him, but we can’t force his will to unlock the way home—there’s no way to intervene.  He’s alive, but either he has decided it’s too dangerous to attempt to return or his strength has been broken and his vision of the door with it.  I tried to reach his mind and could not and that, I fear, is my fault.  I allowed what was between us to wither, and what bond there still is cannot bridge the gap.”

“If you lost sympathy with Odin,” Mother said calmly, “even he would concede that you were not to blame for it.”

That hung in the air, impossible to refute.

“I could do it,” Loki said.

He had sworn to himself that he would protect Thor—protect Thor from the idiotic consequences of his daydreams—and he would do it.

Heimdall did not think so, however: “No.  This is not a discussion.”

“No more it is,” Loki agreed.  “We don’t have some primitive, squabbling democracy.  We have only one opinion here that matters.”

“Loki—”

It was night now and it had been, he’d swear, the longest day of his life, and he wanted nothing more than to go to bed and wake to find this all a dream.  He stood the best chance of that, he supposed, if he clung to Heimdall.  He ached to do it.  He’d wasted so much of his childhood standing apart.

But he overrode his own wishes, buried them in the earth of Asgard.  “Thor, I can do it.  I can.”

“And if you try and fail, you will unleash Hela’s fury on us all,” Heimdall said.  Loki had never heard him sound that way—he sounded almost like the other side of Odin’s wall, sounded as Hela had felt.  “And try and fail, or try and triumph, even, there is no guarantee you would come back.”

“I’d only send my mind.”

“You have need of your mind, if you’d only start using it now!”

“Heimdall is right,” Thor said.  He pushed his hand up into his hair and Loki watched as it settled into sweaty spikes.  “I will not risk you.  Especially not with slim chance of return.”

“I seem to recall you going into battle,” Loki said quietly.  “Are you allowed the risks I’m forbidden?”

“You’re forbidden what I damned well say you are.  Don’t try to talk your way around me, brother.”

No, he would not.  There was no winning there, certainly, because if this was where they stood, on and in this future, then Thor would be well-armored against him—forced to raise his shield too soon.  Loki could find cracks in that armor and slowly split them wide, but it made him ill to think about it—using such tricks and schemes against Thor was what had put him here in the first place—and besides, it would take too long.  Thor would fight him on it and there was even a disconcerting chance that he would win.  He was selfish; his resolve to bring back Odin would fade.  He would justify it to himself, for of course Thor would be—was—his king and Loki was sworn to obey him.

But treason ran in his family.

“I understand completely,” Loki said.  He made himself smile.  This was going to be so much harder.

He did not know which of the three of them saw his intentions first, only that someone said his name, but he had already twisted away and disappeared.  He didn’t feel his body fall.

This was so much easier now that he had done it once before.  He found the outline of Odin’s sealed, nothing-door quickly.

Magic was complicated.  More so, he suspected then, than he had ever really known; he couldn’t parse the weave of blood and talent and practice and belief that had gone into the making of this place or, frankly, into his discovery of it.  But he did not need to understand.  Odin had taught him that.  It was hard to build, but it was easy to destroy, and you didn’t need permission for it; Odin hadn’t asked it of him and had presumably not asked it of Hela.  You could always barge in.

And he had the tie he’d spoken of.  Like it or not—and he mostly did not—he was bound to Odin All-Father.

Loki tested his strength against the door.  It gave a little, but only a little.

Well, brute force wasn’t his forte.  Insight, perspective, illusions, transformations.  He thought about being in the garden at home, lying on his stomach in the grass, trying to coax the flowers into growing early by lying to them about it being spring.  Of course, they had resisted his charms, so it maybe wasn’t the most helpful memory—

I belong on the other side of you, he told the door.  You know I do.  I was another one of Odin’s monstrous children, cast off, sent away; I was a beast deserving of imprisonment.  But he could no longer give those words the right amount of conviction.  They sounded hollow even as lies.  You should open for me because prison doors are made to keep in, not keep out; what would my intrusion cost you?  I am the brother of the King of Asgard, the brother of the son of the man who built you.  I come with good and crooked intentions, the kind the All-Father likes best.

He could feel the spell against him, less like a door now than a living thing, a wall of close vines.  It breathed in and out against his skin.

He had tried illusion and he had tried insight.  Transformation, then.

He could see the golden shadow cast by Heimdall’s coming.  He’d be here soon and that would be the end of it, because Loki didn’t think for a moment he’d be able to fight him off to stay.

So it would be now or it would be nothing.

He did not glamour himself, not exactly; it was more a minute kind of shapeshifting, even though it happened only in his mind, even though his physical body was elsewhere.  He opened red-gold eyes.

There, he said to the door.  You know this look.  They’re mine, you can see, half-tinted with Jotun blood, as gold at heart as the towers of home.  And that is why you will open for me—quickly, please.  Because you are a gate, and I am a Gatekeeper of Asgard.

The lock gave.

Loki slipped inside and flung the door closed again behind him.

I’m sorry, he thought, not knowing whether or not Heimdall could hear him.  I truly am.  But Thor needs me.

Heimdall would make it through the door on his own—Loki had little doubt of that.  He’d been barred from it before because he’d been out of sympathy with Odin’s mind, with his magic; the door would have been almost incomprehensible and the other side of it would have been dark and airless.  Now, however, he had Loki there to pull him through.  He would do it in some honest way, so it would take longer, but even granting that, there wouldn’t be much time.

It was not a real space, the prison of the goddess of death.  Jotunheim had existed outside of Loki’s opinions, outside of anyone’s opinions, but this did not.

Consequently, it was not much to look at.  A vast and level plain covered with a few inches of water.

Would she have gone mad here?  Or did she see it some other way?

“All-Father?”

There was nothing for his words to bounce off, so they didn’t echo but only disappeared; he didn’t find that felt any less lonely.

But then he heard the gentle, quick plash of footsteps through water and turned around, reflexively drawing his daggers as though mere projections would help him, as though he had a physical form here to help at all.  But he didn’t think he could have watched he approach unarmed.  It seemed impossible.

So this was Hela.

She was tall, well-formed and well-muscled, and had the natural coiled grace of a woman who had spent her whole life at war.  Her long black hair was down, but she was not unready for battle, not when her smirk was up, immensely amused, dominating her pale face: Loki knew that kind of shield well.

“You’re wearing my colors,” Hela said.

“I don’t suppose I could convince you I’ve come to fight on your side.”

She laughed.  “No, but that’s adorable.  Good try.”  She shrugged.  “If they’ve sent you because you’re a child, they’ve forgotten far too much—I don’t have any trouble killing children.  Never have.  Dear old Dad walked me through my first slaughter when I was ten, and if you’re old enough to kill, you’re old enough to die.  So you won’t leave here, whatever you’re thinking.”

“I’m not here in the first place, to leave or stay.”

She threw a dagger through him, a rather decisive way to test the theory.

“Paltry magic tricks,” Hela said, shaking her head.  “When I saw your eyes, I thought you’d have more to offer.”

He wasn’t immune to being baited, but her mention of the lie of his eyes kept him cautious; if that deceit was the only reason she took him as a threat, he could reluctantly believe he was weak in comparison.  But they were at least at a standstill.  She could kill him no more than he could conquer her.

“Where is the All-Father?”

“Oh, show yourself, you old fool,” Hela said dismissively.  “Don’t make your little page here peel back my wallpaper in strips looking for you.  Not when I’ve had so much done with the place.”

Odin was more and more with them, an image or idea slowly putting on weight, until he was simply there, physically there.  His face was gray, the muscles of it sagging slightly as if in an attempt to make all of him as slumped and bowed as his shoulders.  Loki had seen him look old but he had not, until now, seen Odin look weak.  He did not look like a man who would hold his crown much longer, but that didn’t change Loki’s duty, as much as he would have liked it to.  Even a handful of days would serve to better ready Thor for the throne, and if Loki could give them to him, he would.

“Your majesty,” Loki said.  Stand up straight, have the majesty you lay claim to.  Don’t you know how long I’ve been afraid of you?  You can’t be small now.

“Loki,” Odin said.  ‘You should not have come.”

“Oh, so this is Loki,” Hela said.  “The Jotun one you kicked off somewhere.”

He was surprised she didn’t say Frost Giant; surprised Odin had mentioned him at all.  “Adopted,” he said.  “Taken in, not kicked off.”  He dearly hoped that didn’t count as a defense of Odin.  He’d done enough for him for one day—for one lifetime, even.  In case the words had been taken that way, he aimed his next speech at the All-Father directly, as confirmation.  “I didn’t come here for your sake.  Only for Thor’s and Mother’s.  You’re beloved of people who are beloved to me.  Of all the ties between us, that’s the cleanest one.”

But I did mourn you.  And envied her, a little, without good cause, because you reached for her when you never did for me.

He could see his history like a shining chain, each link bright and inexorably wrought around the others.  Odin had been his father once.  He was not now and would never be again, but he had been, and the imprint of that had stayed.

He didn’t know if that counted as love.  He didn’t want it to.

“Fascinating as all this is,” Hela said, “or, more accurately, isn’t, it’s also pointless.  You’re a figment.  You can’t do anything here.  Odin is in the palm of my hand, and I intend to keep it that way.”

She sounded sure of herself.  And of the two of them, she was the one who looked strong, the one who radiated rage and liveliness that Odin couldn’t match, let alone overpower.  But it had to have been Odin himself who had walled up the door.  They were mutual jailers here, if anything; an ouroboros of resentment that he wasn’t surprised Odin would inspire and partake of.  Hela must have understood that on some level, even if she wouldn’t admit it.

“I have things I could offer you,” Loki said, “if you would let him go.”

“Pass.”

“Without so much as a hearing?”  He lifted his hand and brought down a dazzling curtain of green, a Vanaheim forest that it took all his strength to sustain.

He was fading fast and he knew it.  It was eating into the very marrow of his bones to project himself all the way into this place; Norns only knew what was happening back at his abandoned body as he burnt more and more of his life-force to keep his seidr flowing without pause.  He was asking more of his magic than he ever had before.  He could die like this, whatever he had asked them to believe, and he knew it.  He was faltering.  But he was not among his family and therefore not inclined to show it.  The forest he’d conjured up did not so much as flicker, and he felt a vicious satisfaction, enough to tear his heart in two.

Hela looked.  He couldn’t be sure her disinterest was feigned, couldn’t be sure that twitch of her gaze meant as much as he needed it to, but he barreled through, Thor-like, on hope.

“Excellent,” Hela said.  “Trees.  Very exciting.”

“This is a dull, shapeless place,” Loki said.  Pain lanced into his temples.  “You must get bored.  What do you do?  Sleep?”

“Plan.”  Her eyes looked like agate.  He had no doubt she did plan, no doubt she could execute those plans neatly enough if she were free.  But that was no excuse to keep her here like this, in a featureless dreamscape where even a dog would have gone mad.

“If you keep him here, you have him.  For however little that’s worth.  But he’ll die, and you’ll live.”

“You could say that about everything in the universe.  I intend to go on, little brother.”

Was she his sister?  In some way, perhaps.  These things seemed ungovernable, connections simply springing up like wildflowers, wherever blood or relationship had left some crack in the stone.

“Plan for your future, then.”  He kept his voice as cool as possible.  “I can visit you.  We can drink imaginary wine—I can counterfeit taste as well as sight and sound—and complain about him.  I can bring you vistas and sometimes leave them here, if it’s possible.  I can make this place… tolerable.”

“All that will make it tolerable is Odin’s blood on the ground.”

But she had not yet spilled it.  No more than he ever had.

“It would be a splash of color,” Loki agreed.  “And I’m sure the memory would last out a mortal’s lifetime.  But you are no mortal, goddess of death.  It will pale.  I will not.”

The truth was that he did not expect her to agree.  She couldn’t concede anything to him, not when she was enjoying the only power she had had in centuries.  He did intend to abide by the bargain if he lived through this at all, but it was more feint than anything else.  He had simply needed her distracted.

He let himself ramble on—he had some practice, as Thor had noted, in having two conversations at once—and made a flimsy copy of Odin as he did so.  It was far from his best work.  Up close, the skin, he knew, would be too poreless, the features not quite right.  Like a portrait sketched from memory.  But superimposing it over Odin let him veil Odin himself, who must have seen at once what he had done.

Go, Loki thought, his head pounding now.  Go, you idiot, don’t make me die for you and nothing.

“Enough,” Hela said, interrupting him.  He could not track Odin, not like this.  He had to trust that Odin had, for once, done what Loki wanted him to do.  He couldn’t hold this much longer.  “You really don’t ever shut up, do you?  That must be so trying.  No wonder he got rid of you.  Do you know what he told me about you?  Do you want to tell him?”  She said that to Odin, without looking at him, and the thing that Loki had left in his place gave no answer.  Realistic.

“What did he say?” Loki said, fighting his way through the red haze of pain that surrounded him now.  He was down to almost nothing now.  The fantasia he’d created for her, the Odin-puppet, being here at all—he’d drop soon.

“He said you were like me.”  Hela smiled a toothsome smile.  Her eyes were dark holes; how lonely she must be, Loki thought dimly, in this horrible place.  “Too much like me.  So look at all this as something that could happen to you, and think twice about whether or not you want to rescue him.”

“I don’t, particularly,” Loki said.  “But I have to.”  He didn’t hate her, so he didn’t say what he truly thought, that he would not share her fate because there were people who loved him enough to save him from it.

He wondered what her mother had done when she had been locked up like this.  Like an animal, except you wouldn’t treat an animal so cruelly.  It would have been better to execute her—if she were a warrior, a conqueror, she must have always accepted that death might take her.  She wouldn’t have counted on this.

“Do you wish he’d killed you instead?” he asked abruptly.

Hela wasn’t flustered by the question.  He didn’t like that she seemed unsurprised by every point of him, as if he really were just a pale copy of her, slightly blurry in his details.  Maybe she did know the whole of his plan, and that was more disconcerting still.  If he were winning, she might be letting him.

“He couldn’t have killed me.”

“Because you’re his daughter.”

“No, you sentimental idiot.  Because I own death in a way he never can.  That’s where my power is—and what does he have?  Knowledge.  Faux-wisdom.  Fucking ravens.  Do you know how hard it would be to kill me?  I will die when Asgard dies, not before.”

“That seems boring,” Loki said.

She had, he noted this time, an almost charming laugh; it reminded him of Thor’s.  “You know, it is.”

“All the more reason for you to like the trees I’ve so thoughtfully provided.”

“Perhaps.  But I like death better.  And our dear papa’s here best of all.”

“He’s not mine,” Loki said.  This time it was not a protest and was not said with a flinch; he corrected her on it as he would have put right a misspelling.  “And I can’t help but think that if that were true—”

If that were true, he would be dead already, he had meant to say, but he had hit the limit of his power.  He staggered as the illusions around him cut out, feeling himself flicker—for a second, the Observatory ceiling loomed above him, so disorienting in its opacity and thereness that it kicked up a wave of nausea in him—in and out.  Hela wheeled around and in another instant had clawed her hand through his throat, forgetting he wasn’t there.

Where is he?”

Loki could see her prison around him only in bars of light and dark, as if the vines he’d perceived over the door had come back to obscure all this as well.  Dense, dense, barely letting anything through.  He had to go.  He didn’t know what would happen if he faltered here completely—he needed to get his mind back through—

“Gone?” he was asking her, not that he could trust her to tell him.  Was Odin gone?  Had he done it?

“Gone where, you little shit?”  There were tears standing out in her eyes.  “You damned little monster, he wasn’t yours.  Where did you put him?”

He could almost feel her hand, as if her need to kill him had made him mortal here after all.  He tried to let go of this place, but he hadn’t counted on how weak he would be when he tried again to fool the door.  He could only just grope towards it; if he could not so much as put his hands on it, he could not convince it.  He would lose the last of himself here.  He knew that now.

But I had myself, he thought, Hela’s hand truer and truer as his power dwindled.  I did.

Some other truth was coming, though.  Dawning like the sun, golden and warm.

Valhalla? Loki thought dizzily.

But it was not.  The door, wrought back into existence, had known its true keeper.  Heimdall had found him, and Loki could let himself be rescued.

Chapter Text

He was awake for some time before he could find the strength to open his eyes.  The light on the other side of them was soft and white, as protective as cotton batting.  Gentle or not, it still hurt once he gave in and faced it.

“Loki.”  Heimdall, generous-minded, moved in front of some of that pale sunlight and made it more tolerable.  He put his hand on Loki’s cheek.  Loki wanted to be aloof and self-sufficient enough to squirm away from such open affection, but he was exhausted and instead it made him want to cry.  He leaned into it.  “You had me worried sick.  Here.”  He put his arm around Loki’s shoulders and lifted him up a little and got him to swallow a little water, which was so clean and cold that it hurt the inside of Loki’s mouth.  “You’re at the palace,” he added, catching Loki’s glance around.  “In one of the healing chambers.  I know it lacks for color.”

At least the drink wet his throat enough for him to talk.  “How long?”

“How long were you asleep?  A week.  The All-Father led you down into the Odinsleep—he said nothing else would be deep enough to give you time to heal and gather up your seidr again.”  He brushed some of Loki’s hair off his forehead and settled him back down into the pillows again.

“Will it come back?”  He tried to control the tremor in his voice.

“It will.  Not that I’m not inclined to lock you in some kind of magic-suppressing dungeon until you’re of age.”

Loki would have laughed if he could have gotten up the breath for it.  He was just glad Heimdall hadn’t left off stroking his hair.

“Thor would have agreed with me,” Heimdall said, “but thanks to your own efforts, Thor is no longer king of Asgard.  The history books will show that as a very strange day.  A two-hour reign in which the crown made no acknowledged decisions but to give up one of its greatest treasures.  And of course a two-hour reign in which the crown suffered blatant treason.”

“You started it,” Loki said.  “Treason.  Where do you think I got the idea in the first place?”

“Experience has taught me that you are more than capable of coming up with mischief on your own.”

“Slander.”

“Why did you do it?” Heimdall said.  He likely meant the question, but it was too thorny a one for Loki to truthfully or fully answer now, when he still felt half-asleep.

“You know me.  Always unpredictable.  And—Thor.”  Which almost did suffice.  He could not have neatly untangled his obligation to Thor and his old debt and heartsore resentment of Odin and his concern for the pallor of Mother’s face and the error he had made on Jotunheim and the tales of the sweet-wish, but Thor’s name held most of that.  As if his brotherhood were the Observatory from which he stood and looked at everything else.  Or no, he thought, his family in its entirety was that.  He wanted to go back to sleep.

“And Thor,” Heimdall agreed.  “Would you stay awake long enough to see him and your mother?”

Barely.  But: “Yes, thank you.”

Heimdall bent down and kissed his forehead.  “I’m very proud of you, you know.  Never do anything like that again, but I’m very proud of you.”

“I love you,” Loki said.  That too would have to suffice, would have to hold everything else.  He couldn’t say he was sorry he’d made the choice he had, but there also weren’t words enough for the gratitude he’d felt at being saved from the natural end of it.  I knew you were coming.

He’d thought he’d only blinked, but suddenly Thor and Mother were there, and Thor was saying, “I don’t know whether to kiss you or throttle you.”

“I’ll kindly thank you to throttle me,” Loki said, “if those are the options,” but he made no real protest as Thor did lean in and kiss his cheek and flick his fingers through Loki’s hair.  Mother did the same.  He could smell the clean damask scent of her clothes.

“Oh, sweetheart.”  There was something wretched in her voice, wretched and guilty, as if she thought she should be sorry to be pleased to have her husband restored to her.  He wanted to tell her he wouldn’t pursue her through that maze just to blame her for whatever was at the heart of it.

If he still hated Odin—and he was unwilling to give it up entirely and was surely entitled to it as a hobby, if nothing else—he hated him for making Mother half chess-piece and half player, eternally going back and forth between wifehood and motherhood, self and queenship; Loki had briefly had her as herself, uncomplicated by her role, by her husband’s schemes.  And he had given her up.  What did that say about him?

That he was like her, perhaps.  That he could make those choices and live with them, if he had to.  He was heartless enough to think that he could wait through the years to when she was next widowed.  They would grow closer then.

Or he could fight his way through another unholy thicket of complications and grow closer to her now.  He could try.  He was no longer so afraid of Odin’s plans—of playing into them or defying them—and if he could step outside of all those games then so could she.  They were alike.  Heimdall had taught him truth and Mother had taught him illusion, and Loki knew and loved the uses of both.  He did not have to give up easily.  He could hold on—was that not the long lesson of his childhood, the one Odin had taught him without meaning to?

Our family has always been strong, he remembered, thinking of Grandmama Brynn.

So he would hold on.

“I expect a fete in my honor,” he said.

“I could have you thrown in the dungeons,” Thor said.

“Oh,” Loki said, waving it off, “Heimdall already threatened that.”

“Heimdall is quite right,” Mother said.  She began to matter-of-factly wash his face with her handkerchief and the water in the basin and Loki put up with it, though it made him feel roughly five years old.  He didn’t doubt he’d had more degrading things happen to him during his time unconscious. 

“You didn’t need to do it, you know,” Thor said.  He sat down near Loki’s feet, his hand resting on Loki’s ankle.  “I would never have asked it of you.  And when I thought you were gone—”  He shook his head.  “Damn you, Loki, you came so close to dying.”

“Believe me, all I rue is that you couldn’t see everything I was doing.  It was very impressive.”  He closed his eyes.  “The thanks I get for practically deposing you, honestly.  You must really not be ready to be king, no wonder I intervened.”  He had no intention, especially with Mother present, especially when he had already clung to Heimdall like an infant, of getting soppily emotional, of saying it was only right that they each be willing to give up their happiness for the other.

“You’re quite the hero,” Mother said lightly.  “I think you’ll find everyone in Asgard very much feels they saw your efforts on your—your king’s behalf.”

He knew what she had almost said, but it no longer made him flinch.  He was only intrigued: “I thought it wasn’t even widely known he was gone.”

“It wasn’t.  Except somehow, while you lay in recovery, a handful of otherwise trustworthy people managed to spread the news of your—”

“Treason,” Thor suggested.

“Derring-do,” Loki said.  “Unparalleled selflessness.”

“—actions,” Mother finished.  “Almost as if it were decided, quite without consulting anyone, that public opinion should be entirely in your favor.  And insistent upon your virtues as a future Gatekeeper of Asgard.”  Her countenance was too smooth, more innocent than the most blameless creature alive.  Politics, Loki thought, not without being impressed.  Whatever had happened, she had spearheaded it, or suggested it, or sanctioned it.  “Once the skalds were already writing songs in your honor, it seemed foolish to try to hide anything.”

“Ivar told Huw,” Thor said, “and the two of them get along now, which is frightening, and Huw told the servants, and Mother told your grandmamas, who told Gara, who told her brothers—”

“Who told everyone,” Loki said.

“More or less.  So it would be quite awkward now if you were to become anything but what you wanted to be.”

Thor could smile at that if he chose.  Loki was less sanguine about his prospects and what it would take to keep them—he would become only what he wanted to be, but he doubted public opinion would have much to do with it in the end.  Odin had overturned that once before, rewriting their history and burying his heir alive in an eggshell-white dungeon.  He could do it again.  If Loki were beloved, it was a trick of the moment, a passing enthusiasm—and one that would probably not outlast the revelation of his birth if and when that become common knowledge.  The machinations of Mother and Ivar and Huw and Gara and the rest had protected him for now; they would not protect him forever.

But even fleeting protection was better than none.  And he could not help feeling honored that any of them had tried at all, especially Ivar and Huw, whose oaths to the palace surely forbade that kind of gossip-mongering, who surely would have been risking their lives in their flattery of him.

He would have to thank them, even if he could not thank them enough.

He cleared the thickness of that out of his throat.  “It’s rare for gossip to be so kind.”

They spent a while talking of other matters and then Thor said, “What was she like?  Hela.”

Thor had asked him about Laufey, too; he kept meeting people Thor hadn’t.  People it was unsafe for Thor to meet: a gatekeeper would necessarily have a wider range of acquaintance than a king.

“Terrifying.  Vengeful.”  Almost capable of making my throat real enough for her to tear out.  But if he left it there, it was an incomplete picture; he knew enough about enemies by now to grasp that, even if he liked perceiving others’ hypocrisies more than he liked sniffing out his own.  “Funny, actually, in a dry and vicious kind of way.  Comprehensible.  I wouldn’t risk saying I felt sure of her, but… we’ll have to figure out what there is to do about her.  I told her I’d visit.”

Thor raised his eyebrows.  “And you meant it?”

“Yes.”  He couldn’t stop the heat that crept into his voice then.  It was weak—an ember rather than a full-on flame—because right now he was weak, but he couldn’t hide the anger completely.  “It’s a wonder she hasn’t gone mad, or no madder than she is already.  It’s a nasty, empty place, shut off from everything.  I can at least give her a window.”

Mother was studying him.  She had painted him and Thor once—very badly, she’d said—and sometimes he could see that old attempt in how she looked at him.  It wasn’t unlike Odin’s gaze—what can I make of you?—but it was considerably kinder.  It presupposed that he was himself already and that she was only looking for the right light to cast the right shadows and illuminate the most favorable colors.  Paint rather than clay.

“What?” Loki said to her.

“I think whatever you become will be something new,” Mother said.

He lusted after tradition as much as he did after novelty, though, so nothing entirely new could satisfy him.  “A new twist on on an old thing, maybe.”

It was true that he didn’t entirely know what would become of him.  He could stand alongside Heimdall, and wanted to, but—especially with Ivar already in service—it wasn’t necessarily a full-time occupation.  And Heimdall had said that he could do anything he wanted, which made the universe somehow wider, something he could prod at from different angles.  To have his fondest hope and something else besides—

But not yet.  None of it yet.  That was the bargain he’d made when he’d saved Odin.

Looking at Thor, he didn’t entirely regret it.  Even thinking of the way Odin had actually condescended to allow Loki’s plan, rather than his own, to play out, he did not regret it, as if that alone would have been enough of a victory.

“Father wants to see you,” Thor said, probably able to tell that Loki was thinking of just that.  Probably he got a sourfaced look from it.

“Well, he can’t now,” Loki said.  “I’m tired.”  He pulled the blanket further up his chest to emphasize the point.

To his surprise, they didn’t press it.  He really must have some remarkable clout at the moment, if they both thought even the All-Father would back down from that kind of petulance.

He was let alone for days, in fact, so far as he could tell.  He still slept heavily.  It felt like he washed up on little islands of consciousness, some of which had very murky, water-logged ground; he would try to stand on a memory and sink into it instead.  He didn’t like that unmoored feeling, but once he was solidly awake and still weak and incapable, he liked that even less.  He still received callers and he’d had letters and holograms—from Illmay, from his grandmamas, from some bad spellers and somewhat forward self-portrait enthusiasts—but they were providing poor consolation.

He should not have been surprised that that was when Odin came to him.  Of course it was.

Loki was propped up on pillows, abandoned to a book and a pitcher of elderflower lemonade that he did not want, as impatient with his loneliness as he had been with all his visitors.  He found himself wanting Heimdall and no one else—he would have been fruitlessly angry with him, as he was with everyone at the moment, but he would have been a sturdy presence for Loki to batter his frustration against until it was as limp as the rest of him.  He could be—he was feeling it as a new freedom, granted right when he was almost too old to use it—bratty with Heimdall.  He was allowed.  He had expressed that yesterday and Heimdall had asked him if he truly thought he’d never been bratty before, but which had rather spoilt the moment for him.

He wanted Odin least of all, but since when had Odin cared for his wants?

“Loki,” Odin said.

“All-Father.”  He could not get snippy—could not afford to, if he were really going to live here.  I’d get up, but I’m still exhausted from inexplicably saving your life.  He took up fistfuls of blanket and held them tightly.  He wanted to be by the lake, to scry to it, but he couldn’t do a damn thing at the moment.  He couldn’t have conjured up a wisp or spied his way into an adjoining room.

“I could put you in another healing sleep, if you’ve been restless.”

It was all Loki had been thinking of lately, but he wouldn’t take it as a favor.  “Thank you, but I’m fine.”

And, he realized by the stillness of Odin’s face, the blankness of his reaction, Odin didn’t know that he was lying.  No one had complained to him.  Thor, Mother, Heimdall—none of them had so much as mentioned that he was being rather trying.

More loyal to him than to Odin.  As he’d said, treason ran in the family.

Odin settled down in the bedside chair, putting himself in Loki’s peripheral vision.  He was an unfriendly blur, a smudge that couldn’t be made distinct unless Loki allowed him to dictate the angle, unless he rearranged himself on the bed, which he refused to do.  That Odin certainly noticed, and knew.  The petty gestures of power.  It was only Thor who played them at any kind of grand level.

“Thor made it possible for you to go to Jotunheim openly,” Odin said neutrally.

“Thor did what was best for a fallen enemy that might, in time, become an ally.”

“You deny that considerations of you factored into his choices?”

“You’d really have to ask him.”

“You should have brought the Casket to them in the full glory of your raiment,” Odin said.  “You could have won control of your father’s kingdom in a single gesture, and instead, you handed him a victory all so you could have the pittance of… what?  Some minor renown?  Respect?”

If they were to have this talk, then they would have it.  He wasn’t at his best, but he never was around Odin: the die had been cast on that long ago.

“Laufey is not my father,” he said.  He tried to keep his voice cool, even.  “They left me to die, which ended whatever claim my birth gave them, and I barely know them, which doesn’t incline me to make any claim of my own.  I am Jotun and not Aesir, your majesty, but I am Asgardian before I am either.  I did not go to Jotunheim to take possession of it—and I never will.”

“You will do as you’re commanded.”

“No.”

His courage was up to this defiance, but only barely; he was lucky his resentment was there to support it.  He knew what could be done to him for this refusal.  Every part of his life that he treasured could be stripped away from him—would he seriously tell himself that Odin wouldn’t be so cruel?  He could be in a featureless prison by sundown, surrounded by the same milky nothingness that had undone Hela’s mind.  Even Asgard’s dungeons, though palatial by comparison, would be a kind of living death.  No friends, no family, no garden.  Dampening spells in the walls to keep his seidr a muffled, bound thing.

And what would he have there to keep him alive?  Self-righteousness, which he could actually imagine spinning out for a few decades.  And then nothing but his youth.  The hope he would outlive Odin’s reign.

“You’re refusing,” Odin observed.  There was a sickening, candied quality to the words, as if he were almost amused, as if seeing Loki challenge him was like seeing a dog stand on its hind legs.

“My place is here.”  He wanted to be resolute, to go into this battle without so much as a single crack in his armor, but in the end, he couldn’t manage it.  “Did you ever care for me at all?”

He hadn’t meant to ask it.  He’d gone years without allowing himself to wonder it.  Now he blinked tears into his eyes, making Odin still more of a blur.

He could almost feel Odin struggling.  This conversation wasn’t what he had banked on, either.  They were united on that, if nothing else.

Then suddenly Odin took his hand, which Loki didn’t welcome or want—but he could not make himself pull away.  It was an old man holding onto him, an old man who, like Laufey, was almost a stranger to him.  And the touch was brief, there and then gone.

“I never stopped loving you.”

The easiest responses would have been lies, his stock in trade.  I don’t care.  But I stopped loving you.  I appreciate you telling me.  That last one was especially unconvincing.  He found the truth instead.

“I hope it hurt.”

“It does,” Odin said.

If the lies, useful in their own way, were his inheritance from Odin, as the illusions were from Mother, as the truth was from Heimdall, then they were a kind of shared language in which he and the All-Father could have talked indefinitely.  He was glad to have cast them aside, at least for the moment.  He wanted a shorter conversation, and one where he was more fluent and Odin more awkward.

He had knocked him off-course.  Good.

Odin looked at him with those pale eyes of his—lighter than Thor’s.  A shade of blue Loki had never quite seen anywhere else.  “Why would you do this?”

He nearly laughed.  “Save your life?”

“You saved my life for your brother’s sake.  Perhaps for your mother’s, as well.  I was surprised by your actions, but not confused by them.  This, though… this is the reverse of that.  I know you don’t want this, I understand the temptation to be petulant, to rebel against me, when you don’t love me.  When I’ve given you little reason to.  But Heimdall would not have brought you up to be so selfish—”

Magic lashed out from him, as strange and foreign a muscle impulse as if he had suddenly brought his fists down on some table, a hammering reflex, Thor’s habit rather than his own; combat magic wasn’t his specialty and never had been.  And he’d thought he had nothing inside him, not enough soul for fuel for even the most ordinary of his tricks.  But this—which almost tore something at the heart of him, an awful over-exertion—was involuntary and vicious.  A red weal, blue-violet at the edges, fell like a lash across Odin’s face.

And that was death.  To hurt the king—to do so by magic, no less, which revealed an instability of mind, a lack of loyalty in his very spirit.

Odin pressed his hand to the welt.  Loki could almost feel it, coal-hot skin against cool fingers.

He could beg for his life, but since when had begging ever gotten him anything?  He had begged Odin not to send him away in the first place.

He said, “Do not speak ill of him.”

“You’ll find I didn’t,” Odin said.  His voice was flat.  “I said he would not have raised you to act as you are acting.  Think it through, Loki.  Any insult was to you, not to him.”

Yes.  Maybe.  But Odin had used Heimdall as a weapon, and Loki wouldn’t tolerate it—evidently wouldn’t tolerate it even if he intended to.

“I hope you’ve exhausted that impulse,” Odin went on.  He waved his hand across his face and healed the wound instantly.  “And yes, I provoked you.  Lit a fire to burn off the last of your childishness so you would have a true conversation with me.”

“Your love is a curious thing, All-Father.”

“Yes.  Pale and wretched and wrathful.”

He hadn’t expected agreement.  It disarmed him—made him wonder if Odin knew more of truth than he’d ever let on.

But still, he wouldn’t be drawn into words.  He knew how quickly they became slippery, how easily they escaped from intentions.  Odin wanted to ensnare him with them, to build some glittering cage around him, make him think what he was commanded to think, act as he was commanded to act.  He wouldn’t submit to it.  It hadn’t been logic or philosophy that had led him down into Hela’s white pit, or brought Heimdall to love him, or led him to plant the sweet-wish.  He would concede that he couldn’t compete with Odin with Odin’s own weapons.  He would perhaps concede he couldn’t compete with him at all.  He’d lose if he had to.  But he would not comply.

Because, yes, Odin could make a case for him taking Jotunheim.  Odin could make a case for whatever he chose.

It was not about intelligence, as loath as he was to admit it.  This could not be gotten out of with cleverness.

Yes, you’ve always been very clever.  Heimdall had said that, or something like it, to him once, very early on; the words had not, he thought, been entirely approving.

So he said, “My answer is still no.”

“All because you would thwart me?  All because of your hate?”

It doesn’t cease to be defiance just because I can explain myself, he almost said, so I have no reason to tell you, but there was a cramped quality to Odin’s voice just then, a hurt that he didn’t think—though he couldn’t know—he was meant to hear.

He said, “I don’t always hate you.  I am willing to be your subject, All-Father.  If you didn’t succeed in your plan, you didn’t fail as badly as an enemy might have wished you to.”

“You were not displeased by Jotunheim,” Odin said, ignoring Loki’s attempt to console him.  “You cannot pretend you were.”

“I don’t.  It’s beautiful in its way—not that you’ve done much to encourage that thought here.  I intend to return.  As a guest.”

“Return as its king.”

“I don’t want to be its king.”

“I should have sent you there,” Odin said.  “Not allowed you to remain here… I wanted you to feel pride in taking up what was yours, not regret that you could not claim Asgard itself—”

“I don’t feel regret that I can’t claim Asgard,” Loki snapped.  “Don’t be absurd.  I don’t want to be king of anywhere.  I will not—I won’t let you make me into some device of your imagination.  You’ve gone years and years without so much as a glimpse of me, don’t pretend to know me just because you were good to me once when I was a child.”

“I was your father.”

“Yes.  You were.  And now you are not.”  He was tempted to say whatever he could to wound—to say that he had spent those first days, those first weeks, in wretched agony, hoping Odin would come and scoop him up in his arms again, would hug him close and say it had been a mistake to let him go.  But he did not hurt so badly anymore.  Most of the time he did not.

I am happy, he could have honestly said, if that were a truth Odin deserved.  If he were not so petty as to dwell endlessly on what was deserved or not, if he were the kind of person to be grateful for an injury that had healed miraculously well, better even than before.

But Odin was right.  Heimdall had not brought him up to be selfish—or not selfish beyond all reason.

He was not going to comply.  But he could be kind.  Maybe.

He spoke quickly, to outpace the worst parts of his nature.  He had some inkling of what it was like to be Odin—pale, wretched, wrathful—and though he wasn’t inclined to mercy, wasn’t even inclined to goodness, he could be better than that.  He could be Heimdall’s son.

“I went to Jotunheim as a citizen of Asgard—against your will and without your knowledge, not that you can punish me for it, but as an Asgardian all the same.  High-ranking, no less.  Laufey’s memory is long, and they won’t forget you, but they won’t forget that either.  And people will work out quickly enough that Thor must have been an ally in it—I wore no glamour there on either visit.  Someone will make the connection, and once they do, they’ll understand that the Thor they saw in my company was Thor Odinson.  They’ll know he can be trusted, and his rule will cement that.  We will have an alliance with Jotunheim, a good and strong one.  That’s what you wanted.  That’s what you’ll have.”

“You are determined, then,” Odin said.  “To make all my choices be for nothing.”

“Not for nothing, my king.”  He felt his back straighten, his chin rise.  “For all I said.  And I am happier.”

It was worth his own pain, if nothing else.  He didn’t know that it could be worth Thor’s and Mother’s—and he did not know that he wanted to account for Odin’s at all—but it was not nothing.

“You and Heimdall both,” Odin said, in answer to the question Loki still didn’t dare ask himself.  He couldn’t trust the All-Father’s perception of it either, of course.  But he almost did.

And could confess that much and be safe doing so, since he didn’t doubt Odin already knew that spot of vulnerability.  “I hope so.”

Odin’s eyes were watery, but the condition never entirely resolved itself into weeping.  He said, “You bought your brother very few days, I’m afraid.  I am weary, Loki, old before my time—if it truly isn’t my time, which is what my heart would tell me.  I will need a long rest very soon and then soon I will need to put the crown aside altogether.  You risked your life for very little purpose.”

“I owed it to him.”  He added, a little sourly, “As you no doubt intended.”  He wasn’t going to quarrel with the weight of all the All-Father’s plans, but that didn’t mean he was going to accept them entirely without complaint.  Good service, Huw had said, if not good servitude.  “And it is my life to risk, whatever you think.”

“You should select a tone towards me, Loki.”  He sounded more amused than Loki would have liked.  “One moment deferential, the next truculent.”

Loki shook his head.

“No again?  Your favorite word today.”

Odin was treating him like a child—Odin, who had put an end to his childhood.  But Loki would not be baited into this, either.  He had meant no, he did not have to choose a tone.  There were choices he had had to make, choices that couldn’t be avoided.  He had needed to declare for Asgard, to accept Heimdall’s name as a mantle over him, to do what he could for Thor, to forgive Mother; he’d had to accept that for him there would be no crown and little glory, no ease with every kind of magic, no flawlessly happy family.  He had to grant that there weren’t always compromises that would satisfy completely, and he had to take those compromises nonetheless.  He would never be quite Aesir, never quite Jotun.  He did not anticipate an easy life.  All that, he had to choose, to claim.

But not consistency.  Not a lack of complication.  He did not have to be easy—especially not for Odin.

“I’ll make a very good Gatekeeper’s apprentice,” he said.  “In time.”

Odin went on looking at him.  If he were still his father, Loki thought, you might call that pride, but you could not be proud of what was not your own, and what pride could you have in what you’d given up, in what was good only because you’d let it go?  There too was a lack of choice, a plain one.  Loki didn’t know whether or not he saw that.  Whether or not he understood it.

But he thought Odin must have spelled him back to sleep, because the next thing he knew, he was waking up, his head clearer, his stomach growling.

Heimdall was in the chair next to him, reading one of Loki’s Jotun books and moving his lips as he did it, trying to force the foreign words through the All-Speech untranslated.  His accent was reassuringly appalling.  Loki would have been annoyed by anything else.  Heimdall had brought Edda with him too—had remembered that Loki had asked for her—and he could feel her paws kneading his leg.

I’m hungry, Loki almost said, but instead he let his eyes fall closed.  I’m hungry and I don’t think I’m going to be thrown into the dungeons and I think we’re safe.  I think it’s fine.

But that would keep.  He wanted nothing more right then than to lie there and listen to his father reading to him in the halting, hard-earned language both of them had come to late.  The story was less important than it being told to him at all.

Chapter Text

EPILOGUE

 

Loki’s latest fascination was searching out the hidden pathways between worlds.  Heimdall was convinced each one of Loki’s trips through the wrinkles and eyelets of space would end in disaster; no matter how many times his son returned safely, he still worried.  It was, he supposed, the way the passages removed Loki from him so completely.  Looking for him in those hours was like looking for the dead.

But when Loki returned like this—all bright-eyed exuberance, his cheeks pinked as if he’d been out in the cold—Heimdall remembered why he didn’t burden the boy with his own cares.

“Where were you this time?” he said, amused now that he could see Loki had come back intact.  “And do you know how close you’ve come to being late?”

“Hela’s.  And yes, I do—not at all, thank you very much.  I’m perfectly on time.”  He conjured up a mirror and began combing his hair, slicking it down with a bit of already-melting ice he flicked off his fingertips.  “I wouldn’t miss the coronation.”

“If you’re going in and out of Hela’s when I can’t track you, tell me that you’re at least being cautious about it.”  The last thing they needed was Hela seeing the hem of Loki’s cloak flutter out whatever makeshift door he was using.  She had become passably fond of Loki, but a crow could eat from your hand every day and still peck you to the bone if it had the chance.  Heimdall hoped for the best for her but did not trust her, not entirely, not with his son.

But he had seen the reluctant softness in her eyes when Loki had lit up the dull white of her chambers, when he had made her Vanir fireworks shows and Jotun orchards, visions that had lingered long after he’d gone.  He couldn’t forget the sight of her trailing her fingers through a warmly colored wake of sparks, like a woman holding out her hand to feel the rain.

What the All-Father had done with her had been both brutal and unsustainable.  Her death, if it truly did require the death of all Asgard, was likewise.  Loki’s way forward, though, had a chance of someday ending in peace.  He could hope for a reconciliation.  Stranger things had happened.

“I’m careful,” Loki said.  “I promise.  I just wanted to let her know what day it was.”

Heimdall understood why—Thor’s ascent was Odin’s descent, and Hela was allowed to scoff at a half-fallen enemy and Loki was allowed the vicarious pleasure of it—but he hoped that would be the end of it for now.  He didn’t want bitter delight to be what Loki took from the day.

But lately shadows hadn’t clung to Loki for long.  He just exhaled, shaking himself a little, and said, “But enough of the not-family side of the family,” and smiled.  “It isn’t about them.  How do I look?”

“I’m sure your usual adherents will be pleased,” Heimdall said lightly.

Loki had drawn still more followers on Asgard after the crisis with Hela.  Whispers in the streets: There he goes.  I heard he ventured singlehandedly into Helheim to retrieve the All-Father.  The accounts were all charmingly garbled, though Ivar would never answer for exactly how much of that was intentional; he had a bland innocence he trotted out whenever Heimdall asked.  No, he was sure he couldn’t say, strange how things like that happened.  I heard he descended into the Void.  He’s going to be the next Gatekeeper, that’s why the All-Father had to give him up to Heimdall.  Those talents come around so rarely.

He had no doubt Odin encouraged that part of the fiction.  It gilded all his mistakes with necessity: yes, he’d given up his beloved son for the greater good of Asgard.  He was a tragic figure.  Heimdall wouldn’t even call those things lies.  But to be tragic in error was less glorious than to be tragic in vindication, and Odin was Asgardian, was Asgard itself.  He had chosen the tale that brought him the most fame.  They all bore with it, a small enough price to pay for what they had in return.

Odin had changed Asgard but had not been able to change himself; he had outlived the best of his time.  He was as glad to see Thor’s ascent as any of them.

Heimdall hoped he found quiet, in what days remained to him.

I found transformation once, long after I thought my ways were set in stone.

“I have a surprise for you,” Loki said, recalling him to the present.

“Hmm.  I remember some of your surprises.  How worried should I be?”

Loki tilted his head, considering it, or pretending to.  “Moderately.  But—oh, here it comes.”  The Bifrost was calling them, announcing visitors; its voice was like a snatch of melody running through their heads.  Whenever it came, he could feel Loki’s mind next to his, just as attuned to the song, to the instrument itself.  They would hear it often today, right up until they closed the Observatory for the ceremony proper.  Visitors were coming from everywhere, a deluge the likes of which Heimdall couldn’t remember ever having seen before.

They opened the way.

Brynn and Freydis were among the earliest guests to arrive.  Heimdall and Loki embraced them both.

“You look lovely, grandmamas,” Loki said warmly.

They did, and Heimdall was relieved, in his heart of hearts, to find them unchanged since his last visit to Ingberg.  He would have more time with them yet.  Freydis was wearing the height of Vanir finery and spent some time explaining to her bemused family how the various bits of it hooked and laced together; Brynn, who had helped get her into it, provided acerbic commentary.  She herself wore red and gold, Thor’s chosen colors, but Heimdall was amused to see onyx and emerald earrings sparkle whenever she turned her head.  She conceded the day to her king, but could not go without acknowledging her grandson.

“We have extraordinary pride of place at the ceremony,” Brynn said.  “Which one of you do I have to blame for that?”

“It wasn’t like you were going to decide to sneak out halfway through out of boredom,” Heimdall said.  Brynn exercised that privilege at the theater, entirely without apology, but she would have sat through much more tedious things for Thor, he was sure.  “And the queen insisted.”

“You are almost Thor’s family, after all,” Loki said.  “She could hardly put you anywhere else.  Mother and I spent an eternity plotting out where everyone would go.”

“So it is your fault, then,” Freydis said, the corner of her mouth quirking up.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I tried to protect you from all this,” Heimdall said to him.

“I’m the grandson,” Loki pointed out.  “She’s powerless against me.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Brynn said.  “I’ll think of you when my feet begin to ache and I can’t so much as shift my weight without a hundred eyes on me.”  She held them both once more, her kiss against Heimdall’s cheek as firm as ever.

I’m not having children,” Loki said once they were gone.  “I can’t imagine it, anyway.  I hope you’re not wed to the idea of having grandchildren to bounce on your knee.  And spoil over your actual child.”

No, he didn’t daydream of grandchildren—though he thought he would enjoy them if they came—but he would never weary of hearing Loki offhandedly trust that they were family.  The first few times he’d done it, he had spoken carefully, as if the words would break if mishandled and whatever truth they carried was as delicate as soap bubbles.  Now he said such things easily.  Heimdall couldn’t tire of it, could not take for granted his son growing to take his love for him for granted.

“No,” Heimdall said, “I can tell you’ll keep on building a menagerie instead of having children.”

Loki rolled his eyes.  “One horse.  One cat.”

“One big bear-dog.”

“That’s Thor’s!” Loki protested.  “I don’t even especially like it.  He just needs it out in the country where it has room to run.  And you have to admit it’s entertaining to watch it try to keep pace with Sleipnir.”

Heimdall did concede that, because it was hard to not enjoy the sight of the enormous dog striving to match the horse’s gait, taking Sleipnir for one of its former sledge partners.  He would swear the dog looked more horse-like by the day.  Thor had given the Jotuns several shaggy ponies in exchange, and the last Heimdall had heard, they were becoming a fad there—

More and more guests.

Palace security would be a nightmare.  They had even had to share Ivar with his old colleagues—it was odd to see him in full armor again, a peaceful man dressed for war—and the last few times Heimdall had met with him he had looked bruised around the eyes from lack of sleep.  Heimdall didn’t envy the guards their task.  The open coronation was a triumph of New Asgard—peace and prosperity and diplomacy and all shining ideas—but underneath the surface were a lot of well-sharpened swords and hyper-alert warriors all too aware of the disasters that could come.

The worst disaster, people said, consisted of a handful of official invitations; the bearers of those arrived soon enough.

Heimdall stepped aside, leaving his duties to his son, and Loki turned the sword to let the delegation from Jotunheim into the heart of Asgard.

No Laufey, of course.  There was a limit to what both realms would tolerate.  But their old hosts had been saddled with diplomatic-sounding titles and coaxed into acting as ambassadors.

Loki was stiff with them, carefully formal, carefully polite.  “Egil, Trine, Oddvar, honored guests from far away who are received with gratitude, welcome.”  (It was more concise in Jotung, Heimdall assumed.)  “We are very happy to have you here.  Your cousin Illmay will join us later.”

“That will be nice,” Trine said.  They were looking around the golden Observatory with a kind of bitter awe—Heimdall, having seen the beauties of Jotunheim, could almost see it from their perspective, could see much wealth and little taste.  There were times when closer knowledge didn’t bring about closer friendship, and the Norns knew there was much for Jotun visitors to despise here.  Squandered riches, prejudice, forgetfulness, vanity.

But Heimdall had hope for the alliance, awkward and fledgling as it was.  He had some faith in the draw of people to worlds other than their own.

And greater faith in the way Egil turned to Loki and offered him a stilted but sincere smile.  “I’ve written a song for the coronation.”

The atmosphere lightened instantly.  Loki was delighted, the verse Egil sang for them appeared reasonably in Thor’s favor, and Trine unbent enough to talk to them of orchards, whereupon they all had to be shown the sweet-wish tree that had indeed taken root.

“The color of the leaves is different,” Trine said, gently turning one over with their fingertip.  “Look how dark the veins are on the underside.  Generations from now, any trees this one’s seeded will be different from ours.  You’ll have made a new species.”

It already felt like the only one of its kind, since on Asgard it stood alone and was called by another name.  Loki had tried in vain to spread about its proper species, but people called it the trickster tree instead, the thing that had come into their midst by surprise.  Brought there by the prince who was not a prince, the Gatekeeper’s son who was still a mystery to them.  The foundling friendly with Frost Giants.  Children ate the fruit only on dares from their friends, as if there were a risk to it.

Heimdall knew they saw Loki through a kaleidoscope, ever-shifting in his colors; they saw more tricks than he’d ever even mustered.  He would always be glamoured that way.

But there were enough people now, Heimdall thought, who saw him for himself.  Hearthmates.

He could remember, very distantly, when Loki had been a myth to him too—a child, yes, and one he’d had some regard for, but a myth all the same, a dervish of mischief and startling resentment and wheedling.  He had almost been a myth to himself in those days.  The Guardian of the Bifrost, who stood at his post without fail.  Without sleep, without friends.  Without a home.

A far cry from now.

In another, later lull, Loki said, “Oddvar slipped, did you notice?  ‘Prince Loki.’”

He hadn’t heard.  He almost wished Loki had missed it too—it was one more worry in a day that hardly needed the help.  “You knew they’d start getting answers once they knew what questions to ask.  All it would have taken was an enquiry to Vanaheim and someone on Vanaheim asking someone here.”

“I know.  Laufey will have suspicions sooner or later.”  Loki looked off into the middle distance, his eyes unfocusing as they usually did when he scryed.  Strange, Heimdall noted, for the color not to shift; he would have expected at least a flicker of silver.  “I asked Thor what we’d do if they stormed our gates once they had the Casket back.  I didn’t think to ask what we’d do if they came for me.”

“The answer’s the same,” Heimdall said.  “War.”

“And this is what comes of being nice,” Loki said.  “More trouble.  Diplomacy is irritating.”  He scuffed his foot against the floor, as if in search of solidity, clear cause and effect: a boot-mark on marble.  “But they did look more fleshed-out, I think.  Healthier.  I didn’t know they were supposed to be darker-skinned like that, but it must be the Casket.  I should ask Lady Vigdis.”

“You could as easily ask Egil or Trine or Oddvar now,” Heimdall pointed out.  “And bringing back the Casket was the right thing, no matter what follows.”

Loki looked at him sharply.  “You don’t have any regard for consequences, then?”

“Some,” Heimdall allowed.  “But even you and I can’t see every consequence, no matter where we look.  You have to rely on some other compass.”

“I rely on you,” Loki said quietly.

They were overwhelmed again before Heimdall could respond, and from there, the rush did not stop, would not stop until they closed the gates for the ceremony to begin.  Illmay’s arrival was the last highlight of the drudgery, for she had come with Lady Steward Helga and their child, a tiny little scrap of wilted-looking redness, beautiful and well-mannered enough to grasp Heimdall’s finger as if to shake his hand.  The two women looked weary but happy, and Illmay pulled Loki off to the side to have some rushed conference with him that ended with Loki hugging her so fervently he lifted her up off the ground.  He came back grinning.

“We’re to be invited to a wedding,” he said to Heimdall.

Illmay flushed pink and took Helga’s hand.

Helga said, “It’s past time.  And with Asgard—”  She smiled softly.  “Things are changing.”

She would risk her post, then, to marry Illmay, a woman who was one-quarter Jotun, who had once not been able to rise above the level of consort.  She’d risk it partly for love and partly for their child, but she’d risk it also because the odds had at last turned in their favor.  Asgard had at last extended Jotunheim its courtesy—and in so doing, given Vanaheim cause to rethink their own beliefs.  No more bolstering of prejudice against Jotuns just to keep Asgard’s favor.  They too could move on.

Consequences, he thought, looking at Loki, who nodded back.  It was good to see some simple, uncomplicated happiness, so long in the making.

They praised the baby in the circuitous Vanir way—

“Heimdall, isn’t that a beautiful child?”

“Her mothers must be pleased.”

“And largely sleepless,” Helga said.  “She’s a very opinionated creature.”

“She’ll be quiet during the coronation, of course,” Illmay said.  She sounded perfectly sure of it.  Heimdall would have to ask Freydis if even Vanir babes came with a sense of ceremony.

A quarter of an hour later, they closed Asgard off from the rest of the universe.  In name, at least.  Heimdall liked the way their realm was, in truth, bristling with newness and foreignness, with Vanir stewards and their Vanir-Jotun fiancées, with Jotun families, with expatriates like Heimdall’s mothers, with emissaries from Xandar, with shadow-figments and living trees and Kronan warriors, with tethered spaceships and Loki’s hidden paths.  They were no self-sufficient thing.  And here, on the eve of Thor’s reign, seemed the best time to honor that.  They had their traditions—the sword would remain as it was, turned ceremonially towards no coming and going, a standstill of all else for this singular changing of kings—but their truth was broader.  Heimdall had worried once that they would grow provincial.  If today went well, he would worry less.

Loki looked at him.  “Are you ready?”

“If you are.”

Loki was paler than usual.  He’d been unsteady off and on ever since the coronation date had been fixed—sometimes he would be at a dizzying height of self-assurance, sometimes closed-off, and sometimes frightened, as he hadn’t been since he’d been a child.  Heimdall had found him on the floor again last week.  He’d fallen asleep sitting on the rug, his back against the wall, as if he’d thought lying down would be too great a concession to an old and broken habit.  The last few days had been at least been a little better.

Loki said, “If it’s truly going to happen, then I’m more than ready for it.”

“If anything seems to be going wrong, just run up to the dais and crown Thor yourself,” Heimdall said.

“You’re joking, but I might.”

He had only half been joking.  Whatever set Thor down on the throne of Asgard today would work for him, rushed or not, formal or not.

Loki had had to let go of this day once before.  Heimdall couldn’t stand to think of him doing it again.

“Thor chose the day himself,” Heimdall said.  “It won’t be undone.  He’s prepared.”

“And he’ll be carrying Mjolnir,” Loki said, brightening.  “Which is to our advantage.  No need to worry when you can haul off and smash the whole palace to rubble if you choose to.  It’s about time the blasted thing came in handy.”

Loki often complained that Thor’s weapon of choice was appallingly unsubtle, which Thor always answered by saying Loki only meant it was harder to fight off with his daggers.  It was the kind of trivia that would never make it into history book; ephemera that Heimdall always tried to remember.

He recorded, too, the lonely sound of their steps on the bridge.  All Asgard waited for them.  When they took their places before the dais, the palace guards would sound their horns, Ivar would join him and Loki, and the ceremony—such a one as even Asgard had never seen—would begin.

Ordinarily Loki would have made some crack about how awkward it would be if they took a tumble off the bridge and died horribly, leaving everyone else to sit around and wait.  But Heimdall didn’t think there would be any more jests from him today until it was all settled.  His jaw was tight.  He seemed to be holding his breath.

They reached the palace and proceeded through the throng.  People parted before them, a curtain opening the way to their place at the very front.

In another life, in a world that made no distinctions between family and royal family, Loki would have stood on the dais beside his brother.  Heimdall wouldn’t have blamed him if it had chafed, but he saw no sign it did—Loki had cared very much that they have the place he thought they deserved, he was as status-conscious as ever, but what he wanted was not the prince’s post but the Gatekeeper’s.  Having gotten it, he was smugly satisfied, and went on only to be excruciatingly picky about where all his friends were to be put.  Heimdall didn’t envy Frigga’s task of working out the arrangements with him.

But he was glad they had done it together.  Things between mother had son had been easier and sweeter of late.  The distance between them had shrunk—not to nothing, but to far less than before.  He saw Frigga’s mannerisms on Loki once more, heard her turns of phrase in his speeches.  Their claim on each other might have once been delicate, but Heimdall thought it would grow strong.  They needed time, that was all—time outside of plans and politics, time without fear and without reluctance.

Heimdall saw her now, entering the throne room.  The beauty of her generation, clothed in white and gold, with rubies at her throat—and onyx and emeralds in her ears.  She took her throne.

Then came Odin to take his.  He wore gold armor, fully arrayed for battle.  He’d been resplendent once, when thus equipped, and was not so now—but almost, and what a trick of power that was.  Heimdall knew him to be exhausted and doubtful and full of self-recrimination, knew him to be in poor health, knew him to be a man who had destroyed much of the happiness life had given him, who had failed as a father.  But he had succeeded as a king, more than any king of Asgard before him ever had.  He had affected a transformation that would outlive him, had turned the tide towards the peace and kindness that would now unseat him.  He had shaped the world against his own interests and redefined how the men of Asgard thought of glory.  That was the man in the murals and almost the man before them now.  Almost resplendent.

Almost: Hela’s flatly white prison, the end of the Valkyries with girls like Gara and Sif left to train without much hope, Thor grown up much too young, Frigga’s heart broken.  Loki’s hurt never quite gone, only faded and faded and sometimes brought back, like a war wound aching in the rain.  Heimdall cared more about that than anything else.

But he did kneel, all the same.  To get the day done with—and because Odin was, for these few minutes more, his king.  And if Heimdall could no longer quite love him, he had more pride day by day in the realm Odin’s choices had helped to craft and had not been able to destroy.

He was a king of Asgard on his last day of power.  He had the glory of a star that was burning out.

Odin took his throne for the last time.  He raised Gungnir and brought it down against the floor with a crash that resounded through the hushed room.

Thor entered, flanked by his escorts, his brothers-in-arms.  They fell away at the front of the crowd, Volstagg raising his head a little to Heimdall and Loki, and Thor went to the dais and dropped to his knees.  As low as all the rest of them for this one moment.

When he next stood, he was king.  Odin rose, giving him the chair, and receded into the shadows.  He would not see the rest of the ceremony but would have a kind of rehearsed death, a total clearing of the field for his son.

Bors had not done that, but each coronation was newly wrought.  And this had been Odin’s gesture, the one he had chosen—chosen perhaps, Heimdall thought, for Loki.

Loki grabbed Heimdall’s arm tightly, his fingers digging in so hard it hurt, and Heimdall covered Loki’s hand with his own and squeezed it back.  Yes.  That was it.

There were speeches Heimdall barely heard.  His understanding of how the ceremony was going on was limited to the gradual loosening of Loki’s hold on him as Loki accepted that it was really done, that his brother was king, that he wouldn’t have to burn himself down to nothing with fear and defiance.  Thor was king and Loki was free.

Loki’s hand finally fell back to his side when Thor took the throne.  He was a good fit for it, Heimdall thought, with a fierce pride in his son’s brother, with a deep loyalty to his new king.  Thor knew too much of power to wear it lightly, and because of that, he wore it well.

It always fell to the new king, at his formal ascension, to make a handful of proclamations—charitable acts, usually, or pardons.  Gestures of mercy.  In certain severe times, sentences of justice.  Heimdall knew he planned to reinstate the Valkyries.

Thor said, “The throne summons Loki Heimdallson.”

Loki squeezed Heimdall’s arm once more, briefly this time, and walked forward—his stride was steady, controlled—and knelt there.

“My king,” he said, in a voice meant to resonate.  He had magnified it somehow, making sure everyone could hear him.  Heimdall would have smiled at the theatrics if he had been able to spare the attention for it.  He was held by what was happening in front of him.

Thor spoke to the crowd.  “Before you all, as my first act as Asgard’s king, I swear that Loki Heimdallson is and ever has been my brother.  I don’t know if that counts as a proclamation or not, but it feels like one.  Stand up, brother.”

Loki stood.  The smile on his face was one Heimdall knew, though he never saw it often enough.

“And now, certainly an actual proclamation, I herby formally swear you in as the apprentice Gatekeeper of Asgard, to assume the full role if and when your father ever tires of it or should you come to some division of labor.  Do you accept this post for the good of all Asgard?”

“I do, brother.”

Thor’s smile, on the other hand, was new—or so old Heimdall had thought it gone for good.  Unburdened pleasure, as electric as lightning.  “Then let it be so.  Stand down, Loki, brother, Gatekeeper, citizen of Asgard.”

Heimdall didn’t miss the significance of that last bit, the gauntlet thrown to any listeners, Aesir or Jotun or otherwise, who might wish to decide that Loki’s place was elsewhere.  Saying essentially what Heimdall had told Loki in the Observatory—Thor would go to war to keep him home.

Loki returned to his place at Heimdall’s side.  There was a glow to him, a kind of radiating happiness that could almost have been a glamour, a trick of imagined moonlight, if it were not so sincere, if Heimdall didn’t know him so well.  He had waited more than half his life for this moment, and it had come at last, and perfectly.


Heimdall hadn’t expected to see his son again for the rest of the night, and, in all honesty, wouldn’t have been surprised to not have seen him for over half the next day.  Coronations were infamously drunken affairs, wine and mead and still stronger spirits flowing freely, all paid for by the crown.  And Loki had much to celebrate.

“You could go celebrate with him,” Ivar suggested.

“I’m bad at parties,” Heimdall said dryly.  “And it was my plan to make sure that you could celebrate—or at least sleep.”  Ivar had been cast back and forth from the Observatory to the palace for days and he looked uncharacteristically worn and disheveled, half uniformed and half informal.  “You should take advantage of it.”

Ivar cleared his throat, looking sheepish.  “Ah.  I promised Huw I’d meet him here—it should be easier than finding each other in the crush.”

He felt sure he must be missing something.  “Huw.”

Ivar nodded.  His face had gone an unusual shade of pink.  “He can be quite agreeable—under certain circumstances.”

“Well,” Heimdall said, unsure what to do with this information, “you’re owed a good evening, certainly.  I’m sure he is as well, after the all the chaos they must have been dealing with at the palace.”  Huw, of all people.  He rested his hands on the Bifrost sword and looked out.  The stars hung there, making everything else seem small in comparison—though nothing felt small.  Not today.  Not even Ivar’s inexplicable choice of a sweetheart.  “I wish you both happiness.”

“Early days yet,” Ivar said.  “But thank you.”  He leaned against the wall, his gaze only on the floor.  “Should you want me to return to the palace, now that Prince Loki’s position is official—"

“No.”  He hoped Ivar would hear the warmth of the response and the immediacy of it.  “No, and Loki would go into open revolt if I did want you to, for what that’s worth.  You’re invaluable here.  And with three of us to stand watch, Asgard will be safer and we all might get a little more rest.”

“You can finally do all those home repairs you keep putting off,” Ivar suggested.

“Oh, I think Loki likes having an injustice or two to complain of.  Though maybe he’s due a fresh one.”

“He has a great deal of freshness to contend with just now,” Ivar said.  “An old grievance might be of some comfort.”

“I’ll tell him you said so when he mentions again that we haven’t put an extension on the kitchen.”  He caught sight of a figure in the distance.  “I believe that’s your assignation.”

Ivar grinned and straightened up, smoothing down the front of his shirt.  Baffling.

“Good night, Gatekeeper.  Long live the king—and our prince.”

He met Huw on the bridge and Heimdall, still baffled by this development, watched as they exchanged a quick kiss and then proceeded back to the palace and its revelry.

Leaving him alone with the stars.

He wasn’t free of all worries, but for now, in this quiet, still darkness, he couldn’t feel the weight of any.  He allowed that lapse in responsibility.  It was a warm and beautiful night and Thor was king and Loki was safe.  Asgard and Jotunheim had mingled under one roof and neither had suffered any bloodshed for it.  Everyone he loved was well.  And Loki was safe—which he would always come back to, which was a thought he could have had every minute without tiring of it.

Anything else could wait until tomorrow.

“I was just thinking of you,” he said lightly as Loki stepped out of thin air.  Show-off.  “Whether you’d actually like it if we expanded the kitchen or not.”

“Prosaic,” Loki said, raising his eyebrows.

“We suddenly have the luxury of a few more prosaic concerns.”

“Yes.”  Loki smiled.  He was a little drunk, Heimdall noted without surprise, but not more than a little; he was still upright and while his voice was more languid than usual, his words were clear.  But his expression was soft, softer than even happiness tended to make it.  He looked very young.  “I keep thinking of other things—but yes, we do.  And yes, I would, in answer to your question.  It’s ridiculously tiny, I’ve said so a hundred times.”

“Was all that your surprise?” Heimdall asked.  “Thor’s summoning of you?”

“No, of course not.  You knew that was coming.  Thor and I hammered out the specifics together, obviously, but you couldn’t have been thrown by it.”  His smile hadn’t faded.  He was beginning to look like Edda curled up around a saucer of cream.  And—

“Your eyes,” Heimdall said.

“Like them?”

They were the same shining silver he’d always known they would be, the lake of Ingberg distilled to its essence; they changed Loki’s face completely.  He could not help but miss what was gone, because he’d always loved Loki’s eyes as they were, but he’d known how much Loki had longed for this, how hard he had worked for it.  This too demanded celebration.  He could save missing what was gone, like the rest of his troubles, for later.

“They’re remarkable,” he said honestly.  “I thought they’d come in while you were scrying, not—”  He shook his head, putting together the sudden manifestation of Loki’s silver eyes with his gloating look and his promise of a surprise.  “And they may well have.  How long have you had them glamoured back to ordinary?”

“Two weeks,” Loki said, a little too proudly for someone admitting to a fortnight’s worth of deception.  “I wanted to wait to tell you until after the coronation.”

So as not to steal Thor’s moment of triumph, Heimdall deciphered, or, for that matter, have Thor steal his own.

“I’ll keep them normal for another week or two,” Loki said, “with everyone else, so there’s a decent interval, and then I’ll tell Thor and Mother and everybody.  But I wanted you to know before anyone else and—I know they’re not gold but I’d hoped that you would still be pleased.”  He looked off into the night and Heimdall realized that he would no longer know for sure whether Loki’s attention was in the room or not.  He would be unfailingly tied to the far-sight now, never moving in and out.  He would keep his other talents—had obviously kept the illusions—but this was the one that had become part of him, the one that had changed him to make itself at home.

And he was wistful as well as pleased and, naturally, proud.  None of that made him understand what Loki was saying, or why he felt called to say it with his eyes averted, as if confessing to something shameful.  He was beginning to feel he had some key mistake somewhere.

“Why would your eyes be gold?”

Loki turned back to him, looking stung.  “Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Because you’ve not, to the best of my knowledge, scryed with gold?  Let alone spent made a habit of it.”  He put his hand on the back of Loki’s neck.  The pieces were coming together for him.  “I didn’t know you thought Gatekeeper’s eyes were always gold.  They’re not, though it’s a common shade.  Gold was how I learned, at the beginning—looking into a plate.  You learned on the water—I’ve seen silver in your eyes off and on for years now, when you scryed.”

Loki blinked at him.  “It changes from one person to the next?  Just because of how they studied?”

“And how you think, perhaps.  It’s not a sure thing—you know magic, very little is sure.  I had the gold plate and I thought of hawks, flying over everything, surveying it all—so I came to have these.  My predecessor called them bird-eyes.”  Gold and silver.  He sighed and shook his head.  “Loki, you don’t have a lesser color, a lesser worth.  You have your own.”  He ran his thumb up under Loki’s braid and flicked it gently.  “And trust me, if we’re the only two people on all of Asgard with metallic eyes, the family resemblance will still be there.”

“My own,” Loki said.  He exhaled.  “I always thought—I took you as the measure of the universe.”

Heimdall shook his head.  “You’ll terrify me, saying that.  You’re your own measure, Loki.”

“That will take some getting used to.”

“You have time,” Heimdall said.

Loki’s smile returned, as true as before.  “Yes.  That’s true.”  He looked around at their new Asgard, and this time Heimdall did know what he was seeing, did know that Loki was with him still.  “I could stand watch with you.  See the morning in.”

“You should be with your brother,” Heimdall said gently.

“I was, until not ten minutes ago.  He’s satisfying himself with wine and song and a king’s appetites generally.  He’ll want me to nurse his unbelievable hangover and the awkwardness of his various conquests—and he’ll want me for after that.  Often, I hope, and forever.  But not now.  I’d like to watch the sunrise with you—and then never be awake at this hour again.”

Heimdall chuckled.  “I couldn’t refuse such an offer.”

So they watched as the hours passed and the light drove the stars from the skies—though not from their gaze.  Dawn came, turning the white towers pink and gold, and before the new morning could end the holiday and usher in the rest of their lives, Heimdall found himself thinking of the past.  Of an early day when he and Loki had barely known who they were to each other.  Loki had torn the whisker off the toy cat Thor had given him and Heimdall had promised him he would fix it.

And he had, though such darning wasn’t his strength, and Loki had watched him all the while.  He wondered now where the cat had gotten to and he hoped Loki had kept it.  He could not forget the way Loki had looked at him once the work was done, the way the mending of that bedraggled cat had become, quite suddenly, the highest of his accomplishments.